10/23/2013 10:19 am ET Updated Dec 23, 2013

True Love Isn't for Sissies

"For one human being to love another, that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation." -- Rainer Maria Rilke

I've often found it mysterious that a process as natural and universal as loving should be as challenging and even at times maddeningly difficult as it so frequently can be. In fact, it seems that more often than not, the art of learning to love well is one of the most demanding challenges that we ever take on in our lives. Many people, having made a number of painful or unsuccessful attempts to develop sustained, loving relationships, conclude that they're just not up for what it takes or that perhaps they're just not the type to settle down with one person, and they choose to let go of their dream rather than to risk the prospect of continued pain and disappointment.

Why is it that loving relationships can be so difficult for us to develop? Is it true that there really are "very few good candidates out there" who are willing and able to relate honestly and openly to others? And is it really even possible for us to unlearn the protective patterns that served us in childhood but now cause us to feel frustrated and isolated?

These and many other complex questions inevitably arise once we make the decision to embark upon the path of relationship. And the further along we find ourselves, the more formidable are the concerns that we meet. Many people believe that the opposite should be true -- that the deeper the connection that we develop with someone, the easier it should be, and if it's not getting easier it's because something is wrong, wrong with them, wrong with me, or wrong with us. Not necessarily. Deep relatedness brings out the worst as well as the best in us, our deepest fears and our greatest hopes, our selflessness as well as our possessiveness, our kindness and our insensitivity, our generosity and our self-centeredness. In working consciously with these emotions and impulses, we find ourselves feeling more trusting and open with each other and gradually begin to let down the defenses that shield and protect us from emotional distress.

Conscious loving requires us to come out from behind the security of our manufactured image and expose ourselves to the threat of emotional pain that we desperately wish to avoid. What makes this so difficult is that it requires us to be fearless yet tender, committed yet open, engaged yet not attached, powerful yet yielding, and strong yet vulnerable. To fully love, we must cultivate the ability to hold the tension of the opposites, because love is inclusive not exclusive, and it can be fierce in its demands. It invites us into the space beyond the duality of separation or enmeshment and challenges us to surrender our defenses that protect us from harm.

If loving another person is, as Rilke says, the final test and "that for which all other work is but preparation," perhaps it is because we cannot be a qualified and capable lover until we have established a loving and accepting relationship with all parts of ourselves, including those aspects of our lives and personalities that we deem unlovable. Investing time and energy in a commitment to develop the capacity to become more fully loving will bring forth a greater return in terms of our quality of life than anything else we could do with our precious time and energy. And by the way, it's never too late to begin.

For more by Linda Bloom LCSW and Charlie Bloom MSW, click here.

For more on conscious relationships, click here.