Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Struggling to Make Sense of Love

I read something a few weeks ago that really, really challenged me. There was a list (oh, how my quantitative soul LOVES a list!) of dysfunctional behaviours and thoughts. Most of my life since becoming a mother has involved admitting how flawed I am in how I relate with myself and others and trying to gain skills and tools to heal and learn new patterns. These sorts of lists have served me well over time, since I came to adulthood pretty much completely unaware of what healthy relationships with others and myself actually look like. A huge part of moving toward wholeness for me has involved understanding what wholeness is not. I have gotten my ass kicked pretty routinely by truths I have encountered, but this time I feel like I was given a body blow. It reached a very deep place , where I believe the last vestiges of shrugging off personal responsibility lie. I am still processing through it all.

What did it say? This list? Well, essentially that a feeling of “If X, Y, or Z would just love me as he/she ought, things would be better,” is inherently dysfunctional.

Except this is exactly how I have felt for most of my married life. And even as I write this to release it and move on, I am crying. I really, really just want to be scooped up and loved and have my love accepted in return. (And here I will remind you once again--if you don’t think any of this is appropriate to hash out in a public sphere, no one is forcing you to read this. Click that little x in the right hand corner of your screen.)

In the beginning, this feeling was a position to hide behind, offering protection when I didn’t feel like enacting change in myself. It was a fortress where I could relinquish blame for the way things were. The suck was obviously NOT my fault. You, whoever you were, just weren’t loving me “right”.

I grew up always feeling like the black sheep, always feeling misunderstood. At one point as a teenager we went to family counseling to help me with “my” problems, where the counselor tried to implicate our entire family and well, let’s just say that we never went back to that quack who couldn’t see that my struggles and rebellion weren’t just my own damn fault. And so there is a very real sense in which the core of me really needed the people in my life to just love me as they ought. And when the didn’t, my response was quite simply. “Fuck them!”

But I carried this wounded part with me into adulthood. I carry it still, though it has morphed and manifested itself in other ways which I keep confronting and try to work through. I have long since accepted the messiness of raising children, and know that my parents did and gave the best they knew to do out of the best of intentions. While that acceptance has brought peace and forgiveness, I think I haven’t totally and honestly just looked that wounded little girl in the face, given her a hug and said “Good bye!”.

As I thought about this whole dynamic when confronted by this list, I think my difficulty lies in the fact that no longer is the feeling of believing “ if I was just loved as I ought to be “something which I hide behind. It is no longer a deflection of blame. I think it has transformed into an assertion that dammit , I am WORTH loving. And I am a phenomenal person to be loved by in return. But it is also a truth that being loved by me is not for the faint of heart. I have an immense capacity for loving people as they are, where they are at, but it is equally true that I want that love to change those who encounter it and experience it. Not by any pre-set criteria that I have, but that my love, my presence is fuel for them to seek out and find that change which they need to enact in order to be the best them they can be. Once again through big tears, I can definitely say that in our 14 years together my spouse has remained essentially unchanged in response to this heart, this love, this soul. And I am struggling to make sense of that, to make peace with it, to look it in it's brutal eyes , breathe it in and accept it. Without blame. For me or for him.

Which brings me back to make sense of the whole idea of “if I was just loved as I ought to be”. I think now, in the present it would better be expressed “if I was just allowed to love as I desire to love”, my life would be better. I want a healthy, mutually interdependent love where love feeds on itself and manifests into greatness. And I don’t believe that to just be the love of fairy tales and chick flicks. I know love is messy and scary and sometimes looks like and smells like shit. I do want to experience love as it “ought” to be, but this is no longer born out of dysfunction but from a place of certainty that not only am I enough, but that I really kind of rule. And so does the rest of humanity. We have a capacity for greatness if we can just get over being so afraid.

Writing this all out, I see a sort of triumph here. I see myself moving past lists and other outside determinants for what health and wholeness is. I find a woman who is able to wrestle through and determine what truth is. I find someone who is willing to accept that all that she’s come to conclude here, might in fact be wrong, and willing to amend it all if there is more or greater insight through her experience or interactions with others. I see a parting embrace to that wounded young girl who felt so let down by her world, and a wide warm welcome for the strong and amazing woman who has grown up in her place. I am here and I know that I must love myself with radical acceptance, and the humility to understand that before any external change can take place, I must first have the courage to be willing to change myself.

And if you have read this far, let me just leave you with this: Be open to the love in your life. Allowing other people to love you is not only a gift to yourself, but a gift to them. If you have a spouse or significant other in your life who is willing to be vulnerable before you, thank them for honoring you with that gift. And if you have work you need to do within yourself, know, without a doubt that I am here with you, to at least walk next to you so you are not alone as you do it.


