As the old song goes, love is a many splendored thing (I remember my mother playing that song over and over again on our old record player). Love is certainly a very complicated thing. What is love? What are the different kinds of love? Where does romantic love come from? Why do we fall in love, and why do we call it "falling in love"? Do you believe in a "one and only soul mate" whom you're "meant to be with"? These are challenging life questions for adults, let alone young people. As well, beliefs and customs are very much affected by the time period and culture in which we live.
Exploring the concept of love and today's often complicated love relationships can be a way to learn one of the most fundamental life lessons we can learn ourselves, and a way to pass down this life lesson to our children and grandchildren (or at least help the young try to figure it out in their own way).
Social scientists distinguish between two forms of love: 1) romantic or passionate love (also referred to as infatuation or "falling in love") and 2) companionate love. Companionate love is far less intensely emotional than romantic love. It combines feelings of deep attachment, intimacy, and commitment.
So much has been written about love -- from poems and songs, to novels, to research reports. I'll try to hit some of the high points for thought and discussion.
The History of Valentine's Day
Valentine's Day is all about love, so let's start there.
Valentine's Day is observed on February 14. Experts have differing opinions about how Valentine's Day originated. Some trace it back over 2,000 years to the ancient Roman festival of "Lupercalia" (named after the god Lupercus who offered protection against wolves and looked after crops and animals). Among other things, the festival was a celebration of the beginning of spring. Other experts connect Valentine's Day with one or more saints named Valentine who were part of the early Christian church. Still others link it with an old English belief that birds choose their mates on February 14. Valentine's Day probably evolved from a combination of all of these sources.
People in England celebrated Valentine's Day as early as the 1400s. Some historians trace the custom of sending verses to a Frenchman, Charles, Duke of Orleans. He was captured by the English during the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. On Valentine's Day, he sent his wife a rhymed love letter from the Tower of London, where he was imprisoned.
People in different countries celebrated Valentine's Day slightly differently. English children went from door to door in groups singing songs. In Italy, young men and women gathered in flower gardens to listen to music and poetry. In France, fancy balls were popular, and young French men were often expected to present their Valentine's Day dance partners with bouquets of flowers. When young couples in Austria, Hungary, and Germany first celebrated Valentine's Day, they also danced and went to parties. But the holiday slowly became more serious in these three countries, as young boys were expected to choose the names of saints instead of girls and model themselves for the following year after the saint they chose.
Many Valentine's Day customs involved ways that single women could learn who their future husbands would be. English women of the 1700s wrote men's names on scraps of paper, rolled each in a little piece of clay, and dropped them all into the water. The first paper that rose to the surface supposedly had the name of a woman's true love.
Also in the 1700s, unmarried women pinned five bay leaves to their pillows on the eve of Valentine's Day. One leaf was pinned to the center of the pillow, and then one to each corner. If the charm worked, a woman would see her future husband in her dreams.
One of the oldest customs was the practice of writing women's names on slips of paper and putting them in a jar. Each man would then draw a name. That woman became the man's valentine, and he paid special attention to her. Many men gave gifts to their valentines. One description of Valentine's Day from the 1700s tells how groups of friends met to draw names. For several days, each man wore his valentine's name on his sleeve, which is probably where the saying "wearing his heart on his sleeve" came from.
The custom of sending romantic messages gradually replaced that of giving gifts. The first commercial valentines were made in the 1800s. Many were blank inside, with space for the sender to write their own message. Stores sold handbooks called "valentine writers." These books included verses to copy and suggestions about writing valentines for young and old and for every occupation. "Vinegar valentines" were also common in the 1800s. They ridiculed the old and wrinkled, those who drank too much or were boastful, or people in certain trades. They were often sent unsigned.
Esther A. Howland, of Worcester, MA, was one of the first US manufacturers of valentines. In 1847, after seeing a valentine from Great Britain, she decided to make some of her own. She made samples by hand and took orders from stores. Everyone wanted more. She soon hired a staff of young women and set up an assembly line to produce the cards -- one woman would glue on paper flowers, another would add lace, another painted leaves, and so on. The business quickly grew to make over $100,000 a year -- a great deal of money at the time.
Hallmark began business in 1910 in Kansas City, MO. After World War I, it and other companies began selling more and more greeting cards, including valentines. Hallmark produced its first valentine in 1913. It has a famous collection of antique valentines. Some are lent to local card shops and put on display. Others are in museums and libraries, where they appear in exhibits around Valentine's Day. Hallmark now offers more than 1,600 different valentine cards. Most carry that familiar phrase "Be My Valentine." Valentine's Day is the second most popular holiday for cards, after Christmas. There are 163 million paper cards exchanged in the US on Valentine's Day (excluding packaged valentines children exchange in classrooms). Increasingly popular are e-cards. There are cards for everyone -- lovers, friends, family (including sons/daughters, parents, grandparents, and grandchildren), and even pets. Love is big business.
