On sexual assault: one’s voice

When a person is sexually assaulted, their ability to say, “no,” is taken away. Their words, and the weight of their words, are emptied out and left hollow, and all to frequently, unheard. One aspect of sexual assault, this aspect of taking away the, “no,” of silencing, is an insidious part of assault because it doesn’t happen once.

In the act of assault itself, a person receives the unwanted actions of another, and the assault roots itself throughout their body and being. The body, the mind, the heart, the spirit, and the voice, are all assaulted and each needs healing in its own way. The voice is assaulted by its very words being taken away by another person. For some, the word, “no,” never came out because of shock. For some, the word, “no” came out softly, if fearfully swallowed. For some, the word, “no” was shouted; the words were rightfully expressed. For all, and for each person that has been assaulted, a “no” was there in some form, and in whichever form it was there, it wasn’t heard.

The voice is silenced, and it isn’t simply silenced in the act of assault. Speaking out about one’s sexual assault can be silenced by one’s own self. Some women may not talk about sexual assault and bring up those painful mental and physical memories. Some men may not talk about sexual assault, for fear of being seen as weak if they talk about being hurt by anyone. Some women may not want to talk about sexual assault, because they choose to share, or not share, their story with whomever they choose. Some persons may not speak out, because they don’t know where or how to start speaking, or if anyone is listening.

Others, too, can silence a person from talking about sexual assault. Friendly jokes about rape, between friends, can silence a friend from sharing about their assault. Partners can avoid conversations about assault, because they do not want to bring up painful subjects. Parents can avoid discussing a child’s assault because the parent’s may feel somehow responsible, and not want their child to go through talking about a scary experience. Friends can encourage a friend to go talk to a therapist, and end a conversation before it happens.

Others, anyone really, can speak about another person’s sexual assault and use those words, that experience, and the pain, of the person for any convenient reason: to keep a conversation going, as proof that one is a trusted friend, to better inform others about sexual assault. Whether another person silences a conversation about assault out of politeness, or out of unintended blindness, whatever the intentions, the voice that needs to be heard is the one that was silenced.

If you have been assaulted, your story is yours to share. If someone you know has been assaulted, their story is theirs to share. This may seem trite, oversimplified, or a canned piece of advice, which in some ways it is. It is also the only way to hear a voice; for a voice to be reclaimed, one must speak, and for the voice to be heard, and healed, someone must listen.

(originally written July 22, 2012)

 

About the Author

Brady

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I'm a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice down in the greater Long Beach, CA, area. I've been in the mental health field, formally, since 2005, and I consider it a deep and rewarding honor to see other people grow and live the lives that they want. If I'm not sitting on a couch with a cup of tea in hand, I'm probably on my bicycle, or lost in my own thoughts on the beach; meditating, tweeting, blogging, and talking into a video camera are also known to happen.

BradyOn sexual assault: one’s voice

On the idea of being better than

An old friend, Andrew Schwartz, whose intellectual historian work focuses on rational conservatism, tossed a question my way a while ago that I would like the opportunity to unpack here. He asked me about motivation and superiority, explicitly, “do the superior somehow strive for inferiority, or at the very least, strive for the acceptance of the inferior?” As a psychologist, I’ll spend a bit of time with the two layers of this question, namely the idea of being better than others, and also what constitutes not becoming better.

To begin to answer this question, I’ll offer a tentative, “no.” I believe that many people strive to be superior to others, and in doing so relate to others in a hierarchical, dominating, and overpowering way, and not in an accepting, allowing or affirming way. Superiority hinges upon thinking of others as competition, assessing the competition, and not being associated with inferiority in any dimension. However, it is a delicate thing to feel superior, because one must constantly outdo others, be outdone only to become better, must always be right, and must never accept inferiority, in one’s self or in others. The cost of superiority, it seems, is maintaining a distance to others, and maintaining a distance from accepting one’s self as is.

Thinking about the superior, not as a way of relating to another person, but as a thing unto itself, as a category of persons, leads to the more explicit question: is there, then, an actual better, an actual superior person? Is there a tangible endpoint in personal development that is best, above all, unequaled, which champions the highest emotional, intellectual, philosophical, and spiritual values? That is a question that many people would look towards psychology, as a field, for the answer. Our psychological theories of superiority, maturation, development, cognitive capacities, altruism, and relational skills certainly have their “better” categories: Bowlby’s securely attached, Skinner’s adaptive behavior, Maslow’s self-actualizing experiences,Rogerian congruence, and the notable Adlerian superiority. These are some psychological categories of better, but they are not, as philosophers would note, ontologically better, or a real better. The difference is that psychology seeks to understand the human condition, not to identify what is real or not.

