Love’s Obstacles
How to Keep Hope Alive?

Love Actually Love's Obstacles How to Keep Hope Alive

Richard Curtis’ 2003 film classic, Love Actually, is the ultimate Christmas ROM-COM. After all, the Christmas holiday-time is the season of love, romance, and family. But, what if you couldn’t be with family because of the pandemic? Or love isn’t working very well with the stresses of quarantine? Or maybe you’ve run into love’s inevitable stumbling blocks trying to navigate a most difficult 2020. Worse, what if you couldn’t find love and you’ve just spent another lonely holiday? The biggest question is: how do you hold onto hope after a year that’s shattered so much? “Christmas is about telling the truth,” says more than one character in Love Actually.  For many of us, the year of COVID-19 (and the pandemic isn’t yet over) has been about sorting out what’s important. So, what is the truth when it comes to love?

Love Always Has Its Stumbling Blocks

Everyone carries into love the not-yet-resolved hurts, deprivations, disappointments, and losses of (especially long-ago) important relationships. Those live on. And the pandemic has stirred up these early anxieties more than ever. They either disrupt the love that’s there or, in the best-case scenario, love can be the place to heal and work them out. Together.  

To do so, though, several important ingredients have to exist. And. having these ingredients makes or breaks whether any couple can get through the hurdles that inevitably rear their unwelcome heads.

Here’s what you need. Maybe it’s not easy. But, without a doubt, you can’t do love without them. To heal the past and grow into the love you have, you must:

Be committed to seeing the problems through

Talk things out openly and non-defensively

Don’t run away. 

Bear with your fears and, yes …

The pain that goes along with them.

Let love help.

In all the various scenarios in Love Actually, we get to know some of the complicated ins and outs of love:  9 different versions.  We also have an opportunity to see what we can learn from them.  Here they are:

From Cruelty To Gratitude

Love Actually’s pop-singer-sensation Billy Mack (Bill Nighy) is your typical self-centered narcissistic man. He must be the center of attention. That makes him mean and dismissive to his hard-working  (and long-suffering) manager, Joe (Gregor Fisher).

Yet, narcissism is really an emotional wall against needing anyone, especially someone he needs the most. Billy’s guarded-against fears tell him: “if you show your needs,  you certainly won’t be liked; or worse, that person you need will go away.”

So what’s the not-so-conscious strategy? “Don’t like them, first.  Make them go away.  Who needs them anyway?” No, it’s not conscious. But, it ruins the chance for friendship or love.

Plus, Billy’s infantile demanding, negative, behavior pushes everyone away. And, it creates loneliness.  Loneliness is the biggest problem. But, really? Underneath Billy’s mean and crusty exterior are deep insecurities that make him dour and sour and down-right negative.  He’s uncooperative, not a team player.

Sure, he draws his fans in with his raunchy style. But, the person he needs the most? He’s disparaging and inexcusably cruel to his most ardent cheerleader and supporter.  That’s how little he’ll let himself care. Yet, Joe hangs in. In spite of everything Billy does to put him down, he sees Billy’s talent and even lewd appeal.

Yes, Joe has his own needs for a hit record. But, above all else, he’s a champ, an unfortunate martyr, a lonely man too. So, Joe unflaggingly doesn’t give up. He takes Billy’s tantrums with patience we wouldn’t expect anyone to have. Until something happens on Xmas Eve …. Billy shows up at Joe’s door. 

What is it that breaks through Billy’s walls? His very real success? Is it that he can’t help but see Joe’s big part in it?  Or, could it be that the Christmas spirit (that time when everyone knows it’s the season to give and celebrate love), even gets to him in the end?

We do see Billy turning over a new leaf.  Here he is at Joe’s door with a fresh chance to look at his actual love and appreciation for the man that made him a star. So, two lonely men – grateful for each other (maybe Billy for the first time in his rather cantankerous life) – spend Christmas Eve together.

