Love talk

Couple communicating

Almost 25 years ago, Dr. Gary Chapman published his book The 5 Love Languages, which has become very popular. So, he proposed, we express love in different ways and if two people can’t speak the same love language, they can’t communicate, they can’t be happy, they might be in constant conflict.

However, we are not even conscious of our understanding of what love is or how we expect it to be expressed. And still, we wait for the other to share the same meaning, same perspective, and to express love the way we do.

The circumstances in which we grew up, the way we were raised, our family’s composition, our community and school, the impact of personal experiences, the media, are all factors that influence how we define love and relationships. They can affect our behavior, our feelings, our capacity to connect to another person, and even our learning processes. 

Couples’ therapist John Gottman, author of The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (Harmony Books, 2000), has researched, written, and taught classes on how to predict if a marriage has a future and how to work for it. Based on the systematic observation of interactions between couples, Gottman drew conclusions about what obstacles interfere with harmony in a relationship, and he made recommendations on how to establish and strengthen intimacy and know each other more deeply.

When Gottman speaks of intimacy, he focuses as much on the erotic aspect of the relationship as on the empathy and compassion the couple could experience. To encourage them, he designed “love maps,” a series of questionnaires and games that fill in the gaps of information about how we define love, and what did we learn consciously or unconsciously about how to love. Since assumptions built from former personal experiences fill these gaps, there is a need for clarification and open communication about our beliefs and expectations. Assumptions feed the individual’s doubts and fears, usually generating misunderstandings and conflict.

If we seek to be in a relationship to satisfy emotional needs—such as a need for approval, company, or acceptance—our wants will be greater than the love we could offer. In our search, we would be regressing to that first stage of life, in which love is mostly egocentric, where I love you because I need you—possessively. This is the kind of love in which I want to become part of you to complete myself. Or, I would try to control you and mold you in order to satisfy my needs. 

The alternative is getting to know each other deeply, to clarify misunderstanding, to openly express needs and wants. The more you know about the other, the more comfortable love becomes, the less conflict will arise.

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Parenting for a new era

smiling girl holding gray rabbit
Photo by Anastasiya Gepp on Pexels.com

Besides the family, the school is one of the most crucial social factors influencing the emotional maturation of the child; therefore, it’s also decisive in the development of cognitive processes (attention, memory, perception, and observation). But schools can also have a significant impact on the emotional and social development of the child. Therefore, they must aim at creating anxiety-free environments while contributing to nurturing and gratifying the emotional needs of the child, promoting curiosity, allowing exploration, and stimulating mastery of certain skills and talents.

The spiritual leader Osho said that schools should focus on teaching the art of living, the art of dying, and meditation (in addition to some English, science, and mathematics). He also said:

“A real education will not teach you how to compete; it will teach you to cooperate. It       will not teach you to fight and come first. It will teach you to be creative, to be loving, to be blissful, without any comparison with the other. It will not teach you that you can be happy only when you are the first.”

Do schools stimulate empathy or  teach children how to love others and respect the planet? To be self-compassionate?

The benefits of learning to love extend beyond oneself, and they begin with self-knowledge, and self-compassion.

In the Art of Loving, Fromm speaks about how, in the process of learning love, as with of any other art, certain requirements exist—discipline, concentration, patience, and dedication—without which the art can’t be mastered.

Could we provide children with a safe space where to examine their relational issues and learn to express their feelings openly? “Safe space” is a therapeutic term referring to a place and moment in which a person could feel comfortable and safe. Where they could express themselves freely and gain insight, knowing that they will be listened to and accepted, and that what is said is confidential.

Once a safe space is created, it becomes easier to express and regulate emotions. In group sessions the students can to put on the table grievances or conflicts existing between them or between them and their teachers, and this gives them the opportunity to learn mature ways of solving conflict.

Compassion can be taught, and love can be learned. And we can offer models of solidary relationships and teach principles of cooperation.

It is natural for children to respond lovingly. However, it’s important to invite them to look at the different ways in which others experience the world, helping them to reflect on the impact their actions have on others, on the planet, and on their bodies.

When a child is going through some emotional turmoil, one of the most common reactions from peers is to turn away (flee) because they don’t know how to handle the stress the situation elicits. Stimulating empathy in children is one of the key objectives of inductive discipline. In this type of discipline, social transgressions are not approached with punishment. Most modern educators are aware that punishment for social transgressions engenders reactions ranging from resentment to defiant behaviors. Instead, a child could be induced to feel sorry for the discomfort he might have caused and helped to reflect on the effect his actions had on another. Then a reparative action can be suggested—hugging, asking for forgiveness, inviting the other to play—so that shame and guilt are attenuated. These behaviors would be remembered and would eventually contribute to a reinforcement of the neural circuits for empathy. The newfound empathy will then contribute to the limiting of aggression and an increase in prosocial behavior.

