Learning to face what love is not is one of the most difficult and valuable lessons I have ever learned.
Confusion about what love is and what it’s not seems to be a widespread issue. Just last week I overheard someone referring to child sexual abuse say it was difficult to recognize the abuse since the situation was complex and love was also present. My perspective is abuse is distinct from love, and abuse is not complex. According to the Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine the definition of abuse is the following, “Abuse is defined as any action that intentionally harms or injures another person.” The distinctions between abuse and love only seems complex when we are unclear about what abuse is and how love behaves. Only within the blurry (mis)understanding of love, do we enable violence or abuse to continue.
It's no wonder that people are confused. We live in a time where pain and trauma are rampant and seem to be normal. Since so many are suffering, perhaps trauma is normal, but it’s not natural. It's a by-product of violence, abuse and domination on a global, cultural, and personal scale.
But, I am getting ahead of myself... Back to my experience:
Part of my difficulty in learning to face what love is not, is that I have experienced moments when the saying, “love is all there is” seemed true, moments when I experienced love permeating me and everything around me. Another difficulty in recognizing what love is not, is that I've seen unconditional acceptance and love can dissolve inner conflict and sometimes even conflict with others. After cultivating unconditional love in this way, it can be confusing to discern what love is not, or even to wonder why this is necessary.
While cultivating unconditional love is indeed powerful and needed, there is a shadow side: we can fantasize that we are loving unconditionally (pseudo-unconditional love) when we are actually avoiding facing and responding to difficult, painful truths. The most dangerous thing I have found about pseudo-unconditional love is it can enable harmful, violent, and abusive behaviors to continue and escalate.
I experienced a relationship where the threat of physical violence escalated into actual physical violence. I did not even register the threat in the beginning: I was confused and had an inner block which prevented me facing what was happening. Instead, I focused on being loving. With others in my work, I have seen similar situations — when violence was happening and even being talked about openly while people didn't respond to it continuing.
There is a reasonable explanation why I and others may not recognize or respond to violence even when it is right in front of us, or literally happening to us. Not facing is a trauma-response which protects us when we don't have another coping mechanism that we can resource in the moment, which can be exacerbated by our past (personal, relational, or generational), or even something in our culture. Unconsciously shutting down part of our nervous system results in our shutting down our capacity to see, feel, hear, and respond in the present moment.
One of the things that helped me to clearly face and respond to my situation was studying loving behavior, from the work of Steven Stosny, PhD of Compassion Power.
Love connects. Love appreciates. Love improves. Love protects.
- Love connects us with our beloved. Connection involves cultivating our capacity to hold and value two (or more) perspectives simultaneously, ours and our beloved's, even when the perspectives conflict with each other. Love does not coerce or attempt to overpower.
- Love appreciates and bestows sensitive awareness toward the beloved. The nutrients of attention and appreciation contribute to the well-being for the giver of appreciation, the receiver of appreciation and the connection between them. Love does not withhold attention as punishment, or stonewall.
- Love improves the situation for whomever is involved in the connection, contributing to making things even a little bit better which the receiver benefits from. Love is not criticism or contempt, based on thinking someone is fundamentally flawed, disguised as improvement.
- Love protects who or what is loved and valued. Protection can take many forms, depending on the context. Love does not harm, or especially repeatedly harm the beloved. If love accidentally harms, love acknowledges the harmful impact and moves toward reparation and restoration.
I found learning these four behaviors of love was uncomfortable and downright painful, as I had to sort out my experiences and face what was not included in loving behavior. Physical assaults where I feared for my life was not protection. Improvement masking criticism of who I am was not a true attempt at improving the situation. Attempting to prove my perspective was wrong was not connection. Withholding attention and connection was not appreciation. In writing, it sounds very simple, but learning to discern the truth was not easy.
From the first threat of violence, about a year passed before I left the relationship to protect my life. In leaving, I lost not only the relationship, but also our blended family, the country I was living in, the work I had built, the home I had invested in with my partner, and the apartment I had gotten a loan to install myself in after we split up. I lost nearly all my possessions and accumulated significant debt in the year after leaving. At times in the months that followed, I could not see my way forward. I experienced the lowest lows of my life, and at times I wondered if my life was over.
But I came through this experience. I stopped enabling abuse in my life, and began a long journey of emotional, mental and financial recovery. My life now is better because I learned to recognize what was not love, to disallow ongoing violence in my life, and to ground my life in loving behaviors.
One of the results of my experience is greater compassion for how difficult it is to face the truth when violence, abuse or domination is present. Numbing ourselves is a protective mechanism in moments when we simply do not have the resources to cope and respond. In order to move toward facing and responding to abuses in our world, we need each other. As I write this, I am reflecting on the many “others” – friends and family without whose loving support and generosity I literally cannot imagine being here. I am blessed that when the life I had created collapsed, people were there and I was able to open and be loved, accepted, supported, and protected. I mourn that not everyone is so lucky and blessed in these troubled times.
Culturally, as violence and abuse that was previously in the shadows becomes more apparent, each of us needs to face and respond to what is around us, discerning what love is not and moving toward loving behaviors. The call to wake up, face the truth, and align with love exists at home, at work, in the media, entertainment, politics, and in the environment. We may not be able to face everything at once, but I believe can face the one thing that is in front of each of us. And together, we can face and respond to more than we can alone. **
I invite you to consider and wonder about connection, appreciation, improving things (even just a little), and protecting what you love. This contemplation can apply to your treatment of yourself, your loved ones, and the world and our environment. I'd love to hear what you discover!