Jennifer was late for her appointment. She wore no makeup, was dressed in warm-ups and her eyes were swollen. She whispered, “Jay left, but I have no idea why. All he said was he didn’t want to be in a committed relationship without love. The sad thing is, I don’t know what love is, anymore. I only have some notion of what it isn’t.”
“Could you tell me what it isn’t?”
“Well, it’s not living in a silent world, where people don’t communicate and don’t share themselves. I had a relationship like that and it was horrible.
It isn’t abuse or hostility. In high school, I fell for a boy I thought was wonderful, until he hit me. I forgave him, but then he hit me at school and someone reported it to the principal. After my parents got involved, we were forbidden to see one another.
It isn’t something you can force. In my first marriage, I tried everything I could to feel love for him. It took me a long time to realize that what little we had was a lie. It was only the result of what I created in my mind.
Nor is it never arguing. In the past, I always avoided conflict. I capitulated and made excuses for bad behavior, but it didn’t result in a healthy relationship. What it did was create anger and resentment, not love.
It certainly isn’t getting gifts. Jay always brought me things and I saw it as love. I thought, ‘Look what he got me. He must love me.’ Obviously, it didn’t mean love to him and, now that he’s gone, it isn’t love for me.
One thing I do know is that, in all my previous relationships, I behaved out of fear. Not for financial reasons, but because I feared being alone. My fear caused me not to say what I thought or felt. I held everything inside me. It was the same throughout my childhood. Mom was always sick. Most of what went on in the house revolved around her illnesses. Dad was gone a lot. He explained that he had to work to pay doctor bills. Either way, I felt alone and that no one cared. Now, I know for sure, love isn’t being afraid, because I’ve been afraid all my life. I’ve never felt loved.
The last thing that comes to mind is, you’re right, I’ve hedged on my feelings. When you first said that, I thought you were accusing me of not feeling. Now I know you were trying to tell me I didn’t tell people how I felt, what I needed, or what I wanted. I thought if I did, I’d give them another opportunity to disappoint me. I was too frightened to be vulnerable. Before therapy, I really thought I felt. I was happy, sad, angry, but I rarely let it out. I only reacted inside. I’m just beginning to see the tip of that iceberg and it’s frightening. The more I see me, the less I can blame others. It’s strange, I always thought I was warm and loving and caring and now I realize I am a loving person with most people, but not those that mean the most to me. With them, I’m defensive. I guard myself so I won’t be hurt.”
Jennie’s words were brilliant. They totally illustrate what, in varying degrees, most people experience. No one escapes childhood without emotional injury. To the extent you were injured, you put up walls to protect yourself from being hurt again. The more the initial hurt, the higher and thicker the wall. The irony is, the higher and thicker the wall, the more difficult it is for anyone to share your life. To alter the pattern, i.e., to let someone enter your life, you need to pay a price. That price involves taking the risk of being abandoned or rejected again which, let me assure you, is bound to occur anyway. It happens to everyone. However, eventually, someone will come along who truly wants to reach you, know you and love you.
So, what’s love? As Jennie said, it’s being able to set limits and to stand up for yourself. It’s being willing to risk arguing over little things and big things until you realize that little things aren’t worth arguing about and most big things are really little. It’s kindness and caring, not abuse or hostility. It’s living in reality, not make believe. It’s recognizing that marriage isn’t perfect, because people aren’t perfect. Consequently, living with another human being, with both of your collective fears and idiosyncrasies is a difficult, if not frightening, chore. It’s far easier to do when you’re dating than when you’re committed, trying to raise a family and educate, care for and bring up children.
To sustain love, you must recognize that positive results don’t come about like a bolt of lightening. For love to thrive, you have to turn your own generators on in order to keep the electricity flowing. Before you can do that, you have to want to and “wanting to” won’t come about if you’re filled with fear, resentment or anger. To eliminate or mitigate those emotions, you must maintain a rational self interest that allows you to show your partner who you are, what you are, what you like, what you want and what you won’t abide by. None of which is possible when you live fearfully. No one emotion interferes more with the establishment of a healthy loving relationship than fear. I am convinced that the degree to which you are fearful of showing you, of sharing you and expressing who you really are is the degree to which you cannot love. No matter how many gifts you give, no matter how many loving words you utter, if they stem from fear, they carry no weight and have no substance.
To summarize, it’s evident, the more confident and healthy you are, the better your loving relations. So, express your needs, be who you are and face your fears. Don’t blame your actions or emotions on others because, you brought your fears with you. If you hadn’t, you wouldn’t be in the predicament you’re in now. Lastly, wear your emotions, i.e., sensitivity and caring, on your sleeve. Not so much that they’re stepped on, but sufficient that others know the hurts and joys you experience and the love you have for them.