Valentine's Day is most popular in the United States, Canada, Mexico, United Kingdom, France, Australia, Denmark, and Italy. In North America, people send cards, chocolates, and flowers to those they love. Most chocolates are in the shape of a heart. Different cultures celebrate the holiday slightly differently. In England, some people bake valentine buns with caraway seeds, plums, or raisins. People in Italy hold a Valentine's Day feast. In Denmark, people send pressed white flowers called "snowdrops" to their friends.
Valentine's Day is still seen very much as a celebration of romantic love, a time of year when Cupid runs rampant. In Greek and Roman myths, Cupid was the mischievous god of love who flew around shooting people with his invisible arrows. If an arrow hit you, you supposedly fell hopelessly in love.
The Invention of Romantic Love
Whether on Valentine's Day or the rest of the year, today romantic love is everywhere. Love is a lovely thing. But, just like ice cream, you can get too much of a good thing.
The never-ending presentation of romantic love has most people, particularly young adults, wallowing in various stages of the age-old saga of boy/girl meets boy/girl, boy/girl longs for boy/girl, boy/girl loses boy/girl, and, of course, the ever popular boy/girl alone-again blues. Tune into any soap opera or even many prime time programs, watch or listen to many talk shows, go to any movie, listen to any song on the radio, and there it is: good love, bad love, repetitive love, heartbreaking love, unrequited love, glorious love, and on and on it goes. We've developed lovely stories about finding our "true soul mates" and "love conquering all." Based on this media mythology in our pop culture, you would think that hardly anything else is going on in the world. Because we are creatures of our culture, our lives reflect this great obsession to a greater or lesser degree. The emphasis on romantic love is, in many ways, part of our "feel good" society. Romantic love, at least at the start, feels good. There's nothing wrong with love, nor is there anything wrong with feeling good. It becomes a problem, though, when it is the only and ultimate goal, and when it blinds us to other important parts of life and living.
From the time we are young in our culture, romantic love is the one thing many people dream of and hope to find someday. We may not be able to live the lives of millionaires, but we can all, regardless of race, religion, or socio-economic status, find "true love." The fantasy excites us. We live for it, we wait for it. But the fact is, most of us have love in our lives. It may not be what we see on TV or in the movies. It may be complicated and difficult at times. But we do have it. The problem is that when we are not romantically involved with someone, we think of ourselves as alone and unloved. We take for granted all the other kinds of love in our lives. From our first moment on earth, most of us have been loved by our parents and family. Then other kinds of love may come into our lives -- from friends to pets to our life's work.
Isn't a longing for romantic love natural? Aren't feelings of romantic love universal? Isn't everyone the world over hit by Cupid's arrow? Not really. There may be a biological basis for romantic love. We, as human beings, do have an imperative to reproduce. This may be universal, as is an initial psychological and physiological attraction to certain individuals. But the story we create around that biological imperative, the meaning we bring to it, is socially constructed. The way we play it out, the emphasis we put on it, differs across time and cultures. Some researchers suggest that there is a spectrum of innateness to emotions with some, like fear, falling at the "very innate" end, and culturally constructed emotions like love at the "least innate" end.
Every culture develops a story about love and what's "natural." In many cultures it is recognized that spouses occasionally develop a deep feeling of love, but this is regarded as uncommon. People don't count on it happening to them any more than most North Americans count on becoming millionaires. For example, in Pakistan and India, more than half of college students say they do not see romantic love as particularly important and would marry without it. But in the United States, only 4% would be willing to do so. There are African cultures in which many men take more than one wife. Not only do women feel no jealousy whatsoever, a woman actually considers herself unfortunate if her husband can afford only one wife -- "If there is only one wife, who will help me with the housework and take care of me when I give birth?" In one study, young people in the US, Italy, and the People's Republic of China were interviewed about their emotional experiences. In all cultures, both women and men identified the same kinds of emotions -- joy, anger, sadness, and so on. They agreed about all the emotions -- except love. The US and Italian subjects tended to equate love with happiness; love was assumed to be an intensely positive experience. Chinese students, however, had a darker view of love and saw it as illusionary. Students from the East and West could not come to an agreement on the nature of love and regarded each other's visions of love as "unrealistic."
As unromantic as it may sound, the various expressions of love that exist across time and cultures show that love is very much socially constructed, learned, and structured. We tell ourselves stories to make sense of the world, and these stories often both create and maintain the practices of our social world. Emotional experiences like falling in love, which we consider so personal and private, are often shaped and mediated by the social structures of our society. Romantic love is not an entirely instinctive feeling. It is a largely socially-constructed behavior, acquired in some cultures but not in others.
