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Couples Therapy: Communication Strategies that work!
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Section 22
Barriers to a Loving Relationship

CEU Question 22 | CEU Answer Booklet | Table of Contents | Couples
Psychologist CEs, Counselor CEUs, Social Worker CEUs, MFT CEUs

Barriers to Love
In this section, a number of important barriers to persons being able to love that are encountered frequently in clinical practice will be discussed. Gleaned from the author's 31 years of clinical experience, from research, and from the observations of other clinicians, some of these barriers represent limitations that are confined primarily to one of the parameters of love, while others affect the entirety of them. These barriers are, in the order that they will be discussed, (a) an inability to understand and treat persons as persons, (b) a lack of understanding and appreciation of love itself, (c) personal needs or motives that preclude deep investment in the person of another, (d) hypercritical tendencies that interfere with respecting and admiring others, and (e) senses of personal ineligibility for the love of other persons.

1. Inability to Understand and Treat Persons as Persons
Earlier, Singer was quoted as saying that "The lover takes an interest in the beloved as a person, and not merely as a commodity" ( 7,p.6). Love is a relationship in which, for the lover, the beloved is another person-is, in Buber's terms, a "thou" and not an "it." To have such a relationship requires that the lover have a full understanding and appreciation of what it means to be a person, not merely in some logical or definitional sense, but in the form of an ability to regard and treat the other as a person. Thus, Romeo encounters Juliet with a full and abiding sense of her as a sentient being who is also encountering him. His awareness of her is the awareness of a "thou" who, like him, is the conscious center of her own world, a fellow maker of choices, an entitled holder of rights, values, and life goals, and an experiencer of joys and sufferings. Further, just as he has given her a place in his world, Romeo appreciates that Juliet is herself a status assigner who has given him a place in hers. Finally, he appreciates that she, like he, is fundamentally entitled to negotiate, and to accept or refuse, any place that he might wish to assign her in his world ( 2).

Any individual who lacks such an operative understanding of persons must perforce regard and treat them as something else, which will preclude loving them in the fullest sense. Any belief, ideology, or worldview that would render Juliet less than a person in Romeo's eyes, if that view be the genuine one in terms of which he approaches her, will be a barrier to loving her. Quite simply, one cannot love a "commodity" or an "it" in the same way that one can love a person.

Such inabilities to understand and treat others as persons have been noted historically in connection with a number of clinical syndromes. These include, for example, the antisocial, narcissistic, and paranoid personality disorders. While the terminology traditionally employed to describe such persons (e.g., "inability to recognize how others feel or think," "insensitivity and indifference to the rights of other people") differs from that in the previous paragraphs, the picture that emerges in clinical descriptions of these persons is of individuals who suffer severe restrictions in their ability to understand and treat others as persons.

In the following paragraphs, portraits of two less familiar characters are drawn. In each of these portraits, the heart of the matter is that the individual in question does not conceive others fully as persons, but rather as some, perhaps subtly, defective version thereof.

2. Inability to Understand and Appreciate Love Itself
Love, as should be clear from the analysis in part one, cannot be reduced to anything so simple as a naturally occurring feeling that is a human birthright by virtue of one's biological makeup. It is, rather, a kind of relationship of one person to another, which relationship is describable in terms of the places or statuses that lovers give each other in their worlds. If an individual lacks an understanding of that relationship and that place, or cannot appreciate the value inherent in such a relationship, that person will be restricted in his or her ability to love.

That a substantial number of persons do not, in fact, understand or appreciate romantic love is demonstrated in some further findings from Roberts' research ( 2). In this research, Roberts drew an important distinction between what she termed "insiders" and "outsiders." An "outsider" with respect to any given social practice or form of life is someone who lacks the requisite sensitivities, appreciations, and judgments for him or her to enjoy that practice or form of life for its own sake. An outsider with respect to the game of golf, for example, would be an individual who could not understand why anyone would engage in that activity unless he or she had some further end in view. Asked about the desirability of golf, the outsider might say such things as: "I can't see the point of knocking a little white ball into a hole in the ground, and then repeating the procedure 17 times, unless I could make some good business contacts that way or derive some other benefit." Insiders with respect to any given social practice or form of life, in contrast, are persons who possess the kinds of understandings and appreciations of these that permit them to participate with no further end in view, i.e., to participate intrinsically. Asked why he or she plays the game, the golf insider might say something like: "I just love it. There's just nothing more satisfying than being out there on the course immersed in a great round of golf."

