Too Damaged to Love Again?

By Linda Riley, LMFT and Certified Sex Therapist

Stories of trauma and pain are part of my normal day as a therapist. I hear about hurt that starts in early childhood for some and continuing throughout life for others. Have you ever wondered how early childhood pain or trauma affect ones capacity to love? And to those who have been seriously hurt, is it possible to be so damaged emotionally that you actually can't love again?

To start answering that important question, let's look at the research. There seems to be a significant increase in the number of people in our culture who exhibit narcissistic personality traits. They learn to deal with their hurt by over loving themselves. While there may be a difference between traits of a narcissistic personality and full fledged narcissistic personality disorder, it is getting harder to diagnose and distinguish. When I was a graduate student narcissistic personality disorder was commonly believed to be present in only about 1 % of the population. The other day I ran across a recent statistical analysis that suggested we are now looking at 1 in 25 people with narcissistic or self-loving personality disorders. This obsessive self-love creates huge roadblocks in real loving relationships. Consider the narcissistic traits I most commonly see in clinical practice:

1. The lack of empathy towards partners
2. Manipulation and exploitation of partners
3. A sense of entitlement which results in unrealistic expectations of partners
4. Inability to recognize and take responsibility for unhealthy behaviors and choices, which means projecting all the blame on partners
5. A diminished ability to love.

Lack of empathy can start early

I recently attended a conference on Cyber-bullying where a child Psychiatrist stated that the real problem of those who bully or manipulate others was the lack of empathy in children and teens. They appear to lack the ability to feel the hurt, pain and fear of the kids they were bullying. The field of Infant Mental Health has demonstrated through brain scans of infants that empathy is something that first develops from the infant-mother bond. If for various reasons there are problems with this bonding process, attachment disorders develop. How do we teach empathy if it isn't learned or developed in infancy?

In our culture today many children are raised in day care centers or left with a variety of child care providers which are not there long enough for any significant attachment to occur. To love another one must first experience being loved. In the past when kids were raised with lots of extended family around to pick up the gaps in connected relationships; like aunts, uncles or grandparents. With so many people around to show love there was more likelihood that a child would experience a secure attachment with a primary caretaker. The problem is that if this connection never takes place, then the child will have difficulty attaching or bonding to their significant other as well as to their own children. Consequently, this is passed on from one generation to the next. People literally can get further and further apart emotionally since attachment isn't an automatic process from just being born into the same family or having the same last name.

Keys to relationship connection

At the very core of connection is ones ability to empathize. Good marriages and healthy families are all about connection. The inability to empathize with others also results in a lack of an integrated sense of self. If a person is missing a solid sense of who they are they tend not to develop a real sense of self-awareness and may feel they are either all bad or all good. Many things can disrupt this bonding process. A mother who is depressed or emotionally not available herself raises a child that doesn't learn to connect very well emotionally, (just like their mom).

If an infant or child is exposed to high levels of fear and stress, like many abused or neglected children, than this can possibly predispose a child to a latter need for recreational drugs or produce an aggressive or self-destructive child. The skills necessary for achieving an intimate relationship are both the ability to be self-aware enough to be in touch with your own feelings and than be able to relate to the feelings and experiences of the intimate partner. Lacking these skills leaves one with a diminished ability to both give love and receive it.

Microwave Love misses out on real Intimacy

We live in a fast paced culture and the result is we want everything to come as a quick delivery. Love takes time to develop; it is not a process that can be accelerated. Loving someone deeply requires taking the time to truly know them. It takes honesty, it requires some risks and it takes a tremendous amount of trust. Yet many people think they can just fast forward the process like some steamy scene in a romance movie and begin a real relationship with sex instead of communication. It is doomed to fail because microwave love misses out on real intimacy. Like Frank Sinatra advises in his classic song lyric, “Lets Take It Nice and Easy” and that lovers need to slow down and “take all the steps along the way”.

Could it be that we hurry through love, rush relationships, speed up sex, and race through life in general because we are all too wounded to be willing to take the risk of loving someone deeply? Or could it be that our culture has just lost the ability to love because we have become too narcissistic and self-centered? Hurrying through life keeps us so busy that it steals the important solitude that we need to be healthy and whole, both psychologically and spiritually. In other words it keeps us from fully feeling our emotions of loneliness and emptiness. Maybe that's why some people stay so busy and never take a minute to slow down, because if they did it would mean getting honest about what's missing in their life and that would be too painful, so it's off to another busy activity to avoid getting real.

Giving up on love before it's over

The other day I was talking to a man who has gone through a series of unsuccessful relationships and he actually used the word “DONE” when he was describing how he felt just before ending a relationship. Just simply “I was done” like when you are done with something and you throw it away because it is no longer useful to you. It just struck me as strangely sad that he was referring to a woman that had loved him. She loved and he wasn't able to feel it anymore. Just another sad ending that is common when someone gives up on love before the relationship is over, and when that happens usually both people are going to get hurt in the process.

As a therapist who specializes in relationships; I frequently witness how diminished people’s capacity to love is these days. Everyone claims they want someone to love, yet so many mindlessly walk away from love. They just move on to the next relationship or what appears sometimes to just be another “victim” of failed love. What are they looking for I wonder? Why can’t they see the value of the person they are with or the relationship they are in? Why aren’t they willing to stick around and make the effort to create something beautiful and lasting? What happened to “real” love and “real” commitment?

Losing your heart- one broken relationship at a time

I watch so many people take their partners for granted and under-value a relationship that should be meaningful. For many this is a warning sign of a failing relationship, which I realize means they are losing another piece of their heart. Sadly many people don't know that with every breakup they lose a part of their heart, but they don’t slow down enough to actually feel or grieve the loss of their own intimate connections.

How many pieces of your heart can you lose and still retain the ability to deeply and fully love? The answer is not as much as you think because the more break ups, the more scars and the more scars, the harder it is to open up next time. How ironic, our culture is always drawn to watch great love stories but are we are often too cowardly to write ourselves into the script. How about you? Do you have the courage to open your heart and really love, or are you too damaged, wounded or narcissistic to love again? You get to choose the level of intimacy in your relationships. I hope you choose love.

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About the author- Linda Riley is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Certified Sex Therapist, woman's support group leader, divorce recovery expert, and guest lectures for medical staffs around the country. She is a radio and television guest, with over 25 years of experience in marital conflict and intimate communication between the sexes.

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