A New Chance After Betrayal

Getting over a betrayal is another one of Love Actually’s stories.  And, Jamie (Colin Firth) has been doubly betrayed.  We see it happen. After attending Juliet (Kiera Knightly) and Peter’s (Chiwetel Ejiofor) wedding alone, he goes home to his live-in girlfriend (Sienna Guillory). He wanted her to go with him, but she refused.  She had a little something else up her sleeve. Home a little early to surprise her, what does Jamie find instead of a warm welcome? 

She’s in bed with his brother, clearly an ongoing affair. Hurt, Jamie, a writer, retreats to his cottage in France. It’s a lonely time,  since thinking about the holidays with his family – particularly his duplicitous brother – is not an option.  Some things can’t immediately be talked out, or maybe ever gotten over.

In France, he’s given a young Portuguese housekeeper, Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz) to help him. She doesn’t speak a word of English nor does Jamie speak Portuguese.  Yet, they manage to communicate. Falling in love doesn’t always need words.

Plus, Aurelia’s sweetness, attentiveness, care, and clear sensitivity to Jamie and his needs win him over. These are qualities (he has to face), that his girlfriend did not offer. Can he open up again in spite of his hurt?

Both Jamie and Aurelia are tentative.  She makes her attraction clear in little ways; but he’s her boss. And, on Jamie’s part, with the way he’s been mistreated by two people he thought he had every reason to trust, he’s understandably guarded.

When he leaves to return to New York City, their goodbye is tender and not easy. Is this love?  Has Jamie learned what he needs? He thinks about Aurelia everywhere he goes. It’s pretty scary when you’ve been hurt. But, he’s willing to give a different love another chance. 

There are problems, yes, and compromises that must be made. First, Jamie has to learn to speak some Portuguese.  He does. Fast. So, right before Christmas, Jamie travels back to France; finds Aurelia’s family home, and asks her father for her hand in marriage.

Like the Pied Piper, he gathers a following, of excited and happy people, that grows larger as he walks through the small town towards the restaurant where Aurelia works: “Is Aurelia here?” he asks. While she looks down from the balcony in surprise and love, Jamie takes the plunge in broken Portuguese: “Aurelia … will you marry to me?”

Aurelia has already met him halfway. She’s learned enough English to answer “Yes.”  

Difficulties Of Unrequited Love

Mark (Andrew Lincoln) isn’t like Jamie. He can’t get himself unstuck from an unworkable situation:  loving his best friend, Peter’s, wife. Of course, this is an impossible love, and a poor choice, for his own, historical reasons. Yet, the film doesn’t give us a window into his past.

Maybe Mark has always watched others get what he wanted, even as a small child. Or, maybe, he was made to feel jealous and pushed aside so he never felt someone as beautiful as Juliet would want him. Quietly, he’s kept his love hidden. He never said a word, even before Peter and Juliet got together and fell in love. 

Now, he pines away, angrily, bitterly, even while taking the photos at their wedding. Photos that Juliet later notices are only of her. Mark watches, longs for something he cannot have (with her, at least). And, (very likely) he’s re-created an agonizing situation of his childhood.

The consequences are pretty devastating, and Mark can’t let himself have even the friendship with Juliet he could. He’s a sore loser, so to speak. Even though he reveals to no one what’s really going on. In fact, in his bitterness about his life, he makes Juliet wonder why he doesn’t like her. As hard as she tries to be his friend, it’s not “friendship” that he wants. He can’t bear watching Juliet and Peter in love.   

What’s the answer, then?

Mark rings Peter and Juliet’s doorbell on Christmas Eve, pretending to be a Caroler. She’s already seen the photos he took on her wedding day … all of her, staring at the camera, with love written all over her face, a love he wishes was for him.  In silence, he shows her the signs he carries, one after another professing his love and real feelings for her.  Juliet surprised and touched, gives him a warm kiss – before Mark walks away.

