Monday, March 18, 2013

Our Culture Of Conditional Love (And Why It's Really Stupid)

Photo by Aallen, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

As some of you close to me may know,  I've had someone come into my life in the last few years who is burdened with what is known as an attachment disorder. For those not in the know, this is a pathological state that occurs as a result of neglect and/or disrupted care during early childhood. People with this condition feel that lack of early love and security well into adulthood and this creates some pretty major emotional insecurities, insecurities that make normal human relationships pretty damn difficult.

As I always do when dealing with a close friend or family member with some illness or disorder, I've been doing some research. Reading about the manifestations of the disorder is useful, of course, but learning about the standard modes of therapy, understanding what the "way back" can look like, is even more so. I can't go around appointing myself as amateur therapist to everyone I love, obviously, but I think there's always plenty to be gained from understanding healthy processes of growth. 

A note I read on one therapist's site, however, made me angry. He wrote (to paraphrase) that one of the prevalent problems people with an AD experience in adulthood is the expectation that they be loved unconditionally by those closest to them. This expectation is, apparently, utterly unreasonable in adulthood.

Now, I suppose from a realistically pragmatic point of view, that's true. It's also a good and useful thing to make a patient with AD understand. Still, it leaves a bad taste in my mouth because to me, it seems to come as an admonishment, a lecture, most of all, the message to those around the person with AD, you don't have to work to love this person. More frightening, though, is the message I think this will send to the victim, a message of, no one will ever work hard to love you. 

It's hard to say what this therapist's positions really are on the subject of conditional vs. unconditional love, but it's not terribly hard to say what the positions of society at large are; as a culture, I think we're pretty big on making love conditional. Hell, we even use the word "love" as synonymous with "enjoy," and what does that tell you?

Love, we seem to believe, is something that just happens. It happens when someone possesses certain characteristics that please us and when the pleasure we derive from those characteristics outweighs the frustration or pain that may come from being around them. Of course, that outweighing must be perpetual, or what point is there in hanging on?

Culturally, we live by a philosophy that tells us to love people when they are worthy of it. Only rarely does it seem to occur to anyone that, in fact, loving people is what makes them into someone worthy.

This, ultimately, is the difference between conditional and unconditional. Conditional love says, "I will love you if you do X," while unconditional says, "I know that if I love you enough, you will become someone who can do X."

Undoubtedly, the second statement will read as hopelessly naive to plenty of readers. For most of us, the approach of withholding love until certain conditions are met seems like common sense and a perfectly reasonable way to keep yourself safe. There is, however, a difference between expressing boundaries and withholding love. All too often, in fact, it is precisely when we have poor faith in our own boundaries that we put ourselves in a position of being unable to forgive and love those who have encroached.

Obviously, there are situations in which abuse and the exercise of power is beyond the victim's control and situations where the only sane choice is to walk away. I'm not going to dispute that. I'm not talking, here, about people in dangerous domestic situations, or people who are being manipulated, controlled and abused. I'm not saying that putting up with someone is always the right idea.

I'm just often do we stop to question certain ideas we have about people's worth? How easily do we write them off? How little do we look at our own backgrounds and recognize that, whatever it is that makes any of us good people, it's almost certainly because somewhere along the way, someone has loved us? We've been safe? We've had the opportunity to be happy where others have not?

Honestly, these days, I find I'm getting closer and closer to abandoning the idea of free will altogether - at least, free will as we normally define it. Certainly, I find I'm more and more apt to say "can't" than "won't" about other people than I used to be. Even better, though, is the ability to say, "Can't yet, because..."


Ay, there's the rub. And there are as many answers to this question as there are people to ask it about. 

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