Do you think of yourself as a loving person? Of course. But why do so many have such trouble accepting love?
In the wake of my father’s passing, I was speaking with a group of friends on the nature of love. The topic emerged as I shared that he had demonstrated for me unconditional, non-judgmental love that instilled a freedom of thought and heart in me that I only fully realized after he had passed away. My father’s version of love was not of a controlling nature in which I was unable to make mistakes for fear of losing my connection with him. He would quietly hold my hand, literally and figuratively, even while I made choices that he knew would negatively affect me. Sometimes, he dove headfirst into those choices by my side.
In my teens, battling anorexia, I decided to hike the Grand Canyon. From the rim, down to the cold, white rapids of the Colorado River, and back to the top in a single day. It was an attempt to gain perspective and reconnect with myself and seemed like a wonderful idea to my 17-year-old self. I was definitely too malnourished to make the trek. My father, a diabetic and not very sporty, was by my side every step of the way. It was one of many demonstrative acts of careless love that I still look back on fondly.
The conversation with my friends moved around the room, touching on stories of a fellow who only knew love according to his childhood definition of being “a man” and the resulting confusion, a woman who didn’t even have a framework for receiving love, and another who found that it was easy for him to give love as that is where he had control, but receiving love was nerve-wracking because he thought he was powerless in the dynamic. I became acutely aware of how much my father made space for me to accept love without hesitation or self-judgment.
That was an ah-ha moment for me and, in turn, the group: to receive love, one must be vulnerable.
Lama Surya Das said: “Learning how to love is the goal and the purpose of spiritual life – not learning how to develop psychic powers, not learning how to bow, chant, do yoga, or even meditate, but learning to love. Love is the truth. Love is the light.”
Over the last few days, I have ruminated on this idea. What my father taught me, the internalized ability to be loved, is just as powerful as the external force of loving. I felt so safe and comfortable being vulnerable with him that I didn’t feel the need to hide my foibles and darker angels because he created space for me to be my most authentic self. I knew there was nothing I could do and no “dark” side of my personality that would ever cause him to stop loving me. Nothing would endanger the adoration he gave me.
So much of how we give and receive love stems from attachment styles. Attachment theory is a multidisciplinary theory that describes relationships between lovers, friends, parents, and even strangers on a train. The prime tenet, as written by psychiatrist John Bowlby, is that children need to develop a relationship with at least one primary caregiver for normal social and emotional development. Over the years, it has developed to explain that we are wired to crave love and acceptance, therefore creating the innate fear of rejection. But some, including Dr. John Amodeo, have suggested that there also exists a fear of acceptance. Dr. Amodeo writes:
“The fear of rejection makes sense: If we’ve had a steady diet of shame, blame, and criticism, we learned that the world is not a safe place. Something within us mobilizes to protect our tender heart from further stings and insults.
But this mechanism doesn’t discriminate: Our defensive structure not only safeguards us from the prospect of rejection, but also from acceptance and welcoming. It’s a scanning antenna that, in working to protect us from danger, often gives false readings.”
I love that concept of the antenna because I believe that when we aren’t fully in touch with our driving forces, we are in danger of becoming robotic, living a life of zeroes and ones instead of human connection.
In my book, Rethink Love, I told the story of a couple who were capable of deep, secure intimacy but consistently allowed slight disagreements to become massive arguments. In their case, the wife’s attachment style is anxious. Her husband, on the other hand, is a classic avoidant. He creates distance and prizes independence over reliance on others. He can be intimate, but he would prefer not to share his feelings. He often focuses on his wife’s flaws and idealizes his life before marriage. To him, her attempts at closeness look like an effort to control or manipulate him. The more she yearns for intimacy, the more distant he becomes, but below the surface of this dynamic, he wants a strong connection with his wife. He has repressed that need, though, out of fear that it won’t be met.
I’ve described avoidant and anxious, and the third attachment style is “secure.” A person with a secure attachment style doesn’t play games. They are comfortable sharing their needs, thoughts, and desires and are respectful and supportive of their partners. They forgive easily, and when conflict arises they focus on problem-solving rather than winning. Secure people form deep bonds based on interdependence, not co-dependence. I was lucky in many ways, not least of which was my father helping me to fill the space of secure attachment.
Studies estimate that 50% of people have a secure attachment style, while 20% are anxious and 25% are avoidant. That’s a good statistic to keep in mind, especially if you are currently wading into the dating pool, but also helpful if you just can’t seem to understand your spouse of twenty years.
Typically, attachment styles begin with Mom. A deep bond between mother and infant is important for the very survival of the child, but as the child develops and grows into a toddler, the relationship between mother and child also can have a lasting impact on the way we behave in adult relationships. People who had avoidant parents may emulate that style, or because they were desperate for their parents’ love, they may become anxious in their attachment behaviors. Unfortunately, people with an anxious attachment style will often be attracted to avoidants instead of those with a secure attachment style, so they can stay in their familiar dynamic! Even though these relationships are uncomfortable and anxiety-inducing, they are perceived as safe. People with anxious attachment styles tend to believe they’re not good enough or are unlovable. On the other hand, people with avoidant attachment styles love being pursued. It sustains them emotionally. Being in a relationship with another distancer would prove completely emotionally unsatisfying.
John Bowlby and his successors discerned that there were four basic attachment types: Secure, Dismissive-avoidant, Anxious-preoccupied, and Fearful-avoidant. I have the marriage I enjoy partly because I’m a fantastic partner ? – partly because I enjoy a secure attachment style, and partly because I learned to be vulnerable and to accept love, even when my own sense of self didn’t allow me to feel that it was deserved.
RETHINK MOMENT: Is your attachment style or lack of vulnerability standing in the way of receiving back in kind the love that you project?