How Love Teaches Our Hardest Lessons

Jen & Andy

Our guest today is Leah McClellan, a freelance writer and editor, who enjoys sharing her lessons in life and love. One of her big passions is exploring how personal peace creates world peace, and you can visit her anytime over on her own blog, Peaceful Planet. 

We fall in love, but love disappoints. We think we know someone, but we don’t. We think we know ourselves and what we want, but we haven’t a glimmer of the truth until we’re not getting what we need and we’re hurting or angry or both. 

It wasn’t until I finally figured out what was “wrong” in my marriage that I understood what had been wrong in all three of the most important relationships of my life. 

Over the years, I’ve read countless good books on relationships, marriage, communication, and sex, but it was Harville Hendrix’s concept of Imago Relationship Therapy and his books, like Keeping the Love You Find, that finally helped me see why I got involved with the same kind of man every time, though none of them were even remotely similar to the other—at least on the surface. 

Though I grew up in chaos, dysfunction, and abuse and fled from it at a young age, love was easy to find. Or it found me. 

In my young 20s, I fell in love with a guy I worked with. He bought me flowers and a crystal swan that symbolized lifelong commitment. We got an apartment together, he did his fair share of the cleaning, sex was amazing, and everything was great. No complaints about the usual stuff I hear women complaining about. 

After a year and a half together, it fell apart. 

I worked on myself. It couldn’t have been all his fault, after all. I had been in therapy, and I went back. I figured out a lot of things, and a brand new me—or so I thought—got involved in another relationship a few years later. 

There were some things that troubled me, but I shrugged them off. I’m not perfect, and I don’t expect it from anyone else. 

We became engaged after three years and, starry-eyed, I moved in with him. It was over in a month. 

I realized later there were some things I could have done differently. But that’s just a guess. Much like my previous boyfriend, he didn’t have any complaints, and he didn’t talk about anything serious despite my efforts to calmly discuss whatever needed discussing. Instead, he acted out his feelings with snide remarks, criticism, sarcasm, and silence, which was confusing and hurtful for me at best and intolerable at worst. 

A few years later, I found my true love. 

Clean-cut, courteous, educated, and respectfully employed, he owned his own home, he opened car doors for me, and he gave me flowers—regularly. He cooked, he cleaned, he did laundry. Dinner, theatre, skiing, travel—we had so much in common, and I felt so lucky. 

He bought me a beautiful diamond engagement ring and proposed on bent knee. 

Besides just having fun together and loving him as best as I knew how—like anyone—I used every skill I had learned, and I was completely committed to him and our life together. 

Everything was in the open and discussed. Or so I thought. We even attended couples counseling before getting married because, despite four years together, there were some issues on his side that, although I was patient and understanding, weren’t resolving on their own or with pharmaceutical assistance. 

Eighteen months after we were married, I left, although we eventually got back together. What had been occasional issues had escalated until they became almost constant, day after day, with no resolution. 

It took me a long time to figure out what was going on, why I was hurting so bad, and why I felt so confused and humiliated. Why was I having panic attacks and nightmares and spiraling down into depression? Why was I getting isolated? Where were my friends? 

I couldn’t put my finger on it, so I thought it must be me. Surely I was doing something wrong. I must be over-reacting. I must be codependent or something. Maybe I’m a perfectionist or maybe I just don’t know how to let someone love me. 

I finally figured it out. Reading Living with the Passive-Aggressive Man: Coping with Hidden Aggression From the Bedroom to the Boardroom by Scott Wetzler opened my eyes. After five years of trying to fix myself and my marriage, I gave up. 

That book described the man I had married almost perfectly, and it shed some light on my previous relationships as well. But why didn’t I see that something so important to me—honest, open, direct communication—was missing?   

How, if I valued a “conscious relationship,” did I end up in anything but that? Why did I choose the men I chose? 

Even when we freely choose our partners, and even when we think they’re nothing like our parents or childhood caretakers (if we think about that at all), we nevertheless choose some elements of what we grew up with. 

