This question arose recently when I was working with a client. The man I was working with is very healthy, extremely bright, and very committed to his own personal development. But the more we talked the more I realized he didn’t have a clear picture of what constitutes a healthy heart connection with a partner.
To answer this question I’ll share with you my own ideas that are based on my 23-year marriage to my wife, Hannah, as well as counseling hundreds of couples over the past two decades. Many of them didn’t have a healthy heart connection and they didn’t know what such a connection looked like. Often they had ideas that were taking them in the wrong direction.
Healthy romantic relationships is a large topic, and if you want a thorough overview, I suggest going through the Dating Relating Mating Course we have on our website. It is a substantial program that helps people learn how to find the right partner, relate in mature ways, and deepen your love over time. In this particular article I’m going to focus on one overarching question: what is healthy romantic love?
Two ways to love and be loved
I believe there are two fundamentally different ways to love and be loved in romantic relationships. One is based on connecting around our wounds. The other is based on connecting around our health.
When we connect around our wounds we view our partnership as a means for us to heal our wounds. We expect to push one another’s buttons, stimulate reactions, and then we will use our reactions as a means for us to grow. We will extensively share our feelings, repeatedly process ourselves, and continue to interpret our current behaviors in relationship to historical events—our upbringing, traumas, past relationships.
In essence, we view ourselves and our partner as people with wounds and we think the purpose of our relating is to help heal our wounds.
This way of relating is based, in part, on certain ideas about what it means to be vulnerable. The original meaning of which comes from Latin—”to wound.” In the thesaurus, under vulnerable, we find: helpless, defenseless, powerless, impotent, weak, susceptible. If I have this idea in my mind—even unconsciously—I may think that having a heart connection means I need to interact with my partner in such a way that I reveal my wounds and weaknesses.
But when I do this, what have I accomplished? I may reinforce the ideas I have about myself as being flawed or inadequate in some way. That’s my old narrative. Am I helping myself by revisiting it, or am I using it to justify my present day fears and insecurities?
When I share myself in this way I put my nervous system in the hands of my partner. How he or she responds becomes crucially important to me. If she accepts me with my flaws and inadequacies, I feel accepted and loved. If she rejects me I feel . . . hurt, angry, frustrated, and like I have to work harder to be okay.
In my opinion, focusing on my woundedness creates wounded relationships. It does not result in a healthy heart connection.
But it has a certain allure for some people. And there are times when it may be healing. My client recently described his experience of being vulnerable with his partner, he said, “We had a beautiful sharing.” When I asked what that meant he went on to explain that in this relatively new relationship, “we shared our pasts and our wounds and the ways we triggered ourselves with our previous partners.”
Is this constructive? Does this create a healthy heart connection? Or, is this self-indulgent? We must each answer this question for ourselves.
Here is my caution—to indulge means to lose oneself, to give way, to yield, to abandon oneself. What is it that I am losing or abandoning when I focus on my past wounds? It is my health and sense of who I am today. If I engage in conversations in which I lose sight of who I am today, because I am so caught up in sharing who I used to be, I consider that unproductive and self-indulgent. If I need to do that, I think I should do it with my therapist, not my lover. And if my therapist allows me to do a whole lot of that then maybe I need a new therapist.
I am not advocating denial of my past. I am not advocating hiding my past from my partner. I am advocating that I stop recreating my past patterns by continuing to give them so much attention. I am advocating that I stop putting my nervous system in my partner’s hands. It is for me to learn to accept myself, to soothe myself, to create a new narrative that allows me to be comfortable and appreciative of my story (which, by the way, is made up).
When I present myself as wounded, I attract people who are interested in wounded people, either so they can heal me or commiserate with me.
Pause here . . .
It may help to stop for a minute and digest what you’re read and notice how you’re feeling. Have you chosen to be with partners as a way to heal your wounds? Has it worked for you?
In the rest of this article I want to explore another way of being in romantic love relationships, which is to focus on our health, not our wounds.
This means that we see each other as fundamentally healthy people. When I look at her, it is her health—emotional, mental, spiritual—which I see and reflect back to her. When she looks at me, the same thing. This is the ground we stand on. This is the basis for everything we do. This is where our conversations begin and end. Because we see each other as being healthy—mature, curious, open-hearted, kind—we hold high expectations of each other.
That does not mean that we don’t share our fears and insecurities. We do, but we don’t talk about them as if they define us. And we don’t spend much time discussing past partners and mistakes we made because we are not who we were back then. And we don’t want to be. We don’t want to resurrect and re-stimulate our histories. If there is some way I am using my past to hold myself back from living as I want to live today, I take responsibility to ask for what I need today, from my partner and other people. This is very different from using my past to justify my current behaviors.
So then, how do I share myself, my angst and insecurities, without being self-indulgent?
I believe that this requires three things:
- Being reasonably self-contained. This means that I learn how to manage my own nervous system—to soothe myself.
- Focusing less on my past and more on how I am constructively using my past. It’s not what happened to me, but what am I doing with what happened to me.
- Putting most of my focus on the present and having clear intentions about how I want to live now.
And during times of tension, conflict or when I feel overwhelmed, I help myself by remembering that we are separate people. To do this, it may be helpful to actually take a few minutes to be alone. After I acknowledge I am separate from my partner, and hopefully she holds the same awareness, then we turn toward each other to deeply listen and witness each other. This is almost impossible to do when we are enmeshed, that’s why the recognition that we are separate is so valuable. We must each take responsibility for our own nervous systems. You can’t run mine and I can’t run yours.
One of the most helpful things for me is accepting that I will not heal all my wounds. Some of my wounds or scars I will live with forever. Ironically, when I stop looking for my partner to heal my old wounds, and our heart connection is based on seeing each other as healthy, if we are together for a long enough period of time, indirectly some of my wounds will heal themselves.