By Rachel Rutkie, PsyD
When you fantasize about the perfect love, what are its qualities? Noninterference and a sense of freedom? Reliability and mutual trust? Loyalty and undivided attention? Validation and unconditional acceptance?
Love is Love is….Love…?
In her book All About Love, Bell Hooks asserts that we do not have a concrete, universal definition of Love. We know this to be true; many of us have sensed that we mean different things when we say “I love you.”
So, what is Love, really?
As a result of extensive research, Bell Hooks outlines the ingredients of Love as: care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, trust, and honest and open communication (All About Love, p. 5).
I wonder, would we be focused on who loves whom, and other nuances, if we all truly understood what Love is?
It is important for us to define Love so that we can all do the individual work to unwind our problematic conceptualizations and expressions of Love. Most (and likely all) of us mistreat each other. While missteps are unavoidable from time to time, we can avoid the majority of mistreatment if we make some changes. In other words, we can build awareness and break the patterns that disrupt healthy expressions of Love.
What commonly gets in the way of developing the wholesome love described by bell hooks? The way love is modeled to us is one contributor (e.g. being criticized frequently by caregivers may lead to a misunderstanding that criticism can be an expression of Love). Another contributing factor is good ole fashioned self-protective mechanisms. Subconscious efforts to shield our personal insecurities are seldom beneficial in our relationships. Let’s look at some examples.
Common Love Disruptors in the Form of Self-Protection Mechanisms:
- People Pleasing: Surprise! Our well-intentioned placation of others is not an expression of love. It is inauthentic for you and robs the other person of knowing you and building intimacy and trust with you.
- Frequently Numbing Out: When we disengage from our emotions and experiences, we are generally unavailable. There is less space to express wholesome care and affection because we are somewhere else. It is impossible to selectively numb. When we numb the pain, we numb joy, affection, presence, etc.
- Passive Aggressive Communication: We don’t want to cause a problem or “make a big deal” so we shove our needs/thoughts/feelings down deep. After all, everything is fine! But really, your needs/thoughts/feelings are real whether you want to acknowledge them or not. The less we acknowledge our internal experience, the more it comes out sideways, often through passive-aggressive communication. Let’s state what we need and save the hinting for games that are actually fun to play.
- Conflict Avoidance: Many of us were taught, one way or another, that it is best not to “rock the boat.” Ingenuous agreement blockades others from knowing you and building trust with you. Conflict is natural and to be expected. Perhaps we can give ourselves permission to learn how to voice our qualms with openness, assertiveness, curiosity, and respect. This is an avenue for expressing true Love.
- Criticism, Micromanaging, Interfering: Inherently, these habits erode trust and are often disrespectful even if we believe they are an expression of care. We can share our concerns with others respectfully (e.g. by asking permission to teach or offer advice) and/or support our loved ones as they make mistakes and learn for themselves.
- Dodging Accountability/Blaming Others: No one is always right. And frankly, the all-or-nothing mindset of black & white, right & wrong can easily create power struggles and mistreatment in relationships. Almost always both people play a part in any disagreement or conflict. What is your side of the fence? How can you own it without taking on blame that is not yours? How can you hold the other person responsible for their problematic behavior while also acknowledging your missteps?
- Avoiding Intimacy: sexual/emotional/intellectual/etc.-It is impossible to foster trust, respect, open communication, and recognition without intimacy. In what ways do you shield yourself from being truly seen? In what ways do you reject the vulnerabilities of others by judging, dismissing, or invalidating them? Perhaps we can practice bearing witness to our loved ones as they are. Perhaps we can do the same for the self.
Many of the above examples overlap and can be used as a jumping-off point for exploring your unhelpful patterns in relationships. Journaling, reflecting, and conversing about these concepts are encouraged! Observing and collecting information about our behavior patterns and self-protective strategies are the first steps to change. Though denial and self-deprecation commonly swoop in to shield us, taking deep breaths and acknowledging reality are much more helpful. None of us are bad people, even when we have harmed others. Alternatively, we are simply humans with some work to do.
As you take the courageous steps toward healing yourself here are some helpful habits that could replace the problematic habits from above.
Love Enhancers: Promoters of Care, Affection, Recognition, Respect, Commitment, Trust, and Honest and Open Communication:
- Listen to Understand, not to Respond: this will involve slowing down and developing curiosity, and vulnerability
- Take at least a few minutes a day to look your partner in the eyes and be present with them. It could be as simple as touching them on the shoulder or giving them a hug. Perhaps you share your appreciation. The key here is putting your mind on pause and turning your attention toward seeing your loved one. Practice slowing down and experiencing their presence.
- Learn more about your loved one: you can use a list of intimacy-building questions (there are games too!), or simply slow down and cultivate curiosity as your loved one speaks/acts in everyday life.
- Inform your loved one that you are working on yourself: protection mechanisms and practice accountability for your behavior and its impact. They do not owe you forgiveness and it is not their job to put your mind at ease. Again, we are not bad people for having made mistakes, yet it is our responsibility to repair and make changes.
- Begin experimenting with speaking up about your needs and feelings: this can feel abrupt when there are long-lived patterns of passivity. Work toward identifying a pace that is uncomfortable, yet not overwhelming.
- Work toward developing internal permission to be more consistently vulnerable: deep expressions of love involve emotional risk and vulnerability. Processing the inevitable possibilities of loss and rejection, and working toward acceptance, can be incredibly helpful in breaking patterns of self-protection.
- Experiment with grounding into your integrity: say what you mean, mean what you say. Developing open and honest communication can be a bit messy on the front end. We may say the wrong thing or offend someone. That’s normal, a part of the process, and an opportunity to practice vulnerability and authenticity.