Harville Hendrix explains that “our ‘free’ choice of a mate is, in the end, a product of our unconscious, which has an agenda of its own. And what the unconscious wants is to become whole and to heal the wounds of childhood.” 

We all have wounds. Even when we come from the most stable, nurturing environments, buried childhood wounds make their presence known in our adult, intimate relationships and marriages. If we didn’t have unhealed wounds (or if every need we have were met), we wouldn’t get hurt, upset, or disappointed. 

Hendrix also points out that we fall in love with “someone who has both the positive and the negative traits of our imperfect parents.” 

In my case, I got involved with men who had the best qualities of my parents (and many more) plus the flip side, which wasn’t the alcoholism and physical abuse I had experienced but the less-obvious problems underneath: poor communication skills, little ability to resolve conflicts or find compromises, low empathy, and discomfort with real emotional intimacy, among other things. 

I didn’t want that “flip side,” but I didn’t know what it looked like in the average person who doesn’t have any obvious issues. 

I realized that the problem in my relationships—and what hurt so bad—was basically the same thing I had missed or experienced as a child. 

So what can be done? 

Whether you’ve had several relationships like I’ve had, or your marriage isn’t as great as it could be, it all comes down to the same thing. 

We can face our issues, find new ways to love that work in our current relationships, and help each other heal and grow. Or we can walk away—literally, by leaving the relationship or figuratively, by ignoring the problems. 

Hendrix says that “past relationships, though they may be reminders of pain or failure, are a valuable window into the issues, wounds, and conflicts that we must address if we are to make better partner choices and cope better with relationship problems in the future.” 

That applies to everyone, whether we’re in one lifelong relationship (with all its stages) or have had several. 

Am I afraid of making mistakes again? Not really. I’ve learned a lot, and I doubt I’ll ever deal with the same issues again. And really, there aren’t any mistakes. Life is about learning, and love shines its gentle light into some very dark places that we might not get to see otherwise.  

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 photo credit: javcon117

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  • Anna Barlowe June 27, 2011, 8:46 am

    Very interesting article! I found my own relationship breakthrough when I discovered the concept of Meyers-Briggs personality types, and began to learn about my own, as well as to track the types of the men I had been dating. They were either my own type, INTJ, in which case they tended to have a bit of a cruel streak (which I do not), or they were my mother’s type, INFP, and did not tend to be masculine enough to keep me interested.

    I finally settled on an ENFP, whose extraversion makes him more strong-willed, and we’ve been together for over four years now. We are not identical, and are in some ways in fact very different, but we balance each other, and that seems to be the key.

    I highly recommend learning about the personalities of the people around you, as well as your own – it is not only informative, but vastly increases tolerance and empathy toward other people, as you begin to realize that people are just being who they are wired to be, and the trick is to find someone with compatible wiring. Certain types do tend to attract each other, but this is not always the best idea.

    Not only that, everyone has a different language of love and affection, and it’s worth figuring that out as well, so you don’t miss all the little ways that they say “I love you,” even if it’s not the way you want to hear it.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post! 🙂

    • Leah McClellan June 27, 2011, 10:40 am

      Hi Anna,

      Meyers-Briggs is great. I’ve done it a few times, and my ex and I took it as part of an intensive marriage program (PAIRS) during that 5 year period I mentioned. It showed some serious differences between us. I forget what my results were–probably ought to take it again!

      Interesting point about the ways people show love. Somebody wrote a book on that; I forget who at the moment. The other side of that equation is to try to express love in ways our loved ones can hear (with the idea that we can each help to satisfy the other’s needs a little more). One thing I neglected as far as my needs go in my marriage but tried to appreciate was that I don’t feel loved when someone spends money on me. Even if it’s loads and loads of money, whether in gifts or whatever else–it doesn’t register to me as love, necessarily, not in the absence of other things that are more important to me.

