Your latest column on love is impressive (“Love: At least know it’s always there,” May 19, 2013) . For years I’ve argued that “love is not how we feel but how we act” — with “argue” too often becoming the operational outcome — and you develop that concept insightfully and eloquently. But does your parenting example validate the claim that no difference exists “between a love you can’t show and not being loved at all?” I doubt it. Because how we were raised is a predictor of how we will love.
— Dr. Jeffrey Wallmann
Even as I was typing that column, I expected this question. I confess I expected the question to be motivated subjectively and, in a manner, defensively. That is, I expected my point to be threatening to folks still needing to protect an idealized parent ... still not ready to embrace the primary caregiver(s) as they were and are. In therapy, it’s nearly cliché how often and how powerfully is wielded the self-reassuring mantra “I know my parent(s) loved me.” I agree with the late M. Scott Peck (“The Road Less Traveled”) when he says one of the measures of mental health is the willingness and ability to “see our primary caregivers as they were and are.”
But you surprise me by posing the question objectively. Not defensive in the least. That is, asking simply whether my claim is valid, given that “how we were raised is a predictor of how we will love.”
The question is apt and fair. The way I wrote the column contained an ambiguity deserving this question. So, thank you for putting it into words.
Let me take a shot at clarifying the claim I understand myself to be making. That is, removing the ambiguity. I’ll be interested to know if it makes a difference in the “what” and “whether” of your contention.
I mean little or no difference exists between the receiver’s experience of a love that can’t be shown and a love that doesn’t exist at all. That is, by definition, if you love me but can’t show me you love me, then, while I might be able to objectively acknowledge the fact of your love (agree that you love me), that fact will be of little or dubious use to me. It will be an intellectual assent. I can concur, philosophically speaking. Yes, you love me.
Hmm. Existential solace. Uh, thank you for that. I guess.
If you don’t mind me dipping into my former life as a priest, I think this is what the epistle of James means: “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe — and shudder.” (James 2:19). Meaning, whoopdeedoo, that you believe in God. That’s not the hard part. For belief in God to have meaning, you will have to take the risk of faith. And faith is always and only measured in action.
You’re right, of course. How we are raised is a predictor of how we will love. A huge, overly determining predictor, in fact. But I’m not arguing cause here. I’m arguing for radical responsibility. I think parents are radically responsible for the quality and competence of their love for their children, even when that competence is overly determined by how they were raised. I think children, as they become adults, are radically responsible for seeing the parents as they are, whatever the “love competence” quotient those parents ultimately wielded.
I know a man whose relationship with his father is painful, conflicted and marked in childhood with fear, degradation, disrespect and occasional violence. He said that, in his early 30s, for reasons he still doesn’t quite comprehend, he confronted his father with their history.
“My father listened respectfully,” the man said. “Then he said, ‘Well, at least you know I always loved you.’ And I can’t believe what then came out of my mouth. I said, ‘That may well be. OK. You always loved me. But that’s not my point.’ ”
“What is your point?” the father asked.
“My point is that you suck at love,” the man said.
Wow. Bet that was a pregnant moment. I admired the man. I told him that moment made me think about the boy Arthur, standing beneath a golden light, giving him the strength to pull a sword from a stone. In such moments, boys can become men. And men are given a chance to become (the archetypal) king.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns also appear on Sundays in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at 702-227-4165 or firstname.lastname@example.org.