Can We Force Someone to Love Us?
In my practice as a marriage therapist, I have come to see many common themes present themselves within intimate partner relationships. One of these themes is something I have come to call the ‘Love Gun’ analogy.
This metaphorical weapon comes into the relationship when, out of fear, hurt, pain, or anger we try to “force” someone to give us attention or show us love in the manner we desire. When this fails to happen, and we don’t get our need met, we pull out our ‘love gun’ which takes the form of anger, withdrawal, withholding of affection, etc. We are often unaware that we have engaged in this process, or if we are aware, we believe we are using the ‘gun’ to protect ourselves rather than using it to force our will onto our partner. Interestingly enough, both forms of implementation may be in use simultaneously. However, it’s important to understand that whenever you try to force someone to love you in a predetermined way, you ultimately end up making it immensely more difficult for them to freely give what you are asking for, which then creates space for bitterness to grow. This is the main problem with the pattern, because even if you’re successful getting the love you seek, you are inevitably left doubting as to whether your partner truly wants to give you love.
It was a sobering day when I realized that I have used a “love gun” at times in my own relationship. One example that stands out to me occurred within in the first few months of my marriage. I had come home excited to see my husband and quickly went and sat by him on the couch. I quietly asked him to put his arm around me, but he was distracted by looking at his phone. I waited a little while for a response but did not received one. Immediately, I felt myself shrivel up inside, I felt rejected. Very slowly, so that he would not notice, I started to slide away from him on the couch. When I was far enough away, I stood up and walked back into the bedroom, feeling hurt and sad. A short while later he came to find me and reached out to give me a hug. Unfortunately, by this time I had put up walls to protect myself from the hurt I felt and was now angry with him for rejecting me after such a simple request. Seriously, he wouldn’t have even had to put his phone down in order to put his arm around me! Well, now it was too late. I had turned into the ice queen and his attempt to give me a hug, the very thing I was asking for just a few minutes ago, was rebuffed. Cue our negative cycle which looks something like this:
1. I feel hurt and become angry and cold.
2. My husband is bewildered as chances are good that he didn’t even hear my initial request.
3. My husband then begins to think I am being unreasonable and becomes angry himself.
4. We both continue on in cold silence or we enter into a heated exchange where one or both of us is left feeling hurt, rejected and misunderstood by the other.
It is at this point I wish I could tell you that, given my knowledge and experience as a marriage therapist, I was able to shift the mood and we were able to calm down and connect. Sadly, what actually happened was that I held firm in my contempt and we, of course, got into a regular row about it. Looking back, I can clearly see how I put a “gun” to his head which effectively communicated that if he did not respond to me in the way I wanted, when I wanted it, he would feel the repercussions through my withholding of affection or my anger. I was not meaning to send that message. I was genuinely hurt and trying to protect myself by putting up defenses, but still, what was communicated was: “it’s my way or no way at all.” This scenario left my husband feeling exactly as if I had held a gun to his head. He felt coerced and his thinking became: “If I do not respond exactly how Holly wants then I will have to face the consequences.” This was an unfortunate ending to something that started out as a simple request for a hug and became a battlefield. It left my husband feeling manipulated and required to respond a certain way and it left me feeling even more alone and dejected. The space that is left after guns have been drawn and the battle has been fought becomes a breeding ground for resentment, and resentment is poison to any relationship.
Fortunately, I have become much better at applying what I have learned from Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT). EFT teaches couples how to identify when their negative cycle starts coming up and helps them to begin choosing a different, more vulnerable response. The above situation would have played out much differently if I (1) could have been able to slow down in the moment and acknowledge the hurt and rejection I was feeling, (2) shared my feelings with my husband while not assigning blame, and (3) made a request for what I would like and need. One key thing to remember in this process: Making a request does not mean your partner has to grant it. The idea here is to learn how to accept what your partner is feeling, thinking, or doing instead punishing them for it. Implementing this new behavior and thereby disrupting the negative cycle will also help alleviate feelings of blame, criticism, confrontation, and defensiveness that our initial response sometimes creates. The ultimate goal is the ability to connect with your partner even when your request is not met in the moment.
I would like to say that I have fully mastered responding in this way, but I am still a work in progress, as are we all. Yet, I have found that the times I am able to open up and be vulnerable in sharing how I feel and asking for what I need, things go much more smoothly, and our marriage is stronger. I invite all who are reading this article to search your own response patterns and identify the different ways you use a “gun” when trying to get your needs met. I would love to see you begin to focus on learning how to put the gun down in favor of a closer, more genuine and authentic connection with your partner.
Holly Pack Squires
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
Marriage Therapy South Jordan Office