The Gift of Receiving Love: Why Mother Theresa Might Have Struggled in a Partnership

by Dr. Tim Hogan

I used to be surprised when charismatic and hard-working church volunteers and leaders showed up in my office with serious marital problems. Not anymore. The truth is that  many of us, including religious and helping professionals, often struggle in intimate partnerships. In fact, folks who are great at giving love to others often crash and burn  when it comes time to connect with their spouse. And here’s why: While giving love is important to an intimate partnership, the humility to receive love from your partner is also essential, and often much more difficult.

Many who struggle with this come by it honestly. Emotionally sensitive people learned as children that the best (and sometimes only) way to get love and attention was to take care of the people around them.  This develops a high capacity to give love that then  makes people successful and well-liked, often leading them into a life of service as adults. In fact, they often take on a Mother Theresa-like persona in the community, serving and volunteering like all-stars. However, this preoccupation with giving and pleasing others often leaves them unsure about who they are underneath; they have lost touch with the deeper desires of their hearts. And because they don’t deeply know what they want, it can be frustrating to love or feel close with them.

How then can those of us with this challenge move redemptively towards asking for what we want and then receiving what we get with humility? A basic first step is to simply spend more time exploring and journaling about what we really want and need.  Consider journaling the completion to these sentences: One specific thing that frustrates me about my partner is…; I have specifically expressed this frustration to my partner by
saying…; One way to say it more clearly would be…; What I would prefer is…; One small thing my partner could do to communicate love to me is….

Second, gently notice how difficult it is to ask (not demand) in a way that is both direct and clear. Consider when this struggle began. Odds are good it was there before your current
relationship.  One way to explore this is to spend some time reflecting on your childhood relationships with authority figures and notice how freely you were allowed to say how you felt or ask for what you needed. Consider journaling the completion to these sentences: One thing I wanted from my parents but didn’t get was…; When I was a child I could not openly express feelings of ..…

Next, notice how difficult it can feel to accept love from others. Notice the temptation to withdraw the request (“Oh no, you don’t have to. That’s OK.”), sabotage (“That’s not what I
want.” Or “You don’t really mean it!”) or even collapse into resentment (“That is just too little too late.” “That is all you got? After all I’ve done for you?!”).

Finally, experiencing healing at this heart level often requires skills that we simply
don’t yet have. So, consider attending a skill-based marriage weekend or working with a therapist that can help you to grow in this way.

Giving love to others is a wonderful way to show and share God’s love to the world. However, thriving in a partnership requires something that is often more difficult: We must also develop the skill of asking clearly for what we want, and then cultivate the humility to receive the love that is offered graciously.

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