Windows

In case you haven’t noticed… windows are omnipresent. Depending where you are in relation to the window, they allow you to look outside or to peek inside, depending if the window is open, the crystal is clear and if there are no curtains or shutters blocking sight.

I’ve been fascinated with windows for a long time. I’ve photographed them wherever I go. They reflect the personality and taste of the dwellers, a desire to either showcase  something or to have privacy.

Windows represent the need to connect inner and outer spaces.

Sometimes exterior objects reflect on the glass and windows take the role of mirrors…

Windows are like magic holes through which our interior is illuminated. They are also a frontier between you and me and information can flow in or out the window.

Why do we cover or close windows? Why do I need to sometimes isolate myself?

Windows could display what we have to offer and sometimes they tell stories, they offer information.

There are welcoming windows, wide-open windows and windows behind bars! They keep secrets or reveal mysteries.

Here is a sample. Use your imagination and build a story for each one of them…

On Mothers, patriarchy and false expectations

When, many years ago, I read Funerales de la Mamá Grande by Nobel Prize García Márquez, the figure of the ‘Big Mama’ the “absolute sovereign of the Kingdom of Macondo” didn’t sound like a hyperbole to me. I had already lived in Colombian towns where mothers were idolized and motherhood overrated to extremes.

Idolization of the mother figure, presented as a glorification of the feminine, is rather an inheritance from patriarchal times. Overstretched images of female beauty or saintly motherhood, a strategy used to cover up oppression, has contributed to patriarchy burying women’s voices and dominating social action to the benefit of men and detriment of women.

The more I traveled and met people, the more I witnessed how among Hispanics, moms respond to the supermom myth by overdoing their maternal role. We don’t have to go very far to find the overprotective, the intrusive, the co-dependent or the abusive mothers. And maybe, because we were immersed in such culture, all of us bear at least traces of each of these. Mea culpa! I confess my sins.

Many Latino mothers’ lives revolve around their offspring, and their ‘care’ can become asphyxiating. Which explains why it’s not infrequent to find awfully dependent adult children in our culture.

We also often find mothers overwhelmed with guilt, blaming themselves for their children’s shortcomings, feeling pushed to behave up to impossible expectations about what motherhood ‘should’ be.

If we were to be totally truthful to ourselves, Mother’s Day could each year be the perfect timing to examine unfinished business with moms, assess our current relationship with them and even quit seeking the impossible ideal of a mother that only has existed in our minds.

‘Good-enough’ mothers

To help average moms overcome guilt and shame about not being perfect, English psychoanalyst and pediatrician Donald Winnicott coined the term “good-enough mothers” in 1953.

Those were the days when psychology research started to support earlier Freudian thoughts that interactions between mother and child during the early years were central to the development of the child’s inner world. Mothers, paralyzed with uncertainty about the extent to which their deficits could affect their brood, flooded pediatricians’ offices.

Providentially, psychology also discovered that it’s the frustrations stemming from mother’s impossibility to attend her child’s every need what challenges the child’s forcing him to adapt to reality.

So, in a way, what Winnicott was telling moms was: dare to err. Your children might even learn to appreciate those mistakes as opportunities to mature and grow!

I’ve seen mothers doing sacrifices that children should acknowledge and praise. Many mothers proffer unconditional love; their hearts healing from wounds caused by insensitive accusations or blaming by their offspring, made in a moment of rage.

No doubt. Exemplary women, who forgive faults that only their mother’s heart could forgive, also exist. And, yes, many moms are available when things go oops! for their children.

But there are also dark sides to this story.

‘Good children’ and ‘not good-enough’ mothers

Let’s take the times of the infamous Colombian narco Pablo Escobar, when sicarios justified horrible crimes as means to meet the terms of their ‘duties’ as good sons. They were determined to take their moms out of poverty. Sadly enough, many of these mothers gladly and gratefully or at least silently received dirty money not even asking where it came from, as if ignoring the truth would made the misdeeds right!

Studies showed that most of the above moms were awfully permissive. It’s difficult to believe that Pablo Escobar’s mother herself never thought of his son as a criminal.