Many social researchers suggest that romantic love, in the popular form we know today, came into European culture in about the 12th century. It was conceived as a relationship between an upper-class woman and her admirer. It was called "courtly love." There were the knights and their "ladies," like Lancelot and the Lady Guinevere in King Arthur's court. The love was generally unrequited -- the "lovers" never got together. It was good sport though, tailored to the ego of upper-class women, and it always took place outside the obligations of marriage.
Over the centuries, the idea of romantic love trickled down to the rising middle class and, finally, to the working class. It also took a rather sharp turn from its early origins and became associated with marriage. In the modern version, romantic love leads, after much longing and many twists and turns, to marriage and "living happily ever after" -- a state which must be so boring that most stories end there and show us nothing about what "happily ever after" looks like.
Why does the myth of love persist? What keeps it going? In the media, only romantic love or troubled love is considered interesting. It gets ratings, audiences, and makes money. We love a good drama. It keeps us coming back for more. And so more is what we get. The romantic love myth also lends itself perfectly to the purposes of advertising. The promise of romance is used to sell everything from cigarettes to deodorant to automobiles. Love is also the great equalizer -- presumably, anyone can get it. So, even if there are other inequities in society, at least you can find love and live "happily ever after."
The idea of romantic love also serves the structure of our modern society. Romantic love is the "bait" that helps convince young people to get married and start a family in a society that, in reality, because of forces like time pressures, financial inequities, and work structure, makes raising a family very difficult. In industrialized, technologically-advanced societies, nuclear families are small. With people scattered across the country and around the globe, parents and children often struggle without the support of an extended family network of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins characteristic of more traditional societies. Romantic love can help bond a nuclear family together in the absence of the support of a stable, extended family. At the same time, while romantic love may bring people together in marriage, it can also tear them apart. Romantic attractions outside marriage may seduce people into affairs that lead to divorce. So, because it is largely the product of personal preferences and socially-constructed emotions, romantic love is inherently weak.
The myth of romantic love blinds us to much of this reality. It draws our attention and energy away from real social problems like the unequal distribution of certain opportunities -- financial stability, work satisfaction, a pleasant environment, security in old age. Love also throws young people off course, particularly teenage girls. Research has shown again and again that intelligent girls suddenly become less so as they head into their teenage years. They turn their attention to "getting the guy," and dumb themselves down in the process. Couple the myth of romantic love with media images of what "beauty" is -- pencil thin, flawless makeup, a designer outfit -- and you get a young girl who believes that if you look like a model, the hunky guy will be yours forever. It all works together to detract us, particularly young people searching for their identity, away from what is more important and fulfilling over the long run.
When we "fall in love," are most of us really clear on what we've fallen in love with and how much of it is based on social conditioning? Even those of us who are aware of our social conditioning can find it difficult to maintain perspective. Have we "fallen in love" with someone who strokes our ego? Reminds us of one of our parents? Is the exact opposite of one of our parents? Is popular and so in turn makes us feel popular? Reflects the popular notion of beauty? Offers us financial security? Offers us emotional safety? What does it really mean to "fall in love"?
There are psychological forces that play off the social forces involved in falling in love. We are all vulnerable to certain fears -- that we will be lonely, that we won't be able to measure up, that we are unattractive. When someone pays attention to us, we get a rush (both psychological and physiological) and have come to call that rush "falling in love." It's a "high" in a society longing for happiness and a good time (that's what the ads and talk shows tell us life should be, right?). The very suddenness of this rush should warn us. It's not so much that we are responding to the other person, but to something in ourselves. That's why often, several years down the road, we wonder what we ever "saw" in someone. We temporarily gave ourselves the freedom to believe things about ourselves and our life that we don't normally allow our critical selves to believe. We loved ourselves because someone of the opposite sex seemed to love us. The problem is that what we saw in the other person wasn't that person at all, only our own projections, a story we created. The mind works by creating stories to make sense of the bits and pieces of "reality" we take in. And the story of love is a big story, both psychologically and sociologically.
As time passes after "falling in love," the initial politeness and superficiality in a relationship wear off. The illusions wear away. And we are left with two people who may or may not be able to get along. We are left with two people who may or may not know how to work at getting along, who may or may not have the skills and maturity. Relationships are complicated at the best of times.
And if we "break up"? We are "alone again" and feel terribly sorry for ourselves until somebody else shows up and we can begin another round. The entire mythology of romantic love lends enormous legitimacy to our belief that we are suffering from love and that such suffering is perfectly sensible, inevitable, and even biological. The fact that we can even suffer to music adds some glamour to our plight. And we slowly sink into the quicksand of sentimentality.
It's interesting that research has shown that most people in our culture can't tell the difference between love and anxiety. The physical symptoms of each are remarkably similar. That's one reason love is such an overpowering experience. There is a primal rush of chemicals in the brain. In one study of more than 500 lovers, almost all of them reported that romantic/passionate love was a bittersweet experience. Although most of us assume that we love the people we do in spite of the suffering they cause us, it may be that, in part, we love them because of the pain they cause.
