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The Art of Relationships

with Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD

There is an art to maintaining the intimate relationships in our lives. Read on to explore our experts' perspectives, and learn new techniques to improve your own relationship skills.

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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Do You Need to Love Yourself Before You Can Love Someone Else?

The short answer is: yes and no. Let me explain.

Love is not an on-off switch — it’s a lot more complicated. We all have different levels of acceptance and love for ourselves (and others) at different times. And, depending upon how comfortable you are with yourself in general, you are more or less likely to be able to give love to and take in love from someone else.

When you basically love and accept yourself, you don’t need the approval or acceptance of someone else, though it always feels good to have. You feel comfortable being by yourself, even as you continue to wish for a healthy relationship.

You are also more likely to have faith that you will find someone who you will love, and who will love you. As a result, a bad date or a rejection from a romantic interest is not overwhelming. Unlike someone who fears being alone or fears that ‘this’ is their last chance, you don’t need to protect yourself from the possibility of such negative reactions.  And if there’s something about them that you don’t like, you can see that, too — risking the possibility that you might not want to continue the relationship. So, in the end, when you feel a connection, it is genuine.

However, when you are uncomfortable with and unaccepting of yourself, it is difficult to believe that others can really love you. Feeling flawed, you either distance yourself from others or do whatever you can to create a connection. If you choose the latter, you often hide your real self and present what you think others want. Sometimes your ability to see the other person clearly also suffers; you overlook flaws and inflate positive traits. And, you do it all for the reward of feeling loved. Needless to say, this does not bode well for making an honest connection and building a healthy, intimate relationship.

That said, even when you struggle with feeling less than loving toward yourself, you can sometimes let yourself love and be loved. If you have some doubt about your negative self-perceptions, you just might believe, or at least consider, the goodness that someone else sees in you. You might also see that someone else clearly enough to make some real connections.

Although this situation is less than ideal (it’s always best to love yourself first), you might be open to being loved and to loving. With time, you can face your insecurities and replace the fantasy version of your partner that you first saw with the real-life version before you. And, along the way, you can grow in your love for yourself and your partner.

The way I see it, life is all about growth. As individuals, we hopefully become happier, improved versions of ourselves as we age. Similarly, couples hopefully grow closer and happier as their relationship matures. Neither you nor your relationship needs to start out fully formed and healthy, but rather must be at least open enough to grow with experience.

If you would like to join a general discussion about this topic, visit the Relationships and Coping Community.

Posted by: Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD at 7:26 am

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