Rediscovering Love

How to identify behaviors that undermine love—and how to avoid drifting apart

Why Can't I Let Love In?

Letting go of the barricades to vulnerability

Most people seeking relationships are looking for true and lasting love. They want to find that special person who will meet their deepest expectations while loving them equally in return. When they try over and over, and can’t seem to find what they are looking for, they continue to work on self-improvement and try harder to understand the moving earthquake that is the dating playing field.

On the other end of the rainbow are those people who seem to easily find partners who want to be in committed relationships with them. They don’t seem to have to try very hard to attract partners they want. We usually think of them as the “beautiful people” whom everyone agrees are valuable. In fact, most of them are very typical people in many ways. However, they do have some unique observable personality characteristics and behaviors that set them apart. They come across as independent, contained, confident, and un-needy.

Sometimes their outward behavior is an accurate representation of who they are. They may be the lucky subset of humanity that has just been born lucky to have attributes that have always been valuable to others along with upbringings that have nurtured those qualities. However they came to be, they are the successful-in-love individuals who easily find partners often form successful long-term relationships.

But what about those people who seem very similar to those special souls but don’t feel that way about themselves inside. They are just as successful in their ability to find quality partners initially, their relationships don’t last. Despite many promising beginnings, they are more likely to easily secure a new partnership but end up having many sequential ones that do not last. Underneath that posture of secure poise, they are people who cannot allow their partners to penetrate their vulnerable emotional barriers. They can give love out, but they cannot let love in.

In the early months of every intimate relationship, the new partners of people-who-can’t-take-love-in feel they have scored a great person, someone who gives easily but doesn’t seem to require much in return. Unfortunately, over time, they begin to realize that these easy-going, undemanding people are very comfortable caring for them but won’t or can’t allow themselves to take in loving behaviors from their partners. Over time, they feel invalidated, as if their love isn’t good enough. They may confront their partners with accusations of commitment phobia or even infidelity.

The emotionally stoic partner is rarely able to then share his or her internal conflict and vulnerability. Instead they are most often likely to passively accept the ending as if it were expected, never really knowing why. Rarely are these people who can’t let love in really understood for whom they are inside and why they push love away, not only by their partners but by themselves as well.

What causes people who seem so able to attract love, to be so unable to take it in? What are some of the underlying reasons for their behavior? What are some of the underlying reasons that they turn away from safe emotional havens and genuinely offered security?

Childhood Trauma

The Can’t-Let-Love-In Partner Speaks:

“I want so much to trust that love isn’t going to cost me in the long run. I grew up with a father who loved me to death when he was sober, but beat me when he was drunk. I tried to anticipate when it would be safe to be close to him, but I was usually wrong. He had two sides, as I guess most people do, but they were nothing like each other. I still always wanted hid approval and I think I’m looking for that in my relationships. But I keep pulling away when someone gives too much. I keep waiting to be clobbered. Better just not to get too close.”

When children are raised in environments where love is dramatically paired with fear or punishment, they have only two choices. The first is to tolerate the pain in order to get the love that goes with it, and the second is to run from the pain and go without love. Initially these children just stay immobilized like a deer in headlights and hope that things will resolve. Over time, they learn to attract love but then run before the inevitable damage occurs. They cannot face the price of a potentially negative surprise.

These children grow into adults who expect that love will eventually become painful. Though they may rationally believe that the right love can triumph over a negative heartbreak, their triggers are deep and their reactions are not always rational. They are careful from the start, giving the secure love they were denied as children. But a shadow of fear hovers underneath, waiting for the expected negatives to emerge. In intimate relationships, they test their partners repeatedly. Eventually many fall away, disconnecting in cumulative frustration.

Their Partner’s Feelings:

“I think I’m doing everything to make him feel loved and cared for, but just when I’m gaining ground, he finds just one thing I did wrong and sees me as having a hidden agenda to rip him off. Sometimes he tells me he’s never felt so loved and accepted and that’s what keeps me going. Then, he turns on me. It’s so incredibly frustrating. I don’t know how much more I can give and never be trusted.”

Pairing Trust with Expectations of Being Controlled

The Can’t-Let-Love-In Partner Speaks:

“I’d love to trust a lover to just care for me without needing to control my every thought and action. I’ve found that the less you tell someone about what you need, the less information they have to control you. I know I’m staying inside my shell and I’m probably missing some possible closeness, but I guess I’d just rather be alone than let someone know who I really am. Every time I’ve let a partner really see what really make me happy or sad, he for sure will use that against me later when he want’s something I can’t give him. I can’t risk that potential for emotional blackmail. It’s just easier to stay unknown.”

People who need very little from an intimate partner tend to attract lovers who are drawn to their mysterious emotional unavailability. When whatever they do or say doesn’t seem to get through, they either leave the relationship or double their efforts to get in. If they do earn the can’t-let-love-in partner’s trust and gain access to the sacred interior, they usually want to leave a mark in some meaningful way, not realizing that very behavior can be perceived as the ultimate betrayal.

