We all yearn for love – because we all need love. But most of us are confused about love. Most of us haven’t experienced healthy love and don’t know what healthy love is. We often have imaginings, media driven fantasies, but not much personal experience, if any.
We might have expectations that others should behave in ways we think would be loving, but we can’t behave those ways, ourselves. Our lack of experience leads to confused reactions and projections. Projections create all sorts of irrational behaviors and reactivity which can snowball and escalate into the dramas we’ve all known in our primary relationships. Our inability to really see our very young, wounded selves while demanding our partners be adult and mature can impact how or if we make or keep commitments. Denial of our own emotional youngness can result in blaming and shaming and lead to withdrawal or anxiety, sometimes infidelity and often feelings of betrayal.
If healthy, mature love creates peace and serenity, confused imaginings about love create an unharmonious, anxious, vigilant, resentful, messy situation.
What’s usually missing in relationships, and the need we all share at our core, is the simple human feeling of safety. “I feel safe.” “I trust myself when I’m with you.” “I feel secure being with you.” “I like myself when we’re together.”
The basic building blocks of love can be learned and integrated at any point in our lives. We can begin by uncovering our relationship blueprint, the early relationship patterns we were trained to expect as infants and young children. Bringing some attention to the distorted experiences of love we imprinted in our early relationships gives us access to clarifying and healing those distortions in a very direct and practical way.
I don’t know very many people who were not affected by the love limitations of their caregivers. But not everyone takes advantage of the opportunity to recover from the false beliefs that were instilled in youth. We have all had glorious, idealistic, romantic ideas about what love should be, and have been terribly disappointed in what love turned out to be.
But there is hope . . . the code can be cracked . . . our brains can be rewired, we can experience security, passion, and creativity in relationship with a primary partner. It is possible. It’s simple. Not always easy, but simple. It requires commitment and a willingness to feel young; a willingness to be learners, together . . . a willingness to bumble and explore new approaches and pathways, new identities. It’s possible.
Deep inside, we all have an intuitive sense of how love ought to feel. This isn’t just a fairytale fantasy. Every infant knows innately what love feels like. We are all born with this instinct – and the neurological need – to be loved in this way. We never outgrow this need to be deeply connected to someone, to feel safe in that connection. Whether infant, child, or adult, we want our own core needs to be a priority for someone else. It's how we learn to feel and then prioritize our own needs for ourselves!
The latest neuroscience research suggests that our brains are neurologically wired to receive and give love. Babies are happy when their needs are met consistently, and they’re held in a safe and dependable way. The optimal mother-child bond feels tender and warm, safe and secure. As the infant grows, they feel seen, recognized, and cherished. This vital connection greatly enhances intelligence, health, and self-worth. This type of bond is called secure attachment and progresses naturally into self-acceptance and self-love.
Sadly, as infants, few of us got this kind of love. Our parents were not secure in themselves. They didn’t know how to offer healthy love. They had their own difficulties to deal with, along with a household, other children, and an imperfect marriage. They weren’t able to offer a safe and consistent holding environment. Consequently, most of us got the other kind of bond – insecure attachment.
Before you could talk, your brain got wired for a certain kind of love. Your particular attachment style was locked in. If your early “software” was badly programmed by repeated experiences of abandonment, rejection, or criticism, this stress-ridden database could lead to a wide range of problems in your adult love relationships, including emotional insecurity or difficulties forming secure partnerships. Body symptoms may appear such as illnesses, sexual dysfunction, or addictions.
The essential nature of healthy love is simple: it is tender, reliable and caring. It is a nourishing and steady presence. We feel safe revealing our deepest vulnerabilities, and our highest aspirations. In the presence of healthy love we know we can expose our true self, including our greatest fears and our genuine magnificence. It is in the presence of healthy love that a child develops the capacity to hold their own experience, to accept and stay present with their own pain or pleasure, fear or ecstasy, even when there is no longer a loving parent holding the space. Securely attached children learn to internalize the holding they received.
However, love is often not consistent and is mixed up with other expressions of human experience, such as anxiety, shame, or anger. When the love we experienced during the first years of life was intertwined with a mix of unconscious attitudes and behaviors, we can grow to feel insecure about love, and likely still feel insecure in relationships today. We may be afraid of being hurt, and wary about letting anyone into our hearts. We might have difficulties developing positive, dependable bonds.
Our parents were our original teachers about love. For most of us, they were not ideal mentors. What we learned from them wasn’t secure, healthy love. It was an unhealthy substitute, a mixture of their desire to love, along with their insecurities and need for control. Their feelings of love for us were mixed with their own childhood conditioning. They didn’t know how to love you, because their parents didn’t know what healthy love was either. If one or both parents were absent, we learned that love is mired in avoidance and rejection.
In the worst cases, their “love” may have included emotional or physical neglect, abandonment, or abuse. Some adults unconsciously re-create these traumatic dynamics with their partners, resulting in vicious processing cycles that never resolve. This is called traumatic attachment, which usually requires professional support to heal.
Combining all of these factors, we have a perfect formula for the chaos that most of us experience in our primary relationships. No wonder most of us are confused about love.
As I mentioned before . . . the great news is: THERE’S HOPE!! Our past conditioning can be healed and re-wired with a little bit of effort. To do so, we return to the basic building blocks that were missed when we were younger. We can update the programming the inner child received, and re-learn what secure attachment or Healthy Love feels like.
Learning to love with confidence is just like learning any other skill. All that is required is some study, practice and experience. Regardless of natural talent or previous experience, we can all nurture our ability to love, starting with understanding the basics. The results include more mutual security, passion, and joy; and also more physical and emotional intimacy.
I have worked with hundreds of individuals and couples. Swift and lasting improvement occurs when people commit to learning secure attachment. When these skills are brought into your partnership, family (or workplace), love flourishes. It’s never too late!
For those interested in more learning and research, consider reading Dr. Dan Seigel’s The Developing Mind, Second Edition: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are (Guilford Press 2012).