HEALTHY LOVE RELATIONSHIP
TABLE OF CONTENTS
PART I Identifying What You’ve Already Learned About Love
Chapter 1: Review Your Love Life………………………………………………………………
Chapter 2: Falling in Love and Being in Love………………………………………………..
Chapter 3: What Did Your Family Teach You about Love?……………………………
PART II Recovering From Disappointments In Love
Chapter 4: Relearning How to Grieve for Lost Love……………………………………..
Chapter 5: Learning to Take Care of Yourself……………………………………………….
Chapter 6: Relearning How to Receive in Love……………………………………………..
Chapter 7: Relearning How to Give in Love…………………………………………………
Chapter 8: Learning How to Cope with Hurt in Love……………………………………
Chapter 9: Learning to Forgive and Forget in Love………………………………………..
PART III Freeing Yourself To Love
Chapter 10: Learning to Communicate in Love……………………………………………..
Chapter 11: Learning to Be Independent in Love…………………………………………..
Chapter 12: Relearning to be Spontaneous in Love………………………………………..
Chapter 13: Learning Not to Control the Person You Love…………………………..
Chapter 14: Relearning to Be Honest in Love……………………………………………..
PART IV Learning To Be Intimate In Love
Chapter 15: Learning to Share in Love……………………………………………………….
Chapter 16: Relearning to Trust in Love…………………………………………………….
Chapter 17: Learning to Keep Your Promise of Commitment……………………….
Chapter 18: Learning How to Relate in Romance and Sex…………………………….
Chapter 19: Relearning How to Be Yourself in Love……………………………………
PART V Keeping Your Love Life Healthy
Chapter 20: Learning to Work On Your Love Relationship…………………………..
Chapter 21: Some Love Life Problems: What They Don’t Tell You…………………
Appendix: Unhealthy Love Life Lessons………………………………..……………………
I have been privately and therapeutically thinking about the importance of love for many years. I now want to share what I have learned with more people than just my patients. The Internet is a wonderful place to do just that. As a consequence of these efforts the Healthy Love Relationship: Learn How and the Love Life Learning Center blog were born.
I am indebted to my wife and colleague, Victoria Jordan. I am eternally grateful for the opportunity to practice having a healthy love relationship with her. Most of the ideas described in this book have been tested in our daily love life. Victoria’s ability to forgive and forget my limitations in love is a reminder to me of how lucky I am to be her husband.
Another more recent key player in the evolution of my thinking about love is our son Bradley. Besides my love for him as our son and a person, witnessing his growing ability to express and receive love in our family is a wonderful experience in our lives.
I would also like to thank my editor, Sarah Cypher, for the great editing work. She understood the deeper meanings in this book, and I was inspired each time she brought them out and clarified them for me.
My final acknowledgement goes to my analyst and friend, the late Dr. Ben Wolstein. He taught me a lot about love at a time in my life when the lessons were painful. Unfortunately his knowledge about love was never published. I’d like to believe if he were around he’d be gratefully amused that I have remembered everything he taught me and included it all in this book.
Nowhere in our contemporary society do we take the time to teach about love with the same enthusiasm we lavish upon other topics of human interest. Perhaps we do not yet believe that how we relate in love can be learned, the basic tenet of this book. As of yet, our society has not taken upon itself the responsibility of ensuring that its people learn about the healthy love relationship during their early lives. Most of us remain loyal to the uncontested learning about love that occurs in the random experiences of the family of origin, however healthy or unhealthy that may be. Leaving the teaching about love to the family of origin certainly plays its part in shaping both the joys and the unhappiness in human experience.
For now, the corrective learning about love that is needed falls to the individual. Since love is by nature individualistic, for and by particular human beings, it is among individuals that we have the best opportunity to learn how to relate in love. Not only will there always be individuals who have an intuitive understanding of love, there will always be a capacity for love in each of us born to this world. In many instances, the love will be experienced and given. In many instances, it will not. Knowing that a capacity for love is inherent in our natures, however, provides the assurance required to remain optimistic in these troubled times.
Even more optimism is possible when we realize that the right kind of learning has the power to create a healthy love relationship. In this regard, our ability to learn how to relate in love is truly a wonderful gift. So much of what ails us can be traced back to the disappointments and absence of love. Learning that this misfortune can never extinguish the capacity to love we possess provides each of us with an opportunity to outgrow the effects of limited learning. I hope this book encourages you to identify what you’ve learned about love, to challenge what is unhealthy about what you’ve learned, and to learn what is required to create and enjoy a healthy love relationship. I’ve tried making this book as practical as possible to help you accomplish this goal. In fact, I think that is precisely what makes this book different from most other treatments of this topic.
As for myself, I confess it took me six whole years to learn what I needed to learn about love to get my love life right. The biggest and most challenging lesson for me as a single man was to find a woman I could love and live with, as-is, without having to “fix” her or change her into some other person I wanted her to be. It is much less work to love people for who they already are, with a greater probability of success to boot. For me the love-life-changing lesson was that people change because they want to, not because someone else wants them to.
This is not to say those six years were a breeze. I met Victoria at a job interview, fell head over heels in love, scared the hell out of myself, and at the time had no idea what to do with what I had fallen into. Disappointing dates, frustrating conversations, a few hurtful relationships with other people, and the low-grade anxiety that comes with not feeling ready for someone I needed in my life. All these growing pains had to come and go before I could admit to myself that Victoria was the one. Boy, am I lucky she was available after I learned my love life lessons and came to my senses.
What stayed with me after all of this was the understanding that it was possible to learn how to have a better love life. We’re all taught how to learn from a very early age and when learning we are at our best and most resourceful. So why not apply this skill to love? From what I’ve observed and lived through over the years, I believe we can all learn a few things about our love lives to help us get it right. Being of a helping nature, I wanted to help people improve their love lives by sharing some things about love that will help people learn some things about love, sooner rather than later. In fact, this was the main inspiration and motivator for writing this book. If I could present in a straightforward way some valuable love life lessons that are easy to apply, you might avoid some of the pitfalls and problems. Why not?
This book is about defining the ingredients of a healthy love relationship. I have spent more than twenty years thinking about this problem both in my personal life and as a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst. Besides my own journey, I am delighted to share what my patients taught me over the years, as well as what I learned from the various mentors who understood a lot about love but never wrote about it. I put all of this together, speaking in a practical way about healthy love relationships. I offer a few ideas in this book that will challenge you to reflect on your own love life beliefs and whether they’re working for you these days. I hope to get under your skin far enough that you might consider love in new ways you hadn’t thought about before. So, read the book, take what is useful, apply it to your love life, and, I hope, do all of that in much less time than it took me.
Each chapter of this book is devoted to one particular ingredient of a healthy love life. I suppose that if you were writing this book, you’d have something to say about what ingredients you personally would include or leave out. No doubt the list of ingredients I have included in the healthy love relationship reflect my own experience and beliefs about which ones are important and which ones aren’t. I’m hoping you can relate to my experiences and get what you need out of reading this book.
Nevertheless, I’ve spent a lot of my time watching and listening to other people. Most of the ingredients on my list seem to be pretty important in the love lives of the people I know and worked with. So I’ll stand behind this list, certainly not as the final word as to what goes into a healthy love relationship, but pretty close. Now, if you decide to leave out a few of the proposed ingredients in this book, who’s to say you wouldn’t still have a healthy love relationship? It just might be that some of these ingredients are more important than others, but I’ll leave that for you to decide.
I think we can assume that a healthy love relationship is a relationship that’s growing. In order for growth to happen, the two individuals in the relationship must be growing, as well. A healthy love relationship requires feeding and proper care. In fact, you can think of the ingredients I will describe in this book as, the food love needs to grow. Each and every one of the ingredients discussed in this book, in combination with all the others, keeps love healthy and growing.
Think of a multivitamin. You need certain vitamins and minerals on a daily basis to thrive. If certain ones are missing over time, you will develop some kind of physical symptoms related to the particular deficiency. The same is true for love. Like a growing and changing physical body, love needs certain nutrients to grow and thrive. When these vital nutrients are missing, a love relationship starts to get sick. The relationship stops growing, and the love will die if you starve it long enough.
Part I of this book, which includes the first three chapters, focuses mostly on what you’ve already learned about love and what you might do about it. In the first two chapters I’m going to prepare you for that list of ingredients I promised you. First, before you even start nurturing and taking better care of your love relationship, I’ll introduce you to a way of thinking about and analyzing its health right now. In Chapter One I’ll describe the Love Life Review, a simple way of figuring out what you need to change in your love life to make it healthier. The emphasis will be on identifying what you’ve learned that isn’t working, and then challenging it. Once you’ve isolated what isn’t working in your love life, you can use the rest of this book to pick and choose new elements to learn (or relearn, as it were) and add them to your love life. The Love Life Review is a simple method of guiding you through this exercise.
In Chapter Two we’ll talk about love, the emotion. I devote a whole chapter to love to weed out all the misconceptions that are out there. We can’t really talk about love unless we know what we are talking about, can we? I don’t expect consensus. What I do expect is to show you some of the important and invariant elements in this experience we call love, and invite you to become familiar with them. I say invariant because they never change and are fundamental human experiences.
Chapter Three should get you thinking. The Love Life Review, as a method of identifying what is complicating or interfering with a healthy love relationship, is based on a belief that our family of origin is the first and most important classroom for love. It behooves you to know exactly what it is you learned while you were hanging around your family, the first ingredient on our list of essentials for a healthy love relationship. This will require some heavy-duty thought, reflection, and some tolerance for the feelings you might have. The payoff will be well worth your time and trouble. In this chapter I’ll give you a few ideas that’ll help you work with your memories. For a practical list of some of the unhealthiest love life ‘lessons,’ and the kinds of questions you can ask yourself to figure out what applies to you, take a look at the Appendix entitled “Some Unhealthy Love Life Lessons.”
Part II emphasizes the need to recover from past love life disappointments on your way to a healthier love life, and includes chapters four through nine. Chapter Four will introduce you to the second ingredient of a healthy love relationship: Being able to grieve the loss of love if and when it occurs. Why is this so important? Because you are not going to risk love, at least not the deep kind of love, if you don’t trust your ability to work your way through the loss of that love if it happens. A lot of people have had a few early love life disappointments, broadly defined as not getting the love needed in a relationship, by the time they make it to adulthood. If these disappointments have not been properly grieved, they can interfere with forming a healthy love relationship as an adult. It’s enlightening to realize love and grief are two sides of the same feeling.
Chapter Five focuses on your self-esteem in the form of how well you are taking care of yourself. The formula we’ll be working with is simple: When you take better care of yourself, your love life gets better. This relationship is essential. Improving your self-esteem is the easiest and one of the most effective ways to make short-term improvements in your love life. Plus, working with yourself is never a waste of time. At some point you might have to take a break between love relationships and be on your own for a while. Learning how to be by yourself cultivates an interesting and ultimately useful relationship between you and you. The quality of this private relationship with yourself will have everything to do with the quality of love that comes into your life.
Chapters Six and Seven address a couple of the essential psychological functions in love: giving and receiving. It is important to find a balance between both in your love life. I’ll talk about what happens when the scale is tipped to far in one direction or the other. I often see people who give everything they’ve got and accept very little or nothing in return, as though receiving love is not okay. It’s predictable that they will eventually burn out. I’ll talk about the caregivers among us who fit this profile. On the other end of this love-function spectrum are the people who expect love without giving enough of it back. This narcissistic approach to a love relationship is bound to create problems. Letting go of the need to fix past disappointments in a current love relationship is always a part of healing these excesses.
Chapter Eight explores the importance of coping with hurt feelings in a love relationship. One of the bits of advice I got in my life was to never expect a hurt-free journey if I was going to fall in love. Boy was that a surprise! I was all suited up in my armor and ready to be in love without getting hurt. What I didn’t figure on was how my self-protective armor was going to trap my emotions and undercut my ability to be emotionally intimate with the person I love. The better approach is to figure out how to build up your tolerance for the bumps and bruises that occur in a relationship over time. For me, it came down to fortifying my personal faith in my ability to heal the hurts of love in or out of a relationship without having to protect myself so much.
In Chapter Nine I talk about forgiveness, but I marry the concept to the most unlikely companion you could ever pick: forgetting. Forgiveness for whatever transgressions take place in a love relationship is a very popular topic; you really can’t find a book on love that doesn’t touch on this issue. But these two, forgiveness and forgetting, come as a pair. I can see you throwing up your hands and saying, the doctor has finally lost it, forgetting what happened? In this chapter I make the point that forgiveness without forgetting offers little in the way of healing love after hurt.
Part III includes chapters ten through fourteen, and concentrates on the importance of freeing yourself, letting go, in preparation for love, or deeper love if you are already in a relationship. Chapter Ten turns to one of the most vital ingredients in a love relationship: communication. Put it this way—you can’t be in a healthy love relationship without “communing” with the person you love. Communication is a two way street that connects you to your partner. It is an intimacy-builder, the relay that makes a relationship happen. Granted, there are different forms of communication in love, and we’ll get to all of them. The hardest one, of course, is the one where we have to rely on language. Putting our thoughts and feelings into words can sometimes feel like trying to wear that old suit you used to wear before you put on weight. There is sometimes more to the ideas and feelings than the words can accommodate. We will discuss the benefit and necessity of practice, so that you can get good at tailoring your words to fit your feelings.
In Chapter Eleven we consider the state of being independent in love. Some people in my profession think of a love relationship as a mutual dependency. I reserve the word dependency for children, the elderly, and people with emotional problems. For me, dependency is a red flag that your childhood disappointments in love are unresolved and still pretty active in your life. Independence is a maturational experience, strengthening you to stand on your own and be your own person. When you reach that state of mind as an adult, the benefits for your love life are obvious. I think of a healthy love relationship as a mutual independency: in which two people are independently in love with each other because they’ve moved the childhood disappointments out of their love relationship.
In Chapters Twelve and Thirteen I talk about the two forms of control that are possible in a love relationship: self-control and control over the person you love. Whether and to what extent control is helpful in a love relationship is an important question. In many cases, control is destructive in love, and we’ll try to understand the conditions under which control takes a turn for the worst. Unfortunately, there are too many people trying to love and be loved in abusive relationships. In Chapter Thirteen I talk about the psychology of abusive relationships and the changes required to get out of one. Abusive love relationships are a prime example of the need to understand the influences of the past on your current love life.
In Chapter Fourteen I’ll talk about honesty as a friendship value, which when mixed with the state of being in love naturally creates depth in a relationship. Billy Joel might have been wrong when he said, “Honesty is such a lonely word.” Yes, honesty can be a lonely word—or a loving word, if it is made an essential ingredient in a healthy love relationship. The problem is that we are often taught how to lie and deceive in order to protect ourselves from getting hurt. We learn this defensive maneuver so thoroughly that when we are called upon to be honest and open in love, we don’t trust ourselves to tell the truth about what we think and feel anymore. This appears to be the state of our world. Telling lies has become easier than telling the truth. In the hands of a person who recognizes the relationship between love and truth, however, the world can change for the better one relationship at a time. You can relearn and practice telling the truth of your personal experience to the person you love.
In Part IV of this book, which includes chapters fifteen through nineteen, the focus is on what needs to be learned to be really intimate in love. In Chapter Fifteen I will talk about sharing as one of the ingredients of a healthy love relationship that helps develop the intimacy that best “contains” love. Intimate sharing is the reciprocity that goes on between two people in love. Work on intimacy by learning together how to value and inquire into the personal experiences of your partner, and vice versa. This intimate reciprocity is to be differentiated from the narcissism that has gripped the interpersonal lives of so many people. Love life narcissism is a byproduct of the search for a lost or imperfect childhood love; for such a person, adult love relationships are misguided opportunities to correct the past. To overcome an uneven reciprocity, we must grieve the loss of love, repair our broken hearts, and learn how to live with the joys and limitations of a matured love relationship.
In Chapter Sixteen I’ll talk about the various defensive maneuvers used to try coping with the absence of trust in love. Without trust, a love relationship degenerates into an experience of mutual suspiciousness and defense. Defenses are a dime a dozen, and there are certainly more than a dozen to pick from; it’s humbling to think that anything and everything can be used as a defense against the discomforts of falling in love—from excessive work, to keeping busy, to otherwise healthy self-absorbing activities. Thank God every once in a while a person will pop his or her head out of the defensive fortress and perceive the possibility for something even more emotionally fulfilling. This is when the fun starts. In this state of mind you can start learning to tolerate the vulnerability involved in falling in love in order to get the ultimate reward: a healthy love relationship.
In Chapter Seventeen I’ll talk about the experience of making a promise in a love commitment. If you think of a love commitment as a promise kept to someone you love, the idea starts to tug on a few more heart strings than just using the scary word commitment alone. Promises are what you give to a person you love. Promises of love require “com-promises” to work. We’ll focus on the fears that occur when some people think of the word commitment. My old friend Dr. Ben Wolstein used to say that a commitment of love sets a person free. At the time I was under his care I used to feel that commitment meant control and a loss of freedom. One day I asked him what he meant when he said that a love commitment sets a person free. It seemed so counterintuitive to me at the time. He said it’s when you’ve fallen in true love and given a commitment of love that you’ve set yourself free from the need to search for love.
In Chapter Eighteen I’ll talk about the need to relate with the person you love in romance and sex. Relate is a code word for reciprocal emotional intimacy. Sex freed from societal, moral, and familial restrictions is in need of relationship. It seems to me that romance and sex still need to evolve a little because they’ve spent so much time in the closet. Without intimacy, sex is empty. Without intimacy, sex may attract other more negative emotions and experiences. As evidenced by a sex industry which draws the attention of young people away from the lessons of love that would teach about sex as a mode of intimate relatedness. We can do better.
In Chapter Nineteen we will explore the coveted state of being yourself in love. One of the great joys of being in a healthy love relationship is the opportunity to be your true self fully with at least one person in the world. This is how it should be. Your love relationship can become a sanctuary of interpersonal acceptance and relaxation. This kind of experience is fundamentally healing. The stresses and strains of life are relinquished, at least temporarily, because you’ve got a place you can go and take those social and work roles off at the end of the day like a tight pair of shoes. In short, the more you can be yourself in your love relationship, the greater the health of your love relationship.
In Part V, chapters twenty and twenty-one, we’ll conclude with a focus on keeping your love life healthy. In Chapter Twenty, I’ll present to you one way to use this book to develop your love relationship. Sorry, being in love does require a bit of work. Here, I invite you to pick and choose those love life ingredients you’ll need to work on. The ones you need to strengthen or start creating in your love relationship will guide the work that you and the person you love will put into deepening and broadening your love for each other.
Chapter twenty-one is the final chapter in this book and a number that is usually associated with adulthood. I thought about that coincidence. Maybe it’s not a coincidence at all. Maybe when you’ve understood and begun applying the ideas in this book, your love life will develop in all the ways you need it to, wouldn’t that be great. In this chapter I’ll discuss a few of the more common love life concerns from a few perspectives you might not expect. The idea is to get beyond the obvious whenever necessary. Sometimes the issue in charge of what happens in your love life is not so obvious. It has to be dug out from under all the misconceptions and misunderstandings we all have about love. The love life problems I’ve chosen to put through this treatment are divorce, cheating, men’s troubles with love, women’s troubles with love, and falling in love with married people.
I’m sure you’ve noticed that the ingredients of the healthy love relationship I’ve chosen to present in this book, start with what you were taught about love in your family of origin, and conclude with a chapter on being yourself in love. That’s no coincidence. We go from the influence of others, to being your real, true, unique self in your love relationship as the best and more satisfying, and healthiest, way to be in love. And the fascinating part is, being yourself, really letting yourself be you, is a form of ‘love’ that has a lot of similarities to the experience of being in love with someone else. I’m figuring the connection between these two states of mind, or more precisely heart, has something to do with the ‘love’ that you are giving yourself when you get out of your own way and let yourself be yourself, your feelings, your thoughts, your needs, the true you. It doesn’t really matter who gets the love you’re giving, you or somebody else. What matters is your love is given and received.
Now that you have a sense of the ingredients required to have and sustain a healthy love relationship, you’ll no doubt appreciate the important positive influence of being yourself in your love life. This in combination with your native ability to learn, or relearn as the case may be, what you will need to know and practice to keep love healthy, makes a healthy love relationship attainable by everybody regardless of who you are. Starting with the next chapter of this book we’ll get into each one of our ingredients in depth so you can start applying them right away to your love life.
IDENTIFYING WHAT YOU’VE ALREADY
LEARNED ABOUT LOVE
Chapter 1: Review Your Love Life
The backbone of this book is what I call the Love Life Review. It’s an exercise in figuring out what belongs in a healthy love relationship—and what does not. If you are reading this to educate yourself about love for the purpose of enjoying a healthier love life, begin here. A Love Life Review has three parts: identifying what you have already learned about love, unlearning the lessons that are not working for you, and practicing something different that will improve your love life.
I don’t suspect you’ll have much motivation to review your love life, or anybody else’s for that matter, unless you’re hurting and unhappy. You’ve probably already tried a few things to disburden your love life. You’re probably hoping that you can find a quick fix that makes transformative changes. I don’t blame you. It’s just hard to do all of this fast.
No, I’m not offering a quick cure for what ails you. My approach involves a bit of work on your part. Chances are, you’ll have to think in terms of learning and practicing the things I talk about in this book over time. But I can promise you, if you do take the time and do make the effort, the end result will be a more satisfying love life. You will identify the limiting lessons you’ve learned about love, figure out how to let them go, and deeply consider ways to produce a healthier outcome. This book will help you review your love life for the purpose of making changes for the better.
Each and every chapter in this book will unlock its secrets when you apply the following keys: What did I already learn about this particular love life issue, what do I have to unlearn about this particular love life issue, and what new things do I have to learn or relearn to make my love life better? Once you’ve applied this key to a chapter or two, the rest will come easy. Before long, I expect you’ll get pretty good at learning how to have a healthier love life. No matter what, I’ll help you along the way.
You know, most of us resist the idea that a person can learn or relearn how to have a better love life. I think the reason for this resistance comes from the idea that no self-respecting adult should have to be taught how to be in love. No sir, you should have that straight in your mind the moment you step out into the world. The assumption is that you already learned whatever you are supposed to learn about love from your family of origin, no final exam required.
We’ll dive fully into this topic later, in a whole chapter devoted to it. For now I’d like to tell you how troublesome this idea has been to me as a clinical psychologist. It has stopped people from questioning whether their current ideas about love actually help them in their love lives. Unless you are willing to question the inevitability of your love life experiences, you’ll never get around to learning new and better ways of being in love. Chances are, you’ll think what you’ve learned about love as a youngster is off limits to investigation or just beyond understanding. In fact, I’ve heard people describe what their family of origin taught them about love in such sacred terms that I am baffled how such a person could make the same love life mistakes over and over without the slightest inkling that trying something new might help.
Once we’re able to figure out your earliest lessons about love, you can decide what you want to keep and what you’re willing to discard. (If those early lessons were perfect and loving, believe me, you are in the minority.) You could have gotten your instruction about love simply from watching the elders in your family relate to each other. How did they treat each other? If you saw your parents giving affection and being loving toward each other, you will have absorbed these experiences through observation.
If you’re a boy, you learned things about how a man should and does treat a woman. You learned about the expression of emotion by watching your father and other male family members. You even learned things about how you should feel about yourself by watching other people’s expression of self-esteem or lack thereof. If you are a girl you learned a lot by watching your mother and how she relates to your father. You learned things about what you should and shouldn’t tolerate in a love relationship. Beyond the superficial constraints offered by the gender roles in a family, we all learned quite a bit from both parents and other adults in our extended families. The question now is, what are we doing with all this learning?
You can expect that what you’ve learned about love is operating at some semi-conscious level in your mind. When you learn things associated with the important people in your life, those lessons often get stored in the back of the closet somewhere with the old shoes, but they remain very much an active process in your life. It’s like a recording that plays over and over again. The repetition is due to the fact that it’s famil-y-iar to you. In fact the only real reason you would have to open that closet and see what’s inside is deep unhappiness or hurt—usually the kind that arises because you are semi-consciously doing something painful over and over again. You might discover that those lessons are steering your adult love life as if it’s on automatic pilot. Generally speaking, when your love life is operating on its own, without your conscious approval and guidance, there is a pretty good possibility you won’t be very happy with the outcome.
For one thing, it’s not that hard to assume that your love life is operating off of a set of beliefs that have long since gone out of date. Their usefulness has expired. Think of it this way: What you’ve learned about love took place probably indirectly when you were very young. You didn’t get to choose what you wanted to learn. You just learned it because that particular love life lesson was being taught in your family at that time. You’ve grown up now, left the house, and the situation has changed. Common sense would dictate that it’s now time to examine what you’ve learned and to update it.
So when you decide to allow yourself to perform this examination, you’ve made a conscious effort to own your love life. The first step toward realizing this ownership is to understand what you’ve learned about love growing up. Dedicate a period of time to reviewing the love relationships of the key people in your family of origin and ranking them according to how close you were to each couple in question. If you were really close, expect to have learned quite a bit from them. In more distant relationships, chances are you’ve learned considerably less. Look for similarities between your love life and theirs. Keep a running journal during this period for thoughts, feelings, images, dreams, and memories that give you the clues you’ll need to figure out your key “teachers.” Once you’ve discovered who they are, you can see the extent to which you’ve imitated some aspects of their love lives.
From there you can include other important people in your life—friends, mentors, neighbors, etc.—and how they may have influenced your love life. Remember, your objective is to get what you learned about love out of the back closet and into the daylight. Once your repetitive learned love life patterns are identifiable, you can begin the business of challenging their dominance in your love life.
Your Love Life Review now moves into stage two. You’ve identified what you’ve learned about love; now you have to decide what you plan to keep and what you plan to throw away. This is the unlearning stage. You can’t keep everything you’ve learned about love growing up. So much of it is out of date, and clearly doesn’t work very well in your love life. In fact a lot of what you’ve learned about love was never intended for your love life. The beauty of this method is its simplicity. In this culture, we are all trained very early and many times over in the fine art of learning—first from our parents, and then in preschool, grade school, high school, and beyond. “How to be in love” will be just one more lesson in life.
Your task now is to decide what to drop, and then unlearn it. Here, I’m going to assume that you may be unfamiliar—and even a little uncomfortable—with the term unlearn. What does this mean? To unlearn something you have learned assumes that the process of learning can be reversed. It’s like going out the same way you came in. Think of driver’s ed. Initially you’re very conscious of the steps involved in driving a car. Then what you’ve learned goes into semi-automatic and then automatic pilot. You can now think of other things as you drive to work.
The unlearning process involves carefully going back over the steps again and deleting whatever you’re not interested in keeping in your love life. You’re basically identifying the thoughts, feelings, and actions that support what you originally learned about love. The mere fact of bringing these details back to consciousness from mental oblivion puts you in the driver’s seat again. Simply put, you create a consciousness for what you are trying to get rid of in your love life. Consciousness allows you to do the cutting.
Now, you will challenge the various old beliefs, opinions, habits, and feelings that have rigidly positioned themselves in your love life. If you are keeping a journal, it will come in pretty handy now. You want to be very clear in your mind about what you’ve learned about love that has caused you to make mistakes and be unhappy in your love life. The clearer the better, so write stuff down. Fill those pages.
