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The Messiness of Love

February is full of “love hype.” Singles and couples frequently feel caught up in the external trappings of Valentine’s Day. Everywhere you look—from the grocery store, TV commercials, to social media—everyone seems to be talking about and defining love. This hype can be stressful and can lead people to compare themselves to others.

Although you might understand intellectually perfect relationship don’t exist, Hallmark, romantic books and movies can delude you. They gloss over the fact that romantic love and healthy relationships require work. People need different things. People give and receive love differently. The only commonalities in romantic relationships are that they require vulnerability, transparency, compromise, and a willingness and capacity to grow.

This, that romantic relationships are an opportunity for growth and change is the thing that most folks get wrong about love. It can also make romantic love feel exhausting. As we let our guards down, this kind of love can reveal our deepest longings and needs. It can evoke powerful emotions (anger, rage, disappointment, shame, yearnings, need, abandonment, powerlessness). Harville Hendrix, the creator of “imago theory,” suggests we fall in love with people who generate feelings that remind us emotionally and unconsciously of our parents’ best and worst qualities. This unconscious process helps us feel attached and attracted, but the pain comes when those long-standing, unmet needs are evoked. This phenomenon explains why you can walk into a room filled with equally attractive people and be drawn to “the one” who can prick your heart and make you feel intense feelings.

For example, if you grew up feeling a parent wasn’t consistent or reliable, you may frequently find yourself in relationships with partners who trigger those feelings. This does not mean they are inconsistent or unreliable, they will just activate those feelings, and it will be a stressor for you. So maybe you will constantly be upset because of how they load the dishwasher, pay their bills, or even listen to you; it will make you feel as if you can’t count on them because they are unreliable. And, because the universe has a sense of humor, they probably need to be with someone who trusts them and sees them as competent. Your feeling as if they are unreliable will trigger them, too. It becomes a vicious cycle, and if it remains unconscious, it repeats itself until the relationship becomes intolerable. Some people leave looking for reprieve, others shut down, some continue to fight and remain angry about having unmet needs, and others begin to look for others to meet their needs. However, “the struggle” is your work.

While no relationships can meet all your needs when you evaluate the “State of Your Union,” the following questions can help you figure out if you should try to make it work:

  • Are you both moving toward collective goals or priorities?

  • Do you both still have the capabilities and desire to meet each other’s core needs?

  • Are you both willing to do your work?

If you have a healthy partner who is willing to grow with you through difficult times and is willing to do their work, perhaps they can be patient with you while you both heal/grow. Sometimes reaching out to a counselor, coach, relationship mentor, or pastor can help you identify your road blocks and patterns and learn new skills/tools to shift your patterns.

With one caveat, if the relationship is abusive in any way (emotionally, financially, physically, sexually, or spiritually) then this is not a healthy, workable relationship. Additionally, if either of you has an addiction (drugs, sex, work, or relationships) then neither of you is in a place to create a healthy relationship because you both have issues that make a solid foundation impossible. You both must be willing and able “to do the work.”

Rather than seeing romantic love as the quest to find someone to “make me happy and feel tingly and filled with butterflies,” see your perfect match as someone who is willing to grow with you.

If you’re looking for more resources, check this out:

books and articles by John Gottman, Harville Hendrix, John Gray, and Gary Chapman. Our email me/reach out to me with questions or to talk!

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