Too often our relationships – with family, friends, neighbours, strangers, and even opponents – break down because we close our hearts and minds to one another. It is impossible to truly love another person with a closed heart. Learning to stay open is an essential spiritual practice if we are to be lovers of others. But in a world where things change constantly and rapidly, and where there is so much from which to protect ourselves, staying open isn’t easy. It takes intentional, courageous work.
This episode of the EvoFaith Podcast explores some of the primary barriers to love and how we can overcome them. And it offers some clear, practical guidelines for nurturing openness so that we can love others more deeply and find the full and abundant life that deep connection brings.
What are the things that create stress and breakdown in your relationships? What barriers get between you and the people you seek to love? There are probably more than we can list, but I want to suggest that many of those barriers fall under three main headings:
Firstly there’s the fear of change. It’s all too common to hear people who find themselves in relationship difficulties say: “But you’ve changed! You’re not the person you once were!” Now I know that sometimes that can be a legitimate comment because expectations or commitments that have been established at the start of a relationship can then end up being unfulfilled when the people involved change. But change is inevitable. If we’re not changing, we’re not growing. And if we’re not growing, we’re not healthy. Now that doesn’t mean that dealing with change in a person you love or in a relationship is easy, it isn’t. And that’s why a lot of conflict arises when people change in ways that other people don’t like or want, and that’s especially true in our primary relationships. So what relationship changes are you resisting at the moment? What changes in your significant others are you resisting?
And then secondly, there’s the fear of mistakes, or of failure. Most of us want to get love right. We want to be good partners, parents, neighbours, lovers, and citizens. And we don’t like being told we’ve messed up. And so we hang our sense of worth and safety and our identity on getting things right, on not making mistakes, on not failing. But to do that is to try to resist life, because all of life is messy and filled with failures and mistakes and getting things wrong. But in our quest to be seen as right, we defend ourselves fiercely, we react badly to criticism, and conflict arises. But relationships of all kinds need to make space for our mistakes and our failures—although it does seem sometimes that our world is becoming less and less tolerant of our messy humanness. So what beliefs, answers or abilities do you hang your safety, your identity and your sense of worth on?
And then thirdly; assumptions and judgements. I’ve had so many conversations in life where someone has told me, with great certainty, exactly what they believed another person was feeling. Often there had been no discussion with this other person. And in many cases the person speaking to me hardly knew the person they were describing. And yet they felt completely justified in drawing all sorts of conclusions about this person’s feelings and motives, and whether they were a good person or not. Now inevitably, fights arise in relationships—with lovers, siblings, children, parents, neighbours, and even with strangers—because we take our assumptions as fact, and we refuse to entertain the possibility that our view of things and of the other person could be mistaken. Think of one of your primary relationships. What assumptions do you hold about the relationship and about the other person that might not be true and might not be helping?
So what are we to do to address these and so many other challenges in our relationships? I want to suggest that one of the most important fundamental foundations to love in all its forms is openness, and it’s the key to address these barriers to love. Openness is an attitude, a capacity, a way of behaving that keeps us from closing our hearts and our minds to the other person, to the relationship, and to what the relationship brings. Openness is what keeps communication going and gives us the space to find solutions to our problems and to find deeper connections with one another.
Openness needs to be exercised in at least two ways. In a moment I’ll explore them, but right now I want to remind you to subscribe, like, activate notifications, and share this podcast as widely as you can. It really helps my work and also helps people who need a space like this to find me. Thank you.
So the first way we need to practice exercising openness is in learning to be open to the changes that every relationship brings. To love is to change. We cannot love another person without it having an impact on us, on our lives, and on our world.
Every relationship brings change. The deeper and more intimate the relationship, the greater the change it brings. Now this is scary and unpredictable and as we’ve seen, a lot of conflict arises because we try, foolishly and unsuccessfully, to resist these changes. And when change is resisted it happens to us and this creates more pain and less opportunity for growth.
But once we recognise the inevitability of change we can choose to co-operate with it. And then change happens with us, not to us. We are part of the process and we can exercise some influence and autonomy in the process. When we open ourselves to and learn to cooperate with changes in our relationships, when we can even make friends with these changes, then we can grow and we can learn. And our connection with others deepens. Essentially, if we claim to love someone, but we are unwilling to allow our relationship with them to change anything for us, then we’re lying to them and we’re lying to ourselves.
So, how can we make friends with change? Perhaps these four awareness processes can help.