Sure, a psychologist can smell a superiority complex (a defensive stance wherein a person seeks to be better than others to overcome feeling less than others) a mile away. However, sensing that another person feels superior, and does not want to feel inferior, is the starting place of understanding another person and not the endpoint. With wanting to feel superior, oftentimes persons have idealized conceptions of what it means to be superior. The endpoint of development and superiority, one could fixate on, could be a noble Superman, strong Wonder woman, wise Yoda, humane Buffy Summers, or some other heroic, ethical, idealized person. Sure; having idealized images of persons that are maturing, growing, evolving, or better, can instill a sense of aspiration and guidance, but those dynamic images of persons do not exist without stagnant images of people that are somehow inferior, worthless, and less than.

Like Narcissus, we can spend our life not looking at ourselves, and avoiding introspection, only to become frozen when we do. Like Queen Niobe, we can define ourselves in a role, and weep for the rest of our life when that role is taken away, only to be turned into stone and continue weeping. Like Dorian Gray, we can forever try to capture and maintain our beauty, while avoiding any thought of who we have become. Like Lady Macbeth, we can pursue power for the sake of power, and hope to lose any lingering sensitivities. Like Peter Pan, we can vow to never grow up and to be happy, always. Like Tiana, we can dream of being happy but remain stuck, not even a person, until another person deigns us with what we cannot achieve on our own. These images, these characters, these archetypes, warn of how we can remain frozen, immobile, afraid, and shuttered off from what may help us evolve and grow. These are the images of striving to be better than, and also of not becoming better.

These images, of striving for superiority, help us along our own personal path, but not as a simple guide or simple warning sign. These and other stagnant images, wherein the person strives to be superior, does not grow, does not mature, nor become a full human being, are to be embraced and understood for those exact reasons: because it is painfully difficult to grow, in any direction; because we all, in our own way, want to be happy; because we all do the best that we can. We can learn from what we deem superior, as much as we can learn from what we deem inferior, but the point of there being a definitive superior or there being an inferior is misleading. If we can accept the idea that people do the best that they can, then notions of a fixed superior, being outdone only to become better, become less fixed. There is the possibility, then, that we can be close to others as they are, when we are as we are, without striving to be better.

About the Author

Brady

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I'm a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice down in the greater Long Beach, CA, area. I've been in the mental health field, formally, since 2005, and I consider it a deep and rewarding honor to see other people grow and live the lives that they want. If I'm not sitting on a couch with a cup of tea in hand, I'm probably on my bicycle, or lost in my own thoughts on the beach; meditating, tweeting, blogging, and talking into a video camera are also known to happen.

BradyOn the idea of being better than

On feeling our feelings

In my practice, I see many people that have a difficult time understanding their feelings. Those persons often know their feelings as only “good” or “bad” and it is painfully difficult undergoing emotional exploration, or discovering particular shadings of each emotion. In most cases, those persons that have a hard time understanding their feelings also come from a personal history in which they were not allowed to feel their feelings.

What do I mean when I say that a person, “isn’t allowed to feel his or her feelings?” Feelings can be silenced, strangled, or disallowed in many interactions. As children, we don’t want to give our parents a headache if we cry, or disagree and lose their love, so we don’t cry or speak up. As siblings, we might naturally hate each other, but rather than allowing that feeling to be, and then to pass, we deny it exists at all and hold onto it deep down. As friends, we might feel alone and helpless, but we don’t want to be a burden or seem weak, so we don’t ask for help or admit our feelings. As lovers, we don’t want to share our fears because they might push our partner away, so we talk about things that don’t matter and create distance. In these interactions, the injunction to not feel one’s feelings comes up as pointed declarative statements about one’s feelings:

“Get over it.”
“Don’t talk back.”
“Stop crying and put yourself together.”
“It’s not that big of a deal.”
“It’s not about you.”
“You don’t hate him/her.”
“Think about someone else for once.”
“You should be thankful.”
“You should be respectful.”
“You’re selfish.”
“You’re too sensitive.”

These aren’t declarative facts. These are expressions whose impact, and aim, is to silence the feelings of others. These statements are rarely expressed singularly, as an exception, but as a history, and an ongoing lived reality. Silencing statements compound one another, adding up, and further the pressing down of whatever rightful feelings may be there.

Is it a conscious choice to silence the feelings of others? I don’t think so. I think it is hard, very hard, for a person to feel their feelings, express their feelings, and for another person to acknowledge those feelings without running away from them, shaming those feelings, or hiding from those feelings. For this reason, I think that silencing happens on both ends; one person doesn’t really want to hear the feelings of another, and the other person doesn’t want to express their feelings to another person. Throughout these mutual interactions, feelings aren’t expressed, feelings aren’t allowed to be, and in this way, feelings aren’t felt; they are pushed away first by another person and then by one’s self.