I’ll be spending a good portion of my time in each one of the subsequent chapters helping you challenge the beliefs, feelings, and actions you wish to unlearn. Remember: Change only comes when there is enough room for change to take place. Making room means you’ve tossed out some no longer useful love life habits that were taking up space in your mind and heart. Expect that some of the beliefs, feelings, and actions you’ve identified for demolition will leave you with a bittersweet feeling. Have some empathy for yourself. You can’t learn things in childhood, hang onto them in adulthood, and let them go without feeling some grief about it. Whether or not something was good or bad for you, if it is familiar, letting go of it invites sadness.
What kinds of things have to be unlearned, exactly? Let’s consider a few common love life beliefs that get most people into trouble. How about, I can make someone who doesn’t love me, love me. In my experience as a psychologist this particular belief creates a significant amount of misery in love. The truth is, you can’t change another human being. You can’t create, control, rehabilitate, or predict love in another person. Nobody has that kind of power. This is the kind of love life belief that is usually protecting the believer from realizing and probably feeling a disappointment or loss of some kind.
Let’s do another one. How about, I’m not a complete or valued person until somebody loves me. Remember the song, “You’re Nobody until Somebody Loves You?” This is almost the same thing. The mistaken belief here is that you make a whole person by combining two people. Seem crazy to you? Think about it. Why shouldn’t you be whole and valued just as you are? Indeed you are, except you might not believe it. The hard part is, beliefs have a lot to do with what we end up experiencing. If you are going around in your love life looking for another person to fill out the gaps in your own personality, think of the burden this places on the other person, and the dysfunction it could create in you.
One last example. How about, Jumping into another relationship as soon as possible is the best way to fix a broken heart. There are a lot of people who believe this. They might not consciously know they believe it because the belief is tucked away somewhere deep inside their heads. Rebounding is the term used to describe this particular love life trick, and involves an attempt to escape grief by distraction. The logic goes like this: If my heart is broken because I’ve lost someone I love, I can get away from the pain by jumping into another relationship. Sorry, but the heart doesn’t work like that. Rebounding only delays the inevitable grief, and unfortunately, that grief comes roaring back, intense and distorted. It’s healthier to take a while and grieve a loss right after it happens, and only then move on.
Last, the third step in your Love Life Review will help you learn something new about love—or relearn something you used to know about love but forgot. So much about growing up involves forgetting things we once knew, so let’s not rule out the possibility of relearning useful love life lessons. Let me give you an example. In a later chapter of this book I’m going to talk about learning to take care of yourself as an important part of your overall love life education. You’ll notice I’m using the word learning for this particular task because taking care of yourself is not really something humans know how to do when we come into this world. It’s an acquired skill with a lot of influence on your love life. Something you were born knowing, however, was to be spontaneous in love. You didn’t have to think about whether to express delight or to smile when you felt happy. Spontaneity is basically another word for freedom. We’ll talk a lot about this particular love life relearning in a later chapter devoted exclusively to it.
So once you’ve started successfully challenging some of your outdated beliefs about love, you’ll need to replace them with beliefs that work better. Does it seem weird to think of your beliefs as something you can change, revise, update or modify? Good. This is exactly what I want you to feel. Too often we don’t pay enough attention to what we learn to believe in. We usually don’t make the connection between what we believe and what we’ve experienced, bad or good. When you realize that you can shape your beliefs, you can expect radical changes in your experience of life. This is a personal responsibility none of us can afford to live without.
What you’ll be learning to replace are your old, worn-out, probably-never-worked-well beliefs with the truths about love that have survived the passage of time and are known intuitively by pretty much everybody who is happy in love. What usually happens when you hear or read one is a simple recognition of its validity. For example, if I tell you that when two people in love are honest with each other, their love grows, chances are you will see the simple truth of this statement even if you are convinced it’s better to manipulate and misrepresent what you believe to the people you love. How about this one: You can’t avoid getting hurt when you are in a love relationship. Do you think I am crazy? Doesn’t it make better sense to protect yourself from getting hurt?
No. Most people in love—we’ll just call them lovers for simplicity’s sake—who are brave enough to be vulnerable and open to love will tell you that you can’t protect yourself and be open and vulnerable at the same time. Defensiveness naturally decreases your ability to directly experience love. This is how the mind is built. If you are going to play in the field of love, you’re going to accept the fact that you might get bruised or scraped from time to time. Of course you’ll expose yourself to this risk for a good cause; that is, trying to work out the problems of being in love. Once you get past your initial defensiveness and self-protectiveness, you’ll see the simple truth in this very real expectation.
So when you start learning or relearning things about love that help you find love, sustain love, commit to love, leave a dead relationship in a healthy way if necessary, and improve your feelings about yourself, the health of your love life increases. My job in this book is to introduce you to the Love Life Review, convince you to review your love life, and help you apply your review as an effective method of making improvements. You can use it to update and revise what you believe about love so that your beliefs no longer interfere with the satisfaction and fulfillment you deserve.
By the way, once you’ve recognized this connection between what you believe and the quality of your experience in life, with a little practice you’ll get good at personally owning and supervising what you believe in all areas of your life. Beliefs were never meant to be items we inherit or create without revision. Beliefs are tools of thought. Their true purpose is to help us make sense out of life. While young, we receive beliefs from others. Growing up requires that we should add or subtract, modify or reject, until what we believe represents who we are as unique individuals. This book is intended to help you do that in your love life.
Now let’s focus on the reason we’re all here, love. What is this thing that we all want but which drives us so crazy? Before you answer that question, let me illustrate how much we humans want this thing we call love. Consider the fact that those of us who didn’t get enough love earlier in life have a hard time giving up on the possibility of finally getting it as adults. Many a patient has spent countless hours in psychotherapy talking about what they didn’t get from the people who were supposed to give it to them. And if they are really unlucky, they will spend a large portion of their adulthood looking for the love they didn’t get. We’ll get back to this.
For now let’s talk about two states of mind: falling in love and being in love. By the way, notice that little word, in. In before love means a lot. It means that you are under the spell of this experience we call love. If you just love someone, you care a lot about that person but aren’t under the spell. For some people, being in love is like losing their minds. Recently I’ve heard it equated with being stupid or in a stupor. I don’t recommend either of these characterizations to you, but we can all understand the reference.
To be in love is a fall. To get there you have to fall in love; you trip into this particular state of mind. This part about losing control is very important to understand. You can’t do love if you are in control of your emotions. Love requires that you lose control of yourself. Now that’s not very appealing to most of us, right? Who wants to lose control, even for a good cause? Essentially, that’s what it comes down to: losing control for a good cause. But let’s back up a minute. Some people are averse to falling down. They don’t like the feeling. I don’t blame them. The problem, though, is that love is going to feel uncomfortable at best and intolerable at worst.
So, to fall in love requires that you lose control of your feelings or emotions. By implication, you have been changed. You are not the same person you were before. Falling, as the operative term in this expression, makes sense now. (I think the person who invented this phrase to describe being in love was probably out to scare the bejesus out of people. He or she could have been one of those newly burned lovers in the mood to convince everybody else that love was a hazard.) The point is, if we continue to look at this feeling as a falling into something, a state of being taken over by the momentum of the emotion, we’ll forfeit a bit of important understanding. A more technically accurate way of describing the initiation of this in love state of mind is to think about it as being subjected to something from the inside out. Right now, I don’t really have a better way to talk about this, because the language available is limited at present. The short of it is, when you fall in love you are really being overtaken by something inside of you that is emerging into your direct experience of yourself. Where does it come from? Now this is the mysterious part.
Is love coming from the person you are falling in love with? I think not. Is it coming from the hole you’ve fallen into? I think not. So where does love come from? My guess is inside of you. Without getting spiritual about this, I think the feeling is in each of us requiring the right conditions to emerge. Technically speaking, it’s psychologically merged with the rest of your mind until it is stimulated in some way to e-merge. When love does emerge and create an in love state of mind, its potency is mind-blowing. In other words, love at this level has the power to overwhelm you. And it is supposed to.
You may not like to be overwhelmed—meaning mentally over the helm and into the drink. In any case, how you react to being overwhelmed is a matter for a later chapter. You could say that love carries such a powerful surge so that it can transform your mind and prepare you for a very deep connection. Think of it as a flood, designed to wash away certain personal mental structures to prepare for you a specifically interpersonal feeling, one oriented toward one specific person. What I mean is falling in love is about loving one unique human being. That’s about as specific as you can get in this life.
I’m in love with my wife. There is only one of her in this world. A byproduct of my love for her is an acute awareness of her uniqueness. Of course there are a few matters to deal with as a consequence of this depth. One is, you realize there is only one of the person you are in love with. Sorry, no clones. I have to admit, there’s a bit of stress that comes from being in love with someone like this. You fear the loss and grief of possibly losing the intimate relationship in love, but we’ll get back to all of that a little later.
So you fall in love from the inside out. If that’s not enough to confuse the hell out of you, I don’t know what will. Regardless, being confused never stopped anyone from being in love. In fact, count on some mental confusion to be part of this experience of being in love, at least at first. Consider your inevitable reaction to this new mental state of falling into love: in a word, conflict! Part of you wants no part of it and longs to simply return to that over-controlled, blissful, solo state of mind where you don’t have to need anybody. It tries to convince the other side of you to walk away from this madness.
Conflict is never easy. To be conflicted about something guarantees a certain amount of emotional paralysis. Think of this as the shock that comes after you’ve been smitten. For most lovers this conflicted state of mind resolves into an acceptance of falling into love and a preoccupation with having their object (person) of desire. If you are fairly secure within yourself and have a reasonably stable self-esteem, being in love will be manageable at first and immediately enjoyable. Your preoccupation with the person you are in love with begins to demonstrate the next emerging headache: need.
Wait a second. So far, you’ve fallen down, suffered confusion and mental conflict, and now you are in need of the person you are in love with? Wow! To someone from another planet this might seem like some kind of self-punishment. Why are human beings coveting a state of mind that upsets them to the core? A sensible answer to this question can be found only when you have connected with the one and only person you are in love with. Then, and only then, is it worth it. This desired connection brings us at last to that important state of mind: being in love.
When you have your “being” in love with another person, the two of you share the experience together, connected as two vulnerable people in need of each other. If you’re a bit squeamish about being this vulnerable and defenseless or you are prone to interpret this whole experience as weakness, you won’t have much fun here. The state of being in love will be difficult, to say the least. But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn how to cope with it better.
I’ve come to understand, as I’ve grown older, that true strength in this life is genuinely demonstrated by an ability to tolerate experiences like love and grief. It’s your ability to experience yourself without defenses that provides you with the greatest opportunities in life. In comparison, any of the things people do to protect themselves from feeling too much or being too vulnerable are easy. So let’s talk about some of things you might do to protect yourself when faced with the prospect of falling and being in love.
If you are interested in love like the rest of us but you are not particularly interested in exposing yourself to hurt, you’ll no doubt have a few defensive moves up your sleeve. What I mean is, you’ll probably try to find or be in love while “closed.” You’ll be doing all the things that people do when they are looking for love, dating or even being in relationship; but you’ll be doing them defensively. Your heart will be closed in some effort to protect yourself. This never works. In fact, whatever feelings of love do manage to occur will be quickly diluted by these self-protective mental defenses.
If you are looking for love closed, or you are in a love relationship closed, your secret preoccupation is with avoiding hurt at all costs. Technically speaking, everything on the planet can be used to defend yourself against falling and being in love vulnerably. Even things you’d never suspect were being used to avoid love might be secretly commissioned for this purpose. It just depends upon how the activity in question is being used. It’s like wearing a space suit on a date. You want to be there, but you’re not sure the atmosphere sustains life.
Let’s talk about a pretty common example of being defensive in love. Just about everybody would agree that work is an important human activity, right? Suppose you are a person who works long hours to make a good living. Who’d argue with that? Suppose you were doing it in part to avoid the pains of love? Suppose you were in love not long ago, had an unfortunate breakup, and swore off love for the rest of your life. Only you don’t consciously know you made this emotional decision to avoid love; something in you just finally gave up and decided love was too painful. The consequence of this decision is that from now on your dealings in love will be defensive. You might go to parties, meet new people, go out on dates, even start a love relationship, but you do it knowing that you will never again let another person be more important than your work. If that ever happened, you would tell yourself, you might get hurt again.
The difficulty occurs when you get tired of your part-time love life and start feeling like you need more. Now you’ve joined the ranks of the people who are looking for love closed. Your mind tells you that you need to find love, but you heart tells you to protect yourself. Or is it the other way around? Either way, the point is that you are protecting yourself from the very thing you want and need: love.
Being in conflict with yourself is difficult. What can you do about it? Let’s get back to the assumption you’ve made that love is always going to be too painful. Is this true? Granted, you’ve got a lot of evidence for the fact that it was too painful that one time. The experience is seared into your emotional memory. So you’ve dedicated yourself to avoiding this kind of experience going forward, forever. The fact that you were in such bad shape when the breakup happened is undeniable. Even the fact that you don’t want this kind of thing to ever happen again makes perfect sense. What doesn’t make sense is why you have to assume that every encounter with love will create the same outcome. You see, this part doesn’t make sense. You’re simply afraid, and as a quick solution for your fear, you’ve made a prediction—one powerful enough to change your love life forever; one powerful enough to keep you away from love for the rest of your life. And that’s precisely why I am making a big deal out of this kind of defensiveness.
You’re with me this far, so let’s go a little further. Instead of generalizing based on fear, let’s get specific. Suppose you agreed with me that every single human being is unique. I don’t think it’s too difficult to see the truth in this statement. Everyone is different. This includes a person’s character, personality, and identity, and even physical features. There are no two totally identical human beings anywhere on the planet. If you buy that, then you must reconsider your assumption that the next person you fall in love with will bring you to the same heartache you felt the last time. You can’t afford to defensively generalize.
Maybe you protest, and tell me that it is bound to end the same old way, with the same old hurt. I will tell you—and this may come as a surprise to you—the problem is not in the love partner you’ve found. It is you. The reason you are so dead-set on assuming that every person you fall in love with will hurt you badly is because you know, deep down inside, you will set yourself up for failure. You’ve simply lost faith in your own ability to change the fact.
Have I gotten a rise out of you? In the next chapter we are going to talk about what your family taught you about love. You’ll see that you’ve learned a few things about love that are probably making it harder for you to settle into a healthy love life. When a person is not entirely conscious of what interfering lessons he or she has learned about love, it is common to acknowledge to oneself that “something unknown” is in the way, and to take steps to avoid further hardship. For some people it takes only one or two painful breakups, and they sense they are not doing something right. The problem is they don’t know what it is exactly and it’s too painful to figure it out at the time. So they do the next best thing, defensively blame someone else and try to avoid further difficulties.
When you are busy blaming somebody else, you can’t really work on the problem. If this sounds like it pertains to you, we have to go back to the moment you realized that you might be doing something wrong—before you got defensive about it. There is good news. This problem can be fixed. You can discover what you are doing in your love life that prevents you from having a healthy love relationship. Once you know what that is, you can start to challenge its hold on your love life, learn about doing something more effective, and practice it. You don’t have to sacrifice your whole love life over one or two painful heartaches.
Before moving on to your family and what they taught you about love, I’d like to take a minute to talk about some of the most common ways we protect ourselves from the pains of love. Avoiding something you think is going to hurt you is probably the simplest way. Like the kid and the stovetop, right? If you’ve burnt yourself, there is a good chance you won’t be putting your hand back into that fire any time soon. Avoidance happens a lot in people’s love lives after they’ve been hurt.
Next in line is a close relative of avoidance, distance. This one is used a lot in love relationships where you assume you will experience future hurt. If you are in a love relationship you don’t want to give up while at the same time protecting yourself from hurt, distance will let you have your cake and eat it, too—so it seems. Unfortunately, none of these defenses against love works very well in the long run. If you are distant, you’re probably not doing what needs to be done to grow your relationship. This state of affairs can only last a while before complaints start rolling in.
Let’s do a couple more. If staying away is not your cup of tea, you could be practicing the fine art of trying to control your love relationship. We’ll have a lot to say about this important love life problem. It’s so important that it has its own chapter later in the book. For now, suffice to say that if you are into controlling love, you must have made a decision right off the bat to control love instead of love controlling you. This aggressive defense is a pretty formidable love life problem. If you believe in control, then you will tend to think of love as some kind of wild animal needing to be tamed.
While in a controlling state of mind, you are not vulnerable. A controlling lover is not interested in being receptive to emerging love. It’s more like possessing something of interest and value to be shown and enjoyed while under lock and key. In this solution to the pain of falling and being in love, there is no freedom or spontaneity. And this is exactly where the trouble starts. Without freedom, love tends to wither and die. I’ve seen it so many times that I believe freedom in the form of spontaneity is an essential ingredient for the growth of love as an emotion.
Because control is so power-oriented, it’s a lot harder to work with than some of the other defenses against the discomforts of love. Controlling lovers in the midst of being controlling are not very open to observations about the limitations of their strategy. I hate to say it, but the catalyst is usually a painful realization that control doesn’t work. On top of this, of course, you have the resentments and rebellion of people who subject themselves to their lover’s control. The biggest problem for controlling lovers is that their partners will inevitably outgrow their control and rebel, sooner or later.
When control gets particularly dysfunctional, the situation usually involves the controlling lover’s refusal to accept the limitations of control. More and more control leads to more and more control until the whole thing shatters. If the controlling lover feels insecure, he or she will feel a considerable amount of frustration and anger when control begins to falter. Like I said, we’ll get back to this in a later chapter. What I want you to know right now is the inherent limitations of protecting ourselves from an emotion we all want and need. Put it like this, our defenses usually end up hurting us more in the long run than if we took an honest look at the problem and allowed ourselves to learn how to fix it.
I’m hoping this discussion about falling in love, being in love, and all the things you can do to protect yourself against love has prepped you for jumping right in to the real work of forming and sustaining a healthy love relationship. Love, as a feeling, is out of your control. What you do with that feeling once it arrives will determine the health of your love life. By now you should understand that love will come to you and it will stay with you if you are open enough to receive it and take good care of it. This doesn’t mean you’ve found a way to control love; just to take care of it. You should also know trying to protect yourself against the future pains of love only complicates and deprives you of love in your life.
The rest of this book is devoted to what you can do to prepare for and build a healthy love relationship instead of wasting all that energy on protecting yourself from getting hurt. Love is like a passenger in your car. You can have it sit in the front seat, the back seat, drive, or stand by the side of the road. It all depends upon how comfortable you are with love in your life and how much you need to be in control. Personally, I prefer driving with love in the front seat and staying open to learning a little car maintenance. I admit, though, that I’ve learned how to share more and more of the driving with love over the years. This book is about building and maintaining your love relationship for a relatively enjoyable and comfortable ride.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the members of my family of origin, even the ones I don’t really get along with. I always have, and I always will. The point of this chapter is simply to understand what your family has taught you about love, not whether or how much you love one another. Loving my family doesn’t mean I agree with, believe in, or should apply everything they taught me about love. All that we care about here is if you know what you’ve learned about love, you can go about the business of keeping or changing your beliefs.
If the lessons you’ve already learned are helping you enjoy a healthy love life, I’m afraid the rest of my book won’t be very interesting to you. Sorry you had to get this far into it before realizing you didn’t need it. I’m sure you have a bunch of other more important things to do than waste your time reading something that doesn’t pertain to you.
If you are in that large and growing group of people who are unhappy with their love lives, however, keep reading. I’m going to assume that you’ve learned some lessons about love in the course of your life that are not working very well for you. I’m going to assume that the problem is more than just bad luck. And I am also going to assume that the largest portion of what you’ve learned took place while you were living with your family of origin. Now, I know if you were attracted to this book and have made it this far, you are at least interested in having a healthy love relationship. Your first step toward this goal is to pull out of the backroom of your mind what your family taught you about love. Once you know what you’ve already learned, you can challenge what is not working.
Now you are faced with the unnerving task of thinking about what you’ve learned about love from the people who were supposed to love you. Whether they loved you is not as important as understanding what they taught you while they were giving (or not giving) love to you. Perhaps your first clue is in the pattern of how they loved you. Pattern means repetition. If you see something repeat itself over and over again you can bet it’s a pretty important idea because of its consistency. Patterns and consistency usually indicate something is important enough to emphasize and pass on to children. It mattered enough to repeat.
Think about how members of your family related to you, especially the ones who had the authority and privilege to raise you. Did they treat you with respect? Did they listen to you and take seriously what you had to say? Were they able to acknowledge who you really are as a person? The answers to questions like these will help you figure out whether you learned to have a positive, loving view of yourself. These early lessons later form what is commonly known as your self-esteem. I’m making a big deal out of this because self-esteem has a lot to do with your love life. Believe me, how you feel about yourself and how well you take care of yourself will determine the quality of your love life.
For example, if you learned not to value yourself as a person, the chances are pretty good that you’ll find people to love who are inconsistent in their appreciation of you. How does this work? Let’s theorize that what you learned about yourself doesn’t simply stay in the recesses of your mind. It gets projected out into the world to other people. These subliminal communications tell people about you and have a lot to do with who is attracted to you and the kind of treatment you’ll get from them. If you are unaware of what you are projecting out into the world, this whole process is going to operate pretty automatically. It will influence your love life in ways that may not be to your advantage, and it will do so without your permission. This is precisely why uncovering your early lessons about love is so vital. What we learn about esteeming ourselves, or what we used to roughly call “self-love,” can be taught—just like all the lessons about love we get in our families, directly or indirectly.
Direct teaching involves somebody with authority in the family sitting you down and telling you such-and-such about yourself. If the message is positive, you can build on it. At some point in the future you’ll probably have to correct it if it’s a lie or a distortion of the truth, but the point is it’s based on a positive emotion; and you won’t suffer from low self-esteem growing up into adulthood. If the teaching on this subject is indirect, no one is taking the time to articulate his or her judgments about you to your face. Instead, you are experiencing a certain treatment from members of the family and making deductions and assumptions about yourself from that. According to my research in human experience over the years, the strongest lessons occur when indirect messages are reinforced by direct efforts to influence how somebody feels about himself or herself.
I think it’s safe to assume that not everyone in the family carries the same weight as teacher. I suspect that parental figures are at the apex of authority. The fact that you start off needing their love naturally intensifies this experience. I’m sure most of my readers are aware of family situations where children remain loyal to abusive parents, even when they are given an opportunity to leave them. This tragically illustrates the extent to which the need for love can remain fixated on particular persons regardless of how they treat you. The most heartbreaking consequence of poor self-esteem occurs when such a person enters an abusive love relationship. I’m hesitant to put the words abusive and love side by side, but I have to—that person’s basic motivation for entering the relationship is to be loved. People with poor self-esteem, when trapped in abusive relationships, find it difficult to leave precisely because of their negative self beliefs. If they felt better about themselves, they not only would have avoided the relationship but they would get out of it at the first sign of abuse. When you feel good about you, you never let anyone abuse or mistreat you for very long, if at all.
I have had the wonderful experience of sitting with people as they became aware of the link between how they feel about themselves and the quality of their love relationships. A great moment in this experience occurs when a patient is able to put two and two together and see how the habit of disrespecting herself allows other people to disrespect her, too. From then on, these patients—men and women both—climb the ladder of feeling better about themselves until they get to the point where they feel capable of setting limits on any further mistreatment.
I believe that people can change what they have learned about themselves. The hard part is becoming aware of what early lessons contributed to your self-esteem. Once they’re out in the open, you can decide which ones truly apply to you. It’s important to remember the ones that don’t apply are generally instructions that come from someone else’s experience and issues. Put it this way: Just because someone says something about you doesn’t mean it’s about you. More often, it’s about the person giving the advice. Unfortunately, this can be the case even with well-intentioned people who love us but have issues of their own of which they are barely aware.
If your self-esteem is simply too low to work with on your own, I would advise you to seek professional help. There is nothing to be ashamed of. Think of how an elevated self-esteem will translate into a healthier love relationship. Remember, how well you feel about yourself and take care of yourself are templates for how other people will treat you. In fact, this relationship between self-esteem and the health of your love relationship is so important that I’ve devoted a whole chapter to it in this book. In that chapter I’ll talk about the finer details involved in learning how to take good care of yourself.
The other broad task related to learning about love in your family involves an examination of the individual relationships you have with your relatives, as well as the relationships they have with one another. From this, you can discover what you typically expect from a relationship. The unconscious expectations that form inside these early relationships will strongly influence how you relate to a person you fall in love with. Of course, if you were lucky enough to grow up in a loving family, why bother trying to analyze these experiences, right? I wish this were the case more often. It appears to me that early love life disappointments and their negative influence on adulthood love relationships are normal.
Again, direct learning takes place when someone in authority decides to influence a child’s perception of love by teaching a lesson. In this instance, you are told what to expect from a particular relationship. The power in this kind of direct learning comes mostly from the concentrated effort the adult person expends to influence or manipulate your thoughts and feelings. There is no ambiguity here. Your need for this particular adult’s love is being used to exert influence. To be told something is a fact always carries a lot more force than being allowed to reach your own conclusions.
Someone in authority in your family may have had some kind of emotional investment in making you believe a certain thing about a certain relationship in your family. First let’s consider relationships between members of your family that do not involve you. Being told what to think or feel about a particular relationship in your family is clearly an effort to manipulate your experience. This kind of thing happens all the time. The point is, it leaves traces that can and do influence your experience of love relationships later. The intentions may be benign, just a little family relationship education. On other occasions, the motivations may be a little more devious, as when the beliefs and feelings of children are swayed in one direction or another in accord with family conflicts.
Moving on, let’s think about how members of your family related to you. This is a huge influence on children. Think back to the different relationships individuals in your family formed with you. Were you related to with love? Was the love unconditional, meaning you got it no matter how you behaved? Or was their love conditional and you got it only when you were able or willing to satisfy their conditions? Here’s the general principle: If you’re exposed to something long enough, it starts to seep in. Let’s assume that you were exposed to certain conditions of love and you grew to accept it as the definition of love; that is, love comes with certain conditions.
Now as an adult, are you aware of what conditions you were taught to expect with love? The particular conditions that come with love, as you were taught them, shape and control your experience of love. Most relationships have conditions. Ideally, we hope for unconditional relationships with the people we love, and who love us. As I said, though, most relationships have conditions. If you think about it—really think about it long enough—you’ll come up with the conditions that governed the relationships in your family.
For example, I’ll use the relationship I had with my mother growing up. Earlier in my childhood, I would get the love I needed (or at least some of it), if I did a good job at whatever responsibility I was given. If I didn’t do well I could expect to be punished or at least chastised for what was perceived to be my irresponsibility. I learned early that love was earned; that I would have a shot at getting whatever portion of love was coming to me if and when I did what I was supposed to do. As I got older my mother used to start our telephone conversations with, “Are you working today?” I knew this to be a coded inquiry about whether I had fulfilled my responsibilities, and could rightfully expect the little bit of love I was about to get.
Deciphering your particular conditions for giving and receiving love is a big step toward bringing all of this under your personal control. You don’t want to be in a love relationship and not know what you expect of love. That is, of course, unless you like the idea of having no say over what happens in your love life. Think in terms of the what, how, when, where, and why of giving and receiving love. For example, the conditions of your relationship with a key family member will tell you what to expect to give and receive, how it’ll be given and received, when to give it and receive it, where to give it and receive it, and don’t forget, the why to giving it and receiving it. Of course, the it in this example is conditional love.
Once these conditions become visible or conscious to you, they can be challenged and changed. Remember our Love Life Review? Well, this is where it comes in handy. You’ve figured out what conditions are attached to the love you expect to give and receive. The next step is to challenge whatever doesn’t feel right once you’ve taken it out of the dark closet you’ve stuffed it in. Challenging what we have learned in our families of origin is an exercise in liberation. Remember, it’s your love life we’re talking about, not theirs.
