Letting Love In

Don't threaten your relationship, learn how to accept AND give love.

By Hara Estroff Marano, published on September 1, 2005 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Giving love is one thing. Getting it is another, and altogether different, thing. Accepting and taking in support, appreciation and encouragement can be very difficult for some people. They brush off compliments. They discount votes of confidence. Words of encouragement glance off their ears.

And in so doing, they threaten the relationship they're in. The problem, however, doesn't begin with the relationship. Rather, it has deep roots in early experience, affecting the very identity of a person so that as a partner nothing can penetrate his or her armor.

According to Harville Hendrix, Ph.D., and his wife Helen LaKelly Hunt, Ph.D., coauthors of Receiving Love, Transform Your Relationship by Letting Yourself Be Loved, such praise-resistance is nearly universal—and it's why many relationships don't get better even when one partner dramatically changes patterns of behavior to say and do all the right things. People often have a hard time accepting the good things they are offered, even if they are very generous and giving themselves.

Sometimes a partner can recognize that his or her mate is defensive. But that doesn't help matters much. They don't know why he or she is that way, and sooner or later they stop caring—and stop giving. And that's how problems escalate in committed relationships: Irregularities in one partner set up reactions in the other, and so the relationship spins its way to unhappiness.

Hendrix and Hunt trace the problem to a "broken receiver," a part of us that is damaged in early life when we are ridiculed, ignored or punished for expressing natural emotions and needs. ("If you are going to sulk and be angry, then go to your room until you an be with other people.") As a result, self-protective mechanisms kick in, and children learn to hide part of themselves. They grow up to be adults who act with self-repression or self-rejection and discount, deny or denigrate a partner's genuine expressions of love.

The solution, say Hendrix and Hunt, is to develop compassion and to adopt in yourself the traits you like least in your partner. By learning to love your partner you learn to love yourself. Only then can you take in the love that another offers. Giving and receiving, they emphasize, are part of the same system.

What you need to create is a reparative relationship, one in which you and your partner can experience a wider range of emotions and become more tolerant of stress than before. To do it you have to:

  • put feelings into words
  • connect experience to meaning
  • identify what triggers anxiety
  • integrate what you're thinking with what you're feeling.

All of these skills, say Hendrix and Hunt, "involve connecting aspects of the self that used to be separate from each other." And linking information and feeling improves not only psychological functioning but also physiological functioning. It reduces arousal, or the perception of stress when discussing difficult topics.

It starts by learning to listen to your partner without judging what is said. You can ask your partner, "Tell me what happens inside you when I express love." In this instance, you are exploring emotions and memories in a way that encourages tolerance and acceptance.

And then you have to listen empathically, without criticism. When you express that empathy, by saying something like "This must feel scary to you," your partner learns to trust, to feel safe in your presence. And that will gradually lead to more openness.

Of course, to do this you can't walk around thinking of yourself as a victim. You have to give up wanting the approval of your parents. You can't be a child any longer.