Unlock Barriers to Giving and Receiving Love


Dear Neil:  My wife and I have been reading your recent three-part series about how people block themselves from giving and receiving love.  It has spoken closely to our situation.  At conception, my wife was unwanted by her mother.  This translated to her forming strong and mystifying barriers to me.  These barriers have refused all our efforts of being dismantled over the past 23 years.  The fragility of our marriage led to her being unfaithful recently.  She is deeply repentant, and is now able to receive my love.  But the barriers in returning that love to me still remain.  Do you have any suggestions on how to address the root issues here in our situation?

Shut Out in New Zealand

Dear Shut Out:  The process of attempting to figure out one person’s relationship issues, fears, defenses and protections is complicated.  But for the highly motivated, here is one exercise you and your wife can do that may help the two of you uncover the source for her relationship barriers.  This exercise comes from the book Receiving Love by Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt (Atria Books).

Complete the sentences below as they apply to your respective childhoods:

  • Mom’s messages (or female caretaker): It’s OK to want…  It’s OK to receive…. It’s not OK to want…  It’s not OK to receive….  It’s OK to give…  It’s not OK to give…
  • Dad’s messages (or male caretaker): It’s OK to want…  It’s OK to receive…  It’s not OK to want… It’s not OK to receive…  It’s OK to give…  It’s not OK to give…
  • If I obeyed the negative messages, then… If I disobeyed the negative messages, then…  If I obeyed the positive messages, then… If I disobeyed the positive messages, then…
  • The negative messages I obeyed were…, and the consequences were…  The negative messages I disobeyed were…, and the consequences were…  The positive messages I obeyed were…, and the consequences were…  The positive messages I disobeyed were…, and the consequences were…
  • Given the messages I obeyed, what decisions did I make about who I am…  what I deserve… what I don’t deserve…  Given who I am, what I deserve and what I don’t deserve, I can expect from life that… And given all of that, the kind of intimate relationship I will have is…
  • Given the messages I disobeyed, what decisions did I make about who I am…  what I deserve… and what I don’t deserve…
  • Which messages am I still obeying? Which decisions are still active?  What consequences am I still experiencing?  Which of the decisions do I want to change?  What thoughts, behaviors and feelings would I have to change in order to negate those decisions?
  • In my relationship with my partner, it’s OK for me to want… It’s OK for me to receive…It’s not OK for me to want… It’s not OK for me to receive…  It’s OK for me to give… It’s not OK for me to give…
  • In my relationship with my partner, s/he feels it’s OK to want from me… It’s OK to receive from me… It’s not OK to want from me… It’s not OK to receive from me… It’s OK to give to me… It’s not OK to give to me…

The results of this exercise will give both you and your partner insights into the ways in which childhood messages continue to have life within your relationship, even if you have different perspectives on some of these questions.  You can use these insights to identify and discuss your barriers to giving and receiving love.