What you’re “supposed to feel”

No matter what kind of family or culture we were born into, we got instructed on what we should feel under this or that circumstance. Some of the instructions came in the form of admonitions (“Of course you love him, he’s your father!”) and some in the form of role modeling. As children, we learn a lot from the behaviors we observe being demonstrated by those around us.

Real love is rooted in a naturally-occurring feeling we have for another person, but love is institutionalized in a variety of ways. New mothers are “supposed to” love their babies, but this isn’t always the case. It may be a hormonal thing, as with post-partum depression, or it might be that the child was conceived by rape; but a mother who doesn’t spontaneously feel love for her newborn is usually judged or blamed. Children are “supposed to” love their parents, but not all parents are worthy of their children’s love.

We all have feelings about our feelings. We may feel ashamed for having been afraid, or angry at ourselves for being depressed. A number of people I worked with over the course of my career felt terribly guilty for not loving a parent or other close relative who had neglected and/or abused them. We can’t choose what we authentically feel about anyone, and nobody has the authority to tell you what you’re “supposed to” feel. Real loving feelings either arise spontaneously, or they don’t. It’s not something we owe someone just because we’re blood relatives.

Gestalt guru Fritz Perls said that most people are socialized to be phony. Ideally, a kiss is a genuine expression of affection or love. But many times in some families, children are told to hug and kiss a relative because (s)he’s kin, whether or not the child feels affection or love for that person. Kissing may become a hollow social ritual, performed because it’s expected. In some family situations, a child may be expected to kiss someone who has abused or neglected them, or whom they find “creepy.” In some cultures a child may be required to kiss a dead relative at a funeral. This sort of thing can be a traumatic experience. It can be a perversion of what a kiss is meant to express. You can’t make yourself love someone any more than you can make someone love you. But you might be put in a position where you feel you have to fake it. When Perls called a behavior phony, he wasn’t judging the client; he was observing that the behavior wasn’t an authentic expression of feeling.

I’ve worked with couples in loveless marriages who reflexively claim to love one another, because that’s what’s expected, when they haven’t felt love for their partner in a long time. It’s not always black and white, however. Observing my father’s parents as a youth, I came to understand the term “love/hate relationship.” Love and hate can be closely allied, and it’s been suggested that the opposite of love isn’t hate, but indifference.

Relationships can be emotionally nourishing or, at the other end of the continuum, they can be toxic. People can change, and family systems can change. Often the goal of family therapy is to change the family system and to promote reconciliation between family members. But this isn’t always possible. Bad marriages can be terminated by divorce, but your parents will always be your parents – for better or for worse. I’ve worked with people who’ve tried time and again to reconcile with family members, only to find that the relationship remains toxic to them despite their best efforts. If a client had gotten to the point where they’d concluded that a family relationship would never be anything but painful for them, I’d suggest that she had the option to “divorce” that relative. It’s a sad happenstance, but it’s sometimes necessary for healing to begin.

I’ve also suggested that not all “kinfolk” need be blood-related, that you might have brothers and sisters you haven’t met yet. There are several people in my life that I consider “found” brothers and sisters. Someone who was abused or neglected by a parent might later find a nourishing relationship with an “other mother” or with a man who feels like the father he wishes he’d had. I’ve seen it happen. The mere fact of blood relationships doesn’t necessarily confer lifelong obligations, and certainly not the obligation to feel a certain way about a member of your birth family. We feel what we feel, and there’s no “should.” Rational thinking can free us from the tyranny of “shoulds.”

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