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I have a question, something I’ve pondered and thought about for a while and can’t come to a clear answer. What’s more important in a relationship, being in love, or loving someone? I’m in a relationship right now and it’s getting a little bumpy. This woman was married to an emotionally abusive man for years. She eventually left him, and, later we started dating. We love each other with all our hearts. We both agree that we love each other more than we could ever possibly love another human being. She is just struggling with the “in love” part. She says she has two jars, a “love” jar, and an “in love” jar. The “love” jar is overflowing, over 100% full. The “in love” jar, on the other hand, is 80% full. She’s really struggling with that, and is now finding herself tempted by “in love” situations with other men. So what’s more important?
It may seem like an odd distinction to put the word “love” into separate categories, but I think your girlfriend is revealing something important about vulnerability in relationships. Essentially, she’s describing her struggle to let herself love and, in return, to be loved in a committed relationship.
Emotional, physical, and sexual abuse influences our emotions in profound ways. Our emotions guide us through the world by signaling us in subtle (and not so subtle) ways how we should respond to people and situations. Individuals who have been in abusive relationships learn to protect their hearts from getting hurt and can act in unpredictable ways when someone is getting emotionally close enough to hurt them.
This is why your girlfriend is making this separation between “loving” and being “in love.” The latter feels more comfortable to her, as it’s based on infatuation and distance. It’s almost like a romantic crush. The other person stays a mystery and becomes more intriguing. It’s an important stage of relationship formation, but it eventually transitions into a more mature committed love.
She says that her love jar is full, but can’t fully be in love with you. I think she’s created this other jar to protect her from having to stay fully connected to you. Her heart is understandably terrified of getting injured again, so she’s going to create new criteria to distance her from that vulnerability.
She’s allowed herself to feel close to you and began trusting you with her heart. Having been emotionally abused in the past, this is going to feel risky to her. It matters how she copes with these vulnerable feelings. She can surrender to the love you’re offering her and let herself love and be loved deeply, or she can keep looking for the thrill of infatuation with strangers.
It’s emotionally less risky to keep a relationship superficial and focus on romantic feelings. However, this won’t produce the kind of love that will support a committed relationship through the inevitable ups and downs of long-term love. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland described it this way:
“No serious courtship or engagement or marriage is worth the name if we do not fully invest all that we have in it and in so doing trust ourselves totally to the one we love. You cannot succeed in love if you keep one foot out on the bank for safety’s sake. The very nature of the endeavor requires that you hold on to each other as tightly as you can and jump in the pool together. In that spirit…I want to impress upon you the vulnerability and delicacy of your partner’s future as it is placed in your hands for safekeeping—male and female, it works both ways.”[i]
She will continue to feel tempted by “in love” feelings for other men until she fully allows herself to love and be loved by you. As Elder Holland described, this means she will allow her injured heart to be placed directly in your care by choosing to trust you. She can love from a distance and even have loving feelings for you, but it won’t be a true committed relationship until she allows herself to believe that you have her back.
This is a good opportunity for you to initiate some discussions about her idea of emotional safety in a relationship. Gently ask her if she has a fear of vulnerability. Explore what is frightening to her about commitment. See if you can help her find her way through any of those questions. Also, ask if there are some concrete things you can do to be a safe harbor for her.
As she allows herself to be loved and connected to you, other opportunities will become less interesting to her. These other options only exist because she can’t quite allow herself to embrace the love you’re offering her. I hope she will give up some of her well-defended safety so she can experience the thrill of true attachment to another person.
Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Author
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, UT. He is the owner of Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com) and the founding director of LifeStar of St. George, an outpatient treatment program for couples and individuals impacted by pornography and sexual addiction (www.lifestarstgeorge.com). He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, available at Deseret Book, and the audio series “Strengthening Recovery Through Strengthening Marriage”, available at www.marriage-recovery.com. He also writes a weekly relationship column for the St. George News (www.stgnews.com). He holds a bachelors degree from BYU in communications studies and a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from Auburn University. He served a full-time mission to the Dominican Republic. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.