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Crusting Over -- The High Cost of Emotional Armoring

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If you are like most people, you were much more vulnerable and open when you started experiencing intimate relationships than you are now. Before the disappointments and heartbreaks that you've most likely faced, you were more willing to enter your partner's internal world with reverence and unbounded curiosity, and you opened your heart and soul to that lover. Whatever flaws or prior heartbreaks had occurred for either of you in the past, they were immaterial in the face of the intensity of your connection, until things fell apart.

You may have, by now, experienced many initially hopeful relationships that have not worked out. You are not alone. Many sincere and ardent relationship seekers suffer painful disappointment and disillusionment in their early experiences and are wary of risking their hearts again. As people go through connecting and losing partners, they often find a harder time finding good prospects who are available when and where they are. Their lives are filled with rapidly shifting scenarios that require more time, energy, and motivation than they can muster.

It is not surprising that the process of searching for long-term love becomes discouraging for so many. A determined few are somehow able to continue their search staying soft and open to the hope of a new adventure that will pan out. Sadly, for most, something much more potentially destructive occurs. Most of those who have been repeatedly wounded in intimate relationships resolve their disappointments by taking the stand that it is better to risk less in order to preserve more.

They begin to separate their authentic and vulnerable self from the one they present to new prospects, and they develop a performance presentation that is not as vulnerable to discouragement if the relationship doesn't work out. Their new pseudo-personality is a designer model compiled from what the social media designates as the big sellers. They are now safely behind emotional walls. "Nothing ventured, nothing gained," has become "Nothing ventured, nothing lost."

The outcome is frighteningly predictable. When people become less and less authentic, open, real, and vulnerable, they morph into rigid versions of their presented performers. They become more inflexible, suspicious, immovable, obstinate, and unadaptable to each new relationship. If they do succeed in getting a relationship going as their "pseudo" person, they are eventually going to crack, and awkwardly pour forth what they've been stuffing. The partner on the other side may welcome that more authentic person or turn away depending on what they find.

The results can be even be more disastrous. If we continue to put most of our relationship-seeking energy into pre-defeated defensiveness, we are fooling ourselves to think that we are staying vulnerable, soft, and open inside. All of us get better at what we practice every day, and the rest of us atrophies. If we practice being tough, combat-ready, and expecting to fail, we're not going to easily re-emerge as the person we really want to be if a potentially successful partner comes along.

It is sadly true that these cynical and pessimistic responses are the most common default positions of those who have experienced multiple relationship failures. They also result in the continued commitment to choose security over risk in future relationships. Unfortunately, those who live in that defeated internal world consciously or unconsciously communicate that expectation to potential partners. It is not an attractive presentation to most potential partners. There are, of course, the do-or-die avowed cheer leaders who are like moths to the flame to "save" seemingly valuable people who are no longer able to believe in love. However, even those uber-positive people will eventually give up. The demons who control pessimism are powerful enemies of the openness to fully love again.

Fortunately, most of us are not totally hope-disabled and can reclaim our prior enthusiasm and motivation. If we do a little emotional and spiritual transformation, we can find a quality love in our lives again and maintain it. It may take a new set of skills and some effective guidance, but we don't have to let our past failures define our future successes. We are these strangely unique creatures who can think about our own thinking and change our behaviors in mid-stream. The trick is to stay conscious and intentional in transforming into the positive people we want to recapture.

There are some infallible truths that we have to accept before we can let go of our hard-earned emotional armoring and rediscover our ability to believe in love.

The first is to accept the fact that security is an illusion. Having worked for over four decades with some of the most beloved people I've ever known, I've been in the middle of heartbreaking tragedies, none of which those people expected or were prepared for. I've suffered with them, and for them, watching the process of grief unfold as it must.

The second unchallengeable truth is what I stated earlier: people become what they rigorously practice. They actually get better at being sad if they are sad most of the time, and better at being optimistic if they look at what they are blessed about rather than the price they pay. If you really want to be different from you are, stay on the course of the direction and goals you've set and ardently practice who you want to become.

Third, exempting unbearable situations, those people who focus on who they become through a loss rather than the loss itself train themselves through sorrow to learn courage in the face of threat and loss. As they master that transformation, they strengthen their resolve every time they are most tempted to lose it. Look for your strengths and the ways that you become more valuable and stronger through your disappointments. Focus on those qualities in yourself that you are proud of and that are desirable for others to share.

Fourth, risk, by its very nature is a bedfellow of excitement and discovery. Both are required for life to have promise. Though every one of us is continually balancing between security and risk, we can live precariously with an impassioned devotion to being safe at all costs, but we can't live fully alive without a commitment to challenge and transformation.

Fifth, everything you do, say, feel, or think, each moment of your life, will take you closer or farther away from the person you want to become before you leave the planet. Whirlpools of temporary deviation are part of life, but getting back on your path as soon as you are able will expedite that process.

Sixth, you need people around you who support and model those changes. Birds of a feather do reinforce each other one way or another.

Seventh, look at the people you've known who turn fear into purpose, and loss into recommitment. They don't waste time in the past, except for the lessons they must take with them, and they don't pretend an illogical future. Instead, they radiate a sense of practical idealism and a non-escapable love of the options they have. They're good models to have internal conversations with when you feel defeat looming. Very few of us can meet the world after more than two decade in prison as Nelson Mandela did with the words, "If I am bitter, they have won." But, we can get closer, knowing that people like him existed and still do.

Crust is a defensive coating that starts out as a protection and ends up as an emotional prison. As it filters out potential harm, it simultaneously stops love from coming in or out. It is all about how open and deeply you are willing to risk to live your life fully. You can't close off to potential heartbreak without also closing off to potential joy. Each of us must decide how open we want to be at different times in our life. Just be careful as you make those decisions. If you choose to keep your heart in an emotional castle surrounded by a moat of doubt, you could become locked into the sanctuary of loneliness you have inadvertently created.

Dr. Randi's free advice e-newsletter, Heroic Love, shows you how to avoid the common pitfalls that keep people from finding and keeping romantic love. Based on over 100,000 face-to-face hours counseling singles and couples over her 40-year career, you'll learn how to zero in on the right partner, avoid the dreaded "honeymoon is over" phenomenon, and make sure your relationship never gets boring.