Have you ever ached with desire for someone you can’t have? Perhaps your married dentist? Or therapist? Or even a friend?
You long to be in their company and to receive the simplest acknowledgement of how nice you look, how kind and funny you are. You imagine all the gifts you want to give him and all the experiences you wish you could share. If only he felt the same way: then you’d feel happy and complete.
And how about the men you actually do date: do you find yourself constantly choosing men who are just not right for you? Telling yourself if only they were like your married physician then the ache inside would be forever quelled?
If any of this sounds familiar, you may be confusing love with longing—a trap that many people—especially women—fall into easily. It can, and has, led many of us into and then out of disappointing marriages, and left us facing futures alone yet still longing.
Confusing love with longing happens when we label the painful yet exhilarating sensation of yearning for someone we cannot have as ‘love’. But in fact, that sensation, and the fantasies it fuels, has more to do with the unmet needs of our childhood than true love. And not only that, (and to make matters worse?) that compulsive craving actually distracts us from finding and receiving the available intimacy we deserve.
I know this all too well because after my mother’s death when I was 45, I began therapy hoping for a psychic sanctuary for my grief. Despite being newly married, I quickly developed an intense, unrequited crush on my therapist. I found myself thinking about him obsessively between sessions, planning the outfits I’d wear to our appointments and wondering if he preferred chocolate chip cookies with or without nuts.
I desperately wanted to run off with him. I was convinced that this was the true love I’d been yearning for all of my life. My wholeness and healing felt dependent on having him love me the way I dreamed he could.
Fortunately though, thanks to his professionalism, we didn’t run off together. Instead he helped me see that what I thought was love was in fact a defense against love and more an indication of the unmet needs of my childhood. The real love affair I needed to have first and foremost was with me!
So many of us—especially women—confuse the tingly, hopeful feeling of longing with love as it is romanticized by Hollywood and on TV. We grow up on a diet of fairy tales and chick flicks that celebrate and perpetuate the myth that longing equals loving and that worthiness is something to be earned and conferred on us by an “other,” – often times, a man. When the object of the longing is unavailable or inaccessible for whatever reason, he, she or it becomes all the more desirable and/or we become all the more unworthy.
It’s easiest to get stuck on this compelling but treacherous treadmill of magical thinking when we doubt our self-worth—something women are also especially inclined toward. When we’re raised to believe that love is something to be earned from others, we believe, too, that earning it proves we are worthy. And when we doubt our self-worth, we unconsciously wind up fearing that longing is the best we can do.
But it’s dangerous. Aside from distracting us from reality and preventing us from accessing the intimacy we deserve, confusing love and longing becomes a bad habit that can only lead to emptiness and frustration. In believing that only what is unattainable is real, we disempower ourselves, creating obstacles to happiness fulfillment.
To break the habit, it’s important to be mindful of the thoughts that fuel longing. For example, if you often find yourself thinking, “My life would be so much better if only…” challenge the fiction of that belief and replace it with an appreciation for the beauty and bounty in your life.
It’s also vital to remind yourself that unlike the perfection in your fantasies, real love is scary and messy, but it is the only love that is real and available.
Ultimately, thanks to my therapist’s expert help, I was able to learn how to both give myself the abiding love and compassion I so craved and risk receiving love from others. This dawned on me one day while I was nonchalantly emptying the dishwasher and my husband Alan walked in the front door proclaiming, “The luckiest husband alive is home.” I awash with gratitude for the love that was standing before me, and for the first time felt ready and eager to receive it.
Cheryl Rice, author of the memoir Where Have I Been All My Life?: A Journey Toward Love and Wholeness, is a speaker, leadership coach and founder of the consultancy Your Voice Your Vision which offers seminar and coaching programs to help women become leaders in their own lives. She works with both individuals and large organizations and has completed groundbreaking research on emotional intelligence and team performance.