The Secret to Happy, Long Lasting Relationships
“You can’t love someone else until you love yourself first.” Everyone knows this talk show-pop psychology platitude. Self-help gurus regurgitate this mindless mantra ad nauseum.
I don’t know its exact origin, but whomever first uttered the phrase confused things terribly. Accepting and loving yourself is a precondition to being in a healthy, reciprocal relationship. However, the oft-recited advice has it backwards: Before you can RECEIVE love from another, you must first accept and love yourself.
There are women and men who have no trouble chasing after their romantic quarry, loving and desiring them without rhyme or reason, only to have their feelings unmet. They languish in their unrequited anguish—driving their friends crazy with endless conversational autopsies about why she or he hasn’t called them when they had such a powerful connection on their date or beginning of the relationship. These are usually the same people who run in the opposite direction—uninterested and completely turned off—when someone shows real romantic interest in them.
Why? These individuals are attracted to others who can’t love them in return, usually for similar reasons, i.e., “I don’t care to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members” (Groucho Marx). This begins a futile cycle of pursuit and distancing behaviors that reinforces their inner and oftentimes unacknowledged feelings of worthlessness, inadequacy and unlovable-ness.
They seek intimacy only from those who also cannot tolerate intimacy. The pursuer feels vulnerable and needy. The distancer feels put upon and guilty, which then breeds contempt and resentment. Think of it as mutually assured unhappiness.
When these individuals are lucky enough to meet someone who sees and is attracted to them, they push them away. They devise many reasons why the other person isn’t the one. Standard excuses include:
- There must be something wrong with him or her.
- He or she is too much of this and not enough of that.
- There isn’t any chemistry.
Mind you, the only chemistry or attraction people who struggle with these issues are likely to feel is for someone who’s only interested in keeping them at arm’s length and therein lies the problem.
Loving someone else is easy enough, especially since people who molder in this position tend to idealize those whom they love (i.e., an unrealistic, highly selective version of the other person—the love usually disappears as soon as they realize the other person isn’t perfect.)
How do you begin to love and accept yourself in order to let someone else love you?
1) Acknowledge and wrestle with your inner demons. This usually involves going back and dealing with the unfinished business of childhood. Sometimes these issues are buried so deep that many people aren’t even aware of them.
Typically, you’ll experience them as vague feelings of not being good enough, that something’s wrong with you, shame and believing that no one would love you if they really knew you. These feeling didn’t spring up out of nowhere. Figure out which early relationships caused you to think and feel like this and work through them. This is easier said than done, but it can be done.
2) Accept that you’re not perfect. No one’s perfect. You’ll never be perfect, but that doesn’t make you unlovable and unworthy. Perfection, if there is such a thing, has nothing to do with peace and wholeness.
If you can’t tolerate your own imperfections, you won’t be able to tolerate them in another person. Other people will always fall short and leave you feeling disappointed and that’s definitely not a recipe for relationship success.
3) Develop the ability to hold and sit with the discomfort and strangeness of the new and unfamiliar. If change felt the same as that to which you’re accustomed, it wouldn’t be change. (Repeat the last sentence to yourself a few times.) If feeling rejected and unwanted is your comfort level, it’s going to feel mighty weird and unnatural when someone expresses genuine interest and wants to be with you without you having to cajole, pressure or pester them into it.
You shouldn’t have to perform feats of strength and/or demonstrate why another person should want to be with you. If they can’t arrive to that conclusion of their own accord, they’re not worth your time. Plus, it sets up an unbalanced power dynamic in your relationships in which you’re always having to please the other person. Do you really want to spend the rest of your romantic life as a performing seal?
The fear of being loved is tied to the fear of being discovered and known; of having your vulnerabilities and those aspects you don’t like about yourself exposed to another. This is fundamentally silly because we all have things we wish were different or better about ourselves. The fear is that he or she won’t love us if they find out how horrible we think we are. True love is acceptance, not unforgiving judgment and it begins with you.
by Dr Tara J. Palmatier, PsyD
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