Most of us treat love like an external force. It’s something that happens to us, strikes us like an arrow or overcomes us like a storm. There is a problem with thinking of love this way, and that is that it can slant our focus outward. It overlooks our own sense of power and leaves us to believe that we are victims of our romantic fate.
Over the years, I have heard thousands of reasons offered for why people are either single or pulling out of a relationship.
“No one finds me attractive.”
“Women are so dramatic.”
“Men just want sex.”
“I’m just not good at intimacy.”
“I need to be by myself right now.”
In my experience, these statements are often based on “critical inner voices,” destructive thoughts directed toward oneself and others. Most of this negative self-talk is just plain wrong and can be covering up something else — something deeper. If we want to give ourselves the best chance of finding and maintaining a rich and rewarding relationship, we have to look inside ourselves. There, we are likely to find glass walls we never knew we’d built and steep ledges we never knew we feared. The dating world may be full of obstacles, but our worst enemy is usually in our own heads.
Finding love is, in some ways, the ultimate out-of-body experience in that we feel so attuned and connected to someone else. Yet, it is also a process of adventure and discovery that is entirely internal. Understanding that inner world is vital to letting ourselves get close to someone else. With that in mind, here are a few ways we may be getting in our own way when it comes to intimacy.
1. Avoiding pain:
Love hurts. The saying is both tired and true. Yet, as much as it gets lamented in pop songs or portrayed on movie screens, we don’t really let it sink in. Part of us feels, once we find the right person and make the smart choices, love will be easy — blissful, less complicated than all those other relationships around us. The twisted truth is, the closer the relationship and the better the choice we’ve made, the more pain we can expect to feel. Love doesn’t just wound us, because people disappoint us or because circumstances change. It can hurt most when it is at its best.
I can’t tell you how many people pull back the moment things get close. Caring about another person deeply is a truly painful thing. It makes us value them more, ourselves more and our lives more. Inevitably, it reminds us of time and loss. On another level, love challenges an old and familiar identity. It thrusts us into maturity and forces us to separate from our past. When we get close to someone, it shifts our tectonic plates. It is a poignant and powerful thing that can erupt a dormant volcano of underlying emotions — things we’ve buried and sat on for years. In order to not let these emotions demolish a flourishing relationship, we have to face these deeper scars. We have to recognize the ways we’ve been hurt and understand how those wounds inform our current behavior. This means being willing to feel pain without trying to numb ourselves or gloss over the feelings that come up. We cannot numb pain without numbing joy.
2. Retreating into fantasy:
Once people get scared in their relationship, many couples have a tendency to form a “fantasy bond,” a term coined by my father Dr. Robert Firestone. The fantasy bond is a defense that allows us to feel as if we’ve joined with another person. This illusion of fusion can make us feel safe and secure, but it actually undermines our most vital feelings of love. What happens when people retreat into fantasy is that they let the form of the relationship replace the substance. They start to relate as a unit, presenting themselves as a couple instead of as two individuals who are genuinely drawn to each other. They forego passion for routine. They start to impose restrictions on each other, so neither party feels threatened, yet both feel limited. They begin to narrow their worlds instead of expanding them. They can become critical and demanding toward each other rather than respecting each other’s individuality and independence. Though it may seem like this bond pulls people together, it actually creates a hotbed for resentment and drives them apart.
The fantasy seems to offer a sense of control and security, but it actually generates friction and distance in an intimate relationship. Couples are much better off maintaining a sense of themselves as two separate people with sovereign minds who genuinely care for and appreciate each other. This independence encourages us to respect our partner and treat him or her kindly. Only when we see someone as separate from us, can we genuinely care about how they feel. We are able to see things from their point of view. We experience the joy of knowing how to make them happy. When our partner is not an extension of us, we are also better able to keep our physical attraction alive.
3. Protecting ourselves:
Author James Baldwin wrote, “Love takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.” We all harbor a brick wall of psychological defenses that we’ve built up since we were born. Everything that hurt us, that convinced us we were insignificant, that scared us or held us back lays the foundation for these defenses. Some adaptations we made to survive painful events may be healthy, but most are no longer adaptive and actually serve to limit us.
I’ve worked with so many men and women who’ve told me how much they wanted to find love, then, once they found it, felt intolerant of being close for various reasons. Some complained of feeling tied down or pulled on. Others become incredibly insecure and jealous. Every single one of these people could trace these reactions back to their early lives: parents who intruded on them or rejected them, caretakers who shamed them or frightened them. In response to painful events in their childhood, these individuals adapted, taking care of themselves or vowing to never trust anyone. These survival mechanisms served a purpose in their past but hurt them in their adult lives, their relationships in particular.
These defenses push our partners away and end up causing those we claim to love a lot of pain. Love challenges our defenses. It takes us out of those safe walls we built, that may make us miserable but are also familiar and help us to shut off feelings or memories. The things we do to cut off from pain or emotion cut us off from intimacy. They separate us from our partners and make us intolerant of closeness. Getting to know our defenses is a key step in learning how we limit ourselves in our relationships.
4. Believing our inner critic:
There is a language that goes along with each of these barriers, which I’ve mentioned above. It’s the internal dialogue referred to as one’s “critical inner voice.” The critical inner voice is an inner enemy that drives us to avoid closeness, to shut off emotions and retreat into fantasy. It puts us down in countless ways, tearing into our appearance, performance, personality and aspirations. It is tricky in the sense that it both soothes and punishes us. Sometimes, it sounds like a mean coach, “You’re so pathetic. No one will ever want you.” Other times it sounds like a comforting parent, “Don’t bother leaving the house. You are just fine on your own.” Both of these self-hating and self-soothing voices lead us to the same, dissatisfying result.
The critical inner voice can seriously undermine our romantic desires. It turns against us and our partner or potential partner in ways that make it even harder to achieve real intimacy. It tells us to give in to our defenses, to keep a safe distance or to watch our partner closely, because we’re bound to get hurt. It’s helpful to remember that this voice is a phantom from our past. It does not represent reality or our real point of view. It is a destructive filter through which we see the world that tries to keep us in an old, familiar, even painful place. At every stage of a relationship, when the critical inner voice tries to exert its influence, we must confront it as a third-party threat. Make sure to identify it and separate it from your real point of view. There are useful exercises and techniques to help you do this. This process of standing up to your inner critic will help you to uncover and maintain your true thoughts and feelings toward yourself and your partner.
Considering how these defenses may be impacting your ability to develop and sustain loving intimate relationships is part of an ongoing journey of self-discovery. It will bring you closer to becoming your truest, most loving self. Along the way, it is important to have a sense of patience and self-compassion. Be wary of voices telling you that you’re messing up again or that everything is your fault. Recognizing you have power in your relationship by challenging your defenses doesn’t mean hating or blaming yourself. However, it allows you to work on the only thing you have any real control over in your relationship, you. When you’re able to maintain a sense of yourself as an independent, vulnerable and loving individual, then no matter what anyone else does or what happens, you can feel your own sense of power and stay open to real love in your life.
Learn more in Dr. Lisa Firestone’s upcoming Webinar, “6 Reasons Most People are Afraid of Love.”