Authenticity in Love & Life
A Blog by Elaine Barron, LCSW
As a recovering co-dependent, I know what it’s like to feel the feelings of others more intensely than I feel my own. I had become an expert in pleasing others. It wasn’t until about ten years ago, I learned the value of having a strong sense of self. I also realized the disservice I had done to those I knew by not truly interacting with my authentic self. But how could I? When I didn’t know who I was.
When I first began my career as a counselor, I re-watched the 1999 movie, Runaway Bride, and saw it with new eyes. I always liked the movie, but I have come to see the movie as personifying the “Being Known” vision of my counseling practice.
In Runaway Bride, the psychological principle that most rises to the top is that Maggie has no definitive sense of self. Her dad is an alcoholic; her mom is dead. Her identity has come from being a flirt and being attractive to men. She has developed the ability to attract men to an art. She seems to subconsciously pick up on the personality of her current man and to adapt her personality and interests to whoever her current love interest is. Her first three wedding ceremonies reflect her absorption of herself into her all very different grooms. Her current husband-to-be is a sports nut—his conversation topics, the engagement ring, the proposal, his analogies—obviously reflect his persona. On first impression, Maggie’s most obvious personality characteristic is based on her reputation as a commitment phobic bride with her family and fellow townspeople joking at her expense
Ike, the feature writer who came to Maggie’s small town to write a story about this woman with the reputation of breaking men’s hearts, falls in love with her himself. The difference is that he is actually interested in learning about her, and appreciates and defends what he sees. While Maggie responds well to being “known” for a change, it is not enough to stem the tide of her “fear of commitment” flight pattern. It turns out that Maggie needed to know herself first before she could make the commitment to the man who took pleasure in her uniqueness. Maggie epitomizes many women, those who are accommodating, people pleasing, and conflict avoidant at cost to themselves.
Dr. Henry Cloud, a well known Christian psychologist and author, as part of his Language of Love series in 2004, gave a talk called “No” is a Sexy Word. In this talk he presented the common problem of single men and women being attracted to those who are not attracted to them, and not being attracted to those who are. He suggested that this phenomenon was attributed to accommodation to the desires and likes of the other person, rather than bringing who one truly is to the relationship. He likened the accommodation process to giving one’s date a videotape as a portrayal of one’s self, with the date pushing, “play” to find a blank blue screen, rather than an interesting movie.
In his book, How Can I Get Through to You, Terry Real discussed how the socialization of boys and girls in our society contributes to faulty self images and subsequent disconnection between the sexes. Research indicates that both boys and girls start off being “expressive, dependent, deeply embedded in the matrix of emotional connection. Boys show a marked decrease in connection and expressiveness by the ages of 3-5, perpetuating the stoic code of masculinity. Whereas girls, show themselves to be articulate and expressive about their personalities and relationships up until around ages 10-13. At that time, they will themselves to become accommodating to others, as likeability takes center stage and their “voices” get lost in the shuffle. Researcher Carol Gilligan writes, “Girls lose relationship in the service of maintaining relationships.” “Traditional socialization teaches girls to filter their sense of self-worth through connection to others, often at great cost to themselves, while it teaches boys to filter their sense of self-worth through their performance. Neither sex learns about true intimacy.”
So what is the difference between accommodation and the self-denial that is a critical component of intimate relationships? Self-denial involves choosing to attend to another’s world instead of focusing only on one’s own needs, wants, feelings, opinions, and dreams. Accomodation is more subconscious, giving in perhaps to the pressure of the other, perhaps as a personal habit of discounting one’s own needs. Love can neither be demanded nor given by default. It involves an active choice, which can only occur when one has strong enough sense of self that can consciously be denied.
What about a lopsided relationship where there is not a balance of give and take? “The extent to which there is a balance of love and power in your relationship is the extent to which both of you will feel valued, safe, loved, and ready to move into deeper intimacy with each other. If your relationship gets too lopsided, tilting too far one way, then your love boat will take on water and eventually sink.” (Cloud and Townsend, Rescue Your Love Life) In most relationships, there is one person who generally takes more initiative with the other being more responsive. Cloud and Townsend suggest that “the less assertive person should ask herself and her partner, ‘if I did want to speak up more, do I feel the freedom and support from you to do that?” A healthy indicator of the relationship is to see if “the initiator is always looking for, asking for, and truly open to the feelings and opinions of his partner.”
My vision for fostering healthy relationships continues to be to help individuals discover who they really are and to bring that authentic self to connect with others in building genuine and emotionally healthy relationships.
Elaine Barron is a psychotherapist in Alpharetta, Georgia who is also a Christ follower. She has experienced much in her life that was necessarily the way she would have chosen, but sees those struggles as opportunities for growth and healing, desiring to share with others what she has learned "so far".