The Challenge of Emotionally Mature Love
By Richard Kieninger
Love is often blocked by conflict, and conflict is often generated by emotional difficulties. The emotional maturity that makes the flow of love easy comes slowly as life is lived. Perhaps emotional maturity is best seen not as an accomplishment (which you either have or don’t have) but as a process of becoming. That process can be intensely painful at times along our unfolding journey toward a shift in consciousness. Taking personal responsibility—not blame—is a key. When we realize that most of our conflicts come from natural ups and downs in our process of learning to better handle emotions and not from the dreadful shortcomings of others, then we are ready to grow faster. Lao Tzu said it well: “Only he who contains content remains content.” The challenge of loving in an emotionally mature way can be seen as a series of challenges. Let’s look in depth at some common ones, with an eye to learning how to gradually resolve them.
1. The Challenge of Not Hurting Those You Love by Taking Out Your Anger, Pain or Frustration on Them
We’re all upset by various events; and as we get more mature, we’re better able to “process” these upset feelings. But while we’re learning to handle the feelings, we often “take them out” on those closest to us. If we’re in an active mode, we may use some little thing a loved one does as a “trigger” for the feelings just waiting to be released, and they explode. If we’re in a passive mode, we may withdraw into ourselves. However, emotional distancing can be a rejection, and people can be just as hurt by it as by explosions.
When this situation arises, how does it evolve? Here’s our culture’s classic scenario: you explode, blaming the explosion on someone else. Then he/she naturally defends him/herself, and you defend your explosion by condemning his/her action. A fight develops, and mutual hurt feelings block love and intimacy for some time. Finally, someone apologizes. This type of conflict can be resolved, or defused, by some of the pattern-breakers discussed on page four. Now, let’s bring this challenge home. Please answer the following questions:
a. Who are the persons on whom you are most likely to take out your feelings?
b. What kinds of feelings do you most often take out on them (anger, hurt, loneliness, fear; or just anything unpleasant), and in what situations?
c. Close your eyes and imagine yourself striving to take out some feelings on that person—and then change the script. Try some of the ideas listed in the “Breaking the Pattern” section. What happens?
2. The Challenge of Knowing How to Balance Nurturing Your Partner with Nurturing Yourself
In any good relationship—professional, personal, or parental—each person both gives and receives love and support. Part of the challenge of keeping a healthy relationship is developing an intuitive sense of when (and how!) to give love, and when and how to receive. This is a delicate balance.
Surprisingly, there’s a knack to asking for love and nurturing, and it can be learned. When you fully accept that you’re needing nurturing and learn how to ask for what you want you’ll usually get it. But when you’re feeling guilty about wanting support, or have already decided that the other person isn’t going to give it, you’ll often not get what you need. Frequently, when this happens, you decide that the other person is not caring or supportive enough, and you use this as a reason not to be loving toward them.
On the other hand, if you become too focused on meeting your own needs, you may neglect to give to your partner. Sometimes, when you’re not feeling lovable, the best way to get out of it is to just forget about your problems and focus on being loving toward another person. Love is most enriching to the person who gives it. And, through cause and effect, if you give more love, you’ll eventually receive more.
a. Right now, in your relationships, are you giving more, receiving more, or having a balance of giving and receiving? Is this typical of how you usually are, or different?
b. If you’re receiving a bit too much, think of some ways you could give more in your relationships. If you’re giving too much, how could you feel more comfortable in receiving? Can you think of times that others tried to be loving and you cut them off in some way?
3. The Challenge of Knowing Who Has the Problem
One of the things that blocks the flow of love between people is when they get enmeshed in each other’s problems. When you have a problem and try to project it onto your partner (for example, if you are always “too busy” for quiet time and touching, but blame your partner for not touching you enough) you create a lose-lose situation. As long as you keep thinking it’s your partner’s fault, you’ll never address the real root of the problem—yourself. And so you prevent yourself from feeling close and loving. You need to identify your own problems so that you can work effectively to resolve them.
On the other hand, if you’re always trying to own others’ problems, you’ll tend to block closeness and love, because that means you have to take on all the other person’s challenges. For example, if you get upset whenever your coworkers are having a bad day, and feel that you must help “make everything all right,” you’ll soon be overwhelmed and want to avoid them; because you can’t make everything all right for them. Only they can do that. If you can trust them to work out their own problems, without you getting stuck in them, you’ll be free to care about others without feeling burdened.
4. The Challenge of Empathizing with a Loved One When You’re in the Midst of Conflict
Compassion, which means to “feel with,” is a strong foundation for love. Most of us can “feel with” someone when we agree with their feelings, or when it doesn’t have anything to do with us, but the real challenge is to empathize with someone when we’re feeling attacked or hurt by them. It’s worth the effort, though, for nothing so beautifully dissolves conflict as genuinely understanding the other person’s perspective. As one wise person said, “To understand all is to forgive all.”
Reflective listening, which means simply identifying what the other person is feeling and then telling what you heard back to him/her, is one technique you can use as a “baby step” toward understanding someone’s perspective. Even if you strongly disagree with what another is saying, you can look for what they’re feeling and say, “Sounds like you’re really angry about that.” Sometimes, the other person will feel “heard” and this can start the resolving process.
Really empathizing, however, is a quantum leap beyond any technique. It is intensely moving when, in the middle of a conflict, you just “let your hassles go” and fully feel how the other person is feeling. When you do this, you touch the heart of loving very deeply. It is from such true empathy that you find the wisdom to resolve the conflict in a loving way.
Have you ever experienced what’s described above? If so, what were the results?