And what does research tell us about the "happily ever after" part of the love story? Evidence seems to indicate that happy marriages are the exception rather than the rule. We give people little training in the relationship skills required to make marriages work over the long term. Marital bliss is also highly associated with class position: the rich score better than the poor and working class, among whom lack of money is a major source of marital discord. But we don't talk much about these facts. We make people feel as though their unhappiness is their own fault, that they have only themselves to blame for the apparent lack of happiness and love that is their supposed birthright, and all they need to do is go out and buy the latest self-help book to solve their problems.
One of the obstacles to getting past the myth of romantic love is that there isn't much out there to replace it. In many ways, our society makes us lonely. It undermines the love of family, we tend to have less contact with extended family and friends as people are separated by hectic schedules and distance, and there is less emphasis on community. Each of us also has to prove ourselves as an individual in a highly competitive world. And so we feel alone.
If you understand how these aspects of social structure affect you, you can take steps to minimize their effect (and perhaps change society over time, but that's another topic for another time). A positive first step is to look at real people in real, successful, long-term relationships.
We shouldn't confuse love with the illusions we have about it. What is falling in love, in fact, if not harboring certain illusions about love, about yourself, and about the person you're in love with? These illusions can sweep us away. "It is the essence of love," notes philosopher Clement Rosset, "to profess love forever but in fact to love only for a time." Truth itself is fatal to love, which is why those who celebrate love would like us to do away with truth; some will freely admit their preference for dreams or illusions. But dreams and illusions are usually not enough to save them or save love. They are certainly not enough to send young people into the world. Yes, we need our dreams. But we also need to put them into the context of a story that will develop character and help us make wise choices. When we're young, we're less experienced in human relationships and don't understand much about ourselves yet. That's enough to be dealing with. Add to that a societal story which tends to lead us down the wrong path and it's no wonder so many people are so miserable.
Who tells us about love when we're young? We may or may not have a role model in our parents or grandparents. The media give us only an extreme, simplistic view. It would be useful to have certain love life lessons available to us when we are young. They could at least help to balance the story society feeds us and the story we in turn create in our mind. We need a story that helps us appreciate love in all its forms and understand that love, like everything else in life, takes work. This won't help us avoid all mistakes. We will make mistakes, as will our children and grandchildren. There are some life lessons we can learn only through hard, direct experience. But other mistakes can be avoided. And those we don't avoid, we can recover from far more productively if we have a more realistic, grounded story to fall back on. We will remember the things we've learned and start to put the pieces back together in a way that helps us mature.
Researchers suggest that at an individual level people possess different kinds of love schemas, that is different cognitive stories about what is appropriate to expect from themselves, from those they love, and from their love relationships. These schemas depend on how comfortable people are with closeness and/or independence; how effectively they can intellectually separate from the myth of love around them; and how eager they are to be involved in romantic relationships. There are those who are interested in long-term romantic relationships, those who are interested in only casual relationships, and those who are not interested in relationships at all. All are valid patterns of human behavior. Our cognitive "love stories" can also change dependent on our experiences and our stage in life.
There's romantic love, and then there's real love. I'm all for love, as long as it's real. Real love is about genuinely caring for someone else and feeling cared about. It is about attachment, intimacy, and commitment. There is a difference between falling in love and being loving. Falling in love most often involves being blind to imperfections; people are so sure their experience of love is unique and they are the first to love anyone so deeply. In time, they regain perspective and "falling in love" ends up as "falling out of love." Some of us are lucky enough not to do anything too foolish when we are falling in love. But too many people, encouraged by the myth of love, act on the obsession and hurt themselves and their families.
Really good, loving relationships don't just happen. They require simple, hard work. Genuine love involves a reciprocity, with both people giving and taking. This kind of love requires sacrifice and hard work. Most couples reach the point where they lose the exhilarating feelings of being "in love" and wonder if they are still "in love" at all (after all, it doesn't feel like what it looks like in the movies). It's then that you have to make a choice, a decision, to make a relationship work. Love is an attitude backed up with appropriate behavior. This requires a certain amount of wisdom, intelligence, honesty, commitment, and alertness. A loving relationship is one that evolves. And that's why real love takes time. Instant love is always partly phony, because you can never get to know the things you need to know in a few days, a few weeks, or even a few months.
One of the winners in the Legacy Project 2001 Holiday Contest wrote about real love. The contest involved writing about a special personal keepsake. Candace Drimmer, 52, of University City, MO, wrote:
I opened the cedar chest and inside I found the scarred yellow lens, plastic sunglasses.
Once upon my youth, I met a hirsute hippie in Athens, Georgia. Hardly the man of my dreams, this hobbit-like creature had a lion's mane of mountain man hair with only his hazel eyes and generous nose visible.
One day Gary clumsily stepped on my sunglasses, smashing them to bits. "Sorry," he said with a sheepish mumble. "I'll buy you a new pair!"