How do we then come to a point where we can feel our feelings? I think the answer is simple, yet fully challenging for the person and their relationships; the silence must end somewhere. In their relationships, a person’s feelings need to be allowed, rather than dismissed, so that they can be felt. They need to be witnessed, not silenced, so that they can be felt. They need to be respected, as opposed to being preemptively critiqued, so that they can be felt. We need to break the silence, and we need other people to help us feel our feelings, so that we can know our feelings, and know that we are okay to feel them.

About the Author

Brady

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I'm a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice down in the greater Long Beach, CA, area. I've been in the mental health field, formally, since 2005, and I consider it a deep and rewarding honor to see other people grow and live the lives that they want. If I'm not sitting on a couch with a cup of tea in hand, I'm probably on my bicycle, or lost in my own thoughts on the beach; meditating, tweeting, blogging, and talking into a video camera are also known to happen.

BradyOn feeling our feelings

On love and agreeing

For many people, I imagine this blog post will be a difficult one to read. I am prefacing this post with that statement because I believe it is very difficult to look at ourselves, especially when looking at something as personal as how we feel loved and how we express our love. 

Love and agreeing are two separate relational stances, yet for many people, they are the same stance. Problems arise because the two are often conflated, especially during times of conflict. When things are going swimmingly between two people, and two people love each other, also agreeing with each other in large and small ways, both persons might not see a problem with their relationship or with their agreement. Both parties might not see the enmeshment, the closeness, or the lack of personal differentiation as problematic. However, it is a problem when suddenly, against the wants or worldview of one partner, the other partner disagrees.

What seemed like a loving, close, warm, and solid working relationship is now, because of disagreement, an unloving, distant, lonely, and contentious relationship. How, though, does this happen? Frequently, two partners can have the same understanding of love and agreement, often with one party controlling the terms of what can be agreed upon, for agreement is not collaborative. Whether it is sex, shopping lists, interior design, vacations, household responsibilities, or offering unsolicited opinions as fact, when an agreement occurs one partner’s words becomes the terms of the relationship. The one party that sets the terms might not even see their actions as such, for they may see themselves as only loving, not as a person for whom to love means to agree; it may be easier to acknowledge that one’s partner is this way, harder still to acknowledge that one’s self is this way.

Wanting agreement, wanting to have someone on your side, wanting to have your opinion matter, isn’t wrong. However, when confusing agreement with love, loving someone becomes harder, because love is now narrowed. Two people aren’t going to agree on everything, or even on most things, and holding that expectation makes love unattainable, disallowed, and blinded. Not allowing others their own opinion, not seeing another’s emotions as their own rightful experience, sets up a relational dynamic wherein to be in a relationship means to be in agreement rather than in relation. To that end, feeling agreement as love leaves someone alone, with only one’s self on his or her own side, and with only oneself to love, because no person can be fully on another’s side.

I think that disagreement is a greater part of an honest and loving relationship than agreement is part of a relationship. In loving someone, being honest about where you stand, what matters to you, how you feel, and expressing those things without concern for agreement is necessary for an intimate relationship; without it you really aren’t even there. What is expressed needn’t be agreed upon, but, ideally, it is heard.

About the Author

Brady

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I'm a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice down in the greater Long Beach, CA, area. I've been in the mental health field, formally, since 2005, and I consider it a deep and rewarding honor to see other people grow and live the lives that they want. If I'm not sitting on a couch with a cup of tea in hand, I'm probably on my bicycle, or lost in my own thoughts on the beach; meditating, tweeting, blogging, and talking into a video camera are also known to happen.

BradyOn love and agreeing

On the death of one’s parent

As children, our parents guide us through the world, and help shield us from the many hardships therein. As much as they guide us through the world, they also feel like our world. They are our protectors, champions, and are the ground beneath our feet. Our parents often speak our language, and in speaking to us, they can speak for us. Or at least that is what parenting is supposed to be. Parents can fail, make mistakes, and wound us in ways that no one else can, and yet, when our parents leave us, and die, even the ones that have hurt us, we grieve them like none other in our life.

Whether we grieve parents who truly were miraculous, or we grieve parents that were too compromised in their own lives to reach out and love us as we wanted to be loved, we grieve the loss a parent and also grieve the loss of our own childhood. Perhaps the coldest grief then, the one that is the most expected and at the same time most surprising, is the death of one’s parent. 

