Real love is not only hard to find, it’s hard to accept. This may seem counterintuitive, I know, but if you really ponder it long enough to get it, it could change the way you think about love.

All of us have been wounded in some way, whether by early love relationships or later ones. Naturally, we create defenses to avoid getting hurt again, and unfortunately this includes defenses against love. Loving responses from others, when we've gone so long without, can cause anxiety and sadness. Love hurts, as the song goes. So unconsciously we are motivated to keep love at bay.

Being truly loved tilts our world and creates anxiety. Sometimes it’s easier to settle for the illusion--to create fantasy relationships that may have the outward signs of being the real thing, but which lack the joys--and the tensions-- of real love.

Or maybe we actually do manage to fall in love but before we know it, romance fades. Why does this happen? Because we can't tolerate the tension caused by being loved, the insecurities it stirs up. Isn't love supposed to make us feel secure? Not necessarily.

The way it plays out is this. Soon after we start feeling committed to someone we lock love into a compartment far removed from day-to-day reality. Removed, that is, from the way we actually behave toward the other. We have the IDEA that we're in love, but our behaviors don't match the concept.

You know what this is like when you're on the receiving end. When someone is giving you the talk of love but not the behaviors that go along with it you begin wondering where reality is. It's confusing, even crazy-making. Is it him (or her) or is it me? Is this real love?

Believe me, a lack of loving behavior on the part of someone who claims to love you is a definite red flag. But you already know that, right? The real question is what you're doing in the complicated mish-mash that is supposed to feel good but in fact has you feeling anxious and confused.

Real love seems to elude us. People enter therapy thinking they can't find it, when the real problem may be that they can't tolerate it. Or, they may lack the capacity to truly love another because they haven’t yet worked out their own identity issues. They want someone to “complete” them and make them feel whole.

Unfortunately it doesn't work this way. We make a gift of ourselves when we love, and to do that we have to be complete to begin with. Partly, this "I need love to feel complete" is a cultural idea. We're told we need a soul mate if we're going to be truly gratified in life. Without a soul mate our glass will remain forever half-empty. Life's journey becomes the endless search for romantic gratification, without which we basically believe we have nothing. The trick is in giving yourself enough to feel good--at which point you'll actually have something to offer someone else. Firestone and Catlett, in their book, Fear of Intimacy, offer us an eye-opening definition of love. Love, they day, "is those behaviors that enhance the emotional well-being, sense of self, and autonomy of both parties”. Your goal, in other words, is enhancing the other, not yourself.

In a way, it's so obvious. What these authors mean is that anyone who claims to love will behave in certain ways toward the object of that love. Their behavior will be appreciative and respectful of the true nature of the other person. They'll support his or her personal freedom, rather than try to possess.

Those who say they want love but basically avoid it are in conflict. They need to repair the wounds they've experienced if they want to be able to tolerate the anxiety that goes along with mature love. Creating in oneself the ability to love is a developmental task, and often it requires help. But the good news is that it can be accomplished--IF love is something you really want.


Author's Bio: 

NYC psychotherapist Colette Dowling, LMSW, has written widely on the subject of women's emotional issues. Some of her books are The Cinderella Complex: Women's Hidden Fear of Independence, Red Hot Mamas: Coming Into Our Own at Fifty, and "You Mean I Don't Have to Feel This Way?": New Help for Depression, Anxiety and Addiction.

Ms. Dowling has a private practice in Manhattan. She specializes in treating women who have conflicts with relationships, work, and success. Ms. Dowling's articles can be found at