What Love Is (And What it Isn’t)

I: Introduction

No, Alannah Myles, it isn’t what you want it to be.

I’m no expert in the art of loving, and I’m far from practicing it ideally myself, but I do know it’s something more specific than “what you want it to be.” Love isn’t just a sentimental, ‘nice’ word that we can throw around any way we like. It actually means something.

I believe it’s potentially dangerous to toss this word around like a panacea to any relationship problem. We can’t just say, “I love you,” or “We love you,” and expect conflicts in families or with intimate partners to be resolved, as if those three little words were like saying, “Abracadabra.”

Again, I’m not anywhere near giving the final word on what love is, or how it’s to be properly given; but there are some fundamentals that are indispensable. I bring up the issue because narcissistic and other toxic people tend to sidestep these fundamentals:

  1. Love is accepting people as they are, and not demanding that they conform to how one ‘should be.’
  2. Love is wanting what is right for you and actively trying to help you achieve that, not wanting what I merely claim is what is right for you.
  3. Love is speaking well of you and focusing on the good in you, not speaking of and focusing on the bad, or merely speaking of loving you to make oneself look good.

There are other things one could mention, to be sure, but I’d like to focus on these three, since as I said, narcissists and other toxic types don’t do these three, while hypocritically claiming to be loving.

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II: Accepting People as They Are

While those who love you may need you to change certain aspects of yourself because they’re genuinely bad for you (drug abuse, alcoholism, criminal behaviour, etc.), these people don’t go around trying to mould you into what they’d like you to be: a mirror of their narcissistic selves.

A narcissistic parent, for example, may manipulate his or her children into conforming to particular roles, like the golden child, the lost child, or the scapegoat. My late, probably narcissistic mother (she was never diagnosed) did such manipulating of my elder siblings and me.

I’m sure that Mom rationalized her tactics by imagining that my sister, J., as golden child was merely being guided into being the best version of herself that she could be. She also would have justified her making of me into the identified patient (through a bogus labelling of me as autistic, or having Asperger Syndrome) by claiming that identifying what’s ‘wrong’ with me will be the first step to helping me get ‘better.’

The point is that neither J. nor I should be what our mother merely wanted us to be–in J.’s case, an idealized version of our mom, and an extension of Mom’s narcissistic self; and in my case, a projection of everything Mom hated about herself. J. and I should simply be ourselves.

And because Mom tricked J. into being her notion of the ‘ideal daughter/sister/mother/aunt,’ tricking her into thinking that that manipulation was for her own good (i.e., a form of love), J. tried to make me into her idealized version of a younger brother, thinking that doing so was also an act of love. It was nothing of the sort.

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III: Wanting What is Right for You

Granted, even the best and most loving of families and other relationships will have their share of frustrating moments. Sometimes, what they think is right for you is at odds with what you want or know to be right for yourself; sometimes, they are utterly wrongheaded in thinking that this or that is right for you, in spite of having the best of intentions.

But at least these loving people have good intentions!

They aren’t trying to drag you down, they aren’t subjecting you to emotional abuse, and they aren’t using the most vicious of tactics, as a habit, to express their own frustrations with you. When the bad moments inevitably happen, when the fights happen, you are assured that there will be apologies later, and there will be far more good times with them, affectionate times, to compensate for the bad, and by a wide enough margin to render those bad times insignificant in comparison.

If, for example, you were being bullied at school when a kid, your loving elder siblings would have wanted to help you build up the courage to stand up to those bullies, and they would have done all they could to help you. They certainly wouldn’t have jumped on the bullying bandwagon and reinforced your sense of learned helplessness, as my two older brothers, R. and F., did (J., too, in spite of her claims to want to help me with such problems)!

Elder siblings helping you learn to assert yourself would include them actually listening to you assert yourself when you need to tell them they’re angering you. They won’t just pay lip service to how you should fight back, then when you try to do so, they double down on their own bullying and silence you, because they’d only intended for you to stick up for yourself against bullies other than them.

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J. used to be hypocritical with me in this way, when preaching that I should be assertive and tell her, R., and F. off when they were giving me a hard time. But when the time came for me to stand up to her, did she step back and listen? Virtually never. Instead, there was usually some excuse why ‘now’ wasn’t the right time to speak up. Apparently, I was too late with it; apparently, there’s a time limit for asserting oneself. One should speak up more or less immediately, in her opinion. (No logical reason was ever given for the need to be so quick with one’s sticking up for oneself, of course. It was just manipulation on her part to silence me with her ‘speak now, or forever hold your peace’ tactic.)

Wanting what’s right for you also includes wanting you to grow into the best version of yourself. Well-intentioned parents, for example, might occasionally speak inadvisedly, and accidentally say things that hurt their children. But how is a mother telling her adolescent son that he is “only good at things that don’t make money,” spoken calmly and matter-of-factly, an accidental comment? My mother once actually said that to me when I was a teen.