For many, childhood ends when one’s parent dies. As long as a parent is around, at whatever age, we remain a child in their eyes, and a child in our own eyes. We can have someone to look out for us, coach us through heartbreak, shield us from harm, appreciate our personality, advocate for what matters most to us, and love us in the way that we want to be loved.

There are also those individuals who do not have any parents. Their grief is a grieving of the lack; there are no happy moments turned bittersweet, no memories fearfully growing fainter, no comfort given that is now missed, no love displayed that will remain unseen. Their loss is still a loss. Whether our parents were beyond reproach, trusting, respectful, kind, or stilted, mean, cold, or less than our expectations, we grieve what is gone and what should have been. 

What do we do with this grief? It is a painful ordeal to lose a parent, and we are so right to cry out for the loss, hurt, loneliness, and even regrets. There can be our unsaid words that turn sour. There can be our actions of appreciation, which were never placed. There can be words of comfort given by others in our grieving. There can be supposedly thoughtful expressions of, “How can I help?” that inflict more hurt in our grief; for in my suffering of losing a parent it is not my duty to instruct others in how to be compassionate. 

If we are ever to grieve, we are to grow; part of our painful growth is in outgrowing old roles. The old role of being a child, of being cared for, of being protected, is taken away, because the parent, the one that makes that role real, is taken away. We must now venture forth in a new and scary, uncharted world. 

When we do cry out for what we want in our pain, we do so in our smallest and our quietest voice. In our smallest and quietest voices we are still children, calling out for love, care, and to be known. And yet, when we lose a parent, we are most painfully aware that there will be no familiar voice to reassure us that all will be well and everything will be fine. We must become our own parent. We must find our own way in the world, traveling alone, now that the world that we knew is gone and moving further and further away.

About the Author

Brady

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I'm a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice down in the greater Long Beach, CA, area. I've been in the mental health field, formally, since 2005, and I consider it a deep and rewarding honor to see other people grow and live the lives that they want. If I'm not sitting on a couch with a cup of tea in hand, I'm probably on my bicycle, or lost in my own thoughts on the beach; meditating, tweeting, blogging, and talking into a video camera are also known to happen.


[This article is dedicated to three courageous people that I know who have walked this perilous journey and have inspired me to write this article: Tyler Tortamasi, Michelle Zentgraf, and Samuel Eagle]

BradyOn the death of one’s parent

On hope remaining

The myth, Hesiod’s telling of it and Bruce MacLennan’s translation, goes that Pandora was the first woman on Earth. She was given gifts by all of the gods, including a jar that contained all the evils in the world, which had one, “‘evil thing that all shall cherish in their hearts, embracing their own scourge.’” As we know, she opened the jar and let loose all the evils and vices upon the world except for one, Elpis, known as Hope. Hope wasn’t let loose in the world. Hope was kept inside. Hope remained.

For many people, hope, in the lower case, is the humane quality that is used to battle the evils and hardships of the world. Hope exists because we need to have a vision of things being better so that we can fight for that better world. Poverty, hunger, sickness, grief, torment, torture, war, and all of its vicissitudes, are but a few of the hardships let loose upon the world that hope, supposedly, allows us to battle against. Hope allows us to want the hurt to end, to want a better world, and to want to effect change. 

That’s not how I see hope. I see it as a shadowy prison, of our own making. I see hope as the vice that was not let loose in the world, but secreted away in the depths of our hearts. Still problematic. Still full of hurt. 

There is hurt in hope, because things that aren’t desirable, or really wanted, are happening. Things are not going the way that you or I would like, and so we hope that things change. We hope for change, for progress, for something else. Should we be happy with our lives and the world as it is? Should we be happy with all of the suffering and hurt? I dislike “should” questions, because they easily distract from the premise. Hope remaining is the topic, and happiness is another topic. Although, in relation to happiness, hoping that our lives will always be happy, that we will always get what we want, and not have pain, is an expectation that hurts. 

Do I think feeling hopeless is better than having a sense of hope? I do not. As an aside, I don’t see the use of ranking emotions; I try to feel out the contours and particularities of emotions as they rise. Hopelessness, for me, comes in those moments when I can’t foresee any options, can’t see things improving, and when I see the world as becoming progressively more painful. It has the same flavor as hope; the same lack. I think the opposite of hope isn’t hopelessness; it is contentment.

Personally, when I hear someone, with all earnestness and longing, hope that things will get better, I hear the lack of contentment with the way that things are. I hear the lack. I hear the hurt. I hear the places where contentment would provide the most comfort, but hope imprisons, and keeps contentment away. 

Returning to the myth, I do wonder: what would it be like if Pandora let go of hope as well? How would our world be different if hope wasn’t in our hearts? Would we remain, as we are?

