“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” ― Rumi
When it comes to the pursuit of finding love, many of us feel powerless – like it’s completely outside of our control. That’s not to say that there’s any shortage of advice we get from well-intended sources of what we should do to find love, i.e., “put yourself out there,” “smile at strangers,” “try this dating site,” “have a friend set you up,” “stop dating jerks.” While these aren’t bad suggestions, they tend to scratch the surface when it comes to the deeper goal of truly finding love. No matter how many methods we try, we may still hit the same walls that leave us to believe that finding love has more to do with luck than fortitude. However, psychologist and researcher Dr. Lisa Firestone makes a strong argument that there are tangible things we can actively work on in ourselves that, not only orient us toward finding love, but help us build a solid foundation for long-lasting and satisfying relationships. Dr. Firestone, co-author of Sex and Love in Intimate Relationships, has worked with couples for more than 30 years and written extensively about romantic relationships. Here, we hear from her about the elements that get in our way of finding love and the best advice for overcoming internal obstacles and finding the love we say we want.
What’s getting in your way of finding love?
Sticking to Our Defenses
One of the primary ways we get in our own way when it comes to finding love is by maintaining certain psychological defenses. These defenses come from adaptations we’ve made to painful experiences, often very early in our lives. As Dr. Firestone wrote. “This process [of becoming defended] begins long before we start dating, in our childhoods when hurtful interactions and dynamics lead us to put up walls or perceive the world through a filter that can negatively impact us as adults. These adaptations can cause us to become increasingly self-protective and closed off.”
Dynamics that hurt us in our early lives may have taught us to keep our guard up, not to trust too easily, or to expect people to behave a certain way in relationships. We may assume potential partners will be dishonest, unreliable, or uninterested, because our earliest caretakers were dishonest, dismissive, or rejecting. Or, we may expect people to be demanding, intrusive, or to want too much from us, because we had a parent who was controlling, inconsiderate, or emotionally hungry. As a result, we build barriers around ourselves in which we feel self-protective (i.e.,“you don’t need anyone else anyway”) or self-critical (i.e., “there’s something wrong with you that you have to fix if you want anyone to love you”). Our deepest defenses, which stream from old experiences, can lead us to act aloof, insecure, or simply not ourselves when making romantic connections.
Following Unhealthy Attractions
When people act on their defenses, they often choose less than ideal romantic partners. It sounds counterintuitive, but many of us are unconsciously driven to repeat and recreate negative patterns and dynamics from our past. As a result, we may be attracted to people who have qualities that are similar to people from our history. For example, we may be drawn to someone who isn’t emotionally available or find ourselves feeling especially lit up around someone who takes charge and pursues us aggressively.
It’s important to consider that these initial enticements aren’t always in our best interest and won’t always lead to long-term, loving relationships. For instance, if being quiet and withdrawn was a defense we used to get our needs met in our original family, we may only feel a “spark” with someone who’s outgoing and controls the situation. However, if we’re aiming to find lasting love, this dynamic could prove limiting in the long run. We may retreat more and more into our shell, while our partner controls more and more of the life we share. We may ultimately wind up feeling lost or resentful in the relationship.
Giving in to Our Fear of Intimacy
Dr. Robert Firestone, psychologist and author of Fear of Intimacy (also father to Dr. Lisa Firestone), has presented a case for why most people are, to varying degrees, afraid of closeness. “Most people say that they want love and positive acknowledgment, but relatively few people can tolerate real love and respect from another person, because it threatens their defenses’” said Dr. Firestone. “They tend to retreat, pass over it and sometimes react with actual aggression.” We may experience this fear by having actual anxiety about getting too close (i.e., losing ourselves or our independence, having our heart broken, bring rejected, abandoned, or let down). Or, we may experience this fear on a more unconscious level, suddenly feeling more irritable or drawn to punish or push the other person away. These fears tend to deepen, the more a person starts to mean to us, which helps explain our ambivalence toward and resistance to finding love.
Learn more about the fear of intimacy
Listening to Our Inner Critic
The language of our defense system and our fear of intimacy is what both Drs. Robert and Lisa Firestone often refer to as the “critical inner voice.” People preserve their defenses and their fears by maintaining an old, negative image of themselves, in which they essentially see themselves as unlovable or unable to find a loving relationship. As Dr. Lisa Firestone said, “We all possess ‘critical inner voices’ that tell us we are too fat, too ugly, too old or too different. When we listen to these “voices,” we engage in behaviors that push people away.”