By the way, if you were mistreated or abused in family relationships growing up, you can expect that some part of this experience will make it into your love life. That’s the bad news. The good news is, you can figure out the conditions involved in abuse as you would any other kind of treatment in family relationships. Once you’ve become aware of the conditions you’ve learned to abide by in abusive family relationships, you can figure out the details—the what, how, where, when and why—and challenge their continued sway over your adult love life. The perpetual repetition of unhealthy conditional love in your life can only take place if you never ask questions, keep all of this in the dark, and don’t expect anything better for yourself.
The last so-called educational influence in your family of origin is the relationships they had or have with each other. As a child and adolescent, your powers of observation, suggestion, and imitation are beyond words. You watched everything, you listened to everything, and you were ready to learn by identification. Think of identification as learning by trying something on for size. If it fits, you’ve learned that a particular thought, feeling, or behavior was tailor-made for you, right? Wrong. Identification always assumes that you are using someone else’s opinions, beliefs, or example to determine who and what you are—and oh yes, with whom you will be who you are.
Relationships in a family, and love relationships in particular, are vivid sources of information about what to expect and how to act in a love relationship. Studying a family member’s relationship from a distance as a model of behavior is easier than studying your own early relationships, given your more remote point of view. Basically, you’re not directly involved, so you can make observations, study the details, and construct a blueprint for replication when the time comes. You can do all of this without a direct confrontation with emotion and action that occurs when the relationship is directed at you. My point is that many adult love relationships are shaped by the experiences of love, as witnessed in our families as children.
I hope you’ve been able to get yourself through this analysis of your family’s influence without too much ado. They are only people. They are supposed to have faults and limitations and we’re supposed to love them despite it all. I’m going to remind you that you’re putting yourself through this for the greater good of your love life. Identifying all the barriers to love, all the things you’ve learned about love from whatever source, gives you an opportunity to move these unhelpful lessons out of your way. I’m hoping you’ve got some sense of what they are by the time you’ve made it to the end of this chapter. Be patient.
The rest of this book is at your disposal as an ongoing list of ingredients for what goes into a healthy love relationship. According to our Love Life Review, you’ll first identify what you’ve learned about love, then challenge what you don’t need so you can let it go and free yourself from it, then learn something new for the space left vacant after discarding the junk—something new that nourishes your love life. The rest of this book are chapters devoted to the nourishing “new stuff” or “old stuff” to learn anew, which can take the place of what you are discarding. You can’t go through an experience like this without feeling some sense of liberation. Your love life is supposed to be your love life, dictated only from the inside out of you.
RECOVERING FROM DISAPPOINTMENTS IN LOVE
Chapter 4: Relearning How to Grieve for Lost Love
At first glance, the next ingredient in a healthy love relationship might seem a bit strange. Bare with me—its meaning will be made clear to you in short order. When you came into this world the very first emotion you had was grief. Why? Because grief is the emotion we human beings have when we’ve lost something or someone we value. So what did you lose when you came out of your mother’s belly kicking and screaming? You guessed it: that never-to-be-replaced connection to her inside her womb. Never again in this life will you feel so connected to creation itself. From birth on out, you’re on your own a little bit at a time.
Now what’s the big deal about grief? What place does it have in a book about love? First off, there is a good chance that as a fellow member of the human race, you may have been disappointed in love a few times in the course of your life. If you think about it, being able to grieve the loss of love so that the experience does not impair your ability to love again is very important indeed. Unfortunately, too many of us lose whatever tolerance is needed to grieve. We want to avoid emotional pain, which is understandable. The consequence, however, is a buildup of unhealed disappointments inside of you. A big part of my practice involves healing these losses so that my patients can get back into the search for love with a better chance of success.
So, this is why we will use the word relearn to describe the need to bring this grieving ability back, and reestablish our tolerance for it. There is a mistaken notion out there in the world that hate is the flipside of love; you’ll recognize the implied opposition between love and hate. I think that’s an error. In my experience, the real flipside of love is grief. In fact, try this one on for size: grief is love lost. It’s not that love leaves when you lose it. It’s more like love transforms into grief. To put it simply, love is grief and grief is love. Basically, they are the same emotion in different states of manifestation. Now I say all of this because I’ve met too many people over the years who are running away from grief. If they only knew they were running away from love, would it make a difference? Maybe.
In my clinical work, helping people resolve grief has a trove of benefits. When someone comes into my practice to resolve grief over the loss of someone he or she loved, the first order of business is always getting past notions like grief as a sickness or weakness. These are the kinds of beliefs that go around and have the purpose of putting grief away, of avoiding it altogether. What I usually find is these interpretations are usually learned, passed down from generation to generation; as when older members of a family tell younger members of the same family to stop crying at a funeral. “Be strong,” they tell us, “and don’t show anybody how much you really loved the deceased.” God forbid.
Once past the learned inhibitors of this emotion, the treatment then seeks to resolve grief by helping the patient accept the loss and begin letting go. Acceptance and letting go are the two biggest parts of the healing process. There is usually a fair amount of sadness, feelings of loss, and tears—all of which are normal and encouraged without the slightest bit of judgment. It’s not really my judgment that matters so much, but rather, the grieving person’s self-judgment while this natural experience is trying to unfold. The thing with grief is that if you welcome it as openly as you would welcome love, the whole experience runs its course in a shorter period of time. The problem occurs when it’s not welcome. Grief can turn into an ugly emotion, infecting mind and body, and creating or exacerbating all kinds of psychological and physical symptoms.
People in need of this kind of experience often hire me to join the process with them, pointing out complications when they show up, providing a bit of support and encouragement, but basically staying out of their way. Sometimes people in this state feel like they have absolutely nowhere else they can bring their grief. Anywhere else would subject them to ridicule or judgment. The important part for us is the realization that unresolved grief leads to problems being in love. It’s inevitable, given the fact that the heart is bruised and creates defenses against love for the sake of self-protection. There are far too many people stuck in this emotional state.
Another related consideration involving grief and love occurs when the unresolved grief has lingered for a long time. I meet quite a few people who are still disappointed as adults about the love they did not get in childhood or adolescence. Their parents couldn’t or wouldn’t love them for reasons having everything to do with the parents, not the child. Of course, children tend to blame themselves for these kinds of deficiencies, anyway. What else is a child to do? That’s for another chapter. The point here is that old, unresolved disappointments in love leave a person with only two options.
Option #1 is to forever dedicate themselves to finding and retaining what they didn’t get earlier in life. Now you have an adult person who is looking for this ancient type of parental love in every current adult love relationship. In twenty-five years of practice I have never met one individual who successfully found the love he or she sought. I know for certain other things happened: frustration and resentment over time, especially if he or she felt the love needed was promised in some way. The hard truth is that we cannot replay childhood in adulthood, no matter how hard we try. It always places a negative burden on adult love relationships.
So what’s the cure, doctor? There is always option #2. Quite frankly, this is the more practical of the two options. It involves grieving the loss and letting go of the dedicated search for lost love. Yes, there will be sadness and grief. Yes, you will need to dedicate yourself to the practice of letting go for a time. The good news is, for your efforts, you free yourself of the past and become more receptive to love in the present. In other words, a healed heart is naturally open to real love now. What you have actually done is rehabilitate your broken heart such that it is ready and willing for new love at this time in your life. Could there be anything better than that?
Being practical-minded, I like to end a chapter with things you can do to get this particular ingredient of the healthy love relationship back into your love life where it belongs. Now that we’ve seen how grief is intimately related to love, you can work on building your tolerance for emotions besides love that make you feel vulnerable, such as sadness and grief. This includes stopping yourself from pushing away sadness and feelings of loss if and when they emerge. You will build your appreciation and tolerance for this emotion, and even welcome it as an integral part of your love life.
Question yourself if you try to label grief as sickness or weakness. See if you can instead experience it as an emotion that occurs when love has been transformed. Otherwise, inhibiting or distorting the experience of grief when love is lost will interfere with your natural ability to heal your heart, and it will block the transformation of grief back into the capacity to love and be loved. Because you know you’ll be able to live through, tolerate, and understand grief’s true purpose, you’ll be able to love in the deepest way possible. You won’t need to be defensive or avoid love because you’ll trust your ability to live through any experience of love or loss.
You don’t come into this world knowing how to take care of yourself. It is a learned skill. In fact, most of childhood and adolescence, in theory at least, exists in order to prepare you—or better yet, train you—for adulthood. A problem in your love life might arise as the unfortunate result of making it to adulthood without having completed your education in this area. It happens all the time. In fact, I’ve learned that a lot of the growing and maturing people have to do, especially in their love lives, takes place in adulthood. So, nobody is actually finished growing by the time they reach twenty-one. Some lessons in life are indeed only meant to be learned in your middle years. This is certainly true of love, and many things related to love.
Problematically, most people learn how to take care of themselves by imitation, following the example other people have set in taking care of them in the past. This is either a blessing or a curse. Let me explain why. If the people who were supposed to raise you were present and loving, you are a lucky person. In that case, they did not allow their self-interest to interfere (much) with your particular growth needs. This doesn’t mean you got everything that you wanted in life growing up. Quite frankly, sometimes the most loving thing we can do is to say no to somebody we care about or love. The point is, if you received real, uncomplicated love growing up, it not only helped you grow but most likely you will try to replicate the experience in your adult life, and with the next generation, as well.
The formula is quite simple. How you were treated will become the template for how to treat yourself and other people, and how you let them treat you. It’s a lot harder when the love you get is complicated by absence, selfishness, or some other negative habit. The vulnerability and needs of childhood and adolescence make it nearly impossible to resist being influenced by the way your caregivers treated you. One particularly troublesome consequence of not having gotten the love you needed is self-blame. It goes something like this: As a child I needed your love and you couldn’t or wouldn’t love me, so I took responsibility for that lack. This phenomenon commonly shows up as self-blame for things like divorce, parental neglect or absence, abuse or mistreatment by adults, or anything else that occurs because of a psychological limitation rooted in childhood.
As you can imagine, this kind of emotional aftereffect no doubt wreaks holy havoc on how you take care of yourself. If you took responsibility for someone else’s failure to love you, your self-esteem and self-care will suffer. It’s tragic. The cure for this kind of situation, by the way, is to revisit the events in memory and right the wrongs in your childhood logic using the wisdom of adulthood. In psychotherapy this usually happens when a person realizes that he or she has unfairly been taking personal responsibility for the inevitable limitations of the person whose love was limited or absent.
Incidentally, how you learn to take care of yourself doesn’t have to be direct. In fact, maybe most of it never is. You learn by imitation, by experiencing how people in your family take care of you, each other, or others outside the family. You put all those influences together in your mind, however you put it together. Now, as a self-inquiring adult, your job is to take a conscious look at what you’ve learned in the self-care department of your mind. The more you permit yourself to actually see how well you’ve been taking care of yourself in the past the more you can motivate yourself to upgrade that treatment in the future.
You should be getting an inkling of where I’m headed by now. It’s time to go from what you learned about self-care from others to taking over the job yourself. Whether we are talking about how well you take care of your body, your mind, or your spirit, it’s all part of taking care of you. The point is, to have a healthy love relationship you have to have a healthy relationship with yourself. If that sounds too troublesome to bother with, we’ve got a lot of work to do. If not, then you have to start reviewing your habits, your lifestyle, your relationships pretty much every area of your life that has something to do with how you feel about and treat yourself. Basically, you’re going to be looking for anything that is not healthy. If you are allowing unhealthy behaviors and attitudes to remain unchallenged, your relationship with yourself will be unhealthy, too, to the extent and nature of that allowance. Liberating your relationship with yourself from all the training and examples you were exposed to in childhood is a responsibility. It’s basically like taking care of someone who needs a little supervision from time to time; or having a sense of what is healthy and unhealthy such that you intervene when you see yourself slipping into a negative pattern. It’s good to know someone’s watching, even and especially so when that someone is you.
You could say all of this talk about “supervising yourself” is useless and pedantic. But I would remind you that this sort of thing is in our language, like when someone says, “I was beside myself yesterday.” Or have you ever heard someone say, “I saw myself starting to get anxious when she entered the room.” May I ask who is who in that statement? Are you the person being watched or doing the watching? Apart from the philosophical, mind-bending fun we might have in tossing this question around, it’s more relevant to simply think about the implications of having a good relationship with yourself.
I happen to believe that the true cause of loneliness is an underdevelopment of this very relationship. People who are intolerably lonely are not good at keeping themselves company. A good, solid, healthy relationship with yourself will always be there for you, most especially when you are alone. The importance of this idea for your love life goes something like this: If you are comfortable keeping yourself company, you won’t be afraid to be alone. This comfort level will come in handy not only when you are temporarily separated from the one you love, but also as a single person, when you are able to say no to love that is not healthy and be okay with being alone for a while longer. You won’t jump into a relationship just to have one. You will have higher standards because you are taking care of yourself. See how it comes together?
By the way, self-care has a bunch of other names like self-esteem, self-love, self-respect, self-sufficiency, even self-determination. A rose is a rose, right? With some variations in emphasis they are all describing the same phenomenon.
Let’s talk about another direct link between the quality of your self-care and the quality of your love life. The formula goes like this: How well you take care of you will mirror the quality of the love you get and give. The get part might be a little easier to analyze, so I’ll do that first. Here’s a real life example. I work pretty regularly with people who are struggling in abusive relationships. The abuse can be verbal, emotional, physical, sexual, or even financial. I’ve observed that people stuck in abusive relationships usually have low self-esteem. In fact, their low self-esteem is what permits the abuse to continue. If they felt better about themselves, they would have stopped the abuse yesterday by limiting it or leaving it. When you are not taking good care of yourself and your self-esteem is low, you doubt yourself and have trouble standing up for yourself. What you are getting in your love life is fundamentally unhealthy. What you are getting matches how you feel about you.
The good news is that this problem is treated by raising a person’s self-esteem and supporting efforts to limit or leave abusive relationships. In these cases, it is not too difficult to see that a person’s low self-esteem is also affecting the quality of what is given as well. The most loving thing the abused person can give the abuser is to stop tolerating the abuse. Another way to say this would be true love is giving a person exactly what he or she needs. An abuser needs to experience his or her victim empowered enough to stop the abuse. I’ve had the great privilege of hearing the firsthand stories of such an experience of rehabilitated self-care. When it happens, victims of abuse have a chance to go on to a healthier love relationship, and abusers have a chance to think about why they abuse.
So, the great thing about understanding the relationship between taking care of you and your love life is the accessibility of what you need to work on. Your workshop, so to speak, is right there inside of you. You can’t get any more accessible than that. And of course you get to do two things at the same time, work on how you feel about you and the quality of your love relationships. It’s more like working on one naturally improves both areas of your life. The benefits to realizing this link between your self-esteem and your love life are truly astounding. So start working on your relationship with yourself, make it healthier and better in any way you can, and see what happens once you start feeling really good about you.
Like the rest of us, when you came into this world you came with two love functions intact and ready to use: the ability to receive love and the ability to give love. In this chapter I’ll focus on your ability to receive love. We’ll reserve the other one for the next chapter. Because you were born with these functions, you can relearn to get them back into your life and use them in a healthy love relationship. There is a good chance simply growing up and living as an adult will complicate your native ability to receive love. When you were tiny you had absolutely no misgivings of any kind accepting the love you were being given. The more the merrier. From time to time, however, the love you were given had to be titrated to get you used to living in a world with occasional disappointments.
It is entirely possible to learn a few more things about that native need for love; more specifically, how your need was treated by the people in your life. You could have been born into relationships that discouraged and perhaps even demanded you to expect less and ask for less. This could have gone on, depending upon the psychological makeup of your caregivers, until you stifled your own need to be loved. If I add some recurrent disappointment to the mix, I can produce an adult with little or no conscious need for love. The tragic part of this dynamic is that it also produces a defensive unawareness of its existence. In many cases this sort of self-sacrifice is interpreted as strength, a sign of maturity.
My experience in the consultation room has taught me that people with this particular difficulty tend to either distance themselves from love or they adopt caregiving roles with other people. In either case, they have found a superbly defensive way of staying away from their own need for love. The people who are practicing distance to manage this loss are difficult to engage. You can understand why, given the fact that they are so invested in not feeling like anything is wrong. I hardly see these people. If you do something long enough you get to be an expert at it. Unfortunately, that goes for psychological ways of coping with the parts of yourself that scare you. I tend instead to see a steady stream of “extreme caregivers.” They might be coming to me because of my own personal experience taking care of a needy, repressed mother and an overworked father. Who knows? As the conventional wisdom goes, if you’ve got the right kind of antenna, like attracts like. People who have perfected the defense of taking care of everyone except themselves work overtime to avoid their own need for love. It doesn’t take rocket science to deduce that. What requires a scientific approach, however, is figuring out how to reintroduce these folks to their forsaken need for love. After all, it’s usually in the not-too-distant background raising havoc in the form of chronic unhappiness, physical symptoms, or some such chronic low-grade abnormality.
I usually get to see extreme caregivers when they are totally burned out and showing symptoms such as depression, anxiety, and chronic insomnia. The complaint is that nobody in their lives is interested or even cares about their emotional needs. In fact, this is the first sign of progress in treatment. If handled correctly, these complaints usually evolve into well-articulated, directly expressed statements of need delivered therapeutically to all the people who rely on this caregiver to be a self-sacrificing person. Of course, the point in mentioning the extreme caregiving behavior is to demonstrate that this condition can be treated in adulthood. The treatment is to reintroduce the person therapeutically to his or her own original need for love, updated to adulthood.
People who are invested in staying at a distance from everyone and everything that could awaken their hidden need for love do not fare well in love relationships, as you might expect. Chances are, they will run away from or disrupt the flow of love when it starts to get uncomfortable. Tragically, there are quite a few people suffering one disappointed love relationship after another thanks to this issue. The extreme caregiver, on the other hand, usually attracts needy lovers who are secretly (or not so secretly) hoping to find an adult who will give them what they missed out on in childhood. As the love relationship progresses, extreme caregivers will inevitably find themselves with more than their fair share of responsibility for just about everything.
As I indicated earlier, it’s just a matter of time before frustration and resentment force complaints to the surface. Some people have the internal fortitude to remain caregivers for years. For the sake of illustration, I will mention a particular form of caregiving that usually starts very early in childhood (in most cases) and is often passed on to the next generation if that person has children. The fancy phrase for it is parentified child. What this means is that a child in the family is chosen, not necessary consciously, to parent a needy parent. This selection establishes the caregiver role and annexes the particular child to the needs of the parent. When parentified children become adults, they tend to take care of their love partners. They choose needy people with whom they recreate the familiar pattern. The end results are often far from satisfying for everyone involved.
Further proving how toxic it is for a person to sacrifice his or her need for love, there are people whose sacrifice creates frustration and resentment that develop into anger and control. These are people who choose a more malignant method of solving their inability to receive love freely. These are usually people convinced in childhood not to expect anything to be given to them. So instead of waiting around for love, which is never expected to come, they develop their ability to “take” love whenever possible. If you permit yourself to use your imagination, you will understand how this particular solution creates all kinds of trouble. I think this issue, combined with a lot of personal insecurity, tends to lead to abusive relationships.
Now that I have piqued your interest with some negative consequences that stem from an inability to receive love, what does the positive, “normal” function look like? I’m glad you asked. When your ability to receive love is functional, two things are going on at the same time. The first is that you have an open heart. When your heart is open you are not being defensive or self-protective. In other words, there are no barriers to accepting the love someone is trying to give you. You can tell how open someone is to love by the degree to which they are practicing their preferred defenses (e.g., control, distance, deception, etc.) against the risks and potential hurts of love.
If you are in an open state of heart, you are sensitive, vulnerable, and can be hurt by disappointments in love. In other words, you are in a “tender” emotional state. You are not hard, tough, or difficult to affect. If you are balking at the thought of being this open, chances are, you are accustomed to being defensive in matters of the heart. In the state of heart I am talking about, you will definitely feel more intensely. This is what it takes to be receptive to the influence of love. I once heard someone describe the experience of falling in love as getting “infected.” If you can imagine a positive meaning for the word, you are very close to feeling what I am talking about here.
The other thing that happens when your ability to receive love is fully functional is that you give love to yourself. Now how does that work? You are open to receiving love if and when it might be offered to you, while at the same time taking good care of yourself. Thus, it is possible for you to be patient. To be patient in your love life means you can wait for love to be given in whatever love relationship you’ve found. You don’t have to resort to “taking” the love you need—you are not that desperate. My research into the human function of receiving love has led me to understand that we are all psycho-biologically destined to covet the feeling of being loved. All human beings secretly crave the feeling of receiving love from the people we have chosen to give love to us. But is that still true, even when the source is you to you? Most assuredly so! Under “normal” circumstances your self-esteem determines the quality of your love life. Positive self-esteem and good self-care habits will allow you to wait patiently for love to arrive from a source other than yourself. When you do not or cannot take care of yourself in this way, you’ll start to feel the disappointment that getting less than your needed allotment of love will bring. You’ll then get frustrated, and part of you will go back to giving up on love or trying to “take” love again. Neither strategy will bring much love life satisfaction.
If you become aware of the fact that you are not receptive to love, what can you do about it? In and of itself, your awareness is a big part of the solution. Now you’ll devote a larger measure of attention to those moments when you risk the vulnerability of being open to love. Perhaps you’ll stop yourself from rejecting love as you have in the past. You might remind yourself that you can handle the risk and survive the experience. This will happen when you’re ready. As long as you’ve begun to at least think about change, you will learn what to challenge in yourself, and eventually, how to move in a different direction. Whenever you’re ready. Remember, it’s a practice. Don’t expect immediate results.
In the next chapter I will talk about the other primary love life function: giving love. These two functions coexist and form the reciprocity of love in a healthy love relationship. I’ll go further into the topic of reciprocal loving in the next chapter, but suffice to say here, reciprocity in a love relationship is basically the two acts of giving and receiving love, but not always in that order. In a healthy love relationship both persons are giving and receiving love. The relationship is robust: You have two people not only practicing some form of healthy self-love or self-esteem, but also giving and receiving love in a somewhat balanced fashion. When it works, it is not magic. It is the result of awareness, practice, and the conscious application of the lessons on love you have been reading about so far. Let’s continue!
Healthy giving in a love relationship involves accurately perceiving the needs of the person you love. Imagine this: You’ve taken the time to think about what the person you love needs to grow or strengthen. The fact that it matters enough to do this little bit of research is your first act of love. It means you’ve gone beyond your own need for love to think seriously about the emotional, physical, and even spiritual needs of your partner. This is the first step toward healthy giving in love. It’s the first bit of selflessness that is required to start the ball rolling in the direction of real giving. Contrary to some of my colleagues, I believe that this particular love life ingredient requires a relearning—that it is something we once had, and lost. Why?
I believe we are all born into this world with both love functions ready to be utilized. Your abilities to give and receive love are innate. They are no doubt shaped and developed by life experience and the requirements of adulthood, but they are functional from the beginning. Your ability to receive love will be the easiest to spot when you are very young. Your capacity to give love is less discernable but not invisible, if you know where to look. Even very young child are ready and willing to respond to the emotional needs of their caregivers. They recognize in no small way that survival may depend upon it. This earliest form of giving tends to be a sympathetic recognition of the parent’s emotional needs. In fact, this is how the whole love system can be corrupted: when needy parents take advantage of children willing to self-sacrifice to save them.
So let’s say you’ve thought about what your loved one needs to grow and thrive—not what you think they should need or what you want them to need or even need them to need. You took an accurate reading of their genuine needs. On a special and loving occasion, you might choose to sacrifice what you need to focus on what he or she needs. It’s a unilateral love experience from you to him or her. It’s a moment of giving without the burden of self-interest. There are a few people out there who think this is impossible. These love life cynics believe that love is always tainted with self-interest no matter what. I am not one of them.
Before going any further you should know something about me. I’m a love life optimist. I believe that it is in human nature to be able to give selflessly. I believe that selfless giving in love is within the grasp of most human beings. The problem is that most people can’t sustain it. It’s momentary and unrecognized when undeveloped and momentary and repetitive when practiced. In any case, the implications of this part-time selfless giving are very hopeful. Episodes of selfless giving mixed in with standard reciprocity are the makings for a healthy love life.
As you think about the emotional and physical needs of the one you love, remember that what you are about to give may or may not be what she or he wants or desires. The focus here is on what he or she needs. In some instances what is needed is not only undesired, it’s also downright unexpected. For example, sometimes you have to say the little word no to the one you love because you know in your heart of hearts that what is being requested is no good for him or her. Like if you and I were in love and I asked you for money and you knew I was going to do something self-destructive with it. Who are you to decide that? Just a person who is in love! So, for this to work you’ll have to have a pretty accurate understanding of what is and isn’t needed. It’s not hard to reach these conclusions when you love someone.
Let’s assume that most of the time, what you are giving is at least enjoyable to the one you are giving it to. It’s not all cod liver oil. Your partner will automatically feel your love each time you practice giving in this way. But what about the off-time, the time when you are not giving in a selfless way? Remember our discussion about self-care in your love life. You guessed it: You are taking extra-good care of yourself. You are giving to yourself. This is not selfishness at all: and the reason I can say this with certainty is because you are already practicing selfless giving. If you combine episodes of selfless giving and reciprocal intimacy with a little giving to yourself, as well, the final product sounds pretty complete to me.
The beauty of this recipe is that you are taking care of yourself while you are taking care of the one you love. No chance of self-depletion or burnout here. But that’s not all. Not only are you practicing selfless giving and self-love intermittently, you are also open to whatever love is being given by your very grateful and appreciative partner. You see self-depletion and burnout as the unavoidable consequences of full-time selfless loving. In my experience, an endless diet of selflessness will guarantee only unhappiness. Apart from all the flowery or noble assumptions about endless unilateral love, the reality is that you will burn out unless something replenishes your heart. Receiving love from someone that loves you and giving love to yourself are two great and efficient ways to do just that.
Now how about that feedback loop you occasionally hear about when people tell you that a giver always gets something from the act of giving? What I’m talking about doesn’t come from someone else. It’s a built-in renewal feature within the act of selfless giving. But exactly how is giving love replenishing? Is it in the simple act of giving, as when you give to someone and you feel good about yourself for doing it? Or does the positive impact of what you’ve given bounce back to you in some other way that’s hard to understand? Or how about giving to another person in a selfless way fills you with double the love you gave away? Whatever it is, the effect is real.
In this chapter we started with the healthy forms of giving in love. Let’s talk a bit more about what happens when your ability to give is undeveloped or sick. In the last chapter I introduced the two primary ways your giving can get corrupted. The first is when you learn to give too much, and the other is when you learn to give too little. If you are giving too much, you are what I’ve dubbed an “extreme caregiver.” The extreme caregivers among us are people who give too much to others while at the same time neglecting themselves. This particular brand of self-sacrifice guarantees eventual burnout. Burnout basically means depleting yourself to zero. You have no more to give. Due to the absence of giving, which functioned as a defense against fully realizing the limitations of a caregiver lifestyle, you start to feel the frustration and disappointment you have been running away from all these years.
The extreme caregivers I have worked with in my practice have taught me that underneath all their giving, mingling with the disappointment that no one considers their needs for love, is the secret hope that they can transform the recipient of their giving into a giver. Extreme caregivers believe their giving is powerful enough to satisfy a loved one’s needs for love so much that he or she will want to return some of that love by giving back. It never happens. The only predictable thing that happens is burnout.
