Many of us may have sensed it intuitively; love is indeed key to a happy and fulfilling life.
While many of us believe we would like to be in love, we face many hurdles in taking the actions that allow love to flow freely throughout our lives and relationships. We have many ways of defending ourselves against love and can struggle to give and receive love with ease, openness and vulnerability.
With love being closely connected to meaning and fulfilment, it is important for each of us to define love as an action or series of actions we need to take to bring us closer to the people we value. In a romantic context, some essential characteristics that fit the description of a loving relationship include:
- Expressions of affection, both physical and emotional.
- A wish to offer pleasure and satisfaction to another.
- Tenderness, compassion and sensitivity to the needs of the other.
- A desire for shared activities and pursuits.
- An appropriate level of sharing of possessions.
- An ongoing, honest exchange of personal feelings.
- The process of offering concern, comfort and outward assistance for the loved one’s aspirations.
Love includes feeling for the other that goes beyond any selfishness or self-interest on the part of the loved one. As such, love nurtures and has a positive effect on each person’s self-esteem and sense of well-being. Love never involves deception, because misleading another person fractures his or her sense of reality.
Relationships tend to go south when we stop taking actions that our partner would perceive as loving and instead start looking to our partner solely to meet our own needs. It is important to distinguish emotional hunger from real love. Have we ever witnessed a parent hugging a child and wondered whether the hug was intended to comfort the child, offering reassurance and care, or to soothe the parent, taking something from the child? When we reach out to our partner, it can be valuable to examine whether our behaviours are for them or for ourselves. Are we looking to them to fulfill us in some way that is unfair to them? Are we hoping they will make up for an emptiness or hurt from our past?
Love should never be an act of manipulation. It is not a mark of ownership over another person, but the exact opposite; a genuine appreciation of a person as a separate individual. When we see that person this way, we allow ourselves to fully value them for who they are and for the happiness they bring to our lives. We are driven to be generous towards that person, to show compassion and kindness in a way that both they and the outside world would view as loving.
There are many barriers we put in place that not only keep us from finding this type of relationship but from achieving it with the person we love. One reason we wind up in less-than-loving relationships is the ways we were treated in our past relationships. We may have become familiar with relationship dynamics in which we were rejected. To become more loving thus means recognising ways we self-sabotage: How are we recreating past hurts in our current relationships?
As we reflect on these behaviours, we learn a lot, not only about how we interfere with our naturally loving feelings for others, but about the negative ways we feel about ourselves. It is difficult to express love outwardly when we do not feel our own sense of self-worth. One of the biggest reasons we shut out love is because we feel unworthy or self-denying. Therefore, to have a loving relationship, we must challenge our negative self-concept, or critical inner voice. When we do this and take the loving actions that contradict our critical self-image, we enhance our own sense of worth and are able to get closer to the people we love.