Breaking the Pattern: Letting Love Flow
Getting into emotional conflict is one of the easiest ways to block love. We often use open or hidden conflict as an excuse for not loving the people around us. Over time, we develop patterns of conflict, based on emotional dynamics, that we replay endlessly. When we can predict very closely how a conflict of ours will go; what we’ll do, and what the other person will do, and how it will escalate; we’re dealing with an emotional habit pattern. If the conflict is usually with the same person, then we probably have interlocking patterns; in some way, our emotional challenges mesh with their emotional challenges.
To start becoming more loving, break the pattern. Some patterns may be easily worked out; the relationship can become more loving quickly. Others can be more deep-rooted and may involve gradually working through many strands of emotions. For those situations, here are some pointers to keep in mind: 1) You don’t both have to be consciously working on improvement: if just one person’s behavior changes, the dynamic will change. 2) Allow plenty of time for deep-rooted patterns to change. Deep change is possible, but it unfolds slowly. Celebrate any step forward, no matter how minute, as a positive accomplishment, and the pace will accelerate over time.
We stay in conflict when we feel that it’s not possible to resolve it. In fact, there are a multitude of different ways to understand any conflict. Here are some “baby steps” that we’ve found useful for breaking out of emotional conflict patterns, and changing the tone to a more loving one. If one doesn’t work, keep trying till you find another that does.
1. Feel Your Feelings
That is to say, stop acting them out or blaming the other person for them. Often, in conflict, we are actually fighting against our own strong feelings that we don’t want to accept. You can break the pattern if you stop and go within. Close your eyes, and move toward the feelings you are fighting, allowing them to overwhelm you, without projecting them outward or identify them in your head as being someone else’s fault. Feeling and clarifying your feelings is the ultimate resolution to conflicts. When you are clear enough about what is important to you, you can usually present it clearly without fighting.
2. Tell What You are Feeling
When you know what you’re feeling, it can help to express it. The simpler and clearer you say it, the better. Saying “I’m really hurt!” with feeling and then nothing else for a bit, is clearer than trying to qualify or explain why immediately. Give the other person a chance to respond; let the pace of the interaction slow down.
3. Take Responsibility for Your Part
Conflicts continue when people feel blamed or threatened. You can often defuse fights by telling the other person what you think your part in the conflict is, rather than defending yourself when they tell you what they think your part is. An example is: “I really came home in a rotten mood today, and I guess I’ve been snapping at you.” Saying “I’m sorry” here helps, too.
4. Say You Don’t Want to be in Conflict, and Ask for Help Ending It
This is a good “last resort” technique when you are very unclear about what is going on or when you’re too upset to do anything else. You can just say, “This really feels tense and unhappy to me! I don’t want us to keep on like this. How can we stop it?”
5. Laugh at Yourself
This is good advice in general and is especially helpful when you are in the midst of a conflict. Often emotional habit patterns can be almost caricatures of themselves, and letting yourself shift perspective and see the funny side of your emotional patterns can be very healing. Obviously, this only works with your patterns. Laughing at the other person is a sure way to escalate the conflict.
6. Empathize with the Other Person
This item was discussed in greater detail earlier, but it is one of the best ways to defuse conflict and develop love.
7. Help the Other Person Understand You Better
If you explain a little bit of why you are upset, sometimes the other person can understand your perspective better and feel more loving toward you. For example: “Maybe the reason it upsets me so much when you don’t pick up your stuff is because I used to share my room with my sister, and she always had her things all over the room. There was never any place for my things, and I felt as if I didn’t matter.” Even if the conflict isn’t immediately resolved, at least there may be greater understanding between you.
Even with someone you’re not very close to, touching can communicate caring. A touch on the arm or shoulder, along with an apology or expression of concern, can help calm a tense situation. With a close relationship, touch can be even more important A hug with a friend or child or lover can go a long ways toward re-establishing loving feelings.
9. Peeling the Onion
“Peeling the onion” is based on the idea that people have emotional layers, like onions. To understand why something bothers you, take an event that was upsetting you and think about it. You’ll probably find that it goes back to an earlier event that caused similar feelings, and that that one is connected to an even earlier event, and so on. That’s peeling the onion.
Choose an incident where you were feeling loving and something happened to disturb the feeling. Focus on the upset feeling that blocked love for you, and follow it back as far as it will go. What did you learn about yourself?
Sometimes, we let our feelings of hurt or anger stop us from loving others. As we become more emotionally mature, we gradually understand more about our feelings, and learn how we can use them to become more loving, rather than letting them block us from loving.
Emotional maturity is a process more than an end result. None of us is fully emotionally mature; rather, we are all striving to be more mature. Emotional maturity has little to do with intellectual understanding or personality or of how emotions work. It is, rather, a real ability to feel our way through life’s challenges, while remaining centered and grounded.
Some qualities that lead us to greater emotional maturity are: 1) shifting perspectives, seeing many points of view; 2) trusting ourselves: trusting our evolving ability to meet challenges, and our growing ability to meet our own needs, and 3) accepting life as it comes: enjoying it and seeing the humor in it.
Use the “Baby Step” approach to greater emotional maturity. It often doesn’t work when we try to “act as if” we were wholly mature. Usually, we can’t even imagine what a really emotionally mature person would do in a given situation. But, in our own situations, we can usually think of a slightly more mature way to act. So, we can take baby steps toward maturity, one at a time, as we are ready to see them. Over time, they’ll add up to giant steps.
Often, we get stuck in emotional habit patterns of conflict that block us from loving. When that happens, the first step to becoming more loving is to break the pattern. Some ways to break the pattern are: feeling your feelings, asking for help to break out of a conflict, expressing your feelings, empathizing with the other person, and touching.
The challenge of emotionally mature loving can be seen as many smaller challenges. Among them are: the challenge of balancing nurturing others with nurturing yourself, the challenge of knowing who has the problem, the challenge of not hurting those you love by taking out your feelings on them, the challenge of empathizing with someone while in conflict with them.