Most of us are aware of those sublime experiences of life we call love. We may feel uplifted in being more than we already are through the continued tenderness of a loved one. It’s as good as it gets. We may also have magnificent moments when we have transported a dear one to be a better person through our efforts at kindness. The power of such caring may live in our memories for years as we witness the Higher Power of real love.
But what if love is not enough? Sometimes, it just isn’t. It’s no wonder then, that we lay crestfallen and shocked when someone we love to our utter limits does not benefit from the miraculous power of our devotion. It’s no wonder then, that we may feel like a failure when our love has failed to make a difference. We have all seen fireworks fizzle when it comes to true love. Who among us likes lighting a firecracker on Fourth of July only to have it fizzle out, blow up in our face, or die out?
Sometimes our deepest love can be quite insufficient. These experiences aren’t fun to talk about. So brace yourself. Lets look at some heartbreaking, yet sometimes transformative consequences of insufficient love.
My husband and I go through this every Mother’s Day. Each year I wonder what I did so wrong. I feel like such a failure. I don’t know what I can do to change things between my children and me. I’ve tried everything. Sent birthday cards that went unacknowledged. Invited each of my adult children out to lunch to reconnect. Sent presents at Christmas to show that I care. And I get nothing back from my three adopted kids. I’m not sure they would even show up for my funeral. I’ve practically begged them to call me sometime. If they only knew how much love I put into giving them a good life here in America after their childhood ordeal in Korea. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of them at some level. Not one of them has contacted me. I live with unbearable pain. It is not something I talk about with anyone.
I worshipped my husband Ken when we first met. He was this tall, athletic guy’s guy with a huge smile. He made me feel so desirable. I was on cloud nine when all the women at the office found out that we were dating. Our early romantic life was quite passionate and of course all the ladies wanted to know the juicy details. So of course I left them wondering. Ken and I seemed to have so much in common and I accommodated his many flirtations with other women. I knew none of it was serious. After all I was his main love interest. I just looked the other way and devoted my life to Ken. So of course we rushed into marriage and have been together for 30 years with two grown children and some grandchildren. You can imagine my heartache when I got a letter in the mail with pictures out of the blue letting me know that Ken has a child with another younger woman who is still very much in love with him. I was crushed and shocked beyond belief. I sobbed and sobbed and could not find the words to even face Ken. I’ll never forget his look when I finally got up the courage to face him. Naturally he claimed, “It is not what you think.” And he couldn’t understand why I would so easily believe an unknown woman who was impugning his character. I felt like I was the crazy one until I looked at the picture of his son. I knew it was his. Same blond hair, same big blue eyes and same cleft chin. I was shocked at his unconcern for his son. It slowly dawned on me that I had been living a lie for the last 30 years. This experience could have crushed me but it didn’t. After all I was part of the lie just as much as Ken was. Our marriage felt beyond repair due to Ken’s continued denial and my alienation from him. I divorced Ken and moved on with the kids and got a favorable divorce settlement. Now I am nowhere near the woman I used to be. This is a good thing.
There’s no pleasing Lydia. She is my one and only sister whom I have always looked up to. She is the only family I have. Naturally she was prettier, smarter and more popular than me. If she ever needed something from me I would jump to get it. Once I brought her an expensive broach with a picture of the two of us inside. She replaced the picture with one of herself. She gave me attention mostly to correct the way I dressed, do my hair, or tell me if I was too fat. At least she took an interest in me. But I never measured up to her standards and often felt depressed after our visits. When I was a teen I did improve the way I looked and had some friends of my own. I got attention from the boys. She said that didn’t count, as I was just too slutty. What I want most from Lydia today, and probably will never get, is to have her say that she loves me. I don’t know what I ever did to her to warrant her contempt. Lydia is now in hospice care. I want to love her but how can I when she treats me so bad?
I’ve recently lost a beloved daughter who always got the very best from her dad and me. You can imagine getting a call in the middle of the night letting me know that my new college bound amazing daughter just got killed in a tragic car accident after a bout of heavy drinking. She was the type of kid everybody wished they had as a daughter. She was beautiful, smart, athletic and kind to all. She snuffed out her own life when everything was going so well. There are no words to describe what I feel. If only I had insisted she live closer to home.
