Opening to love: What does it take?
I never knew my father. He left when I was a toddler. My stepfather was abusive. I know somewhere in there I shut down and learned not to trust, especially men. And, believe it or not, as a therapist, I once heard myself say, “I don’t have any ‘father issues’; I never had a father!” Yet after my second marriage, I discovered that I had been unconsciously looking for my father, for love, my whole life. But when someone cared for me, I couldn’t take it in. I couldn’t really receive the love that was there. I felt scared inside and unconsciously shut down or ran away.
Often, some part of us yearns for love. We long to feel more alive, more connected to ourselves and to others. Many of us, however, unconsciously shut down, run away from love. We may yearn for closeness and connection but fill our lives with work and busyness.
You may be like so many of us and tell yourself you don’t need love. You are fine just the way you are. Perhaps you have a pet that keeps you company or a hobby that fills your spare time. Yet, deep down, you yearn for something more. You long for that elusive something that will give you more aliveness and a deeper satisfaction in your life.
Or, you may yearn for love, think you’ve found it, have a whirlwind romance only to find in a short time that things have turned sour and the love you thought you’d found was not love at all. So, you keep looking, sometimes desperately, for someone to love and someone to love you. Sometimes, in these cases, we give ourselves away to get what we want. We deny our own needs in favor of others. We give more than we are comfortable with, often without thinking, with unconscious hopes that we will, at last, find love. We keep looking, longing, yearning.
There’s a reason for this yearning. As humans, we are wired to connect. Numerous research studies confirm that when we are connected to others, we are happier, healthier and more productive. In fact, those who have solid people connections in their lives even live longer. Connection to others is a biological imperative that pushes us from the inside on a cellular level.
A lot of new research is emerging to not only support why opening to love is important, but to tell us the principles that need to be in place in order to accomplish that. One new theory in particular is turning everything we know about psychology, even our biology, upside down. It’s Steven Porges’ Polyvagal Theory which answers not only why we have such a yearning for connection but also tells us very explicitly how to shift our brain and nervous system so that we can have close relationships. Polyvagal Theory shows us how to increase our capacity for giving and truly receiving love.
In order to make these shifts into a deeper experience of loving and being loved, we need to delve a little deeper into one of the factors that drives our need for connection, and, at the same time, keeps us from connecting. This is one that is not talked about and yet is the most vital, albeit hidden, factor. As humans, the secret that lies beneath the yearning, and often holds us back, is our need to feel safe.
There is a paradox here. Because we don’t consciously know or understand this, we often unconsciously push away the very thing we want most. It’s hard to believe, but this is something we need more than love. We need safety. Yes, feeling completely accepted and safe in your body, on every level. Safe to show up, to be yourself. Safe to have needs and express them. Safe to not know, to make mistakes. Safe to be seen for who you truly are. It turns out that this is a universal need.
Many of the people we work with initially say, “But I am safe. I know I’m safe.” I certainly felt that way. Yet, there was a part of me that only allowed people to get just so close. It was unconscious, of course, but the end result was the same. I wanted relationship. I yearned for love and real partnership, yet I held an invisible boundary that prevented me from receiving or feeling this love.
After two marriages, two kids, two interim relationships, plus two graduate degrees in psychology, I began to look at why I didn’t feel the sweetness that was there for me. Was I running away? Was I shut down?
I later moved to California and began a new career as Academic Dean in a new graduate school of psychology. It was an opportunity to completely start over, to ask myself what I really wanted. I didn’t want to be alone and I didn’t want to move from one relationship to another. I also didn’t want to be like some of my friends who were in relationships that seemed lifeless. She did her thing and he did his and there wasn’t much meaning or depth.
I watched myself in making new friends. I certainly watched myself as I ran from Ken, the gentle, sweet man who lived next door. I began to notice that in moments of closeness, I would get nervous, shut down, or turn away. My moves were subtle, but I could see how they were protecting me from taking risks.
So many times Ken would come to my door and ask me if I wanted to take a walk to the beach. For months, I told him, “I’d love to, but I don’t have time right now.” Then he would stand in my doorway and we would chat for an hour.
I developed an open curiosity. I just watched myself. In the past, I had judged myself a lot. “What’s the matter with me? Why can’t I just be here and feel? Maybe something’s wrong with me.”
Along with all this I was reminded of how I didn’t really feel anything. I suppose you could say I was numb. I wanted to feel, I wanted to be more alive, but I didn’t seem to have the capacity to feel.