History offers many cases of mothers who used their children for profit. Far from being ‘good enough’ mothers, these moms – maybe forced by poverty and lack of methods for birth control -exploited their children. This was common in the early days of industrialization, when parents gave up their 5-year-olds to sweatshops for survival. These children worked 16 hours in a row; tied with chains and whipped to force them work beyond their capacity.

Even to this day, millions of children are exploited or neglected and abused in the world.

Not all moms are created equal

It’s easy to see that motherhood is in no way the same for all moms. While some rave on their experience, others may have trouble bonding with their child.

Many women decide to hand on their child’s care on to another person so they can carry on with their careers. Some openly neglect their children out of lack of knowledge about their parental role, lack of energy, mental illness or deficient love. And there are even moms who consistently say and do terrible things to their children, scarring their lives forever.

But in all truth, we have all been marked in some way by our mother’s mistakes. Moms are human! They will never be up to our idealistic expectations.

The consequences of prizing maternity too highly

I wish that we could from an early age understand that mothers can’t (won’t) be perfect.

Myths about mothers that continue lingering in our society, on one hand promote adoration of mothers and on the other hand allow for all the blaming mothers take for the weaknesses and shortcoming of their offspring.

Another troublesome aspect of valuing maternity too high is that women who decide they won’t have children tend to be seen as unsuccessful by their peers. Pressure comes from their families and friends. The choice of not having children seems unbelievable in a world that thinks a woman finds realization in maternity.

Is your relationship viable?

You’ve had fight after fight and you are struggling to save the relationship. You tried counseling sessions; you listened to your friends’ advice, read books… and you’re still struggling. You’re not happy. You’couple strugglingre afraid of saying or doing something that might further hurt the relationship.

Most couples disregard the fact that they have personal histories that preceded their current relationship. These histories are made of childhood experiences at home, at school, with friends. This history includes previous relationships and also deeply rooted beliefs around which our lives have come to revolve. This background, this history and stories, determine the way we relate to others and lead us to forming assumptions that kill communication (you think that you know what s/he meant… but you don’t verify to learn if your conclusions are right).

Love is hard work. Crushes are fed with desire, expectation, sometimes obstacles that keep passion alive. They are exciting roller-coasters. However, once the relationship goes steady, people often leave the fire unattended. They feel the “goal” has been met, they belong to each other now, and they forget the ongoing need to nurture the relationship.

This is very dangerous.

To know if your relationship is still viable, it’s important to examine what  are you contributing to the relationship. Are the two of you growing together? Are you going in the same direction? Have you been supportive enough? Do you really respect and accept each other? Are you willing to negotiate and take responsibility for you mistakes? Are you competing or sharing?

When a couple comes for therapy to me, I let them know I am treating the relationship as a third party and I invite them to do the same: understand the relationship as a different entity. The struggles in a relationship are not about who you are or s/he is. The relationship is made of what you bring to it. It has a life of its own. You can nurture it or you can hamper it. You can keep it alive or you can kill it.

If in times of trouble you examine the relationship to assess if it’s still viable and you come to the conclusion that it’s not… the next problem you might be facing is that you would keep trying to fix it. It is difficult to end a relationship, after all you have made an emotional investment on it. Having a companion seems more desirable than being on your own. Changes are scary.

However, trying to fix an agonizing relationship against all odds, might lead you to even more dangers. You might find yourself trying to change the other person to suit your needs or to change yourself to keep it running.

Big mistake!

You can change the way you communicate or change some of your behaviors but you cannot change yourself and you cannot change the other. After all you didn’t engage in a relationship with the ideal other, your enter a relationship with a real person. Trying to change the other denotes lack of acceptance… you might be transmitting the message that the other is the wrong person for you and you cannot love her of him until they conform with your ideal. Ouch!

What needs to happen in a relationship is that either you have an unconditional acceptance of who you are and who the other person is or you will fall into a “violent” relationship.

Violence refers not just to the shouting, the insulting, the sarcasms or the hitting… violence includes your disapproval, criticism, rejections, belittling… because violence is not allowing the other to exist on their own terms.

Intimacy is not being naked on a bed or becoming confidants. Intimacy refers to a relationship where you can totally be yourself, express yourself, in the presence of the other without fear of being rejected, abandoned or betrayed.

If your relationship has become violent –as per the above definition- or/and you lack intimacy, look for help. If you have sought professional help and keep hurting, it’s better to end the relationship and avoid causing more pain.

Barriers to love

BDcard“Love is all there is,” some say. But really?

I find that we live in a society where all too often telling the truth, and I am talking about your inner truth, is not valued as an asset. I see people smiling when they feel like crying or shouting out loud in order to hide their grief or their fear. I also see people refraining from expressing their political positions or preferences openly maybe because they are afraid of engendering discord. Especially among the so-called “spiritual communities” debate is seen as undesirable. It’s like we have built a society where only likeness could be trusted.