At least it’s a start. Being honest with Juliet and himself is an attempt to repair the feeling of rejection he’s turned around and inflicted on her. Hopefully. Mark is freer now to open himself up to a more possible love.

Forgiveness For Transgression?

Harry (Alan Rickman) has love he doesn’t appreciate, a long marriage and what seems to be a pretty secure love with his wife, Karen (Emma Thompson). Sure, she may be a bit reserved about expressing her affection, she admits. And, the kids do get a lot of her attention. But, she wouldn’t be so enamored of Joni Mitchell if deep feelings weren’t there, right?

So, what would pull Harry away to the web of such a flagrant seductress like Mia (Heike Makatsch), a young woman who works for him, has no respect for boundaries, or a marriage? And to make it worse, why would he flaunt his attraction to Mia so blatantly in front of Karen at his company’s Christmas party?

Of course, Karen notices – hurt. But, she seems to turn the other cheek – until that is, she discovers an expensive gift of jewelry in Harry’s coat pocket. That means a lot to her until it isn’t under their Christmas tree. 

Clearly, Harry has his own problems. A mid-life crisis? Uncertainty about his attractiveness or virility?  He has deep insecurity, to be sure, that has nothing to do with his wife. Such problems can destroy a marriage or push the person you love – and who loves you – very far away, perhaps, irrevocably. 

Sure, Harry didn’t actually have an affair.  But, does that really matter? It was clearly going on in his mind. And, he went so far as to buy Mia that expensive piece of jewelry when he only bought Karen a Joni Mitchell CD.

What’s certain is this: Harry has a lot of making up to do to save his marriage and help Karen forgive his transgression. And, it’s not about giving her a better gift than he bought for Mia, that’s for sure.

The only gift he could give her is trustBut, how? 

First, he has to face his own problems, insecurities, and fears.  He also needs to do a lot of open talking with her, not to mention, giving her the certainty of his love. She’d have to know his eyes won’t stray again and that he won’t imagine there is someone out there who can offer him more than Karen can.

Going After Who You Want

Mia goes after a married man who, she should know, is off-limits. But, Natalie (Martine McCutcheon), Love Actually’s charmer, goes after a real chance for love. She’s just as bold as Mia without the inappropriateness of sexualizing her attraction in the workplace. Yet, her situation is also very complicated.

She’s a hospitality worker and he’s the Prime Minister (Hugh Grant. But, of course, a Prime Minister also needs love. And, David is alone in a very high place, with a lot of responsibilities and demands.  He has to be serious; although he’s not entirely the serious-type.

So, along comes Natalie – the spunky, funny, a bit out-of-the-normal-social-bounds; a new member of the household staff who serves him his tea and biscuits. There is clearly an attraction and flirtation going on. That is, until a serious misunderstanding happens. David’s left the room momentarily while Natalie continues to serve tea to the U.S. President (Billy Bob Thornton).

When David walks back in, it suspiciously looks like Natalie and the President are backing off from an embrace.  What is he to think, that he’s misjudged Natalie entirely?

He removes her from direct service with him, out of a wish for no further hope  (where he believes there is none), or distraction. He has a job to do – plus he isn’t looking for any more hurt. But, as Christmas nears, the determined Natalie sends him a card. She directly declares that she’s his for the taking, and no one else’s. 

David goes on a search for Natalie’s home; finds it (and her entire family leaving for the children’s Christmas show). He piles them all into his car because he’ll do anything to clear up their misunderstanding.

And, where do they end up? Kissing backstage (so that the Prime Minister’s privacy is protected, and to keep their love a secret from the world). Only, what happens? The curtain suddenly rises, and the spotlight lands directly on that kiss.

Oh well.  There’s a lot to be said about a love that has such openness.  Plus, the risk that’s taken on both sides. This surely is a good start for making love work.

Ways To Heal After Loss

Daniel (Liam Neeson) had the greatest love of his life, Joanna. But, she died. Sam (Thomas Sangster), his young stepson, has also lost his mom.  How do you recover from such significant losses – and go on?  It’s one of the hardest things in the world to do.