Uh-huh, I thought remembering all of the lies that men had told me by the age of 19. Fat chance.
A few days later returning to my dormitory I was told that there was a package for me. Inside a well-used brown paper bag was a shiny new pair of yellow lens sunglasses.
No note was attached, for none was necessary. Gary had made good on his promise, proving that despite his Neolithic appearance, he was a civilized man of his word. Now he had my full attention.
Within a few months Gary transferred to another university and then entered the Peace Corps for two years in Honduras. We wrote letters for all of these years, a lot of letters given his free time while in the Third World. It was a marvelous way to get to know someone that eventually led to our marriage.
So that is why I saved those rusting sunglasses. That is what I would tell our delightful children, Jennie and Josh. The glasses represent my well-placed trust in choosing to share my life with Gary during the past 29 years through 13 moves to 7 countries. Household goods may have been broken, but my heart and trust have always been safe with him.
For more love life lessons from long, successful marriages, I would highly recommend the video For Better or For Worse, directed and produced by David Collier (Terra Nova Films, www.terranova.org or 773-881-8491). The film, which was nominated for an Academy Award, profiles five vital, older couples -- each of which has shared more than 50 years together. Each person shares their feelings and wisdom about their enduring relationship and talks candidly about their lives with their partners -- with stumbles and recoveries, rewards and losses.
The film offers revealing insights into how the couples fulfilled their pledges to each other "for better or for worse." We get a very personal glimpse into their worlds, relationships between people who are distinct individuals yet whose lives are completely intertwined. The complexity of long-standing relationships becomes evident as they speak about their pasts and who they are today. The film adeptly moves between themes of meeting, early problems and adjustments, crises, intimacy, and personality. Each couple talks about the special ties between them -- their children, home, music, the outdoors, their losses. We see the vital and diverse dimensions of their love and relationships.
Don is asked what he is celebrating on his anniversary. He replies, "The triumph of 60 years in a very difficult endurance contest. I made it. It wasn't easy." As the film progresses, his dry humor, the quick retorts, and the lively conversations with his wife prove that with humor and love, effort and time, this couple had not only endured 60 years of marriage, but enjoyed the journey. Don and his wife both come across as feisty individuals -- they admit they enjoy a good fight -- with a strong marriage.
Paul and Inez still feel the loss of a son many years ago, but by sharing that loss they have strengthened their devotion for each other and now, faced with new infirmities, they remain supportive and loving mates.
Other couples in the film have chosen non-conventional approaches to maintaining a strong bond, but it's clear all the couples have the ability to renegotiate life in all its stages, a key ingredient in their successful relationships. They've also learned to accept each other as they change and to apply the wisdom of accommodation through their lives.
In the wonderfully insightful book What's Worth Knowing by Wendy Lustbader, people in their seventies, eighties, and nineties share the single most important piece of knowledge they have gained through a lifetime of living. There's an entire section on marriage and the perspectives are wide-ranging. Says 99-year-old Martin DeGeorge:
What makes a good marriage? Hard work. We should know. Harriet and I have been working at it for over seventy-five years. Young couples today think it's a piece of cake. Then, when it's rough, they give up. Sure, there have been times I wanted to walk out and never look back. Now I have to help her to the bathroom. You think that's fun? Half the time, we don't even get there in time. But she's still my sweet bride. We've had at least ten thousand misunderstandings, ten thousand hurts, and another ten thousand apologies.
Says 87-year-old Louise Garber:
There are many kinds of love. My husband and I weren't much as lovers, but we could talk! I was never bored in sixty years.... We had a fine life together. It was passionate, but just in a different way. The love was there, a deep love. Today they would send us to counseling. They would tell us we put up with too much. Today passion is defined too narrowly, as sex. This is the silliest thing I've ever heard.
Sums up 77-year-old Frank Williams:
I am always learning from Carter, my wife. I respect her sensitivity to the people around her and her thoughtful approach to life. Occasionally, I don't handle something the way she prefers, but I want to hear what she has to say about it. That's how I've grown, for almost fifty years now. I think being interested in each other's point of view -- whether or not you agree -- is as important as taking pleasure in each other's company.
Really good, loving, long-term relationships don't just happen. They require simple, hard work. It is as unromantic and as profound as that.
Love Across Generations
Perhaps one of the most useful models for real love can be found in love across generations.
It all starts with mom. It can't be otherwise, because we come from our mother's womb. There's some interesting research about the way new mothers show their babies love. In the womb, the fetus hears the steady drumbeat of their mother's heart beating at 72 beats per minute. After birth, mothers seem to instinctively hold their babies with their heads pressed against their left breast, closest to their hearts. When infants are crying, mothers tend to unconsciously rock them at a rate of between 60 and 70 rocks per minute, the rate that is most calming to infants. There is a fundamental connection of the heart -- physical and psychological.
