Friday, May 20, 2011

Healed

Recently, I heard Dr. Harville Hendrix, internationally-known Clinical Pastoral Counsellor, say the following:    

"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 do 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.              

7 comments:

  1. Beautiful as always. We are all beneficiaries of the wisdom of your years. Thanks Rick. And say me hello to Chris (I'm visiting Britain presently and I want to sound like them. lol)

    Donald

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  2. I read somewhere that if you had a good relationship with your father, you'll try to find someone like him to marry, and if you had a bad relationship with your father, you'll seek out someone with some similar qualities as a partner, in an attempt to "do over" the unresolved issues, as though as an adult, you'll succeed in "fixing" the broken part of your relationship with your parent. Interesting....

    Thought-provoking post, as usual, Rick!

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  3. @Donald: Great to hear from you again. Thanks for taking the time during your visit to Britain, for your kind words, and for the greeting to Chris.

    I'm grateful to both you and Sarah for reading this very long post and still having the energy to leave a comment.

    @Sarah: Either way, whether your relationship was good or bad with your father, it looks like you end up with someone similar to him in your adult relationship.

    Of course, that was the whole point of this piece: to offer perspective on what happens when you find someone to partner with, and when you're with that person long enough to find out what your partnering with him will mean to your life.

    Thanks for your comment, Sarah. As always, what you write is encouraging to me.

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  4. After reading a bit of your blog, it made me soon realize that in several ways we have the same difficulties to acknoledge our strengths and to not victim us for our faults. First off, I´ve always been and will always be an overachiever and I hate that what I do sometimes will make my self-steem go up and down in a single flinch; but I´m working on that and now I´m happier than before.

    About this post in particular, I´m also gay and one thing that´s hard for me is that I can hardly see my girlfriend and when we do is a day a week and with some more friends around. We have been friends since 2005 and been dating since 09. She´s my best friend and I know she loves me because of all the things she does to go see me every sunday (which is the only free day of my week seeing that I´m getting two degrees) but it seems we never have enough alone time and when we do I always have this feeling that I would wanted her to be more physical affectionate, say more loving words; in a way like the way you felt.

    My question is that if I know she loves me and that later on we´ll have more time, do you think that having the thought of that will be enough? I just feel that every single opportunity we have, if it doesn´t happen I think "well, the next time it will." and then it doesn´t happen again and I just get that feelings out by fantasizing of the time we will have when we get off college, but the one thing I´m afraid is that maybe I´ll feel the same way and just keep asking more and more.

    I feel that circumstances aren´t the problem, but instead that my great need of being loved will never come to be satisfied if I don´t accept that I shouldn´t be so kind of needy or asking for more affections.

    It´s so wise what that doctor said; my parents weren´t word/physical affectionate with me, like it was and is implied but now is better than before. On the other hand, it took me a while to be opened up about my feelings and being really affectionate to my partner. I just keep saying to my self that if things doesn´t go that way I would want them too, maybe it has to do with something I´m doing wrong.

    I hope that eventually this feelings would go away and that circumstances will be enough for me to feel we can have time enough for us and that would eventually kind of fix my way of thinking and my constant need.

    I´m so grateful of finding someone that even in some ways have things in common with me; I just started to feel like a single point in the universe! In no ways I´m comparing us, seeing the experience you have and I have lots of respect to you, but I´m happy that I´m not the only one that could have felt bad for not preparing the perfect pancakes for a date or for wanting to feel better by having to achieve lots of stuff and such.

    Thank you for copping through all of this text and any suggestion it entirely welcome; I´m seeking the best advice that could only be such coming by someone that I best relate to.

    Hopefully, Mexico will one day be the liberal hope to us all, maybe one day we will have the same civil rights as everyone else, but till then maybe a scholarship or job will come up and one day I´ll be around there!

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  5. Wow, Chela. You've given me so much to work with here. Let's get started.

    You and I sound so much alike, in the sense we never felt love in any obvious way from our families (although, in their own ways, they did love us), and we are/were desperate to feel love from someone, because, otherwise, we are/were worried we might never feel it at all. I can relate to you so much, and what you're going through.

    What’s key for me in your comment is that you know your partner loves you, because she shows it in what she does so she can spend time with you every Sunday. Your partner is committed to being with you, and she works around both of your busy schedules to ensure you can be together as often as possible, at this point in time. This is a sign of love, no doubt about it.

    Okay, let’s talk about you now. I understand you so well, and where you’re coming from. So I have no hesitation telling you that your first priority, even before your partner and relationship, must be you. In the words you’ve written, I hear insecurity, low self-worth, and impatience–all of which can doom a relationship if they are not properly addressed.

    To emphasize it again, your partner loves you, and you know that. But what she’s giving you doesn’t feel like it’s enough. The truth is, I don’t know if she, or anyone else, could ever give you enough–even if you could spend more time together–because you are lacking in some key things only you can give yourself.

    So, before you scare your friend away by expecting too much from her–more than she could ever give you–start working on yourself. My blog is filled with information on how to recognize your self-worth, how to be less insecure, and how to love who you are, just as you are, as you rightly should. Please take a look at what I’ve written under the heading “self-esteem.” It will help.

    In addition, I recommend reading self-help books on how to improve your self-esteem. You can find this material in your local library or bookstores. Talk to a professional if necessary, and if you can afford it. You’d be surprised how a qualified counsellor can help you learn about yourself. And journal. I’m a big believer in writing it down so you can see it and work through it.

    In your comment, you ask the question (I’m paraphrasing): Should it be enough to know my partner loves me, and we’ll have more time to spend together in the future? My answer is yes. Because you are responsible to give yourself more of what you need. And because you know what you’re going through now is only temporary; you’ll have more time for each other soon.

    Some final thoughts: Love is patient. Love is sure. Love is confident. Love is secure. Ask yourself, do these words describe how I feel toward my partner? If they don’t, then maybe what you feel isn’t love. Maybe it’s something else altogether. Only you know. And only you can do what is necessary to get yourself there.

    Thank you for your interest in my blog and for your comment. I too hope we will all have the same civil rights as everyone else. All the best.

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  6. Thank you so much for your response, it really helped to understand and confirm some things I thought about myself.

    I´ll work around the rough edges of myself and the journal idea could really work for me.

    It´s wisdom and at the same time simple but hard to execute what is to love one self, appreciate us for what we are and maybe, just maybe we could grasp even a little of the love others can give to us.

    About my partner, I feel great about my partner and I always give my best all the time cause she deserves that and more.

    Again, thank you very much for taking the time and for having the great patience you have to find what could work best.

    I´m really grateful. Send you a big hug!

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  7. You're very sweet, Chela, and I'm glad to hear you think what I shared with you will help.

    I saw so much of myself in you, particularly the insecurity, and the need for your partner to show her love for you in more demonstrative ways. Through personal experience, I know they are symptoms of low self-esteem.

    I hated myself for many years, and it was a long, hard road to turn that around. But, as I've written here before, there is no greater, more important, journey in your life. I promise you that.

    The good news is, just by taking those first few baby steps forward, you'll feel the energy around it, and you'll begin to see how your life will be transformed for the better.

    I didn't suggest this in my initial response, but I strongly recommend you take a look at the series of posts I ran this past January, which was a reprise of posts I ran here two years earlier. The series is called "How to Love Yourself When You're Gay," but they apply to anyone who wants to improve her self-esteem. They're what I did, they are all very doable, and, if you give them a chance, they will change your life.

    I would very much like to hear from you again. If you have any further questions or need some additional help, you know where I am.

    All the very best on your journey. I wish you every success.

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