Emotional connection helps, knowing someone shares your sadness. Really, that’s the basis of every kind of love. Daniel gives this to Sam, and Sam gives it right back to him in his own way. Without Joanna, Daniel’s left to raise Sam alone. He has enough love for Joanna, and for Sam, to take on the challenge. 

They’re in it together now. Just the two of them. Sort of … because Sam shows Daniel the way to open up to love again. You see, young Sam falls in love with another Joanna (Olivia Olson). But one he feels is as equally out of reach as the Mom that’s now gone. He’s determined not to let this Joanna entirely get, away.

How can he do that, though? After all, she’s a singer; the most popular girl at school. All the boys like her, she probably doesn’t even notice him at all. Those are his fears. But, Sam’s a spunky kid and he has his ideas. He needs the encouragement and support of his Dad, though … and a very understanding ear.  Those, Daniel has to give.

So, Sam takes on the impossible – which healing from a lost love always seems to be.

He decides he’ll be a drummer in the band that backs Joanna up. Then, she’ll have to see him, right?  And, anyway, all girls fall for musicians. The only “minor” problem? He’s never played the drums. And time is short. Joanna’s last performance is coming up and she’s moving back to the States.

So, with Daniel’s support (& earplugs), Sam practices and practices and practices. Daniel proudly watches him perform in the Christmas show. Disappointments can prevail, though. And when Sam still doesn’t get a chance to tell Joanna how he feels, Daniel rushes him to the airport before her plane leaves.

The good dad he is, he even covers for Sam while he jumps through security and rushes (where he doesn’t belong) onto the plane to say goodbye. Joanna is kind and sweet and gives him a kiss. Best of all, she knows who he is!

And, when she returns to England for Christmas, Sam is there to meet her plane. And, Daniel isn’t alone either. He’s brought Carol along (Claudia Schiffer), a school-friend mom to one of Sam’s friends. He met her after the Christmas show. 

A new chance at love? All it takes is openness and knowing that great love doesn’t happen once.  It’s only different.  

But, there’s something else important. Daniel and Sam saw their loss in each other.  They helped each other to build a bridge And, while Daniel was there for a child who desperately needed him and had no one else – that child showed him how not to close down to love.

Overcoming Self-Doubt

It’s not only loss, self-doubt can also make you close down to love.

That, Colin (Kris Marshall) is determined not to do. He has suffered a lot of rejections, from the pretty girls he wanted to date in his own country.  But, he won’t give up. His friend, Tony (Abdul Salis)? He’s another story.  If Colin listened to Tony (or the sabotaging voice buried somewhere in his own head), he’d never get anywhere. He’d give up.

Giving up is the worst thing anyone can do. Never tell yourself you’ll just be a lonely person forever, or you’re cursed as far as love goes, or that you’ll never find anyone. Such negative self-talk will make you shut down for sure. And, that voice of doom is in danger of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

You don’t want that. Neither does Colin. Colin’s the eternal optimist, which gets him farther than any form of pessimism would. Colin comes up with a pretty inventive plan. He goes to America … where he’s quite certain the girls will be taken with him and his English accent.

Determination helps (as does the fact that he ends up in Wisconsin where he’s a novelty.) The moral of the story? Don’t let that voice of doom or self-doubt lead the way.  If you can’t stay optimistic or, at the very least be determined  – be open to whatever might come along.

Plus it never hurts to get yourself out there in new places.  I doubt that you’ll have to go all the way to Wisconsin to find love (unless you already live there.) But we see what Colin’s determination did. He found four willing girls, not just one. And he brought them all back to England with one dedicated especially to Tony.

How’s that for a happy ending?

Friendship (Is Sometimes Best) First

Here’s another possibility. If you’re shy or self-doubting, you might try friendship first. 

