There is an inescapable tension that faces all of us with respect to relationships. On the one hand, we know from our experiences, wisdom literature, and scientific observation, that those relationships are part of human thriving. We know that connections with friends and family generally bode well for our health across our lifespan. We also know that romantic relationships and marriage have the potential to energize us, and even embolden us to achieve great things in our lives. Whether pursuing academic, vocational, or artistic visions or more profoundly, experiencing inner growth toward a life rich with meaning.
For most of my practice experience, it is common for me to encounter clients in my practice who present with ambivalence about romantic relationships. On the one hand, they crave connection and love, they desire to love and be loved. On the other hand, they fear recapitulating the invalidating environments that left them bereft of confidence in their emotions and their intrinsic value. Some live in a kind of paranoia fueled by negative expectations after having been betrayed through infidelity. These dynamics present challenges to them as the desire to love and be loved persists. The desire for connection is not easily trammeled. And when these clients retreat into their skulls to “figure it all out,” they hinder their potential for living into the breathing realities of love and become preoccupied with syllogisms seeking an intellectually coherent answer to their struggles in connecting with lasting love.
Many of these clients, as many of my readers may find, they often feel they are left with little more than hook-ups and beer dates as options for connecting at all. These encounters often bring the buzz of feel-good neurotransmitters, they distract from unmitigated isolation and even confer a sense of validation. For a time. These connections are counterfeits of love and are shown as such once tested by the inevitable voice of responsibility calling for commitment.
Whether you’re in therapy or not, and whether you meet diagnostic criteria for a mental disorder or not, you may have had similar struggles. Perhaps you’ve fully thrown yourself into a relationship quickly, only to discover your partner isn’t as thrown in as are you. Maybe you’ve told yourself, “That’s it. I’m done. I’m not wasting my time by risking another heartbreak.” You just tell yourself, “I’m all out of love!” Maybe you think to yourself, “See, this proves I’m just worthless. Nobody likes me, never mind loves me.” And so on. In these cases, perhaps you gave too much too soon. Or you afforded your past partners trust unearned.
There is also the possibility that you demand too much, too soon from prospective partners. Deprivation of reliable and authentic care in your own family can leave your heart feral and urges you toward the appropriation approach of relationships in which you try to control and consume others, rather than appreciating them on their own terms. Demandingness that emerges from feral appropriation will scare a lot of people away. And if you lack mindfulness, this can may leave you again, wondering “Why can’t I find love. What’s wrong with me?” or “Why can’t I find someone who will meet my needs?”
Relationships, Risk and the Dialectical Dance
The reality is that you cannot love another person without risking both joy and sorrow. This holds true for love within your family, toward your children, and within friendships. This holds true, too, in our adult romances and the grand undertaking of marriage. You have to come to terms with the reality that you do not know, and cannot know, what the outcomes will be.
Riches and Perils
Rollo May wrote in his 1969 book The Courage to Create: “Intimacy requires courage because the risk is inescapable. We cannot know at the outset how the relationship will affect us. Like a chemical mixture, if one of us is changed, both of us will be. Will we grow in self-actualization, or will it destroy us? The one thing we can be certain of is that if we let ourselves fully into the relationship for good or evil, we will not come out unaffected.”
This rather intense statement touches upon the power of relationships. It articulates dynamics that are too well-known by so many of us on the destructive side of things. With so much at stake in our relationships, we must take them very seriously. And a good start in taking them seriously is to cultivate courage. And as courage doesn’t arise incidentally, you have to cultivate it. Courage is robust and intentional. It requires mindfulness in order that you relate with others with principle-centered actions rather than your impulses.
Keep in mind that you never know what you will mean to the other person, for better or for worse. You will have value to them, and this warrants a deliberation in how you express and embody respect and care for them. Likewise, you don’t know what another person will mean to you as they enter your life.
Again, Rollo May from Love and Will: “To love means to open ourselves to the negative, as well as the positive – to grief, sorrow, and disappointment as well as to joy, fulfillment, and an intensity of consciousness we did not know, was possible before.” As you open yourself to love another hope for joy and fulfillment and be wise: don’t forget that you simultaneously risk suffering, hurt, and disappointment. This is a move toward personal maturity, too, to count the cost of love’s ventures.
Don’t Let Your Heart Be Hardened
“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”― C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves
It is tempting to avoid, shirk or doubt love as a possibility for you when you have experienced real loss and real heartbreak. And to lose sight of the perspective that accounts for the riches and risks (the dialectical perspective) leaves you holding either riches or risks, rather than both. Sitting on one side or the other you will oscillate between extremes. On one side you will run with Pollyannish delusions and overidealize others, especially paramours. And this is very energizing for a time, although unwise, narrow, and even immature. On the other side, you will demonize those who disappoint you, as you let them become too important to you. Especially the paramour who doesn’t fulfill the unspoken expectation to be a relational messiah.
There are those who will indeed try to lock their hearts up in a casket, who may go so far as to not love even an animal. The risk in this retreat is that you will harden your heart and lose yourself in the implosion of paranoia and self-protection. You move somewhere inhuman, in fact.
I’d like to join Rollo May and C. S. Lewis in commending to you the wisdom of vulnerability as this is the wisest and most human of course in life as goes love and relationships. And I commend to you the following simple steps for growing into the wise courage of vulnerability.
- Hold a dialectical outlook. Remember you don’t know everything. Whatever your experiences, whatever your wisdom, you are ever-learning. As you approach relationships remember that the path of love is laden with riches and risks. If the relationship grows into intimacy and maturity, embrace the joys. Exult and allow for your fallibility and the fallibility of your partner. Don’t let ordinary disappointments be cause for terminating the relationship. Or, if the relationship doesn’t grow into intimacy be open to friendship. If friendship isn’t possible, don’t make the end of the relationship all about your deficiencies. Don’t give yourself all the credit for endings.
- Approach contradictions with willingness. Embrace the contradictions of relationships. Say yes to the riches and risks, and dance with your desire to love and your urge to guard. Keep in mind that you are doing your very best; with mindfulness, courage, skillfulness, and the fact that you can and will do better. Willingness keeps you fleshy and flexible and keeps you breathing.
- Keep an open and guarded heart. Finally, be open to the approach of love without foolishly squandering yourself, say on hook-ups and other love counterfeits. And simultaneously guard your heart wisely, without imploding into paranoia that plunges your heart into a casket of self-obsession. Approach new relationships with discernment. Take your time to get to know the other person. Appreciate them rather than appropriate them. You will intuit the nature of your status in relationships as you continue to cultivate your wise mind.