Opinion: Loving Someone Who Cannot Love Themselves

Crystal Jackson

Photo byEmiliano Vittoriosi on Unsplash

It’s strange that we expect people to love us well who don’t even love themselves. I don’t believe that we have to fully love ourselves to engage in healthy, authentic relationships, but self-love has a way of making us better partners. Yet, the heart wants what the heart wants, and sometimes, it chooses a person who has little self-loving and may even be stuck in a pattern of self-loathing.

Before we go any further, I need to state unequivocally that the only person we can ever change is ourselves. We can’t make someone magically see themselves as worthy of love. What we can do is make sure that we’re tender with others and don’t give them yet another reason to feel unworthy of it.

When we fall in love with someone who doesn’t love themselves, we may think we can proceed with the relationship just like any other. This one-size-fits-all policy doesn’t really work for romantic partners — or any other relationship really. Everyone is not the same, and we may need to customize our approach to the sensitivities of the person we’re partnering.

Loving someone who isn’t self-loving doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all approach either, which is why I’ll offer a few suggestions. Even though I am a former therapist, I cannot give anyone specific relationship advice that applies directly to each reader. However, I can offer a few general guidelines to help anyone struggling in this situation discover which path feels right for them.

How to Love Partners Who Cannot Love Themselves

It can be painful to love someone who can’t love themselves. We know already that they are worthy of love, and yet, we might have no idea how to help them see it. It can be frustrating to absolutely adore a human being who cannot see their own worthiness. Not only will they start poking holes in the relationship, but they might strike out at us, too, in a desperate attempt to justify how they feel — even if it’s in direct opposition to what they truly want.

The self-sabotage is real, and these relationships won’t always survive. In fact, the following recommendations are no guarantee of survival. However, they might provide at least some basic guidance on how to move forward in this situation.

Be Consistent

For people who have experienced trauma of any kind, it’s very likely that they’ve developed a hypervigilant mindset. They might constantly read the room, and any changes could be interpreted as a sign that they are no longer loved. The essential unworthiness that exists beneath that lack of self-love often creates a negative inner dialogue and a perspective that’s always looking for flaws in the relationship that prove their unworthiness — or their partner’s.

To love someone who isn’t self-loving, it’s important to be consistent. It’s not just about saying what we mean and meaning what we say. We’ll need to make sure that we are reliable, dependable, and consistently loving. While this should go without saying in most relationships, it’s particularly important when we’re dealing with someone who hasn’t yet learned to love themselves.

These relationships can go one of two ways, typically. We’ll either prove the exception to all their rules, or we’ll shore up the idea that love hurts. Consistency throughout the relationship doesn’t require us to be perfect partners — just ones who are maintaining a minimum standard of communication and affection.

Be a Safe Place

Consistency is just a start. Beyond that, we need to make our relationships safe places for other people to show up as their most authentic selves. What does this mean? It means we should be more curious and less judgmental when it comes to other people. We should allow our partners to be flawed and make mistakes and have room to make amends. We should provide emotional safety to allow people to be their perfectly imperfect themselves.

That safety can help provide someone with trauma the space to learn to build a secure attachment within the relationship. It’s invaluable to any type of relationship. Being a safe person is more than just stating that a partner can tell us anything. We need to make sure that we’re providing all the aspects of safety. Being able to keep what we’re told in confidence and listening without interruption or judgment are important, too.

With safety, partners who don’t love themselves can begin to relax into the relationship and figure out that we don’t actually expect them to be perfect. Mistakes are allowed and can be forgiven. There’s room for them to be human and to be loved for that humanity, not in spite of it. This is the perfect environment for self-love to grow and flourish.

One of my most painful relationship experiences was discovering that a partner expected perfection and loved me less every single time I demonstrated that I was a fallible human being. Instead of safety, I developed insecurity within the relationship. I stopped showing up as my authentic self because I couldn’t trust that the real me would be loved and appreciated. Without that necessary safety, the relationship fell apart.

Maintain Healthy Boundaries

When we fall in love with someone who isn’t self-loving, it’s important to maintain strong boundaries. Otherwise, we’re going to spend a lot of time taking their outlook on life personally. When we do this, we usually end up in a holding pattern of trauma. Our triggers trigger theirs, and their triggers bring ours to the surface. As you might imagine, this isn’t good for any relationship.

