So Just What Is Love, Anyway?
Love is an extraordinary word, an infinite container for all the wishes, fantasies, needs, and impulses we have for connection. It's a one-size-fits-all term that is applied to an enormous range of relationships and emotions. Charlie Brown said that love is a warm puppy. But love also describes the way you feel about your mate on your wedding day; it's the way you feel about a beloved relative who is being laid to rest; and it's even the desperate wish a child has to earn the affection of an abusive parent. We call it love when you surrender to sexual union with your beloved, but it's also love that lashes you with pain when that same lover has betrayed you. Love may be as exhilarating as your wildest infatuation, as depressing as changing your demented mother's diaper, or as enraging as picking up your drunk sister at a local bar.
So what is love, anyway?
The basic instinct uniting all of these experiences has nothing whatever to do with the feel-good quality we commonly think of as love. Rather, the core of love is loyalty, simple, blind loyalty. In Porgy and Bess, Bess described it well:
Maybe he's lazy, maybe he's slow
Maybe I'm crazy, baby I know
Can't help lovin' that man of mine.
"Can't help lovin' " is the strongest bond of connection a human can feel. That recognition of core loyalty as the basis for love appears over and over again in human culture. Our wedding vows promise love "for better or worse." Our marines pledge Semper fidelis. Even children cement their loyalty to their friends by pricking their skin and becoming blood brothers or sisters.
Go a bit deeper, though, and it's obvious that the drive to be loyal isn't even uniquely human at all. It's embedded within animal nature and may be particularly strong within some mammalian species. Primates live in troops and establish relationships of loyalty and obedience to other individual animals. Dogs are remarkably loyal, even reaching outside their own species to form lifelong relationships; God give us the strength to be the people our dogs think we are. Tiny mountain voles form bonded relationships, living as lifelong monogamous pairs in furry affection. It's clear that the drive to be loyal to specific, familiar individuals is hardwired in evolutionarily ancient centers of our brains. The power of the drive emerges in human infancy, for by seven months babies howl in protest if they are held by a stranger. Love is an instinct that's central to our human, even our animal, nature, and you shouldn't try to fool Mother Nature.
Given the power of loyalty, if you could learn to really harness and direct that drive, your life would be graced with an enhanced sense of meaning and fulfillment. If you were able to inspire the loyalty of those you care about -- inspire and maintain it throughout your lifetime -- imagine how enriched every aspect of your life would feel. If you were able to channel your own ability to remain loyal -- to choose the right people to love, to nurture and sustain that love throughout your life -- imagine how sustaining your relationships would feel.
Hidden Dangers of Loyalty
But as powerful and wonderful as loyalty is, it does carry hidden dangers.
The first danger is that in a long-term committed relationship it's easy to take your "other's" loyalty for granted. You may become so convinced that it's an entitlement you've earned through the passage of time or shared hardship that you become insensitive to strains you are placing on the relationship. Loyalty is indeed powerful, but it's not absolutely reliable. Two people in a relationship may have very different levels of loyalty, and very different tolerance for the stresses that erode love. The increasing rates of divorce and infidelity in our society are testimony that loyalty can be overridden by many factors. When that happens, the spouse who has been faithful often feels blindsided. In fact it may be that their loyalty itself was a blindfold, blocking their view of problems.
The second danger is that you both may take loyalty so for granted that you've stopped asking important questions about your relationship. You're not in danger of losing the relationship, but questions like "Are we happy?" or "Are we really good for each other?" aren't addressed. For some couples, their loyalty carries a self-righteous stamp of approval, whether or not the relationship promotes mental health or personal growth.
In fact, some of the most pain-inflicting relationships are the most loyal, at least in some sense of the word. For some couples, the remorse, the professions of love, and even the passionate renewal that follow ugly verbal or physical fights serve as relationship Super Glue. Nothing is more seductive than the tenderness of reconciliation. Yet the repeated wounds of conflicts may be very damaging to the self-esteem of one or both people in the relationship, resulting in permanent scars of cynicism and mistrust.
