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September 5, 2014

The Barrier of Halfhearted Love

Some barriers to wholehearted love, although less traumatic than heartbreak, can have devastating consequences all the same. Certain sorts of inner blindness can cause us to love with only half a heart. Self-absorption can cause us to be only half-open to our partner’s needs. As a consequence, our partner may reciprocate by loving us halfheartedly as well.

M. Scott Peck, psychiatrist and bestselling author of The Road Less Traveled, once wrote that love is “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.”

Among other things, love means that we support our partner in her effort to do what’s right by her lights, even if the consequences are annoying or difficult for us. Our loyalty isn’t limitless, of course. It doesn’t extend to actions we consider un-ethical or destructive.

Extending wholehearted love, of course, is easier said than done. But settling for less carries real hazards, as my clients Melanie and Drew discovered. The couple first came to see me to discuss Ashley, Drew’s twelve-year-old daughter from his first marriage.

Melanie was the first to speak. As she did, she moved her hand up and down on the arm of the chair, as though to underscore every word.

“Ashley is rude to me,” she began. “She gives me dirty looks when Drew isn’t around. She disregards all our rules. She won’t lift a hand to pick up a dirty plate, and she complains all the time about everything. The kid never has the right clothes for whatever we have planned. If we tell her ahead of time that we’re going to the pool, you can bet she’ll show up without a swimsuit.”

Melanie let out a deep sigh. “Things would be perfect if it wasn’t for that child of his,” she groused. “I wish we didn’t have to see her so much. It’s not like she gets much fun out of the time she spends with us, either, that’s for sure.”

As she talked, Drew slumped in his chair and wrapped his arms around his body as if to shield himself. His face tightened into a grimace. When at last Melanie had no more to say, he sat in silence for a moment, staring at the rug.

“I know Ashley can be difficult,” he finally began. “The divorce was hard on her and now she’s heading into her teens, which brings its own challenges. But she’s really a great kid.” His face lit up for a moment, and then sagged. “I don’t want her to think I’ve abandoned her just because her mother and I couldn’t make it.”

Melanie scowled. “That’s just what we don’t need, Drew, a budding teenager who resents you and hates me. If you love me as much as you say you do, you’ll lay it on the line: either she behaves, and does exactly what I tell her to around the house, or she can see you someplace else. Maybe for lunch somewhere.”

I only saw the couple a few more times before Drew got a job offer that required a move across the country. Melanie insisted that he take the job and that they leave Ashley behind.

Drew complied. In a later phone session, he told me that he wasn’t “stronghearted” enough to refuse his wife’s demands. Neither he nor Melanie was “wisehearted” enough to realize how much their decision would cost them in the long run.

“I tried to split the difference,” he explained, “but all I did was shortchange everyone. It’ll probably take years to repair the damage I’ve done with Ashley.”

The decision had an even more ruinous effect on the marriage. Drew’s distance from his child was too high a price to pay. “I made a huge mistake,” he said. “My guilt and resentment were too much for me to handle. It’s what led to my breakup with Melanie.”

After the couple’s separation, Melanie came back to the area to live. She made an appointment with me to help her process all that had happened.

“I don’t understand it,” she said. “Everything was so good between us at first. He used to love to do things with me on the weekends. But after we moved, he’d just sit there like a lump. He wouldn’t even remember to walk our dog. The man I married turned into someone else, someone who wasn’t really there.”

Drew had come to love her with only half a heart.

Melanie’s attitude conveyed the inner blindness that can cause us to love with a possessive heart, when jealousy swamps us and we ignore our partner’s needs. Once again, to love wholeheartedly is to want your partner to keep his important commitments, because it’s through such commitments that he builds his emotional and spiritual core. If I have to stop loving other people to love you (especially my children) my capacity to love will shrink, not grow. Paradoxically, there will be less of me available to love you.

About the author

Linda Carroll

Linda Carroll is the author of Love Cycles. A couple’s therapist for over thirty years, she is certified in Transpersonal Psychology and Imago Therapy and is a master teacher in Pairs Therapy. She lives in Corvallis, OR, offers workshops across the country, and is a frequent speaker at Rancho La Puerta in Tecate, Mexico. Visit her online at

Excerpted from the book Love Cycles: The Five Essential Stages of Lasting Love ©2014 by Linda Carroll.  Published with permission of New World Library