How do I Look in Your Eyes?

We all want to look good to the people to whom we’re attracted, whether woman or man. This is a normal, healthy concern when not taken to an extreme. However, I have spoken with people (usually female) from 13 years old, all the way into their 60s and 70s, for whom a lover’s approval is tantamount to their self-esteem. This is a dangerous phenomenon, I think, because it leaves them open for mistreatment at the hands of their lovers. I have seen people enter a number of relationships wherein they choose partners who treat them poorly after an initial idealization phase, in which everything the woman does is perfect and flawless. However, the same people who can put you up on a pedestal can also tear you down to the depths of hell, if you place your self-worth in their hands.

Sure, it’s nice to hear wonderful things about yourself when you are infatuated with someone and they with you. It’s that euphoric rush of feeling so special and uniquely perfect to that person that we all dream about having. However, usually it doesn’t last and gradually, if we’re lucky, it’s replaced with a more realistic, enduring appreciation that’s tempered with the realization that you’re not perfect and your lover isn’t perfect. These more realistic expectations allow you to be human and same for your partner, which allows each of you to be fully yourself and grow into the person you’re meant to be. However, when someone needs you to be perfect or expects that of you, it’s hard to live up to those standards when you’re having a bad day, or sick, or angry, or whatever they don’t consider acceptable. Then, the same person who fawned over you and tried to spend every moment texting, calling and spending with you can suddenly become disenchanted with you and find your once-loveable idiosyncrasies annoying, or even intolerable. This is a sure-fire way for a relationship to crash and burn, because the level of intensity and mutuality that you initially feel in the initial phase is based on a temporary psychological merging, where you feel “one” with the person. Eventually, you and your lover must emerge from this and reclaim your identities as separate individuals, ones who nonetheless make room for the other person in your life. The extent to which you make room for each other is the tricky part of this dance; merging is the easy part. So as you start to establish your newfound identity as a separate person who can affirm yourself and your partner, and be similar to them but not identical, requires both people to be healthy enough psychologically to allow your partner to be whole and wonderful, and yet paradoxically imperfect.

This emergence is rare to achieve in your teens and twenties, although some people are able to accomplish it with stable backgrounds and a precocious emotional maturity. People have to work at it especially if they come from dysfunctional homes where they did not get their needs for admiration, nurturance and attachment met. They might need to do individual work on repairing those early deficits in psychotherapy before they can work on their relationship, or they might be able to go through that process simultaneously in couples therapy as they do individual work. But the bottom line is that they need to be able to like the person they see in the mirror just as much as they expect their lovers to cherish that person. To expect someone to love you more than you love yourself leaves you open to possible exploitation, degradation, and ultimately, abuse. Instead of worrying about how you look to someone else, please make sure that you can affirm that person in mirror in a realistic, warm, and loving way.

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