So yes, you want love. But make it a quest for good love, really good love. Love that not only has a strong foundation of loyalty, but love that makes you genuinely happy and promotes your emotional growth and personal evolution.
Cheating Yourself out of Love
If you have begun to believe that you are cheating yourself out of love, your first question is "Why have I done that?" The answer is simple: for a good reason. Human beings do not deprive themselves of love because they wish to be unhappy. They do not behave in self-defeating ways out of an inherent desire for isolation. You developed your repertoire of attitudes and behaviors about love for reasons that made a great deal of sense in the context in which they formed.
Joyce, for instance, is a young woman who almost never dates at all. Occasional blind dates seem to go nowhere, and she is never spontaneously asked out by men she knows. Although her girlfriends like her, men are put off by her sarcasm and a certain toughness in her personality. Yet she's terribly lonely, especially at night, and increasingly spends her evenings with a box of DoubleStuf Oreos for comfort.
Obviously Joyce's toughness holds her back from love, and she herself knows it's a problem. But her personality developed as it did for a good reason. Joyce was raised in a large, boisterous family with three older brothers who teased her mercilessly. Her mother was too overwhelmed to intervene in the children's squabbles, and Joyce was left to deal with her brothers' venom on her own. Sarcasm and toughness were good emotional survival mechanisms, certainly much more helpful than bursting into tears every time she was teased.
Betsy's story is different. She started to date in her late teens and had several casual relationships in college. In her midtwenties Betsy fell in love with Tony, who was ten years older than she and had children from his first marriage. They dated for six years, and during the last several years she pressed him to get married several times. Each time, they weathered the crisis, Tony reassuring her of his love and his intention to marry when his kids got a little older and more settled. Then one day Betsy came to see him unexpectedly. In his bathroom wastebasket she found an empty panty-hose package -- a brand that she had never used. After a tearful confrontation Tony confessed to his affair and admitted that he had begun to feel that he wanted to end the relationship with Betsy. She was devastated.
That was ten years ago. Betsy has not been in a serious relationship since Tony. She has remained frozen in her ability to love and trust again, and though she pays lip service to wanting to have a relationship, she does not make any serious effort to meet men.
If you are holding yourself back from love, your good reasons are probably some variation on the themes of Joyce and Betsy. At some period, or point in time, you felt the need to protect yourself from the vulnerability of love. Perhaps you experienced sustained assaults over a long period, through relationships at home or in school, that made you wall off your heart from further hurts. Or perhaps you experienced deep betrayal or disappointment once or more and began to believe that love was too risky a business to try again.
It's important to try to understand those experiences, and to compassionately acknowledge and accept the decisions you once made about love as simply the best way you knew to respond at the time. But it's even more important to be able to say: That was then and this is now. Make those words your mantra. The price you pay by remaining in a freeze-frame of old trauma is too enormous, too tragic. It's time to move on.
I once worked with a woman in therapy who was struggling to change an aspect of her emotional life. At one point she looked at me and said, "I've just got to change this. This is my one life, and I'm going to get to be dead for a long time."
I told that story to a friend who believes in reincarnation, and he said, "Well, I disagree. But it's because I believe I must prepare for the next life that I feel it's my responsibility to myself to live as fully as I can in this life."
So no matter what your philosophy of life is, you owe it to yourself to make the most of your time here on planet Earth. To allow one period of bad relationships to become the determining factor of everything else that ever happens to you may be understandable -- but it's a terrible waste nonetheless.
Life on Both Sides
I've lived on both sides of the love fence. I married at twenty-one, went through medical school, residency, started my psychiatry practice, had two children, and was divorced at thirty-six. When I divorced, it quite literally never dawned on me that I would not quickly remarry, but in fact, I did not meet Jeb, the man who was to become my life partner, until I was forty-eight. Although I had several good dating relationships, I increasingly began to believe that I would never again find a soul mate, and that I would therefore never marry again.