  1. Shannon, I felt like you were talking directly to me. So much of what you say here, is uncomfortably true for me as well.

    You have something I don't have, though. Something good. You have a family who loves you. It's pretty damned hard to believe you're worthy of love when there is nobody in the world willing to give it to you, or who wants the Big Love you could give to them. But enough whining. My life is what it is.

    I'm as certain as I can be that letting go of the deep wounds of childhood is essential if one is to have any chance of becoming a whole, healthy, happy adult. Too bad the deed isn't as easy as the word!

    I'll think more about what you've said, and get back to you. This is the kernel of something, here.

  2. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment. You are right--my kids are my fuel for fighting, scrapping, and clawing my way to wholeness. I want so much for them to enter into adulthood with the skills to have healthy relationships. To know, beyond a doubt, that thyey are enough just as they are. I know they'll have their own things to work through, but I hope if nothing else I will have given them a blueprint and permission to let things get messy so they can discover their potential as human beings.


    And please do get back to me--I am sure you sharing your path will help me with my own.

  3. Wow...I need to chew on all this. I am thankful to know you and I have been praying for you. You are a blessing to those around you. I can't imagine how challenging it would be to be in your shoes with your spouse. I can "weep with those that weep" though....and listen. I think as human beings, it is impossible to love w/out condition b/c we are broken people. Only Christ can love perfectly....but you, continuing to love your husband in the midst of his unwillingness to change or return your love, is an amazing example of grace and longsuffering. I know your children see firsthand that example of endurance. I will continue to pray for wisdom as you continue to wrestle with these difficult circumstance.

  4. Shannon, you said: "I want a healthy, mutually interdependent love where love feeds on itself and manifests into greatness. And I don’t believe that to just be the love of fairy tales and chick flicks."

    Are you sure? In my 54 years, I've been in a number of long term relationships...and two marriages. I have never experienced a love like this. In fact, I have wanted what you want. I have wanted someone who can accept all the love I have to give, and mirror it back to me. I am not sure that men are capable of that. At least, the vast majority of men. It's not that they don't love, but rather that to men, deep feeling comes along with a cortisol dump, resulting in overwhelming discomfort. Feelings are icky, on a biochemical level. In fact, feelings are so icky, that men engage in all sorts of coping mechanisms to avoid having them.

    I don't know to what extent nurture can overcome this. I have yet to see an adult male who is comfortable with profound emotions. To them "I said I loved you, and I married you, isn't that enough?" is a genuine question. It's enough for them. And it's terribly painful that it isn't enough for us. I seem to recall Genesis having something to say about this. :-)

  5. Lisa...I think we might be talking about different things. I know men are capable of doing their own work and healing their own wounds and pasts. I know they are capable of healthy relationship.

    I am not talking about incidentals, or having a preconceived notion of what love does or looks like . I am not talking about a fantasy which I already have scripted in my brain. I think all of that is crap. It is untruth, and so I have no use for it. It;s not healthy for me to have some sort of "director" vision about a relationship "He will do X. And I will do Y." And I am not talking about the Jerry Maguire-esque lame "He completes me-ness".

    What I am talking about is my spouse being open to being alive and simply sharing that with me. Which means that sometimes it will suck and suck hard and bad. And sometimes might entail "Shannon--I need some time to withdrawal to figure out what's going on." I am talking about a spouse who talks to me and is willing to be vulnerable before me, as I am vulnerable before him. It doesn't need to be profound. It just needs to be honest.

    And I think if I didn't think that men were capable of emotional health and well being...I would lay down and die right now. I mean I have three sons.

  6. Ashlie--thank you for your words. I wonder often and deeply about the effect of how all of this plays out on my children. You know...what am I imprinting on their emotional souls?

    "People treat us how we let them treat us", has been much on my mind lately.I am not sure how I feel about that statement. You know--I can't demand that someone else talk to me. I can remain approachable. I dunno--maybe that's all it's own post.

    Thanks for reading and writing and helping me wrangle it all out. And thanks for the prayers!

  7. I'm sure it's extremely difficult to know how to teach your boys to be different from their father. I'm sure they "know" (especially Tim) that you are suffering in your marriage. May this struggle work to their good and teach them to be vunerable and honest and "real" with the women in their lives. I don't know how to feel about that above statement either....when do you keep trying and when do you let go? God give us wisdom to know, right. Maybe your great story will be that you kept fighting you whole life, and those around you were witnesses to this great story. Maybe God will redeem your marriage one day...we pray to this end.

  8. Shannon, if I didn't know that most MFA programs were full of crap, I'd encourage you to go for a degree. You are a fabulous writer.

    My husband is the one who has always been more emotional. He is teaching me not to use the typically male coping mechanisms I have used all of my life. It is hard having to heal the wounded child within yourself.

    Hugs and love.