Relationship Connection: Which is more important: Being in love or loving someone?

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Question

I have a question, something I’ve thought about for a while and can’t come to a clear answer. What’s more important in a relationship, being in love or loving someone?

I’m in a relationship right now and it’s getting a little bumpy. This woman was married to an emotionally abusive man for years. She eventually left him, and later we started dating.

We love each other with all our hearts. We both agree that we love each other more than we could ever possibly love another human being. She is just struggling with the “in love” part.

She says she has two jars, a “love” jar and an “in-love” jar. The “love” jar is overflowing, over 100 percent full. The “in-love” jar, on the other hand, is 80 percent full.

She’s really struggling with that, and is now finding herself tempted by “in-love” situations with other men. So what’s more important?

Answer

It may seem like an odd distinction to put the word “love” into separate categories, but I think your girlfriend is revealing something important about vulnerability in relationships. Essentially, she’s describing her struggle to let herself love and, in return, to be loved in a committed relationship.

Emotional, physical and sexual abuse influences our emotions in profound ways. Our emotions guide us through the world by signaling us in subtle (and not so subtle) ways how we should respond to people and situations. Individuals who have been in abusive relationships learn to protect their hearts from getting hurt and can act in unpredictable ways when someone is getting emotionally close enough to hurt them.

This is why your girlfriend is making this separation between “loving” and being “in love.” The latter feels more comfortable to her, as it’s based on infatuation and distance. It’s almost like a romantic crush. The other person stays a mystery and becomes more intriguing. It’s an important stage of relationship formation, but it eventually transitions into a more mature committed love.

She says that her love jar is full, but can’t fully be in love with you. I think she’s created this other jar to protect her from having to stay fully connected to you. Her heart is understandably terrified of getting injured again, so she’s going to create new criteria to distance her from that vulnerability.

She’s allowed herself to feel close to you and began trusting you with her heart. Having been emotionally abused in the past, this is going to feel risky to her. It matters how she copes with these vulnerable feelings. She can surrender to the love you’re offering her and let herself love and be loved deeply, or she can keep looking for the thrill of infatuation with strangers.

It’s emotionally less risky to keep a relationship superficial and focus on romantic feelings. However, this won’t produce the kind of love that will support a committed relationship through the inevitable ups and downs of long-term love. Jeffrey R. Holland described it this way:

No serious courtship or engagement or marriage is worth the name if we do not fully invest all that we have in it and in so doing trust ourselves totally to the one we love. You cannot succeed in love if you keep one foot out on the bank for safety’s sake. The very nature of the endeavor requires that you hold on to each other as tightly as you can and jump in the pool together. In that spirit…I want to impress upon you the vulnerability and delicacy of your partner’s future as it is placed in your hands for safekeeping.

She will continue to feel tempted by “in-love” feelings for other men until she fully allows herself to love and be loved by you. As described above, this means she will allow her injured heart to be placed directly in your care by choosing to trust you. She can love from a distance and even have loving feelings for you, but it won’t be a true committed relationship until she allows herself to believe that you have her back.

This is a good opportunity for you to initiate some discussions about her idea of emotional safety in a relationship. Gently ask her if she has a fear of vulnerability. Explore what is frightening to her about commitment. See if you can help her find her way through any of those questions. Also, ask if there are some concrete things you can do to be a safe harbor for her.

As she allows herself to be loved and connected to you, other opportunities will become less interesting to her. These other options only exist because she can’t quite allow herself to embrace the love you’re offering her. I hope she will give up some of her well-defended safety so she can experience the thrill of true attachment to another person.

Stay connected!

Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. George, Utah. He specializes in working with couples in all stages of their relationships. The opinions stated in this article are his own and may not be representative of St. George News.

Have a relationship question for Geoff to answer? Submit to:

Email: geoff@lovingmarriage.com

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Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2017, all rights reserved.

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8 Comments

  • youcandoit June 21, 2017 at 8:37 am

    This is why people should fix themselves before they get into a relationship. Otherwise you are setting yourself up to get hurt.