Love across generations can be love in its purest form. The parent who gives their child everything is not being generous; they love their child. The parent who would die for their child is not being courageous; they love their child. The parent who is prepared to forgive their child anything is not being merciful; they love their child. Parental love has its myths (what doesn't?) but it may be the closet thing we have as a model for true love in our culture. Parents may be capable of possessiveness, lapses, ambivalence, pride, anger, and even violence. Yet even in these parental "vices" there is love. The love does not negate them, but they do not negate it either. Some parents are admirable, others are insufferable. Yet who can deny that in no other sphere of human activity does what exists so often approach what ought to be, so often in fact that it sometimes attains or even surpasses everything one could legitimately expect? True love may exist nowhere else, but it does sometimes exist in the love between parent and child.
Says noted author and pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton, "Parents don't make mistakes because they don't care, but because they care so deeply." Love across generations can be complicated because we often have a longer history with family members like parents. There can be more hurts, real or imagined. We know these people well, with all their vices and foibles, and perhaps they do not live up to the ideals we see in the media or perceive to be around us. Sometimes we take for granted those who love us most, because of the myth of romantic love and because the outsider is more attractive, more mysterious, more exciting -- and perhaps less demanding. A loving relationship is demanding. It demands of you that you grow, and that you give to the other person. It's not easy. What we don't tend to accept in this culture is that relationships aren't supposed to be easy. Relationships with our children aren't easy, nor are relationships with our parents. Yet these are the very relationships that can teach us about relationships in general, and about ourselves.
Children are very special gifts -- to be loved, enjoyed, nurtured, educated, and guided. Most parents feel a deep responsibility toward their children. This doesn't end when their children become adults. Any person who has a child invests so much emotion, so much time, and so much love into the relationship that it's almost impossible to step back. Parents will naturally be more concentrated on and bound up with their children than their children are with them because of this. It's unfortunate though that in our society we often tend to go to the extreme of sanctioning children to ignore -- if not physically then emotionally -- their parents as they become adults. While the other extreme of blind "respect for elders" is not the answer, there should be a reciprocity in the parent/child relationship, just as there should be a reciprocity in all loving relationships. We need to take responsibility for taking care of each other if we are to combat the lack of connection many of us feel and if our society is to work. The age-old social compact is being threatened -- the process through which each generation has a responsibility to the other. This social compact gives expression to and is based on the reciprocal ties that hold families, government, and society together over time. In this "modern" age, we ask: what do we really "owe" the old, or the young?
I've heard some suggest that as a child becomes an adult, the goal is to become "friends" with your parents. The world out there is full of potential friends. The people who can call themselves your parents are a much more exclusive club. Parents and children shouldn't expect to be "friends" because that's never all they can be. There is a history and another level to the relationship that does not exist in any other relationship. It makes it more complicated, but also a richer relationship from which to learn. I have not always gotten along with my parents. We do not see eye-to-eye on everything. But through my relationship with them I have learned a great deal about myself, them, and human relationships. Conflicts between parents and children are to be expected. How intense they are, how they're handled, and how they're resolved is the big variable. This means exploring differences of opinion with your parents rather than against them. When there's real love between parents and children, difficulties will pass.
Perhaps one of the best investments a parent can make in the long-term strength of their relationship with their children is to teach them how to love when they are young. If you don't teach children love in the home, they won't be able to find it outside the home, nor will they be able to give it back to you. Some research shows that children who don't get love at home, the kind of love that allows them to become secure and independent, are more vulnerable to the extremes of romantic love as they become teenagers. If children feel genuinely loved, they will be more responsive to parental guidance in all areas of their lives.
It's increasingly difficult to raise emotionally healthy children. There are increases in violence and drugs, underfunding of the education system, and eroded family support networks as parents work long hours outside the home and extended family is scattered across the country. It's tough to be a parent. You have to provide food, shelter, and clothing. These are basic needs. But so too is love. As parents, we are responsible for fostering the emotional and social growth of our children. It is through being loved and learning how to love that most positive behaviors flow. Children are primarily emotional beings and their first understandings of the world are emotional. They are keenly aware of displays of love. They need love from parents, as well as from grandparents. Each offers an important, but different kind of love (see the Grandparents Day Activity Kit that's part of the Legacy Project).
Children need unconditional love. As I've argued before, that kind of love can often come more freely from a grandparent, because they are less bound up in the day-to-day needs of children. But it must also come from parents. Even if you don't like a behavior, you can still love your child. Your child needs to know that. It's fine to say -- either verbally or nonverbally -- "You know I love you bunches, but I do not love that behavior." Children may be spoiled by a lack of training or by inappropriate love, but not by appropriate unconditional love. Appropriate unconditional love is smart love. It supports the person while it shapes the behavior and helps the person to grow. No one is perfect, and you won't always be able to give unconditional love. There are times when you are just fed up. The good news is that even if you don't feel loving at that moment, you can behave in a loving way and children will respond. They respond to behavior more than words. And even if they pick up on the fact that you aren't feeling loving at the moment, they appreciate the loving behavior that you are able to exhibit despite how you're feeling. That teaches them something. On those occasions when you don't respond well at all and completely "blow it" (or blow up), what's important is that there's a consistent underlying pattern of unconditional love. Children do love you and true love, even from a child, involves reciprocity. They are resilient, and will give you a break and understand as long as there is an underlying pattern of unconditional love.
