The Heart of Relationship

It is that time of year again when multiple and, dare I say, ‘gaudy’ images of hearts flood the retail market and the rush in on to secure relationships with Valentine cards, roses and jewellery. A relevant question in this romantic quest is: to what degree does heart truly play a central role in the development of an intimate relationship?

When it comes to the consideration of men and intimacy, there are the contentions that men are:

  • ‘emotionally illiterate’
  • ‘heartless’
  • ‘live in their heads’
  • ‘have a one-track mind’

There is also the belief that the line between the man’s heart and his penis has been severed! If the preceding statements about men are true, then the essential recipe for an enduring and deepening relationship – being ‘heartfelt’ is missing and the predictions are not favourable for their relationships with women.

However, what about the situation where some young men sadly take their own lives following the breakdown of a relationship? Are they not ‘heart-b

roken?’ Actually, no, their tragic response to ‘being jilted’ is a mirror of the presence of an inner breakdown of the relationship with Self. This inner alienation has its roots in the first relationships with each parent and, sometimes, some significant other (grandparent, teacher, priest, uncle, aunt, sibling). The relationship these young men would have formed with a girl-friend would have been of a ‘lean-to-nature.’ In such an enmeshed relationship security lies in the girlfriend’s wanting them, rather than the mature behaviour of self-reliance. Heart is not present when you depend on another for happiness; what is present is the need to control or manipulate the target of your dependence (not quite affections) to be there for you. Aggression, controlling, dominating, hypercriticism, suicidal threats, sulks, hostile silences and violence are some of the defences that young and, indeed, older men can subconsciously employ in an intimate relationship.

The reality is until men find heart for themselves they will struggle to be heart-felt in relationships. A man’s typical response to an invitation ‘to belong to self’ is ‘that’s women’s stuff’ or ‘soft stuff.’ In work organisations, emotional literacy is referred to as ‘soft skills’ – a term coined by men. The fact is that emotional maturity is the hardest challenge for men to take on and their ‘soft stuff’ responses are a cover-up of their fears of this vital literacy. When this vulnerability is examined what emerges are fears of being abandoned, laughed at, ridiculed and of appearing weak. So many women and father’s daughters complain of the men in their lives ‘not being emotionally available.’ What is often not appreciated by these women is that these men are not emotionally available to themselves and, until they are, they cannot be available to their partners and children. It is not optional that men develop emotional literacy; it is a responsibility and when not taken up has serious repercussions on relationships.

If it is true that men are largely subconsciously ‘heartless’, is the opposite true that women are ‘heartfelt’ in their relationships with men? Certainly, the prevailing belief is that women are more emotionally literate and tend to look for emotional commitment from men. Typical descriptions of women’s responses in relationships with men are that they are ‘over-emotional’, ‘heart-wounded’, ‘emotionally distraught’, ‘histrionic’, ‘tearful’, ‘clinging’ and ‘all heart.’ However, when women approach a relationship ‘wanting to please the man’ or ‘wanting to look after him’ or ‘wanting to possess him’ or ‘be there for him’ they are, too, being heartless – in two ways! One, they do not possess heart for themselves and two, it is an illusion that they are heartfelt for their male partners. It is not women’s responsibility to look after men – this is a subconscious means of attracting the male, but the result is a lean-to relationship, where the woman needs the man to depend on her for her security. When fear and dependence lie at the core of an intimate relationship – whether for a man or a woman – the relationship is not based on unconditional love and, therefore, is ‘without heart.’

A true heartfelt relationship is where the woman comes from an inner ‘heartfelt place’ and brings that emotional maturity (fullness) to the man, does not take responsibility for him, but wants to get to know him in his fullness. Feeling ‘sorry for him’ is actually a ‘heartless’ response; believing he can take responsibility for self is ‘heartful!’ This is the relationship that both men and women need to aspire to – one based on a solid ‘heart-place’ for self and self-reliance. This is the only relationship that is truly heart-felt.

Dr. Tony Humphreys practices as a clinical psychologist and is author of several books including Myself, My Partner.