Friday, January 30, 2009

My Favorite Myth about Love: Or, Why it Sucks to be Alone on Valentine's Day Even if you Think Valentine's Day is a Ridiculous Hallmark Holiday

Psychology Today just published an article on what real connection in an intimate relationship means, debunking the myth that we should be totally independent of our partners and never need anything from them - or never show them we need anything from them. On the contrary, the article says, we seek intimate partners in order to get certain totally normal emotional needs met - the need for emotional and physical attachment and connection - and if we don't get those needs met through our partners, we end up in unhealthy, conflicted relationships, trying to get them met through excessive neediness, seeking reassurance, or withdrawing in an effort to get our partners to come forward and show us they love us. Obviously, these techniques aren't usually the most effective, but they are normal, understandable ways humans try to feel loved and cared for by a love partner.

Right before I read this article, I had been having a mental monologue about that pervasive old saw that in order to truly love someone else, we need to love ourselves. Let me clarify: I was having an out-loud monologue while driving home, as I often do these days when alone in my car. I was hoping all the people driving around me though I had an earpiece and was talking on my cell phone.

Anyway, this idea that to be able to love another, you have to love yourself is, if you'll excuse my bluntness, pure crap. If this were true, nobody would ever love anyone else, because nobody, except maybe the odd monk who's reached pure enlightenment, is ever totally free of self-doubt, self-criticism, or the occasional bout of self-pity. None of us loves ourselves truly, completely. We aren't designed to, we're designed to be in community, to be connected, to really only feel complete when we have supportive people around us. It's a survival mechanism.

In fact, I think it's the opposite that's true: if you haven' t been shown love by others in your life - by a parent, peers, family, lovers, or friends - you cannot love yourself. This has been proven time and time again: before babies can speak or understand speech, they can interpret the facial expressions and quality of touch of their caretakers. If a baby's caretaker interacts with her in a positive way - smiling, mirroring her own facial expressions - touches her gently, and comes to her when she's in distress, a baby is more likely to grow up confident and able to withstand life's ups and downs. On the other hand, if a baby grows up being frowned at, ignored, neglected, treated harshly, or even being treated inconsistently - having a caretaker smile and be gentle one minute and be harsh and upset the next - she's more likely to be afraid and be less resilient. We've all heard the horrible stories of orphans who are never held or comforted, and grow up to be unable to form bonds with others.

I believe that in all relationships, we need mirroring, that we need to see ourselves in the faces of others in order to know ourselves, and that we provide the same for our friends, family, and lovers. We don't truly know ourselves, and we can't learn how to love, if we don' t have loving, responsive people in our lives. If we have relationships with people who don't respond to us - don't laugh when we make jokes, don't act supportive when we feel sad - we feel lonely and unseen. And if we don't respond to others - as is often the case with people who never got healthy affection or care as children, never learned how to interact with others - we are also lonely; nobody likes to be around someone who won't mirror them.

People without strong social ties are more likely to be depressed, anxious, and to suffer physical health problems, and to recover more slowly from illness and surgery, than people who have strong social ties - friends, close family, a supportive community, a healthy love relationship. When we are loved and we love others, we have a stronger immune system and healthier body functions (lower blood pressure, less risk of heart attack, etc.) Humans are simply not meant to be alone.

If it were true that in order to love others you need to first love yourself, narcissists would be the most loved people in the world, and while it may be true that selfish pricks (i.e. bad boys) get a lot of chicks initially, they don't generally get a lot of long-term love, the best and most fulfilling kind of love.

I've often felt like - and sometimes been made to feel - like I'm a needy, insecure, messed up creature for wanting a healthy love relationship, and for being upset when my needs aren't met in the relationships I have found myself in, but I've recently decided that this is bull. I'm not saying I've always acted well in relationships, and I certainly don't deny that I can be needy and reassurance-seeking - which is something I'm trying to work on. But the need to be mirrored in a positive way and to have a solid physical and emotional attachment to a lover is a basic, normal, human need. Gloria Steinem (supposedly) said "A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle", and, as the Psych Today article says, in more polite terms, that's crap. I do get the sentiment, but actually, we all need one another, and we all need love. Here's to it.

1 comment:

larissa said...

Nice post! You're right, most of us aren't cut out to be noble loners but to exist in a community. I have been very dubious "you have to love yourself first..." concept. I mean sure it's easier to be happy and have a good relationship if a person isn't full of self-loathing. But the normal dents and hiccups of self-love most people experience don't seem to preclude loving others. Overall it seems to falsely suggest being happy with oneself is a goal you can achieve rather than an ongoing experience.

Also, maybe I'm paranoid but all this self-love, "me-time" or any of their cousins seem to be sold to us to justify being even more self-centered.