You know those perfect relationships, the ones that live in your mind but don’t actually exist in real life, the ones that are all about storytelling, the ones that break your heart over and over because they never live up to the fantasy relationship that lives in your head, the ones that leave you in tears?
In case you live in some grace-filled parallel universe from the rest of us and you’re lucky enough to have no idea what I’m talking about, I’ll give you a few examples.
The Perfect Father
You know he loves you. He must love you. Every father loves his child, right? Surely, he’s not the one and only man who gave birth to a child he doesn’t love. Plus, you’re so lovable, he has to love you. Isn’t it in a father’s DNA? Aren’t fathers programmed to unconditionally adore their progeny? Yes, he must love you. You know it’s true, even though he beat you up when you were a kid and never, ever apologized for it.
Now you’re all grown up and he can’t harm you physically anymore, but he still calls you and chews you out, tells you you’re worthless, claims she should have had an abortion, regrets the day you were born. You’re a disappointment to him. Nothing that you’ve done with your life – not that beautiful grandbaby you gave him, not that poem you wrote him, not that promotion you got – none of it makes you good enough.
But you keep right on trying because you know he loves you. He must. One of these days he’s going to wake up and finally validate you for the awesome human you’ve grown up to be, in spite of him. One day, you’ll reconcile. He’ll not only say he loves you. He’ll show it. He’ll call back. He’ll write. He’ll hold you in his arms and tell you how sorry he is for how things went down when you were younger. He’ll tell you how very very proud of you he is. You’ll spend holidays together. He’ll buy you presents. You’ll drink coffee and talk about the kids. He’ll lend you money to start your business like dads do. You’ll go with him to the doctor’s office like children do.
But none of that has actually happened in real life. It’s only in your imagination. It’s been three years since you’ve heard from him at all. You know he’s sorry. You know he thinks about you and he’s probably just too torn up about it all to face you. Surely, he loves you, even though he doesn’t show it.
But does that count?
You know he’s into you. Surely, he’s into you, because of the way he looks at you and how he can hardly meet your gaze. Surely, he’s into you because of those flirty emails he sends you, the ones in which he professes that he loves you madly. That lingering, too-long hug. The way his leg brushes up against you when you’re watching movies. The way he lies on the bed next to you, holding you in his arms, even though he doesn’t kiss you when you hope he will.
Surely he’s into you because of the back-and-forth texts divulging secret thoughts you know he’s not sharing with anyone else. If nothing else, you know it’s for real because he made you a mix CD. Nobody does that unless they’re into you, right?
You’ve imagined the first kiss a hundred times. You’ve played the movie of your life together in your mind, set to the score of that confusingly-vague-but-surely-revealing-of-true-love mix CD. You’ve fantasized about what it will feel like to be touched, not as a friend, but as a lover. You’ve imagined the wedding. You’ve named your children. You’ve seen yourselves old and grey and still in love in rocking chairs together on a porch overlooking a lake somewhere, murmuring about the beautiful life you’ve lived.
But then he doesn’t call when he says he will. He doesn’t write back when you open your heart. He cuts the night short when you thought it would be just the two of you until 2am, because surely he wants to squeeze every minute out of the night like you do. He says he’ll go to your best friend’s wedding with you – and then bails at the last minute, after you’ve already put your makeup on, with no concern for the fact that there is now mascara running down your face. He doesn’t call to check on you after he knew you had that big interview. He doesn’t congratulate you on how well you did on that thing you worked so hard on. He doesn’t come over after your mother died, when he was the only one you wanted to hold you. Why didn’t he come, when you know he loves you?
He’s probably just too freaked out by his feelings for you to show you how he feels. But he did call you “sweetie.”
That’s enough, right?
Her locker was next to yours in seventh grade. She used to leave notes in your textbooks, decorated with doodle flowers and her name with bubbly, loopy letters and the “i” dotted with a heart. You had sleepovers after you were too old for sleepovers to be cool. You were roommates in college. You both went to Italy together and drank too much wine and went to bed with hot Italian strangers and then gossiped about it afterwards.
You were going to be a lawyer when you grew up. She was going to be a famous artist.
But somewhere along the way, you started making art and she stopped. You got that museum show and she was working at Starbucks. She’s the only one you wanted next to you when you walked the red carpet at the museum gala in your honor. But she wouldn’t return your phone calls.
That was ten years ago. But you know she still loves you. She’ll come around. You know she’s jealous, even though you’ve done everything you can to encourage her, to lift her up, to play down your own accomplishments. Deep down, she’s happy for you, right? She’ll get over it soon. One of these days she’ll stop refusing the flowers you send. One of these days she’ll call.
You know she loves you. You can’t be friends like that and have the love disappear just because of some art opening, right? Or can you?
We’ve all imagined relationships that haven’t translated into real life actions. We gnaw on them like teething rings when we’re sore, hoping to numb the raw wounds. They work like a temporary salve on our broken hearts and bleeding egos.
But assuming they do indeed love us and can’t show it, is that enough? Do thoughts or feelings count? Are the actions coming – some day, one day?
Or do we use the fantasy of what we hope someone feels to keep us in unhealthy relationships we should free ourselves from?
As I wrote about here, there are people in our lives for whom we have unconditional love, even when maybe we shouldn’t. But we do. And it’s a good thing. To love in such a way is Divine.
But that doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice your health, integrity, or happiness in order to be in a relationship with that person you love to the moon and back. It’s okay to keep your heart open but pull back in your actions when someone you think might love you can’t manage to demonstrate it in real life.
Loving someone doesn’t mean making yourself a doormat or selling yourself out. You don’t have to tolerate abuse, keep putting your heart on the line so it can get tramped on again and again, or lose sleep and expend energy worrying about when their feelings will finally align with their actions so you’ll finally have proof that what you believed all along was true.
Setting boundaries with those who may love you but whose actions are not loving is a radical act of self love that acknowledges that you are a Divine spark worthy of nothing but the purest expressions of true love. You can still love someone unconditionally while you set yourself free.
How Can You Free Yourself?
Tap into your Inner Pilot Light. Ask yourself if there are relationships in your life where you may love someone but need to pull back and establish healthy boundaries out of respect for yourself. What might you do to create those boundaries?
Remember, you can’t expect others to love you the way you long to be loved if you can’t treat yourself with the same compassionate tenderness you crave. Boundaries aren’t easy to set. It may break your heart to pull back from someone you’ve blessed with unconditional love, and you may feel cold, selfish, or distant. But you’re not. You’re loving and respecting yourself enough to stand for how you deserve to be treated – with loving actions that complement the loving actions you shine forth in the world.
Freeing yourself in this way is one of the primary ways to prevent and treat disease. When you let yourself wallow in toxic relationships, even with those you love dearly, your body suffers.
Do yourself a favor. Love your body enough to feed it not just fruits and veggies, but loving actions.
Trying to practice what I preach,