On May 28, 2016, the New York Times published an article about love and marriage that received enormous attention and over 500 comments from readers: “Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person.” There are some points I agree with and others that I don’t, but what’s important is that the article sparked thoughts and discussions, and prompted this post.
Definitions of love
There are many definitions of love with a partner or spouse and the word can be used as a noun or a verb.
My favorite definition is that love means that you put your spouse or partner’s satisfaction, well-being, and happiness on the same level as your own, not above and not below. Putting it above yours is a bit masochistic and putting it below yours is a bit narcissistic.
Primary sources for learning about love
But how do we learn about love and how to prioritize our and our partner’s needs?
From the same source we learn language: our parents.
We don’t often learn language or love from direct instruction by our parents, but through observing and absorbing what they do. Children with two parents have three primary sources from which to learn about love:
- How one parent treats the child
- How the other parent treats the child
- How the parents treat each other.
Whatever happens for the child from birth to age five equals love to that child, and that or some form of that is what the child will try to recreate as an adult, without realizing it.
Even if the situation was awful for the child, it has a certain familiarity that the adult will relax into, like a favorite pair of jeans.
The love “gift” that keeps on giving
If one parent yelled and the other impersonated a doormat, the child will most likely grow up to be someone who yells or someone who’s a doormat.
If one parent was alcoholic, the child will perhaps become an adult with that personality structure or attracted to someone with that personality structure.
It’s the idea that history repeats itself until and unless we learn from it. The “gift” that keeps on giving, throughout the generations. It may not be as literal as what I’ve described, but will fit the general contours.
“What,” you may ask, “can a person do to stop this cycle? After all, Diane, you’re saying that the person’s unaware that they’re recreating the experience of their childhood, so how can they avoid doing it?”
That’s where therapy comes into play.
A good therapist can help a patient see what he or she has absorbed from the parents—bring it into conscious awareness—so that the adult can be on the lookout for those tendencies. This way the patient makes conscious decisions, rather than ones based on the parents’ default positions.
This is a much more satisfying and autonomous way to live and love!
Process to reshape ideas of love
What’s love got to do with it?
The more accurate question would be this: “What does childhood have to do with shaping our definitions of love?”
And the answer is “Everything!!!”
That’s why treatment is so important: It provides a different view of things and helps us understand that as much as we’d like to say “That was then, this is now” about childhood, it goes right along shaping our views of ourselves, love, money, work, partnership, children, sex without our awareness of it.
Over time in treatment, these unconscious ideas, based on our childhood experiences, are brought into consciousness, so we can build on the strengths that we learned in childhood, and discard the misinformation and problematic ideas we learned so long ago.
We can redefine love and handle ourselves differently than what was modeled for us.
And that’s true freedom!
To learn more about couples and marriage counseling, click here.
Diane Spear, LCSW-R, owns a private practice in the Union Square/East Village area of Manhattan (New York City). She specializes in anxiety, depression, couples, and parenting treatment, and has been helping people find the joy in everyday life since 1995. She is accepting new patients. To learn more about Diane’s approach to treatment, click here.