Our nature is love but when as infants and children we do not experience an unconditional holding by the first woman in our lives, our mother, or the first man in our lives, our father, it becomes dangerous for us to continue to express the unique fullness and lovability of our nature. In order to survive the utter tragedy of not being unconditionally loved, the child has to find some substitute means to attract his or her parent’s attention. Whilst there is no substitute for the real thing (the unique person of the child), without a substitute means of attracting the parent, the child would plummet into the cold darkness of despair and, I believe, would die. This can happen later on when as a young adult our substitute ways of gaining attention cease to work. For example, it is not uncommon for a young man who is deeply insecure – so uncertain of expressing his true self – that following a breakdown of a relationship with a girlfriend, he takes his precious life. In his girlfriend ending the relationship he unconsciously perceives it as a recurrence of the original abandonment by his mother (or some significant other) and suicide becomes the means of extinguishing the pain of this unbearable experience. It is often the case that the ex-girlfriend may feel guilty and responsible for his death but the reality is that the young man’s dependence would have eaten into the heart of the relationship and, inevitably, the relationship would have broken down, or if it continued, be an unhappy and conflictual liaison.
Both infants and children are amazingly resilient at finding substitute ways of attracting key individuals in their lives: by being ‘good’, by working hard, by being ever so pleasing, by smiling all the time, by being shy and quiet, by being top of the class, by being perfectionistic, by being sick, by being the clown, by being difficult, rebellious and by controlling. Each child finds their own unique ways and generally opposite to that of a brother or a sister; indeed, there are as many substitute ways of getting recognition as there are children.
Sadly, most of us were not loved for our unique person and so by the time we come into young adulthood we have powerfully hidden our real and true self and have learned that the way to another’s person heart is through behaviour. Consequently, in the strong emerging need to attract a lover we attempt to impress the person of our desires with being beautiful or handsome, sexy, athletic, clever, charming, funny, complimentary. We also attempt to impress with our exploits to date, our academic achievements, our status, our ambitions and the books we have read, the films we’ve seen, not to mention our interests and hobbies. It is as if we need to talk ourselves into a relationship and convince the other of our worthiness of his or her affections. Of course, more often than not the person we feel attracted to is also experiencing doubts and fears about self and, as a result, may be ‘taken in’ by the pursuer’s ways of impressing.
It is not that the person who seeks to impress is going the wrong way about creating a relationship. The fact is that his unsureness mirrors a disconnection from self that he necessarily created in the face of a parent not connecting with his person. It needs to be seen that a parent’s behaviour unconsciously arises from his or her own inner disconnection. Because the disconnection from self occurs at an unconscious level, it is only when a consciousness of it emerges that, is it now possible to begin to connect with self and with the self of a lover, friend, parent or whoever. Until that consciousness develops, connection with another will remain at a peripheral level. To risk a self-to-self contact is a bridge too far at this point in time.
Piero Ferrucci, a psychotherapist and philosopher and author of The Power of Kindness distinguishes between two types of relationships – a relationship from the centre (I call this unconditional love) and a relationship from the periphery (I call this conditional relating).
Peripheral love expects recognition and support and lives in fear of not getting them. Requiring immediate gratification, it may be demanding, commanding, manipulating and impermanent. It takes into consideration only the surface – the qualities and behaviours – of persons rather than their core. It can often happen that persons who are the object of this love can imprison themselves in the jail of guilt, of responsibility for the others’ happiness and fears of upsetting them. However, if truth be told, these persons are already imprisoned by their disconnection from self and unless they free themselves and emerge from behind their defensive prison walls, they will continue to hold onto co-dependent relationships. However, the illusion that peripheral love will bring enduring happiness eventually is shattered by the inherent lovelessness of peripheral love and groundless admiration tragically gives way to frustration and resentment.
It is not that love from the periphery does not have its pleasurable moments; indeed, when these moments are present it can be difficult to distinguish it from more centred love. But the differences are acute when we are in a place to attend to them, the major difference being that peripheral love is conditional (a substitute for real love), whilst centred love is unconditional and frees the persons it touches instead of binding them with responsibility for one’s happiness. Furthermore, centred love is bountiful and permanent and as it originates from the silence of the self, it penetrates the outer shell, the thousand masks that individuals wear, the defensive walls they hide behind and it sees the essence of the person loved. Therefore, in the words of Ferrucci centred love
“is not stopped by the possible ugliness of the surface,
or by the wearing away of the body, nor is it bound by boredom,
by routine, by friction, or by any other event which may appear
to render the object of love unattractive or less interesting".
It is a love like this that would make the world go round!
Tony Humphreys practices clinical psychologist, is author of several books and a national and international speaker. His books Myself, My Partner and Relationship, Relationship, Relationship are relevant to today’s topic.