"Early childhood experience where there's a wound has to be repaired in a relationship in adulthood similar to your parents."
Wow! A moment to take that in.
It was as though Dr. Hendrix knew the specifics of my life and had prescribed exactly what I needed to heal. Even though I realized he was talking about relationships in general, for all people, which made the truth of his statement even more remarkable. After all, does everyone come out of childhood wounded in some way, because of how one or both parents raised him? And do all of us, consciously or unconsciously, seek healing in adulthood, by somehow gravitating toward partners who are perfect for us in the ways they are similar to our mothers or fathers?
Of my two parents, the one I've had most difficulty with is my father. He was in his early twenties when I was born, and from what I can tell, I was a surprise, forcing him to be a parent before he was ready. To his credit, he didn't abandon my mother, me, and later, my sister, like some fathers do. Instead, he accepted his adult responsibility to provide for his family, always ensuring our everyday needs were met.
But food, clothing, and shelter do not necessarily a validated and loved child make. My father tells me now he always loved me--and my aunt admits he often showed his love for me more than my mother did, especially when I was very young--but that's news to me. I never saw or felt it, certainly not in a way that told me, without question, I was loved.
Rather, what I saw was a man who chose work, friends, and alcohol over his family. What I saw was a man who invariably arrived home late after work, because he'd been out at the Legion drinking (how many meals had been ruined, waiting on the stove for him). What I saw was a man who, when he was home, had no time or patience for my sister and me. At best, we were a nuisance, an annoyance.
I remember my father sitting in his recliner, behind the newspaper, smoking his pipe, some news program on the TV, while my sister and I starved for his attention and love. About the only time he spoke was to criticize us at the dinner table, or to holler because he couldn't hear the TV over our voices. We learned early on the best way to avoid his wrath was to say as little as possible, to make ourselves small, so he wouldn't notice we were there.
My father was a disciplinarian, too. He now admits he was overly hard on us, especially on me, and, if he could do it over again, he wouldn't be as verbally harsh or so quick with his hand. When a parent never shows he loves you, and, in addition, thinks nothing of meting out punishment for no apparent reason, what you have is a recipe for fear.
And that's what I felt toward my father, what I've always felt toward him. Fear. Being in the vicinity of him often felt terrorizing; I was infinitely more comfortable, and more myself, when he wasn't around.
I don't remember my father touching me unless it was to hit. Once, when I was fourteen years old, and my father put me on a Greyhound bus by myself, to travel overnight some eight hundred miles south to spend the summer with my maternal grandparents, I stepped toward him and hugged him. I did it instinctively, perhaps because I was so grateful to get away from him.
His reaction? He recoiled from me. As I held on to him, I felt him pull away, hesitate, then loosely put his arms around me. I never forgot this. It felt like being rejected yet again.
On one other occasion, I remember my father touching me other than to punish, and that was when he'd had too much to drink. His breath stinking of liquor, he put his left arm around me and drew me close to him. That both scared the hell out of me and sickened me.
What I learned from that experience was my father couldn't show me human closeness or affection unless he'd been loosened up with alcohol first. For years, I believed that was the only way people felt comfortable enough to show their love for each other. And, if that was the case, I wanted no part of it.
No surprise, then, I came out of childhood knowing little about love, but feeling something was missing. From the books I read, the TV shows I watched, and the reactions I saw in other people as they responded to each other with affection, I knew love had somehow bypassed me. I felt cold and distant toward other people. I didn't understand something as simple as human warmth. Cynicism consumed me, and I rolled my eyes whenever I saw some form of love expressed between two people, because I couldn't relate to it. It felt utterly unrealistic and foreign.
Add to that the fact I'd gone through years of being teased and taunted in school, suspected of being gay, and the only way I can describe myself then, having never experienced love in a tangible way, is to say I was lost and empty and scared.
And I had no way of knowing if my life would improve when I became an adult. I worried love would forever elude me, that, because I'd had little previous experience with it, I'd live and die having never experienced what seemed so easy and effortless for others, what appeared to be their birthright--but not mine. I thought, if that's all I had to look forward to, what was the point?
My goal, then, when I came out at the age of twenty-six, was to be loved; that, for me, was the whole point of coming out. While other young gay men, newly uncloseted, think of little else but having sex--confusing the physical drive with the need to feel love--I just wanted someone to wrap his arms around me; to need me in a way no one had needed me before; to make me feel I belonged somewhere, that I was special and important; to show me I was worthy of love, that I was loveable after all. I may have been gay, but, surely, that didn't mean someone couldn't still love me, did it?
Fast forward years later, when I met Chris in 1992. I feel sorry for the twenty-three-year-old young man he was then, because he had no idea what I'd been through, and, even worse, what my expectations were of any man I was in a relationship with. Of course, I didn't dump everything on him all at once. My gay friends had chastised me before, saying I was too intense, too needy, too desperate, and, if I was ever going to find a husband, I'd have to back off and stop scaring them away.
So that's what I did. Every time I met someone who showed the least interest in me, I tried not to appear too excited to be with him (although I'm certain many of them felt it anyway), or like so much was riding on it. After all, I didn't want him to bugger off before he'd even had the chance to get to know me better (although I suspect he wouldn't have liked me any more after than before).
But soon after I met Chris, I began to apply the pressure. I knew in my heart I had more of a chance for a relationship with him than I'd ever had with anyone. And I couldn't let him get away. The sooner I was able to secure a commitment from him--to get him to tell me he loved me--the more reassurance I'd have that what we had between us would last, and that I'd finally achieve what I'd been lacking and needed more than anything.