Early on, though, I was struck by an image that stayed with me through the next twelve years. On my first Thanksgiving as a single person, I decided to fill my home with love and laughter by inviting all of my single friends for the feast. Thanksgiving morning, I began making the pumpkin pies. I kneaded the dough for the crust, rolled it out, and cut one perfect circle for the first pie. The sight of the remaining dough filled me with a sense of utter aloneness, for I was suddenly reminded of the loss of my one central relationship, my marriage. But I then gathered up the remaining bits and pieces, rolled them out, and made a second pie. The second pie looked rather homely, for there were cracks and crevasses where the bits were joined together. But when I served up both pies, they tasted just as good as each other, and the second pie was consumed with as much gusto as the first.
Love is like that. Of course you want that one, whole, perfect love that will meet all your needs and never desert you. Deprived of that love, you may forget that you can find bits and pieces of wonderfully loving relationships all around you -- from family, friends, coworkers, people at church or other organizations, or even from small, simple moments in daily living. Every single person experiences that challenge: Will you retreat from life when you don't get that one perfect pie, or can you create and enjoy the richness of the second pie?
I truly loved that second pie during my long period of singlehood. Nonetheless, I understood myself well enough to recognize that I fundamentally wanted that one central relationship. I admit it, I have always been a happy little piggy at the trough of life, and I wanted the first and the second pie. So I had to search within get to the heart of the matter and to understand the issues that were holding me back from love.
Maybe you do, too.
You Have to Break a Rule
To change your love life, you have to break
the psychological "rules" that are holding you back.
Simply put, if your current strategies for finding love have been unsuccessful, you have to use new strategies to have better results. Whatever it is that you're doing, it isn't working. The passage of time has proven that, right? Why keep making the same mistakes over and over?
Each of us has a lengthy, detailed code of rules written deep within our unconscious minds that guides our behavior in matters of the heart. Your rule book determines to whom you will be attracted; how you will present yourself to that person; what your implicit and explicit expectations will be; what you are willing to give and what you expect to get; and so forth. If you repeatedly lose out in love, some of your rules need to be rewritten. Maybe they're in the section "Who Rings My Chimes?" Maybe it's later on, in "What Am I Willing to Invest in a Relationship?" Maybe it comes under "What Stresses Do I Get to Dump on the Schmo Who Tries to Love Me?"
The rule I had to change to find my relationship was simple, but it had had a profound impact on my life. It was under the section "How Much Discomfort and Frustration Am I Willing to Tolerate in a Relationship to Make It Work?" This section was actually quite short, for there was just one rule: NOT VERY MUCH. And while that rule made my life pleasant in the short run, on several occasions it had prevented me from developing deeper relationships. I had to change that rule to tolerate the frustrations of the long-distance relationship I began with Jeb, for it was really scary to fall in love with him when our future together was extremely uncertain. But then I really had to change that rule to leave my home and career in South Carolina and move to Maine to put our lives together.
If you're drawing a blank on which of your rules might be standing in the way of finding love, think about potential mates you know. Do you find yourself thinking:
"Lee's terrific, but I couldn't be married to someone who smokes."
"Terry's really neat, but I wouldn't want to have to deal with those kids from that first marriage."
"Shelley's been such a wonderful friend, but it would be tough to live with someone who is so messy."
"I really like Kyle, but I don't think I could stand living with a workaholic."
Perhaps your rule book contains prohibitions such as: No smokers. No kids or major baggage. Has to be neat. Can't be a workaholic.
All of those are good rules, no question about it. But the issue remains, whatever your rules are, are they worth the price of a life without love?
You alone can answer that question.
Maintaining "Good Love" in a Long-Term Relationship
As challenging as it is to be aware of your rule book for starting a relationship, it's even more challenging to be aware of the gazillions of rules you unconsciously impose when your relationship becomes permanent. The rules cover every breathing moment of your relationship, and they define what does and doesn't happen in your love life. Most importantly, they determine what the relationship feels like to you and your other.
People fall in love in a thrilling storm of attraction, lust, and excitement. Once that storm has passed, however, people remain in love for a simple reason: they like the way their other makes them feel.