Try as we might we can’t make somebody else love us or have life turn out exactly as we wished just because we have loved. Even when we give our very best efforts over many years, our love is sometimes insufficient. Most of us struggle with accepting the harsh reality of things we cannot control. Serenity may be impossible to find sometimes. We want to accept that we’ve done the best we could and yet we wish that we could have done more.
Many of us want nothing to do with the logic behind these scenarios. But let’s look at it anyway. The real truth of the matter is that we are not completely responsible for why people cannot love us. Usually we are not loved for reasons that have nothing to do with us. The real reasons for insufficient love likely lie in the people we wish would love us. It may pain us to realize that the world does not revolve around our own failings and that we are not all that important in the bigger picture of the universe. Some of us would like to be all that important but it’s folly to think that we are. Let us be humble enough and busy enough with our own failings towards ourselves. That is more than enough work for us to do! Some people are just too scared to accept our love and it is sadly their loss.
How to cope with insufficient love
Let’s go beyond logic. If you struggle with rejection from someone you care for dearly or have not received the full benefits of loving someone, welcome to the human race. There isn’t a person alive that doesn’t struggle with unexplainable loss. People generally don’t want to talk about such heartache and often do some bad acting to make it look like everything in their life is great. When we see only the good stuff in people’s lives we fool ourselves and put ourselves down. If there is one thing I have learned as a counselor for 40 years it is that people are not who they appear to be.
Realize that it is absolutely normal to blame yourself for the loss of a loved one. There is no way out of it. Do it as often and as long as you need to do. It’s all part of grief. All that shame and blame is simply a testimony to just how much you really cared for another human being. You’re willing to sacrifice yourself in the hope of bringing a loved one back to you. If you could only find the fault that alienated another loved one maybe you could bring that person back with some atonement.
Self-blame gives you a false sense of control when you really have none. Just remember, feelings are not facts. Just because you feel at fault doesn’t mean that you really are. The losses in the vignettes above are all examples of profound traumatic loss. They may haunt us to our dying days. They seem more physical than emotional. They cause us intense shame. They make us think in crazy ways. Overall they seem irreparable as if a physical part of us is lost forever. But alas there is hope as I describe below.
First, let’s look at what to do if the beloved person is still alive and in your life. If the person you love is still in your life realize you don’t have to reject that person. Doing so only hurts yourself more. It’s best to limit your contact with that person and express what behaviors you cannot abide. Limit your time together to only positive interactions and leave when you need to (even after 5 minutes). Do not hang on to an abusive person hoping they will change; it is not your job.
The silver lining in not getting what we ask for
Second, let’s look at what to do if your beloved person is completely out of your life. Start by remembering the saying, “God does not give us pain that we cannot handle.” Our Higher Power often has bigger plans for us than what we are asking for. Sometimes not getting what we want is a good thing or at least has a silver lining. Such gifts may fall to you only after years of considerable grief. But they will fall to you, if you’re willing to receive them. At this point you are not required to receive such gifts or to look for any silver linings. Just let your grief take its course. Don’t be alone with this type of suffering. A pastor, a compassionate therapist, a heartfelt friend, a support group of peers or all of the above can work miracles. Have faith that even after the longest time you will find purpose in your suffering, as long as you keep your heart open to possibilities and stay connected to people that actually care about you. Let’s return to an earlier story and see how grief transformed suffering.
Things have changed in my life these past 10 years. I still have sad feelings and loss about my children who are absent from my life (believe it or not!). I don’t blame myself quite so much. I even feel some pride in what I did for my kids. This all started when I decided to not keep my feelings about my kids a secret. I chose a few select friends to open up to. They believed I was a good mother and have remained steadfast in letting me know what a good friend I am to them. I came out to people at my church about my heartache. Nobody judged me. Over time I decided to believe my friends and distance myself from people who might judge me. Today I am discrete in who I tell my story to. Many people have opened up to me about their traumatic family losses. I do a lot of volunteer work with preschoolers and enjoy it. I am very good with the kids. Best of all, Mother’s day now is an opportunity to celebrate all mothers. It is still a sad day for me.
“And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”
Aeschylus (Greek playwright, 525-456 BC)
John H. Driggs, LICSW, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990).