      Thanks for your input and thanks for reading! 🙂

  • Annika Thomas June 27, 2011, 11:37 am

    Hi Leah! I recognize everything sooo well, including reading Harville Hendrix and Imago, and thinking: This is it! I dragged my 2nd husband to Imago therapy, but he wasn’t really in it. Since I couldn’t heal our relationship on my own, there was a 2nd divorce. I have been alone for over three years now, but haven’t given up. I’m working on letting go of my own negative expectations, and learning to love myself…
    Tnx for a great post!

    • Leah McClellan June 27, 2011, 1:05 pm

      Hi Annika!

      I know what you mean: it’s impossible to heal a relationship on our own. Cool that you actually had the Imago therapy; I only read about it and had some exposure to it in the program my ex and I attended. It makes a lot of sense, and I was able to see why the men I was involved with were attracted to me as well.

      Never give up! I know now much better what I need, what I can tolerate, and what’s an absolute no way, and I’m not afraid to fully expect those things or ask for them and, if I don’t get it, see ya 🙂

      Thanks for reading!

  • Andrew Olson June 27, 2011, 1:51 pm

    This was a fantastic post! I have actually bookmarked it to read again. Thank you so much for sharing your story with us.

    Life has taught me that there are two primary requirements to building a meaningful and successful relationship:

    1. First, build the perfect relationship with yourself. You can never find someone else who will fulfill all your dreams until you can fulfill them yourself. Too many people expect the relationship to solve their problems, but it only brings them out more strongly.

    2. Loosen your expectations. Most relationships are built on what one partner expects the other to do. But a relationship that is free-flowing and experienced ‘in the moment’ (as opposed to having future requirements and expectations) is far more likely to be fulfilling.

    Anyways, that’s my $0.02 🙂 and again, thank you for this beautiful article.

    • Leah McClellan June 27, 2011, 6:30 pm

      Thanks Andrew!

      Those are some great ideas. I agree that we can’t expect others to solve our problems–absolutely. Nobody else can make us whole–we have to do that on our own. Loosening expectations can also be a good thing–probably most of us are pretty rigid in certain ways about how we expect things to be, and those things should be worked out on both sides and lighten up. But I think in some cases, we don’t pay enough attention to expectations. For example, if someone wants to have children in the future, he or she would be wise to marry someone who also wants children. But even with some more concrete expectations like that discussed early on, being in the moment is a good idea for anyone, absolutely. Great points.

      Thanks much 🙂

  • Joy June 27, 2011, 7:31 pm

    Hi Leah,
    Thank you for this article! I grew up with abuse as my norm..so when I began to form relationships, they would later include abuse..not because I was seeking it out..but because until I healed within I accepted chaos. Then, chaos was comfortable to me..I had the skills to deal with it, even if it was unhealthy and not fulfilling. I took the time to heal and to change my ways of thinking..and now here I am years later honoring peace..in my own life and in the world (which is why I am happy to have ‘found’ your site!).
    As for love, I think there is a mainstream belief that love will eventually hurt. I do not buy into this..love is as life enriching, inspiring, delight filled as I allow it to be. I promise transparency and there is a natural flow with all whom I relate with..a peace, a joy, a bond that is amazing. I may open my heart fully and share generously and I receive back into my life utter bliss:) No need to “fear pain”..only to open to love..

    • Leah McClellan June 28, 2011, 9:11 am

      Hi Joy,

      Very interesting idea to think about. Your note about chaos being comfortable to you made me think of how I’ve been attracted to very orderly people. I’m pretty well organized in many ways, and I know some of that is in reaction to what I grew up with because I can’t stand disorder. But I’m pretty relaxed about it; I mean, we have to live meanwhile, and if my desk gets messy or I fall out of some routine for awhile or make mistakes or whatever, no big deal. Still, I think my relatively relaxed attitude has attracted people who are very rigid with order.

      In it’s purest form, love doesn’t hurt, of course. How we relate with one another and what goes on in a relationship is what could hurt, unfortunately. But it doesn’t have to, just as you say.