Psychiatrists use a word, affect, to describe those moment-by-moment feelings that you experience in the course of the day. Mood is the emotional climate you experience over a period of days, weeks, and months, while affect is the much more fluid, reactive emotional coloration of the moment. Affect isn't commonly used in lay language, but it describes a really important aspect of how people relate.
Think about each friendship or relationship you have, and you'll be quickly aware that each one has a distinct affective profile. You probably have a few friends who reliably make you laugh. Maybe you have a family member who makes you feel guilty, anxious, or worried. Perhaps you have work associates who make you feel bored and flat, or an in-law who makes you feel withdrawn. All of those are feelings triggered by subtle aspects of your interaction.
What's more, you'll observe that in time your affective response to an individual begins to take on a life of its own. When you know someone well, he or she hardly has to say or do anything to trigger a cascade of feelings. Maybe all your mother-in-law has to do is walk in the room to make you feel irritated. Or perhaps all your best friend has to do is roll her eyes to make you start to laugh. Your affective reaction to an individual becomes an ingrained reaction that is difficult to change, even when you try hard. That's why it's so hard to refall in love with someone you've fallen out of love with.
Just as you react to others, others are reacting to you with affects triggered by your behavior. You do this in two ways. First, feelings are contagious. If you are happy, you will make others happy just by your presence. If you're anxious or depressed, those feelings will also infect others. The feelings you engender in others will not be as strong as your own. But like whiffs of perfume -- or sour body odor -- they can influence whether your other is turned on or off by you. Take a moment and think about what your typical emotional state is throughout the day; that's what you're making other people feel, too.
The second, more powerful way is by specific interactions with your other. The things you say and do, as well as the things you don't say or don't do, all trigger emotions in others. That's a no-brainer, right? But what's so hard to appreciate is your repetitive pattern of subtle responses, postures, and behaviors that are unconsciously determined and communicated. It's challenging enough to become aware of the explicit things you say in a relationship, for at least you can think a moment about your words before they leave your mouth. What's harder, though, is to become sensitive to the slew of behaviors that you never even consciously scrutinize. Two categories of behavior are especially challenging: sins of omission and nonverbal behaviors.
Why Are Sins of Omission So Destructive?
As you learn about the essential behaviors of good love and sharpen your observations of how you react in relationships, I will repeatedly call your attention to the things you neglect to do -- sins of omission. If you have trouble finding someone to love, you are not fully aware of all the opportunities for connection you let slip through your fingers, and you'll never even know what you've missed. If you are in a relationship, you may not be aware of all the tiny behaviors you're not engaging in that might really build a stronger love. It's relatively easy to observe big, obvious things you do to damage love. It's so much harder to become aware of the relationship "glue" you're not creating. You rationalize why you act the way you do, without asking the really important question: Yes, but at the end of the day is my behavior "working?" Is it bringing me the love I want?
Listen to the words of Clem as he described why he bailed out of his relationship with Leigh:
"I've dated a lot of girls, and Leigh was a really sweet girl. We had some good times together. But there just wasn't enough -- I don't know, chemistry, or electricity, or something -- to keep it together.
"Part of it was that she was always sort of low-key. Like, if I suggested we do something, like go to a game or a movie, she'd never be really enthusiastic about it. We could go to a great movie, and I'd want to talk about it afterward, but she never really wanted to get into it. She'd always change the subject and want to talk about something practical.
"But the thing that was really hardest for me was that I never really knew what she was thinking. She was extremely quiet and kept a lot to herself. I don't think it was the quietness itself that bothered me, but the fact that I felt like it was just hard to know what was going on inside her."
Clem wasn't talking about bad things that Leigh did -- he was talking about what she didn't do. When people talk to me about why their relationships fail, they speak of the acts of omission at least as often as the acts of commission. I hear:
"She just was so unaffectionate."
"He just didn't have much of a sense of humor or willingness to have fun."
"She seemed uncomfortable around my friends."
"He just lacked spontaneity. Everything had to be planned."
"She just seemed so unmotivated in her life."