From the minute we start dating or even thinking about dating, our minds tend to be flooded with not only negative, undermining thoughts toward ourselves, but critical and suspicious thoughts toward others. These “voices” reflect a way of seeing ourselves that is often rooted in our past. It shows up in the self-soothing advice of, “Don’t go out tonight. You’re too shy. You’ll only feel humiliated and let down.” It bombards us with criticisms like, “You’re so pathetic. No one here even notices you.” It rears its ugly head when it warns, “You’ll never find anyone you like. People just let you down.” The goal of this “voice” is to hold us back, to make us stick with our defenses and give in to fear. Even when it sounds self-protective, it keeps us from having the self-assurance to really go after what we want.
Learn more about the critical inner voice
Our defenses can leave us feeling more selective, not in a positive, self-possessed way, but in a more cynical and limiting way that can lead us to hone in on and magnify the flaws in the people we meet. Our critical inner voices don’t just take aim at us, but the people to whom we may potentially feel an attraction. For some people, these voices start in from the get go. “She seems too loud.” “He sounds like he could be needy.” “She’ll get too serious.” “He’s probably boring.” For some people, these thoughts creep in the moment they start to feel closer to someone. “Maybe we should slow things down.” “She isn’t that great.” “He’s actually kind of high-maintenance.” The nitpicky ways we start to become toward a partner or potential partner can keep us from being open and actually getting to know someone. In addition, the very qualities that put us off are sometimes the things we think we supposedly want or things that would make us happy, for example, if a partner “likes us too much” or is “too affectionate.” It’s valuable to consider where our pickiness comes from and what we may be ruling out by listening to our critical inner voice.
Sometimes finding love means having to be vulnerable and put ourselves out there. This can feel especially scary when we realize that we’ll have to enter a certain degree of competition. This isn’t to say that we have to approach dating like athletes or make any enemies along the way, but we have to accept the reality that we may have to face competitive feelings, both in ourselves and others. As Dr. Firestone stated, “Our fear of competition can lead us to avoid putting ourselves out there. We may be afraid of looking like a fool or of not being chosen. We may even have fears about winning the competition, thinking we will hurt another person’s feelings.” Going after what we want can feel intimidating, but being willing to acknowledge the competitive feelings that arise can help us avoid turning against ourselves by putting ourselves down, or even turning against others by being cynical or critical, rather than simply facing that we want something and feel competitive about it. If we avoid competing (i.e. staying home from a social event, not presenting ourselves with confidence, or holding back from talking to someone new) because of our discomfort with these feelings, we may miss out on something that would make us happy.
Staying in Our Comfort Zone
Many of us form ideas about who we are and what we’re capable of, and we find ways to keep ourselves in those boxes throughout our lives. We build walls designed to keep us feeling safe. We may not like that we don’t go out enough or feel awkward when we meet someone, but we don’t challenge those things, because we want to stay in our comfort zone. For some people, this may mean seeking isolation. For others, it may involve driving themselves to work hard and “be responsible.” Many people feel comfortable being self-critical and listening to their critical inner voices, even though they may be mean and unfriendly; they’re familiar. Whatever this bubble may be for each of us, understanding what it is and how it operates can help us start to break out a little and challenge the defended posture that shuts other out.
Seeking a Soulmate
Another thing that can act as a barrier to finding love is the tendency to favor fantasy over reality. When it comes to dating and relationships, many of us still believe in the notion of a soulmate, one individual who can complement and complete us in every way. While searching for someone with whom we feel a real connection and attraction (and who ultimately feels like our soulmate) is a worthy pursuit, sometimes we create unrealistic expectations and take a more passive role in our romantic destiny, because we hold a fantasy of what finding love will look like. Perhaps, we’re waiting to be hit by a lightning bolt of sparkly attraction, or we write someone off the minute they don’t fit a certain, specific expectation. Basically, we narrow our search in ways that can shut out opportunities. “I reject the belief that there is only one person in the world for us, and unless we find that person, we are doomed to a lonely life of romantic misery,” said Dr. Firestone. “There are actually a lot of people with whom we could experience a highly satisfying, deeply fulfilling relationship.”
Empowering steps for finding love:
Explore Your Attachment History
As Dr. Firestone has said, “Our style of attachment affects everything from our partner selection to how well our relationships progress to, sadly, how they end.” The early attachment styles with our caretakers go on to shape our internal working models for how we expect relationships to work as adults. If we formed an insecure attachment as children, we may be more likely to feel insecure, anxious, or avoidant in our interpersonal relationships throughout our lives. Understanding our early attachment patterns can offer us incredible insight into the types of relationships and relationship partners we’re drawn to choose and create. It can help explain why we’re so stuck on that one person who just won’t open up and give us what we want or why we lose interest the minute someone starts to really want something from us. This awareness orients us to make better choices, stick out challenges, and form more secure attachments.