In fact, the people who are attracted to extreme caregivers will illustrate the second way the giving function can get corrupted. I call these individuals “extreme caretakers.” Extreme caretakers are notorious for giving too little or nothing at all in their relationships with people. These are the so-called narcissists of the world. These are people who are stuck on the hope of getting as much as they can get from whomever, wherever, whenever they can get it. Other people exist to satisfy the extreme caretaker’s need for love. These caretakers are interested in free love in any manifestation. They are insatiable. Part of the problem is they are looking for the love that will either replicate the dependency they experienced in their past or correct the loss or absence of love in their lives. Either way, what they are asking for can never be found.
This disappointment exists for a simple reason: No one gets to relive his or her childhood. One shot at childhood is all you get. One shot is all anyone gets. If you are looking for a replay, you’ll waste lots of time, find yourself in disappointing love relationships, and never get beyond your past. When a devoted caretaker burns out on the search for childhood love, the first predictable response is frustration, sometimes followed by anger, and eventually a general feeling of unhappiness. Finally, when the sadness of loss takes over—the grief we talked about earlier—an opportunity opens. The opportunity is to release the demand for a do-over. Depression and other emotional complications are mitigated by recognizing the need to grieve the loss and move on. Otherwise, this preoccupation with taking and getting the love that was lost will retain the power to block out every possibility of real reciprocity in a love relationship. Extreme caretakers—the ones who realize they’ll never be happy trying to get what they didn’t get years ago—and extreme caregivers –- the ones who realize they won’t get with self-sacrifice the love they didn’t get earlier in life — both have a chance to grieve the loss of love in childhood and recover their ability to give and receive love in a healthy relationship.
The great thing about this is we all have the opportunity to liberate our ability to give and receive love from all the conflicts and complications that have gotten mixed up with these two love functions earlier in our lives. So now as an adult you can identify the problems and make the corrections in what has complicated an experience of giving and receiving love in a more balanced and healthy way. If you take on this challenge, you will succeed once again in making your love life autonomous and more fully your own, freed from all the love life disappointments you were hanging onto. Think of it, finally now as an adult person you’re learning how to have your very own love life! What could be better than that? Keep going.
Let’s start by stating the obvious. Love hurts. Have you ever contemplated why this thing we are all looking for, whether we admit it or not, can hurt so much? In fact, that’s the biggest problem anyone has with love—getting over the hurt. It is so common to get hurt in love and swear off love for an indefinite period of time. This is surely a measure of how much it can hurt. For some people, once is enough. Many people don’t know how to heal the wounds, and end up keeping their distance from love for long periods of time. In this chapter, I will talk about the pains of love. Let’s think about why love hurts. If these thoughts encourage you to reflect on how you personally handle the love hurts in your life, this chapter will be a success.
I can remember the weekend my girlfriend, now my wife, was going to move into my bachelor pad. I was already middle-aged and joyfully uncomfortable with the plan. Luckily I had a session with my doctor just prior to the move. I remember being anxious and trying to describe to him the mixture of emotions I was experiencing in anticipation of this change. After listening for a while, he asked me what I was afraid of. I replied emphatically, “She could move in and then leave me.” He thought for a moment then said these words, “Where did you get the idea you could be in love and not get hurt?” I can’t fully describe to you the impact this question had on me. For most of my conscious life I had been trying to defend against the hurts of love. This guy, my confidante and advisor, was telling me it was futile.
At last, I was finally learning that the objective in love should not be how to avoid hurt, but how to learn from and heal the hurt that will inevitably occur. In this chapter I’ll talk about what you can learn from the hurt. The healing part of this experience, we’ll discuss in the next chapter. My personal and professional research in this area has taught me that there are two general types of hurt in love: the hurt of difference in love, and the hurt of loss in love. When you fall in love, in most cases, it will be with another person. Why state the obvious? Because the intensity of falling in love can make you forget the simple fact that there are two people involved. Having two people means two viewpoints, two opinions, two needs, and so on.
The twosome-ness of falling in love is where all the friction occurs. The dirty word is difference. Since falling in love is an experience of union, of coming together as “one,” differences are usually downplayed at first. They are overlooked but not absent. It’s a matter of perspective. During the honeymoon period after two people fall in love, differences are almost invisible, because similarity rules. Similarity is the driving force in new love experiences because the objective is union, togetherness, one heart with four legs . . . You get my meaning. When similarity is in charge, there are few disagreements and the two of you might even have the experience of completing each other’s thoughts and statements. It’s a great feeling, a honeymoon, like being high on drugs. This is precisely how most people experience the first phase of falling in love.
The problem starts when similarity wanes and difference emerges. It’s inevitable that you can’t be high forever. A more realistic phase of your love relationship is waiting for you when you come down. The next thing you’ll realize is that there are two distinct and different individuals in the room. The twosome is there in your relationship to greet you. When you make the shift to this state of mind, the differences between you and the person you fell in love with come rushing into your awareness. Now I’m not telling you difference is a bad thing. In fact it’s difference that holds the key to the future of your relationship. Fundamentally, we’re all unique. Learning how to have a love relationship when two unique people are involved is a worthy challenge.
So, the love ball began rolling with similarity, but eventually, it reaches the differences. Now, I happen to believe that one of the biggest benefits that comes with difference is the deep realization you are in love with a separate and definable person. You are not alone. Think about it: it’s the differences that are going to make you aware of the fact that you are truly in a relationship with another human being. His or her presence is now directly felt. In fact, you’ll feel the differences I’m talking about the most during the inevitable disagreements between the two of you. Nevertheless, differences can hurt. But why?
Up until now we’ve been defining love as similarity. Now we need a definition of love based on difference. Too many people think difference signals an end to being in love. This isn’t necessarily so. A person can emerge in a relationship over time, speaking his or her mind more directly over the course of the relationship. Depending upon how you look at it, this could be the true measure of intimacy in a love relationship. If you see differences as a sign that love has left, you will probably become defensive. If you see differences as a sign of growing intimacy, you’ll experience it as closeness and behave accordingly. Yet too many love relationships break down when differences show up after the honeymoon.
To work with differences in your love relationship, you must learn the art and science of compromise. When a compromise is made, two people revise what they want by agreeing to get some of what they want and letting go of the rest. So, now you have two people in love, both getting some of what they originally wanted. The compromise is sealed with a promise to each other to abide by this negotiated agreement. Compromises make differences manageable. If you think about it, compromise is really an act of love. You love your partner enough to give up some of what you wanted—and vice versa—for the sake of the love relationship.
The second type of hurt in love is the pain of loss. Losses in love can occur in many different forms. Loss can occur as an experience of rejection inside or outside of a love relationship. Even jealousy can be experienced as an anticipated loss. Then there are the breakups, separations, divorces, and tragic experiences of losing a partner through accident or illness. When love is lost, it hurts. The reason for the pain is you’ve lost the attachment you’ve formed with the person you love. When you dissect your love attachment, you can expect to find your need for love. This need for love is human, as is the underlying drive to form love attachments. You might also find a couple of other items in there that exacerbate the pain you feel when your attachment is lost.
For example, you might find your personal history of disappointing or lost love. This past experience, when compounded with the current experience of loss, can deepen and complicate your suffering. Things can get awfully intense and emotionally confusing when the old hurts are mixed with the new. You might even find you have an emotional dependency on the person you could or did lose. Dependency in a current love relationship indicates that some past experiences are active in your love life. Dependency usually means there is more going on than just a frustrated need for love. These are the kinds of experiences that represent an unhealthy hope that current love relationships can correct past losses. Hurt is always more intense and prolonged when a dependent relationship is lost.
Coping with the loss of love requires an ability to grieve. For the overall health of a love relationship, you might decide to revisit Chapter Four for a review of how important it is to grieve a loss. The primary objective is to endure the full process of letting go. It’s like releasing your grip on a valuable object you are holding tight in your hand. You know you have to let go, but understandably, you resist. Grieving the loss of love is the experience of releasing your grip, one finger at a time, until your hand is open. Once released, lost love fades, and your hands are open to the possibility of receiving a new love.
What happens if you resist a constructive approach to the pains of love? The short answer is you get defensive. Psychological defenses are the things we think, feel, and do that seem like they can protect us from being hurt again in love. Notice, I said seem. Your defenses might not be working as you intended them to. In fact, they often don’t work at all. But they may seem like a good thing to do at the time, when you are hurting. You can get addicted to the false security of a particular defense, however, and have a hell of a time giving it up. A few common psychological defenses against future wounds are distance, control, and criticism. Distance is pretty understandable. Your heart is broken and you stay away from opportunities to fall in love again. There are a million and one ways to be distant. You could stay away from love relationships completely. You can be in relationships but hold your emotions at a distance. Or you could start a relationship up close then run for the hills when the intimacy becomes intolerable. Your defensive objective is to avoid hurt in love at all costs. You assume you are going to get hurt again. In fact, you’re predicting it.
Control is a particularly difficult defense—so difficult, in fact, that it is featured in a couple of later chapters. By way of preview, there is a dual problem of too much self-control and ill-fated attempts to control the person you are in love with. Either way (or both), control is the antithesis of love and inevitably stifles its growth. If you are into control, you are trying to manage whatever anxiety or discomfort you are feeling with something a bit more aggressive than distance. Control as a defensive move can deteriorate into mistreatment and abuse under the right circumstances. But I’ll save that discussion for later.
Criticism is another defense against the pains of love, and is more closely related to control than distance. If you are critical of the person you love or lost, you are actively trying to manage the emotional effects he or she is having on you. Putting a person you love down is a doomed effort to diminish his or her impact. Most critical people I’ve met were afraid of love. To the critical person, love was a kind of x-ray vision: It gave the loved one the ability to see right through him or her. That’s certainly dangerous if there are a few things about yourself you don’t particularly like. Criticism and its vile first cousin, blame, are efforts to keep the focus off of yourself to diminish the chances of feeling ashamed.
The hurts of love are the single biggest reason there is not enough love in this world. Too many people feel ill prepared to risk additional hurt once love has been disappointing. The message in this chapter is you can do better than run away from love because you’ve been hurt. The more you understand heartbreak and what to do about it the better able you will be to survive the uneven growth of love in a relationship. This chapter and the next were created with this purpose in mind. In addition to understanding the psychological experience of hurt and the ways we humans respond to it, the next chapter will introduce you to another very important healing response to hurt: The art and science of forgiving and forgetting. Take a look.
When your heart has been bruised or broken, you have the option to heal the relationship by forgiving. Forgiving someone means that you are giving him or her a pardon. This act of giving allows the relationship to continue. The problem is that forgiveness is not complete unless you forget the offense. Most people, however, react to this idea by reminding me that it is better not to forget offenses against you. That way you can be prepared for whatever may come in the future. In fact, you’ll probably remind me that the only way you can learn to change, so that whatever happened will never happen again, is to never forget your lover’s transgression.
Only if your relationship with the offending person is not about love, I would only then recommend to you never forget what happened. In fact, you should keep the event in mind, going over it until you are assured you have learned your lesson.
If, however, the offender is someone you love—or even more so, someone you are in love with—then we should take a closer look at forgiveness. Without forgetting the offense, you offer only inadequate forgiveness. But why? Without a willingness to forget, your act of forgiveness is founded on a defensive anticipation that the offense will happen again. You forbid the memory from decaying because you predict that the same thing might happen again, and you’re ready for it.
The first task is to genuinely heal the hurt you feel, so that you may complete your act of forgiveness. Unhealed hurt is a constant reminder. Once that hurt feeling is healed, then the memory of the offense can decay. Until then, you’ll be defensively anticipating further hurt. This is just the way the human heart functions. When you allow yourself to complete the act of forgiving and forgetting, you get a chance to return to the feeling of love that existed before you got hurt. Of course there’s risk. The forgetting part means you’ve relinquished your defensive expectation of more offenses and made your heart vulnerable again to hurt. In doing so, you’ve also made yourself vulnerable again to love.
I am used to people resisting this idea. I once sat with a woman who separated from her husband, feeling that he had betrayed her. She told me that after a long period of reconciliation they decided to live again under the same roof. She was emphasizing the fact that she had decided to forgive him. I reinforced her choice, telling her I thought she was showing love to her husband by forgiving him. She agreed. Then I said, maybe she will find it in her heart at some point to forget what happened and move on to a more comfortable and relaxed relationship. She turned her head suddenly and looked me squarely in the eye and said, “Why would I do that?” I told her by forgetting what happened she could return to being in love. She shook her head no and told me that she would never trust him again like that. Then she proceeded to tell me all the different ways she was protecting herself now that her husband had moved back in. She told me she would never be vulnerable like that again.
To this day, my patient is still very hurt, even though she has healed enough to live with her husband again. Her defensive anticipation of future hurt makes it impossible for her to return to the previous level of relaxed openness she experienced in her marriage before the offense. You might wonder why would she even want to. I argue that only then will she trust her husband enough to experience the deep love she has for him. If she remains defensive, the love she is capable of experiencing will be diluted with defensiveness, expectation of hurt, and caution. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that she is still hurt, and that the memory of betrayal is alive and well in their relationship.
Full healing of a bruised or broken heart brings you back to the state of maximum vulnerability: the absence of defensiveness. Yes, it’s a risk. Yes, you might get hurt again. Yes, it’s a choice you’ll make based on your feelings and a subjective judgment of need—your need for his or her love. To achieve this mental state of maximum vulnerability after an offense to the heart requires an experience of letting go. This letting-go experience is intuitively known to every human being with the capacity to fall in love. You have the native ability to open your heart, even after closing it in response to an offense.
A big part of the healing experience requires the courage to challenge your fear. Injury to your heart can hurt so much that the memory of the incident persists as a self-protective trigger, shutting you down so that no one can get inside of you again—or at least not for now. From this point on, anxiety emerges when you encounter someone who could rattle your love cage; fear emerges just before your legs start moving safely away. Challenging this defensive reaction means first deciding to resist the fear. It means you recognize that you can handle the experience of love more than you initially thought. It means that you are consciously deciding to respond in an unusual way to the same old fear of getting hurt.
You might also want to keep your past disappointments in love out of your current love relationship. I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed, but disappointments in love tend to stick together. What happened to you when you were young is not the responsibility of the person you are currently in love with. This may seem obvious, but there are so many people who are unaware that their current feelings are infected with unresolved feelings from previous relationships. A telltale sign that the “infection” has progressed so far as to threaten its host is that urge to explode with emotion over the littlest offense. If you sense that the feelings you’re having are way out of proportion to your partner’s offense, you might want to consider going for a reflective walk.
A criticism I’ve received for pushing forgiveness in love with or without forgetting often comes in the form of the question: “How about when you aren’t supposed to forgive, no less forget, because you are being abused?” Indeed, this is a different case. There are intentional hurts and unintentional hurts in love. If you are being intentionally hurt, all bets are off. No one should consider forgiving and forgetting an intentional wound—the only thing that matters here is stopping the mistreatment or abuse. If you stay in the relationship, fully aware of your mistreatment, you’ll have to set a limit or two: some kind of consequence if further abuse occurs. If you’ve had enough and you are leaving the relationship, your leaving is the limit, and you should focus on avoiding a repetition in the next love relationship.
If the hurt you’ve experienced was unintentional, not premeditated, and not recurrent, have a little empathy. You are the victim of someone else’s unconscious circumstances. Chances are, it was truly an accident or an error. Remember everything you’ve learned about forgiving and forgetting. Forgiveness starts once you’ve heard the apology. You should feel that it’s sincere. A sincere apology usually indicates that the person who hurt you loves you and is open to learning. You may have already figured out that he or she still loves you; maybe you never doubted it. It’s the open-to-learning part that is your signal. When someone who loves you apologizes with sincerity and is willing to learn the particulars of what, where, when, how, and why you felt hurt, first teach him or her, then forgive, and finally forget.
FREEING YOURSELF TO LOVE
Chapter 10: Learning to Communicate in Love
To be in love in a healthy way requires communication—not just any old communication, but good communication about feelings. Now if you don’t have much practice talking about what you feel, communicating your feelings is going to be uncomfortable until you get good at it. Look at it as a practice that improves over time. This project is a worthwhile one because talking about feelings, whether they are yours or someone else’s, will permit you to deepen intimacy and solve many of the problems that come up in a love relationship. Before we get into the nuts and bolts of improving your ability to communicate your feelings in love, let’s talk a little bit about the different kinds of communication that are possible in the experience of love.
My research has revealed three kinds of possible communication in a love relationship: sympathy, empathy, and language. We’ll talk about each of these one at a time. Sympathy is the oldest and the least altered by society. You’re born with the ability to sympathize with another human being. In fact, this particular form of communication about feelings went on quite often between you and your caregivers when you were an infant. Language was not involved, nor a premeditated intention to communicate your feelings with someone. Sympathy just happens because you came into this world with the emotional equipment for it.
When you are communicating sympathetically, you are sending and receiving information about how you feel. It requires no effort, neither on your part nor on the part of the person you are communicating with. You can think of sympathy as a pre-wired emotional connection between human beings. It doesn’t matter who you are; the cabling is already wired. In fact, the feeling we call love usually shows up first as a sympathetic communication. The problems start when this ancient form of exchange is disregarded over time. Much of the training and influences you’ll receive over the course of your life are geared toward shutting down, ignoring, or simply dulling much of the information you receive on this channel.
Love as a sympathetic emotion occurs or departs unpredictability and outside of our control. I enjoy telling people who are trying to control the emotion of love that you don’t do love—love does you. I think the dulling of sympathetic communication is a way of coping with the intensity of the information coming over this channel. Can you imagine what it would be like if you were fully in tune with the feelings of everyone you met, and vice versa? It would be overwhelming—though it seems sometimes that we’ve been trained too well, and live with too little sympathy for other people. Is this what permits us, to watch images of death and destruction so often without flinching?
My question to you is this: Has this diminished ability to discern and utilize sympathetic communication diminished our ability to love? I don’t know the answer for certain. But my guess is that it doesn’t help. Perhaps it has forced us to strengthen other forms of communication that are possible in love to compensate. I also wonder what would happen if this ability to communicate sympathetically were strengthened and used more effectively. It is possible to become more aware of the communication occurring along this interconnection with others. If you learn to make regular inquiries into how you are feeling when interacting with people, you can increase your awareness of feelings communicated sympathetically just by being in someone’s presence.
Another form of communication in love occurs when you put yourself in someone else’s experience. This is called empathy. This type of communication is more deliberate than sympathy. If I’m in love with you I can try to put myself in your shoes to experience the feelings you are having, so that I can better understand you. Empathy is not limited to people in love; it’s just more intense when love exists. The ability to empathize develops during our early experiences of being loved. It exists because someone loved you enough to empathize with you; in other words, this capacity can remain undeveloped if you’ve missed the experience of being loved when you were young. The good news is you can develop empathy at any age as long as an intimate relationship is involved.
People with a developed ability to empathize with others are “lovers” in the truest sense of that word. They are living their lives, making a conscious effort to understand and experience the emotions of the people they love most. When someone directs his or her empathy to you, it’s felt. Empathizing with another person is a shorthand way of saying, “I love you.” As the recipient of this love you are left with the feeling that this person values you enough to love you this way. There are certain classes of people, such as children, the elderly, and the sick who are quite easy to empathize with. All three groups tend to wear their emotions on their sleeves so it doesn’t take much to identify with them.
In a healthy love relationship a gift of love can be given to your partner by taking the time and making the effort to discern his or her feelings about something. In such moments, he or she will feel your presence directly. Repeated moments of empathy given to the person you love are a powerful way of nurturing the love relationship on a daily basis. In fact, in most healthy relationships, an empathic experience is appreciated to such an extent that the recipient is often driven to return the favor. Imagine, two people in love, motivated to induce experiences of empathy for each other, year after year—they are keeping their love healthy and strong, as surely as if they were fanning a fire that is kept perpetually burning in a cozy fireplace.
From here we go to the learned language of love. Language is less directly expressive of love and susceptible to manipulation and deception. On its own, language expresses emotion at a distance because it is basically a representation of experience. Language becomes powerful when coupled with sympathetic communication, empathic communication—or both. It becomes a representation of the experience of love that can capture the moment, however temporary, in words. Like taking a photo of an important moment in time, language permits you to re-experience important events and feelings later. But that’s not all. Language also offers the possibility of reciprocal intimacy using one of the most powerful phrases of love: “I love you.” In a healthy love relationship lovers engage in reciprocal exchange, speaking and listening. The value of language as a communication in love is most notable when feelings are talked about and listened to, especially feelings about your relationship.
A willingness to share your articulated feelings, whatever they might be, with another person is an intimate act. The same holds true for your willingness to listen when someone expresses his or her feelings to you. These two acts combined deepen intimacy, that is, the extent to which two people have truly gotten to know each other. If you are in love with someone and intimate with him or her, you’ve achieved the most advanced state of human loving. Basically you are in love with a person and trying to know who he or she is at the level of his or her unique individuality. You can’t get much deeper than that.
The healthiest and most vibrant love relationships are established by the experience of falling in love, with conscious and deliberate efforts to draw out the two unique people involved by the mutual practice of intimacy. If you find that you have stopped learning something new about the person you are in love with, the intimacy in your relationship may have stalled. You might not be taking the time or making the effort to deepen what you know about each other. If it feels like work, make yourself do it. The rewards will reinforce the idea of mutual intimacy as an ongoing practice in your relationship.
By the way, there are two topics of particular importance for the health of a love relationship: your feelings of hurt and the influences of your families of origin. The practice of putting your hurt feelings into words for the purpose of telling someone you love you are hurt gives the two of you access to apology, forgiveness, and forgetting. These actions allow you and your partner to cleanse your relationship of the emotional contaminants that can collect over time. On a more practical level, if you both know what hurts you both can apply whatever balms are necessary to cure the occasional injuries that take place in your love. Expect that this exercise will always involve some anxiety and discomfort. Love is worth the risk. Expect to be vulnerable to further hurt or love as an inevitable consequence of staying open to love.
Getting into the habit of talking about your respective families of origin to each other will be immensely useful over the course of your relationship. Just as identifying what hurts can cure what hurts, alerting each other to the positive and negative influences that derive from your families of origin will be a love-saver. When two people fall in love they bring with them all the baggage they have accumulated over the course of their lives. It happens to everyone. Whether the influences from your family are beneficial is another matter. Now that we’ve established unequivocally that these influences exist, we can move on to whether or not they are helping or hurting your love relationship.
I always assume that only a portion of what I’ve learned at home, my original home, will be useful to me in my love life. The remainder I usurped from my parents’ love lives and has no business in mine. Who knows how much to take and leave behind when you’re young? In most cases, people take more than they need and more than what truly belongs to them. The trouble starts when these influences, which could be as simple as whatever you learned about love in your family of origin (see Chapter Three) get introduced unawares into your adult relationships. The fact that these family influences are both difficult to identify and release is a consequence of your attachment to them as things you took from “home sweet home” regardless of whether it was sweet or not.
First and foremost, these influences from home will often show up in the form of assumptions or expectations about your partner, about yourself, and about your love relationship. Basically the things you would have learned from the examples set by your family and the relationships you experienced in your family. Remember, these influences—whether helpful to your love life or not—are active in the background of your love life for as long as you remain unaware of their presence. Ask yourself, is your baggage helping you read your love relationship accurately? These kinds of backroom influences will often distort and obscure your experience of love in the present. This is why they are so important to talk about whenever they show up. To complicate matters, your partner is doing the exact same thing with his or her family baggage. Another big question concerns the mix of baggage and what kinds of emotional experience that mixture is creating for the two of you.
Let’s say I emerge from my family of origin with a caregiving and controlling personality shaped to whatever extent by the model provided to me by my parents. I marry a person who grew up in a family that demanded a passive response to parental authority. It is pretty easy to predict that I will co-create a love relationship where I dominate and my partner frequently capitulates to my demands. The downside is the resentment and boredom I will experience while having to be in control, matched by my partner’s passive-aggressive reactions and resentment of having to stifle autonomy and independence to be in our relationship. If at least one of us is willing to ask questions about where we learned to behave in the ways we do, we might learn to talk without defensiveness about the differences between what we brought with us from the past and what we found in our relationship.
I hope I’ve convinced you that in love it is necessary to acknowledge and use all three channels of communication. As we discovered, there are differences between them, but they are all important components of an experience of depth in love. Let’s face it, love thrives on communication. Communicating about what you feel with someone you’re in love with, whether it be in words, in a directed experience of comprehending each other’s feelings, or simply by exchanging the feeling of love together, works to establish and renew your bond. Now that you are doubly aware of its importance in your love life, you can start practicing, communing with all the people you love as soon as possible.
A healthy love relationship requires two people be growing their independence together. Independence is not something that you get automatically when you leave your family as a young adult. It comes in two forms: physical independence and emotional independence. You can be physically independent and not yet emotionally independent. Physical independence means you are physically living apart from your family of origin. You’ve left home. You are trying your hand at living as an adult. Usually physical independence takes a little time to get used to. Some people do it in stages. Others try it once, return home, and try it again later on. This effort may reoccur a few times before he or she has fully launched. If you think about it, your family’s primary objective should be to launch its children into the adult world. Preparing offspring to be physically independent (when they are ready) is an important part of that process.
Emotional independence involves the degree to which a person is psychologically differentiated from other people in his or her family. Since your family is very involved in teaching you things about life and love, much of what you believe about yourself, other people, and about life in general will be swayed by their beliefs. When you are emotionally independent, what you believe and how you live becomes a choice. You’ve taken what you left home with psychologically and subjected it to choice. As an emotionally independent adult, the beliefs you hold are the ones you have chosen for yourself.
This is the way your life becomes your own. There are plenty of things a loving family teaches its children—lessons you might decide to hang onto and even pass along to your children someday. Likewise, some of those beliefs might not suit you, so you leave them behind. This is the psychological process of becoming emotionally independent. I’m making a big deal out of this because independence, both physical and emotional, is crucial in your love life. The more independent you are, the healthier your love life will be.
The culprit interfering with a healthy love life is physical and/or emotional dependency. I’ll tell you why. Dependency exists when a person reaches adulthood physically but still “feels like a child,” psychologically. I say feels like a child because I believe this is only a subjective sense, with no basis in reality. Adults who feel like children, or even act like children, are certainly not children. Time and aging deem it so. They are adults who are resisting adulthood. Under the right conditions this resistance can be dropped and peace be made with the fact of maturation. But that’s a different matter. The point is, if you are physically and/or emotionally dependent you will have an exceedingly difficult time with love as an adult.
Now what is it about dependency that messes up a love relationship in adulthood? To answer this question I first have to ask, “Why would a person remain dependent after adulthood is reached?” Well, they don’t want to leave home for some reason. You can stay behind when it’s time to exercise your independence because you’ve either gotten too much love or not enough love. If someone in your family doted on you and satisfied your every need, you won’t have much incentive to leave, will you? For one thing, you’ll never get that kind of treatment anywhere else. For that reason alone you’ll hesitate to separate yourself from your family. On the other hand, if you didn’t get enough of what you needed growing up you might stick around because you’re hoping the situation will change someday and you’ll finally get what you deserve.
Either way, too much or not enough, you’ll experience a disappointment that discourages independence. When there was too much love, the disappointment comes from the outside world: It will never replicate what your family has given you. If there was not enough love, the disappointment comes from unmet needs at home: You will wait around, hoping something changes. Of course, most people courageously break out and try their hand at independence while struggling inside with various levels of disappointment and dependency. So what happens in your love life when this kind of struggle is going on?