      Glad to have found you too! 🙂

  • Galen Pearl June 27, 2011, 10:29 pm

    After a number of failed relationships, I finally reflected on what they all had in common…me! I realized that it was not a question of finding the right person out there. It was a question of being the right person in here. Once I quit looking for the “right” person, and began working on myself, I could see how I had sabotaged all the relationships before in one way or another. That was a real turning point in my life. Yes, those are the biggest, toughest lessons! Thanks for a great article.

    • Leah McClellan June 28, 2011, 9:14 am

      Hi Galen,

      Great observation–you’re right. All our relationships have one thing in common: us! I agree that we also have to be the right person. And when we’ve got ourselves “right” our relationships will be “right.” Water seeks it’s own level!

      Cool that you’ve had a fabulous turning point, and we’re all lucky to get the lessons we get and learn from them 🙂

      Thanks for reading 🙂

  • Angela Artemis/Poweredbyintuition June 28, 2011, 7:07 am

    Leah,
    It’s so true we are attracted to people who possess both the good qualities and not so good ones of our parents. I can vouch for this!
    When we walk away without resolving the problems they do follow us from relationship to relationship. I do hope my next one will “stick” so I can finally work out how to deal with these types of personalities!

    • Leah McClellan June 28, 2011, 9:18 am

      Hi Angela,

      Funny how that works 🙂 I think when we figure out ourselves it’s much easier to relate to someone else, and we know early on what is working for us and what doesn’t before we get deeply involved. Looking back, I can see exactly the time I would walk away if I knew then what I know now, and in each case we probably wouldn’t have got past the third date 🙂

      Live and learn!

  • susan June 28, 2011, 8:01 am

    Hi Tess and Leah,
    We sure have a lot of lessons to learn about ourselves and relationship and boy if we don’t get it the first time around, it comes back again! Hubs and I are BOTH each other’s third marriage – ours is 30th years strong. Just think of the decades of experience we both brought to the table. Marriage by Mavins – we always meant to write that book, haha!
    hugs
    suZen

  • Leah McClellan June 28, 2011, 9:22 am

    Hi Susan,

    I totally agree–if we don’t get it right the first time, we get the lesson once again. In my case, I imagine the Universe was saying, “Come on, girl! You gotta get it this time!”

    Awesome that you seem to have got it on round three. Good for you. I can just picture a book like that–I’m sure it would be great!

    Thanks for reading 🙂

  • Cathy | Treatment Talk June 28, 2011, 10:27 am

    Hi Leah,

    I really like your post and could relate to so much of it. I have been divorced (twice) and it took the second one for me to really take a hard look at myself, and understand what I needed in a relationship. I learned in childhood not to speak up for myself and be clear about what I wanted and needed. I can easily hold in my feelings because I don’t like a discussion that will escalate into an argument. It makes me uncomfortable. But the flip side is just as destruction or more so, as my frustrations would fester until I just didn’t care anymore and had nothing left to give to the relationship. Relationships can be so complicated and do require work and commitment. I am remarried and love the person I am with now, although I still need to remind myself to speak up and let my feelings be heard. I think one of the most important things I have learned is to not lose yourself in the relationship. Don’t ever let go of who you are to meet the needs of someone else. You can be loving and still be your own person. Thanks!

    • Leah McClellan June 28, 2011, 4:17 pm

      Hi Cathy,

      I understand about not speaking up for yourself–it’s a tough call. For me, I’m not usually afraid to do that, and I’m not afraid of arguments (the reasonable kind, not the yelling kind), but it’s all in the delivery and being prepared to not get what we hope for. Or maybe a compromise, if the other person is willing to discuss the matter (that part has been very frustrating for me in previous relationships–what can you do with silence? Not much). That’s part of the equation too. It’s complicated, but at least we try. It takes a lot of skill but it can be learned.

