When It's Hard to Love

Red toy robot holding broken heart

Most little children can express love easily and often. Their eyes light up when they see a friendly face. Their smiles are wide open and welcoming, and their hands and arms reach out for connection. Children have the ability to embrace the moment—to dive into life’s experiences wholeheartedly and let laughter, tears, joy, and anger erupt in uncensored bursts. And so, as children, most of us loved without reservation or restraint, until...the first sense of rejection, betrayal, or abandonment. From there, the heartbreaks keep coming—small and large, manageable and catastrophic.

Like those who live on a fault line, we may learn to brace ourselves time and again for the next shattering quake. People may disappoint us, criticize us, leave us, or worse. We may become selective and protective about sharing and expressing our love, and develop behaviors and attitudes to try to keep our hearts “safe” from breaks.

Over time, we may integrate and heal painful experiences, but we often retain a lingering fear of being vulnerable—of opening our hearts and risking another wound. We may also hold resentments and an unforgiving attitude toward those who have hurt us. For people who’ve experienced violence, torture, war, or injustice, trying to love those who inflicted, or are even associated with, such devastation and pain may seem impossible, even absurd.

Fear and love are deep-seated primal feelings, and crucial to our survival. Fear triggers an instinctual self-protective response that can help us to avoid real danger. But when fear is overwhelming or irrational, it can compel us to hate, control, attack or even kill.

On a less dramatic level, some fears (of failing, missing out, being criticized or rejected, looking “foolish,” or having our feelings hurt) can be limiting at best, crippling at worst. Sometimes we can stare down or rise above those fears, and sometimes we let them stop us before we even start. When it comes to love, fear may hold us back from connecting with others and reaching out for support when we (and they!) may need it most.

Love, on the other hand, nurtures our spirit, connects us to others, allows us to experience compassion and forgiveness, and to support family and friends and ourselves through trying times. Love allows us to survive and even thrive. And forgiveness, born of love for ourselves and compassion for those who have hurt us, frees our hearts and minds. It can be hard work to forgive, and it does not always mean that we will stay in relationship with those who have hurt us. But the act of forgiving and making peace with the situation, if only in our own hearts and minds, can lead to liberation and healing. Sometimes, seemingly miraculous transformations occur between people who have been forgiven and those who forgive them, such as when accused criminals, upon receiving love and forgiveness from their victim’s family, become part of that family. Such stories may be rare, but they are powerful reminders of the power of love and forgiveness to heal broken lives.

It may be difficult to fathom that the greatest obstacles to giving and receiving love lie within our own minds and hearts.

Excavating our darkest thoughts and feelings, and bringing them to the light of awareness, is a painful but necessary process in maintaining an open heart.

Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche communities, which were formed in 1964 to unite people with mental disabilities and those who share life with them, says, “the secret of L’Arche is relationship: meeting people, not through the filters of certitudes, ideologies, idealism or judgments, but heart to heart; listening to people with their pain, their joy, their hope, their history, listening to their heart beats.” In 1988, Vanier spoke before a Harvard audience, revealing that his own journey to tolerance included an examination of the intolerance that lay within him.

“I discovered something which I had never confronted before, that there were immense forces of darkness and hatred within my own heart. At particular moments of fatigue or stress, I saw forces of hate rising up inside me, and the capacity to hurt someone who was weak and was provoking me! That, I think, was what caused me the most pain: to discover who I really am, and to realize that maybe I did not want to know who I really was!...And then I had to decide whether I would just continue to pretend that I was okay and throw myself into hyperactivity, projects where I could forget all the garbage and prove to others how good I was.

Elitism is the sickness of us all. We all want to be on the winning team. That is the heart of apartheid and every form of racism.

The important thing is to become conscious of those forces in us and to work at being liberated from them and to discover that the worst enemy is inside our own hearts, not outside!”

Through his honesty, Vanier provides an opening for the rest of us to acknowledge, own, and even accept our own negative thoughts and attitudes as part of our complex and messy humanity. But finding the courage and compassion to reveal ourselves—imperfections and all—is not easy. That may be our greatest fear—that if we are honest about who we are, we’ll be unlovable. Yet, if we do not own these parts of ourselves, we may project them onto others, and make them wrong or different or even dangerous in our minds. Again, fear is at the root of feeling threatened by another—fear of losing what we have or of not having enough, fear of losing status or community, fear of the unknown, and the ultimate fear of death. This is not to say that we shouldn’t protect ourselves from those who would abuse, violate, dishonor or physically harm us, but we need to distinguish between real threats and those manufactured by our egos.

Ironically, being honest about ourselves, warts and all, can often bring us closer to others and open the door to intimacy.

We may think that others will reject us for revealing less-than-flattering information about ourselves, when, in fact, our honesty may inspire them to recognize and accept something they once rejected in themselves. We tend to make up negative stories about what others think of us, what their actions mean, and what judgments they must have about us, when those judgments are often coming from within us. Revealing our imperfections and vulnerabilities may actually bring us closer to those we love, once we are accepting of those things in ourselves.

Forgiveness, too, is an important step in overcoming obstacles to love. Being hurt as a result of engaging in relationships with others is part of being human. Learning to forgive ourselves and others can lead to healing and accepting the past, releasing anger and resentment, and opening ourselves again to love.

Obstacles to love may begin in our own minds and hearts, but they are complicated by the challenges that life throws at us. Navigating those challenges with the people closest to us is a lifelong practice that requires patience and skill. Despite a 40-50 percent projected divorce rate, we live in a culture that idealizes marriage or other romantic partnerships. In fact, many of us are unprepared for the day-to-day challenges of lifelong relationships, and reluctant to compromise or see and embrace another’s perspective for the sake of harmony and understanding.

Love must stand the tests of time, stress, and hardship.

Serious illness was ultimately an opportunity for deep connection between Shasti O’Leary-Soudant and her husband, Jethro Soudant. In a National Public Radio StoryCorps booth, Shasti recounted how Jethro transformed the lowest point in her life into a turning point, during one of her chemotherapy treatments for lymphoma. She recalled that as soon as the IV needle punctured her skin, she vomited, lost control of her bodily functions, and began crying hysterically. At that moment, Jethro said something funny to Shasti about how she looked, and it made her laugh.

“You were radiating love,” she said to her husband in the radio story. “I felt like I was looking into the sun...It was the most incredible moment of my life because I had no doubt—I knew you loved me.” Shasti said that she knew that if she died their love would continue and that “whatever happened, everything would be fine...”

Physical and mental illness, great loss, and other life stressors can weaken even the best relationships. Making a commitment to any relationship—be it a life partner, family member, friend, or co-worker—means learning to deal with different opinions, communication styles, preferences, behaviors, or cultural influences. Navigating these differences while honoring our own needs is the dance of all relationships.

But sometimes we let these differences obscure the fact that we all have the same basic need to be loved—unconditionally. Unconditional love provides a soft, ever-present place to land, regardless of how wretched or unlovable we may feel. According to author Stephen Covey, founder of FranklinCovey, “when we truly love others without condition, without strings, we help them feel secure and safe and validated and affirmed in their essential worth, identity and integrity.” Can we imagine a world where each of us feel safe, worthy, validated, and loved despite our differences, our uniqueness? Perhaps we could start with ourselves, treat others in kind, and watch what happens.      

This article is from our free, downloadable Conversations About Love: Participant Guide.

Roselle Kovitz, a member of Fetzer’s social media team, is a writer and communication consultant who lives in Seattle.