Karen's Blogs

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To Love or Be Loved

Earlier this summer, an interesting discussion arose on my Food and Feelings message board ("Food and Feelings": Is it better to love or be loved? In my world, we need not choose, but should expect both in an intimate relationship.

As is often the case, to understand the dynamics of loving, we have to start at the beginning and explore our initial relationships. Generally, the first is with our mother. With luck (and that really is all it is), Mother loves us deeply, with great affection and—at least while we are totally dependent on her—above all else. Mothers, fathers, and other adult caretakers who are emotionally healthy should not, of course, expect that babies will love them back. As children develop, they are capable of returning love, but certainly not in infancy and early toddlerhood.

This point is crucial: that parents love infants without expecting anything back. Sadly, emotionally unhealthy adults may be so starved for love and nurturing themselves, that they have enormous difficulty (or find it impossible) to give love without being loved in return, a dysfunctional set-up that puts the child at risk of becoming a mere object of parental gratification. To get love, the child has to give it even when a parent is not deserving of it. Moreover, a paradigm develops that fosters the belief that in any diad, one person is the love-giver and the other is the love-receiver. Then, because we often are uncomfortable as love-receiver and to avoid being like our self-centered parent, we gravitate to the default position of love-giver. We may not realize until later in life (if ever!) that there is a third option of each person in a diad giving and receiving love.

Additionally, we unconsciously internalize how our parents interact with each other. If they can’t both give and receive love and there is a lopsided dynamic of loving, we come to believe that only one person in a diad can be loved, or loved at a time. Sometimes parents exhibit one role of love-giver or -receiver exclusively, but often they switch roles, especially when both are highly emotionally needy: each gives love for a while expecting love in return, then stops giving when it isn’t received. What we end up with, in spite of the switch off, is unilateral rather mutual loving. And a child of this diad comes to believe that one either loves or is loved and s/he has to make a choice.

Think about how you relate to giving and receiving love. Reflect on where your beliefs about loving and being loved come from and make sure that they are rational, healthy, and support that each of us can enjoy the healthy mutuality of giving and receiving love.

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