Do You Really Have to Love Yourself in Order to Be Loved?

In my twenties, I was involved in an off-again, on-again relationship that I am certain made all who witnessed it feel a little crazy. This person and I broke up and got back together so many times over a period of three and a half years, I lost count. One day, I was finally done and I officially broke off the relationship, for real this time. I am not proud of this, but knowing that this decision was not mutual and was causing unhappiness, I heard myself saying, “Years from now you’ll look back on this and see that this was good for you, too,” or something like that. I wanted to break up and be told by the person I was hurting in the process, that I was a good person doing a good thing. I wanted to be thanked for ending the relationship, and I didn’t quite want to let go of this person’s good opinion. Not surprisingly, my ex-to-be was not on board with this idea. The response was something along the lines of “I can’t see any scenario where this is a good thing.” A year, a day prior to that moment, that response would have crumbled my resolve and I would not have followed through with the break up. This time, things were different. I now had something in me that had previously been missing; something that helped me know I could survive this person’s disappointment in me, even if it turned into hatred.

I didn’t know this at the time, but that day I ended something bigger than an unhealthy, unworkable relationship. I broke something else that had power over me until that moment: I broke my need to be seen as good and lovable by someone other than myself. During the three and a half years of break up and make up, I had slowly been learning to love myself, to accept myself as good from the inside. I didn’t start this relationship with that self-love, with that acceptance. The day the relationship began was the first day anyone I adored had ever looked at me with equal adoration, and then said that they wanted to be with me. I was so hungry for that feeling of adoration, that I was hooked from that very moment, and willing to overlook just about everything else including the fact that we were incompatible, we didn’t have enough in common to even connect as friends, and that we wanted entirely different things in a relationship. I wanted that feeling of love and acceptance and adoration that I felt in that first moment, and I spent the next few years trying to recreate that feeling.

In the frustration and pain that I felt in this relationship, I reached out for help, thinking I might learn to make this relationship work. I went to therapy. My lover had addiction issues, so I went to Al-anon to seek help from people who also were in relationships with addicts. I reached out to and leaned on friends, some of which had all sorts of impressive patience with my relationship and all the break ups. I joined a spiritual community. I journalled constantly, pouring my frustrations and pain into journal after journal. Over time, my therapist’s nonjudgmental acceptance of me made me start to accept myself. From Al-anon meetings, I felt connected with people who shared in similar frustrations and helped me feel that I was not crazy or alone. My friends’ support taught me that I was lovable no matter how many stupid choices I made. My spiritual community showed me that, by pursuing this relationship, I was trying to fill a hole that no human can fill for another. In my journals, I saw that I had my own wisdom, that my own counsel was valuable, too. All of this accumulated slowly into something solid. One day, it hit me that I loved myself. It also hit me that I enjoyed my own company. I didn’t march out and break up with this person that day; I tried to make the relationship work for probably another year. Over time, I saw the lack of connection, respect, and love in the relationship was in such sharp contrast to the connection, respect, and love I had for myself and my community had for me. It was no longer tolerable, and when I didn’t get thanked or adored for ending the relationship, but left anyway, that need for adoration no longer controlled me, even if it did tug at me a little bit.

So, where am I going with this story? It’s pretty common to hear that you can’t be loved by another unless you love yourself, as if you get a relationship as a prize for loving yourself. What I’ve experienced and what I’ve seen is that you can be in a relationship whether you love or respect yourself or not. You can even be loved deeply by someone whether you love or respect yourself or not. But if you depend on someone else to make you feel lovable and wanted, then love always seems to be in the hands of that person, which gives them great power over you. If instead, you already love and respect yourself, then you walk into love with another as if the love itself is the fertile ground you stand on and get nourishment from together, always solid, always available, even after the person you love is gone.

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