As you love children, there are things you can keep in mind to help you love them appropriately: they are children; they will act like children; much childish behavior is unpleasant; you are a leader, teacher, and role model; if you do your best over the long run, the chances are your children will mature into good people.
Gary Chapman and Ross Campbell have written an interesting book called The Five Love Languages of Children. It takes a look at the different ways people express and receive love, and how parents can learn to "speak the same love language" as their children. Chapman and Campbell say there are five ways children (indeed all people) speak and understand emotional love. They are: physical touch (a hug goes a long way); talking/words of affirmation (giving children positive feedback); quality time (that speaks for itself); gifts (we value gifts for different reasons -- their usefulness, the thought behind them, what they represent); and acts of service (e.g. helping with homework). Just as people have different personalities, they often have different love languages. Different children will have different love languages, and the love language of a parent may be different from their children's. I know that my love language tends to involve talking and being able to communicate freely. It took me many years, into young adulthood, to realize that my parents' love language is acts of service, like helping out around the house with laundry or lawn mowing. They're just not into putting a lot of time into talking. Realizing that made me able to accept and appreciate their love in the way they knew how to give it. It has also reduced many tensions between us, as they have felt my love for them in ways they hadn't before. I know how to show them love now in a way that they will hear it.
When children are young, they can receive love in all of the "languages." Still, argue Chapman and Campbell, most children have a primary love language, one that speaks to them more loudly than others. When you want to effectively meet your children's need for love, it's important to discover their primary language of love. Children under five don't have a clear love language. Give them lots of love in all the languages. As they get older, patterns may emerge. The key is to observe their behavior. Watch how they express their love to you. Do they hug you? Do they give you drawings they've made? Do they follow you around wanting to do things with you? Also observe how they express love to others. Do they want to give a gift to their teacher? Listen to what your child requests most often. If your child consistently wants you to read to them or play games with them, then they're looking for quality time. Do they ask for words of affirmation -- "Mommy, what do you think of my drawing?" Notice what your child frequently complains about. Also try giving your child a choice between two options and seeing which one they choose -- "I get off early from work on Thursday. Would you like to go to the park together or would you like to go shopping for those new pair of basketball shoes you need?"
Think about your own love language, and about the love languages of your parents and grandparents. What's your family love history? How did you feel loved as a child? Did your parents hug and kiss you and show other physical signs of affection? What sorts of things -- positive or negative -- did they tell you about yourself, your behaviors, and what you were capable of? How much time did they spend with you? What gifts or keepsakes did they give you that meant something special to you? How did they discipline you and how did this affect your perception of their love for you? How has all of this shaped who you are today, and how you give and receive love?
What the World Needs Now
is More Than Love
Now it's time to take on the proverbial "motherhood and apple pie" issue: I don't believe that "all the world needs is love." There. I've said it. It's not all about love. It may be popular to think so, but if it were that simple, relationships wouldn't be as complicated as they are and the world wouldn't be as complicated as it is.
It's not that I don't think love is a lovely and needed concept. It is. But it has become less and less effective as a concept. The word love has been so overused, corrupted, and cheapened that I worry it has been emptied of all its meaning. And we tend to talk about love as if it requires no action and no return. Think about the ways we use the word "love": "I love popcorn"; "She loves sewing"; "I will love you forever"; "They seemed so in love that I was surprised when they broke up"; "I love you from the bottom of my heart." How many of these imply action, the real work it takes to make a real loving relationship?
I'm very careful about how I use the word love. I don't use it lightly, nor as a cure-all. To me, it is a word to be honored and respected. It is a word that implies commitment. Loving someone is active. It's not just about pleasant feelings.
In many ways, what the world needs isn't love, but character. Cavett Robert was a popular speaker and founder of the National Speakers Association. He often quoted a definition of character that he had originally heard from one of his professors at college:
Character is the ability to carry out a good resolution long after the mood in which it was made has left you. Now I didn't say just the ability to carry out a good resolution. We all have our moments of supreme dedication -- whether it be fidelity to a person or loyalty to an ideal. But how few of us carry out that resolution when the mood has left us and the tides of temptation come sweeping in?