The problem is, several weeks or months in, when I told Chris I loved him (even though I didn't know that for sure, since I didn't know what love was) and asked him if he loved me (if you have to ask, he probably doesn't), he closed up. He told me he didn't know what love was, either. He had no idea what he felt toward me, but, obviously, I had the feeling if I kept badgering him, we might never get to love.
So I left him alone about it. I concerned myself with my own feelings toward him, which scared the hell out of me, because what if I fell fully for him but he never did for me (a risk each of us takes in any relationship). I thought if we could just take things one day at a time, we'd become more incorporated into each other's lives, to the extent we couldn't do without each other. He'd feel my growing love for him, and he'd be more comfortable sharing how he felt about me more openly. In other words, I'd know, without any question or doubt, that he loved me, in the way I'd always needed to be loved.
Love has not been an easy thing for Chris, either. I think he always knew his parents loved him, although, as was the case with my family, no one ever showed their affection in any demonstrative way. And, to my knowledge, no one ever said I love you, either. It was implied, which is the often the case in many families.
Plus, Chris had to deal with the break-up of his parents's marriage when he was in his early teens--in other words, with the dissolution of love--which I have no doubt scarred him, and set the tone for how he'd end up relating to anyone important in his life, whether me or someone else. To this day, I believe Chris kept me at arm's-length for years, because he was frightened any relationship he was in would meet a fate similar to that of his mother's.
So there we were. I needed love more than anything else in the world, and Chris, because of his own life experiences, especially maturing in a broken home, was unable to provide it. For many of the first years Chris and I were together, even after we moved in with each other, I knew he felt something for me, but I don't believe it was love. I believe it was respect. I believe it was kindness. I believe it was compassion. But it wasn't the love I was so desperate to experience.
I began to see a parallel between Chris and my father, although, I hasten to add, as far as his personality is concerned, Chris is not at all like my father. Rather, the parallel was their inability to openly express love toward someone, especially the person with whom they shared their lives, no doubt because of their bad experiences with love in relation to the people most important to them.
For many years, Chris never drank any alcohol--unless we went out to a club, which became less and less frequent the longer we were together. Perhaps not until we'd lived in Victoria a couple of years, about ten years into our relationship, did he begin to express an interest in wine, and he bought a beautiful wine stand in which to start a collection.
Chris is not an alcoholic by any stretch of the imagination. He simply enjoys a single bottle of red wine each weekend, making it last two or three days. I've never seen him drunk, but I've certainly seen him what-he-calls "feeling good," especially if we've been out to a dinner party, for example, where the host kept filling his glass, and Chris ended up indulging himself more than he usually would.
I began to realize how much more open Chris was on some of these occasions, when he seemed to be more affectionate, more forthcoming with his feelings, more willing to reveal how he felt about me. And I can't say I liked it. Because I was reminded of my father, having drunk too much, his breath smelling badly, the only time when he was able to reveal his true emotions.
And I resented it, too. I felt as though I wasn't good enough, that nothing I was, or said, or did would ever be good enough to elicit his love, in the way I needed to see it and not through the filter of alcohol. I hated that the only way I'd know he loved me was conditional upon how much he had to drink. If that was the case, I told myself, however erroneously, I'd just as soon not know at all.
Chris is not my father, make no mistake. But, in their inability to express their feelings openly, including telling the important people in their lives that they love them, and in their willingness to be more open about how they feel when they've had something to drink, they are so similar it scares me, and I hate to look at Chris and see parts of my father. Because of the way I feel about my father, I don't want to see Chris like that. He deserves better.
For many years, love from Chris felt conditional. To this day, he still doesn't use the words to tell me he loves me. Does that upset me? More so in the past than now, because we're still together, and because I know I'm Chris's exclusive life partner, and because I'm a lot less insecure and filled with self-loathing than I was before.
And because I know in so many different ways, every single day, how Chris feels about me. I've learned someone can tell you he loves you and not mean it. And someone can never tell you he loves you and show it in a million little ways, by showing up in your relationship and by being engaged in it and you, day-in and day-out.
What have I learned about how my father loved me from my relationship with Chris? That, of course, is a different story. Again, because there are so many significant differences between Chris and my father, I can't compare them. I'd like to say I learned, through the way Chris shows me, rather than tells me, he loves me, that I know now my father always loved me, too, even though he never told me he did. And that may well be the case, but too many other issues stand in the way of fully accepting this as the truth.
After having no contact with each other for nearly fifteen years, my father and I have exchanged emails sporadically for the past year and a half, and we continue to keep the lines of communication open between us. But, to say the least, we have a long, long way to go before I'll believe he loves me, and that I was ever important in his life.
Being with Chris, a version of my father in some respects and not a version in so many others, healed me in ways I never expected. Curiously, although nearly ten years younger than me, Chris has managed to re-parent me, to be the father I never had in some respects, by loving me in the way he knows how--which has, in the end, satisfied my needs--and by helping to validate my self-worth. Sometimes, love doesn't look the way we think it should, and maybe that's for the better. It doesn't mean it's not love.
Dr. Hendrix couldn't have been more accurate when he said a childhood "wound has to be repaired in a relationship in adulthood similar to your parents." Finally, I can say after nineteen years of being with Chris, my childhood wound of never feeling love, or loveable, has been healed. And that's just one of the many reasons why all of us should be open to the love of a significant other in our lives.