Acts of omission are difficult to grasp because they are more unconscious in origin than acts of commission. They may pervade your relationship, but it is much harder for you and your lover to talk acts of omission than the tangible problems you have. It may literally never dawn on you that you are leaving out a vital nutrient of a relationship unless your lover is able to tell you. And if your fundamental problem is not having a relationship at all, it's especially important to address what you don't do that keeps you alone.
Why Are Nonverbal Behaviors More Powerful
in Love than Verbal Behaviors?
Nonverbal behaviors are all the ways you communicate in relationships that do not involve talking. They include behaviors such as how and where you sit in the room when your other is present, and whether you make eye contact or laugh at his jokes. But they also include such things as how you decide to spend your free time, whether you initiate sex, and whether you remember and respect your other's likes and dislikes.
The vast majority of interactions are communicated nonverbally, rather than verbally. The challenge is that others are far more aware of your nonverbal messages than you are; the unconscious mind never really sleeps, and we are constantly communicating to others our real feelings. Further, when others are disturbed by our nonverbals, it is often difficult to address the problem up front. Your other might feel silly saying something like "I hate it that you make poor eye contact with me" or "Your body odor signals to me that you don't want to be close." But even if others don't address the issue with you, they react to your nonverbal cues.
Many affects contribute to the erosion of love, but anger, tension, and guilt are the royal three that are particularly damaging. Jean described how chronic guilt killed her friendship with Marge:
"Marge and I were great friends for a long time, really we were. We would have such a blast together, and there was a long period of time when we were inseparable.
"But then I just started having less time for our friendship. I had started dating Jeff, so that made me less available, and work was pretty demanding, too. So instead of seeing Marge once or twice a week, it went to once or twice a month. I know that was hard on her, but realistically, what was I supposed to do? Dump Jeff so that I could stay friends with Marge?
"But I knew it was an issue, and so I tried to keep contact by calling her frequently and making sure that we saw each other every couple of weeks. But then she started guilt-tripping me. Nothing big, but whenever she'd answer the phone I'd hear this sad little 'hello.' This tragic little voice. And she wouldn't call me, but when I called her, she'd say something like 'Well, I haven't heard from you for a while.' And so I'd apologize, because I really did feel guilty.
"But then one weekend I called her and she didn't call back. On Monday she e-mailed me, and I was busy but I e-mailed back just a couple of lines. So then she e-mailed back this note: 'Well, so kind of you to surface for a moment.' That did it for me. I knew that if I confronted her, she'd tell me I was making a big deal over nothing, that it was just a joke -- and I'm sure it was. But I just got so tired of feeling guilty every single time we had contact that I just withdrew completely."
On the Horns of a Dilemma
So here's the question you face as you begin to think more carefully about your love relationships. If the "devil" of relationships is in the "details" of tiny, repetitive behaviors, is the solution to become more vigilant about your every move, your every breath? Of course not. The best and happiest relationships are the most spontaneous. You want to be more free to be yourself, after all, not more self-conscious about your every move, right? So how in the world do you improve the way you interact with loved ones without becoming paralyzed by self-scrutiny?
Answer: By developing your ability to practice the Five Essentials of healthy loving. The Essentials target the underlying themes and issues that organize your behavior and emotional responses. While the Essentials are a set of specific behaviors you can begin to practice right away, they work from the outside in to change fundamental ways you think about yourself and your relationships. It's impossible to practice the Essentials without challenging basic ways that you think about love. And as you evolve in your capacity to love, your unconscious mind will automatically begin to reprogram the tiny nonverbal ways you interact with others.
It all starts with engagement, the first Essential. Engagement is a way of approaching your relationships that emphasizes loving interest in, rather than ownership of, your other. It's the simplest of all behaviors, and yet it is the most precious gift you can give another human.
Copyright © 2003 by Linda Austin, M.D.
You know what it feels like when "something's missing."
You sense a vague discomfort, a whiff of uneasy numbness that creeps up during quiet moments. Nonsense, you scold yourself. Snap out of it. There's no reason to mope. Don't let anyone notice. I have so much to be grateful for.