People with dependency issues tend to unconsciously set up parent–child relationships in their love lives. It takes two people to set up a parent–child relationship. In this dynamic, one person gets to play the parent and the other gets to play the child. Not to say these roles are not reversible, but ordinarily they’re fixed. When two adults cooperate in setting up a parent–child relationship they are both motivated to revisit the disappointments of their respective childhoods in their current, adult love relationship. One person gets to act like a parent, secretly hoping the child will someday give love back, and the other gets to act like the child who needs parenting, secretly hoping past loss or excess will be taken care of.
You can recognize this kind of emotional agenda in your love relationship when your dependency upon your lover encourages a dysfunction over time. For example, he or she might begin doing things for you (like financially supporting you when you are able-bodied) that you can do for yourself in the relationship. Over time, you’ll become less functional, now depending upon someone else to do certain things for you. You’ll begin to feel used to it. In some cases the actual ability to do that thing yourself wanes, and the motivation to do other things on your own decreases, too. Likewise, the over-functional partner “needs” to have this kind of control and dominance in order to feel comfortable. An internal conflict ensues between the sick gift of self-sacrifice and the resentment that naturally brews when a person has to give up autonomy in this way for “love.”
As I mentioned, this reenactment breeds a precarious secret hope. It creates the hope that you will be able to correct the disappointments of your past now, in the present. In the years that I have been working with disappointed people as a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst, I have never encountered a single person who successfully found the love they had lost in childhood. Instead, I have met and worked with people who were chronically disappointed in love because their attempts to find parent–child love in adulthood always ended in vain. Only those who realized that this effort was futile could begin to grieve the loss, let go of their hope, and learn how to be happy in their current adult relationships.
Independence in a healthy love relationship is not the distant, absence of involvement that some people maintain in their love lives. People who fear that love will become controlling and diminish their freedom usually stay at a distance and call their actions independent. This can only be pseudo-independence at best. Real independence in love is never distant. Real independence in love promotes giving and welcoming love that is offered, up close and personal. Independence in a love relationship means you are not invested in resolving the past. Your agenda is to develop the intimate satisfactions that are possible in an adult love relationship with another equally vulnerable human being in the present.
If you are keen to identify and counteract dependency in your love relationship, begin by keeping an eye out for any parent–child manifestations and their over-responsible and dysfunctional aftereffects in your relationship. Of course, this kind of vigilance is best accomplished mutually. As a shared project in your relationship you’ll be able to notice and articulate to each other any sign that your relationship is starting to feel like a reenactment of someone’s family-of-origin dynamics. For example, with diminished consciousness at the beginning of our marriage, I would occasionally find my “mother” in my wife’s behavior. Now that we’ve been married awhile she knows pretty quickly when she is being misperceived. Instead of the long, drawn-out, and sometimes unpleasant discussions of discovery we used to have, she will shake her head, and while walking away, say in a firm voice, “I am not your mother!” I can only chuckle to myself. I sometimes liken it to a reboot. And yes, I have returned the favor whenever one of her family members visits our relationship uninvited.
I’m sure you’ve noticed by now that I don’t expect your family of origin to teach you everything you’ll need to know about your love life. Let’s be realistic. Think of it this way, while you’re dependent upon your family, when they are the primary source of what you think and feel about the world you’re in, consider this your elementary school education. It’s a start but not nearly enough to get you to the point of managing yourself in the world. As time passes you’ll be developing and revising, and in some cases disputing earlier learning for what you will discover on your own later on. Your objective is to get your love life out from under everybody else’s expectations of what you should be and have and squarely onto that inner voice that tells you what really matters to you. Now you’re independent and your love life belongs to you. If you find yourself lagging behind, identify the drag and work on setting yourself free. Once you get over the nervousness, the feelings are exhilarating.
You were born spontaneous. You were born free—or at least free in terms of your expressiveness. As a baby, you were able to express your feelings uninhibited. At the beginning of your life this self-expression was vital. Your need for love and human contact was expressed as a demand for an emotional bond, and so you let people around you know when you needed something. Your native freedom was in your expressiveness. At some point in your later development, this natural uninhibited expressiveness was curtailed in favor of something responsive. Spontaneity became diluted with reflection and forethought. This is not a bad thing; in fact it is a necessary thing. It’s called civilization.
The problem is that extremes are never good for human beings. Some of the original ability to freely express yourself is necessary in your love life. You’ll be having feelings for the rest of your life, and those feelings are best realized and articulated. Unfortunately, a lot of inhibition is learned during your early development. We’re taught how to suppress our emotions whenever necessary. We’re taught to express them indirectly and distort them when needed. By the time we make it to adulthood, much of what we might think of as raw emotion is being filtered (triple filtered!) through all kinds of beliefs and expectations. The end result is a watered-down version of emotion that in many instances goes unnoticed, or even ignored and denied.
To be fair-minded about this, I will agree that feelings get in the way. You can expect it. Maneuvering around these emotional complications allows us to handle some critical situations effectively. I’m talking about situations where we simply have to put our feelings aside to get something done. Unfortunately, your love life is not one of them.
In your love life, the expression of feelings is not only useful but downright necessary. To spell out the scope and importance of what I’m talking about here, expressing feelings is also therapeutic—a key to resolving emotional problems and psychosomatic symptoms. In an uncomplicated love life, feelings require spontaneity for expression. It’s not something you can really plan to do, like other things in life. The expression of feelings in love can emerge and immediately make it to your vocal cords if you are uninhibited. To what extent this expression of feeling is articulated will depend on how much practice you have putting words to your emotions. Without language the spontaneous expression of feeling will be physical. This doesn’t mean you or your lover will have difficulty understanding what is being communicated. Facial expressions and gestures are excellent ways of getting feelings across to another human being. If you are not inhibited by excessive socialization, you’ll be able to spontaneously express emotion with a look, touch, noises, and gestures. Much of love is communicated nonverbally. These modes of communicating send all kinds of feelings over those sympathetic airwaves I mentioned earlier.
We could stop here and leave it up to Mother Nature to handle the spontaneity of expression in love. It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if we did. However, human beings have gotten in on the act and have plenty to say about love. Of course, the simplest form of spontaneous language about love is those three little words, “I love you.” Consider the magic in them. Some people might say they’re like a confession, best uttered only after tons of forethought. I disagree. I think that the best “I love yous” are said spontaneously, with little thought. In fact, something tells me if you have to think about it, there is something wrong.
So if I’m right, a sincere “I love you” emerges to language without forethought and is determined only by the feeling that has burst spontaneously into words. Somehow the feeling finds its way to the person you love with just enough language to give it form but not enough to inhibit it from being expressed. With practice, you’ll be able to co-opt even more language for the task of communicating your feelings of love. Since feelings are so very important to your health and welfare, relearning and practicing the art of freely and spontaneously communicating your feelings will be necessary to keep your love life healthy.
Let’s say that you’re convinced this will make you more successful in love. Now you want to relearn how to spontaneously communicate your feelings. How do you go about it? First, consider that you already knew how to do it easily at one time in your life. You’re not reinventing the wheel here. The objective is to get out of your own way. I am a firm believer in the idea that what you innately knew how to do has never left you. It might be buried under tons of mental debris, but it’s not gone—especially if it is an inborn characteristic. So, your objective is to re-access and reactivate it.
Besides talking to an understanding person you can trust, you can work on building spontaneity with spontaneous writing. You get to write without caring about grammar or spelling, while ridding yourself of as many inhibitions as you can get rid of, and expressing yourself with the confidence that no one will ever read this personal journal of yours. You are writing for yourself. Your job is to entice those fickle feelings of yours out onto the paper. The advantage of this temporary, intermediary form of written spontaneous expression is that you end up with a record. Once out on paper, you can go over what you’ve written and get yourself used to it. When you’re ready you can work on moving your emotions to spoken words. Start by looking at your feelings on the page and own them. They belong to you. You have a right to them, no matter what they are. Feelings can never be judged. They are never right or wrong. They are your feelings, and when you have them in love, they belong to your love relationship.
A lot of people struggle to accept this, but your feelings spontaneously expressed are the healthiest way to deal with problems in your love life. Expressing your feelings alone may not help you fix a particular relationship problem, but they will help keep you from transforming your unexpressed emotions into a bigger problem that affects your whole life. Take every opportunity to practice expressing your feelings to the people you love and don’t forget to include a little bit of humility when you do so. So many of the defensive things we do are meant to cover up our unexpressed hurt, frustration, or anger. In many cases, when feelings are spontaneously expressed to a lover who has hurt us, the problem can be identified and solved. And it almost goes without saying, learning how to spontaneously express the joys of love is a great way to enhance the experience of shared love. That’s the fun part.
Love is unnerving for most people. But for some people, love is downright scary. If you find yourself in this subgroup, you might be using the most common form of self-protection from the expected dangers of love: avoidance and distance. You’re staying away from love. At some time or another, most of us have used this particular defensive move in our love lives, even just a little—or a lot. If you are not using avoidance and distance to handle your fears of love, you might be refusing to stay away from something that scares you. Instead, you might be trying to do to love what most people try to do to things they want that scare them: control it. In a previous chapter we focused on self-control as a response to the fear of love; here, the emphasis is on controlling the person you are in love with.
Before we go into what happens to love when you try to control it, let’s talk about the kinds of things you might be afraid of. Expect to find a lot of overlap between one fear and another. The first big category of fear if you are a controller of love is the insecurity it can cause. Love is a fundamentally unpredictable and uncontrollable phenomenon, so if you have unresolved internal security issues love can tend to make you very uncomfortable. The objective is to control the person whom you perceive to be making you crazy. What usually gets overlooked and ignored is an understanding of why the insecurity exists in the first place. That, will no doubt take a little uncomfortable introspection.
Another big category of love fear is the fear of abandonment. This problem is an imagined one that may or may not come to fruition. As a controller of love you probably imagine that once you’ve fallen in love, the person loved will predictably abandon the relationship at some point in the future. This can be so strongly expected most likely for reasons in your personal history, the only alternative seems to be to control the loved one to prevent the abandonment. You can imagine the kinds of things that can start happening when a fear like this dominates your relationship. Suspicions lead to control, which leads to resisting control, which leads to more control . . . until the level of control escalates to emotional or physical imprisonment and/or abuse in a love relationship.
Some fearful controllers of love are afraid of getting hurt and the vulnerability to hurt they could experience. If you are in this category, recovering from hurt is an arduous journey fraught with doubt and discouragement. You may have had a few painful prior disappointments in love that have convinced you to avoid getting hurt at all costs. So you forfeit a more relaxed and loving relationship for the tempting safety of control. Controlling urges obliterate the possibility of true intimacy and love. Instead, the relationship is about dominance: one person in total control and another person being totally controlled.
The last type of fear is the fear of being controlled because of unresolved experiences of abuse in your past. If this is your motivation, you are basically trying to get the jump on being controlled, forcing it on a loved one rather than the other way around. No doubt you have good reasons to fear control. In your experience, control in a love relationship meant some kind of mistreatment or abuse was coming down the pike. So you’ve decided, not really consciously, to solve the conflicts this problem creates in your love life by entrapping the person you love so as to control what you yourself fear. You are a victim of past abuse who has identified with your abuser, and now are acting it out with your own victim. To be fair, if this is what you are experiencing I strongly suspect that you haven’t really reflected on the issues involved. You are just blindly doing to someone else what was done to you as a way of dealing with past trauma.
To sum up, past disappointments in love can be (and often are) the source of repetitive disappointments in the present. The primary reason is that those past hurts are unresolved. Whatever pains you’ve endured in love—unless you have properly settled them by grieving the losses and letting them go—they will keep popping up in your love life. It’s like your heart is skipping on the same unfinished business over and over again like a scratched record. Your heart is trying to alert you to the fact that some kind of emotional closure is needed to put this particular love disappointment to rest. For whatever reason, the fact is, unresolved love life disappointment gets replayed over and over again in your present love relationships.
For those of you who tend to find yourself on the recipient end of a controlling relationship, let’s discuss a few of the common forms of control that are possible. Be aware, all of them are red flags. Starting with the less violent of the love controls, at least in my own judgment, is the financial control of one person by another. This is a bit more than a couple deciding that one person in the relationship gets to pay the bills. Financial control involves one person dominating the finances in a relationship or marriage. Without free access to the shared money source in the relationship, the victim of this kind of control is being forced into financial dependence. Many victims of financial control grow out of this position when they become employed, or else realize the nonmonetary contributions they make are just as valuable as the financial activities of the dominant partner.
Next on our list of love relationship controls is manipulation and exploitation. To be manipulated means to be made to do something against your will by somewhat subtle means, such as being lied to, deceived, influenced or cajoled in ways that do not consider your needs or welfare. To be exploited means to be “used” by someone you love for his or her own personal gain, again ignoring your will, needs and welfare. The key concept is that it’s against your will and does not consider your welfare. As a victim of manipulation and exploitation in a love relationship you are being controlled by the person you love. Of course, the easiest way to put a stop to this kind of thing is to confront your manipulator or exploiter. The problem is, however, that as a chronic victim of manipulation and exploitation in a love relationship you are probably uncomfortable directly communicating your feelings to someone you love. Positive change will require a little risk-taking on your part.
To discuss the next type of control, I have to use a made-up a word to describe the interpersonal experience of guilt. A person can be “guilted,” i.e., being made to feel guilt. The person who attempts to create guilt, we’ll call the “guilter.” In essence, to be guilted means that someone is trying to create guilt to influence and control your thoughts, feelings, or actions. This is fundamentally a form of emotional abuse because it is an attempt to control you by influencing your conscience against your will. “Look what you’ve made me do!” “If it wasn’t for you I would have had a happier life!” These two statements and a million more are examples of being guilted.
When you’re guilted, you are made to feel bad about yourself and therefore more pliable in the guilter’s personal agenda. When guilt is applied frequently enough, you can imagine the damage that can occur over time to your self-esteem. Eventually, as a victim of guilting you’ll begin to absorb the negative view of yourself that is embedded in the guilt you are getting. The only way out of this kind of toxic interaction is to reattribute the responsibility for what you are being guilted for back to the guilter. “I’m not the one with that made you do it—you did!” “I didn’t make you forfeit a happier life—you did!”
From here we go to blaming. Now the control is getting more aggressive. It has moved on from trying to maneuver thoughts, emotions, or behavior, now aiming to make you feel directly responsible for something negative and to feel bad about yourself. A steady diet of blame over time assuredly erodes self-esteem and makes it easier for the blamer to control you.
A close cousin to blaming is bullying. Now control has begun to take on a physical form. People who bully intimidate and threaten physical abuse either directly or by implication. Chronic bullying in a love relationship usually involves a very insecure person trying to cope with love fears by asserting a threatening dominance over another in a relationship.
When things really get bad, a love relationship becomes overtly abusive. Abuse occurs because weaker forms of control failed to extinguish whatever is unacceptable to the abuser. For the most part, these forms of control in a relationship are criminal. The restricting of a lover’s physical mobility—or domestic imprisonment—is an effort to control emotional disturbance by limiting or removing a lover’s freedom of movement. The desperation in this action is obvious. Sexual abuse involves removing the freedom to say no to sexual activity. A sexually abusive lover disregards the will of his or her partner for the purpose of procuring personal pleasure stimulated by the real protestations and pain of the victim.
The most virulent form of control is the physical abuse that can occur in an unhealthy love relationship. The abuser uses pain as a controlling agent. A chronic pattern of physical abuse is meant to obliterate the victim’s individuality and provide the abuser with a way to vent his or her own frustrations and pain. Victims of chronic physical abuse often have poor self-esteem. They tolerate and accept abuse because of the influences they’ve been exposed to growing up, which have taught them to expect this kind of treatment in a love relationship. This early “training” coupled with poor self-esteem create a target for the abuser. The good news is that many victims of physical abuse outgrow the victim role, discovering a means to improve their self-esteem and challenge their false beliefs about love.
What we know for certain is that control, in any form, kills love. Freedom is one of the essential ingredients of a healthy love relationship. Without freedom of speech, choice, and action, resentment and resistance flourish. Love cannot be forced out of a person. Love is either given or it is not. There is no gray area in love. Love is either felt or it’s not. To accept that love cannot be controlled requires a basic sense of security within yourself. Without it, the potential or actual loss of love feels overwhelming and difficult—or impossible—to endure. This is the psychological experience of abusers in love. If we can see past their violent acts of control to understand the fear they are struggling with, there is a chance we can help them. This understanding of the abuser is always an important point of empowerment in the healing of a victim of abuse.
Many abusers are resistant to treatment for their behavior. Unfortunately, they will probably replicate painful, abusive relationships with more than one person over the course of their lives. Regardless, the greatest possibility of change occurs shortly after a victim of abuse has outgrown and left a relationship. At this point the abuser is most vulnerable to a positive influence. In my experience, most abusers are unaware of the extent of their capacity for change. Their first task is to figure out why love is so personally scary. Most abusers have a history of childhood abuse that is responsible for what they learned about love. If the abusive individual becomes capable of recognizing the pattern, there is a chance he or she can learn how to risk disappointment in love, achieve some faith in his or her ability to heal the hurts of love without control or violence, and practice tolerating the personal vulnerability required to have a healthy love relationship.
Oh, by the way, if after reading this chapter, you’ve reflected a bit on your own love life situation and think you’re being mistreated or abused in some way, don’t delay seek help. And that goes as well for abusers who’ve see the light. Remember the chapter on taking better care of yourself? Well, asking for help to stop abuse, to get yourself out of an abusive relationship, or stop abusing will be your declaration of independence. When you do something about it, you are giving love to the person who needs it the most, you. There are plenty of good people out there to let help you. Go ahead, drawing that line in the sand begins your recovery.
Chapter 14: Relearning to Be Honest in Love
Imagine, Cupid’s arrow is poised and ready to deliver the emergent feeling of love. But the little guy can’t quite find his target. This is precisely what happens when honesty is absent from a love relationship.
Honesty locates the heart. It locates the person you love. It’s impossible to love a dishonest person. Who would you love, anyway—the person being represented to you, or the real person hidden underneath the lie? This is the point. Dishonest lovers don’t want you to love the person who is hidden. They feel the need to hide, and want you to love the false person they are representing to you. And for you, it’s like being in love with an emotional phantom. Believe it or not, this is pretty common. To have a chance of loving a dishonest person, you first have to find a way to meet the real person underneath. If you’re dealing with a practiced deceiver, this is no easy task.
You were born into this world an honest and open being. For a healthy love relationship, we all can relearn some of this native honesty. As an infant, you were innocent and naïve, and you told the truth of your experience in the feelings you expressed to others, the gestures on your face, and whatever sounds or words you could muster. We’re all made to be honest and truthful. Honesty takes no effort. It takes a lot of energy and effort, however, to lie and maintain lies. The world corrupts us, teaching us to misrepresent our thoughts, feelings, and actions. Funny thing is, it is fundamentally healing to return to a state of honesty and truth. In my line of work, people get healthier when they risk the kind of honesty and truth-telling they were built to experience.
The beautiful thing about honesty is that it is a friendship value; something nurturing and stabilizing for a committed love relationship. Along with equality, freedom, and trust, honesty mixed with romance builds intimacy and makes for an enduring and healthy relationship. How about those lucky souls who get a chance to marry their best friends? This is the simplest prescription for a healthy love relationship I can think of. If you are lucky enough to fall in love with someone with whom you can cultivate friendship, you’ve got the makings for a deep and lasting love relationship.
Now what reasons could someone possibly have for practicing dishonesty in his or her love relationships? The common ones that come to mind are fear of rejection, manipulation or control, semiconscious hostility toward love, or fear of intimacy and closeness. The dishonest person practices the art of lying to avoid acknowledging one or more of these underlying reasons. There are two ways of lying. The first is by omission. A lie by omission simply means you are lying by leaving vital information out of what you are telling someone. What you leave out is essentially what worries you. Omitting information is an effort to manipulate the perception and understanding of the person you are talking to.
The second form of lying is by commission. A lie by commission occurs when you consciously distort the information you provide. In a love relationship, it’s a bold-faced lie to misrepresent facts without the slightest hint otherwise. People usually think a commissioned lie is the most egregious, though the subtlety of an omission can make it equally destructive. In either case, when information is distorted, it is usually shaped to support whatever agenda the liar intends. In love the most common agenda for the commission liar is the portrayal of love when it is absent. Similarly, the most common agenda for the lover who omits is to avoid admitting that love is gone.
So when someone in love tells the truth, what is he or she telling the truth about? There are plenty of “truths” that people argue about—a debate about relativism is beyond our purposes, so let’s not concern ourselves with it. The truth that I’m interested in is the truth of personal experience. For the most part, the responsibility for expressing your personal experience falls to you. Your personal experience consists of what you think, what you feel, and what you do. When you speak truthfully about your personal experience, it is an act of loving honesty—expanding your experience to include the one you love.
An honest man or woman is easy to love. Two honest people in love can co-create a love relationship where mutual honesty solves every love problem that arises in the relationship. Mutual honesty involves two people saying what they think and feel to each other without worry or censorship. They are open because they love each other. They also recognize and accept that the momentary sting that comes with honesty is more acceptable than the deep pain that follows deception, withholding, ignorance and distortion. If you know who you are loving—if your lover is always forthcoming with thoughts and feelings—you can relax and love easily. If you are in doubt, unsure, suspicious, guarded, or defensive, your ability to love and be loved will be hamstrung.
Finally, honesty is vital because it is the means by which you and your lover achieve depth in your relationship. A love relationship gets deeper over the years because you and your partner keep learning new things about each other. Only mutual honesty can provide this outcome. If you feel like you need to conceal something because you’re worried that you’ll be rejected or abandoned if it comes to light, you’ll never relax. You will always be worried about that damaging information, and therefore, working to present yourself in a safe and acceptable way to avoid rejection. Presenting yourself and being yourself in a love relationship are two different things. Let yourself be comfortable and real. When you are being yourself, you are being naturally honest—just as when you first came into this world.
If the person or people who witness your relaxed and genuine self reject you, it’s disappointing, but they have done you a big favor. They have let you know that there is no love there for you. Better to know that now, right? You’ll save yourself years of striving for love that never comes. The earlier you find out the people in your life love you for who you are, the earlier you’ll know where love really lives. Under those conditions you’ll never have to work for love (which is different than working on love, described in a later chapter). If love is received when being yourself, and likewise given from that same state of honesty, you’re free at home in your love life.
LEARNING TO BE INTIMATE IN LOVE
Chapter 15: Learning to Share in Love
To keep a love relationship healthy, you have to learn how to share. You fell in love—congrats. The two of you are in love and ready to join your lives. You share everything you have now, and will do so into the future, right?
Wait a minute, hold up, what do you mean, share everything we have?
What exactly is being shared? Let’s look closer. The easiest thing to share is the new stuff the two of you buy and own together. For example, you buy a house with the person you love shortly after getting married or moving in together. Your plan is to share the house with the person you love. This type of sharing is easy to understand and is a standard expectation for most people in a long-term bond: sharing what you conjointly procured together.
Now how about what you owned before getting together? Let’s assume that you and the person you love have been single for a while beforehand. Both of you have amassed a little nest egg for yourselves, a tribute to the work you did during your single years, and a guarantee of survival if you are forced to be alone again at any point in your life. Perfectly understandable, but what happens when you fall in love? Rational, security-minded individuals might say don’t be a fool, hang onto what you already have, and don’t share it with him or her, no matter how much in love you feel. There is a significant amount of suspicion in this love life advice. The underlying belief is there’s a good chance love relationships will fail. Here’s the problem that can drive you crazy. Your expectation of failure can create the very conditions of failure that you expect.
The power of belief is substantial. What you believe can and will determine what you think, feel, and do in your life, especially your love life. The reality is that joining lives with your lover carries a risk, no matter how you look at it. If you are trying to hedge against this risk, I would advise you not to take the risk at all. You are not ready and emotionally available for a love relationship at this time. Your security is far too valuable to you to risk. Going into a love relationship with the expectation of failure such that you have to protect yourself is folly. Don’t do it. If you want to spend a little time exploring why you are not willing to love at this point in your life, do it before jumping into a relationship requiring trust.
If the idea of sharing what you have with someone you have fallen in love with seems like the right thing to do and in fact feels like a gift you are giving him or her, get married. You are seriously in it for the long haul. You are in it to remove each and every barrier that emerges in your love relationship. Sharing new and old resources alike makes a statement. If you think the statement is, “I’m a fool, so take advantage of me,” don’t do it. If you read the statement as, “I love you and take all of me,” you are ready to take the risk required to have true love in your life. Of course, risk means you can’t control the love that is now center stage in your life. The best you can do is to learn how to live with it and take care of it. If you lose the love you want or need, you heal and move on, feeling good about the fact you tried.
Sharing in a healthy love relationship requires equality. Equality is another one of those friendship values that nurture a love relationship. But how do you determine what is “equal” in a love relationship? The easy, snapshot view of equality looks like perfect parity in the rights and privileges of both people, regardless of other factors such as gender, age, level of education or occupation, etc. In a healthy love relationship both partners are equal. Equality in love protects the right of “free speech” in the love relationship; that is, the right to communicate thoughts and feelings directly to the person you are in love with. When equality does not exist in a love relationship, it is suffering from the presence of dominance—one person has power over the other, stifling an equal, sharing exchange. Rights and privileges should not be skewed toward one person at the expense of the other. Dominance in a love relationship is fundamentally unhealthy and deteriorates love over time.
In a healthy love relationship, equality promotes the reciprocity of giving and receiving. No one starves in the relationship. You and your partner both share in your common love. The beautiful thing about reciprocity is you can love someone without thinking about getting anything in return. What you get, you get because you’ve given without thinking about getting anything back. Isn’t that beautifully mysterious? It’s as if love were invented for lovers to receive just as much love as the selfless love they’ve given. Only when the love you give is truly selfless do you get love back, but in an equal relationship, you never burn out.
When reciprocity is alive in your love relationship, your love is healthy. Both of you are growing and thriving. Great! What next? In my years of working on equality in love with patients and in my own life, I have become aware of two important “relationship rules.” The first rule is this: If two people in a love relationship are not growing, the relationship is dying or dead. A person can only stay healthy in a love relationship that is dying or dead for a short time. After a while, the individuals in that relationship are poisoned by the fact that the relationship has expired. In some instances, two people can make the choice to revitalize their relationship. They may decide to get professional help or attempt this revitalization on their own. Either way, both people have to “feel the memory” of falling in love. When it is not possible to bring the relationship back to life, for health reasons, it must be ended. Both persons must be allowed to begin growing again alone and in other relationships.
The second rule related to equality in love is the 50/50 rule of personal responsibility in all love relationships. What this means is an individual is responsible for 50 percent of what goes on in a love relationship. Now this is true even if it looks superficially like one person is more responsible than the other for any particular issue. A spectacular example of this shared responsibility is a person’s alcohol or drug use in a relationship where his or her partner in love overlooks the problem, for whatever personal reason of his or her own. Technically you could say the person addicted to alcohol and/or drugs is able to continue indulging in this habit because it’s supported at home. This enabling or codependent relationship allows and promotes the addiction. An effort to divvy up the responsibility for the habit would have to recognize the role of those people in the addict’s world who support the habit. In fact any serious treatment attempt would have to take into account the addict’s love partner who is enabling the addiction.
This responsibility rule exists because of the tendency for some people to blame or guilt each other. It is common for two people in a love relationship to argue and fight over the attribution of personal responsibility when something goes wrong. The 50/50 responsibility rule, however, enforces humility. The energy and effort it takes to blame or guilt your partner can now be directed toward understanding what it is you did to contribute to the outcome. With this more open and accepting attitude, you can mitigate defensiveness and solve problems with mutual participation.
