In the past week, I've gotten several questions about blocks to receiving love (from both parties -- those with blocks and those who love someone who has a guarded heart) and how that affects relationships.
Here's the deal: we've all had bad relationships. We've all been hurt -- and, if we're honest, we have all hurt others with our actions. Some people find it relatively easy to dust themselves off after experiencing such a hurt and optimistically begin searching for the next friend/romantic partner/etc. Others have been hurt deeply enough (usually in early childhood) or by enough people that they have learned through their experiences to guard their heart.
What's the difference between these people: the ones who can dust themselves off and the ones who build a fortress around their heart? It all boils down to self-trust.
How do you know which category you fall into? I'm going to give you a little self-assessment (Hazan & Shaver, 1990). All you have to do is read each scenario and pick the one that best describes your typical romantic relationship (you may pick a different scenario for different people in your life and that's okay -- just focus on your "typical" romantic relationship for right now):
1. I find it relatively easy to get close to others and am comfortable depending on them. I don't often worry about being abandoned or about someone getting too close to me.
2. I am somewhat uncomfortable being close to others; I find it difficult to trust them completely, difficult to allow myself to depend on them. I am nervous when anyone gets too close, and often, love partners want me to be more intimate than I feel comfortable being.
3. I find that others are reluctant to get as close as I would like. I often worry that my partner doesn't really love me or won't want to stay with me. I want to get very close to my partner, and this sometimes scares people away.
If you picked #1, you have a healthy, secure attachment style when it comes to romantic relationships; and baring abuse or severe trauma in a romantic relationship, you probably fall in the "dust yourself off, pick yourself up, and try again category." If you picked #3, you likely have trust issues and are insecure when it comes to relationships because of this, but you haven't guarded your heart -if anything you're more likely to show your vulnerability in the hopes of establishing a deeper connection. If you picked #2, however, you likely have a guarded heart.
So what is a guarded heart? Individuals who have a guarded heart do not trust quickly or easily - they've learned that when you show those deepest parts of yourself to someone, you're going to get hurt. So they've built up walls around their heart in an effort to protect themselves from getting hurt again. It's not that they don't know how to love - they do believe in love and desperately want to receive it -- they just proceed slowly and with caution because love hasn't always been on their side. If you're on the receiving end of this, it can be quite challenging and frustrating. Know this: people with guarded hearts are not trying to frustrate you; they are trying to protect themselves. This is difficult to do when you have a guarded heart because you have trust issues -- not just with others, but with yourself. Those with a guarded heart tend to take their time making decisions and second guess their decisions more because they have a history of making "the wrong choice."
Sometimes you may wonder where you will even fit into their lives. After all, those with a guarded heart tend to be very independent and self-sufficient. They don't need you. Don't mistake needing for wanting though. Just because they don't need you in their lives, doesn't mean they don't want you there.
When we're around people, we're not being ourselves because we're being protective. But sometimes in our self-protection, we block out the very thing that we want so much, which is connection with people. - Brendan Burchard
So what should you do if you find yourself falling for someone with a guarded heart? Have patience and proceed slowly and gently. Love is an unfolding for those with a guarded heart. They let you in just a little bit -- see how you react, see if they can trust you. If you "pass the test," then they will let you in a little more. Little by little, they will open their hearts to you. They will trust you -- they want to, but let this unfolding happen on their time and under their terms. To rush them is to force them to shut down and retreat back behind their walls. Understand this: those with a guarded heart won't fall for your words (they've likely been told those same words many times before); they'll fall for your actions. Love notes are wonderful, but without the actions to back those words up, your love letters fall on deaf ears.
Why put up with all of this? Because it's worth the wait. So often people fall in and out of love quickly and easily -- but that's not usually "real" love. It's love that's superficial and won't last. Our Nation's divorce rate is a testament to that. But when you love someone with a guarded heart, they will love you for all of you; they won't try to change you -- or even want to -- because you have proven to them that you can love them just as they are and they will give you that love back threefold in return. Isn't that what we all want? To be loved and accepted for who we really are?