One Saturday morning is still etched in my mind. Now we can laugh about it. Then, it was a wake-up call. After about six months of avoiding Ken, my 13-year-old daughter came to me and said in a very emphatic voice, “Mom, you’re not very nice to Ken. He comes over and asks you to walk to the beach and you tell him you’re busy. The only time you go to his house is when you need him to come fix the dishwasher.” She was right!
So, I approached Ken as he was working in the front yard that morning and asked him and his boys, who were close to my kids ages, to come over for pizza that night, which they did. After dinner, the older boys left and his youngest and my two busied themselves in the dining room making, then eating, a gingerbread village. Ken and I sat in the living room talking. We shared some intimate details of our life stories, as well as our hopes and dreams. Before we knew it, it was after midnight and time for them to go home. As they were leaving, Ken and I hugged. I’ll never forget it. I felt something. I felt an opening, a sweetness that was far beyond two lovebirds meeting for the first time.
I know now, especially from Porges’ research, that we all have a primal, unconscious need to connect with others. And, we need to feel safe. This need for safety is paramount. He tells us that our brain, body, mind, and being is first and foremost looking for a perception, an experience, of safety. Unconsciously, we are scanning our environment, trying to discern, “Am I safe here? Is who I am and how I show up okay?”
We may actually be safe, but, if because of prior experience, we don’t perceive safety, we stay in a place of vigilance. We use our energy for protecting ourselves and looking to see where the next shoe might fall. This hypervigilance prevents us from actually experiencing what is present and available for us.
So, the first requisite for love is to have a visceral experience of safety. Unknown to me at the time, a feeling of safety is what I experienced that night with Ken. With this feeling, this experience of safety, comes the next requirement of having a capacity to be immobilized. This may sound strange at first but Porges’ reminds us that we are the only mammals who can’t crawl to our source of food and safety. We must depend on our caregiver to protect and nurture us. Within this is a requirement that we feel safe enough to be immobilized. When we are being fed at mother’s breast or even with a bottle, we are immobilized. We must be and feel safe enough to allow that.
In a similar fashion, later in life, when we are with a partner, we must feel safe enough to be immobilized in the act of making love. We must be able to surrender, to be present for the experience. A gentle, full-body hug where both are present, just there for and taking in the experience, is a real step toward a visceral experience of safety. This first step need not be sexual. It is simply two people, present, open and available to the other in that moment.
A number of research studies demonstrate that a 10 to 20-second hug a day has the capacity to increase vagal nerve activity, elevate oxytocin (the “love hormone”) which, in turn, leads to a cascade of health benefits: reduce stress, less fatigue, lower risk of heart disease, fight infections, boost the immune system, ease anxiety and depression, increase a sense of satisfaction and happiness.
The Wall That Keeps You Out Also Imprisons Me
If you, like me, experienced neglect and/or trauma in your life, you may have allowed intimacy but not found it satisfying. You may go numb, check out or avoid intimate moments altogether. Being truly vulnerable may not be something you know how to do just yet.
With the experience of trauma, many of us have difficulty creating and/or sustaining lasting, meaningful partnerships. The bottom line here is that our nervous system is unconsciously set to perceive danger. So, we often put up walls that keep us safe.
Along with putting protective mechanisms in place, we turn our cup upside down so we will be sure to stay in control and as safe as possible. What this means is, metaphorically, I may hold my cup out to you and ask for water. But my cup has been turned over, so it won’t hold but a drop or two of water. And, my thirst is not quenched, and I have to keep asking. I don’t know that I am not really receiving the goodness, the love, the sweetness that is there for me. In time, I may give up and decide there’s no one who will love me and/or I don’t really need love.
Even in close friendships we need to feel safe enough to allow vulnerability. We need to be open to give and take. If we are always in charge, or if we surrender and allow the other person to always be in charge, it becomes a one-way relationship and not very satisfying to either party.
Feeling safe enough to be metaphorically and literally immobilized, having the capacity to be vulnerable, allows us to receive. In receiving I must feel safe in the same way. I was always taught it is better to give than to receive. I’ve learned that it is not necessarily better to give than to receive, but it is certainly safer to give than to receive. Truly receiving can be difficult. In fact, it’s the most difficult thing I’ve ever practiced.
This article was written by Marti Glenn, Ph.D., Ryzio Clinical Director