About the Author

Brady

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I'm a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice down in the greater Long Beach, CA, area. I've been in the mental health field, formally, since 2005, and I consider it a deep and rewarding honor to see other people grow and live the lives that they want. If I'm not sitting on a couch with a cup of tea in hand, I'm probably on my bicycle, or lost in my own thoughts on the beach; meditating, tweeting, blogging, and talking into a video camera are also known to happen.

BradyOn hope remaining

On being wrong

We like to think of ourselves as holding correct ideas, the correct political ideology, the truest religious beliefs, or generally knowing the right way to do things. However, when we come to that visceral realization that, no, in fact, we are wrong, we can experience a multitude of feelings and reactions, most of which we would prefer not to feel. 

I am not talking about the being wrong in an external sense, where another person or a panel of so-called experts labels you as somehow wrong. That is another topic (on public shaming) for another time. This experience of being wrong, the relational and personal one, comes from an experience of doing something that is undesirable (such as speaking dishonestly) or acting irresponsibly by one’s own standard (such as flaking on a friend) and then realizing what one has done has a harmful effect. There is always an effect to our actions even if we do not want to admit it.

The impact that we can have on others, whether intentional or not, is something that requires careful consideration. I believe this because I’ve seen so much hurt and pain caused by those not intending to harm, and inflicting further harm when refusing to admit that they were in the wrong. This part, this refusing to admit one’s wrongness is an insidious hurt: it further wounds through denying that the hurt even occurred, which distances, denigrates, and disorients. Sometimes all we would like when we are hurting is for another person to take responsibility for their actions and admit that they were wrong, so that we are not left alone in our hurt. However, when it is we who have inflicted the harm, it can be very difficult to admit that we, ourselves, are part of the reason for that hurt. 

There are many ways that we avoid the realization of being wrong. We can shutter it away with seemingly “positive” thoughts: I like being proven wrong that way I can learn and improve; We are all learning here; I’ll do better next time; I’ll apologize; I’ll make it right. I call these, “positive,” thoughts because they add a push away from the wrongness. Sure, being proactive and deciding to make a change for the better is an admirable choice. Putting a positive spin on being wrong, in truth, avoids the feelings that come up with being wrong in favor of presenting a polished response. 

Wanting everything to be right, right now, is a lovely sentiment that overlooks what is happening, right now, which is a present experience of another person hurting and ourselves as being in the wrong.

We can also drown the experience of being wrong in a sea of catastrophic “negative” thoughts: I’ll never be able to do anything right; I’m such a failure; I always make these mistakes; I’ll never be good enough. I call these, “negative,” thoughts because they take away the current feeling of being wrong by focusing on other aspects of being, and other kinds of hurt. This present moment of being wrong can get lost in a historical recounting of other wrongs, and this global catastrophizing minimizes the present experience. Fine. You think little of yourself overall. That doesn’t address what is happening right now. 

We might also attempt to ease the sense of what is wrong with misdirections: I didn’t know it would upset you; I am just following my beliefs; I forgot. Sidestepping the present experience, by mentally focusing on the degree of intent or kind of wrongness, again, avoids the present experience of being wrong. I cringe when I hear these reasons that another person gives for being wrong, but I remember that they, too, desperately want to be right and do not want to be in the wrong.

Those are some of the theoretical ways that a person can avoid the experience of being wrong. 

When I, on a personal level, am wrong, I can be embarrassed for what I did. I can be self-critical about my lack of judgment and knowing better. I can fear losing a connection to others, and lose those relationships. I can feel as if I am falling down from a trip on a broken piece of sidewalk that I saw was there. More responses than these few ones I have listed have come up for me when I have been wrong, and yet, the hard part, at least for me, is to cleanly admit that I am wrong without spiraling out towards “positive” responses, “negative” associations, or any misdirection from the fact that I was wrong and that I am responsible for what I did.

When I do admit that I am wrong I open myself up to feeling embarrassed for what I have done, humbled, shamed, belittled, or rejected for what I have done and how I have impacted others in my life. I open myself up to a whole range of emotions when I admit that I am wrong. When I avoid being wrong, I also avoid connecting to another person and being vulnerable with who I am, and what I have done. Opening up, and honestly admitting that I was wrong, is where I must be before I can apologize, before I can mend a relationship, before I can let go, before I can ever move towards something right, so that I can be seen and accepted as I am.

