Unconditional Love: It’s perhaps the biggest thing children of narcissists lacked. We didn’t feel it from our parents, didn’t see it modeled. Personally, I haven’t got a clue.
For me, love is performance based. As long as I did the right thing as my parents defined it, I felt loved. The more I excelled in school, the more love I felt. They said they’d love me no matter what, even if I was a murderer, but that’s not how it felt to me.
If I strayed a tiny bit, a hair’s breadth, from what they believed-I-should-do or would-say-themselves or ordered-me-not-do kablooey! Lectures, shaming, arm pinching, bizarre “interventions,” disgust, the silent treatment. When I strayed a-lot-a-bit and started talking about the family, threats of a lawsuit.
Couched as the abuse was in “we only want the best for you” and “iron sharpens iron,” I thought that was love.
Love hurts. That’s what I thought. Love is supposed to hurt. True love hurts really badly because it wants you to be the best you can be and therefore it must change you. That was my definition of love. Love=Pain.
But I was so, so wrong. That was conditional love, typical of narcissists. There’s something much better out there. Something we kids of narcissists know nothing about.
It’s call unconditional love and it’s thrown me for a loop. I learned it from Michael.
“I always warned my kids about the dangers and pitfalls of doing X, Y or Z,” he says, “but I left the choice up to them. No matter what they choose to do, I never shamed or humiliated them. If it went well, fine and good. If it didn’t, we discussed what they’d learned from the experience.”
That kind of love leaves me open mouthed. It goes against everything I was ever taught. It’s a hands-off kind of love and leaves me flummoxed.
Shouldn’t love meddle? Shouldn’t love control? Shouldn’t love make very heavy weather out of everything!? Make a mountain out of a molehill?
To me, that is love! But apparently, I’ve got it all wrong.
Take romantic relationships for example. That’s always a fun topic. I’ll never forget when I was twenty-eight and a date ended the evening by giving me a demure and dry kiss on the cheek.
When Mom found out….holy crap! She treated me like I’d contracted every STD (or STI, if you prefer) on the planet. That night when she hugged me goodnight, she leaned as far away from me as she could, her posture sending the message that I was filthy, sullied and she might contract something. The next day, Dad ordered me to dump him, dump him, dump him. No reason given.
Michael takes the opposite tack. If his children are happy in their relationships, he’s happy for them. Full stop. He hopes they’re safe and wise. He just wants them to be treated well and find joy in their relationship. But that’s as far as it goes. He doesn’t lecture or shame, meddle or control, rescue or give orders.
In some ways, that makes me want to scream. Shouldn’t a good parent meddle? Get involved? Interrogate? Rescue!?! That’s the style of love I learned. This new hands-off unconditional love drives me up the frickin’ wall!
Take my own father, for example. When Michael asked him for my hand in marriage, Dad reportedly refused to say a polite “yes.” Instead he said something wishy-washy like, “Well, that’s her decision,” I assume hedging his bet just in case. Perhaps placing himself in a position to say “I told you so” and “Don’t blame me” if our marriage faltered.
I’ve heard through the grapevine my uncle was even harder on his three (then) prospective son-in-laws. One of them had to quit smoking before he was husband material. All of them were given the anti-divorce lecture: “We only do this one time.”
Michael wouldn’t do that. He just wants his children to be happy and he trusts them to be the best judge of whom makes them happy.
If they screw up, well, who is he to point fingers!? But he’ll love them through it while they pick up the pieces.
The great C. S. Lewis wrote these words in The Problem of Pain:
Once again, we are asking
not for more love,
but for less.
That phrase keeps coming to mind again and again these days. I don’t know the context in which Lewis wrote them as I tautologically find The Problem of Pain too painful to read, but that phrase is nonetheless profound.
I find myself, again and again, asking Michael for less love…not more.
That may sound absolutely nuts until you think about it.
When Michael wants to make me something or fix something for me and I tell him, “Don’t bother, I don’t want you to go to any trouble on my account,” I’m asking him for less love, not more.
When he tells me to go ahead and order something I really, really want but I deny myself and don’t order it, I’m asking him for less love, not more.
When something’s bothering me and I shut up like a clam from my terror of intimacy instead of sharing it with him, I’m asking him for less love, not more.
When I demand his opinion on something trivial that he doesn’t even care about and trusts me to make a wise decision about myself, I’m asking him for less love, not more.
Perhaps that’s what we learned at our narcissists’ knee — to settle for less and less love while accepting more and more abuse masquerading as love.
Our narcissists didn’t model unconditional love for themselves either. You can’t if you’re busy playing the victim. That’s something Michael and I are still learning – no! not victim playing! I mean, self-care.
We’re learning how to balance care of others while also caring for ourselves. We’re learning how to set boundaries without giving offense. We’re learning how to make others responsible for their decisions and resisting the urge to rescue. Hey! We make no bones about being quintessential codependents. But at least, we’re trying.
Unconditional Love: It sounds warm and fuzzy, but it’s actually incredibly hard to pull off. You probably didn’t learn it from your parents or even your spouse, if they were narcissists, but it’s never too late to figure it out now.