A colleague of mine recommended the book "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families" by Stephen Covey. As a mother of three and wife of one, I'm always interested in anything that is trying to tell me how to improve family relationships and day to day life in general. Not because life is so terrible or because I think we are a particularly dysfunctional family but because family life takes up a lot of space - physically, mentally, and emotionally - and can be a pretty bumpy ride. Ultimately I think I'm looking for reassurance that we are on the right track (at least for some of the time), and also for ideas on how to make the journey smoother.
So I have decided that this book will be my non-fiction summer read and have only just started but one line has already grabbed my attention; Love is a verb. How true and obvious this may seem and yet, mostly we talk about love as a feeling, something that we have no control over but that just happens to us. I do think that some love does just happen to us and is biologically determined. I'm thinking of infatuation and falling in love. Nobody who has experienced this could deny that it is a feeling, it's powerful and we have no control over it. I think that another biologically determined love can hit us when we become parents, a love born out of instinct to protect and nurture a small human being placed in our care. The thing is that these kind of instinctive and biological loves don't always happen when we want them to and they can fluctuate, sometimes diminish, unless we also make the choice to love. Love as a feeling, however powerful, only becomes meaningful in action.
It would be a shame to be cynical about the feeling of love since it is such a positive and energising phenomenon but in some ways I find it quite liberating to think of love as a choice. If we relied on the feeling of love to keep our relationships going, I think we would set ourselves up for failure. Nobody can always feel love for the people they love. We can always choose to act lovingly though (however hard it may seem at the time!) and acting lovingly in turn will feed and nurture feelings of love. Unfortunately we seem to live in a society which places an unhealthy emphasis on love as an automatic emotion and this creates unrealistic expectations of what it means to be, and stay, in loving relationships. Most obviously this causes difficulties in romantic relationships as once the infatuation stage is over and the power of biology (the drive to have sex with the other person!) no longer sustains the bond, we begin to think that there is something wrong. On that note, I think that the infatuation stage is a highly narcissistic phase in which what you actually love is not the other person but yourself seen through their eyes. In other words, how being with them makes you feel about you. Like someone holding up a mirror that only shows all your positive characteristics. How wonderful and reinforcing that is and no wonder coming out of this phase can be so painful (often forced when you start living together) and the mirror starts to reflect all those hangups and insecurities that we all carry around and take with us in to our relationships, only to be revealed once we are attached enough to let our guard down. That is what makes the act of loving so rewarding though; it opens up the possibility of loving and being loved in spite of our hangups and insecurities. It is also through these relationships and the mirrors they hold up that we can fully discover ourselves, learn and grow as individuals - hopefully shedding a few hangups along the way!
Romantic relationships aside, I think that an expectation of automatic and uncontrollable loving feelings can also cause unnecessary pain and feelings of guilt in parents who may not feel instant love for their child. It doesn't make them bad parents but if they think it does it may impact on their ability to love their child as they will be more at risk of 'opting out' and believing that they haven't got what it takes. Sometimes it takes time to love and the more you do it the easier it gets. Love is a verb.