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I Find it Hard to Give and Receive Love

QUESTION: I have been married for two years to a wonderful man, but it is difficult for me to give and receive love. I brush my husband away when he wants to cuddle, find myself being sharply critical of him and getting angry over the most trivial things. Though he tries to be understanding, this is a source of conflict in our marriage.

I was raised in a family that didn't show affection and I find myself taking on my parents' negative characteristics. I worry what kind of mother I'll be when we have children.

My relationship with my husband is very important to me. How can I move on to a healthier, more loving relationship with my mate?

ANSWER: The effects of your childhood have left you with the belief that you are "unlovable". By pushing your husband away you are remaining loyal to these messages and making them come true. It is completely understandable that you would repel your husband's love, initially. You are afraid of being hurt. And letting him close means that it will hurt more if you do lose him. But keep in mind that while "driving him away" may fulfill your expectation for rejection, it does not save you from agony and mourning if your efforts at repelling him prove successful!

Try a simple exercise. Though this will make you squirm, and you may argue that it is "silly", and indeed it is, it is one way to begin to speak directly to your unconscious programming. Choose a time when you are alone and will not be interrupted. Locate a mirror, preferably a full length mirror and sit or stand in front of it. Look at your reflection. Note your feelings about yourself. Are you critical? If so, keep looking until you can accept what you see before you. Settle on your face, your eyes, and after getting used to this intimacy with yourself, say out loud, "I love you, Amber". See what happens. Perhaps you are embarrassed and do not want to continue. But with all the compassion you have ever given anyone else in your life, turn it to yourself, now. And repeat the phrase. Do this until you get more comfortable with it. Say it matter of factly, softly, loudly, but with compassion for the little girl who deserves love, but is not yet acclimated to accepting it. This is a beginning. Continue to do this exercise throughout the days and weeks ahead. Look deeply and surely into your reflection and repeat the phrase, realizing that this is the truth -- you are lovable!

Become your own mother. Develop activities that soothe and nurture you -- perhaps listening to your favorite music. And play with the idea of how you would love your own child. See if you can transfer that feeling of maternal affection for your unborn child, to yourself in the present.

Many people enter a kind of depression when they finally find someone they love. They are face-to-face with the differences in their childhood experience and their present experience of being loved. This brings up the anguish for resolution. Though it may take a bit of time to sort through, it is a process that inevitably can prove worthwhile.

In time you may find yourself becoming more permeable to your husband's love, his touch and increasingly disloyal to the messages you were raised with in childhood. Begin to experience yourself through your husband's love. How would you behave if you felt loved? Experiment with acting that way, as you are able to do so. Seek supportive individual counseling to facilitate this process, if you wish.

There are many books on the market which may prove useful to you. Harville Hendrix's book on relationships, "Getting the Love You Want" may be helpful for furthering the positive direction of healing that has begun in your partnership with your husband. It will also help you to see him as a vulnerable person who needs your love, too. John Bradshaw's books may also help support your changes, helping this journey become a two way street in which you and your husband increase the understanding between you. Marriage can provide a wonderful context for healing and new development for both partner!

It is natural to repeat patterns of childhood interactions with those in our lives with whom we develop intimacy. It will take some extra effort, but it is possible to not only change your underlying beliefs about yourself, but establish different behavioral patterns with those you love. You can begin to treat your husband with love and respect, though it may truly feel awkward at the outset. Practice expressing positive feelings to your husband. But continue to make changes in your relationship to yourself, or it will not be easy for you to either accept or give love in the relationship. Rest assured that these patterns can change. And every bit of progress you make benefits the next generation!

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Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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