By Henry Cloud, Ph.D.
In the mere contemplation of love, we are humbled. For who among us could ever claim to have “figured it out?” The mysteries of love and how to make it work baffle even the most well-intentioned. In many contexts, from parenting to marriage, friendship to business relationships, we find that our best efforts often fail and disappointment finds its way into our most valued sphere of life.
Why is this? There are many reasons, but they all come down to a basic orientation in ourselves towards ourselves. In other words, ever since Adam, we have been basically looking out for number one, and that is the surest way to destroy a relationship. We have a tendency to think of ourselves first instead of the relationship itself. We are trying to get what we want instead of seeing also the needs of others. And as a result of this self-orientation we destroy all chances of getting what we want and need, which in the final analysis is always love.
So, in an edition dedicated to love we thought it appropriate to look at some of the things that we do that get in the way of love. In some ways, it is also a look at maturity, for it is only the mature person who loves well. We will be taking a look at the ways of functioning that prevent love from growing in almost any context, whether it be , friendship, marriage, parenting, work or church relationships.
And before we get into looking at these traits, one sober word of warning: In looking for the problems in any relationship we are in, we always do well to point the finger back at ourselves. At least as Jesus said, it is a good place to begin to look! There is no doubt that others cause some of the pain and failure of relationships in our lives. But the reality is that we are probably adding to the problem or if we are not, we probably could be doing some things better that would give us a better chance of working it out, even if you find yourself in a relationship with a “problem person.” Sometimes, the most immature people can grow when in the presence of an integrating relationship. So, in looking at some of the dynamics of what the blocks are to good relationships, keep yourself in mind. The more that you can take ownership of these tendencies in yourself, the more likely you are to make relationships work and to pick people who are able to make them work as well. Mature people tend to pick mature people. Now, join me in a look at the things that poison love.
The Love Killers-Poisons To Avoid
Self-centeredness or Ego-centricity
Many people think of selfish people as being difficult. But “self-centeredness” comes closer to the real description of what a truly selfish person is. What it means is that someone basically experiences life mostly in terms of him or herself. Someone has said, “To interpret any event only in terms of how it affects oneself is to live on the doorstep of Hell.” And that is true.
When one is self-centered, he guarantees the failure of love, for love is an attachment between two people, and the self-centered person denies the reality of the “other.” He only sees others as extensions of himself. They exist to make him happy, serve his needs, regulate his feelings or drives in life. And whey they fail to do that by having an existence of their own, he has some sort of negative reaction, such as anger, withdrawal of love, controlling behavior or rejection. This orientation to another person being more of an object for self-gratification than a person makes a true attachment impossible. Love requires two people, not one person and an “object.”
We could write about this dynamic for a long time, but one quick way to understand it is to look at it in terms of the quote above. “Only me” involves not ever adapting to someone else’s wishes or needs, or sacrificing something that I want for another person or a purpose or group larger than myself. Or to think of the significance of events or people only as I am benefited or denied.
Lack of Observing Oneself
Psalm 36 says the following: “For in his own eyes he flatters himself too much to detect or hate his sin.” And 1 John says the same thing in another way: “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”
The idea is this and is one of the most frustrating qualities that anyone can have in a relationship: The inability to see one’s own behavior, especially when one is wrong. Have you ever had that experience, to be in a relationship with someone who could not see when they were wrong? There is such little hope to get past any conflict that you might be having.
No relationship or person is perfect. And we can work out any kind of conflict with anyone as long as the two people involved are able and willing to look at their own behavior and own it. The act of ownership of our wrongs makes moving past the conflict and getting to a deeper connection possible, and when someone cannot see their wrong, the relationship gets stuck.
The injured party feels hopeless, and there is little chance for comforting them by the one who hurt them, because no apology is forthcoming. The conflict cannot be solved. This is why God is so into our confession. It lets us get to a better place. Let yourself always look first to yourself in any conflict to see where you might be wrong. That will enable you to see the truth of the situation more clearly. (Matt. 7:3-5)
Inability to Validate Another’s Experience
Being understood is one of our deepest needs. We don’t really need to know that we are “right,” as much as we need to know that someone understands how we feel and what our “reality” is. Making this connection with each other is called “empathy.” When we feel a certain way, we need to know that others validate our experience, meaning that they understand how it is for us.
Proverbs 18:13 says, “He who answers before listening– that is his folly and his shame.” We need to be listened to and understood, not quickly negated for how we feel and what we think. Research has shown that some of the most serious emotional disorders come from having ones emotions misunderstood. For instance, how do you feel when someone says, “Oh, come on, that didn’t hurt!” or “Oh, that wasn’t so bad.” We immediately go further away inside our hearts, and feel a breach with the person. On the other hand, when someone says something that shows their understanding, we are more open to input about our reality.
“Sounds like that was very difficult for you,” is an example of an empathic statement that draws people closer together.
Understanding how someone feels or thinks, or how an experience was for them is something that builds bonds and connections between people. The inability to do that destroys connection and alienates the parties.
This one sounds weird, for it seems that playing fair would be a good thing. The problem is that fair is what the Bible calls “the Law.” In other words, it means returning an “eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” It means that we treat others as they treat us If they are kind, then we are kind. If they hurt us, then we hurt them back. If they are immature, then we are immature as well.
