Mary Fitzgibbons, Ph.D.


Who can forget the memorable lines from the movie Jerry Maguire?

Jerry Maguire:  “I love you.  You… you complete me.”
Dorothy:  “You had me at ‘hello.'”

Or, Jerry Maguire:  “What do you want from me? My soul?”
Dorothy:  “Why not? I deserve that much.”

This is the relatively modern day example of what we often perceive as love.  It sounds romantic.  It’s the words that many of us would want from someone with whom we believe we are in love.  But is this love?  Often what we perceive as love is intensity, passion, extreme desire.  It may even be an addictive need.  But is it love?

There are those who say that love can only be described in terms of self-affirmation.  This means that the basis of love for another is found in the ability to love oneself.  Unless one loves oneself, relationships tend to evolve into dependent or manipulative interactions.  Or unless one loves oneself, it may be impossible to enter into a significant, emotional relationship.  The critical key to love is the ability to share emotional intimacy with another.  Yet we are a society that is threatened by intimacy, since it is dependent upon the ability to take emotional risks.

The first prerequisite for intimacy is the ability to be emotionally intimate with oneself.   We will never be able to be emotionally intimate if we are always looking for it outside of ourselves – in other people.  In order for us to be intimate with another person, we must first know who we are, what we feel, what we value and what we want.

A person with the capacity to be emotionally intimate:

  • Knows that emotional intimacy is not found in the safe walls of isolation
  • Is spontaneous and is able to say what he/she thinks and feels and is able to accept another without judgment
  • Is able to stay true to oneself while fully participating in the love relationship
  • Accepts the other for who he/she is without attempting to make changes
  • Knows that to love oneself and another places limits in the relationship since limits define the relationship and without definition there is chaos.  This is the ability to set good boundaries.

The need to be close to another may be the most basic of all psychological needs.  The experience of loneliness may be one of the most devastating of all human experiences.  Erich Fromm said that humankinds’ most basic fear is the dread of being separated from other humans.  In early childhood we have basic needs for security.  In later childhood there is a new kind of need-the need for interpersonal intimacy.  We cannot experience loneliness until we experience the longing for intimacy.  However intimacy is tremendously risky and can ultimately bring suffering.  Intimacy and loneliness are tied uniquely together.  When we feel no intimacy, we are lonely.  But when we experience intimacy with someone else, we risk ever greater loneliness should that person leave us.  It is a two-edged sword with many opting to avoid an emotional closeness to others.  The fear of the pain is too great.

However, we seem to live in a world of instant gratification.  True emotional intimacy demands effort that leads to attaining a sense of maturity.  Emotional maturity is basic to true intimacy.  Instead we use substitutes which are often addictive behaviors such as abuses of sex, drugs, alcohol, food, spending and even work to give us rush or a high to satisfy these needs.  Eventually this is a delusion.  These are external behaviors attempting to quell an inner need.  The end result is that these behaviors are incapable of satisfying the need for love or security.  One of the most common addictive behaviors is psychological dependency.  Unfortunately we often mistake this dependency for love.  It is not love.  In fact, it is the opposite of love.

The characteristics of psychological dependency are:

  • Being consumed.  We crave the relationship so intensely that we feel as though we cannot exist without it.  At times, the object of our “love” consumes us to the point that we lack the energy for other important goals in our lives.
  • Difficulty in defining ego boundaries.  Our identity becomes blurred with the identity of the loved lone so that we allow the other person to dominate our sense of self as we become enmeshed with theirs.
  • Inequality.  In an unhealthy relationship one partner generally give more while the other takes more.  This often results in a case where the couple takes on the roles of victim and abuser.  Healthy relationships are mutual.  Each party needs to feel as though one is mutually receiving as well as giving.
  • Hanging on to an unhealthy relationship.  Rather than facing the pain and trusting it will end, partners will hang onto a harmful relationship to avoid the pain and grief of no relationship.  It is the opposite of real love, which is safe and predictable.
  • Giving to get something back.  Dependency isn’t giving-for-giving sake but rather conditional.  The underlying thought is, “If I give, I’ll get back in return.”  The anger that arises when we don’t get back in return feels like betrayal, which can result in rage.
  • Attempting to change others.  In conflict situations, we have the perception that if the other person would only change, we would be happy.  We tend to try to change others so as to camouflage our own fears and inadequacies.
  • Needing others to feel complete, balanced and secure.  This is labeled as a symbiotic kind of love in that we are not complete unless we are with the other person.
  • Demanding and expecting unconditional love.  It is the infant who needs unconditional love since the infant is unable to nurture himself and is in need of love to survive.  However, when an adult demands it becomes an unhealthy and unrealistic expectation.  To expect this from others will result in great disappointment.
  • Fearing abandonment when routinely separated.  The overwhelming fear in this situation is that the other will never return.  This is traced back to a developmental loss in early childhood.
  • Looking to others for affirmation and worth.  We place our worth on ourselves based on approval or affirmation from others.  This can become especially devastating when we lose a love relationship since we connect this loss with a loss of personal value and self-esteem.

How does love differ from dependency?  The first premise is that we all have a need to be loved. Yet, in saying that, in the last analysis we are all alone.  In the most significant moments of our life, we are alone.  In fact, it is a sign of good emotional health to be able to be alone.  Only when we are alone are we able to come to know ourselves well.  However, there is much evidence that as humans, it is critical for our emotional and physical well-being that we are loved.  Without the nurturance or closeness to another, there have been studies showing that a newborn can fail to thrive or even die even if he has had good physical care.

This need does not change with adulthood.  In many cases, the need for emotional connection is a continual drive for man.  In fact, the lack of it is one of the major underlying causes for mental illness.  The problem is that many of us run from love because of the overwhelming fear of rejection.  While the natural urge is to seek love, the fear of being shunned or turned from becomes so strong that we hesitate to commit to another.

One of the prerequisites of a healthy love is having good boundaries.  It is not a paradox to say that in order to be healthy and to have a healthy relationship, there must be limits to our giving.  In order to truly love ourselves and love others, we must put parameters on the relationship.  The limits define the relationship and without them there is chaos.  If we don’t put limits on what we allow in our interactions with others, we will come to resent the other person.  In practical terms this means that we take responsibility for what is ours and we allow the other the responsibility of what is theirs.  Along with this is allowing others the consequences of their choices.

In order for us to love others, we must love ourselves first.  If we take care of ourselves, we will automatically be taking care of the other person.  This is not selfishness as much as selflessness.  It is only in this setting that love can grow.  When we overstep our boundaries we create a resentful relationship that eventually destroys love.  When we are called to a healthy, loving relationship, only then can we say to the other, “I will love you for who you are – not for who I want you to be.”  If I love you for what I want you to be, I will only be able to love you until the next time you do something that displeases me.  If I love you for who you are, I will then be able to love you forever.

About The Author

Mary Fitzgibbons, Ph.D.

Mary Fitzgibbons is a licensed psychologist and has been the Director of West County Psychological Associates since 1986. Dr. Fitzgibbons created Comprehensive School Services, which provides consulting services and counseling to administrators, staff, students and parents. She has worked extensively with many public and private school systems in regard to dysfunctional families and at-risk children.

Before beginning her career as a psychologist, Dr. Fitzgibbons was in education for 20 years, in both elementary and secondary levels. She was formerly a counselor and guidance director at Lafayette High School and an adjunct professor at Webster University, St. Louis University , Fontbonne University, University of Colorado and the University of San Francisco. She lectures frequently to schools and organizations, in addition to providing numerous presentations to local, state and national professional groups on issues of children and families.

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