  • comments June 21, 2017 at 11:11 am

    Sounds like she’s got the “grass is always greener” mentality. Sometimes a relationship would work with a woman who has this mindset, but it’s usually a death spiral for a relationship. What I’m getting here is she’s basically admitted that she wants to be with other men. Maybe she has no sexual desire for the author here, or who knows; maybe she got emotional instability. The emotional baggage from the previous set up she had probably runs very very deep. My advice to the poster here is to bail. Just break it off. Cut it loose and run. Unless you’re ok with her sleeping with other men, since you’re not doing it for her(as she says)?

    • comments June 21, 2017 at 11:14 am

      Just to add. The last sentence there really does tell the whole story. She’s thinking seriously about getting with other men? It’s time to bail on this one, buddy. Plenty of fish in the sea, as they say 😉

  • comments June 21, 2017 at 11:40 am

    I got to disagree with Geoff advice here. This sort of advice may work for certain personality types but absolutely can’t be a general rule. I guess all we can really do with a vague question, not knowing any details, is to throw out some random advice and maybe something will work. If the “in-love” isn’t there it’s probably because she desires more of a “bad boy” type and less of the mature security-providing type of guy, but again all we can do is throw out random advice. With the very little info we have, my advice is 100% bail on this one. Cut it loose and don’t look back. 😉

  • comments June 21, 2017 at 1:51 pm

    “She says she has two jars, a “love” jar and an “in-love” jar. The “love” jar is overflowing, over 100 percent full. The “in-love” jar, on the other hand, is 80 percent full.”

    One last thing to add: This thing about “love jars” is manipulative language. It sounds like no matter how hard you try you’ll never be able to fill up her “in-love jar”. It’s her way of saying she lusts after other men. You’re just not “doing it” for her. When someone starts using this sort of cryptic language about “love jars” and whatever other types of garbage, this is not a good sign. This may not be the quality of person you want for the long haul. Likely you’re clinging onto something that is already past it’s expiration. Invest in some serious, intensive couples therapy (maybe with dr. Geoff 😉 .) as a last ditch effort to salvage this thing ( a Hail Mary pass?) or let it go.

  • Hataalii June 21, 2017 at 8:12 pm

    By your own statement;
    “She’s really struggling with that, and is now finding herself tempted by “in-love” situations with other men.”
    How much plainer can she put it? She is obviously sending mixed signals, but the above statement is the spoiler here. She likes you, but isn’t willing, (or perhaps she is willing, but unable,) to make a full commitment to you, or to the relationship.
    Now you have to make a decision here. Are you willing to continue trying to”rescue” her from her past relationship, or not.
    Think very deeply on this, and be brutally honest with yourself here.
    You just may come to the realization that you have your own needs, that are incompatible with this relationship. And if this is what you decide, you have no reason to feel guilt or shame over it!
    Just the fact that you have written this question, shows that while you are a caring individual, you also realize that you have your own needs! If what you are truly looking for, is a serious relationship, leading to marriage, then you probably should break this relationship off. It’s not going to be easy now. But it will be much harder as time goes on. And should you end up marrying this lady, you will be making a lifetime commitment to allowing her to manipulate you.
    You owe it to yourself to live your own life, and not make yourself responsible for someone else’s problem. You both will likely be MUCH better off doing one of two things. Either having an “open” relationship, (think “friends with benefits,”) where you have no commitment to each other, or breaking up and going your own separate ways.

    • comments June 22, 2017 at 9:47 am

      Good point. I think just by asking the question he knows deep down that this setup has bad prospects of lasting. What I’ve learned over time is that people start off like a brand new car. Years of bad and broken relationships, abuse, failed marriages, etc leave figurative dents and wear and tear on a person. There comes a time when you gotta ask yourself how many dents, how high of mileage, and how many wear and tear mechanical problems are you gonna put up with before you dump it and get a car with less miles?

      😉

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