“If you don’t let me go to the movies today, I’m not going to love you anymore.”
So said my 5-year-old son, normally one of the more open-hearted humans you’ll ever meet. But he’s working out power dynamics right now. And he really wanted to go to the movies. So he pulled out the biggest guns he had: the firearms of love.
Because he is 5, this power play didn’t bother me a bit, and I responded with equanimity.
I think it’s easy for most of us to react calmly to children’s emotional threats. We know that they love us; we know they don’t really mean it, or at least they only mean it in the moment; and we know they’re just hungry, tired, or upset about something that happened at school that day. With our adorable children, it’s relatively easy for us to be the warm and mature ones—the guides, the sages, the givers of unconditional love.
So why is it so hard to do this when an adult pulls a grown-up version of the same maneuver: the silent treatment, the passive-aggressive jab, or the aggressive-aggressive interrogation? Might it be possible, in the face of such insults, to treat our fellow grown-ups with the same loving constancy that we give (most of the time) our offspring?
I thought about this recently when I came across possibly the most insightful passage I have ever read, by Alain de Botton:
“To the child, it feels as if the parent is simply spontaneously on hand to comfort, guide, entertain, feed, clear up and remain almost always warm and cheerful. Parents don’t reveal how often they have bitten their tongue, fought back the tears and been too tired to take off their clothes after a day of childcare. The relationship is almost entirely non-reciprocal. The parent loves; but they do not expect the favour to be returned in any significant way… Parent and child may both ‘love’, but each party is on a very different end of the axis, unbeknownst to the child.
This is why in adulthood, when we first say we long for love, what we predominantly mean is that we want to be loved as we were once loved by a parent…This is – naturally – a disaster…we need to move firmly out of the child – and into the parental position. We need to become someone who will be willing to subordinate their own demands and concerns to the needs of another.”
We enter into adult relationships, in other words, looking for the love we had—or wished we had—as children. But not only is this an impossible goal, it’s also the wrong goal. The right goal is to love others that way. The right goal is to bite our tongues and hide our tears for the sake of the adults in our lives—not all the time, of course, but far more often than most of us do. The right goal is to lavish our fellow grown-ups with love.
Almost none of us will achieve this fully, of course. But we can get much better at it. And striving to get there is the work of a lifetime.
Here are five ways to get better at grown-up love:
Having read all this, don’t expect to actually get it right! Just as we forgive our children their misdeeds while exhorting them to do better, we should do the same with ourselves. And once you’ve eased up on yourself, you’ll find it easier to do the same with your loved ones.
I hope you find these ideas helpful. I’d love to hear your advice for cultivating loving relationships!