I’ve been locked into this pattern and cannot recommend it. It can even damage our own self-love to find ourselves without healthy boundaries when partnering with someone with low self-worth. The dynamic, for me at least, was particularly painful. It felt like every effort I made was disregarded, and without strong boundaries, I let every failure in the relationship chip away at my own self-esteem.

Part of maintaining healthy boundaries is communicating well about what we need and being consistently clear and direct. It’s important to be able to separate their personal issues from our own. Some issues might actually belong to the relationship and require both parties to fix, but many problems in relationships can only be resolved by the person they belong to and no one else.

If we want to partner with people who don’t have a strong base of self-love, we need to develop stronger boundaries. We need to be able to separate out their issues and not take them personally. We must ensure we don’t lose ourselves while trying to save the relationship.

Model Self-Love

The single most powerful thing we might be able to do in this relationship dynamic is to model self-love. Let me just say here that I failed to do this in the most spectacular way. Instead of modeling self-love, I modeled self-sacrifice. I kept chipping away at a little more of myself to show him that he was loved. While I was great at being consistent, my boundaries were nearly non-existent, and my self-love practice was constantly shifted to make room to love him harder.

Of course, loving someone harder won’t make them stay, and it certainly won’t make them appreciate us more. If anything, it seems to create resentment. Looking back, I think I would have done so much better — for myself and for him — to have modeled stronger self-love.

For instance, when the relationship began to suffer from a lack of affection and words of love faded away, I should have been unequivocal in stating that this would not work for me. As a person with a background of trauma myself, I’m absolutely not okay with being in a relationship with someone who cannot openly express affection. Instead of ignoring my needs, I should have advocated strongly for them. Instead of modeling self-sacrifice, I should have stepped into my own self-love and drawn a line in the sand.

Sometimes, we have to love people like this from a distance. We have to acknowledge that no amount of loving them will make them love themselves. We cannot force open their eyes so that they’ll see themselves in the way that we see them. Sometimes, we have to pack up all that love and take it with us because the other person simply cannot accept what we’re offering.

It doesn’t mean we don’t love them. It means we get to choose to love ourselves better. We can choose to be self-loving even in the face of overwhelming love for another human being. Sometimes, the most loving thing we can do is walk away. Other times, we can commit to the relationship and keep loving them despite the struggle while making sure that we don’t lose ourselves in the process.

Being a Better Partner Through Self-Love

When my last relationship ended, I began a self-love journey. At the time, it didn’t feel that way. It just felt like unending grief and disappointment. Yet, I began to do what I should have been doing all along — I cultivated stronger friendships, spent time developing independent interests, and learned to love myself through my imperfection.

I thought I loved myself before, but it was fragile. Trying so hard to love someone who could not love themselves felt damaging in many ways. I emerged from the process wounded but more committed than ever to my growth. For the first time, I wasn’t striving. I was nourishing — and then flourishing.

I know that I can be a better partner now. My commitment to self-love is strong enough to withstand a commitment to love someone else. I understand that the grief process, while terrible, was essential to achieving healthier love for myself and others. I forgave myself, forgave past partners, and began to understand that I could not love anyone enough to make them love themselves better.

Loving someone who isn’t self-loving is hard. Someone can be our absolute favorite person and still not like themselves. Be kind. This mentality likely grew out of neglect, abuse, or even abandonment. It won’t change in a day simply because we love them with our whole hearts. It might not even change in a lifetime. Yet, we all deserve to love and be loved well.

If you find yourself loving someone who cannot love themselves, I hope you find the courage to make sure that your efforts to love them don’t subvert your efforts to love yourself, too.

Originally published on Medium

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Crystal Jackson is a former therapist turned writer. She is the author of the Heart of Madison series and a volume of poetry entitled My Words Are Whiskey. Her work has been featured on Medium, Elite Daily, Thought Catalog, The Good Men Project, and Elephant Journal. When she's not writing, you can find her traveling, paddle boarding, cycling, throwing axes badly but with terrifying enthusiasm, hiking, or curled up with her nose in a book in Madison, Georgia, where she lives with one puppy and two wild and wonderful children. Crystal writes about relationships, mental health, parenting, social justice, and more. Never miss an update. Subscribe to emails: https://crystaljacksonwriter.substack.com/

Madison, GA

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