If the partner who fears that accepting love means he or she will inevitably be controlled will then rapidly find ways to undo whatever selfless devotion their lovers have promised. The result is a frightened, looking-for-a-way-to-bolt person on the other end of a partner whose only intent may have been the desire for inclusion.

Fear of being controlled is often paired with the expectation of being absorbed into another person’s being. Intimate partners who slip out of emotional reach when their lovers gain too much access to their vulnerable places often believe that they will ultimately be erased by their partner’s ability to dominate them.

Their Partner’s Feelings:

“I do everything I can to make her happy, anticipating her every wish. I remember everything she cares about and all the ways she has felt touched in the past. No matter how much I track her, as accurately as I can, she always finds a way to slip out of my reach. I’m either too late, wrong about what she needs, or facing someone who tells me I’m trying too hard and it’s a turn off. I end up feeling like a control freak when all I want is to be closer to her. What’s wrong with someone who will never trust you enough to let you in whatever you to do to prove you’re not going to hurt them?”

Fear of Being Trapped by Obligation

The Cant-Let-Love-In Partner Speaks:

“I like to be the giver in a relationship. That way I never owe anyone anything. I feel like running whenever anyone tries to make me feel like I’m obligated to do or feel something I don’t want to. I hate it when my partner thinks that she gave me so much that it’s my turn to sacrifice for her and I haven’t even asked for what she gives me. I’ve let girls give me a lot in the past, especially when they’re fun to be with. Sure, it feels good at the time, but just wait until the emotional credit card is full. You’re going to pay eventually for accepting what they told you was free. Better just let not the debts build up. That way you can always get out if you have to without feeling guilty.”

Some people are so fearful of being trapped by owing too much that they will not let their partners ever give more than they can easily return. Whatever caring or gifts their partners offer, they have to top them. Whatever kindness their partners extend, they best them by finding more ways to care. If they need something and their partner wants to negotiate a reciprocal deal, they just give up that need or pretend that it doesn’t matter. They make absolutely sure that their partners are the ones who get more than they do out of the relationship so they never feel trapped by owing.

These are people who have often been burned in prior relationships from people who use coercion, guilt, or threats to keep them in a relationship. They unknowingly accepted a showering of attention and interest only to find out later that those behaviors were attached to entitlements that partner had not been honest about.

Their Partner’s Feelings:

“He’s impossible to please. When I get him his favorite shirt, he tells me he already has enough of them. When I make him his favorite meal, he tells me that he’d rather go out to dinner and then he eats what I made for him for left-overs the next night. He never lets me feel that what I give is really important to him, even though he seems to really enjoy it at the time. I feel I’m a fair person and I know that I’d never take advantage of him, but he make me feel like I’m out to get him no matter how hard I try to show him I’m not that way. I feel I’m on the other end of an escape artist.”

Scared of Losing Themselves in a Relationship

The Can’t-Let-Love-In Partner Speaks:

“Every time I’ve let a guy in too far, he tries to change who I am. It’s like I’m some sort of project that attracts puppeteers. Of course, I want to be loved. Doesn’t everyone? I have a private place in me where I keep my most vulnerable feelings and the core of who I am. Most guys just don’t get it that they have to earn the right to know that part of me.

I let a guy talk me into telling him about my past, and right away he wants to fix me. I’m so tired of being someone’s project. It’s really not about me; it’s about what they want me to be for them. I don’t know what it is with guys who tell you they love you, but it turns out to be someone they want to make you be that they really love, not who you are.”

People who have had their boundaries violated as children or in prior relationships live within a strong fortress. The partners they’ve had in their pasts have used knowledge of their needs and vulnerabilities to try to change them. They feel that the only way they are safe is to never let a partner know what they are feeling deeply inside because, once in, he or she will not hold their being sacred.

Deep inside they may want desperately to be known and cared for in a safe and secure way, but, because that has never happened, they have increased their trust that it ever could. Every time they’ve let partners in too far, they feel as though they’ve been taken over, never again to be able to be truly themselves. As a result, to protect themselves, they unwittingly seduce their partners into trying to get inside of their heads and hearts, and then unconsciously sabotage that process.

Love, invasion, and erasing are the same experience to people who feel their partners try too hard to know them, perceiving any offering of commitment as a ruse to take away their freedom and mold their existence.

Their Partner’s Feelings:

“I’m crazy about this woman, but I feel like she sucks me in and then spits me out. She sees every affectionate gesture as if I’m trying to break into some secret stash and steal it away. I can’t make her understand that I love her exactly the way she is. It doesn’t matter what I tell her; I get the same response. She tells me that every boyfriend she’s ever had just wanted to own her and make her in to someone she wasn’t. When I stop trying, she is a sweetheart, reaching out to me in that incredibly sweet way she has, but I better not see that as an invitation to try to get closer. She always has to be calling the shots. I want to be with her, but I’m getting worn out trying to tell her something she obviously doesn’t want to hear.”

