When we start being critical, it can be hard to stop. But it can be done.
Most people don’t naturally think they reject love, but the question really isn’t whether we do or not: It’s how much we do and why. I’ve written in previous blogs
about the reasons so many of us are, to some degree, afraid of love. Here I’ll explain the ways this fear manifests in our actions. What are the subtle and not-so-subtle ways we resist love on a daily basis? By learning what behaviors we engage in that push away a partner, we can start to change these behaviors and shift the dynamics of our relationships. Most important, we can grow our capacity to give and receive the love we say we want.
So, what are the ways we're pushing love away?
So many couples will sit in my office and speak at length of the qualities that initially drew them to their partner that never or rarely seem to show up anymore: “He never just comes up and hugs me.” “She used to be such a great listener.” “He was so acknowledging.” “She was always patient.” As people get closer to each other in a relationship, they have a tendency to reach a point when they get scared and pull back. Their fears of intimacy
can start to turn them against themselves or their partner. In order to create distance, they start to withhold the qualities their partner valued most.
This process is often unconscious and happens unintentionally, which can make it hard to pinpoint. However, if we notice that our feelings start to change—for example we now resent something we used to love doing for our partner—we may want to consider that we are being withholding. Withholding actions come in many forms. We may stop trying to look our best, which may result in our partner being less attracted to us and leave us feeling less like pursuing our partner. We may stop doing little things like really making contact when saying goodbye before we leave for work or greeting our partner with affection when we return. We may stop listening to our partner's stories or asking how he or she feels. As a practice, we should always be on the lookout for those big and small ways we are holding ourselves back from being the self our partner fell in love with.
2. Shutting down.
One of the reasons we start to withhold or even act out toward our partner comes from an internal defense system that cuts us off from our feelings. We form our defenses
based on early life experiences. These past hurts that led us to engage in acts still feel self-protective but actually serve to limit our lives and relationships. For example, we may be falling in love with someone. Suddenly, warning lights flash and thoughts flood in like, “This is moving too fast. You will only get hurt. You don’t need anyone. Just step on the brakes.” As a result, we pull away from something that was making us happy.
When acting on our defenses, we often convince ourselves that we don’t care that much about the relationship. We may start to avoid sweet moments, averting eye contact or resisting affection. We may ignore compliments, acknowledgments or recognition. When a sweet moment arises, we may slough it off or choose that moment to complain or to bring up an issue that alienates our partner.
Our defenses can lead us to become inward or act cold, finding millions of excuses not to interact with someone we love. To varying degrees, we stop having feeling for them, often writing them off without acknowledging or giving any importance to their emotions or desires. We may suddenly lose interest physically or stop feeling attracted to them. In turn, we stop engaging in loving acts that make our partner feel good. We may even outright reject our partner by not making him or her a priority or avoiding spending time together. It’s important to acknowledge that this lack of interest we suddenly feel may not be based on external circumstances we can’t control, but on our own defenses shielding us from being vulnerable or getting too close.
3. Becoming overly critical.
The more extreme side of shutting off our feelings is starting to actually pick at our partner, focusing on any flaws he or she may have. We may begin to listen to a "critical inner voice
" that attacks both ourselves and those we're closest to. This inner critic is like a negative filter that shades our perception, so we start to have a distorted and unfavorable picture of our partner and our relationship. We may find ourselves criticizing every little thing about our partner, from the cup left on the counter to the way he or she asks for a favor. Our critical inner voice can further drive us to engage in a tit-for-tat mentality. We start to measure what we give and what we get—seeing our relationship as more of a mathematical problem than a natural and personal exchange of kindnesses.
This inner critic can also support a form of selective listening. We may only hear the negative—either cherry-picking statements that we don’t like or twisting the other's words to mean something else. It’s often easier to see our partner as rejecting rather than accept his or her love. When we distort our partner’s feelings, we may act aloof, rejected, or victimized. We may feel desperate and try to force our partner to prove that he or she loves us. This too can push away love, because of our limited capacity to actually accept it.
Slowly, if we keep indulging this inner critic and listening to its advice, we force distance in our relationship. We build a case against our partner that can undermine our loving feelings. We are all flawed, and there will always be qualities we won’t like in even our closest loved ones. But if we grow cynical and stop seeing them for who they really are, we stop relating to them in ways that are loving and that bring out the best in them as well as us.
4. Putting form over substance.
So many couples say they are in love but proceed to treat each other with a basic disregard or disrespect that makes it hard to believe they even like each other. We can’t claim to be in love without acting loving. Relationships get into trouble when couples enter a "fantasy bond
," in which they replace real acts of love with the form of being in a relationship. They then function as a unit without exchanging the sort of respect and kindness between two individuals that allows love and attraction to flourish.
When we enter a fantasy bond with our partner, we start to replace real relating with routine interactions. To make sure we don't forego real love for a fantasy of being in love, we should avoid functioning as if we are connected as opposed to two people making a connection. We should resist the temptation of becoming a “we” instead of a “you and me.”
To stay in touch with our own loving feelings, we should make our actions match our words and keep engaging in acts that our partner would perceive as loving. This is key to every aspect of how we relate to our partner. When we make offers or promises, we should be sure to keep them. We shouldn’t say we love our partner and want them to feel attracted to us, then not take the actions to feel our most loving and attractive.
5. Picking fights.
All couples will face conflicts and issues difficult to resolve, as any two people with two sovereign minds will. However, we may notice times when we start to nag or provoke our partner more frequently or out of the blue. These actions are not typically about resolving conflict but creating it. They serve no other purpose than to get a negative response or actually push our partner away.
For example, if our partner is acting particularly loving, we may choose that moment to bring up another time when they weren’t acting that way. A friend of mine noticed that every time her boyfriend was being sweet and affectionate, she’d launch into a complaint. He’d say something like, “You’re so sweet to me. I’m so lucky to have you,” and she’d respond with a “yeah, but” comment: “Yeah, but you didn’t seem to feel that way yesterday morning. You were so moody with me.” This, of course, shut down his warm and open feelings and put him on the defense. It forced distance instead of allowing them to get closer and enjoy a moment of connection.
It’s important to notice patterns in our behavior that push away love. We can take an open stance and consider all the ways we may be withholding, shutting down, being overly critical, focusing on form, or picking fights with our partner. We can pay attention and notice the feelings we have before we act out in these ways. Are we feeling threatened, intruded on, anxious, or insecure? When we can identify what activates in us that causes us to retreat from being vulnerable and loving, we can start to understand why we act the way we do. We can find the root causes of our fears or resistance to intimacy.
Ultimately, we can free ourselves of these reactions by making sense of them and by not giving them the power to affect how we behave. Instead, we can make a conscious, active choice to engage in behavior that is loving and that contributes to our partner’s and our own well-being. We can be persistent in our effort to make love a priority and to keep it alive and well in our lives.