Not everyone is capable of love. It’s a simple truth, and yet the mind resists forming the words. Even reading it here no doubt is jarring. It’s a terrifying idea. It speaks to the game of chance and surrender that governs far more of life than we want to acknowledge. What if I find myself needing love from someone incapable of it? What if I’ve been brought into this world by such a person? What if I’m married to someone unpossessed of this basic orientation to another? We like to assume that lovingness is woven into the basic stuff of every human heart, and, if dormant, needs only somehow to be unlocked. And yet we might spend decades of our lives searching for the key, working toward perfection, playing the right games in the right way, only to be met again and again with the profoundly painful fact of a beloved’s unloving.
“Your parents didn’t love you,” I’ve reflected to patients. It’s an enormous thing to say. And yet it’s true; the fact that their parents didn’t love them is the defining problem of their entire lives. By then they’ve described—in detail and often for years—all the ways in which they simply were not loved, all the ways in which their own basic goodness went unseen, all the ways in which they were devalued, neglected, or abused. Some parents don’t love their children. We cringe at the notion. What could be more unnatural? More perverse? And yet the fact remains.
“Your parents didn’t love you. You’ve imagined they could, if only. If only they got along better. If only they were happier. If only there was more money. Especially, if only you were different. And yet they didn’t love you because they were not capable of love.”
How sad beyond description. And how profound a problem. And yet the problem of being (or having been) dependent on someone incapable of love is quite a different one than the problem of trying to unlock a love that remains elusive. Years are wasted on the latter, the knot that can’t be untangled, where trying breeds only despair and crippling shame.
What do we mean by love? Here I am thinking of it not as a feeling state, which is so often how we speak of it. I am imagining love as a position vis-a-vis another, a position of affirmation and sympathy, sympathy so large that the boundary of the self has expanded to include a piece of the other, so that consistent expression of selfishness and negation is simply not possible. Such an expansion of the self seems to come quite naturally between many people and perhaps most naturally between many parents and their children. But it certainly doesn’t come naturally to everyone. How this comes to be is often not clear, though it is reasonable to imagine that an incapacity to love is often a tragic inheritance.
Perhaps some will balk at the notion that not everyone can love. Perhaps some will argue that such an idea lacks compassion or hope. Or that it looks unnecessarily squarely into the face of a problem better approached obliquely. “He loved me in his own way,” some might prefer to say. I’ve heard that more times than I can count. Now when someone says that, I hear: “He didn’t love me very well at all.”
If we’ve had the profound misfortune of needing the love of someone incapable of it, we accomplish little by confusing ourselves through false hope or a dishonest defense. The cost of doing so is almost certainly an internalized sense of one’s own badness: Perhaps we weren’t good enough to earn the full expression of love we craved; perhaps we are being too sensitive for being so utterly hurt.
And yet the truth is that for many of us, there was no person we ever could have been to receive the love we craved, and of course we are so utterly hurt, since what could possibly be more hurtful than to be poorly loved by the people we need the most?
Awareness is a prerequisite for compassion. How can we experience compassion for ourselves without naming what we’ve been through? And how can we ever move towards compassion for those who have hurt us so profoundly? After all, can we not (alongside the grief and anger and resentment) begin to have compassion for someone who is utterly incapable of loving well, that most satisfying and worthwhile of human experiences?
Seeing is a prerequisite for love. If we’ve been loved poorly, how can we begin to offer ourselves what we were not given if we don’t allow ourselves a full understanding of the truth of our experience?