What are our expectations of love – and can we change them to create a better future for ourselves? Katie Scott investigates
A line from a Philip Larkin poem appealed to my teenage soul: ‘Man hands on misery to man / It deepens like a coastal shelf.’ I read that poem over and over while listening to The Rolling Stones’ ‘Paint it Black’ in my bedroom, and – after yet another clash, probably with my mum – brooding on how misunderstood I was by my parents.
I know my parents love me. Mum tells me constantly. She seeks out hugs, and cries when we say goodbye. Her love, though, also burns. When I was a child, she wanted me to achieve, and was fierce in her ambitions for me. When I rebelled, the depth of her love was equalled by the strength of her anger and disappointment. When my parents’ relationship broke down, I directed anger and disappointment back at her. Our relationship had cataclysmic lows, marked by dark recriminations and gut-twisting pain, but is these days less dramatic.
Dad rarely says he loves me. I say it to him all the time; at the end of every call and whenever I see him. I don’t need him to say it back. Dad is a brooder. He internalises things and is embarrassed by displays of affection. He hugs me if I hug him first, and listens when I need to talk, unless an international rugby match is showing. For him, love is shown in quiet consistency.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve understood how my relationships with my parents echo their relationships with their parents. In my marriage, and when I became a mother, I heard those echoes in my interactions. I found myself saying things I had heard as a child or reacting in a way I knew someone else in my life had in a similar situation. It’s not just parroting ‘Mumisms’, but something more profound. I have internalised patterns and behaviours, and wove those into my section of the family tapestry – one that has been created over centuries.
This process of internalisation – forming templates for relationships – begins when we are babies, says psychologist Catherine Hallissey (catherinehallissey.com): ‘How a primary carer responds to a baby’s emotional distress plays a big part in the development of attachment style. When a parent is able to interpret and meet the child’s needs, and usually responds sensitively to soothe the child’s emotional distress, the child is likely to feel safe and secure in the relationship.’ This serves as a basis for relationships in adulthood and, Hallissey adds, ‘It gives us a good ability to understand our own feelings, and the feelings of others, and to respond to conflict in a healthy way.’
However, there is a flipside: ‘When a parent responds to the baby’s needs inconsistently, or in a way that is frightening, the child is more likely to have an insecure attachment style. This can lead to feelings of insecurity in intimate relationships in adulthood. The person may feel overly clingy and anxious, or they may avoid deep emotional connection, which can make it hard to maintain healthy relationships.’
But conscious decision-making is a powerful tool. We are not, as Larkin concluded, doomed to hand on misery. We can create new models of love with our loved ones, and we can weave our own patterns. ‘If your early life experiences were less than optimal, remember there is always room for repair and recovery,’ says Hallissey. ‘We have the capacity to grow and change, and it is never too late to get the help you need to overcome those experiences.’
But this requires an honest look at our relationships – the good and the bad. That starts with our expectations: what do we give and what do we want back?
‘Learning more about your attachment style can shed light on patterns that may be repeating in – for example – your romantic relationships,’ explains Hallisey. ‘This knowledge brings with it the power to change the patterns. You can learn to support yourself through insecurities. And when you begin to recognise and respond to your own emotional distress, you can begin to develop new patterns.’
This isn’t an exercise in pointing fingers at those who were your caregivers in early life. It is about looking at patterns that are unhelpful or unhealthy, acknowledging where they might have come from, and choosing to redesign them.
We all come into relationships with expectations and internalised models, but we have agency. For some of us, weaving new patterns is a hard-fought task that may involve having to unpick knots and tangles left by those in our early lives. For others, it may be simply adding colours to make a pattern our own. ‘Our early experiences of love have a significant impact on us,’ declares Hallissey, ‘but nothing is set in stone.’
How to repair unhelpful patterns
Don’t let difficult childhood experiences define your life, says psychologist Dr Gurpreet Kaur
Tell yourself that you are not what you think. Thoughts are just thoughts, not facts
Notice unhelpful thoughts that get in the way. Psychologists call these automatic negative thoughts (ANTS): unhelpful thoughts that show up every day and form a narrative
Tell the ANTS that you know they are there. This can be hard to grasp, but there is a part of us that can observe these unhelpful thoughts. That’s the part that can be useful. We call it ‘the observing self’. The brain is a powerful machine; learn to connect with the helping parts of it
Next, challenge those ANTS. Tell them they are wrong!
As you become aware of your core beliefs, you can challenge them. For example, ‘I am unlovable’ might be challenged by looking at the evidence for and against that belief. If you were in a court of law, could you prove you are unlovable?
Work on understanding your attachment style and your love language – or simply have a conversation with yourself about how you want to show and receive love
Take time to reflect on the above. Weekly or daily reflection is key to making changes. Offering love, when we’ve not been shown much, is not easy, but it is a journey that begins by understanding our script. Like our phone or computer software, the script our mind has created over the course of our life simply needs updating