Listen to what Jesus says, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ do that.” (Luke 6:32,33) It is easy for us to be good to those who earn it. The problem is that no one earns it all the time, and every relationship has problem behavior. This is why simple “fairness” cannot work, for then the worst behavior in the relationship becomes the common denominator.
To transcend a pattern in a relationship, we cannot play fair and return evil for evil. (Rom.12:17) The only way for any relationship to overcome our imperfections is for the receiving party to be “bigger than that,” and return grace and truth instead of the injury. Simple fairness will kill any relationship.
“The lights are on but nobody is home.” To be emotionally detached is to be out of touch with one’s feelings and unable to be emotionally present in a relationship. It can be a killer to intimacy, because it feels to the other party that they are alone, even though someone is there.
The Bible says that to love God involves the heart as well as the mind. When we are out of touch with our feelings and cannot express them to one another, then intimacy is blocked, and our experience is one of the person’s heart being “far away.”
To feel close, we need to be present emotionally. Our needs, vulnerabilities, fears, pain, tender feelings, and the like must be communicated and expressed. When someone is detached from feelings, and the ability to express them, the other person cannot feel the kind of connection that we think of as “intimacy,” or “being known.” Intimacy involves the heart, as well as the mind. As David said, God desires truth in the “innermost being.” (Ps. 51:6) If someone is out of touch with their deep feelings and innermost parts, then shallow relationships are what follows.
Control and Denial of Separateness
Paul tells us that freedom is so important, that Jesus died for it. (Gal. 5:1) We are not to be under any kind of slavery ever again. But the reality is that many people do not honor freedom in their relationships. They do not see the other person as a free person from them, able to make their own decisions and have their own desires. Instead, they see the other as an extension of themselves, and have strong attempts to control the freedom of the one they “love.”
Love can only exist where there is freedom. Our attempts to control what another person thinks, feels, wants, does, values, believes, etc. are destined to drive them away, and ultimately destroy love. Love only exists as we see another person in their own right as a separate individual, who as Jesus said is free to do what they want to with what is their own. (see Matt. 20:15) When someone says “no,” we are to respect it. When they have choices and wishes that are different from ours, we are to respect them as well.
Wish For Eden
There was a time when everything was perfect. It was called paradise, and the Bible refers to it as the Garden of Eden. In that place, everything was “good.” But, as the rest of the Bible tells us, and history confirms, Eden has been lost, and we live in an imperfect world. What that translates to in the world of relationships is that we will always be in relationships with people who have imperfections.
To the extent that someone has come to grip with this reality, they have satisfactory relationships. They can accept others for who they are and solve problems. But if they still have a wish to be in the Garden where things are perfect, they are always frustrated with the people they find themselves connected to. They always want more, they judge and protest the reality of who the person is and there is very little safety for love to grow.
Narcissism and perfectionism are killers to real relationship. Real love can only grow where someone’s “real self” can be known and accepted by the other person. If there are demands for perfection and the “ideal person,” then love is blocked.
“I Know Better” and other “Parental Dynamics”
Adults who are in significant relationships are meant to be equals and share the reality of who they are in a spirit of mutuality. Some people, however, want not to be equals, but one-up on the other person. They want to be in more of a parent-child type of connection where they are in charge. They have expectations for the other to be in subjection to them in some strange way, and are dominating in their style.
This type of “I know better” stance blocks love in a horrible way, as the person who is “under” feels belittled, controlled, dominated and disrespected. In the best scenario’s, the so-called “benevolent dictator,” the one on the bottom rung fails to grow up and develop into who they were meant to be.
Typical of this type of stance are a lot of “you should’s,” that dominate the person’s thinking, as they freely tell the other person how to think, live, be and what to do. The biggest problems to love in this type of connection come from the resentment in the one-down person, and their drive to become independent from the dominating one. As Jesus said, we are to all be equals and put no one on a parental pedestal. (Matt. 23:8)
Lack of Boundaries
The last block to love that we will consider is the lack of boundaries. What this means is someone’s inability to take a stance of self-control and to have a proper relation to the word “no.” Boundary problems are usually seen in someone’s inability to either say “no,” or hear “no” from others. When we have these kinds of disturbances, we either allow people to walk all over us in a way that destroys respect, or we walk all over them and “trespass” against them, destroying love in the process. True love respects each other’s boundaries, saying “no” when we need to, and respecting it when we hear it.
Another aspect of boundaries has to do with requiring responsible behavior from each other in a relationship and taking a stance against evil when it occurs. True love cannot grow when evil is allowed to triumph. When we have the boundaries to “abhor what is evil,” and take a stance against it, we preserve the good in a relationship and help it to grow by solving problems.
Love is not an easy thing to accomplish in this life. In fact, it is so difficult because of our particular inclinations to do the very things we just talked about. There is a part of all of us that tends to try to please ourselves instead of accomplish love, and in the process we lose the love that we wanted in the first place. Remember, love does not “just happen.” It takes work. And part of the work that you will have to do is to avoid the kinds of blocks to love mentioned above. Good luck, and God Bless as you “love one another” as He has loved you. (John 13:34)
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