Learn more about how your attachment style affects your relationships
Know What You’re Looking For
“Initial chemistry is the spark that fuels a relationship, but that spark doesn’t always ignite for all the right reasons,” says Dr. Firestone. As we said before, we aren’t always attracted to people for the right reasons, and we sometimes find people most attractive, because they help us recreate old dynamics. We may also unconsciously look for partners who reinforce existing negative views we have about ourselves. If we think of ourselves as stupid, we may feel attracted to someone who acts superior. If we feel insecure, we may look for someone who builds us up unrealistically. Think about the qualities you typically look for in a partner. What do you really hope to find? Then, consider the characteristics of partners you’ve wound up dating. Are there certain qualities that you would avoid in the future? Get to know the patterns behind the people you choose, so you can find ways to break out the cycle and find someone new to whom you can really connect.
Identify Your Pattern
In addition to really reflecting on the qualities we’re looking for, we should think about the general patterns we fall into that limit us in finding love. For example, we may not only seek out people who feel familiar based on our past, but once we start dating someone, are there ways that we distort them? Do we suddenly start to feel hypercritical? Are we sure they’re going to reject us, which makes us feel desperate or clingy? Do we start to feel suffocated, like we just need space? Even when our partner hasn’t changed, we can change the way we see him or her based on our own fears and defenses. We can even start to provoke our partner to act in certain ways. If we see ourselves as irresponsible, for example, we may act in ways that are more flaky or absentminded. We then feel furious when our partner starts to sound parental or instructive. We may hate when our partner calls too many times or wants our attention too often, but we may act distant and unavailable, which causes him or her to be the one who reaches out most of the time. If we can get to know our side of the dynamic, the patterns and behaviors that undermine our goal of achieving intimacy, then we can start to challenge these inclinations before they start to rule our relationships.
When it comes to dating, we rely pretty heavily on instinct. First impressions carry a lot of weight, and we tend to evaluate and judge people pretty quickly to determine if they’re “right for us.” We also tend to rule people out based on our defenses and critical inner voices, which are driving us to choose the same kind of person and fall into the same cycle. “You can consciously decide to be open to the possibility of being with someone who is different from the people you typically choose, for example, someone who expresses a strong attraction to you,” wrote Dr. Firestone. Many happy relationships started with one person who was originally hesitant, because they were being pursued by someone who they didn’t think was their type, or someone who liked them too much, or who they even described as “too nice.” Broadening our search and taking chances doesn’t mean we have to lower our standards or force ourselves to be in relationships we don’t fully desire. It simply means having a more adventurous attitude and seeing where things go. So many people are surprised by the feelings (and futures) they build with people who weren’t even on their radar originally.
Listen to Your Friends
Because our fears and defenses can lead us astray, it is incredibly helpful to have friends whose perspective we can turn to when we can’t distinguish our real point of view from our negative inner coach. “A helpful way of determining whether a strong attraction or a lack of interest is based on your true state of mind or elements of your past is to trust your friends,” said Dr. Firestone. “They tend to be much more objective about you.” For instance, if things are going well with someone new but you suddenly feel the urge to pull away, or if you’re really compelled by someone who keeps you at a distance, this is a good time to talk to a friend. It can help you step back from the situation and start to sort out, not just whether the situation is worth pursuing, but to make sense of your own reactions and understand your own patterns even better.
Don’t Listen to Your Inner Coach
Think of your inner coach as an old dialogue that was scripted in your past and plays out in your current life. The goal of this voice is to make us maintain a comfortable and familiar, yet highly negative view of ourselves and your partner (or potential partners). The more we can catch on to when it creeps in, insulting us or someone we’re dating, making us feel less sure of ourselves, poking, prodding, or outright attacking. Get to know this inner critic, so you can challenge it, ignore its comments and reject its advice.
Hang in There
Finding love is an adventure filled with highs and lows. The road to get there can be filled with awkward encounters, epic disappointments, hysterical mishaps, and entangled paths that led nowhere. It can be hard not to grow cynical or want to harden ourselves against the world, but the only way to find love is to stay vulnerable.
The more we shed ourselves of our defenses and defy our inner critic, the more anxious and exposed we’re bound to feel. Breaking free of the chains of our past can force us to face the pain of our past. The closer we come to finding love, the more we can expect our fear and sadness to arise. As Dr. Firestone mentioned, we may even feel irrationally angry at a loved one for seeing and treating us better than we’re used to being seen and treated by ourselves or others. Staying vulnerable and open will likely prove our biggest challenge, not just in finding love, but in helping it last over time. But it is worth it. The barriers may not come down easily or without injury, but they open us up to a new world of possibility.