Love is a topic that has never lost human relevance or interest. Poetry, songs, essays, novels, movies, and multitudes of self-help books focus on this marvelous, mysterious topic.
Yet, there are questions that remain for many of us regarding the meaning, nature, and scope of love in the most practical terms.
- How do we define love within the range of our personal experiences?
- How do we practice love?
- How and in what situations are we aware of being loved?
- How do we show love to others and to ourselves?
- How do we navigate expressing and giving love without getting deeply hurt?
- When is love healthy and when is it not?
First is the question of the meaning of love. At its base, love is an emotion. It’s a positive feeling we have about another person. The feeling includes warmth and gentleness toward the person in question, and a deep appreciation and concern for their well-being. Love creates a desire to be closer to another, to comfort, and to be comforted. We seek and often experience joy and happiness in love (at the very least initially, if we sense the feeling is mutual).
The nature and scope of love can be broad: romantic love, as we most often think of it; love for family and friends; and love for humanity, etc. However, equally important is self-love.
Navigating the more challenging questions can spark debate and further discussion. Here, we will consider several psychological approaches to this issue before I offer some of my own thoughts.
Sue Johnson, who developed emotionally focused therapy (based on attachment theory) for couples, describes the emotional need we all have for secure attachments or bonding with others in her book Attachment Processes in Couple and Family Therapy:
It is this need, and the fears of loss and isolation that accompany this need, that provides the script for the oldest and most universal of human dramas that couple and family therapists see played out in their offices every day. (p. 4)
She goes on to explain that for those of us who did not have a chance for “secure bonding” with our parents or parent figures as children, it’s often more difficult to bond with a mate. People with insecure attachments tend to either isolate and shut down in the face of true intimacy, or they over-attach in a desperate or clingy manner. The combination of the two is often the precursor for an abusive relationship. By no means is bonding with others impossible, but it may take more work to achieve and maintain that desired healthy connection.
However, love is frequently fragile and easily damaged. Therefore, we fear becoming damaged by it and being vulnerable to it. I’ve recently seen a number of people in therapy who provided a prime example of this phenomenon—all were single and afraid of immersing themselves in the dating scene. This is not an uncommon fear, but it is one that inhibits opportunities for meeting potential loving partners. Common assumptions include, “There’s no one out there for me,” or, “They’re all a bunch of losers,” or, worst of all, “I’m such a loser, no one would be interested in me.” These assumptions can evolve into destructive beliefs.
The more we give ourselves permission to try out new and constructive ideas, the more likely we are to change our experiences for the better.
Cognitive behavioral therapy addresses these negative thoughts by suggesting that our behaviors and the way we feel are driven by the way we think, and, therefore, replacing negative thoughts with positive ones will guide us into healthier love patterns. Sometimes negative beliefs have been there for so long—and most of us have at least one bad experience to back them up—that we find it difficult to gain a positive outlook. The more we give ourselves permission to try out new and constructive ideas, the more likely we are to change our experiences for the better.
Brené Brown has written extensively on the topics of vulnerability and shame. “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity,” she writes in her book Daring Greatly. In other words, it takes real human courage to be vulnerable, but it is also necessary for real intimacy and bonding to take place. Brown feels that shame gets in the way of such vulnerability. Shame is a collection of real or perceived guilt from the past, creating a general sense of unworthiness. As Brown puts it:
If we cultivate enough awareness about shame to name it and speak to it, we’ve basically cut it off at the knees. Shame hates having words wrapped around it. If we speak shame, it begins to wither. (p. 58)
If shame, unworthiness, and lack of secure attachment from childhood are the primary obstacles that stand in the way of love being truly healthy and nurturing, it is my suggestion to look more closely to ensure respect is a meaningful part of our love relationships. Respect means honoring the other person as well as yourself, fully and without judgment. It is this aspect of love that is so often overlooked, yet respect, in its deepest meaning of connection, is the backbone that stabilizes and provides security for loving, healthy relationships.
If you struggle with self-love, or if you believe something is standing in the way of closeness with others, seeing a licensed therapist can be greatly beneficial.
- Brown, B. (2013). Daring greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead. New York, NY: Penguin.
- Johnson, S. M., & Whiffen, V. E., Ed. (2003). Attachment processes in couple and family therapy. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
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