Author’s Note: I’m probably going to say some things in this blog that confuse, anger, or trigger you. I’m playing with big concepts, and in order to understand what I’m talking about, you’re going to have to go on the ride with me. I promise it will all make sense in the end.
I believe most people have heard of the concept of “conditional vs unconditional love.” In the off chance that you haven’t, “conditional” love is love that is only given if specific conditions are met. “Unconditional” love is love that is held and given regardless of whether you live up to the expectations of the person loving you.
I don’t believe most people have experienced unconditional love. I can’t speak to the experiences people have in other parts of the world, but I can speak to what it’s like growing up in the United States of America, and here, love is doled out by most parents the same way that money is given to workers: Less than is deserved, and only on the condition that it is earned.
I believe that this is the case because we live in a capitalistic society. How do you earn money from a capitalist? Work for them in a way that makes them more money than they will ever give to you. How do you earn love from a capitalistic-loving parent? Make sure you give them more love than they will ever share with you.
At this point it’s probably a good idea to define some terminology. What do I mean when I say “love”? How does one “give” or “receive” love? I think most people think of love as a feeling. A feeling that you either have or do not have when you think about a specific person. And in many cases (at least in our patriarchal world), people tend to conflate the feeling of “love” with the feeling of “sexual desire.”
That’s why we think of jealousy as a “sign of love,” when in reality it is a toxic emotion that often leads to violence or betrayal.
Love is not a feeling. Love is an action. To love someone is to put yourself and your own interests aside and do something solely for the purpose of helping or healing them. Love can take many different forms, and often is completely different depending on the person you are attempting to love. To love someone, you must first understand them—what their boundaries are, how they prefer to receive love, and what their current needs are.
Loving someone is intensely personal, and entirely dependent on the person you are attempting to love.
When my partner and I first got together, we both had a set of rules in our own heads that told us how we were “supposed” to love each other. And frequently, our attempts to give love to one another were met with resistance, anger, or hurt. This is because we didn’t have a shared language of how to love one another. We were acting entirely based on our previous relationships, and our previous relationships had operated on completely different rules—usually rules that we heard in movies, on television, or experienced within our own families.
In her family, she was the person who fixed everyone else’s problems. If anyone came to her to vent about an issue in their lives, she felt it was her responsibility to solve that problem. That was how she knew to give love (and, in return, receive it). She felt that as long as she could solve other people’s problems, she was doing her job, and those people would love her for it.
Unfortunately, that’s not how I receive love. I don’t want my problems solved—usually because my problems don’t have solutions. My issues tend to be emotional, and anyone who has ever felt sad knows that there’s nothing more frustrating than someone trying to “fix” your sadness with overly-cheerful toxic-positivity.
(Toxic Positivity is that particular brand of positivity that offers no real-world solutions but is filled with catchy phrases like “look on the bright side!” or “cheer up!”)
When I’m feeling low, all I really want is a hug. I want to cuddle. I want to spend an hour where we don’t have to talk, where the love that we share can be felt growing inside us until it overwhelms any feeling of unworthiness or sadness that I may be experiencing.
So when I came to her with a problem, and she told me to look on the bright side, or immediately took to the computer to try to find a solution that would work for me, I would feel unloved. Even though what she was doing was attempting to love me, and she was doing it because she had love for me, she wasn’t loving me in a way that I could receive.
And that’s where I think we mess everything up in our society. We get so stuck on loving people the way that we want to love them, or the way that we think we’re supposed to love them, that we end up completely ignoring the needs of the person we’re trying to love.
It’s entirely ego-based. We feel like we’re doing a good thing because it’s something that we would want, or because we’re taking the time (or spending the money) to care for another person. But if you aren’t loving that person in a way that they can understand or appreciate, you might as well be doing nothing at all.
Narcissistic (or even just overly-busy) parents use this as a method to gaslight their own children. A lot of parents think that simply buying toys or games for their kids is a replacement for love. They think that paying for college is the same thing as love. They believe that providing the bare essentials for survival is the same thing as giving love. This is of course ignoring the fact that “paying for your child’s college education” is at least partially an ego pursuit—you feel good that you were able to do it, while using it as a weapon against your children to get them to do what you want.
Perhaps you’ve been in this situation: you hate surprise parties. Loathe them. You hate the fact that you didn’t have a say over who was invited. You hate the fact that you’re the center of attention. You hate planning for a quiet night at home, only to be met with the sudden need to perform emotional labor for a handful of people from your life.
You’ve also made this abundantly clear to your partner/spouse/mother/whoever. They have loudly claimed that they understand, and they won’t throw you a surprise party.
And then they do it anyway.
They believe that this is a way of “loving” you. That doing something extravagant will, even though you said you hate it, win you over in the end, and you’ll be grateful that someone put so much thought and effort into you.
