For many people today, dating and preparing for marriage exposes the reality that they have wounds and hang-ups in their lives. Often, these wounds have taught them how to “guard their hearts” in a way that leads them to resist being vulnerable.
I saw this firsthand in a young woman named Julia. At age fifteen, Julia lost her father to cancer. This heartbreaking loss taught her that she needed to put up walls to protect herself from the pain of losing loved ones in the future. Though this approach seemed to work okay for years, it began to cause problems when she met and became engaged to her fiancé, Travis.
Julia told me that even though she loved Travis, she struggled to express that love in a tangible way—a way that was powerful enough to chase away fear or doubt in their connection. She was uncomfortable expressing her feelings and often remained silent. Travis was essentially having to “live by faith” that Julia really loved him as much as he loved her, because she wasn’t sending him the “I love you” message loudly enough. As a result, Travis often felt rejected and Julia was growing afraid that the thing she feared most would happen—losing Travis.
Gently, I confronted Julia with the truth that if she didn’t adjust, she would starve her connection with Travis of what it needed to be healthy over time. If she wanted their relationship to thrive, she needed to learn to meet his needs and the needs of the relationship.
From there, Julia and I went to work to discover just what was holding her back from being able to practice healthy vulnerability and demonstrate love. We covered 4 steps that are crucial for anyone who needs to recover from broken relationships and wounds of the past and build new, healthy relationships.
Let’s look at these 4 steps now.
Step 1: Choose the Goal of Building a Healthy, Heart-to-heart Connection
As I teach in Keep Your Love On, we are all pursuing one of two goals in our relationships whether we realize it or not—the goal of building a protecting and healthy, loving, intimate heart-to-heart connection, or the goal of keeping a safe distance to protect our hearts from others. Choosing the goal of connection requires us to become powerful in identifying and getting rid of every habit of thinking and behavior that doesn’t align with that goal.
In Julia’s case, choosing the goal of connection confronted her with the truth that her current relational toolset was still more aligned with the goal of self-protection, and that she needed to replace it with tools of connection.
Step 2: Identify Fear Triggers (Inner Healing, Pt. 1)
Though Julia probably never intended to cause anxiety in her relationship with Travis, that’s what was happening, and he was vulnerable enough to show her how her behavior was affecting him. This confronted her with the opportunity to look at her behavior and ask some questions. Was Travis just being “needy,” or was her struggle to say things like “I love you” actually a problem?
Sure enough, she began to realize that the problem was on her end. This sent her on a journey to investigate the fears that had driven her behavior for so long. Through prayer and counsel, she identified the false belief she had embraced after her father’s death—“I must guard my heart. No one else will protect me.”— and saw how this lie was sabotaging her ability to practice vulnerability.
Step 3: Repent (Inner Healing, Pt. 2)
Renouncing fears is easier said than done, but for Julia (and the rest of us), it is an absolute must. Using the inner healing process, Julie followed a simple exercise of repentance and exchange. She first renounced the lie identified by the Holy Spirit and then ask Him to show her the truth He wanted to install in its place. Julia repeated this process until she felt the Lord’s biggest truth take root—that God desired to protect her heart.
Step 4: Embracing Rehab
Working through inner healing allowed Julia to express her pain and receive truth, but now she needed to put it into action. I described this to Julia using the analogy of rehabbing a limb after suffering a broken bone or strain. To this day, I have a strong memory of what it was like after the doctors removed my cast after I had healed from a broken ankle as a young man. The pain was so severe that I almost begged them to put the cast back on, but I was determined to regain the strength in my muscles. I had to push through the pain, but eventually my work in rehab paid off and my ankle became as good as new.
In the same way, I encouraged Julia to push through the discomfort of learning new skills to love Travis well. When she told me that his top love language was words of affirmation, I explained that it was even more urgent that she learn to verbally express her feelings and affection for him—but that the more she worked at it, the more comfortable she would be using this relational tool to build connection.
Thankfully, Julia chose a connected life. Today she is happily married and working hard to steward her connection with Travis, her husband.
The good news is that no matter the hurts and losses you’ve suffered in the past, you can heal and learn to become a powerful person who can practice healthy vulnerability and build healthy intimacy. As you navigate through dating or engagement, realize that nobody can choose to be powerful except you—and no one can change or improve the relationship unless you both do the work. Remember that the goal in any intimate relationship should always be connection, and that anything in the way of intimacy should be handed to Jesus. He is the healer of the brokenhearted, and He doesn’t do it halfway. When we surrender our pain and fear to Him, He heals and strengthens us to love like He loves.
P.S. Have you checked out our pre-marriage eCourse, Defining the Relationship? Whether you’re single, dating, or engaged—if you want to get married, this course is a must!