How can you learn to share in a love relationship? If you are a caregiving kind of person who tends to overlook his or her own emotional needs, you’ll need to learn how to speak up and ask for what you need. You are probably used to self-sacrificed giving. Getting love brings a feeling of guilt, as if you’re not supposed to need anything from anyone. I’ve known people like this; sadly, they seek isolation when they are hurting. They’ve learned to suffer alone. This way of living your emotional life is learned. You were not born this way. If this sounds like you, let go of what you’ve learned. After all, don’t you find that it leaves you depleted, and full of chronic feelings of being alone, no matter how many people you are caring for? To grow again in your love relationship, practice asking for what you need and accepting what you receive. Set aside whatever guilt you might feel. Over time, you will get better at it, and develop a healthy ability to receive love.
If you are used to getting whatever you need or want without having to give much of anything at all, it’s time to develop your ability to give love. In your life, you were either not given what you really needed or you were given too much of something. In either case, the outcome was that you now believe that you should get from others whatever you need whenever you need it. Your focus has been on getting what you need, instead of giving to your lover. Healthy sharing in your love life requires you to learn how to give love, even when you feel the need for love yourself. A healthy love relationship is only possible if you succeed in balancing receiving love with giving love. Once you’ve begun making this change in your love life, you still have some important tasks ahead of you. Grieve the loss of the skewed love you wanted, and let it go. You will heal.
You now know why sharing creates the intimacy that helps keep love healthy. What a beautiful idea, two people opening up to each other and sharing their lives together. You’re going to have a hard time doing this if you hang onto those defenses you’ve been relying on to keep your distance. I know it’s a risk, no matter how you cut it. That part, you or I, can do absolutely nothing about. Love involves risk, that’s all there is to it. By now I suspect you’re seeing how these different love life ingredients are coming together. In the next chapter we’ll consider the trust you are going to need to take that risk. Without trust there’s no risk and certainly no intimacy. Learning to tolerate and eventually getting good at trusting someone you love is going to be a requirement to keep a love relationship vital. Thankfully it’s something you can repair if it breaks. Let’s find out about relearning trust in love.
Trust is another friendship value that promotes a healthy thriving love relationship. Trust is relearned, not learned. You came into this world with the capacity to trust. It was the foundation of your ability to connect with your caregivers. The trust that existed when you were little was naïve; in a trusting state of mind you were openhearted, vulnerable, and innocent. That’s to say, you did not believe someone who loved you would ever hurt you intentionally. You spontaneously asked for love from those you trusted. What a great time in your emotional life. You had a firm and unequivocal belief in the reliability, trustworthiness, and truthfulness of people. You believed, in the simplest way possible, in the integrity of persons. You didn’t know any better, and I mean that quite literally, you didn’t have any reason to doubt, or suspect there was anything other than trust and love in this world.
Because of this innate ability to trust, that you were thrust into this world with, you were a lover from your very beginnings. You were on the lookout for reliable people who mean what they say and say what they mean. If this simple requirement was fulfilled, he or she deserved your love and devotion. Your gift to such as individual during childhood was your attachment to him or her. If you were lucky enough to have caregivers with unquestionable integrity, your earliest capacity to trust was shaped into learning experiences of interpersonal trust with others. You will have emerged from childhood trusting the people you meet as soon as you meet them.
I know what you’re thinking. Is this a good thing in today’s world? Ideally, I think we would all agree that being able to trust other people is a good and important ability, but to what extent? This is where things start to get a little difficult. Coming into adulthood with a naïve willingness to trust does not seem to be very conducive to good health and happiness these days. Even if you could have experienced idealized family relationships without major disappointments, who is to say this situation could be replicated in the world at large beyond your family of origin? Most people would agree that the world requires a substantial amount of suspicion if not mistrust to ensure survival. Worse than that, there are a lot of people who believe this is especially necessary in the contemporary adult love life. They caution against trust and honesty in adult love relationships.
My experience and research tells me that love does not thrive without trust. If this is indeed the case, then we’re faced with the problem of having to relearn how to trust, now in adulthood, in a world that doesn’t always support trust. My assumption is that by the time you make it to adulthood, you will have had a few disappointing experiences trusting other people. We’ll call the end result of this disappointment: the psychological state of mistrust. In addition to the self-protective defenses you’ll develop after suffering disappointments in love, mistrust inevitably forms because you’ve tried loving people who betray you (break your trust) and this is hard to get over. Once mistrustful, you’ll be using your expectations to predict whether or not to subject yourself to more untrustworthy behavior. When you are mistrusting in your love life, you’ll tend to expect untrustworthiness going into love relationships.
The road back from mistrust involves dealing directly with risk and vulnerability, two states of mind that are never easy to work with. Understandably, both states of mind rely pretty heavily on predicting continued hurt in love. The common response from people not yet willing or ready to relearn trust is to put their time and energy into staying mistrusting and defensive. We talked a lot about psychological defenses in previous chapters. Before we get into the specifics of what you’d experience trying to relearn how to trust as an adult, I think it’ll be useful to illustrate a few of the love life experiences that replicate and reinforce a feeling of mistrust in adulthood.
The first example of mistrust that I am offering can apply to you in one of two ways: as the victim of betrayal or deception, or as the perpetrator of these behaviors in love life situations. Either way, the so-called etiology or cause is always, being exposed to betrayal or lies earlier in life, even though the behavioral reactions may be opposites. One scenario involves having experiences in life that taught you how to misrepresent yourself to others. If you are misrepresenting yourself in love life situations, you are pretending to be something or someone you are not. Misrepresenting yourself can involve presenting yourself to prospective partners as someone who can be or wants to be in a love relationship when your real agenda is something else—sex or money, for example.
Lying about your true motives in order to manipulate or influence people interested in having a love relationship is a common and hurtful form of misrepresentation. In most cases, the presence of this behavior indicates an underlying expectation of hurt, rejection, or judgment of who you really are. In some cases, people who hide from love in this way are hostile, angry, and aggressive as a way of expressing their contempt for love. It no doubt reflects a personal history of disappointment, betrayal, and you guessed it, mistrust.
If you are misrepresenting yourself in love, you are protecting your real self from any further hurt or mishandling. Unfortunately, you are also making it impossible to be loved. If you cannot encounter someone’s true self, you cannot be intimate with him or her, and therefore, the love you feel will be limited. Remember, intimacy between two lovers is the exchange of personal knowledge about both hearts in the relationship. This exchange of personal information is responsible for creating the experience of closeness—the feeling of intimately knowing the person you love. Two people in love build their intimacy in love by revealing themselves to each other over the course of their relationship. Misrepresentation short-circuits any possibility of intimacy. To put it in a nutshell, liars make lousy lovers. Unfortunately there are a million and one ways to lie in a love life situation.
If you are on the other end of the spectrum, you are a person who gets lied to all the time. You are a “magnet” for potential lovers who misrepresent themselves. As I indicated earlier, if we took the time to look into your personal history with this difficulty, you would most likely find the same experiences of being betrayed and lied to by important people. Why the outcome goes in the direction of being a victim or victimizer depends upon the individual. Either way, it’s all about mistrust.
The other way mistrust can influence your love life is by self-limiting what you think, feel, and do in love life situations. These outcomes are commonly labeled with terms like inhibition, shyness, and self-consciousness. These behaviors are tailored to stop you from falling in love in the presence of prospective lovers. They monitor and determine what you can think, feel, or do in romantic circumstances. The mental state of falling in love has been given a negative label. This kind of mistrust is meant to stop the “dangerous” free flow of spontaneous experience and replace it with reserve, caution, and deliberation. Mistrust in this instance is regulating the level of involvement you’ll permit yourself to have with someone you could love. It is pretty common to see this sort of thing as an aftereffect of interpersonal experiences of trauma. Bad experiences that infuse the heart with fear as an aftereffect understandably create caution and distance. It’s pretty plain to see how aftereffects of this sort would be detrimental to your love life.
Let’s do a few more brief examples of love life mistrust. Do you drift in and out of love relationships in order to regulate the depth of love being exchanged? When present, love emerges; when absent, love recedes. It’s the perfect way to keep a love relationship tolerable and on hold, indefinitely if need be. Of course, problems occur when a lover on hold grows intolerant and challenges the “part-time” relationship he or she is being forced to have. How about the time-limited lover who comes into a love relationship with a pretty good idea that it has a “preset” termination date? Have you ever heard of the serial monogamist? This is a mistrusting lover who loves a series of men or women, exclusively, but each is on a preset timeline. The timeline is usually predetermined, semi-conscious, and supersedes everything else that takes place in the relationship. Put it this way, when the time comes, he or she has got to go. In these two examples mistrust is being managed by limiting personal involvement in a love relationship.
Getting out from under a well-practiced mistrust of love is going to take what has become a dirty word by now: risk. While you’re trying to relearn how to trust you’ll inevitably be coming across this powerful little word with loads of implication for your love life. The other big word in this particular relearning experience is vulnerability. Risk is what you’ll be trying to do before your defenses against love are down, and vulnerability is what happens after they’re down. To put it bluntly, to risk trust again after becoming mistrusting is going to require a “jump.” Try to imagine being on the edge and you are managing two feelings at the same time: dread and exhilaration. The dread comes from those dreadful predictions you keep making that nothing is ever going to change. The competing exhilaration is there because you have an inkling you could end up in a place that is better than you expected.
For those of you that are waiting for that one hundred percent guarantee, forget it. I don’t know what kind of percentage you’ll end up with, but I do know there will be plenty of room for error. This you can’t avoid. You could passively entertain your fears by recreating the danger scenarios derived from your past experiences over and over again. Or you could challenge these thoughts, remind yourself that you’ve done your homework to the best of your ability, get those legs moving, and go for it. Be ready with a reward for making a noble effort you’ll give yourself regardless of outcome.
Once over the edge, and you’ve fallen again in love, expect that old feeling of vulnerability we discussed. Sorry, can’t do risk and get rid of mistrust without going through vulnerability. You know, vulnerability is a really old military term, which basically means that you are not protected and open to an enemy’s attack. It’s understandable how hurt feelings in love can get associated with aggression and war. Nevertheless, while you were going over that cliff and falling into love again, you were at the same time discarding whatever defensiveness you were using to support that mistrust you’ve been hanging onto.
From a different and more positive perspective, you could call this vulnerable state of mind, being “open.” Open is trusting. Open is receptive to love. Remember we talked earlier about having some faith in your capacity to heal hurt, and how that would be related to letting yourself be in love again after being hurt? You can apply that same idea here. Best way to come back from mistrust, is to know that you’ll heal from any further hurt you might have while you’re in a vulnerable state of heart (and mind). Letting yourself be vulnerable for such a noble cause as trusting love again is surely a sign of strength and determination. Good job!
When you make a love commitment, you make a choice to promise to give someone your time and loyalty. In most marriage vows, two people promise to commit exclusively for life. A love commitment is one of the most important ingredients of a healthy love relationship. In this chapter I will analyze the factors involved in making and keeping a promise of commitment in love. I will also talk about the common fears of commitment and what can help if you are afraid to commit.
Let’s start at the beginning. What did you learn about commitment in your family of origin? Did you see people in love relationships tough it out and work on solving their problems? Or did you see people leave at the first sign of difficulty? Did you grow up in a family where one parent did not make a commitment to the other parent or to the children? Whatever lesson of commitment you learned by observing, being instructed, or participating in these early relationships has most likely been active and replicated in some way in your current love life. Let’s take a common example. If you grew up in a family with an absent father and domineering mother, chances are, your lesson about commitment was that a man doesn’t make one. You may have also experienced a conflict of dependency and control common when growing up with a domineering single parent. In your own love life you may avoid commitment because of what you’ve learned: expect control to follow on the heels of love, and defend yourself against it.
The two most common fears of making a love commitment are the fear of losing oneself in love and the fear of being controlled. If you’ve been disappointed in love relationships from the beginning of your life and your need for love is strong and deep, a love commitment might feel like something you could fall into and never come out of. The emotions involved in love appear to be so overwhelming that the only way to avoid the terrible fate of losing yourself in love is to avoid commitments or leave them at the first hint of overwhelming emotion.
The fear of being controlled by the person you love is actually another case of losing something in love. You’re afraid that your own needs will lead to a loss of control and eventual domination by the person you so desperately need; although people who struggle with these fears are usually unaware of their presence. Instead, you might find yourself coming up with superficial rationalizations for avoiding commitment.
The practice of keeping a love commitment is call monogamy. I have found that there are five essential preconditions for a healthy, monogamous love relationship. All five are necessary for a monogamous love relationship to remain healthy and thrive. Some of them will be familiar to you from previous chapters. Others, I will mention here and talk about again in more detail in a subsequent chapter. The first precondition is the simple fact that you are in love. As you may remember, being in love is not the same as simply loving someone. When in love, you are submerged in the emotion of love from head to toe. The only reason you are in this person’s life and he or she in yours is for love. If you are in your love relationship for some other reason (in part or completely), the chances are slimmer that monogamy will succeed over time.
The next precondition for monogamy in love is you are a person of honor. A person of honor is someone who says what he or she means and does what he or she says. You can make a promise by giving your word and following through. Honor implies honesty and adherence to a high standard of behavior. When a person of honor makes a promise, it is always—without exception—fulfilled. If the promise made cannot be fulfilled for some reason, this fact is communicated directly to the person involved. When you make a love commitment with a person of honor, you know exactly what you are getting. There are no misrepresentations or lies involved. This is an important precondition for a healthy, monogamous relationship.
Getting back to what you’ve learned about love commitments in your family of origin, the next precondition is to become aware of what you’ve learned about love during this period of your life. This is especially true for individuals who’ve learned lessons of uncommitted love. If you grew up in a home where love commitments were monogamous, chances are, your love life will be positively influenced by what you’ve learned. You will try to replicate in your love life what you’ve learned about love in childhood; you will automatically seek to replicate monogamy because it is what you know. People with this circumstance are lucky because they have already learned about an important ingredient of a healthy love relationship. For everyone else, there is the need to review your love life to figure out what you’ve learned that isn’t working. To have a shot at a successful monogamy in adulthood, you have to at least know what you have learned and what to work on. The great hope is in being able to learn something new about love in the course of your life.
The next precondition for a successful monogamy depends upon your ability to recognize and acknowledge the unique individuality of the person you love, and vice versa. Your true love relationship, in the truest meaning of these words, is a home for two individuals. Each one is truly unique, one of a kind. There will never be an exact replica of either one of you again in time. This alone can make you realize the specialness of the person you are in love with. Love in its deepest manifestation in our lives is a very idiosyncratic phenomenon indeed. True love is meant for one person and one person only. People in a monogamous love relationship know this. They feel each and every day the vulnerability that comes with this understanding. To know and love the uniqueness of someone is to feel that this person is in your life, and in your love, for reasons beyond you and any efforts you might make to guarantee his or her presence. The only thing you can do is to remember to cherish his or her presence in your life in as many moments as you can.
The fifth precondition is a belief in your own ability to work on your love relationship when a little maintenance is needed. We’ll talk more about how to work on your love relationship in Chapter Twenty. Because of the obvious but occasionally forgotten fact that your relationship is between two whole individuals, there will be disagreements and misunderstandings; times when the bridge over the unavoidable divide is battered by troubled waters; times when your mutual ability to understand and compromise is temporarily broken. The joint task of repairing your love relationship will require your attention and effort. Knowing that you can accomplish this kind of task helps with keeping a love commitment. Would you buy a piece of expensive machinery if you weren’t confident that you could fix it if it broke?
You know, at one time it was much harder to leave a marriage. There were all kinds of prohibitions coming from the family, the church, and the law, as well as an acculturation that expected people to remain married no matter what. We live in a time where people are freer to leave a marriage if it doesn’t work out. Nevertheless, there remains a little controversy between those who would say to leave and start again if it’s not working, and those who would say to stay and make it work. There is merit in both positions. The freedom to start again, having learned from your mistakes, is no small advantage. Why should you have to sacrifice your entire life living with someone you no longer love or simply can’t live with anymore? On the other hand, shouldn’t we teach people how to work on their love relationships, repair damages, and renew the connection? You made a commitment of love, and this kind of promise should not be taken lightly. And how about the children? This debate could go on all night, so I guess I’m going to have to leave it here for now, unresolved.
Here’s a little advice before moving on to the next chapter. If you are considering a monogamous love commitment and you discover that one or more of the preconditions I’ve outlined here in this chapter is missing from your relationship, don’t do it. Spend a little more time figuring out whether there is room for change and whether the missing piece can be learned and developed. I have met so many people who have made love commitments without having the essentials in place. Making a marriage work involves a bit more than romance. Making a marriage work involves building a friendship and partnership in your marriage. Friendship in marriage naturally promotes intimacy. You also need partnership, which occurs when two people are able to cooperate together toward mutually agreed-upon goals (e.g., working toward a family, buying a house, etc.). When you have all three—romance, friendship, and partnership—the chances of sustained commitment are excellent. I think marriage based only on romance is responsible for the exceptionally high divorce rate. Time spent thinking about whether the person you are considering for marriage can be a lover, friend, and partner is time well spent.
Chapter 18: Learning How to Relate in Romance
In this chapter, our conversation about sex will be frank and candid. It’s important to have an open discussion about the topic because so many influences in our culture are eating away at our ability to love and be loved sexually. Only by bringing these limiting influences to our collective consciousness can we avoid them and teach our young people the true nature of love. The objective of this chapter is to connect sex with love, and talk about what happens to sex when this connection is made—and when it’s not.
When sex occurs outside of a love relationship it is emotionally empty. It doesn’t take rocket science to understand that without a relationship to anchor this physical expression of pleasure, the experience is impersonal. Another way to understand this limitation is to think of impersonal sex, the kind that occurs outside of a love relationship, as a “one-person” sexual experience. It involves two people who are having sex for the sake of personal pleasure, without a relationship. For both of them, the experience is one-sided. Other ways to describe this experience are to call it “narcissistic sex” or “masturbatory sex.” I’m not saying it’s bad, just limited.
One-person sex is focused on the immediate gratification of sexual desire. The objective is to have an orgasm. If your sexual agenda is just to have an orgasm, the other person you are having sex with is a vehicle to achieve that goal. The vernacular for this is simply “fucking.” This particular activity occurs when sex is devoid of intimate emotions like love and tenderness. In fact, the word in its various grammatical forms presently refers to sex coupled with other emotions like frustration, fear, and anger. This may provide us with a hint as to what happens to sex when it is disconnected from a loving relationship.
Nowadays our children and young adults learn about romance and sex in their families of origin, in schools, and surely through their own methods of procuring this information privately. That information might include pornography. Therefore, it would be valuable to determine what kind of lessons about empty sex people are getting from pornography, so let’s talk about a few of the obvious ones. For starters, the “sex without relationship” message is pretty clear. The stories are about sex for sex’s sake, and impersonal. The sexual activity is often aggressive, and the focus appears to be narcissistic; the most common scenario involves the orgasm of one dominant individual. The objective of sex according to pornography is immediate gratification, end of story. Men are taught how to “fuck” instead of how to make love. Women are often depicted as submissive and are seen subjugating themselves to the demands of empty, one-person sexuality. Pornography use is often a prelude to sexual addiction in which a person learns to self-medicate stress and other emotional discomforts with quick and efficient orgasms.
Let’s assume there are three levels of sexual engagement with another person. The least developed level is what I’ve been talking about so far, the “in it for my own pleasure” type of sex. In this one-person sexual experience, the other person is used as a conduit through which to experience one’s own personal pleasure. Concern for the other person’s pleasure is either absent or relegated to an afterthought. Healthier forms of sexual engagement will involve a more intimate interaction with a sexual partner. The next level up is a two-person sexual experience. Reciprocal sex involves two people in a relationship giving each other pleasure. The sexual experience is mutually satisfying, intimate, and therefore naturally healthier. This type of sexual experience is commonly referred to as making love. Love in this context is the experience of union, togetherness, and mutuality that is possible when two people are acting sexually to express love they feel for each other.
The last level of sexual engagement is considered the most advanced since it is a two-person form of sex involving the selfless giving of love without an expectation of return. Here the objective is giving pleasure to one’s lover simply out of a feeling of love. Concern with one’s own pleasure is temporarily out of the equation. In this scenario, love in the form of sex is given freely, as a gift. No payback is required or expected. If love is given in return, it is delightfully received, but the desire for love is sincerely absent from the intention and motivation to give love as sexual pleasure. I think sex in a healthy love relationship is a mixture of intimate reciprocal sex and selfless acts of sexual love. This mixture of two-person sexual experiences ensures that the love relationship includes the sexual pleasure of both lovers with ample opportunity to express love through the selfless giving of sexual pleasure.
When sexuality in a love relationship becomes unhealthy, it is either absent or turns abusive by incorporating force and dominance. A sexless marriage, for example, indicates that for whatever reason sex as an expression of love has been temporarily lost. For example, the absence of sexual activity can occur as a result of “abandoning” a marital relationship as a consequence of over-focusing on children or work. Of course there are so many more reasons why two people would let the fire go out. To fix this problem, the first big decision is whether both partners want to reignite the flame. If the answer to that question is a resounding yes—and it should be resounding, because doubts will get acted out—the couple needs to remember and re-experience the feelings they had for each other at the beginning of their relationship. This mutually recreated “way we were” effort should be supplemented with a decision to change their lifestyle in favor of more touching, holding, hugging, talking, and doing things together. It’s amazing how two people can start to feel what they felt for each other. It’s often in memory needing the stimulation of change to come to the surface. Of course, realistically, there will be cases when it doesn’t work and the absence of sex portends the end of the relationship.
A more dire consequence occurs when unhealthy sex in a love relationship is abusive. It is entirely possible to be sexually abused in a love relationship. When this happens force and dominance supplant freedom of choice and mutuality. The common signs are unwanted kissing or touching, being forced to have sex when you don’t want to, and attempts to manipulate and control a decision about using birth control or getting an abortion. When consent is absent, the act is classified as abusive. As with any kind of interpersonal abuse the first step is to stop it in any way possible. From there, the recipient of this kind of treatment needs to repair his or her self-esteem and ability to set effective limits against all forms of mistreatment and disrespect. For the sexual abuser, if the feeling of losing the person you love promotes introspection and an understanding of why sexual force and dominance are unhealthy there is a chance for change.
Once you’ve experienced what happens to sex when you’ve mixed in a little love, you’ll never go back. It’s like the difference between that great bottle of wine you had, and the vinegar you drank when you couldn’t afford it. Love makes sex into the sublime. Sex goes from being an end point to a medium of love. Sex becomes another way to strengthen the love we give and receive in our lives. The experience can spoil you forever. Learning how to relate in sex is a step in the direction of making “loving relations” the rule rather than the exception. My point is it’s something we can learn to value. Perhaps Mother Nature intended for us to strive for that combination of love and sex and not get hung up on sex alone. My guess is she had something really good in minds for us.
We all learn how to play different roles in life, especially in our love lives. There’s the husband, the wife, the girlfriend, the boyfriend, and of course the lover. These are all roles. You begin learning how to play your assigned roles early in life. The different roles dictate how you will think, feel, and act in your adult love life. The problem is, depending on what you’ve learned in your particular life, the roles you play in your love life may interfere with being yourself in love.
The model of the mind I would like you to imagine has your “I” at the center, and a bunch of social roles or “selves” circling. The social roles are learned. The “I” is naturally and uniquely you and comes with you when you enter this world. Your “I” is the raw you, and develops from the inside out of your mind. You only have one “I,” but as many “selves” as you were taught to have. You could say your “I” is the real, genuine, or private you. For the most part people tend to conceal and protect their “I.” Only under intimate circumstances does a person risk exposing his or her “I” in a relationship, and being in love is one of those circumstances.
In fact we could say that a healthy love relationship involves two people in love and both risking the exposure of their “I’s” to each other. This is one of the primary reasons why a love relationship can be so healing for the individuals involved. They make a safe home for their “I’s.” Another way to say this is they make their love relationship a safe place to be themselves, their truest and most personal selves with each other. In this safe place or home you don’t have to be in a role; you can simply be the unique and natural you. The more your love relationship accepts and accommodates both “I’s” the healthier it will be. Accepting another’s raw self or “I” is truly an act of love because he or she can relax and drop the roles that we are taught to play in the company of others.
If you are in a love relationship and still playing roles with each other, the depth of your love will be limited by the boundaries around the roles you are playing. Social roles—or more precisely, love life roles—dictate certain beliefs and opinions about yourself and the person you are in love with. There will surely be limitations determined by a particular role regarding your expected behavior. If you remain within the parameters of your assigned roles, the people who expect this conformity will accept you. If you deviate for whatever reason, you’ll probably get some kind of negative reaction. The whole idea of two people in love playing roles with each other does not sound relaxed and open to me. It sounds predetermined, scripted, and cautious. This alone will explain why there is a significant loss of intimacy when love life roles replace the comfort of being your true self with someone you love.
I think it’s an indication of adult maturation to allow yourself to be your “I” in relationships as you age. Sometimes we start out in life more rigid about the roles we are playing and our expectations that the people in our lives will stay rigidly in their own roles. We all learn roles. Learning roles is required to function in a society. Making a home for your true self in a love relationship is not a lesson we’re taught directly. We might learn on our own in a series of trial-and-error experiences in love relationships. Unfortunately, some people never learn how to be themselves in love. They stay locked in social roles that limit their experience of loving and being loved.
There was a time in my life when I interpreted a man’s role in love as strong and silent. Women were expected to be emotional and talkative. As you can imagine, I had a lot of difficulty in my love life as a consequence of these rigid role expectations. My greatest challenge was in the area of communication. I thought a man should pretty much act like he was in control, never showing his feelings outwardly or talk about his feelings, especially the vulnerable ones like love and fear. Needless to say, I was very unhappy in my love relationships throughout this earlier period in my life. I was able to work my way out of these unsatisfying love life roles by learning and practicing how to talk about how I felt to the people who mattered in my life. Basically, I redefined for myself what a man is supposed to do and be when he falls in love.
There are clear advantages to allowing your “I” into a love relationship. You not only give love more fully because you’re loving from the most genuine place in your own heart, but you are easier to love in return. You are easier to locate without all those defensive things people do getting in the way, and therefore easier to love when you are being yourself. Plus, your uniqueness is allowed to emerge into your daily experiences together. It’s an extremely valuable source of intimate knowledge about you for anyone who gets to know you and love you. I think this is one of the most joyful experiences in life: the option to be real with someone you are in love with, so that he or she falls in love with your real self, too.
If you see your love relationship as a place where you can lose yourself, meaning you can lose all those social roles that make it harder for you to love and be loved, then your relationship is a healing sanctuary in a sometimes harsh and unforgiving world. It’s healthy to have such a place to relax and be yourself, loved for who you are without having to act a part or worry about what the person you are with thinks of you. In terms of emotional and physical health, a safe and comfortable place makes all the difference in the world. It counteracts the stresses and strains that can occur from all the emotional work involved in not being your full self in the various roles you play for the world each day.
Of course, there are some people who lose themselves in love because they have learned to give up who they really are when in a love relationship. This is the opposite of putting your social roles temporarily to the side and being your real self in the presence of someone you love. When you’ve learned that being in love requires self-sacrifice, love relationships are often perceived as dangerous. People with this type of love life problem either distance themselves from love in any way possible or they attempt to control the danger of losing themselves in love by controlling the person they love. Either way, the prospect of having a healthy love relationship is slim unless you challenge what you’ve learned about love in the past. By learning new lessons, you can risk being yourself in love again.
