Love is a feeling that motivates us and leads us to better ourselves and the lives of those around us. Love is closely related to things like joy, family, satisfaction, care, and love is something we all seek to embrace in our relationships with others.
Yet for many people, love is pain, love is grief, and seeking love with others only leads to more pain and more grief. Unfortunately, this is a seemingly inescapable cycle that you and many others may find yourselves in. Indeed, it can even become acceptable and a given.
But this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be. So why is this? And what can we do about it?
It All Begins in Childhood
Children rely on their caregivers for everything. They need mirroring, attunement, and validation from their caregiver, in addition to having their physical needs met, in order to flourish in adulthood. If a child’s caregivers are emotionally healthy and resolved, they will develop a strong sense of self.
They will feel healthy, unconditional love radiating from the people closest to them. They will know what love looks and feels like. They will pursue this feeling throughout their lives. Indeed, they will be able to comfort themselves, love themselves, and develop strong, healthy relationships with the people around them because they have a healthy template to fall back on.
However, if the child’s caregivers are emotionally unhealthy and unresolved, they will develop a weakened and unstable sense of self. They will be unable to comfort themselves, trust others, love themselves, and will face many difficulties finding fulfillment, meaning, and contentment in their adult relationships. They will not know what healthy love looks and feels like.
They will only know that the attention they receive will feel painful, that their emotionally unavailable caregivers will let them be afraid, sad, hurt, or angry, and may even punish them for their natural emotions. Their caregivers may not be comfortable with signs of love from their child. And because the child is reliant on their caregivers, they must believe that they are loved despite the various traumas, rejections, and displays of unloving behavior.
And so the child learns that love is pain. This is the form of love they will pursue into adulthood. Love is whatever treatment you have received. This is how we develop a wrong understanding of love.
As I write in the book Human Development and Trauma:
“How could anyone know what healthiness, respect, love, and boundaries are if they haven’t truly experienced them? A child builds their understanding about these concepts based on how their caregiver models them. To that end, if a caregiver beats the child and labels this as ‘loving,’ the child learns to associate pain with love. This association becomes normal and expected.”
Openness and vulnerability, the prerequisites to forming healthy relationships with yourself and others, are compromised. You, however, were not allowed to be open or vulnerable. Instead of love, the experience of pain has now become the precondition for your interpersonal relations. Unfortunately, those relationships in which we feel the most vulnerable are the ones that become the most painful.
Noticing Patterns and False Beliefs
As time wears on, your relationship experiences will be overwhelmingly painful and negative. You may find yourself falling into relationships where you are seen as invisible, and you may find yourself attracted to emotionally unavailable partners. You may find yourself seeking out people with dark personality traits who hurt and abuse you. Or worse, you fall madly in love with “the perfect partner” to discover later, and only too late, that they are an illusion. You may find yourself tolerating behavior, pain, and unhealthy displays of love and affection that you notice other people don’t.
You only want love, like everyone else, and you don’t understand why it’s been so difficult and painful for you and yet so effortless for others.
In addition to difficult, painful, and pain-filled relationships, your relationship with yourself also suffers. You may practice self-erasure, have negative self-talk, and find self-care and self-love incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to give yourself. You may feel like you deserve all of this pain, or accept that this is your lot in life. You may even think that you are unlovable or underserving of love.
These thoughts and experiences are a result of your childhood environment where you were invisible, uncared for, and ignored. Your caregivers were unable or unwilling to be emotionally available, to mirror and tune into you when you were helpless and dependent on them.
After a while, many people slowly realize that their romantic partners most resemble their negligent or abusive parent, and that they are only repeating the past in the present. Even our thoughts and inner voices may sound like them.
What Can You Do?
Love isn’t pain, and the process of transforming love into joy starts with self-love and self-care. You are your own source of healthy love. Recognizing that you are unhappy and you don’t have to live like this is the first step, and if you are reading this article, you are already there!
You deserve better, and you can learn techniques that awaken your inner child, methods to practice self-love and self-care, exercise self-compassion and understanding, and even grieve for what your child-self endured. You also can learn to change your unhealthy and false beliefs into more realistic ones. In learning self-love and self-care, you will learn how to give and receive healthy love in relation to others.
The most important thing is that you are no longer enslaved by your inadequate upbringing, and therefore you can learn that there are many ways to learn to feel, give, and receive real, authentic love.