Firstly, we can acknowledge the inevitability of change. We can recognise that the only thing that doesn’t change is change.
And then when we’ve done that, we can acknowledge specific resistances in ourselves. We can ask ourselves: Where do I find myself trying to reject change, to resist it? What frightens me about this change? What might I lose?
And then thirdly, we can commit to co-operation. We can identify the forces at work, asking: What is happening? Why is it happening? What might be gained by this change? And then we can begin to act in alignment with it, in co-operation with it.
And then finally we can choose to enjoy the journey we can dream a little. We can ask ourselves: What new reality might be emerging? How can I help give it birth? How can I find joy and connection and pleasure in the changes that are happening in the other person, in me, and in our relationship?
So reflect on one of your primary relationships that is changing right now. Think about what you’re learning in this process, and how you can learn to befriend these changes so that you can deepen and strengthen this relationship. And so we need to begin by becoming open to the changes that the relationships bring to us.
And then the second way we can learn to practice openness is with the other person. We need to work to keep our hearts and minds open to the other person, to who they are, to what they need and want, to what their limitations are and how we can best connect with them.
Every person is unique, we know this. Everyone is different and offers a challenge to our worldview. And if we want to love others, we need to be open to their uniqueness and to whatever challenges they may bring to our carefully curated view of things and our carefully curated way of being.
So I want to offer you a truth-challenge today. This is a way to keep yourself open to other people. Learning only comes when we are open to new input. Certainties make us stupid.
And so to open ourselves to the truth that we might learn from another person we need to begin by questioning our certainties. Whenever we make assumptions or are convinced that we are completely right about some aspect of the other person or of the relationship, we can ask ourselves: What if I am wrong? What if my “truth” ends up being “false”? What if the other person is right? What if their view is more accurate? Or what if we’re both right but simply seeing things differently?
And then once we’ve questioned our certainties a bit we can begin to access our ignorance. Now this is practice that requires a lot of humility, but it can be very powerful in unlocking stuck relationships. It begins with deliberately choosing to recognise what we do not know. And asking the other person to fill in the gaps for us. Now don’t try to fill in the gaps yourself, because that’s just making more assumptions. So allow the other person to fill in what we don’t know.
And alongside this we can try an exercise that I call “Calling witnesses”. When we allow other people, from outside of the relationship, to give us their perspective, then that can open us up to insights and realities that we wouldn’t be able to find on our own. And we can do this calling witnesses in two ways:
First of all we can call an imaginary witness by imagining someone standing and watching us interact with this other person. We can imagine what they would see in us and in the other person. We can ask ourselves: Where might they feel that we are overreacting or being unreasonable? What questions might they ask us about our perspective? What might they ask the other person? What compromises or alternate possibilities might they suggest?
But secondly, where appropriate, we may be able to call an actual witness. This can be a friend, a trusted observer, or a therapist. It just needs to be someone who won’t take sides and will help you to see things in a way that goes beyond your own limited perspective.
Sometimes we can ask this witness to help us imagine swapping roles with the other person. We can put ourselves in their position and argue their point for them. And imagine that they are in ours. Or we can even draw a diagram of the relationship in order to get a more objective, “big-picture” view of things. The idea is to get creative, to break free of our patterns of thinking and interacting, and to put the relationship above any personal agendas.
So stop for a moment and think: What certainties are destroying your relationships? Can you start to question them a little? What ignorance have you ignored for too long? Can you start to access that ignorance? Maybe you can reflect on a recent conflict, and imagine a third party standing beside you—what would they say about what happened? Try to be objective and ruthlessly honest with yourself. Does this change anything for you?
If we really believe that what the world needs is more love, and if we want to help bring more love into the world by learning to love others better, then we will have to learn to get better at openness. Openness to the changes that relationships bring into our lives, and openness to the other people around us.
And of course we can only do these things if we are truly seeking to love others. These practices can be difficult and painful. They require humility and a willingness to look at our whole selves, not just the good in us, but the not-so-good too. But we cannot truly call ourselves lovers if we are unwilling to do these things for the sake of connection with those around us.
In the next episode we’re going to explore something that may seem obvious, but that is essential to being a good lover of others, and this is the desire to connect. And we’ll also face head on some of the challenges of loving our enemies, those we struggle with, those we don’t believe deserve our love, those who hurt us and oppose us. It’s going to be a challenging episode, but love is always challenging, even as it is enriching and life-affirming.
And that’s all for now. Thank you for listening. Thank you for watching. And I’ll catch you next time!
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