The Counseling Corner: What does love demand of you?
By Lorrie McCann, L.M.H.C.
Love. Its a common enough word. A starry-eyed girl pulling petals off a daisy and reciting, Loves me…loves me not…; a toddler waving goodbye to Mommy as she says, Love you, honey, see you later…; a friend scribbling, love ya on a birthday card; an old man whispering, I love you across the kitchen table to the woman who has shared his joys and sorrows for more than half a century.
As Valentines Day approaches, its not unusual that we may be thinking about that word love more than usual. But is there any other word in the English language that conjures up more fervent desire or mind-boggling confusion? We want it, we need it, yet we often dont know how to get it or give it. We may even be afraid of it.
While love may be difficult to define, there are certain things that always seem to be required of us if the love we feel is to be a healthy, growing, nurturing emotion.
One thing that love asks of us is safety. As the above examples illustrate, love comes in a variety of forms. But every form of love requires the presence of physical and emotional safety if it is to thrive. Love lives in a place where people do not intentionally hurt each other. When we love or are loved, there is a measure of vulnerability. We cannot expose ourselves if we are afraid of being hurt by a blow to our body or our soul.
Love also demands clear vision, requiring us to truly see the other person. This means more than just their physical being. It means seeing him or her as someone just like us, someone with needs, desires and fears much like our own. If that type of vision isnt present, love cant really exist. When we dont really see that other person, he or she stops being a real person and instead becomes an object. And that results in an unhealthy situation where only one individuals needs and feelings are considered or matter.
Love asks us to be authentic. That means expressing our emotions and thoughts honestly. This can be tough. In order to express your thoughts and feelings, you need to know what they are in the first place. In our fast-paced culture, we often dont allow ourselves time for the quiet reflection necessary to figure out whats going on inside our heads. Too often, we use alcohol, food, work, or a busy life to hide uncomfortable emotional stirrings.
Love also asks us to be nonjudgmental. That doesnt mean we give cart blanche to other people to do or say whatever they want. In fact, its quite the opposite. To love another in an emotionally healthy way, we need to have a clear understanding of what is OK with us. We not only need to know our limits, but, it is also important to let those we love know what those boundaries are, or we risk being doormats.
Being nonjudgmental also means listening to those we love without defensiveness. You need to truly hear the other person when he or she is hurt, happy, sad, or angry. Too often, we cloud our listening by planning our own counter-attack or defense. It takes practice, lots of patience, and a fair amount of internal strength to stay focused on the other person when it seems like they are attacking with a deluge of emotional words.
That doesnt mean that love asks us to be a punching bag. Abusive behavior is a gross violation of boundaries and of love and not to be tolerated in any relationship. Being nonjudgmental means that when honest emotion is expressed, you intentionally listen without allowing yourself to feel threatened. Instead, you can respond with words that mirror back or paraphrase what you have just heard. Doing this allows the other person to know how you understood what was just said. This is not the time for interpretation. Your job is merely to reflect back what you heard. Amazingly, this can be a powerful tool because it is validating for the other person. It builds trust, safety and closeness in a word, love.
While there may still be a lot about love that seems mysterious, maintaining a loving relationship is no mystery. It is, however, often hard work that can ask a lot of us. But, to love and be loved, that is what being truly human is all about.
Lorrie McCann is a licensed mental health counselor in Out Patient Services at the David Lawrence Center, a community mental health facility in Naples, Florida, handling client assessments, individual and group counseling. The Counseling Corner is provided as a public service by the American Counseling Association, the nations largest organization of counseling professionals, and with the support of the American Counseling Association Foundation. Additional information for consumers and counseling professionals is available through the ACA web site at www.counseling.org.