In her research, Roberts found that only 13% of her sample of 166 participants were complete insiders with respect to romantic love relationships, while an additional 33% exhibited a partial degree of insider appreciation. Fully 54% of her sample, then, were substantially outsiders. In the research, when the latter persons encountered instances of romantic love relationships, they neither truly understood them nor, consequently, were they able to appreciate them. In describing the plight of such persons, Roberts used the analogy of tone-deaf persons who attend a symphony concert. While such persons may hear all the same notes and exhibit all the same behaviors that everyone else does, they cannot truly understand and appreciate the music and, consequently, derive the considerable intrinsic satisfactions that the music affords to many others. Thus, one of love's requirements is that persons be insiders with respect to romantic love-that in the first place they understand it, and in the second that they possess the relevant appreciations and sensitivities that would lead them even to seek such a relationship, and would allow them subsequently to participate in and to derive the considerable intrinsic satisfactions that such a relationship can afford.

Oftentimes, what stands in the way of persons possessing such understandings and appreciations of love is the fact that they have alternative conceptions of it that are highly maladaptive. Two such maladaptive conceptions of love that are empirically common among psychotherapy clients will be related and discussed briefly.

Problematic Conception: Love as Feeling
Among clients, the public at large, and many psychological thinkers (e.g., 13), there is a widespread belief that the term "love" designates a certain kind of feeling, namely, one of extremely strong affection. Intellectually, this view is problematic. Pragmatically, it is potentially destructive of love for those who hold it. Let me explain.

First, as Buber ( 10) long ago asserted, the equation of love with a feeling is invalid. If the view that has been taken in this paper be granted-that love is a relationship in which Romeo gives Juliet a place in his world characterized by aspects such as investment in her well-being, admiration, exclusivity, and commitment-it is hard to see how such a complex relationship could be reduced to a simple feeling. Rather, loving someone is a more comprehensive state of affairs that includes feelings of strong affection, but also includes much more. A helpful parallel here might be found in the assertion that "Rivalry is not the name of a feeling, but there are feelings of rivalry." In this proposition, the first term ("rivalry") denotes a certain relationship that comprises a number of aspects. The second term ("feelings of rivalry") designates what it feels like at certain (but far from all) times to be so related. It is the same with love. Finally, even if we wished to equate love with a feeling, we would be forced to ask, "Which feeling?," since loving another as a rule encompasses many feelings in addition to that of warm affection: yearning for the beloved when she is away, concern for her when she is ill or in jeopardy, sympathy for any plight she might be in, anxiousness for the furtherance of her best interests, and enjoyment of her company, to name but a few.

Its intellectual adequacy aside, the view that love is a feeling is demonstrably maladaptive for its adherents, and is so for several reasons. First, reducing love to a feeling takes a profound human bond and trivializes it. If Juliet's love for Romeo is not a committed relationship to him, but only a private feeling or sensation that she experiences, why attach any major importance to it (certainly it is nothing to die for!)? Perhaps, as some have suggested, it is merely the experience of some internal biochemical events. Second, feeling states are inherently ephemeral. Notoriously, they come and go. Were Juliet to view her love, or that of Romeo, as such an ephemeral feeling state, then she would ipso facto have grave questions and concerns about any possible permanency of love. Indeed, she would quite reasonably view it as an inevitably transitory passion. Third, and closely related to the previous point, if Juliet were to equate love with certain feelings, this would serve her poorly in assessing her relationship to Romeo at critical times. Clearly, there are dry spells in all relationships-periods of antagonism, boredom, frustration, preoccupation with other pursuits, and more. If individuals were to equate the two questions, "Do I still love X?" and "Am I having strong affectionate feelings for X right now?," this would scarcely be a sound method of appraisal, and would pose an active danger to the permanency of all love relationships.

While I wish to avoid the equation of love with a feeling, I do not wish to deny the importance of feelings. Certainly, how individuals in love relationships do feel about one another is a matter of great importance to them, and there are good reasons why this should be so. Feelings designate what Putman ( 14) has called "an actors' knowledge of relationship" (p. 133). That is to say, where our knowledge of the relationships between others is derived primarily through observation, our knowledge of our own relatedness comes importantly through our feelings. Thus, Juliet's feelings of love for Romeo are vital experiences informing her of her relatedness to him. Should they wane, and wane for a very long time, this too would be informative. Their absence would be information to her that something was amiss in their relationship, and that the nature of this something needed to be established and appropriate action taken. Depending on the particulars, this might range all the way from addressing an unresolved issue to dissolving the relationship. Thus, the position taken here is that feelings have their (very considerable) value as a kind of critical knowledge. However, in the end, they are knowledges of relationship, and should not be confused with the relationship itself. Love, one might say, is deeper than feeling. Love is the real world connectedness that feelings can only be feelings about.