Acting Like They Don’t Need Love so They Won’t Get Taken Advantage of Again

The Can’t-Let-Love-In Partner Speaks:

“Women like guys who don’t need them. I’m a lover, not an asshole. I’m not the only romantic guy around and I’m not ashamed of the fact that I fall hard for someone I care about. I start wanting to be with my woman a lot and not share her with a lot of people. A lot of women have told me up front that they’ve never met anyone who cares the way I do. Then, true to the past, they start seeing me as too needy. I hate pretending I don’t care as much as I do, but that’s what it takes. I’m getting the picture that you have to act less committed than you want to be or else someone’s going to take advantage. I wonder if there is any woman who gets your heart but doesn’t just end up using you.”

People who have repeatedly loved and then been abandoned in prior relationships learn to give up attachment to anything that is threatened. They may give a great deal of love and commitment to their partners, but will intentionally not ask for anything in return. Sometimes they will actually turn away gifts they really want just to prove they do not need them.

Sometimes these people have learned to “steal” love. They act as if nothing their partners offer matters that much, but secretly inside their own hearts, they are keeping what they are getting in a secret storing space. They don’t let their partners know how much they want and depend on what they’re getting because they want to keep it coming without acknowledging that is happening. Outwardly they can act quite blasé when inwardly, they are enjoying the gifts.

Their Partner’s Feelings:

“I know deep inside that he wants me to love him, and if I act like it’s no big deal, he even lets me indulge him in the things I know he needs. But he will never tell me that he appreciates it. I can’t figure it out and it drives me crazy. I know how much he needs me because when I haven’t been around, he kind of complains in an off-handed way. I bet that if I disappeared, he’d act like it wouldn’t be a big deal to him, but I know he’d miss me. I sometimes catch him smiling at me when I’m almost asleep, like he really does love me, but I’d never let me know I see. I wish he wasn’t so afraid of being honest about wanting my love, but I guess pretending is the only way he can be.”

Not Being Able to Sustain Prolonged Intimacy

The Can’t-Let-Love-In Partner Speaks:

“I have always been the kind of woman who likes passionate surface relationships. I don’t want to be close like other women do. I have a lot of other people I like to spend time with and I like to be alone and just indulge myself in whatever I want to do. So many guys want to own you and get pissed when you aren’t available. I can’t be owned that way by anyone. Guys tend to fall all over me and I keep telling them that I don’t need their devotion or material things. My style is to give it everything I’ve got and to get out when it’s not fun anymore. It’s more exciting and less costly that way. My friends tell me I’m too much like a guy, but I don’t buy it. I think women are too stereo-typed. We can like the good stuff without the commitment expectations, too.”

There are many people who enjoy the initial phases of relationships but have no desire to create a long-term relationship. They don’t need offers of love or commitment and are often put off by them. More of them are men, but there are women who feel the same way. They often have important career aspirations, multiple other interests, and a great need for doing things alone that they don’t want to give up.

Mysteriously, they can be simultaneously very available and yet not reliably present. They often attract partners who are drawn to them for those exact reasons. They are like sprites, deliciously involved and then gone. They are magical lovers, uncontrolled their partner’s needs. Though they sometimes do not share their patterns and can drive a devoted lover up the wall, very often they do tell them up front who they are, but are rarely believed until the warnings materialize and the situation plays itself out.

Their Partner’s Feelings:

“I don’t think I’ve ever met a woman who intrigues me like she does. She is unbelievably delicious. You offer her the world and she doesn’t care. You enjoy her and she purrs like a kitten. Then, the next, moment she’s gone. I spend hours trying to figure her out. It’s just not normal to be that connected and then just not seem to care about wanting more. I’ve tried everything to figure her out and to get her to want more but she always manages to need something I don’t have or not want what I have to offer. Her unpredictable behavior drives me nuts, yet when she wants me, I can’t seem to stay away.”

Whether a person doesn’t or can’t take in love because of childhood trauma, past failures, personality proclivities, or anticipation of hurt, they are often very frustrating for their partners. Human beings live in harmony by creating reciprocity. They learn rhythms of sharing and exchange that builds trust and the accurate expectations for future behaviors. When one person gives and the other either doesn’t take it in, or pretends not to, the resulting imbalance will eventually harm the relationship.

If you are a person who cannot let love in, you can change your responses. The first step is to recognize what you are doing and to understand how you gave up your right to take love in. The second is to share those underlying reasons and your desire to change the role you are playing with your current partner if you are in a relationship. The third is to gently challenge your old behaviors as you observe them happening, choosing instead to observe how you are feeling as they occur and choosing to take a more transforming path. As your interactions become more authentic, you will feel the joy of living your life without the need to protect yourself by keeping love away.

Randi Gunther, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and marriage counselor practicing in Southern California.

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