A few hours, a few days, pass. There it is again. That flatness. I feel like I'm just going through the motions. I hope no one notices.
Perhaps that feeling steals over you when you least expect it, at times when you really ought to feel happy. You may be in a decent relationship and can't quite figure out what's wrong. Where's that sense of detachment coming from? Is there something wrong with your relationship? Or is something wrong within you?
Maybe it's clear to you that there is something wrong with your current relationship. You just don't feel an exchange with your "other." No connection. Perhaps your interactions feel hollow, maybe even contentious, and you're not sure what to do about it. Whose fault is it? Can you fix it, or is this what happens to all long-term relationships?
Or perhaps you know there's something missing because you're not in a love relationship at all. Maybe it's been so long since you've dated that when your friend asked you if you were seeing someone, you thought she meant a psychiatrist. You've learned to keep a stiff upper lip. You have good friends and you like your job. But all too frequently you have that thought: There's something missing.
And you know what it is: love.
Love is a vital emotional nutrient. In its absence you experience psychological hunger pains, a gnawing sense of inner emptiness. In small doses, lack of love produces brief pangs that send you scurrying to connect with someone, like a dieter who can't pass by the refrigerator without making a raid. But just as prolonged physical starvation actually becomes painful, prolonged lack of love inflicts an emotional pain of its own.
Whether your starvation is caused by an unsatisfying relationship or by having no relationship at all, you have just two ways to respond to the "something's missing" feeling. The first is to "try harder" to connect with others. If you're in a relationship, you "try harder" with your "other." You get a new outfit, suggest a weekend away, or propose a new activity to share. You ask your mate what's wrong, and you may or may not get a reply that helps you reconnect. If you're single, you "try harder" by reaching outside your routine life. You call your friends and ask them to set you up. You scan the singles' ads on-line and in the newspaper or maybe you call a dating service. You decide to go to the next reception you're invited to -- who knows, maybe there will be someone interesting there.
But if despite your best efforts you just can't reconnect with someone, you take the second choice. You begin to give up -- not all at once, but in bits and pieces. You retreat from your discomfort by hiding out within your "secret self." You withdraw from your mate, zoning out in your private thoughts and fantasies. If you're single, you develop solitary routines that comfort you -- pizza and a video on a Friday night, lengthy long-distance calls to friends on weekends -- that ward off loneliness and fortify you as a self-contained unit. Within your secret self you create distractions that block awareness of your loneliness. You find ways to protect yourself from intimate contact with others who are disappointing or frustrating.
Hiding away in your secret self may take many forms. Maybe you escape from your current relationship by developing a big, whopping crush on someone who's out of reach; even while you're making love to your mate, you're imagining you're in the arms of another. Perhaps you spend hours slouched in front of the television, preferring to watch the battles of Survivor rather than fight for survival in your own family. Maybe you retreat from opportunities to meet a new love by staying in your apartment night after night, cocooned in a world of the Internet or videos. Maybe you marry your career or your aging mother or the gym down the street. Or you bury yourself in work conflicts...or spend hours surfing the Net...or become preoccupied by the ups and downs of your stock portfolio.
As you pull your heart and mind away from the reality of the here and now, you substitute a fantasy world you create for yourself. The ability to live within a world of fantasy begins at an early age, for even tiny children love the world of "Pretend." Think back to your own childhood. You may remember times when you dealt with pain, confusion, or betrayal by immersing yourself in an imaginary experience that lifted you out of the hurt of the moment.
Carrie, a woman who suffered from lifelong depression, told me how she dealt with the neglect she'd experienced in childhood from her emotionally disturbed mother. "At night, in bed, I would snuggle down in my pillow and I'd imagine that the Good Fairy was there to take care of me. The Good Fairy was my wonderful friend, like a mother and father put together for me. She was always there, making me feel loved and cared about.
"Then, as I got older, it was the Virgin Mary who was my mother. We were raised Catholic, and the Virgin Mary was really a big thing for me. So whenever my mother failed me, which was all the time, I would just pray to the Virgin Mary and be comforted.