But in the world of duality in which we dwell we find ourselves constantly swimming between two waters.  Call it whatever you may: the law of polarity; the unity of opposites; Thanatos and Eros; destructive vs. constructive forces; yin and yang.

Our lives are driven by opposing drives or forces. One day, we love; the next, we hate. Today, we have faith; tomorrow, we worry or feel overwhelmed by doubt. We navigate through life driven by either duty or pleasure, pride or guilt and shame.

If we could at least honestly acknowledge the inevitable truth of our dual nature, we would not carry on pretending to be loving people when deep inside we are maybe despising others or pulling them out of our lives on the grounds that, for example, they are not as evolved, knowledgeable or spiritual as we are…

I’m aware that loving those who are different could pose a challenge. And there is no doubt that those people who are difficult to love are usually the ones needing love the most.

Friendship, partnership… any meaningful relationship for that matter… must be built on love, that’s true. But not love of the very mushy nature depicted in novels and movies! True love is strong and veritable, long-lasting and loyal. And I am not referring solely to a personal kind of love, but also of love for humanity, for other sentient beings, for the planet. Even unconditional love might be strong and bumpy.

When we invest our love on others, it’s better not to expect that they would behave or feel or talk in a certain way, that would be loving a potential not what is. Love is based on acceptance. I love you for who you are not for what I want you to become. We could, of course, deliberately choose whom to love based on our preferences and yes! we need to set proper barriers to keep bullies outside of our physical, emotional and mental spaces. But what if it’s love that chooses us. For example, we’re tied to our family and we didn’t choose it. We’re tied to our peers, etc. Then we need to look at duty.

I think that if we’re constantly comparing our object of love against some ideal we set up early in live, we’re likely to become disappointed more often than not. Expectations often come from an unconscious desire for perfection. Perfectionism comes from growing in an environment that required perfection as a requisite to be accepted and loved.

Not being true to ourself, idealizing the person we love, being unable to accept the other, are all barriers to love.

The third person is essential for emotional health

A dad is trying to playfully connect with his 9 year old at a restaurant. The boy is standing to Imagehis left side and the father has his arm around him. Both seem a little uncomfortable. The dad starts throwing what feels like a math quiz at the child.

What’s the 40% of 50? the dad asks and the boy can’t easily find the answer.

The dad gives him clues, takes him to “what’s the 40% of a hundred?” to which the boy easily replies 40 and then the dad insists with the former question.

Even though this time the boy easily says 20, he is frustrated and concludes, “I’m not smart, dad.”

This simple anecdote of an interaction between father and son makes me think of a hundred things.

For one, how difficult it is to respond sometimes to the emotional needs of another person!

The father’s intention seems to be to communicate with his son, to play with him, to stimulate the child’s brain. However, he doesn’t seem to realize he’s making the child feel incompetent and stupid. Not a good foundation for a parent-child relationship, but unfortunately this interaction is not uncommon between adult and young males.

There was an implicit “leave me alone” plead from the boy that the father never got. I am pretty sure the child will remember this one as a humiliating moment where he perceived his father was more intelligent. He will probably also feel that his father sees him as a failure and therefore won’t feel proud of him. Not unlikely, the father-son memory will be recorded with some resentment that will mark even the son’s choice of career (not good for math, I will choose art).

The saddest thing though is not only that the father didn’t pay attention to the child’s discomfort (the father kept insisting) but that the dad’s good intention was not recognized either.

I believe in these cases a third person is essential. Was this a divorced father sharing weekend time with his child? The mother was not there. Would she have stopped the father from going on with the quiz to protect the child? Would she have interpreted and explained to the child what his father’s intention was?

I’ve seen how important it is for single parents to have a third person reinforce their authority, share responsibilities, explain their intentions to the child.

I’ve also seen how important it is for a child who is verbally mistreated in public to have a third person intervene and stop the abuse. It takes the blame out of him/her (“It is not something I did what explains my parent’s behavior”).

I am certain that in many occasions our perception of the world is tinted and biased because we lack the third person in our lives who can explain and interpret the facts for us. For example, a grandfather who provides a different perspective; the stranger who defends the child; the wife who explains the father’s intention; the therapist who allows for a space where emotions are acknowledged and things can be seen from a new perspective.

Let’s look for opportunities where our children can see the two sides of a coin. That will help them integrate lightness and darkness and grow emotionally healthy.