“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:
Love yourself first.
Practitioners of loving-kindness meditation know this well. The practice always begins with cultivating a loving embrace of oneself. We project onto others whatever we feel about ourselves. If we’re harsh and self-critical with ourselves, we won’t let anyone else off the hook either. If we grant ourselves love and acceptance, we open the door to treating others the same way.
Exclaim over whatever is exclaimable in people.
I learned this from my grandfather, who was forever marveling at other people’s attributes: their height, their wit, their athleticism—all personal qualities, for him, seemed to exist in order to be celebrated. I’m a more restrained person than my grandfather was, so I don’t come by this gift as naturally as he did. But I try.
Remember this: “There isn’t anyone you couldn’t love once you’ve heard their story.”
(The quote is from Mary Lou Kownacki and is a favorite of my friend’s Courtney Martin.) Imagine a man who has committed the most evil deeds. Now imagine his childhood. Perhaps someone abused him or showed him that he didn’t matter. Imagine a boy crying softly in a corner, night after night, his tears never heeded except with an impatient shove. The heart softens even if it doesn’t excuse.
You can’t control other people’s behavior—you can only control your own.
Try to walk through the world with an attitude of calm warmth that remains steady, regardless of how others greet or treat you. When you feel threatened or provoked, take a deep breath, count to 10, and try to regain this posture. If counting to 10 isn’t enough, try removing yourself from the situation for a bit, and imagine yourself in a beautiful setting (whether a familiar lake at sunset or a distant land you’ve never seen) or in the presence of a loving, nurturing person (someone you know or an imaginary being—it doesn’t matter which). When you’re ready to engage, try to separate the substance of what the person is saying from your feelings of threat or provocation. (None of this is easy, of course!) For further reading on this topic, I recommend Emotional Freedom by Judith Orloff and Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson and Joseph Grenny.
Try not to judge others.
There is a reason that non-judgment is at the heart of many spiritual traditions. Judging others is bad for your relationships and prevents you from embracing humanity with all its many flaws. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t notice other people’s bad behavior (or your own). But there’s a huge difference between observing and condemning. Judging is an act of distancing yourself from others—and from yourself. Observing can be done impartially, even lovingly.
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.