February 21, 2024

Am I unlovable? An exploration into the complex nature of relationships

Loving and receiving love is one of the most difficult things in life. This article explores the causes of complex emotions and offers practical steps to improve relationships

Love: we need it, we want it, we long for it, we can’t live without it. Our very emotional survival depends upon it.

Yet loving and receiving love is one of the most difficult things in life. One that causes us most heartache and difficulty. But why is this?

I believe it’s so hard — and this is my own experience — because we make our love towards ourselves and others dependent on conditions.

“If only I was smarter, slimmer, good enough, up to the mark… I could love myself as I am, I could like myself.”

“If only my partner, friend, colleague wasn’t so annoying, moody, controlling, loud, selfish, I could love them as they are, I could really like them.”

So we make our love dependent on certain things rather than accepting the truth that each one of us is flawed, imperfect. This doesn’t mean letting ourselves and others off the hook. No, it’s quite the opposite. It’s saying ‘Yes’ to ourselves and wanting more for ourselves, eg. being a kinder, more loving, patient, trusting, engaged, open and curious person. It requires us to start where we are, with who we were and explore what’s possible every day with love, respect and patience.

I used to be very self-critical and harsh on myself, and not feeling good enough most of the time. It had a detrimental effect on how I experienced myself and others. Because I didn’t like myself very much, I felt mostly disconnected from myself and others, isolated and often lonely.

But love doesn’t demand, love is present. Love just is.

As relational beings (something we often forget), the more we are in loving and kind relationship with ourselves, the better our relationships with others. This has definitely been my experience. As my attitude started to become a more loving one, I began to notice that my relationships with others became more trusting, easier and meaningful.

Another reason why it is so hard to love and be loved is beautifully expressed in this line by Iris Murdoch, British poet, author and philosopher —

"Love is the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real."

Here Murdoch refers to the recognition of the other’s otherness which is the very foundation of love.

And yet, this is where we often go wrong by making assumptions and having unrealistic expectations about what other people want. I believe this comes from our religious cultural heritage, from the ancient Golden Rule that is found in most world religions (particularly in the West) which states: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Meaning, treat others as you want them to treat you.

This statement mistakes the reality of the self for the only reality. It asks us to take our own wishes, desires, and longings as universal and assume that others share in our exact wants and needs. When in reality, other people might want, need, and long for something completely different.

Loving requires us to be un-selfing and recognise that we are all unique and different. The Bulgarian writer Maria Popova reminds us of this —

"...there are infinitely many kinds of beautiful lives, each with its singular longings for beauty, goodness and gladness..."

Although our wants and needs are different, human beings are connected though a common humanity. We all share a life which involves both difficulties and contentment.

How my own realisation positively impacted my own relationship with my sister

I felt very lonely as a child and have never had a close relationship with my sister. However, my very conflicted and unloving relationship with her changed completely when I came to realise that, although our experiences had been different, my sister had suffered just as much as I had from loneliness as a child.

Today, we still aren't close but we do respect and love each other for who we are. This experience has been one of the major breakthroughs in my life.

Love is the recognition of another person’s integrity and truth in a way that makes both of you light up when you recognise the quality in the other.
Robert Graves, British poet
A black and white photo of Karen and her sister, as children, playing outside

Karen (front) and her sister, as children

Practical steps for healthy relationships:

  • Bring awareness to the attitude you have towards yourself
    Do you love yourself as you are or do you like some parts of yourself and reject others, judge them and beat yourself up for it? If you do, you will notice it in how you feel about yourself and life, most likely uneasy, dissatisfied, low, sad, depressed and unhappy.
  • Begin to imagine what it might feel like to be content, well and happy in yourself
    Do this with a loving, curious and patient attitude towards yourself, remembering that you are imperfect and human.
  • Notice your assumptions about other people and how you might think you know others, when in fact, you don’t.
    Remember, we hardly know ourselves.
  • When with another person, see whether you can take them fully in
    Can you see them as a unique person, with a different background and upbringing, with different needs, wants, and longings. How does it feel? How does it change your relationship to them?

When people have the courage to be honest and the ability to hear an alternative perspective, relationships can be repaired and solutions can become possible

Read how conflict resolution could work for you

Take the first step towards repairing a broken relationship