I’m going to preface this by telling you a bit about my life. I grew up an only child with a single mother who took care of me while my father lived on the opposite coast with his new wife. The events that lead up to that reality all happened before I started forming memories so I only know what happened through what I’ve been told, which I won’t repeat here. You might wonder why I bring this up and I’ll tell you it’s because it sets up a contrast of how I came to learn about love…what it means, what it entails, what is does and how it feels. This is also a story about how being told that someone loves you, while not seeing it in your relationship with them, is not the same thing and never could be.
My mother is a remarkable woman and worked her tail off to make sure that we had a home and a good life. This isn’t a stereotype-story of single-parents and poverty because I never knew poverty while I was home. She brought home the bacon and fried that sucker up too! She was there, when I was having trouble in school. She was there, when my health was failing. She was there, for little league games and band/choir concerts. And yes, she was there to help me deal with a skinned knee, a bruised ego and a broken heart. I saw the late nights and the early mornings. I saw the expense and effort (or at least I thought I did at the time) that she put out to take care of me. I saw that she genuinely wanted good things for me and worked hard to help me get them. She loves me…this I know…because I saw her…and she was there. Even now when I’ve been at my lowest points, she’s been there. There is no substitute for that and no way I could ever doubt her love because she’s shown it to me my whole life.
Before other family members get jealous or feel left out, I should also tell you that we have family in that were a steady presence in our lives and I also saw them because they have been and still are there. There’s no question and not a shadow of a doubt in my mind that there is love there…for them and from them. There never has been. That is what love is and that is what love does. It stays vigilant (even after an absence). It stays present (even from a distance). It stays active (even when you’ve disappointed, pissed off or hurt them). That’s just what love is.
The counterpoint to the love that I just described is a combination of obligation and entitlement. The sense that there “should” be a relationship and that there “should” be reverence or that there “should” be love in a relationship that involves unseen people who are rarely, if ever, there. I counterpoint the previously mentioned relationships with the relationship that I had with my father (God Rest His Soul). It was seen as important that I should get to know my father and have a relationship with him. The result was a number of attempts to keep in touch via telephone conversations (there was none of the Internet technology publicly available then) and a few visits over a period of 6-7 years. In wanting to build a relationship there, I was repeatedly told that my father loved me (by both parents and several other family members). I was bought expensive gifts for my birthday and Christmas. I went to great amusement parks and events when I went out to visit him. He made an effort to make me feel loved and special. I appreciated that, mostly because I was a young boy desperate for his father’s love but even more so desperate for his presence. I saw fathers at all of my friends’ houses, at the little league games, and at the concerts but mine wasn’t there…they didn’t see him and neither did I. I developed a passionate love for a football team from near his home, while growing up in the middle a rabid fanbase for the local team. One conversation I remember constantly having was:
Q: Why do you like that team?
A: I like them because of my dad?
Q: Oh yeah, where is he?
A: He’s not here.
Q: When do you get to see him?
A: I don’t.
As I grew older and saw all the things that one parent did that constantly showed me love, I started noticing all the ways that the other parent did not. The ‘I love you’s started to ring hollow. The ‘I care about you’s sounded false. The ‘We’ll see each other soon’s both sounded like, and later became, empty promises. Still, he is my father. I owe my birth and half of my genetic makeup to him. He’s in a position such that God directed me to honor him, as well as my mother. He has a relation to me that no other person could have with me. And yet, his choices and his actions told me something about our relationship, as Father and Son. He just wasn’t that into me.
No amount of “He’s my Father” could drown out the silence of inaction and inattention. No amount of “a Father loves his Son as a Son loves his Father” could make me believe otherwise. Time and track record had demonstrated that either his attention was on other choices, other people, other interests and other endeavors or that his choices involved me and he consistently chose to put his attention elsewhere. No amount of the love entitled to an parent could change it because I didn’t see his love and he wasn’t there. No amount of gifts could make me believe that his love was stronger than what was demonstrated. Despite his position and relation to me, he was never entitled to my love, I gave it freely. When the realization occurred, I reserved and withheld it but I’ve never stopped loving my father. I’m not sure anything could have happened to change that but the disengaged nature and expression of his love put a pretty strong ceiling on how high that love could ever be.
That time, when realization became understanding, was a brutal emotional time but it was very educational and has served me well in many relationships (familial, friends, lovers, partners and co-workers) since. It taught me lessons about love and how it’s expressed and what it feels like, but also that “doesn’t walk the talk” isn’t really love. I’ve been guilty of not walking the talk and I’ve received not walking the talk. In those times the realization was that love wasn’t the priority. When that is the case, when that realization comes into focus, it hurts…a lot. What hurts even more is holding out hope that someone is going to change their ways and decide to make “the person that they love” a priority so that their love can be seen and felt, not just talked about. Many of us do just that, I know I have. Then there comes a time when you have to look at the whole body of evidence and see where that person’s priorities lay. If they haven’t and don’t make time for you…If they don’t keep in touch or check-in on you periodically…If their relationship with you feels more like an entitlement for them and not an actively engaged relationship, then you might just have to look at that body of evidence and come to the conclusion…they’re just not that into you.
In that moment, both your “beloved” has two options. You can change the things you cannot accept (make the effort to demonstrate your love in a meaningful ways) or accept the things you cannot change (your walk doesn’t match your talk and it’s time your talk either caught up with or slowed down to match pace). I don’t have the answer for how to love better, I think most of us are looking for that. What I do have is a lesson for those who think they can fake love or are owed love…you can’t fake it and love is not a debt, it is a journey that requires you to be present, be active and stay vigilant. Short of that, be careful you don’t out-talk your walk because it won’t take them long to see you’re just not that into them.