About the Author

Brady

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I'm a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice down in the greater Long Beach, CA, area. I've been in the mental health field, formally, since 2005, and I consider it a deep and rewarding honor to see other people grow and live the lives that they want. If I'm not sitting on a couch with a cup of tea in hand, I'm probably on my bicycle, or lost in my own thoughts on the beach; meditating, tweeting, blogging, and talking into a video camera are also known to happen.

BradyOn being wrong

On true love

After writing an entry on the idea of tough love, I found myself also thinking of its close cousin: the idea of true love. Having counseled many couples, researching relational dynamics, scratching my way through novels, and watching more than a handful of mild relationships on television, I find the idea of true love to be a very disturbing idea that is presented all too simplistically. Part of the disturbing nature of the idea of true love comes from the magnitude of the idea itself and its own frightful measure.

True love is oftentimes represented in epic literary and cinematic relationships: the mythic Orpheus & Eurydice, the classic Romeo & Juliet, and even the contemporary Bella & Edward. Each of these examples may be held as a paragon of true love, for each represents that idealized and iconic love story between two people, against all odds, finding true love. To stay with the above image for a moment before getting into its measure, it is careful to note that these love stories are romantic pairings within the same economic class, racial background, and heterosexual makeup. I bring up this point, not to extol these similarities as the fundamental character of true love pairings, but to note that there is a similar coloring, richness, and balance in these images that many people also herald as one measure of right and true love.

There are also some glaring relational and psychological problems in each of these pairings. The problems themselves underscore the meaning of true love: how far we are willing to travel in our own personal hell to have love; how worthless life is without love; how much abuse we are willing to endure to keep true love. In many ways, the problematic dynamics of the three above relationships, and that they represent true love, confers the idea that some form of abuse, whether from another person or from one’s self, is a necessary element in true love. This is what disturbs me. What frightens me is how this idea is accepted.

The hurtful, harmful, and abusive elements of true love are accepted, celebrated even, under the rationale that love must be tested for it to be true.

I believe that many people want true love, and for them, love must be proved. The greatest proof, the ultimate test of true love, then, is giving or sacrificing one’s life for another person. I will not get into the theological nor philosophical dimensions of this understanding of love, but there are those dimensions when we talk about love, sacrifice, and having an undisputed test of being loved. On the psychological level, death becomes the only definitive measurement of true love, because that love supposedly will go on until death parts you from your beloved, and because your life is supposedly meaningless without this true love. There is no other measure, then, no other test, which truly proves the existence of love. Dying for your loved one appears to be the truest, ultimate, irrevocable, and final act of true love.

There’s more to true love than its definition. Wanting true love also means branding all other loves as less meaningful, as less honest, or as wrong when they fail the test. For true love to exist above all others, then all other relationships must be lacking: Orpheus would not go to hell for anyone, Romeo would not have killed himself over the thought of losing someone else, and Bella wouldn’t give up her life to have any boyfriend. This exclusive aspect of true love, perhaps, has the widest psychological impact of all. Truly loving more than one person isn’t true love, because with true love one person is everything, and only one person is worth your life. If one person completely satisfies, completely offers security, completely gives purpose and meaning to life, and fulfills every emotional need and want, then nothing else can measure up. Nothing else will ever measure up.

A summer fling that brought a glimmer of abandon but ended come autumn, therefore, isn’t true love. A marriage that ended earnestly or acrimoniously, therefore, isn’t true love. A few dates that were promising and passionate albeit brief, therefore, isn’t true love. A trusted and stalwart life-long friend, for whom romance never blossomed, therefore, isn’t true love. A lover that hasn’t proposed marriage and devoted her or his life to their beloved, therefore isn’t true love. A person that will not die for another, therefore, doesn’t truly love them. These examples are therefore “false” images of love because they do not measure up as true love. They were tested against the standard of true love, and failed.

True love, as it stands, is an exclusive idea, which discredits other definitions of love and other relationships that are not tested. Is it a misunderstanding of love, then, that stokes this idea of true love? I do not think so. I think a cognitive dimension is at work in this desire to test love and measure it. Many people like to be testers, and the ideal of true love is hardened by every failed relationship, every unspectacular kiss, and every relationship that was somewhat less than ideal. Those persons that are searching for the right measure of love, which by extension is searching for true love, keep these score cards. However, I think there is more than cognitive schema at work here, for I think that the idea of true love also arose from a deep desire to reject all failed relationships. Rejecting those failed relationships, and somehow holding onto this idea that it wasn’t really love, that true love still exists out there, untouched by a failed relationship, is a soothing idea for us on those lonely cold nights.

If we allow ourselves permission to abandon this comforting idea of true love, then we allow ourselves the ability to accept and embrace a relationship, whether it ends or not, without a measure or test. We can give ourselves permission to feel what love is there for us, rather than testing it.

