Ambivalent Love


It’s the month of February, a month for wiping out huge inventories of red roses and setting false romantic gestures in motion. I haven’t written much about love and romance, because, with the exception of my husband, I have a long history of being quite awful at it. That’s a subject for another day. Or never.

There’s a kind of love that is harder to practice than all the rest. There are people in my life that make love a challenge, a constant renegotiation to see their positive sides, to recognize their intent versus what actually happens or is said. We all have them – friends or family that don’t make it easy to love them.

Many years ago, shortly after having my daughter, I decided to talk to a family therapist. Some issues of childhood had reared their ugly Medusa-like heads and I desperately wanted to be a good parent. I was involved in a dysfunctional volley of exchanges with someone I wanted to believe could change. I quit acquiescing and started to challenge this person’s behavior.

I come from a long history of mental illnesses and substance addictions. The easiest people to love were the ones that married into our families, but often, due to the aforementioned issues, those people came and went on a fairly regular basis. We got glimpses of normal behavior – just enough to know that normal would be an ambitious goal for anyone in our family.

I have compassion and understanding for those that suffer from mental illnesses. I’m all for social justice and a better system to identify and support people who need assistance and kindness and compassion. When it’s in my face though, infiltrating every corner of my world, exhausting me at every turn, calling me names, stealing my money and holding me hostage to drama, I can feel very hardhearted.

It’s hard to love someone who can only take. They’re so knee-deep in their own shit that they can’t see anything else. You long for them to be interested in your smart, delightful daughter or what you have written or to appreciate what a kind, decent man you have married. But it doesn’t happen. They never ask about your life during phone calls and when they do, it’s a perfunctory nod before they go into their own tales of woe.

Growing up, I was good at being a fixer, a mediator of sorts. This role followed me and even after I left home, I’d get letters letting me know everything that was going wrong, being asked to intervene on this person’s behalf or that. As a kid, I felt important and needed and valued in that role. As an adult, I was frustrated and angry and I’d swear that I wouldn’t get sucked in again. Until the next desperate phone call.

This self-importance gave me a way of positioning myself, a way of seeing how I fit into the world, a false sense of superiority over those more troubled than I. Until my troubles came. Instead of saving everyone else, I had to save myself. If they threw me bricks instead of life preservers, I shut them out. I quit a dead-end job, an off-again on-again relationship, and moved farther away. Emotionally, I might as well have been in outer space, unreachable.

I needed that time to establish my own identity. It’s a natural process as we become adults to see those boundaries. It wasn’t until my late 20s that I recognized that it was even okay to have boundaries -that it was okay not to be a dumping ground for everything wrong in one’s family.

I got married. I became a parent. And my heart softened. I again longed for connections to those people that I had loved my whole life. I longed for some sense of normalcy – family holidays, pictures of all of us in one place, children laughing and playing together, running around the dining room table. I longed for stupid Norman Rockwell. I longed for something that never existed.

Re-entry was horrible and painful and left me heartbroken. The sickening realization came over me that there would never be another family gathering, except possibly for funerals. Even then, we’d stand shoulder to shoulder, like strangers on a subway.

My daughter would likely never know many of her cousins or aunts and uncles. People had begun dying in sad, awful ways before she was born. My father committed suicide. Alcoholism had killed several others. I was left with a handful of people with whom relationships were difficult, uncomfortable and frustrating.

Romantic love, when you’re both ready and right for each other, is easy. Day-to-day love can be challenging at times, but you learn and adjust to the others’ needs. Family love inside this house is very easy. We work together, squabble on occasion, but for the most part, we have each others’ backs.

Loving people that don’t have social skills, who are so mired in their own worlds that they can’t imagine you existing outside of their universe, who only come to you when they need something – that is a tougher kind of love. Loving people that seek to lash out, to cause harm, to damage everything in their path, is nearly impossible.

While in therapy,  I ran across a passage in a book (I wish I could recall the source) that has stayed with me for many years. It referred to treating someone with mental illness like a force of nature. You wouldn’t stay in the path of a tornado, just in case it changes direction. You’d get out of the way, seek shelter and protect yourself. You can’t love a mental illness away. You can’t empathize self-destruction out of someone.

I had more leeway in my life for drama before having my own family. I’m at a time of life when things are the busiest – a young child at home, aging relatives to care for, juggling career goals with family goals, trying to accept that it’s okay to be happy, even when those people that I love are not. But the longing never goes away, no matter how much I intellectualize things.

I love them and I miss them. I’ve helped all I could manage. I’ve listened for as long as I can listen. I will rally myself for another round. I don’t want to enable or to judge. I recognize that their lives can be painful and difficult and I do feel compassion. It’s a hard kind of love.


31 thoughts on “Ambivalent Love

  1. You are a very strong, determined, courageous woman. I can’t click ‘like’ because I can’t like the start you got in life. All you’ve had to deal with. But I do so appreciate that you’ve shared your story; and that you have been able to create a world for yourself, your husband and daughter with plenty if love in it.


