parental love, parental intrusion, and love's diverse strands

Did my mother or father love me? This is a question all psychotherapists will, at some point, have heard a patient ask. The patient presents with some confusion, perhaps having taken the fact of their parent's love for granted much of their life. And yet, on recovery of their personal being, on dismantling of the adaptive self-presentation which they'd instinctively concocted to manage their parental relationship, they start to wonder. "That I ever so much as needed to concoct thus; that I was so stifled by a barrage of parental intrusion and control ... how could a loving parent have so radically failed to clear the space for their child's untrammelled personal existence?" The question is pressing: the self-presentation runs so damn deep into their psychological bones that even as an adult they're struggling to know they're not expecting too much, not being narcissistic, when at times they feel critical of and aggrieved by their parent. And to know oneself for unloved is after all a terrible thing - and many a patient will for a long time have chosen to continually deploy depressive defences rather than risk too much contact with that notion.

I think there are two important things to be said about this, things which are often simply not said or understood, but which need to be understood. So, well... so I'm going to say them. 

First of all, consider how love's thread is composed of various strands, and how not all of these strands are available at all stages of life. The fullest forms of love show themselves in that of the fully mature adult. Here we meet with a complete set of: i) wanting to enjoy an appropriate union with the beloved; ii) wanting the best for them; iii) rejoicing in their existence; iv) being able to pull them into view as a distinctly other person, with their own values and needs and sensibility, and offer them ethical recognition in all of that (Iris Murdoch: love is the honouring of alterity; it is 'the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real'); v) wanting some kind of reciprocation in i)-iv). But the younger child is not able to do more than i) and v). All going well they want to be with and share with their parent. Does this mean they're less loving that their parent? No: this isn't a quantitative matter. It's about the form of love which is intelligibly predicable of humans at different levels of maturity. The young child isn't able to fully understand what we might call the 'reality' of other human beings: they're constitutionally egocentric. That others have tastes and preferences that are not their own is barely intelligible to them. This egocentricity is no moral failure: it's not egotism. 

Consider next that it's also the case that not all adults have been able to master iv). They relate - often in not so obvious ways - to others as if they were extensions of themselves. (This is most pronounced in those who have characterological troubles of a sort attracting Axis II diagnoses.) They struggle to find intelligible how others can have different values and preferences and sensibilities, and tend to find these other characteristics 'strange', perverse, or instead feel criticised by their very existence. ('But it's for your own good, James'; 'I just can't see it's necessary for Tim to spend so much of his time online'.) Relationships between two parents with such developmental disturbance tend to be codependent, narcissist/echoist, reclusive, and set against the wider world into which the lingering alterity in the relationship is projected. And this is all a clear, direct, and tragic consequence of not having been able to adequately individuate during adolescence. (We simply don't acknowledge enough how much pseudo-maturity there is in this world.)

So there's two important consequences of all of this. The first is that there's often no single answer to the question of whether your parent really loved you. In some ways they truly did, and continue to. They're generous, perhaps, with gifts and offers to help you out; they really do want to spend time with you. But in another sense, they don't. Love has several strands - there are diverse criteria for the proper predication of love of someone - and they needn't all be woven together at all times. The second is that this may be no more a moral failure on their part than we'd say that a young child who hadn't yet escaped the orbit of their innate egocentricity was suffering a moral failure. They don't love, in sense iv), because they can't. The ultimately apt response to learning of such a deficit is not ongoing anger at the parent - but pity and sorrow. Honouring your father and mother now becomes valuing their having born you, showing recognition for what they do have to offer, doing what you can for them from an emotional distance, and so on.

I have of course left out the question of the extent to which we are all morally obliged to seek our maturation, to seek to transcend not only our egotism but also our egocentricity. But I think even the most hard-nosed critic of the intrusive parent will have to admit that, whilst we do well to chip away at our egocentricity's coal-face, we can't be held responsible for not mining its deeper seems. To some degree, character sets in in late adolescence, and the blindness of she who can't bring the other into view is not wilful.

None of this solves the hard question of how to resist the regressive yet natural urge to continue: to try to get the longed for water out of the parental stone, to establish a mature loving relationship, or to indulge depressive defences. With the depressive option, you collapse back into a conception of the self which prevents you from sensing intrusion and control as such, instead taking the hit of the uncongeniality of the relationship and chalking it up to one's own egregiousness. And those who love their parents will after all want, as part of that, to be close to them. But: you can't get what you want; this is one of the respects in which reality is inevitably, inexorably, frustrating. And part of 'adulting' is, after all, making conscious and then learning to carry one's wounds with dignity rather than trying to heal them. 

Or, well... the dignity is in its own way healing. But that's another story for another time.


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