      I agree about not losing yourself in the relationship. For me, I let too much of the work I wanted to do get delayed due to the marriage difficulties, but I learned a lot, and now I write about it, so I guess I didn’t really lose anything 🙂

      Bright skies ahead for you! 🙂

  • Joe @ shake off the grind June 28, 2011, 1:56 pm

    Leah,

    Hi, thanks for sharing your experience with us. Everyone has their own baggage they bring into relationships and sometimes it tough to sort through how to deal with everything. I really like that you mention having a conscious marriage and making intentional decisions within a relationship. It’s easy to assume relationships will be a fairy tale type of experience, and when this is the case it prevents the relationships from ever really growing. I am learning how much effort relationships take and how much compromise they require.

    • Leah McClellan June 28, 2011, 4:22 pm

      Hi Joe,

      I agree–relationships take a lot of work. But there are so many rewards, as you know–I’ve had plenty of those though of course didn’t mention much about that here. Interesting what you say about “baggage.” Reminds me of how I signed up for online dating awhile back (didn’t last long), and I read so many profiles that stated “No baggage please” I wondered what they meant (it was mostly men) and I would think, “Well, we all have baggage, and your baggage might be that you’re worried about it” 🙂

      Good point about the fairy tale. Definitely not that!

      Thanks 🙂

  • Aileen | Kaizen Vision June 28, 2011, 2:51 pm

    Tess, what a great choice for a guest post!

    Leah, you offer such great wisdom! Our past relationships can help us see what we couldn’t see before.

    I will be passing this along to a wonderful friend who could benefit from this post and your experience.

    • Leah McClellan June 28, 2011, 4:25 pm

      Thanks Aileen!

      Always learning, and for those of us in long-lasting committed relationships, plenty of learning opportunities there as well as Tess has shared so often.

      I hope your friend gets some inspiration and best wishes to her.

  • Megan June 28, 2011, 3:27 pm

    Thanks for writing this, and sharing your experiences in love. I found myself wishing for some “how to’s” at the end (and also wished the post didn’t end so soon!). That’s where the comments came in: I loved them, as well, and thought Andrew Olson’s thoughts were well founded.

  • Leah McClellan June 28, 2011, 4:30 pm

    Hi Megan,
    I wish I could have listed some specific how-tos, but I promised Tess I would keep it to 1200 words, and even that’s long for a blog post.

    But…the best how-to’s, much better and much more than I could ever offer, are in Harville Hendrix’s books. If you haven’t read them, see if you can pick up a copy of the book I mentioned, “Keeping the Love You Find.” That’s his first and it lays out the foundation of his thinking. There are others, too, as well as workbooks.

    I agree, the comments are great! Lots of good stuff to think about from everyone sharing their experiences or ideas.

    Thanks much 🙂

  • Jonathan Manor June 30, 2011, 6:52 pm

    That’s a very sexy picture. I feel like I need a girl in a curtain now

    • Leah McClellan July 1, 2011, 3:38 pm

      LOL Jonathan, You’ll have to thank Tess for the pic!

  • Evan Griffin July 1, 2011, 12:51 am

    It’s easy to love a person but it is not easy how to show them…Sometimes you will think what if you give all you have and yet, it is still not enough??It is very risky in loving such people…

    • Leah McClellan July 1, 2011, 3:42 pm

      Hi Evan,

      I wonder whether it’s not so much a matter of giving all we have and worrying whether it’s enough but, rather, choosing someone who wants what we have and also learning what the other person needs and how much. I think we also need to be sure to choose someone who is also able to give us what we want and need.

      First, we need to figure out what we need and are comfortable giving. Not a simple thing, though, that’s for sure 🙂

  • Sandra / Always Well Within July 1, 2011, 12:52 am

    Leah,

    This was fascinating, especially this point: “If we didn’t have unhealed wounds (or if every need we have were met), we wouldn’t get hurt, upset, or disappointed.” It’s not easy, but I am committed to facing my issues, working with my partner, and helping each other to heal and grow. Thanks for sharing this educational perspective.