Take John (Martin Freeman) and Judy (Joanna Page. They seem, two pretty unlikely people for simulating sex scenes as body doubles in film, right?  They’re both rather reserved and unaggressive. But, then again, pretending to do what you can’t do very well in real life is much easier than taking a big risk. Yet, something rather magical happens.

John and Judy don’t like the non-personal situation they find themselves in.  They’re sensitive and open souls. They start to talk. They talk more and find that they enjoy talking to each other. And, also, that they like each other a lot.

If we apply John and Judy’s budding love to our life as it is right now? Talking is the safest way to start during  COVID-19. Talk openly. Find out about each other. Build trust. That’s an important thing to do now and at any time. Become friends. Know each other well. 

Friendship, more than anything, creates a solid base for love to grow. And, for John and Judy, it does. Slowly, they do become good friends. There’s an ease between them. Then they go on a date. By the end of Love Actually, John and Judy are married. They’re boarding the plane for their honeymoon, at the airport where we find many of our other characters. 

Theirs is another happy ending.  Sometimes that isn’t the case.

Not Being Able To Show You Care

Sarah (Laura Linney) and Karl (Rodrigo Santoro) have too much going against them. This Love Actually story isn’t so lucky. The question is: what’s getting in their way? To make it all too simple: it’s not being able to show they care.

Karl is surely shy.  But, he does have some ability to show how much he wants to be with Sarah when she gives him an opening.  That opening, though, is short-lived. And, the conflicts are mostly Sarah’s.

She quietly keeps her love for Karl a secret for years.  Yet, it wasn’t invisible to her boss, Harry, even though he has his own blindness about love. Harry encourages her, but it doesn’t go far. Sarah’s serious problems quickly get in the way.

Sarah can’t believe Karl could love her back. But, why? She’s pretty, kind, a dedicated worker. She certainly has a lot to offer. Yet, she lives with old childhood guilt about having more than her psychiatrically institutionalized brother. Her guilt becomes an internal voice that tells her, “You can’t have love or a life of your own. Your responsibility is to him.”  

Under Sarah’s guilt live her fears. She’s terrified of asking for too much, so she takes almost nothing. She’s convinced no one would understand the kind of need she has. Karl – sensitive and lonely too – just might, if she’d give him a try. 

Yet, Sarah can’t.  At least, not yet.  She shuts him out – as if she doesn’t care at all. Can’t talk to him or tell him about her struggles; can’t show Karl anything about her life, mostly about the feelings, she carries alone, deep inside, for him. That doesn’t allow much of a chance at love. And, Karl goes away too easily. Love takes openness and risk.

The end of Love Actually leaves the fate of Sarah and Karl’s attraction ambiguous. But is that tentative “Merry Christmas,” as they leave the office alone, a new opening? We can hope.

Having Trouble With Love? Here’s What To Do

Love takes leaning in towards each other, listening closely, talking openly, hearing what the person you love needs. No, it’s not about changing who you are. Love should never demand that. But, do change the little things you can.  Because as much as love takes deep acceptance of the other, it also takes flexibility and certain necessary compromises on both sides. 

Don’t give up. Hang in there and keep talking things out. Be open.

Try not to shut down or find excuses to run away.

Look for love where the feeling is, with someone who loves you back.

Take a risk, you don’t have anything to lose and maybe a lot to gain.

Are you having trouble doing that? Find a psychotherapist that can.

If there is someone you love now, do whatever it takes to make it work.

Don’t talk yourself out of love with its “supposed” problems.

Face your fears – and don’t let those fears make you turn away.

With help, it’s not impossible.

And, do you know what else? Love Actually is well worth all of this … not to mention, the risk. Now’s the best time.

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Dr. Sandra E. Cohen

I’m Dr. Sandra Cohen, a psychologist and psychoanalyst in private practice in Beverly Hills, CA. I work with creatives in therapy, story/character development, and entertainment consulting. If you are a writer, actor, or director and want help with a character – or a chance to do some of your own personal work - call at 310.273.4827 or email me at to schedule a confidential discussion to explore working together.

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