Keeping your guard up in a relationship is guaranteed to keep the love out, too. Couples therapists Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt share the dazzling revelation that saved their own marriage—and could help anyone's.
"When it comes to love relationships, things are often not what they seem," Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt write in their book Receiving Love—and you might say the two of them, marriage therapists married to each other, are their own best object lesson. Seven years ago, although they were writing best-selling self-help books, training therapists, and leading couples workshops throughout the world, their personal union was crumbling.
On the verge of divorce, they tripped over the snaky root of their discontent. "One morning, when we were most troubled," Helen says, "we were in our bedroom and I asked Harville, 'Do you believe that I love you?' Harville thought about that for a couple of seconds and said, 'No, I don't think you do.' I was distraught. I could only respond, 'Given all that I do for you and our life together, how could you not know how much I love you?'"
Harville understood that his feelings were irrational, he says, but alienation was stubbornly entrenched. No matter what Helen gave him emotionally, it had little impact because he suspected there were strings attached. "Only with time and reflection did I realize that I was not able to recognize genuine love when it was offered," he says.
As they began to contemplate the problem, in much the same way that the minute you think about having a baby, you see pregnant women everywhere, Helen and Harville noticed that a sizable number of couples they'd worked with were stuck in the same cold place. For instance, there was the wife who told her husband she needed him to express more affection—then resisted his kisses and kind words because, she said, they didn't feel genuine. Another husband admitted that when his wife offered verbal support, he shut down and didn't respond. And when a new father took time off from work to help his exhausted wife with their twins, she refused to let him do his share. "As far as I could see, she was undermining my gift of love," he complained in therapy.
The struggle to understand and ease this kind of self-inflicted isolation grew into Harville and Helen's book. "The common wisdom," they write, "is that romantic relationships would stay happy if people did a better job of giving to each other. But that's not what we've discovered. We've found that many people need to do a better job of receiving the gifts their partners are already offering. It's suprising how often the compliments, appreciation and encouragement of a well-intentioned partner make no dent in the armor of an unhappy partner.
Harville ticks off the ways we deflect what we secretly crave: by devaluing praise; by assuming the other person is insincere; by criticizing the sender of a positive message for not getting it right, not doing it on time, or not doing it often enough; by not listening; or by feeling embarrassed. We also block loving words by hardening our chest and stomach muscles.
These are difficult habits to break, say Harville and Helen, because they're often the tip of an iceberg of unconscious self-hatred, going back to childhood. Our parents invariably rejected some aspects of us, either through criticism ("Don't act that way") or inattention (ignoring, say, our anger or ambition, or even certain interests and talents). "When this happens," Harville says, "we split off those parts of ourselves and hide them in our unconscious." But although we seal them off as dangerous and bad, they never go away; instead they form what Harville and Helen call a missing self.
Over time, we deny our needs and replace them with defenses. "Then when someone values us, we have to reject him or her," Harville says. To let ourselves be cherished for who we really are would be to violate our parents' edict that we are flawed, and to arouse our fear that if we do, feel, or think certain things, we'll be neglected and abandoned—in the most primal sense, left to die. "So to receive love is to risk death," Harville says. "This drama plays out because the part of our mind that holds the parental injunction is timeless—today is the same as yesterday. None of this is conscious, but the bottom line is that we reject love in order to stay alive.
Ideally, we'd be able to pull the curtain on this inner opera and deide to accept ourselves whole. Unfortunately, that doesn't work. "You can't consciously achieve self-love by loving yourself. To end self-rejection, you have to learn to love in another what you hate in yourself," Harville insists. "If you don't know what that is, you can find out by noticing what you project onto others, what you criticize repetitively and with emotion." If, for example, you accuse your partner of being an angry person, you may have submerged your own anger. When you learn to accept the hated trait in your partner, "you will simultaneously accept it in yourself," he says. "Self-love is born out of love of another."
Simply put, what goes around comes around: You learn to love your partner, which allows you to receive more love. Heady stuff, and, as with most things worth having, there's a price. You have to give up your identity as a victim and let go of whatever payoff you've been getting from hopelessness and despair. You also have to surrender your emotional dependency on your parents and their judgments.
"This is a complicated process," Harville says, in a bit of an understatement. It's also a joint project because "when one partner rejects love, the other does also, but in different ways." That's because we tend to marry someone who is our emotional equal (with a similar childhood wound), but who has developed opposite defenses. If you wall yourself off by yelling or finding fault, he says, your spouse might distance himself by sullenly withdrawing.
Harville suggests learning to listen deeply and empathetically. "You can say, 'Tell me what happens inside you when I express love.' Then listen without criticism," he says. You might hear "I feel anxious" or a surprisingly self-deprecating remark. "If you understand and empathize—'I can imagine this feels scary to you'—a paradoxical thing happens. Your partner will view you as safe, in contrast to the unconscious memories of his caretakers as dangerous, and be more open."
Speaking as the proverbial physicians who've had to heal themselves, Harville and Helen have pronounced their marriage stronger than ever, and appear to have reached a new high. Mature love, they write, comes when each person has grown with the other's help, and when both people know how to give and receive—"it's the lifetime achievement award."