There is nothing wrong with being single. In fact, one of the most important lessons someone can learn is that they can be a whole and happy person on their own. A failure to recognize this can drive people into relationships that don't satisfy them or that even make them miserable. Moreover, when their decision to enter into a couple is based on low self-esteem or the fear of being alone, people tend to make poor choices or "settle" in their love lives.
So, let's dismiss the idea that I'm advocating for couple-hood at all costs. However, just as I encourage people who are in a relationship to consider their motivations and desires, I encourage single people to do the same. If you're single and not happy about it, you may be more open to this inquiry. If you're not in a relationship by choice, you may feel more certain about your circumstances. However, if you find yourself feeling turned on the idea of relationships in general, your attitudes are worthy of exploration. Something else may be going on, something deeper and less conscious. There may be a lot of good reasons why you're not in a relationship right now, but what I'll aim to unmask here are the not-so-good reasons people steer away from love and intimacy... and possibly even their own happiness.
To start, there are a lot of cynical attitudes about love that pervade our culture. If you want to, you can certainly make a case for relationships' low success rate. There are plenty of statistics reminding us that couples split up and countless personal stories that show us people get hurt. For many people, particularly those who've had bad experiences, their cynical or critical attitudes will hardly allow them to get to know another person, much less fall in love.
For these individuals, it's easy to write off potential partners for a long list of reasons, e.g., "He seems too eager." "She'll be uptight." These limiting attitudes can be more general: "Dating is too awkward." "Relationships tie you down." They can be based on sexual stereotypes: "Men only want sex." "Women just want to control you." They can even attack love and relationships in general, "People disappoint you." "Love never lasts." Although, we may justify these negative perceptions using facts, figures or our own painful experiences, our cynical feelings and attitudes often originate very early in our lives.
Throughout our childhood, we are influenced both by the way we are related to and by the way our parents or early caretakers relate to each other. We may form preconceptions or opinions about relationships based on the negative dynamics we experience or observe. If we had a parent who was absent, we may grow up feeling more distrusting. We may carry around the idea that "all men leave" or "all women are cold." If we had a parent who was overbearing and intrusive, we may have thoughts about potential partners like, "They'll want too much from me. They're too dependent. They'll just take over my space and try to control me." Having a parent who went through a difficult divorce and never dated again may leave us thinking, "relationships are just too hard or dangerous."
These, often stereotypical, points of view can be reinforced by disappointing or hurtful experiences we have as adults. Yet, these attitudes are often misplaced or misguided. They paint a caricature of the people we encounter and create a barrier between us and the world. When we grow cynical toward potential partners, relationships or love itself, we limit opportunities to really get to know and connect with another person.
If we manage to get past these early uncertainties and give someone a chance, we may find ourselves in love. For a time, our hypercritical attitudes may even quiet down a little. Ironically, they may creep up again when we start to feel really close with the other person, when things get "more serious" so to speak. This is because our own fears and psychological defenses against love are being challenged, which leads us to subconsciously find ways to push love away. Picking a partner apart can be a way to protect ourselves and create distance. The reality is that all people are flawed. We can always choose to hone in on someone's shortcomings, or we can choose to be open, vulnerable and compassionate in our approach to others, particularly those who mean a lot to us.
In addition to criticizing others, people also become turned on themselves in relation to finding and maintaining a loving relationship. Many single men and women feel so overwhelmed by insecurities or self-critical attitudes that they find it hard to even lift their head and look at a person they find attractive. These thoughts make up what my father psychologist Robert Firestone refers to as the "critical inner voice." This voice is like a commentator in our heads judging our every action. When we look in the mirror, it may start in with, "You're so unattractive. Look how out of shape you are. No one would be interested in you. Just stay home." When we go on a date, it may flood our heads with thoughts like, "What are you even talking about? You're so dull. This is a disaster. He/ She isn't having a good time. Just call it a night." And finally, if we actually get involved with someone, it may really tear into us: "This will never work out. Nothing lasts. He/She will find someone better and leave you. Who do you think you are? You can't have what you want. "
It's clear how this inner critic, when acted on, can sabotage relationships. It creates a negative filter through which we view ourselves, our partner and our relationship. Whether we choose to be single or not, it's important to identify and separate from this inner critic in order to decipher our real point of view and understand what we really want to go after in life.
So what do we really want? Just as there are plenty of sad stats to make us feel hopeless about relationships, there are plenty of facts and figures to support pursuing one. Studies show that love and relationships are linked to faster healing, reduced pain, a sharper mind, more success (as a leader and in business), decreased stress, increased happiness and longer lives. There are even studies in neuroscience that say romantic love can last a lifetime, with the same sparks firing decades later that ignited when two people first fell in love.
If we do decide that what we want is a lasting, loving relationship, it isn't outside forces we'll be up against. What we'll more likely have to face is a series of unexpected fears of intimacy that reside in us. Many of us hide out or try to protect parts of ourselves in an effort not to get hurt. We do this by avoiding relationships altogether or by pulling back when things feel too close. Most of us, who have a history of strained connections, are afraid to be vulnerable. For many people, the idea of getting into a relationship feels like it would threaten their very identity -- like they'd lose a part of who they are. They think of entering a relationship as a sacrifice. They believe they'd be losing their sense of independence and freedom and could miss out on future possibilities.
The truth is, in a good relationship, just the opposite can happen. When two people get together, their worlds should grow, not shrink. We'll meet new friends, explore new adventures and, most importantly, discover new parts of ourselves that we didn't even know were there. It's possible to find someone who supports our interests, while introducing them to ours.
On this adventure, we will get hurt. because of the defenses each of us has formed. Yet, along with that hurt, we create the opportunity for great joy and personal development. If we can stand up to our own defenses and internal critic, we'll quickly find that we're strong enough to handle whatever life throws at us. With this foundation of personal strength, which involves feeling like a whole person on our own, we'll discover that vulnerability is actually the safest place to be to get what we want. As researcher Brene Brown pointed out, "Vulnerability is not about fear and grief and disappointment. It is the birthplace of everything we're hungry for."
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Read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone at PsychAlive.org