I have written this brief note to describe, as much as I can, some of the psychological implications of holding onto the idea of true love, and the lengths that we can go to find a definitive, and somehow right and true measurement of love. We do not have to play this game. We do not have to test or measure love. At heart, I believe we achingly want to know that we are loved, and we have devised a loaded test to prove it.

 

(Originally written on 2012)

About the Author

Brady

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I'm a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice down in the greater Long Beach, CA, area. I've been in the mental health field, formally, since 2005, and I consider it a deep and rewarding honor to see other people grow and live the lives that they want. If I'm not sitting on a couch with a cup of tea in hand, I'm probably on my bicycle, or lost in my own thoughts on the beach; meditating, tweeting, blogging, and talking into a video camera are also known to happen.

BradyOn true love

On tough love

After spending a week thinking about love, and thinking about how expressions of love can be twisted or broken, I found myself thinking about the idea of tough love. The term was supposedly coined by Bill Milliken, in his seminal work, “Tough Love.” The appropriately named text, published in 1970, extolled Milliken’s personal, if evangelical, philosophy that love is good and arises from a deftly authoritarian place. This concept of love sits upon the hardened idea that love exists to better others, so that they, themselves, can become good.

This idea of love, and specifically of tough love, galvanizes another maxim: love is always good. This second idea is more commonly thought of in the Disney phrase, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.” Besides the shaky emotional and relational precepts, as well as the iffy understanding of morality, this combination of toughness and love is reductive of relationships, emotions, and love itself. From my perspective, tough love occurs when we choose to rename the feelings of hate and anger that can occur in our relationships, so that we can self identify as good and loving when acting out of hatred; love, then, remains unsullied and glossy white.

The idea that love is always nice and good, has an equally shiny counterpoint: saying you hate someone isn’t love and isn’t nice at all. This idea is a much more insidious idea, because it condones painful actions if they are done in the name of love, and because it buttresses an unrealistic expectation of the goodness of love. The idea of tough love, therefore, includes the follow through notion that when we love another person and yell, punch, wound, or sling invective towards them, then it is from a place of love and not from an actual feeling of hate or anger. If we allowed ourselves the possibility of not thinking in terms of tough love, we would still have to address our hostile actions in relationships. We would be more able, however, to better accept our feelings of hatred and hostility if these two ideas of love, that it is always good, and that it can be tough, weren’t as deeply embedded in our sense of love and relationships. However, I understand the desire to want a clear definition of what is love and how to act, even when that desire seeks to put on another coat of stale white paint to cover any hue of hate, so that love remains starkly good and nice.

I do consider it natural to feel hatred in close relationships. In close relationships emotions will run the gamut, and they will do so because our feelings naturally evolve along with our own sense of self. Forcing only one emotion, or only one kind of emotional expression, reduces a relationship into habitual roles, procedural rules, and a sanitized sham of a thing. We should feel all of our emotions, and feel free to express our emotions to our partners and loved ones if we are ever to accept ourselves as we are or to accept other people as they are. What do we do, then, when we feel hatred in our relationships? I think that the first thing that we can do is admit that we have those feelings, even if to ourselves.

Being honest with oneself about the totality of one’s feelings is a step towards a gentler understanding, and expression of love. As Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “The man of knowledge must be able not only to love his enemies, but also to hate his friends” (XXII, Bestowing virtue, 3, ¶4). I agree with Nietzsche, that an understanding of emotions requires an ability to be honest with oneself about one’s emotion and to admit to feelings that may not seem acceptable or nice. What is love if not a gentle acceptance of ourselves as we are and others as they are? Moments of love and of hate come up in relationships, but we are, after all, not required to cover-up our emotions with either black or white paint. We can let our feelings breathe, uncoated and gently.

About the Author

Brady

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I'm a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice down in the greater Long Beach, CA, area. I've been in the mental health field, formally, since 2005, and I consider it a deep and rewarding honor to see other people grow and live the lives that they want. If I'm not sitting on a couch with a cup of tea in hand, I'm probably on my bicycle, or lost in my own thoughts on the beach; meditating, tweeting, blogging, and talking into a video camera are also known to happen.

BradyOn tough love

On saying “I love you”

I think I will offer my definition of love to start: love is the natural state of being with another person. What I mean by this is that when we are with other persons and we are in touch with our emotions, we find kindness, compassion, encouragement, trust, gentleness, consideration, and warm regard naturally arising for others. When we are with others, we can verbally communicate our feelings with gentle declarations, emphatic exclamations, and earnest descriptions, but only when we are truly in touch with our own feelings. Verbally saying, “I love you,” and how one says it, is an important matter, because we oftentimes struggle with feeling our feelings and putting our feelings into words, especially our feelings of love.