THIS IS NOT LOVE.
When someone sets a boundary, or makes it very clear that they dislike (or even hate) something, and then you do it for them anyway, you are not expressing love. You are expressing control. You are saying, loudly, and in a way that only one person will hear, “I do not care what you want. Loving you is about me, it is not about you.”
Everyone else at that party will think, “wow, what a great person! They went to all this trouble to throw this party, they must really love you.” But the person you threw the party for, the person you were attempting to love, feels alone, unloved, and trapped. And now, they’re in an even more difficult situation, because if they express their inner truth, they will appear “ungrateful” or “crazy.”
The party isn’t an attempt to love someone—it’s an attempt to make yourself look good.
This is only one example, and a rather extreme one, but every time you love someone in a way that directly contradicts their wishes, you are gaslighting. You are making that person feel alone, and you are probably doing the exact opposite of your intention: alienating them instead of making them feel loved. You are saying, “I will love you the way I want, and you will accept it, because the alternative is no love at all.”
Usually, parents participate in this type of “love” because it’s the only type of love they ever received. They were never loved by their parents, either. At least not in a way that they could feel. Add to that the fact that children are inherently an extension of parents’ egos, and you wind up with a dynamic that teaches kids that they have to accept any type of love that is given to them, because no one will ever bother to take the time to get to know them or treat them in a way that they want.
And so the cycle repeats, ad nauseam, until someone is able to break it.
And that brings me around to the reason I decided to write this blog in the first place: Capitalism. Being loved in this conditional “you’ll take what I give you” way primes us to expect the same treatment from the world. We are taught from a very early age, what you want does not matter. What you need does not matter.
And so we enter the workforce with a series of debts and bills, often including rent, healthcare, and the various other services you “need” in order to survive in this country, and a series of job prospects that… will not provide most of those things.
A minimum wage job will not cover rent for a person who lives alone in most cities. It definitely won’t cover rent, healthcare, a car payment, renter’s / auto insurance, and food. There are a limited number of jobs that offer that possibility, and there are far more people than there are jobs available.
Which leaves most of us with very few options. And then, when we mention the fact that we aren’t able to survive, that the cost of living is higher than we will ever be able to learn, we are told the same thing over and over: “If you just worked harder, you wouldn’t have anything to complain about.” “If you had been smarter and chosen a different major, you wouldn’t be in this position.” “You should shut up and be grateful that you even have a job.”
That last one hits particularly hard. Partly because, for me, the phrase “be grateful” reminds me of that thing my parents said every single time I told them that I felt unloved. Those times that they did things I explicitly told them not to do. The times they made it clear that if I were to disobey their orders, I would be kicked out of the house and never welcomed back:
“You should be grateful you have parents who love you.”
Parents who loved me enough to read my diary when I wasn’t home. Who loved me enough to force me to pledge myself to a God I didn’t believe in (Catholicism!). Who loved me enough to choose the colleges I was allowed to apply to (right-wing or Catholic only!), the clothing I was allowed to wear (nothing girly!), the girls I was allowed to date (no Blacks!), my major, the car I drove, my gender.
And time and time again I said, “This isn’t who I am… this isn’t what I want.”
And in return, I was called ungrateful. I was told they were doing these things because they loved me. Because they wanted to make sure I had a good life.
And all the while, I was miserable. I hated my life. I wanted to die. Every day for over 20 years, all I felt was despair and self-hatred. You see, I was the problem. I wasn’t grateful enough. If I could learn to be more grateful, and to appreciate love on their terms, well, then I would be happy.
So I learned to accept whatever love was given to me, no matter how toxic or painful it was. Often, the more painful it was the more I believed it was real. Unconditional love felt phony, and I pushed it away in favor of people who told me I wasn’t good enough. That I had to live up to their expectations. Because the only love I was capable of feeling was love that I had truly earned.
It doesn’t have to work this way. If we can accept that all people are different, and that we all have different desires, interests, and needs, we can begin the process of learning to love others on their own terms. One step beyond that is knowing that we need to be able to provide someone’s basic survival needs if we’re going to choose to bring them into the world.
I strongly believe that if you aren’t ready to love your child in the way that they ask you to love them, you shouldn’t bother having children. Your attempt to feel “the most wonderful joy of all” in parenting will only provide that joy to you, but will create nothing but pain in your child, and likely a lot of the people they come into contact with.
We need to do better. As a country. As a planet. As a species.
Because the wonderful thing that happens when you love people on their own terms is that they grow stronger, and they pass that love on. Some of it will return to you, and some of it will make sure that the world we leave behind is a better place for all future humans to enjoy.
—Chloe Jade Skye, September 2020