Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Christopher sent me an interesting link to an article in today's New York Times about unconditional love. This article talked about the way parents give and withhold approval from their kids in an attempt to control their children's behavior. The research shows that conditional love "works"--that is, parents are able to get their kids to be socialized, achieve, etcetera, by this method. But it produces adults who are insecure and resentful.

I wondered about this. First, I wondered What would unconditional love look like? How could a parent conceal their approval of some behaviors and their disapproval of others? Would that even be desirable?

Then I wondered, What would unconditional love feel like? I suspect it would make me uncomfortable because I am so accustomed to judgment as a way of being. It would be hard to release that. But delicious, I think. Delicious and scary. My fear for myself would be that without conditions I would descend into total sloth and selfishness. Without the fear of losing other people's love and approval I would not be motivated to exert any efforts to combat my own natural immaturity.

I thought about my Little Sister. I don't love her unconditionally. Well, I feel compassion for her, and I appreciate her funny, quirky, stubborn nature, but I can only deal with being around her if she is relatively gentle and respectful; I can't take it when she's aggressive and rude. It wears me out.

I know the deal is to separate the person from their behavior. "I love you, I just don't love it when you..." Or as my mother used to say, "I love you I just don't like you." Ecchhhh.

That hurt, when she said that. but what if it's true? What if sometimes you don't like the person you are supposed to love--or the person you do love deep-down even though right this moment you can't access that love-feeling? What do you do--dissemble? Remove yourself from the situation until the love comes back? Apply unconditional self-love as fast as possible and hope that does the trick? Man, my heart goes out to parents. This shit is hard.

Luckily, Christopher has not yet done anything that has even come close to shaking my love for him. We get annoyed and frustrated with each other at times, yes, but nothing toxic, ever. He has never made me feel like I had to choose between him and my own psychic survival. At the end of the day I can always count on his innate decency and kindness--I'd bet my life on those qualities of his. I have bet my life on them.

My Little Sister on the other hand, has worked my last nerve. She stretches me and tries me and I come up short and find myself wanting. It's hard for someone who didn't receive unconditional love as a child to learn how to give it. It's hard to unconditionally love someone who has built up thick hostile-looking walls. It's hard to love when the relationship is by its nature lopsided, when the language and culture are different, when it's inconvenient and expensive and often feels unappreciated.

Yet the more challenging it is to love in this way the more rewarding it is when the breakthrough occurs, the walls are breached, the shift happens. In her and in me.

I read the article. I understood the words. But seeing and experiencing difficult love is another animal entirely. I am such a beginner.


David Shearer said...


You open your heart to your Little Sister, then you set boundaries and enforce them. The boundaries are defined by love and an understanding that you too have needs. She will resent, and test, the limits you set. But if you remain firm, fair, and consistent, she will move beyond that and seize hold of the love caring that you're offering her.

As you are aware, she comes from a position of disadvantage relative to you. There are many aspects of your life that you may take for granted that she simply has no clue about. As I'm certain there must be aspects of her life you don't fully grasp. So, for both of you, this is a learning experience. It's possible she may even have more to show you, than you her.

I promise you, the time you are spending with your Little Sister is well spent regardless of the frustration you experience. It will be repaid many fold throughout her lifetime; and yours.

Jill said...

I found your blog via your wonderful poem in Sweet.

It is tricky, tricky, tricky being a parent, I'll tell you. I use the "I love you, but I don't love what you're doing" line. Good to know that didn't work for you, either. I'll try to not use that one again. Gott ahave a deep bag of tricks to be a good parent, I'll tell you!

Your poem was great! Just great!

Alison said...

Thanks, David, thank you Jill.

Happy New Year,