Accepting and taking in support, appreciation and encouragement can be very difficult for some people. They brush off compliments. They discount votes of confidence, and words of encouragement glance off their ears.
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 childhood 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.
This resistence often makes it hard for people to accept 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.
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. For example, growing up we might have heard, “If you are going to sulk and be angry, then go to your room until you can be with other people.”
As a result, self-protective mechanisms kick in, and we learn to hide part of ourselves. We 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 the other 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 that 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.
Hendrix and Hunt say all of these skills “involve connecting aspects of the self that used to be separate from each other.”
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.
That will gradually lead to more openness to give and receive love from your partner.
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