Healthy, Authentic Love: A Valentine’s Day Reflection

Unconditional love is the very best builder of the immune system.
The natural instinct of the body is to want to take in love and to experience
the joy and harmony that comes from it. If someone does not let it in, s/he is
having to put out effort to interrupt an instinct toward health and happiness.

– David Richo
The voice of the divine in us is counterpoised not by
the voice of the devil but by the voice of fear.

– Abraham Maslow

The other day I was relating the following story to a co-worker of an experience I had had earlier that morning via email. The story was this: I had been trying to arrange via email to meet someone after work. The person also wanted me to meet her husband, and through an email message suggested we try the following Monday or Tuesday nights. When I saw her message, I chuckled to myself, and wrote back immediately, saying: “Monday is Valentine's Day ChocolatesValentine’s Day; probably not a good night to have me join you and your husband for dinner. Why don’t we try Tuesday?”

When I finished my story, thinking it was kind of cute, my co-worker replied, “If she buys into that whole thing.”

My co-worker certainly had a point. Valentine’s Day indeed has been commercialized to such an extent that one does question buying double-priced roses or triple-priced gift cards for the significant others in our life. However, whether or not one “buys into that whole thing,” I do find it curious that as a society we continue to have days on the calendar and a number of expensive rituals all devoted to love; yet at the same time we seem to know so little about how to love and make it last.  One of my favorite singer/songwriters, Dan Fogelberg, once put it in a song lyric:

Now that we love,
Now that the lonely nights are over,
How do we make love stay?

An author who has been enormously helpful to me in understanding the workings of love in adult relationships is the psychologist, David Richo. As I thought about writing something for this week’s post on love in honor of Valentine’s Day, I turned to his book, When Love Meets Fear: How to Become Defense-less and Resource-full. The book was first published in 1997, but I only recently acquired a used copy. I always learn something important from Richo, and I was not disappointed in taking a look at this book for something to ponder in preparation for Valentine’s Day.

The commercialized version of Valentine’s Day is very much about the “romance” that our society equates with “falling in love.” Richo notes the benefits of romance, and acknowledges that it is an important stage of the loving process. Often without even consciously knowing it, we are attracted romantically to another person out of a connection to what we most desire for ourselves from another. Initially, that desire is strong enough to blind us to realities that might interfere with a long-term relationship. However, at some point beyond the initial attraction, we come face to face with what is real in ourselves and in the other person, often resulting in disillusionment and conflict. As Richo says, “Love has an authentic feeling in it so you are challenged to follow suit and become authentic.” (p. 112) It is the need to be authentic in our loving that causes fear to enter to the picture.

Being authentic in a relationship means I have to become vulnerable enough to show you who I really am, wounds as well as strengths. Another aspect of this vulnerability is letting go of control. We often hear someone described as “a control freak.” Richo surprised me by pointing out a profound connection between control, vulnerability, and grief. He writes:

Wanting to be in control is another way of saying: I am afraid of having to grieve. I am afraid that if you do not give me what I want I will feel bad and I will have to grieve the loss. I do not really control to get my way as much as to avoid how bad I will feel if I do not get my way. (p. 112).

Richo says another sign of fear operating in loving relationships is unresolved, ongoing anger and resentment. These feelings may originate in childhood, and could stem from the way one found it necessary to relate to one’s parents in order to feel safe. The feelings may have nothing to do with the present relationship, but are now habitual defenses affecting all relationships.

The inability to accept, allow, and appropriately attend to our own feelings, whether they be feelings of grief, anger or fear, then, is crucial to our capacity to receive and give love. In many cases, this inability has its roots in our early years. Yet, even if our childhood was fairly secure and loving, all of us carry fears that stem from the blows we have acquired in just living life as it is. That is why, says Richo, the period of romantic love can be so freeing. “Romance automatically suspends the fear of love and postpones the fear of closeness.” Perhaps that is why an event like Valentine’s Day, or even the occasional “date-night” can be so important to a relationship. These occasions offer a chance to momentarily revive the feelings of connection and abandon that first marked a relationship, before the hard work of staying committed began.

Finally, fear of being loved or of loving is really at its core a fear of self-acceptance, according to Richo. The really sad part for me in this assessment is that not one of us comes into the world thinking we are unacceptable. Other people do that to us. I thought about that yesterday, after I went to see the movie, The King’s Speech. In the film, it is implied that the severe stammering suffered for most of his life by Britain’s King George VI stemmed from physical and psychological abuse he experienced as a child. I left the movie theatre feeling very saddened to know that even in a situation with unlimited financial resources an infant could be treated with such cruelty. As Richo writes:

The fear of letting other people know what you are feeling, or who you really are, is ultimately a fear of self-acceptance and of the risk of finding acceptance – being loved – by others. Imagine what contempt must have been shown to us in early life to make us afraid to give the only gift that we really can give, which is the gift of our true self. What danger made it necessary to don disguises, so that the simple reality of who we are would not appear?(p. 117).

If fear of being lovable is at the core of our ability to love, perhaps on Valentine’s Day the first person we should gift with a traditional rose and special greeting card is our self. Happy Valentine’s Day to you and yours!

Maslow, A. (As cited in Richo (1997). p. 110.)

Richo, D. (1997) When love meets fear: How to become defense-less and resource-full. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist. (Opening quote: p.110 Adapted.)

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