Cavett felt his professor's words were one of the best things he ever learned:
Those five minutes have burned brightly for me over the years. I would not exchange them for an entire semester of my college career. Since that time I've committed myself to a project many times while I was in an enthusiastic mood. After the mood was gone, the picture was different. The task seemed drab and difficult and without glamour or attraction. The price to pay seemed too high. On such occasions I have tried to remember this definition of character -- that which we have within us to substitute for the mood after it is gone.
Love too often disappears when the mood disappears. What love and relationships need is a little character.
We need to pay some attention to love in order to give the concept back the richness it deserves, to put the meat back on the bones. At an individual level, I think it's important for your own life and for the legacy you pass on to your children and grandchildren to be very clear on what love means to you, the values it rests on. How do you say "I love you"? What does it take for you to feel that someone loves you? Communication can be difficult even in the closest of relationships. Feeling love for someone may make us want to understand them and to meet their needs, but loving does not guarantee that our efforts will be successful. Loving can motivate us to learn what causes the person that we love to feel loved, and to ensure that our actions are consistent and meaningful within our own definition of love.
If you had to choose three things that make up love for you, what would they be? What three things are most important to you in feeling love from and giving love to other adults like your partner or members of your family? I have given this a great deal of thought, and I can share with you my three things. The first is talking and listening. I place a great deal of value on being able to freely exchange thoughts and feelings with those I love. If I can't, I feel like I'm going to burst. I feel a distance between myself and the other person. I need to be able to share what's on my mind, to have a good fight when need be, and to clear the air. I also like to play ping-pong with ideas, and I value someone who will take the time to play with me. That's what love is about to me.
The second thing that's important to me in a loving relationship is honesty. Even if the honesty hurts, and even if there is a difference of opinion, I value honesty. A relationship based on dishonesty is not a real relationship. There are cracks in the foundation, and the structure may well crumble when put to the test. Dishonesty changes who you are inside, it influences how you think and act, and how you interact with the other person, if only subtly. Honesty doesn't mean you have to talk about every little feeling and incident. It does mean that you feel the freedom in your relationship to be able to address issues openly. You don't suppress or withhold important feelings or information. You trust the other person and they know they can trust you. You work through the difficult times. That's what love is about to me.
The third thing that's important to me in a loving relationship is reciprocity. I pay attention to deeds, not just words. Does a person follow through on their word? One-way giving is not a loving, caring, supportive relationship. I love to give love, but I also need to receive it. I believe that genuine love and caring involve a conscious and consistent reciprocity. If I give love, it is reasonable to have the expectation that you'll be there for me when I need you; when you give me love, you have a right to expect that I'll be there for you when you need me. We can count on each other, no matter who else or what else comes into our lives. That's what love is about to me.
Do I expect a lot? You bet I do. It may not always be achieved (people are human, relationships are complicated), but love should be about striving for ideals and the best part of others -- and ourselves. Real love has to come from self-love, or perhaps more accurately self-respect (notice that I'm not saying self-esteem, which is another overworked concept). If you don't respect yourself, why should someone else? People with self-respect have a "realness" about them that makes them approachable. They are clear about their values. They work at making wise judgments. They have their doubts. They are insensitive sometimes. They mess up. But they don't dwell on their mistakes; they figure out ways to recover. And they have a sense of perspective that allows them to love themselves and others without getting lost in sentimentality or cynicism. No one permanently exists in a state of self-respect. Even the most assured people can, in a fraction of a second, become vulnerable and confused. But building a pattern of self-respect over a lifetime enables you to face the many obstacles and detours that are a part of life. It allows you to risk and gives you courage and character in relationships.
All of this has to do with love on a personal, individual level. What about love in the bigger sense? We share our lives not only with those we are close to, those we love, but also with our neighbors, who we do not really "love." Of all the living things we know, how many bring us joy or allow us to overcome our own self-interests? Our children or grandchildren, a spouse or partner, perhaps our parents or grandparents or siblings, and a few other relatives or friends? For most people, this may total a dozen or so individuals at most. Which leaves somewhere in the neighborhood of six billion others who are beyond the reach of this kind of love. For them, we need more than love. We need respect and justice and courage.
Said Martin Luther King, Jr.:
You've got to love the white man. God knows he needs our love. Now let me say to you that I'm not talking about emotional warmth when I talk about love. I'm not talking about sentimental emotion. But let me tell you what I mean when I say love... The Greek language [has a word], my friends, and I don't want you to forget it. The word is "agape." Agape is more than romantic love. Agape is more than friendship. Agape is understanding. It is creative and redeeming good will toward all men.
To love one's neighbors means to practice all duties toward them. There are several levels to this. We must move through stages -- to do as is done (politeness); to do what ought to be done (morality); and finally to do what one believes (ethics).
That's why the world needs more than love. There are issues in our families, our communities, and on our world stage that require more than love. Fundamentally, addressing them must be based on a certain kind of love for humanity. But they demand much more than love in the way that most people use the word.
From Valentine's Activity Kit by Susan V. Bosak ©2004