If we lived in a perfect land of unicorns leaping and feeding on marshmallows, we might have a best of all possible worlds where every child is born wanted, respected and loved.
Sadly, our world is different from that.
There are ways to survive and later to thrive, despite the lack of love from someone who should know better.
Even without realizing it, if you grow up with someone who should love you and doesn’t, you may go through the stages of grief:
- Denial. This can take the form of pretending the world is perfect. It can also take the form of compartmentalizing. Sometimes the only way to survive the trauma of being unloved is to mentally or physically escape. This can take both constructive and destructive forms. It can also take the form of constant trying and attempting to be good enough or noble enough for that person to love you – and to let that person or those persons ignore all your personal boundaries.
- Anger. If we deny the source of our grief, it is easy for it to come across as anger, sometimes in the form of displaced aggression.
- Bargaining. This is an especially toxic stage for the person who tries for years if not decades to be good enough or to sacrifice enough to be loved. The risk is we can sacrifice ourselves and our souls into a toxic state where we have no personal boundaries. Another risk here is we learn a pattern of behavior and response that we may repeat with other people because this is what we grew up doing.
- Depression. It is easy to internalize feelings of rejection and blame ourselves. Sometimes those who don’t love us will reinforce this by blaming us.
The challenge in maintaining relationships with toxic people who do not love us is that we will put ourselves into a self-imposed circle of hell, repeating cycles of denial, anger, bargaining, and depression. It is easy to mistrust good people and attribute bad motives that aren’t there but are in our past.
- Acceptance. This step can take a lifetime to reach. It’s when we realize this person does not love us and never did. Once we realize that, we can accept it. The time may come when we have to completely remove ourselves from toxic circumstances for our own self-preservation. There is no unwritten law that we must accept a lifetime of ridicule and insults. We deserve better. You deserve better. I deserve better. If we spend too much time on a self-destructive hamster wheel of the cycles listed above, it’s easy to get so consumed that we lack the time or energy to discover or cultivate positive relationships with people who will love us unconditionally.
The beauty of acceptance, or this final step, is that it’s possible to see how God took the pain and loss and found ways to bring other people in our lives to fill that gap. As Corrie ten Boom said, there is no pit so deep that God’s love is not deeper still.
With acceptance comes the ability to move forward and rediscover joy. When we reach that stage, it may even progress to where we feel compassion for those who cannot love unconditionally.
When you have faced – and accepted – the sorrow of not being loved by those who should, you will better be able to reach out in empathy to others in the same situation. You will recognize others who have had to create themselves despite a missing, foundational puzzle piece. I especially find myself called to encourage young people. The skills I learned as a mom – to fix the scraped knee and wipe away tears, or help a child learn to laugh despite a tough situation – will be put to use for a lifetime.
Aeschylus described how we can recover from searing, soul-shattering pain (translated from ancient Greek):
“Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart
until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
His grace is not awful. It is sufficient. As the pain drips from our hearts, a drop at a time, it is replaced with a wisdom and understanding.
And then, those who were unloved can love others.