Problematic Conception: Love as Self-Interested Attachment
One psychological author has written that: "Love is the positive emotion experienced by one person (the person loving, or the lover) in an interpersonal relationship in which the second person (the person loved, or love-object) ( 1) meets certain important needs of the first, or ( 2) manifests or appears (to the first) to manifest personal attributes (beauty, skills, status) highly prized by the first, or both" ( 9,p. 392). In a similar vein, widely espoused "equity theories" within psychology maintain that love is an essentially economic relationship in which individuals give to their partners in order to receive from them, and experience positive emotions when they believe that they are receiving a fair return relative to what they are putting into the relationship ( 15). Such views of love are widely prevalent in social science, which has long been dominated by theories that maintain that humans are inherently and universally motivated by self-interest (e.g., the reduction of their own sexual and aggressive drives, or the achievement of positive reinforcement). Such scientific views have their everyday counterparts in, and have no doubt influenced, widely held views on the part of laypersons that, at bottom, everyone is always and everywhere acting out of self-interest, and that what is called "love" can of necessity be nothing more than a disguised form of such self-interest.

Such a "theory of love" reduces love to self-interest, and in doing so becomes in effect a denial of the reality of love. The view is problematic on both empirical and conceptual grounds. Empirically, one does observe relationships (of romantic, as well as parental, brotherly, and other forms of love) in which one person exhibits a deep and selfless concern for the well-being of another, and even at times relationships in which such persons sacrifice their well-being for the other. An example of such a relationship was the subject of Elegy for Iris, a true account of the devoted care by an elderly man, John Bayley, for his wife, the famous novelist Iris Murdoch, who had become completely disabled by Alzheimer's disease, and who clearly would never recover and be "of use" to him again ( 16). While the determined reductionist may still insist that, "Really, despite appearances to the contrary, his actions are motivated primarily by self-interest," the observed facts of the case, taken on their face, strongly indicate a man who is quite unselfishly devoted to his wife's welfare.

Conceptually, as noted previously, the element of unselfish investment in another's well-being seems to be the one essential factor that transcends all the various forms of human love. In the all-important social contract which is the shared meanings we assign to words in order to communicate with one another, this is the factor most central to our concept of love. Thus, most people would consider it a contradiction in terms to say: "He loves her, but he has little interest in her well-being, and values her only insofar as she can satisfy his needs." In the end, the theory that love is an attachment based entirely on self-interest, like one that would assert that all bachelors are actually married, is one that violates the very concept it attempts to explicate.

Its intellectual merits aside, the reductionist view that love is actually, as one cynic put the matter, the "subtlest form of self-interest" is actively pathogenic. Since the position is tantamount to a denial that love exists, those persons who subscribe to it are rendered thereby restricted in their ability even to believe in love, much less to love. They cannot believe in love because, in their world, what passes for love is always self-interest. It is a world where no one, themselves and their partners included, actually cares about another's well-being and happiness except insofar as it redounds to their own benefit. Further, not believing that anyone truly loves, their ability to love is impaired. It is difficult to desire or to seek what one does not believe in, and perhaps even cynically dismisses as "softheaded" or "delusional." It is also difficult to love when one's own core belief system is one that devalues the love object. If Romeo, at their first encounter, had conceived Juliet as an inherently and universally self-interested being, and one who was thus incapable of truly caring about him or anyone else, that would have been a very different Juliet than Shakespeare's Juliet. Certainly, it would not have been the woman who uttered the words quoted in the inscription to this paper: "My bounty is as boundless as the sea, my love as deep. The more I give to thee, the more I have, for both are infinite." Romeo's ability to respect her, to admire her, to trust her (except to look out for herself), and more-and thus his ability to love her-would have been impaired by his conception of the ineluctably selfish creature that she must be.