    • Leah McClellan July 1, 2011, 3:49 pm

      Thanks Sandra,

      I agree, it’s not easy stuff and not for the faint of heart! The way I look at things, we can either grow or not grow. If where we’re at is working wonderfully well for us, I don’t suppose we have to worry a whole lot about growing. For most of us, though, we do have some wounds that create friction in our relationships, and we’re not enjoying life as we could, so why not grow together? I think it’s a beautiful thing 🙂

      • Lesa January 19, 2012, 3:53 pm

        You can always tell an expert! Thanks for contirbiutng.

  • ana July 1, 2011, 11:03 am

    Great post…something that will touch the lives of many including mine…something I can so relate..
    Love..very complex but we love it and we cannot ignore it..but once it’s gone, we can’t hide it…and so we thought it’s going to be forever…it was actually starting to end.
    yeah, I agree..that there are times when we thought we knew someone, but we really didn’t..and so we are left disappointed. We thought we knew ourselves, but we didn’t and so we have to reflect on…

    • Leah McClellan July 1, 2011, 3:53 pm

      Thanks Ana,

      I agree, love relationships are complex, that’s for sure. All we can do is be glad for the lessons we’ve learned, be glad we’ve had the opportunity to love, and also realize that the other person is also left without us and has either learned some lessons or will in the future. For me, although of course the lessons have been incredibly difficult, I also feel strangely fortunate in having learned them 🙂

  • John Sherry July 1, 2011, 12:09 pm

    Boy, isn’t love a conundrum Leah? Despite so called experts who teach us how to find romantic love and to make it work, it’s an elusive thing. What one person does that draws love to them won’t work for another. It’s like finding your own individual gene that switches love on like a pheremone. The only true things we can do to encourage it to arrive and stay in our life is be love, believe in love, and open our heart to love. If it’s meant to be, then it’s meant to be…as I’ve had to discover many a time! But without love what would we be?

    • Leah McClellan July 1, 2011, 3:57 pm

      Hi John!

      It’s definitely an individual thing. My belief is that we can be around all the potential partners in the world, but if we’re not ready, we won’t find that special someone if we aren’t open to him or her and if the time isn’t right for us. Oh sure, there are plenty of fish in the sea, plenty of people we can “love” in one way or another, but it’s also a good thing to be mindful about those flashes of “chemistry” that may or may not mean the person is right for us. Could just be a lesson for us–but have we learned it? 🙂

  • Marc July 2, 2011, 10:40 am

    Both have to work on a relationship constantly. Often relationships live apart because the partners are lacking in taking care of the other ones.

    • Leah McClellan July 2, 2011, 11:18 am

      Definitely agree with you, Marc!

  • Guy Sempé July 3, 2011, 9:47 am

    The picture on this post is wonderful…
    where do it commes from ?
    thanks !

    • Leah McClellan July 3, 2011, 10:31 am

      Hi Guy,

      Tess chose the photo, and at the end of the post is the photographer’s name and the source, which is Flickr. Glad you like it!

  • Evan Griffin July 4, 2011, 9:03 pm

    I agree that in every love relationships we have, there is always disappointments and pain…But all we have to do is face it with confidence…

  • florida gulf coast university hotels July 5, 2011, 12:52 am

    Wow! I must say you blew me away with your article! I enjoyed reading it! You do magic with your hands! Although, it’s kind of sad! It’s true that love is complicated and can change lives for sure – in better or worse. Thank God me and my boo get along fine, even though, we know each other for like 7-8 years, of which 4 we have shared together as a couple. I hope we stay this way forever, because I wouldn’t know how to live my life without him in it.

  • sheila July 7, 2011, 4:10 pm

    Wonderful post! Yes, paying attention, knowing, loving and accepting one’s self is step 1! Good stuff!

  • Cher Shives July 26, 2011, 6:13 pm

    Love conquers all…But sometimes I think it cannot…Anyway, thanks for the inspiring post here…

  • Ron August 8, 2011, 7:42 am

    Past broken relationships teaches people not to love again because they would not like to be hurt again. But I don’t think that love is the reason it is because of wrong choices and wrong decisions. We should learn from our mistakes so that we could not repeat the things that we have from the past.

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