"My life now should be fine. I have a good job and friends who care about me. So I don't know quite why I'm depressed, except that I think that all of those years as a child have left their mark. I lived in my fantasies, but it's just not the same as having a real mother."
It's just not the same. Whether you're five or sixty-five, love in your own head is just not the same as love in the here-and-now world. As with a plant whose roots begin to shrivel and die from prolonged drought, retreating into your own head makes you progressively less able to receive emotional nutrients from the world. Your growth becomes stunted, your color fades, your spirit droops.
As disconnection progresses, a vicious cycle begins. The more you retreat, the more comfortable you become in your own world, and the harder it is to take a risk in the interpersonal world -- the real world. As you pull away from others, they start to pull away from you as well, and your opportunities for connection diminish. What you need is a jump-start out of that vicious cycle. A concrete plan of action to get you reconnected with the human world...and opportunities to find love.
So What's at the Heart of the Matter?
If you are aware that your life is suffering from a love deficit, you've doubtless asked yourself the questions Is there something wrong with me? What am I doing wrong? You look around and see friends -- or worse yet, people you can't stand -- who are not as attractive or bright or even pleasant as you. Yet some of them seem to have found love, good love. If they can do it, why not you? What's at the heart of the matter?
In my first book, What's Holding You Back? Eight Critical Choices for Women's Success, I explored the "psychological glass ceiling," the emotional barriers that keep women from achieving career success. This book is about a different kind of inner glass ceiling: the one that holds you back from the heights of great love. Just as many women perceive barriers to career success as external rather than self-imposed, it's easy to believe that what holds you back from love is "out there." There just aren't any good men out there. My work is too demanding. My first priority is raising my kids. It's hard to find someone who shares my values.
There may well be at least a kernel of reality in all of those barriers to love. Of course it may take time to find someone who is really the right fit for you. But you may also be using those external issues as shields against looking at your internal issues. Your goal is to find ways around those problems, not to use them as barricades against love.
Why is it that love seems to come easily to some people and not to others? I'm convinced that there's nothing fundamentally wrong with those who have difficulty finding and keeping love. But there may be specific behaviors that you engage in -- and specific behaviors that you do not engage in -- that have a profound impact on whether you find and keep love. And I'm convinced that those behaviors can be learned, practiced, and eventually incorporated into your basic personality.
This book is based on the conviction that each of us has the ability to improve our ability to find and inspire love through specific behaviors. There are five core behaviors, Essential Practices, that will deepen and transform your ability to give and receive love and loyalty:
Engagement is the fundamental currency of love. Engagement is the way you first connect to the people you meet, and the way you remain connected with a few precious people throughout your life. There are in fact simple terms of engagement that you can begin to practice today that will enrich your relationship life and that will help you connect and grow in a living, breathing, dynamic exchange.
Evaluation is the process by which you thoughtfully, proactively determine who in your life is worthy of your deepest love -- and of whom you are worthy. Evaluation is a rational process in which you ask the tough questions about whether a prospective relationship will really bring you happiness. It slows down the impulsiveness of your primitive brain at moments when you want to connect with someone, anyone, who seems to protect you from the dread of aloneness. Evaluation is essential for screening out potentially disastrous relationships, for it checks your unconscious belief that the devil you know is better than no one at all. The instinct to create powerful bonds of loyalty to others is a basic human drive that is so necessary for emotional health and well-being. Learning to channel this wonderful gift of yours, your loyalty drive, to one who is able to truly reciprocate is an Essential Practice.
Expanding your capacity to love is the third great Essential. Instinctively you recognize the danger of aloneness, with its attendant emotional starvation. But because of the power of the loyalty drive, you also fear the danger of connection, with its possibilities of suffocation and loss of freedom and control. Between those dual dangers lies your safety zone in which you feel safe and free to experiment in intimacy. The more you can expand this zone, the more comfortable you will feel when you're in an intimate relationship -- and when you're experiencing important growth periods of singlehood.