3. Preemptive Needs and Motives
One of the most common barriers to love is the presence in individuals of personal needs and motives that interfere with, and may even totally preempt, the possibility of their unselfishly investing in other persons. Such needs and motives, when they are sufficiently strong, tend to preoccupy, and even consume, individuals with their fulfillment. They assume a priority in persons' lives such that, relative to them, nothing else matters very much. All personal energies must be directed toward meeting the needs of the self, and there is nothing left over for others. Two examples of such a pattern are well described in the work of Kernberg ( 17) and of Yalom ( 11).

Kernberg ( 17) in his classic analysis of the narcissistic personality, describes narcissists as persons who, despite appearances to the contrary, are gripped by enormous underlying self-hatred. Unable to meet their own esteem needs, and standing badly in need of some sense of esteem, their personal situation is one that engenders enormous needs for external validation. These needs are of such great magnitude that narcissists, in a manner analogous to heroin addicts, become consumed by efforts to secure their "supplies" of admiration and applause from others. In this quest, they are preemptively motivated to use others to meet their needs for personal affirmation, and substantially incapable of taking any true interest in these others for their own sakes. In the world of the narcissistic, Kernberg relates, others can count only as applauders and affirmers of the self. They cannot count as ends in themselves. They cannot be loved.

In a similar but broader vein, Yalom ( 11) in discussing what he terms "needless love," asserts that the failure to acquire personal qualities, such as "inner strength," a "sense of personal worth," and a "firm identity," leaves many individuals with powerful, unmet personal needs. The presence of such needs in turn leads these persons to use others to meet them, and impairs their ability to care for these others for their own sake. When we as individuals fail to acquire such personal qualities, Yalom contends, "we will be prone not to 'care for' but to 'use' others for a function-to treat them not as persons or 'thou's,' but as 'equipment' or 'tools' or 'its' that serve a function" (p. 374). We will use them, for example, to affirm our existence, to endorse our worth, to offer us refuge from loneliness, to be subservient to us, to provide us with fleeting sexual unions, to raise our social status, and to serve other functions in our worlds. In the end, then, we will exploit others and treat them as less than fellow persons. We will fail to love them.

4. Hypercritical Tendancies
A tendency to be extremely critical is for many persons a formidable barrier to being able to love one another. As noted previously, fully loving another includes accepting, respecting, admiring, and truly appreciating the person who he or she is. While lovers, especially those in mature love relationships, will not as a rule be blind to the faults of the beloved, and take issue with them, there is a certain line that they do not cross. This is the line where, in their criticism, they would degrade the beloved to a status wherein he or she became undeserving of their bestowal of love. (NB: An exception to this does occur when appropriately critical persons find out that their partners are not the persons they took them to be-that they are, for example, philanderers or child abusers. In such circumstances, it is not uncommon for individuals to degrade the other to a new status: "someone other than who I thought you were-and whom I do not love.")

For other persons, however, their critical ways are such that others are routinely degraded to degrees where they are found unworthy of love. Prospective lovers, who perhaps at first blush are found attractive and promising, are later found too uncultured, or unintelligent, or insensitive, or unambitious, or unadventurous, or socially inept. And, by virtue of these flaws, they are disqualified from the possibility of acceptance, much less the sort of respect and admiration that love implies. Most clinicians are familiar with persons who have gone from relationship to relationship, criticizing each new partner on such grounds, and in the end disqualifying each as a lover. While the reasons for such a hypercritically dismissive pattern are beyond the scope of this paper, the fact that it represents a major barrier to being able to love another human being must be underscored.

5. Ineligibility for Love
Personal beliefs to the effect that one is ineligible for love constitute for many persons formidable barriers to their finding it. Such beliefs may come about through personal histories of rejection or criticism; and/or through perceptions that one is possessed of disqualifying characteristics such as physical unattractiveness, lack of personal appeal, moral undesirability, or sexual inadequacy. Whatever its bases might be, these individuals believe themselves ineligible for the extraordinary place of honor in another's world that is embodied in being loved. Believing themselves so disqualified, they act on this in various ways that serve to ensure their failure to achieve a satisfying love relationship.
- Bergner, Raymond, Love and Barriers to Love; American Journal of Psychotherapy; Winter 2000; Vol. 54; Issue 1.
The article above contains foundational information. Articles below contain optional updates.

Personal Reflection Exercise #8
The preceding section contained information about barriers to a loving relationship.  Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.

Online Continuing Education QUESTION 22
According to Bergner, what are the five barriers to a loving relationship? Record the letter of the correct answer the CEU Answer Booklet.

 
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The article above contains foundational information. Articles below contain optional updates.
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