Our words, in many ways, are the basic means we have to touch others lovingly, for words do touch hearts, and they do break bones.

Our words have weight.

Statements of love can have the weight to move and affect us. This concept was eloquently described by Rollo May (p. 29) when he wrote, “The interrelation of love and will inheres in the fact that both terms describe a person in the process of reaching out, moving toward the world… and opening himself to be affected.” Willfully, consciously, purposefully declaring one’s love has weight, and expressions that do not have weight don’t quite land.

There are many weightless expressions of love. “I love you so much!” “You are such an amazing girlfriend!” “I just, like, love you!” There is primarily weightless gush in these and many similar exclamations. For some people, the gush is enough and the gush matters most of all. I do not deny the experience of some people feeling loved from declarations such as these. I think of it in the same way that a person says, “I love you too”, as a reaction and not a genuine response. A true weighted statement of love is personal, is specific to the other person, is felt, and elevates. “I love you, and I feel that my life is more full for having you by my side.” “You mean the world to me and I feel strong, more capable, and a better person because of you and your love.” “I only want you to know how deeply I love you and how much your happiness matters to me.” These are some weighty statements of love. These statements touch me.

In addition to weightless expressions, there are also lowly statements of love that contain veiled hurt. “I’m lucky to love you, because you are too good for me.” “I don’t know why you love me but I do love you.” “I don’t deserve your love.” These aren’t declarations of love, for the natural way that we are with others isn’t cowering from worthlessness; these are the gush of low self-esteem. These statements can feel like love, perhaps, to people that feel unworthy of love, for whom the weight of love is too much to bear.

Saying, “I love you”, can be weighted and weightless, from a place of equally high regard or from low self-regard, and they can also be too measured. Those measured statements are the rational declarations of love, where love is presumed rather than naturally arising. “You are my wife, of course I love you.” “I love all my children equally.” “How can I hate you? I love you.” “I think I love you.” Rational expressions have an uneven quality to them, as if the brain is telling the heart what to feel. Rational expressions of love reduce relationships into tidy formulas of agreements, rituals, and greeting card scripts, which extol the necessity of saying, “I love you”, to “X” number of times a day. A part of me bristles at the thought of a person promising to say, “I love you”, a certain number of times a day, as if that measure of repetitions holds the appropriate weight of love, rather than the feeling itself.

I’ve spent a while describing the ways that we say, “I love you”, but I would also like to address what happens when we do not say those words. Choosing to say, “I love you”, out of a rational habit, without taking the time to feel and express how another person uniquely touches our heart, doesn’t quite feel loving. Choosing not to say, “I love you”, also walls us off from touching others and being touched. There are seemingly rational reasons that people give for why they refuse to verbalize their feelings. “I don’t want to say it all the time, cause then it will be over used, and it won’t mean anything.” There might also be emotional reasons for not saying, “I love you”, which can include the fear of rejection, the uncertainty of one’s relationship, or present feelings that are thought of as the antitheses of love: fear, worry, anger, or hate. Let me be clear, whatever the reasons for not saying, “I love you”, it is a choice to not verbalize one’s feelings. It is a choice that has response, which is feeling unloved.

Yes. Most of us carry wounds from former lovers, current friends, and even parents wherein we were somehow told: “I don’t want to be with you”, “You don’t matter to me”, “Go away”, “We are over”, or simply “I don’t love you”. These words wound us because they hurt our sense of being loved and being ourselves: they break our bones, or more metaphorically, our backbones, so that we can’t stand up for ourselves. In being loved by someone else, and having someone accept us and be with us as we are, we are also given a greater capacity to love ourselves, to stand up for ourselves, and to love others. It is commonly thought that to love someone else, you have to love yourself first. I think the reverse is true; to love yourself, someone else has to love you first.

I can keep writing about love, but for now I’ll end with an earnest plea. When we are with others, and we are open to feeling our feelings and open to expressing our feelings, expressions of love naturally arise. When they arise, say them. Saying, “I love you” is a simple way of putting into words that I am with you, you affect me, and we are together. I truly wish that more people would feel it, say it, and put some weight in it.

About the Author

Brady

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I'm a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice down in the greater Long Beach, CA, area. I've been in the mental health field, formally, since 2005, and I consider it a deep and rewarding honor to see other people grow and live the lives that they want. If I'm not sitting on a couch with a cup of tea in hand, I'm probably on my bicycle, or lost in my own thoughts on the beach; meditating, tweeting, blogging, and talking into a video camera are also known to happen.

BradyOn saying “I love you”