The optimal psychological state for connection is one of emotional independence, the fourth Essential. The closer a relationship is, the greater its power to trigger ancient roles and feelings that distort your ability to perceive yourself and your "other" accurately and to interact in a mature and loving way. Emotional independence is a way of understanding and actualizing the authentic "you" and to allow your "other" to maintain his or her own authenticity as well.
The fifth Essential reflects that we live long lives, growing, changing, and developing from cradle to grave. The capacity for emotional evolution allows you to guide your personal growth in the service of improving your relationships, and to use your relationships to stimulate your own development. At any point in which your human environment changes, you have three choices. You may choose evolution, gradually adapting yourself to the needs of your relationship. Alternatively, you may choose a special form of evolution, revolution, choosing to change your environment rather than change yourself; breaking up with your lover or spouse is an example of revolution. The third choice, stagnation, is an attempt not to change at all despite the changes of the world outside you. Your goal should be to make proactive choices about how you evolve, or at times, choose to revolt, and to become aware of the areas in your life in which you have become stagnant.
As in physics, every action in emotional life potentially has an equal and opposite reaction. Just as there are behaviors that foster love, there are behaviors that kill it, and no book about helping you move toward love could be complete without exploring the ways you unwittingly damage the love that comes your way.
It's relatively easy to be aware of the big, hairy, disastrous things you can do to kill love. I call those really obvious behaviors catastrophics -- things such as cheating, lying, or betraying confidences -- which destroy love as predictably as a heat-seeking missiles delivering dirty bombs.
You know these things already, so there's no point in elaborating them. What is far more interesting to explore are what I call little-e erosives -- the tiny, unconscious behaviors you engage in that imperceptibly shape your relationship, like rainwater dripping on limestone, drop by drop shaping the form of your interactions. Erosives may weaken your relationship so gradually that you may be quite unaware of the danger of an imminent collapse. Indeed, sometimes the most seemingly loyal relationships can be severely damaged by erosion, for both parties may take the love of the other so for granted that they cease to pay attention to the subtle nuances of the relationship dynamics. So as we explore the Essentials, I'll also encourage you to think about the erosives, which need to be cleaned up along the way.
This book reflects twenty-five years of my life as a psychiatrist working with all sorts of people -- men, women, elderly folks, teenagers, housewives, executives, homeless people -- who were trying to break out of their secret selves to live more fully in the real world of loving human relationships. Several observations have been common to all:
1. Four major problems drive people to therapy: how to love, how to work, how to be happy, and how to find meaning in life. Underlying all four, however, is a core question: How can I connect more richly to the human world around me?
2. The default mode of the human mind is to ascribe blame to others, not to ourselves. Most people begin self-examination by first blaming others, especially parents and spouses, for their interpersonal problems and only gradually perceive their own issues. It takes great courage, humility, and self-honesty to dig within to understand why you construct your relationship world as you do.
3. The only people who do find the love and the life they want eventually give up believing they can change others and take responsibility to change themselves.
4. People who choose not to change continue to struggle with the same issues year after year...and sometimes decade after decade.
Zen Buddhists say that all of life is change, and all suffering comes from resisting change. Inner change is hardest of all, for it starts with the humbling realization that you have created the life you are living, and only you have the power and the responsibility to get the life you want. Indeed, life scatters a handful of seeds for you at the moment of conception, seeds that give rise to your family, your community, and the culture in which you live. But how you live within that garden, and how you decide which new plantings to bring into your life, are up to you.
The good news is, though, that making small changes in your outlook and behavior can have enormous impact on your ability to get to the heart of the matter and live the life you want. Making changes in small aspects of your human interactions -- how you engage with others, how you choose your closest relationships, and how you manage your interpersonal anxiety -- can have huge ripple effects on what happens to you in life. Major parts of your personality -- your values, your likes and dislikes, your intelligence, your sense of humor, your life goals -- may stay intact. But you'll be much more able to use those strengths to move toward the life and love you want so much.
Copyright © 2003 by Linda Austin, M.D.