I’ve never made a conscious decision to love anyone. Somehow, my heart has always known — in ways beyond my rational understanding — who it wanted to love.
I just know that on the few occasions when real love has happened for me, I experienced two things at once. I needed to express boundless, unconditional love for that person — and I craved that person’s love and adoration more than I needed air and water.
We talk about love a lot in our culture — both in traditional folk culture and in modern pop culture — but I’ve never found anyone who can give me a satisfying definition. I’m not just talking about the various kinds of love — romantic, family, friendship, spiritual. I mean something far more basic. Is love an emotion? Or does it have a more powerful “life force” of its own?
I read a few days ago that new brain studies show love and hate are very similar in the ways they affect the mind, which might explain why it’s so easy to go from loving a person to hating the person.
I’ve been thinking about the psychology of love for the last few days — first in light of the interview I mentioned over the weekend with Dr. Gabor Maté, who specializes in addictions and spoke compassionately about the ways in which addictive behavior is caused by childhood trauma, not by brain dysfunction or bad personal choices.
Then after I got the news of my mother’s death, that forced me to start thinking heavily about how that dysfunctional relationship affected the ways in which I’ve loved — and the ways in which I’ve stubbornly refused to give up on those who declined to love me or choose me.
It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in psychology to suspect that the two are strongly related for me.
There seem to be two sides to this for me, one positive and one negative. On the positive side, I love in a way that is unusual, in my experience. If something in my heart chooses something in your heart to love, you will get my complete, undivided love and attention. When I love, I don’t love halfway. I’m willing to give you everything I have. You’re my priority and I want to build my world around a family with you. If you feel the same about me, nothing else can make you lose that love.
But there’s a dark and unhealthy side, too. Because I learned an early pattern of unconsciously longing for love that I couldn’t have — love that was promised in words and even expressed at times, but never carried out in a consistent way — I destroy myself by waiting and longing for something I can’t have.
When I do that, I stop functioning, in many respects. When I know the specific love I crave, it’s as though I activate a very old script — and I sit in the floor helplessly begging for the love I’ve been promised, but which isn’t there.
In the interview I heard with Dr. Maté — which I strongly recommend you listen to — he talks of the difference between love and lack of love. As an example of something unhealthy, he used a hit song by Elvis Presley from the mid-1950s, one which I’d never heard of. It’s called “Any Way You Want Me (That’s How I’ll Be).” You can listen to it below.
The entire song is a desperate promise by a man to be whatever will make a particular woman love him. He promises to be this or that, complete opposites. Whatever she wants. He’s willing to change anything about himself — if she will just love him.
Dr. Maté pointed out that this is the self-destructive behavior of a needy child. It’s the behavior of someone who will destroy himself in a desperate attempt to win the love and adoration that he needs. And I couldn’t help but seeing some of myself in that.
Love is completely mysterious to me. It’s not rational. I think it goes beyond anything conscious. I can’t prove this, but I think a heart recognizes something kindred in another heart — even before there’s conscious, rational ability to sense anything. That has always been true for me.
The first love I ever experienced happened in the blink of an eye. I was new to a school in the eighth grade. A girl I’d never seen before spoke to me in a hallway between classes. In that flash of an instant, my heart decided it wanted her. I’ll never know why. I pined for her over the few few years and then it faded. But by the time we were freshmen in college, fate threw us together and we started dating. We fell in love and almost married. What did my heart know at 14 that led to my first great love?
My most recent great love started in an instant when I saw a photo of a woman online many years ago. I said to myself, “I’m going to marry that woman.” She was beautiful, but it wasn’t her looks which made me feel so strongly. I have no idea what it was. I just knew my heart wanted her — and I wanted her to adore me.
Unfortunately, she didn’t fall in love with me. We went our separate ways and had almost no contact for years. Then something happened and a strange coincidence — fate, again? — put us back in touch with one another a few years ago. Suddenly, I felt the same mysterious pull to her that I had first felt years before. I would have done anything for her love. I needed her as much as I needed air or water.
Although she said she loved me and wanted me this time, she changed her mind about what she wanted — but like that helpless child who sits in the floor and begs for attention, I was unable to move on. And I’ve sat here in helpless self-destructive behavior ever since then.
As I listened to Dr. Maté talk about our unmet childhood needs, I finally understood why. This was the pattern I learned. I’ve had hints of this in the past, but his words made it so clear. I was longing and hoping and begging for love — as I had unconsciously longed and hoped and begged for my mother’s consistent presence and love — and I was unable to accept that I couldn’t have what I wanted.
This brings me back to the close connection between love and hate. The story I read said that this close brain relationship between these two powerful emotions is why people are likely to end up hating the people they once loved — when they couldn’t get what they needed from the object of their love.
There seems to be something different about me in this respect. I don’t hate anyone who I’ve loved in the past. In fact, there’s no one in this world who I hate. There are some people who I realize are unhealthy for me and I have to get them out of my life, but there’s no one I hate. I don’t even know how to get to the blessed state of indifference. The only thing I know to do is to hold on to whatever once was — and to grieve for what I wanted and needed from the person.
I don’t know whether I’ll ever be able to get past this awful state of longing for love I can’t have. Maybe my heart even picks out women who it knows will hurt me — in order to replay the old childhood script of abandonment. I really don’t know.
Do you remember the Old Testament character named Samson? As long as he had his hair, he couldn’t be defeated by anyone. Something about his hair gave him unlimited strength, so the story goes. But a woman betrayed him and cut his hair, after which he was weak and easy to defeat.
A rational modern person finds that story silly — because what would hair have to do with strength? — but I find a metaphor in it for me. When I have the right love in my life, I can achieve things that I’m “wired up” to achieve. But when I don’t have that love, I’m just as weak and useless as a young child sitting in a floor crying and begging to be loved.
I have to leave that dysfunction behind, but I’m not yet sure how to do that. I only hope that learning to leave it behind doesn’t lead me to learn hatred instead — because I have a feeling that the intensity of my love would turn to a toxic intensity of hate.
And I don’t want to feel that sort of hatred for anyone — least of all someone who I’ve promised to love unconditionally.