Over the years my research in the field of love relationships has brought a very interesting association to light between the experience of being in love and being your real self. Both experiences emerge without effort, if you can get out of your own way. Naturally and inherently, you know how to be your real unique self or “I.” Being your “I” is instinct, and is always there in the background of your daily experiences. That original and central part of you steps to the forefront without effort if you let it come forward. It’s as if that part of you wants and needs to be up front and identified as your true self. When for some reason it is kept back, blocked, or denied, you deny yourself something important. You are healthier when the “I” in you is active and freely present in your personal experiences and relationships.
Funny thing is, the same is true for love. Love emerges from inside. Love is not something we have to learn to feel. We come into the world with the capacity for loving. Maybe some people have more capacity than others. That is debatable, so I’ll leave it to the psycho-biologists to decide. The point is, for our purposes, your capacity to love and be loved is hardwired. When it is allowed to emerge and becomes a part of your conscious life, you become healthier emotionally and physically.
Notice the similarity between being your real self and being in love. Both emerge into awareness and being in the same way. Indeed, maybe they are the same experience described in different language and concepts. Now that’s something to think about. Being your real self is bringing your love into the world.
KEEPING YOUR LOVE LIFE HEALTHY
Chapter 20: Learning to Work On Your Love
In this chapter I’m going to talk about working on your love relationship. You’ve got three possible choices. The first is to ignore the work you need to do on your love relationship and rely on whatever you and your partner learned about love earlier in your lives. If this is what you choose to do, you’re in good company. This is the way many people do their love lives. If I or anybody else suggested to you there are issues in your love relationship that need attention, you’d get defensive and tell me to buzz off. You’d tell me there is nothing to learn about love—you know everything you need to know already, period, end of story. If I push a little harder, you’d tell me what you’ve learned growing up is sufficient to solve any and every love life problem that may come up in your life. Good luck.
As we discussed in an earlier chapter, the obvious problem with this approach is whatever you’ve learned about love years ago in your family of origin may need a serious update. Maybe it worked for the people who taught you, or maybe it didn’t; the point is, if it doesn’t suit your love life, you are going to need to learn something new and a bit more applicable to who you are now.
The second choice is to work on your love relationship when a crisis occurs and only then. This is a crisis approach in which you must be in pain before you do anything about your love life. I truly feel bad for people who deal with their love relationship problems in this way. They’ve had to suffer so much with problems they could have solved before their relationship broke down. Why wait until it hurts? When your approach is to work on your love life only under critical conditions, you’ll tend to stop short once things get back to relative normalcy, whatever normalcy looked like before the crisis happened. The problem with this approach is that the root of the problem is never really addressed. Once things start to feel okay again, that’s when the work tends to stop.
I recommend a third choice: You work on your love relationship not because it is hurting you but because you are interested in keeping it healthy. You know that a love relationship needs to grow from beginning to end to stay well. You understand that when it stops growing, it starts dying. So you and your partner make it a project to grow your love. Let’s face it; there is plenty of evidence out there that love needs some ongoing maintenance, some care and feeding, to say the least. It’s organic and alive. When something is alive, it obviously has needs. Working on our love relationships is a responsibility that comes with having one. The question, however, has always been what helps and what doesn’t?
So let’s talk about how. To make this chapter as practical and effective as I can, here is a list of things your relationship will need to become to stay healthy and grow. Let’s put together the different ‘tasks’ you can work on, with the list of ingredients needed to make a psychologically healthy love relationship under each task, and the corresponding chapter of this book where you will find the discussion of each ingredient.
Work On Finding Out What You Learned About Love in the Past
Identify family learning about love. (Chapter 3)
Work On Recovering From Your Disappointments & Losses in Love
Grieve and let go of lost loves. (Chapter 4)
Take care of yourself. (Chapter 5)
Receive the love you are given. (Chapter 6)
Give the love you feel. (Chapter 7)
Cope with hurt. (Chapter 8)
Forgive and forget transgressions. (Chapter 9)
Work On Freeing Yourself To Love
Communicate with the person you love. (Chapter 10)
Become independent. (Chapter 11)
Be spontaneous. (Chapter 12)
Let go of control in the relationship. (Chapter 13)
Be honest. (Chapter 14)
Work On Becoming More Intimate In Your Love Relationships
Share what you have. (Chapter 15)
Trust the love you are in. (Chapter 16)
Keep your promised commitment. (Chapter 17)
Relate in romance and sex. (Chapter 18)
Be yourself in love. (Chapter 19)
This list should be familiar. In fact, we’ve been moving through this list since the table of contents. These seventeen items make up the ingredients of a healthy love relationship. They are divided under the various tasks required to successfully work your way through a Love Life Review: finding out what you have learned about love in the past, unlearning what doesn’t work by recovering from past disappointments while freeing yourself to love, and learning to become more intimate in your love relationships. Chances are, you won’t need to develop all seventeen ingredients. I would recommend figuring out which ingredients your love life needs the most and doing a bit of work on as many as you can. Usually people have a number of these under their belts by the time they make it to adulthood. Looking over the list after reading this book, you should have a sense of which of these you’ll need to start developing or develop further. A few of them overlap, so working on one will probably involve working on other related ingredients. The objective is to get something going in all of these categories to keep your love relationship healthy.
Now there are a couple general guidelines you are going to have to follow if you plan to work on your love relationship. These have already been mentioned in the course of this book, so consider this a bit of a review and summary. They are not things to work on so much as ideas that will make working on your love relationship more effective. Rule number one is this: Working on your love relationship will involve working on yourself and working with the person you love if you are in a relationship. Some of the ingredients of a healthy love relationship require you to work solo for a while. Other ingredients mean you’ll have to work as part of a team with your partner.
Now what happens if the person you love is not interested in working on the relationship? Can you just work on yourself and change your relationship that way? It is indeed true if one person changes in a love relationship, there are inevitable effects on the other person and the relationship in general. Problem is, the changes are not as reliable as teamwork. Real change requires mutual agreement and teamwork. It’s best to do the work of changing a love relationship cooperatively. Of course, if your relationship is in trouble and your partner isn’t interested in change, you’ll have no recourse but to change yourself, hoping for the best. Keep the “parent–child” dynamic on your radar, though, because it can creep into your cooperative work on the relationship. This work is best done on a level playing field.
Rule number two is this: A love relationship, or any relationship for that matter, means 50/50 responsibility for what goes on in it. I know people like to attribute blame, but the fields of codependency and enabling psychology have taught us to pay attention to interpersonal motivations. You are not going to successfully work on your love relationship unless you and your partner drop the defensiveness and take your share of the responsibility for the current trouble in your relationship. Being able to see your part in creating both the good and the bad in your relationship gives you and your partner the information you’ll need to change and grow together. You’ve brought a history of learning into your love relationship. Yes, it takes a bit of humility to admit your difficulties to yourself and your lover, but it is for the greater purpose of making your love stronger and healthier.
Over the course of my career as a mental health professional I’ve learned a few valuable lessons from the many unique individuals who stepped into my office with a sincere motivation to change. One lesson I learned was that every person has what it takes to make his or her life better. I learned that you can create the love life you want by taking the time to review, identify, and understand what you’ve learned in earlier versions of your love life—as well as the love lives of other people in your history, going all the way back to earliest childhood. Once you know what you’ve learned, you can figure out if it is helping or hurting your shot at a healthy love relationship. If it’s helping you, keep it and use it to guide your love life decisions. If it’s blocking or hurting you, limiting or complicating your search for love, challenge its validity in your current life and correct it with something better and more effective—something that is going to help you find, grow, and maintain the healthy love relationship you want.
I want to say, I’ve applied the ideas and understanding in this book to both my own love life and the emotional lives of my patients over the years with very satisfying results. In fact, as I alluded to at the beginning, this is precisely why I wrote the book. So that more people could take a look and consider what I’m presenting, not without using a critical eye of course, just to see whether or not what my patients and I experienced is justified. I’m pretty confident you’ll see what I mean. Just the act of thinking about what you’ve learned about love in your life and why, has incredible power to loosen the grip unhealthy love life lessons have on you. What better project to have in this life! I’ll be rooting for you.
Don’t Tell You
In this final chapter I’ll talk about a few common love life problems and offer you a slightly different perspective for your consideration—maybe a perspective you don’t always get. The healthy ingredients of a love relationship we’ve been discussing will be there in the background as I discuss each love life problem. We’ll look at divorce, cheating, men’s troubles with love, women’s troubles with love, and for the grand finale, falling in love with married people.
They tell us that the divorce rate is getting higher, exceeding 50 percent. This should give any rational person pause. Is the institution of marriage on the decline? We must be doing something wrong, right? I say no, not at all. Quite the contrary.
Earlier in our history the institution of marriage was tightly regulated by religion, families of origin, and state. These forces of regulation and control have eased over the centuries. Now people are able to marry partners they could never have married years ago, and under conditions that would have never been sanctioned.
Over time marriage has gone from a rigidly controlled institution to one governed more or less by love. So let’s get this straight: Marriage has gone from being under the control of external authority to being influenced mostly by feelings. If you love someone, you marry. If you stop loving that someone, you have the option to divorce. The critics of this freedom say marriage is too easy to throw away. They say that married people aren’t sticking it out and working on their love relationships as they should. Maybe, but I like the fact that love reigns supreme over the choice to marry.
You know, it’s the choice of a lifelong bond that we’re talking about—not tax incentives or green cards or any of the other superficial reasons that might motivate people to get married. Marriage should be controlled by love. Perhaps the institution of marriage as controlled by love is still in its infancy. Maybe it has yet to evolve away from its history of external control. I like the personal freedom implied in its new form. These observations allow me to look at the divorce rate as an indication of that precious freedom to love and leave if necessary. I figure 50–60 percent of marriages either start off without the love necessary to bind the couple, or the love leaves due to inadequate maintenance.
The other thing about divorce worth mentioning is that divorce is usually classified as a critical situation for both spouses and any children of the union. There is inevitably lots of pain, frustration, and anger, and like most critical situations, plenty of opportunities to learn something new about yourself. I think this is the true purpose of divorce: to point out to the two people involved what they need to learn about love to get it right in the next relationship. You are not supposed to throw up your hands and call it quits on love. No more marriage for me! No, this is not supposed to be the outcome of a failed marriage. You are supposed to learn from your mistakes and do better the next time.
Let’s make a list of all the good stuff that can occur as a result of a divorce: You can learn from your mistakes, learn how to be constructively alone for a while, grow individually in the post-divorce period, learn how to grieve and resolve a loss, and last but not least, learn how to be a single parent. For example, as a single Mom or Dad, you could learn all the lessons about time management, compassion, humility, and patience involved in being a single parent. It won’t be easy, but you’ll owe it to your kids to get it right. There are tons of learning opportunities here.
People want to believe that infidelity is mostly about the sex. You get married, the kids come, bodies change, and the libido wanes, so the frustrated husband or wife wanders into someone else’s bed, right? Don’t believe it. This is only a superficial view that draws all the focus and obscures the real issue. For the cheater, cheating is never really about sex—it’s about commitment. Most people with commitment problems don’t like to admit it to themselves, and that is precisely why they think instead about sex as the reason to stray. If this was just about sex, believe me, it would be a lot easier to fix.
I’ll break this down for the cheater and the victim of cheating. The problem for the cheater is his or her choice of triangular love relationships (i.e., husband–wife–lover). Of course, triangles exist only because a commitment problem exists and it is being avoided. In a love triangle, every relationship is limited by the existence of the other two relationships in the triangle. This is why falling in love with a married person is so painful, but we’ll talk about that in a little more detail later in this chapter. Cheaters don’t know how to solve their commitment conflicts and fears, and that’s precisely why they cheat. If they knew what to do about it, they would grow beyond the need to set up limited love relationships that leave love relationship problems unresolved.
The commitment problem the cheater is struggling with is evidenced by the fact that he or she has not left their marriage. In most cases, they have no intention to leave. This is exactly why the triangle situation is so appealing. The problem with commitment can be identified by the simple fact that the cheater has chosen cheating over leaving. If no commitments were involved, the discontented individual would leave and find someone better suited to be a fulfilling lover and partner. Explanations like “my partner is not giving me what I need” place the focus on a perception of lack, so looking somewhere else is justified as long as it doesn’t mean losing the primary relationship. Rather than trying to change the person you love, which often precedes the decision to cheat or opting for a love triangle, remind yourself that commitment involves compromise. Compromise means not getting everything you want and living well with that reality. If that’s not acceptable, the honorable thing to do is to go. This is the hard part for the person with commitment problems.
For the victim of cheating, other questions need to be asked. For instance, did you know that you were committing to a person with commitment fears? Over the years, I’ve often gotten around to asking my patients who are dealing with unfaithful or abusive partners whether they had observed or experienced any clues much earlier in the relationship. In just about every instance, with a little reflection, the answer is yes. What happens next is interesting. In every case, the person will then tell me they discounted or reasoned away what he or she had observed, witnessed, or experienced. They got rid of these observations because they didn’t match up with the hope and love they were experiencing at the time. It’s important to pay close attention to what we see, hear, and feel at the beginning of a relationship. People will tell you exactly who they are when you first meet. They do this automatically; they have no choice. It’s not always easy, but you have to pay attention to what is being communicated.
The other thing that the victim of cheating needs to think about is a little harder to accept. With the 50/50 rule in mind, if you want to maximize your own personal growth as the victim of cheating, you will need to consider the ways you may have enabled cheating in your relationship. This is a painful pill to swallow, given the fact that you feel abused by the whole experience. Without diminishing the importance of your emotional turmoil, seek to get the most out of this painful experience because you deserve to. How you may have inadvertently fed into the affair is an important discovery; for example, by overlooking the evidence, making excuses instead of confronting your partner, or deciding not to leave. In these ways a victim of mistreatment sends the subliminal message that he or she will take the treatment being received—and more. The hard part is tolerating the personal growth that is possible when you as a victim set limits on this behavior or decide to leave the relationship.
Men’s Troubles with Love
Working with men’s love lives over the years, I’ve become aware of the various things that give men problems in love. I’ll mention a few here so you can get a taste of the problems I’m talking about. One of the classic areas where men have difficulty is in sex as intimacy. Sex is a wonderful means of giving and getting pleasure, no argument from me. But as a singular method of creating intimacy in a love relationship, it’s just not good enough. Intimacy takes communication and connection. You have to get personal—or more precisely, interpersonal. Two persons interacting, expressing, and listening for the purpose of deepening their mutual, loving feeling—this is intimacy. Sex as a physical interaction of closeness, affection, mutual pleasure, and a form of direct physical knowledge of another human being will intensify an intimate relationship, but is not adequate on its own. Unfortunately, there are men who rely on sex to satisfy their need for intimacy and the intimacy needs of their partners. This usually leads to some kind of relationship trouble down the pike.
Another area of concern for men is the quick transformation of hurt into frustration and anger, and maybe even rage and defensive control. Most men do this so easily, and so automatically, that it suggests the possibility that we’ve been trained to be like this just living in this society. The problem is this: What happens to men when they have to function as husbands, fathers, and lovers? What an impossible bind. They want us to be strong and cool but at the same time sensitive and vulnerable. The fact is that when you get used to being strong and cool, it’s hard to transition into a sensitive and vulnerable human being. An old friend of mine used to say, one way out of this particular bind is to let a woman sensitize you in a love relationship. I think that he meant instead of getting defensive when she asks you to express your feelings, you learn how to hang onto who you are while learning how to articulate your feelings to someone who loves you. Can you think of a better place and person with whom to learn this particular skill?
Learning how to communicate your feelings is going to become more and more important the older you get. I’ve gotten to know a lot of men who didn’t learn until middle age. Their marriages were starting to suffer from the absence of intimate communication about their emotions and they realized they were starting to teach their children how to do the same.
Finally, another important stumbling block for men is the issue of equality between men and women. Historically, men have dominated women. Most people would agree with that. One of its byproducts is the belief that as a man, you should always be in charge. The fact is, democracy is the most love-friendly arrangement two people can form with each other. In a democracy, men and women are equal partners in love. When women feel they are being respected and treated equally, they love more easily and without resentment.
Women’s Troubles with Love
Women have the opposite historical influence to deal with. Most of their female ancestors were schooled in the art of submission and self-sacrifice. In fact, in some cultures, this became the means by which a woman would distinguish herself in society and in a love relationship. Now, women are faced with the task of establishing enough independence to be themselves comfortably, both in and out of love. There are still forces at work attempting to suppress this development, because it appears to threaten the established traditional expectations of women. I think the benefits for men if women succeed in this task are not talked about enough. Nowadays, women are getting the chance to develop their independence by separating from their families before getting married. What men need to realize is that an independent woman is capable of deeper intimacy and love than a dependent one.
Some women struggle to find the line between assertiveness and aggressiveness. Aggression is destructive. It was never meant to improve upon or develop a love relationship. Assertiveness is an action that communicates independence and an ability to stand up for oneself with others. Men are still trying to get used to seeing a woman be assertive without feeling like they are going to lose something. You can confirm this fact if you talk to men privately about women. Women need help being assertive to break away from that submissive tradition. Just as men need to enlist the help of loving women to learn about sensitivity, women need to enlist the help of loving men to help them with assertiveness. It’s a labor of love, and some men, especially the emotionally secure ones, are willing to help a woman in a love relationship build this skill into her personality.
The other area that challenges women is their tendency to try to change the man they love. Everyone should try to find a partner whose conflicts they can personally live with. This is important. I can’t tell you how many frustrated and eventually angry women I’ve sat with over the years who have been trying to modify or change some unacceptable quality in their male partner. Sometimes this quest, taken to the extreme, invites troublesome parent–child roles into the relationship. As a general rule, I always tell people that if you feel your chosen partner needs rehabilitation before he or she is fully acceptable to you, expect some misery. I haven’t met a woman yet who had successfully changed the man in her life to fit the mold of a better husband or father. But I have met a lot of unhappy, disappointed women who gave up trying after a while. For a happier love life, commit to a person whose faults you can live with.
Falling in Love with Married People
If you are going to have an affair with a married man or woman, let me give you a piece of friendly advice: Don’t fall in love! If you are doing it for pleasure, adventure, companionship, or all three of these, go right ahead. Who am I to judge? Nevertheless, heed my advice, because after you fall in love as the third leg of that love triangle, you are now a member of a club called Here Comes the Hurt. At my blog, the Love Life Learning Center, two of the most popular articles are entitled, “I Love a Married Woman” and “I Love a Married Man.” Since this blog’s inception, people who are “third legs” have been sending me commentary, explaining the pain they feel having fallen in love with their married lovers. Some just want to vent about how much pain they feel. Others are trying to make sense out of the fact that he or she won’t leave his or her spouse, and some want to know if there is any hope of ever making their relationship “normal.”
I understand that they are hurting, and I explain how painful it is to fall in love with someone who is limited in his or her ability to love because of a prior commitment to someone else. I tell them that realistically, they exist in the love triangle simply because of the fact that their lover’s marital problem is not being addressed. For their married lovers, it appears easier to have an affair than to fix a marriage or leave an unfixable marriage. As I said, if you can be in the triangle with your married lover and avoid falling in love, you’ve got it made. You are there for the pleasure or companionship and you can leave whenever you get tired of the relationship, big deal right?
If you fall in love, certain predictable things start to happen. One of them is you’ll be asking your married lover to leave his or her spouse. It’s inevitable. Once you’ve fallen in love, you are going to want more—it’s human nature. You’ll point out to him or her that the relationship you have together is far better than their marriage, and that this fact alone is a good reason to leave the marriage for something better. You’ll predictably get the maddening ambivalence and indecisiveness, or worse yet, false promises that come because of an underlying commitment you’ll find hard to understand. You’ll probably ask a number of times and be frustrated each and every time. You see, he or she never had any intention of leaving his or her husband or wife. My guess is, the number of married lovers who actually leave their marriage for the person they are having an affair with is much smaller than you might expect.
One man sent me a comment asking whether or not there could ever be a chance that his married lover and he would be able to make a real go of it. I thought about it for a while. I said yes, there is a chance, but certain things have to happen beforehand. I called them conditions. I told him, “First, you would have to stop seeing her. As long as you see her, she will have no incentive to make a decision regarding her marriage.” In short, in this situation, she needs to decide whether to try fixing her marriage or if she really should leave. If she decides to work on her marriage, that’s a cue to stay away from her like she’s the plague and move on.
This is the rest of the advice I gave him: If she decides to leave her husband, ask for proof. Proof means she moved out, got her own apartment, filed for divorce or told the kids she is leaving their father. Any one of these will tell you she’s serious. Next, you stay in her life but as a friend only. If you try for something more too early, she will do a rebound psychologically. This means she will not properly grieve the loss of her marriage, and will instead bring her emotional baggage from her marriage into her relationship with you. You don’t want that. Those issues and emotions don’t belong to you. While she is separated from her marriage, she’ll have a chance to re-establish herself as a single woman again. She’ll grieve the loss of her marriage, at least in theory, and you’ll be a patient friend who supports her objective to live independently. When she starts feeling good again about herself and her choices, you can start gradually dating her. The two of you will have a chance to see how you do in a twosome without the triangle. If there is something there between the two of you, you’ll know it. Unfortunately some relationships with formerly married people need the excitement of the triangle to endure. If that’s the case you’re free again to start a new love life.
I hope you have practiced applying some of the ingredients we’ve talked about in the different chapters of this book, to the love life issues I discuss in this chapter. This would be another neat little benefit from reading and applying what you’ve learned. If you can identify which particular ingredients are involved in a love life issue or story, whether it’s your love life or someone else’s, you’d have a few insights into what is making the particular love relationship you’re considering, work or not work, as the case may be. If you look closely enough into the particular love life, I’m sure you’ll find at least a handful of our love life ingredients in need of additional learning or relearning. If you know what to look for, you can isolate the problem. My dream was to write a book that would give my readers an easy to use way of evaluating and improving the health of any love relationship.
Now that you’ve reached the end of this book, you won’t be thinking about your love life in exactly the same way ever again. You might even have a bunch of questions on your mind, doubts that need answers. Your objective now is to think about your love life as a growing, changing, progressive part of your life you’ll have to keep learning about and taking care of.
You have the ability to learn. That’s a big part of what you’ll need to accomplish this task. You just had to realize how important it was to make your love life a priority. Of course, you’ll have to be patient. Remember, love’s got a mind of its own.
Now that you’ve learned how to take really good care of love when it arrives, the chances are better you’ll be able to keep it nice and healthy.
And one last thing, don’t forget to pass it along. It’s what the world needs now.
Some Unhealthy Love Life Lessons
A book about the healthy love relationship should also at least mention the ingredients or love life lessons that go into the making of an “unhealthy love relationship.” For those of you who appreciate a good list, I have included here a list of some of the more prominent unhealthy love life lessons I can think of. These unhealthy lessons are often a byproduct of unhealthy experiences of control, abandonment-detachment, dependency, abuse, avoidance, manipulation-exploitation, and dishonesty. Unfortunately, the following list is not inclusive given the countless number of unhealthy love life lessons that are possible. But you will find examples here of some of the more common love life lessons, suggested questions you might ask yourself to determine if you’ve been taught particular lessons, and what can be done about them.
Remember there are three possible ways of learning these “lessons:” learning by observation, learning by direct instruction, and learning by being in a relationship with someone. The problem is, this learning often, if not usually, takes place with very little or no awareness. Because of this, it is inevitable that our early love life lessons will get replicated throughout our love lives. That is, unless you become aware of exactly what it is you’ve learned and how these unhealthy love life lessons are controlling your adult love life experience. Of course, the repetition I’m talking about can occur either in the form of you picking a partner who reenacts the unhealthy lessons you’ve learned, or you make yourself available to somebody else who picks you for the same purpose. Ultimately, there isn’t much of a difference in the end. The unhealthy love life lesson ends up dominating your love life either way.
As far as remedies go, like I said in this book, doing a Love Life Review is the way to get yourself off the unhealthy love life hook. First you’ll want to get conscious of what you’ve learned about love that is basically unhealthy. The list that follows is intended to get you started on step one.
Then you’ll challenge the validity of whatever you’ve learned that is not working for you. By “working for you,” I of course mean, helping you find and sustain a healthy love relationship. By the way, “challenge” is an important word here. If you are really motivated to get that healthy love life, you’ll see the limitations in some of what you’ve already learned and refuse to settle for anything less than a healthy love relationship. You’ll ultimately grieve the loss of love in your past love relationships going back to the beginning of your life, and work on freeing yourself for love in the present.
Last but not least, you’ll identify what “intimate” more loving things you can learn or relearn to do instead for better results. It will most assuredly feel like you’re going against the grain, at least at the beginning. Once you’ve practiced a substitution or two, it will get easier, and you’ll surly experience the benefits over time. Go through this list of unhealthy love life lessons and see what applies to your love life.
Did your experiences in life teach you: People that love you will inevitably abandon you, or you will inevitably abandon the person or people you love? If you suffered the unresolved abandonment and loss of someone you love, you will more than likely expect more abandonment in your adult love life. The abandonment you’ll expect could occur in either of two ways: you’ll be abandoned or you’ll abandon someone yourself. Either way, you can understand how toxic this experience can be in the adult love life. Expecting people to leave you and/or expecting to leave will severely limit the deep of a love relationship. Who gets involve to the core, when they know that someone will be headed for the door?
Did your experiences in life teach you: To eventually diminish the amount of time you spend in the presence of the person or people who love and need you? Practicing absence in your love relationships is an obvious way to control the anticipated effects being in love will have on you, and the person or people that love you. The anticipated deleterious effects of your “presence” on people you love are often hidden behind the more obvious fear of your own needs for love. Trying to love an absent person will eventually hurt too much and encourage more absence, as a way to protect oneself from any more hurt. This is one primary way absence is passed down from one generation to another. “Curing” the practice of absence in love will involve learning how to tolerate whatever it is that feels overwhelming about being available in love. Once you’ve gotten good at “being present” this kind of change reinforces itself.
Anger & Aggressiveness
Did your experiences in life teach you: That anger and aggressiveness are necessary in a love relationship to dominate the person you love with fear? One particularly unhealthy love life lesson that is frequently taught is, that disappointments in love should be communicated in the defensive language of anger and aggressiveness, instead of the more open language of hurt and vulnerability. Once this lesson is learned, and there are usually plenty of examples to follow, it’s difficult to translate the feelings back to their original form as hurt that is more accessible and can be healed. All you need to remember is, hurt feelings are “love-friendly.” Anger and aggressiveness tell those in the know that you are hurt and keeping everybody at a distance.
Did your experiences in life teach you: That as a married person you could marry another person as long as you kept both spouses separate and apart? Other than being a part of some esoteric religious or cultural tradition, bigamy practiced on an individual level is a statement of greed, dishonesty, and/or disrespect for a love commitment. This form of love life conduct is commonly communicated through family lore and could be a point of learning by identification for younger members of a family. Marriage requires devotion and exclusivity. Anything less, and the act of marrying someone will be transformed into something else.
Did your experiences in life teach you: To solve problems in your committed love relationship by cheating or infidelity, or to manage your personal fears of intimacy in your committed love relationship by having an affair with someone else? The practice of cheating or infidelity is usually “known” by all members of a family. Cheating is rarely a topic of direct instruction, except under conditions of cultural sanction. Otherwise, cheating is easily learned by example and replicated in subsequent generations. The emotional “rule” tends to be: if something was disturbing or threatening while you were growing up, and you’ve never really dealt with it, there is a good chance you will be replicating something about the experience later on as an adult. The mind doesn’t really forget it just repeats what has been hurtful and unresolved by continuing the hurt in some form as a reminder. This is what usually happens when children are exposed to caregivers in a family who cheat. Cheating and/or selecting potential cheaters, is a common aftereffect. First step in breaking the cycle involves making the connection between what happened then and what is happening now in your life.