Similarly, back in the mid-1990s, when I, in my mid-twenties, told her that two psychotherapists, each of whom I’d been seeing over a period of several months, told me they saw no autistic symptoms in me, she seemed rather unhappy about the news. After arguing with her over a lengthy time that doubt had been established over whether or not I am on the autism spectrum, Mom–having none of the authority or expertise in psychiatric matters that those two men obviously had–insisted she was right and they were wrong. She clearly wanted me to be autistic, or at least make me believe I was: what loving mother wants that for her son?

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IV: Speaking Well of You

Finally, for my purposes here, a minimal requirement of loving you will include having kind words to say about you. Again, there will be a time and a place for critical words, when one genuinely needs to hear them; but such times should be a minority, not a majority, of the time.

The critical words should also be controlled, not wild, thoughtless, and abusive. Even anger can be expressed in measured ways. People who love you are not going to be making a game of regularly insulting and belittling you. I say this because, though it should be obvious to most people, victims of emotional abuse and gaslighting are often confused by traumatic bonding, with its switches back and forth between nasty to nice.

My mother and J. used to rationalize the horrible things they used to say and do to me, as well as what R. and F. said and did, through victim-blaming (i.e., making out every conflict with me as if it were always exclusively my fault for getting them mad, without considering that maybe they could have tried reacting to my faults in a manner that actually has a bit of loving in it), giving me long-winded speeches supposedly meant to edify me, when these speeches typically went far off-topic (e.g., J. reacting to my accusation of our mom lying to me by talking a load of irrelevant nonsense about Mom not being able to handle every problem ‘perfectly’), or saying the meaningless words, “We love you,” when the last thing I’ve ever felt from any of them is real love.

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Saying you love someone isn’t about pointing out how good you, the giver of love, are; it’s about seeing the good in the receiver of your love. Narcissists fail–or rather, refuse–to grasp that simple fact. If you see no good, or never mention any good, in the person you claim to love, then why do you claim to love this person? Is it just out of family obligation (i.e., if this person wasn’t a member of your family, wouldn’t you hesitate to abandon him or her)?

There’s no doubt in my mind that my mother and J. would say, or would have said, that they love(d) my cousins, L., S., and G. You wouldn’t know this, however, to hear how Mom and J. (have) spoke(n) about them. My mother in particular bad-mouthed our cousins in the most vicious ways over a period of decades, especially G., the youngest. On one occasion, she said G. “was being his usual boring self, talking and talking, and we all wished he would just go away.” On the other side of the coin, over all those decades, I’d never once heard her or J. say a kind word about him. Not even one. It’s not as though it couldn’t be done; Mom and J. simply didn’t want to.

People don’t love other people for no reason; they do so because they value those they love, which means seeing the good in, and therefore speaking well of, the beloved. Providing food, clothing, and shelter for someone, and only these three–without also providing loving words of comfort during sad times, encouragement during challenging times, and congratulations during successful times–is merely fulfilling material obligations, treating the receiver of ‘love’ as a job to be done. The loving person fulfills these obligations with joy; he or she would never regard the receiver of love as a burden.

My family heaped a mountain of verbal abuse on me over the decades. Words of kindness were a small minority, and they were generally insincere. Their insistent words of “We love you” sounded a lot more like them flattering themselves than making me feel valued. Such talk isn’t love. Now, I’m no expert on love, but at least I know what love is not.

J., just a week before the publication of this post, found me on Twitter and tweeted me a happy birthday wish, hoping that my wife and I are doing well. I didn’t respond, because I know this kind of graciousness from her is superficial and meaningless, given all I’d endured from her and the rest of the family for decades before. Her message was an obvious case of hoovering, and I’m not going to fall for that. She’ll have to do a lot more than send me birthday wishes if she hopes to get back in my good graces. She, R., and F. must confront the wrongs they’ve done to me over my life, and I know they don’t want to do that.

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V: Conclusion

As I said above, how I’ve defined love is pretty obvious except to those who have been abused, then subjected to the gaslighting that it was all done “out of love.” My definition is far from exhaustive, and while it isn’t made up of the sufficient conditions, it certainly has some of the necessary ones.

If those who ‘love’ you aren’t accepting you as you are, and are demanding that you be someone else, whom they prefer (I’m not talking about changing a few bad habits as necessary), they aren’t loving you.

If those who ‘love’ you don’t want what’s right for you and aren’t, on at least some level, trying to help you achieve what’s right for you (I don’t mean what they merely say is right for you, but what actually is right for you), they aren’t loving you.

If those who ‘love’ you either can’t or aren’t willing to do such a simple, straightforward thing as to speak kindly to you and emphasize the good, rather than the bad, in you (I don’t mean that loving people should never criticize you, but that they don’t harp on criticism constantly), they aren’t loving you.

These three things are fundamental and indispensable. If they aren’t there in the relationship, it doesn’t matter what other good things the person who ‘loves’ you does (i.e., such superficial things as buying you stuff or meaninglessly saying “I love you”). Other good things ought to be added to these three, but the three must be present.

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Remember: loving you isn’t about how great they think they are, but about how great they think you are…despite your faults.

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