Did your experiences in life teach you: To become “child-like” in your thoughts, feelings, and actions when you are in a love relationship? Are you “needy” and look for adult partners who are “parental” in the ways they relate to you in a love relationship? Childlike lovers learn to be childlike in love, driven by the futile hope of getting their disappointed childhood needs met from a parental lover now in adulthood. Apart from the need to grieve the losses and get free of them, there is the difficult issue of believing you’ve found someone who can give you what you’ve lost. The danger is parental lovers don’t come cheap. The price usually involves a considerable measure of control and possessiveness, and when the love relationship is particularly unhealthy, there will be abuse when control isn’t effective. Finding out what you are truly capable of while outgrowing “child-parent” adult love relationships, in favor of something a bit more egalitarian is the way out.
Did your experiences in life teach you: To always expect the person or people you love to hurt you, so you’ve learned to be ready to defend and protect yourself at all times? Chronic defensiveness presupposes that the person you love and loves you is out to get you whenever possible. Some families are so consumed with direct and underlying conflict, that defensiveness gets taught as a matter of course by observation, directly through advice giving, and in the painful experiences of having your feelings bruised before you’ve developed the defenses to ward off the attacks. Unfortunately, recreating a chronic defensiveness in your adult love relationships will only guarantee the loss of love or chronic conflict. Inviting someone to put down the defenses and learn to tolerate vulnerability is a labor of love. Most defensive people I meet need time to figure out how to “survive” in relationships without always using their defenses. You can imagine how much more intensive this kind of worry will be in a love relationship.
Did your experiences in life teach you: To try to find your own personal feeling of security in the consistency and depth of the love you get from the person or people who love you? Chronic insecurity indicates that you are in the habit of looking in the wrong place for something only you can give to yourself. If you grow up around people who are always defining their own emotional stability in terms of other people’s love for them, it’s inevitable that some of this is going to rub off on you. The lesson taught is like the song says: “you’re nobody until somebody loves you.” Think of the insecurity this can create in a person’s love life. The corrective goes something like this: “you’re somebody whether or not somebody loves you!”
Did your experiences in life teach you: To mistrust and protect yourself in love, and expect the person or people that love you to be untrustworthy and take advantage of you when they can? Along with having to protect and defend yourself against attack, mistrust assumes that the person who loves you has a hidden negative agenda of some kind. The suspicion is, he or she is in a love relationship with you not for the love, but for whatever nefarious reasons he or she privately has. “Paranoid” living arrangements are more common than you think. These are people who have learned to be in a long-term relationship with a person they don’t trust, because it’s “familiar,” defined as learned in their family. The ability to outgrow what we were taught about love relationships in our family of origin is a great gift to the individual. The first step is to become aware you have that great gift.
Chronic Worry & Anxiety
Did your experiences in life teach you: To always worry about losing the love you’re getting from the person or people you love? If you fall into this category, you’re going to need plenty of reassurance from the person you are in love with. Problem is, most people have a hard time meeting the need for all that reassurance, on a regular and consistent basis. To say that anxiety and worry is “infectious” in a family is an understatement. If you grew up with adults who were chronically worried and anxious about love, it’s understandable you’d emerge from your family worried and anxious about love in adulthood. You should accept that certain remedial love life lessons are going to be available beyond your family of origin. In other words, you’ve got a bit more to learn about love above and beyond what your family has taught you. No matter, regarding love most of us are in the same boat whether or not we are willing to acknowledge it to ourselves.
Did your experiences in life teach you: To take care of and protect in a self-sacrificing and dependent manner, someone you love who requires support due to addiction or sickness? You may have learned how to be codependent in your love life, by identifying with the codependent behavior of an important, self-sacrificing caregiver in your own family. This unhealthy love life lesson tends to get taught mostly by example, but there can also be a bit of direct encouragement filling in for the primary codependent as an apprentice. Most codependent people I’ve met over the years make quite a stir when they “wake up.” This usually involves setting limits on the people they have been dependent upon and making therapeutically disturbing moves toward their own independence. Once they become aware that these changes are “real love” healing is possible for everyone involved.
Control & Possessiveness
Did your experiences in life teach you: To control and possess the person or people you love, to ensure that you’ll continue to be loved by him or her, and to avoid hurt in your love relationship? The practice of control in a love relationship usually involves an authoritarian effort to stop the person you love from doing things you don’t like. People who try to control love usually have very little faith in compromise and cooperation. A closely related action involves control directed at the person you love as a “possession.”
Control and possessiveness thinly disguise underlying dependency and insecurity issues. Growing up in an authoritarian home where control and possessiveness are practiced is an ideal classroom within which to learn how to perpetuate control in love relationships. Learning to love in freedom with tolerable vulnerability is the required change for lovers who realize they can’t really be themselves acting like tyrants, or subjected to tyranny.
Did your experiences in life teach you: To be dependent on the person or people you are in love with, or to expect the person or people you love to be dependent upon you? Emotional dependency is commonly identified with and recreated as a particular way of trying to resolve one’s past disappointments in love now in adult love relationships.The hope is, you’ll get what you’ve lost and been craving for from another adult in love. The tragic outcome is always frustration and further disappointment. The only real hope we have of outgrowing what we could not get in childhood, is to realize these needs no longer have a place in our lives, work on letting them go, and setting our sights on mastering the healthier ways of love that are possible in adulthood.
Did your experiences in life teach you: To keep a certain physical and/or emotional distance in the relationship with the person or people you love? Unlike absence in love, keeping your emotional distance in a love relationship is one way of trying to be in the relationship, while at the same time being protected from whatever negative effects you’re anticipating love may have on you. It is possible to learn distance by growing up in distant family relationships. A distant person in love is someone who is trying to accomplish a difficult feat, to say the least: to be in love at arm’s length. Going from distance to closeness in love is going to require a little tolerance and perseverance as you figure out what keeps you at a distance. In my experience, once the learned behavior is challenged and you start to practice its opposite, you’ll feel and know in short order why you’ve preferred distance.
Did your experiences in life teach you: Marriages are time limited and bound to split up, because you will eventually and inevitably divorce, or be divorced by the person you marry? Did you learn not to expect your marriage to last, or are you always worried about a breakup? This unhealthy, love life lesson is commonly learned and often replicated in one’s love life by witnessing and directly experiencing the stresses and pains of a family divorce. To have the family foundation crumble underneath your feet, when you still have a lot of emotional needs to meet, can be nothing short of devastating. Grieving the losses, separating their marriage from your marriage, and keeping the experience from predicting your adult love life, is the way out from under the emotional effects of divorce.
Did your experiences in life teach you: That you can control your partner and/or stop him or her from leaving you, by restricting his or her freedom of movement against his or her will? Domestic imprisonment is basically “kidnapping” in a love relationship. It is a specific form of physical abuse where the objective is to curtail the activity of the person you need. A desperate form of possessiveness is obvious in this behavior and it is commonly associated with physical and other forms of abuse. It is common for children and adolescents who’ve been traumatized by abusive treatment, domination, and forced compliance, to recreate from learning extreme forms of abuse like domestic imprisonment. The replay can occur by being drawn to potentially abusive partners with extreme feelings of insecurity, or replicating the behavior with another victim. An ending to this kind of unhealthy love life situation, often involves law enforcement and a painful ambivalent breakup.
Did your experiences in life teach you: To become dysfunctional in a love relationship and expect the person or people you love to take care of you, or to find a dysfunctional person to take care of in a love relationship? Most people who practice being dysfunctional in a love relationship, experienced an encouragement of this behavior directly by caregivers, or witnessed a dysfunctional family member and now perceive dysfunction as a powerful way of controlling caregivers. Understanding the self-sacrifice that goes along with this lifestyle is a must. It is so gratifying to witness a dysfunctional person realize the price he or she is paying for very little return, start looking for those internal resources he or she has neglected, and get back into the driver’s seat. I live for this stuff.
Did your experiences in life teach you: To abusively use the emotions you create with blame or guilt in the person you love, to coerce him or her into doing what you want in your love relationship? Being the victim of chronic blame and guilt is particularly toxic. In a love relationship the emotional consequence of long-term exposure is a chronically low self-esteem. Making your lover feel bad about him or herself may allow for greater malleability, although the risk is growing a depression as a consequence of the poor self-esteem. As with other forms of abuse, learning to be emotionally abusive and/or recreating emotional abuse in your love life, are commonly learned by witnessing the abuse of others when young and/or being the victim of abuse in the same time period. Learning how to communicate vulnerable emotions for intimacy sake without converting what you feel to frustration, anger, and abuse, is the way out if you’re an emotional abuser. Victims, as always, need to feel better about themselves independently of their abusive partners, learn how to “set limits” on this type of behavior, while being able to leave if it doesn’t stop.
Fear of Intimacy
Did your experiences in life teach you: To be afraid of the closeness of an intimate friend or lover? There are many things about intimacy that could be scary. Most of them involve some intolerable measure of vulnerability to being controlled or overwhelmed by the person who loves you. The fear exists in order to keep you free of the anticipated traps you expect will come with getting and staying up close and open in love. The most common way this particular love life lesson is taught is by way of broken commitments. Fearing commitment in love offers a false sense of freedom and safety for the people who have learned to fear love, and an unhealthy love life lesson for the younger people in their lives needing a fulfillment of love.
Did your experiences in life teach you: That the person you are in love with, who is in love with you, “owes you” his or her love, attention, emotional support, and ultimately, financial support when needed or requested? Financial abusiveness commonly occurs when people, who have unresolved love life disappointments and dependency needs, enter a love relationship. Someone else needs to make up for what they’ve lost in their love life. Out of all the things that such a person can try to procure from a lover to finally satisfy these needs carried over from childhood and adolescence, money offers the most attractive false hope. Learning how to “make money” instead of “making love happen in your life,” when the latter is all you originally wanted is so common and easily learned in our society, illustrations here are unnecessary. Detaching money from the dependencies of others because you realize it’s hurting them is a difficult first step. Tolerating the pains of growth, theirs and your own, involved in becoming more independent is usually the second step.
Giving Inadequate Care To Yourself
Did your experiences in life teach you: Not to give adequate care to yourself, and expect the person you love, to give you the care you should give to yourself, when you are in a love relationship? Taking good care of you is a skill that is learned as you outgrow the dependencies of childhood and adolescence. Adults in a family who are perceived to be successful at manipulating others to do for them what they can do for themselves, may be emulated and identified with. This unhealthy learning often leads to chronic limitations bringing your inherent potentials to the forefront of your life. You’ll notice pretty quickly how improvements in how well you take care of and feel about yourself translate into improvements in love life satisfaction. I still think the measure of how well you take care of you will be the best measure of the quality of love you’ll attract.
Hatred of Men/Misandry
Did your experiences in life teach you: To hate all men simply because of their gender? Have you learned to respond to the hurtful actions of one man, or a small number of men, with negative feelings that are now stereotypically generalized to all men? As a human being you are susceptible to the oldest defense in the book: blaming everybody that looks like the person who hurt you. People have been doing that since the beginning of time. Regardless, this particular mind set can cause trouble in your love life. Learning the how and when to think this way is often encouraged by other people, especially the ones you looked up to, who were practicing this stereotypic viewpoint. If a particular man has hurt you, best to focus on his uniqueness, and what you need to do to unload the feelings in a healthy manner. Doing this leaves open the possibility that other “innocent men” will be spared this particular attribution of blame, especially when it’s time to look for love again. One more thing, given the intensity of this feeling, it might be a good idea to check out whether or not a “disappointing father” is also in the mix.
Hatred of Women/Misogyny
Did your experiences in life teach you: To hate all women simply because of their gender? Have you learned to response to the hurtful actions of one woman, or a small number of women with negative feelings that are now stereotypically generalized to all women? Being hurt by a woman and generalizing that hurt into an expectation that all women will hurt you has an obvious self-protective purpose, but the intensity of this feeling tells us there might be something more. The something more part may have to do with the fact that our “first love” in life is our mothers. There is something about losing trust in that relationship that can make love so much more difficult to chance. Regardless, just like with a generalized hatred of men, hating all women because one woman hurt you requires a refocus on the uniqueness of individuals and what can be done to unload the toxic feelings the hurtful experience has created. It’s basically grieving a loss so that it doesn’t contaminate everybody else in your world. Of course in this instance, the “everybody else” just happen to be the same gender as the person who hurt you. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of instructors who have organized their beliefs around the topic of mistrusting women.
Did your experiences in life teach you: That inappropriate and illegal sex with another member of your family is an option in your love life, or the love life of someone you love? The problem is these types of traumatic experiences leave deep wounds, and tend to replicate themselves in the love lives of victims. The unhealthy learning experience takes place while undergoing the original trauma, and the unresolved post-trauma period often involves recreating aspects of the experience with other people especially in the love life. Effective treatment always involves bringing the traumatic experience to adult consciousness, correcting false attributions of responsibility, expressing emotions, dismantling shame and guilt responses, and rebuilding self-esteem and healthy adult relationships.
Did your experiences in life teach you: To look for opportunities to form a “love triangle” in your love life, by looking for someone else to make your marriage or committed relationship more tolerable? Or, are you attracted to lonely people in unhappy relationships whom you can fall in love with and try to save from their unhappiness? Membership in a love triangle, as a limited way of addressing adult love relationship problems, is often visible to younger members of a family as a source of indirect love life instruction. This issue is so common, whenever I write an article about love triangles for my Love Life Learning Center blog they always get a pretty high volume of readership. With some variability depending on which “point” in the triangle you’re at, nobody’s love life can progress while involved in a triangle. In fact, the first and primary remedial lesson to learn is that the triangle exists only because a marital problem is not being solved, either by strengthening the troubled marriage or leaving it.
Did your experiences in life teach you: To use dishonesty and deception in your love relationship, to reduce culpability and avoid responsibility through the omission of facts and/or the deliberate distortion of the truth? Deliberate lying is another form of verbal abuse. This form of abuse is particularly painful because of the element of surprise. Due to the unexpected nature of finding out your lover is a liar you won’t be able to defend yourself from the initial impact and destruction of trust. On the other hand, people who chronically lie in love pay the price of limited intimacy. Consequently, lying as a mode of relating in love is easily taught, and usually obscures the underlying unresolved hurts of past lies. One problem with this particular lesson is the addiction that can result from chronic usage. The compensation for rehabilitating yourself is the sheer relief that occurs when you get used to being yourself to yourself and everybody else in the world. Some say this is the true definition of freedom. Truer love usually follows.
Manipulation & Exploitation
Did your experiences in life teach you: To manipulate and exploit the person or people you love and love you, because you’re convinced they will not love you on their own? Trying to make people you love do and be things regardless of their willingness is a frustrating practice that indicates an omnipotent motivation in relationships. Accepting a lover as he or she is, as a primary act of love, is a fundamental requirement in an intimate love relationship. An extension of manipulation involves the exploitation of a lover as an effort to not only get him or her to do or be what you want, but to use that manipulated change for personal gain. We can expect that a frequent diet of this kind of love life conduct will surely replicate itself in the love lives of offspring growing up under these circumstances. For example, being exploitative or getting exploited in your adult love relationships is the usual outcome when past experiences of exploitation are beyond awareness.
Did your experiences in life teach you: To misrepresent who you really are when in a love relationship, because you believe that the person or people you love would not accept or love the person you really are? A particular form of dishonesty about your own identity can occur in the form of misrepresenting yourself in love life situations. The problem here is, interested parties might fall in love with the person you’re not. Since being who you really are and genuine love share a lot in common, lying of this kind is usually learned directly in painful experiences of not really knowing the people who were supposed to love you. Once again, being your true, unique self in this world is a form of being in love akin to being in love with someone else, only the focus of your affections and acceptance is yourself.
Did your experiences in life teach you: To disregard the emotional needs of the people who love you, while focusing mostly on yourself in a love relationship? Narcissism is a “self-centered” way of coping with the disappointing absence of love growing up. Now relationships are not really relationships, but one-sided futile efforts to get from other adults what was missing earlier in life. Being brought up by narcissistic parents often invites a replication of the pattern, simply by feeling the same loss of love the parent felt, and identifying with the narcissistic solution to the problem. Finally learning that you can’t repair your feelings of loss and emptiness by disregarding the needs of others and remaining fixated on yourself is a painful lesson indeed. Getting a little help with the grieving part of this is recommended. The good news is it is entirely possible to outgrow this unhealthy love life solution and learn how to tolerate intimate reciprocity in love.
Did your experiences in life teach you: To neglect the physical and/or emotional needs of the person or people you love? Neglect is another very powerful way to regulate your emotional involvement in a love relationship, while punishing the person or people that love you with some degree of deprivation at the same time. Being neglected by the people who were supposed to love you in your life could understandably teach you neglectfulness. You end up giving to yourself and others the neglect that was given to you. Becoming conscious of this unhealthy love life lesson can break the “spell” and allow you to problem solve by doing the opposite of what you were trained to expect and getting used to it. Of course, while reaping the benefits.
Did your experiences in life teach you: To keep your thoughts, feelings, and experiences to yourself when you’re in a love relationship? If you don’t talk to and listen to the person you’re in love with, it’ll appear like you have fewer problems to deal with. But in reality the price you’ll pay is you won’t feel connected to him or her. Non-communication can easily become a bad habit that is closely studied by younger individuals in a family of origin and imitated from generation to generation. Not talking about our feelings and needs to the people we love is responsible for a lot of the trouble we have with love these days. Once you become aware of the problem, you can practice putting words together to help the people who love you, love you.
Did your experiences in life teach you: To become “parental” in your thoughts, feelings, and actions when you are in a love relationship? Are you self-sacrificing and seek adult partners who are “child-like” to parent in a love relationship? Parental lovers learn to be parental in love and are driven by the hidden agenda of giving to a childlike lover what they themselves lost and secretly crave. Recreating the circumstances of disappointed childhood needs by finding people to take care of in the ways you yourself should have been taken care of is bound to become a love life misery. The self-sacrifice of your own needs for love, and the unreliability of childlike lovers are two important issues to consider. Chances are you’ll do a lot of running around for less return than you’ll need. Relearning to bring back your own need for love is a step in the right direction.
Did your experiences in life teach you: To use physical force, domination, injury, and pain to control and possess the person or persons you are in love with? When abuse becomes physical in a love relationship, other methods of controlling the intended victim were probably ineffective. The toxicity of this form of abuse is mirrored by the degree of underlying desperation in the abuser. People who practice physical abuse in their love lives have very often been exposed to some form of abuse themselves. Their own abuse experiences have taught them that love is mixed with violence in a love relationship. The victims of physical abuse inevitably learn the same love life lesson, perpetuating abuse by semi-consciously picking potentially abusive partners they try to rehab or partners they themselves abuse. Learning how to set limits on physically abusive partners and finding the fortitude to leave if changes are refused, is the way out. There is a lot of very effective help available for this problem.
Did your experiences in life teach you: That you could marry more than one person and start more than one family at the same time? It appears that “non-marital polygamy” is on the rise in the 21st century in the form of “baby mothers” and “baby fathers.” In my experience, this love life behavior often obscures underlying fears of intimacy, sexual bravado, immaturity, and the absence of healthy love life lessons and models in the area of making and keeping a love commitment. Polygamy is commonly communicated as a love life lesson to younger members of a family through family lore and learning by identification. The objective in extreme cases is to have children without the responsibility of marriage. For some people being parents is easier than being in love. Growing up in a multiple family situation creates understandable questions about parental commitment and what to do about half-siblings.
Did your experiences in life teach you: That it is easier or better to use pornography and/or prostitutes to obtain sexual gratification, than it is to have sex as part of an intimate love relationship? If impersonal sex dominates your love life, there is a strong possibility your ability to be intimate in love is being compromised? What have you learned about love that made closeness to a potential sexual partner complicated with fear? It is common to learn when young that sex must be accompanied by certain responsibilities and dangers that frighten and overwhelm. Seeking emotionally safe sex without responsibility and risk makes sense in this context. The sacrifice, barring a change in the direction of taking risks and learning healthier ways of getting involved, is to endure the emptiness of the experience. When you really become aware of what you’re missing, you start looking for the real thing.
Did your experiences in life teach you: It is easier or better to have multiple, superficial, sexually oriented relationships, than it is to make an emotional commitment to one intimate love relationship? Responsible sexual exploration can be an understandable and useful experience in the psychological maturation of a person. However, sexual exploration gets complicated when it is driven by defensive efforts to overcome underlying feelings of loss and disappointment. Trying to find lost love now in the form of multiple sexual partners can leave a person with deepened feelings of depression and/or sexual addiction. Learning to rely on sex, as a “self-medication” for troubled feelings, is usually the first step into this problem. Learning how to address love life losses directly is usually the first step out.
Did your experiences in life teach you: To react with rage in your love relationship, when your partner disagrees with you or refuses to comply with your request or demand, in order to create fear in him or her and force his or her compliance? The most intensive form of emotional abuse is “raging.” Rage reactions communicate danger through anger that has reached a level that is out of control. After a few bouts of rage, victims locked into an abusive love relationship will have no other alternative than to “walk on egg shells.” In this state a love relationship will more than likely become complicated by fearful compliance and passive-aggressive resentment and opposition. The power play involved can draw impressionable younger members of a family into learning by example, both witnessed and directly experienced. Contrary to some opinions, raging does not make you a real man or establish your dominion as the matriarch of the family. Once the problem is realized, strengthening self-control while developing other more effective ways of expressing feelings you didn’t learn in your family of origin starts the ball rolling.
Rigidity & Stubbornness
Did your experiences in life teach you: To be rigid and stubborn in relationship to the person you love? Is this the way you’ve learned to stay in control and establish yourself independently in your love life? Saying no and refusing to cooperate and/or compromise can appear to be powerful ways of asserting yourself. The problem occurs when the insatiable need to be independent, is stronger than the reasonable, healthy, intimate give and receive that needs to take place in a love relationship. Rigidity and stubbornness can falsely appear powerful and/or as a form of strength to younger members of a family making them examples for learning and emulation. Love life lessons in adulthood that teach us that the way we are acting in a love relationship isn’t working can be painful. Unfortunately, feeling the pain is often necessary before getting motivated enough to make changes.
Did your experiences in life teach you: To view sex as an opportunity to focus primarily on your own sexual needs, to perceive your sexual partner simply as an object with which to procure your own sexual pleasure and gratification? Self-centered sex implies the absence of relation during sex, the absence of intimacy with someone you are having sex with. It would be well worth reviewing what you’ve learned about sex growing up. You could find out that your love life lessons thus far, have taught you to view sex as a lopsided venture, skewed in the direction of your own pleasure, while forfeiting an opportunity for deeper and more enriching interpersonal experience. Learning and practicing the fine art of considering another person’s sexual needs at the same time as your own, will surely lead you to progressively deeper experiences of gratification going forward.
Did your experiences in life teach you: Separation is the best way to handle conflict in a marriage or committed love relationship? Do you expect that you will eventually have to separate from your own husband, wife, or lover? This lesson of separation is generally learned in the family of origin as a consequence of having to cope with the feelings of loss that occur. The more unresolved these feelings of loss, along with the irrational feelings of personal responsibility that children and adolescents can experience, the greater its influence going into adulthood. Most offspring of parental separation worry about losing parental involvement when parents are losing their marriages. Reassurances of continued parental presence and the proof of commitment go a long way toward normalizing early life despite marital separation. It’s amazing how often my adult patients will recall the parental separation they endured as children and still wonder how responsible they might have been for it.
Did your experiences in life teach you: That you have the right to coerce or directly force sex with the person you are in a love relationship with or married to, against his or her will? This category of abuse essentially involves some form of forcing sex regardless of the level of commitment in the relationship. Being sexually abused as a child or adolescent can predispose a person to continued abuse in his or her adult love life. Once again, love has gotten contaminated with other things, in this case violence. If you learn through experience that sex is associated with force, you will grow to expect that to be the case, until a treatment experience disrupts this unhealthy association. Sexual abusing as a learned behavior is usually the consequence of prior abusive experiences, in combination with sexual immaturity, hostility, and a potential for violence instead of vulnerability. Learning to respect the “sovereign will” of the individual you love is the knowledge and understanding that puts an end to sexual abuse in a love relationship.
Did your experiences in life teach you: To control the person or people who love you with subtle or direct threats to harm or injury physically, emotionally, or through some other consequence if he or she does not comply with your demands or meet your needs? One particular form of verbal abuse that is too often found in love relationships is the use of threats to create fear. The objective is to more effectively control the person you love when he or she is in a fearful state of mind. Threatening behavior can become a feature of your love life, either by identifying with threatening authority, and/or semi-consciously looking for a partner who will recreate your fearfulness with threatening behavior. Once you realize fear and power inhibit love, you can start putting limits on this kind of behavior
Did your experiences in life teach you: To avoid the feelings of grief and loss that naturally occur when you lose someone you love? Were you taught to stay away from love because you could lose it, or to avoid the pain of loss by jumping in and out of love relationships? Unresolved grief can linger and become the source of a fear of intimacy in adulthood, promote chronic defensiveness in love life situations, or become the cause of mental and/or physical illness. Understanding that grief is not sickness but the understandable aftermath of losing love makes the experience a little easier to tolerate. The thing to remember is, for all your trouble, grieving the lost of love clears the way in time for love again. Needing a little help to grieve is not weakness, just a solid way of taking care of yourself.
Did your experiences in life teach you: To use your words to criticize and deride the person or people that love you in order to dominate and control your love relationship?
Personal insecurity and/or fears of loss and abandonment are usually at the root of abusive behavior, and this is certainly true when words are the primary method of abusing. Witnessing verbal abuse, and/or being the victim of verbal abuse, will have a lasting impact on a person. One common aftereffect is learning and expecting that love will be mixed with verbal violence, either as an abuser or target of abuse. Learning to set limits on verbal abuse while tending to and protecting self-esteem is the usual first step for victims. Accessing the courage to address insecurity in a more open and vulnerable manner is the usual corrective for the abuser.
Did your experiences in life teach you: To intimidate the person or persons that love you using the high volume of your voice to create fear and submission? Yelling is a specific form of emotional abuse commonly found in unhealthy love relationships. The intention here is to overpower the person you are talking at. The content of what is being communicated is never as important as the way in which it is being communicated. Yelling means stop doing what you’re doing without negotiation or compromise. As a defense against insecurity and vulnerability, yelling is a bullying tool to keep the people you love and need in line. As a learned love life behavior, yelling is usually taught by example. Feeling the controlling effects of yelling in a relationship, and witnessing its apparent success in managing other relationships, can motivate identification with the person who yells. Being able to perceive the desperation in yelling helps reduce fear reactions while exposed to this love life behavior. As with any form of mistreatment, learning to set limits and getting to the point where you can survive a breakup if it doesn’t stop are the correctives.
Thomas Jordan, PhD is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst. He is a graduate and faculty member of New York University’s Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis. Dr. Jordan is the author of the psychoanalytic text, Individuation in Contemporary Psychoanalysis, and the founder of the Love Life Learning Center at LoveLifeLearningCenter.com. He shares a group practice in Manhattan with his wife, Victoria S. Jordan, LCSW, herself a couple-therapist and psychoanalyst. Dr. Jordan’s clinical specialty and research interest is treating the emotional illnesses that occur as a consequence of unhealthy relationship experiences and love life problems. Dr. Jordan has been in practice in New York City since 1987.
How to Call WordPress Phone Numberx