    1. I wrote this as a way of rallying myself, because big events, both sad and happy are happening in the family and I should want to reconnect. I’m just tired (and down with yet another cold!). I feel extraordinarily selfish and insular at a time when life is pretty good and I should feel more generosity of spirit. And they, I’m sure, don’t need me in their lives, if I am going to be so begrudging and resentful. Just trying to work through it.
      Despite what I write about my family of origin, I don’t feel self-pity. I have been very fortunate in so many ways. It’s just, on occasion, I struggle with the longing. Thanks for your kind words, Fransi.


      1. You’re not being selfish. Just human. Hope you get rid of your cold soon. Everywhere I turn here people are sick. It’s been a very bad winter for colds and flu.


        1. It’s been awful here. We barely get back up before something else knocks us down. Part of it is having a small child who brings back many small child germs from school, and a husband that rides public transportation every day. I’m just the recipient of cooties.


        2. Yeah, once they’d infiltrated it is so hard to get rid if them. It’s miserable. Who knew germs (or the lack there of) would turn out to be a benefit of living alone 🙂


      2. ” I struggle with the longing …” Me too! I know exactly what you mean although I wish I didn’t. I wasted too much time looking wistfully in the direction of other people’s lives before learning to let go of what my family of origin could never be and build a good life within the realm of possibility.

        Love your posts!


        1. It took me a quite some time to recognize it as longing and not just anger. Unfortunately, I think that sense is more common than not for a lot of people. As you point out, once you let go, you can get on with the business of building a good life for yourself.

          Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Elizabeth. I read your most recent post and had planned on returning to it and commenting when I could be thoughtful and not rushed. So glad that you and John are okay!


  2. I’ve been wondering why people tend to reconnect (or want to) at this time of year. Almost to make up for everything they hadn’t done the prior year, or because they’re more keen to the passage of time, with every year that goes by. It’s an introspective time of year, for sure. Glad you are working through your thoughts and feelings in this way. It sounds very positive and grounded.


    1. I think about the nature of love at this time of the year because it commercially gets shoved down our throats. And there are specific events that are happening right now with my family – deaths and births, that force me to evaluate how I want to move forward.
      You just gave me an idea for my blog’s tagline: Always grounded, occasionally positive. There’s a reason I don’t have a tagline – I am too damned moody to be consistent!


  3. Michelle, if your husband’s family is better balanced and more positive, there is nothing wrong with arranging things so that your daughter knows them better… go with what’s healthy and enjoyable. Kids get a raw deal; they have no rights. Their parents might decide that they MUST spend time with Toxic Granny or Miserable Aunt, just because they are related. Well – we adults are not required to poison our lives with that stuff, so why impose it on the kids?

    I’m not saying to cut ties; just… mute them a bit. And turn up the volume on the pleasant relationships.


    1. I have, for the most part, put some distance in and my daughter has limited, but polite relationships with my side and really good relationships on her father’s side. This is my pause, my meditation to acknowledge that some kinds of love are just more difficult than others.


  4. Another exceptional post, Michelle. Several things here resonated with me.
    “… I recognized that it was even okay to have boundaries -that it was okay not to be a dumping ground for everything wrong in one’s family.”
    It took me much too long to realize this. It’s true that you can’t love mental illness away. The best you can do is not let it wreck you completely.


    1. It’s a hard balance to feel compassion without allowing yourself to be an emotional punching bag. Sometimes I fear that my need to protect myself makes me so much less kind than what I can afford to be. I’m at a different place now, but echoes of the past make me hesitant to reach out again. I try to imagine that if I have changed, perhaps there is a chance they have, too.


  5. Thank you for sharing, Michelle. You must have a huge capacity to love because God has given you a challenging situation. I can tell that you love those that are difficult to love even though you might never get to take a Rockwell picture with them.
    It is a fine line you are drawing between enabling and judging. I admire your self-awareness. {{{Hug}}} Kozo


  6. Thank you for writing this! I also have quite a few people in my life dealing with mental illnesses and addictions. I understand that when they act out and hurt me it’s only a reflection of how they feel about themselves – but that only makes me want to be there for them even more. I struggle with knowing my boundaries – when trying to help someone is becoming more harm for me than good it is for them. But you’re absolutely right, “You can’t love a mental illness away. You can’t empathize self-destruction out of someone”. Thank you for sharing!


    1. Thank you for reading and commenting. I was where you are at for many years. I thought I could fix things and make things better for them, but in the meantime, I was doing a lot of damage to myself. It’s a fine line and at some point, it’s good to take a step back and look at the long history of one’s relationships, to see if more harm than good is being done. Personal sacrifice on your part is only useful if it’s supporting their move towards change, not if it’s only part of the “cycle”. It’s often hard to tell, especially since people can be very good at convincing one that they are changing.


  7. This is a really profound post. I admire you for laying it out so plainly. Boundaries…this post makes me think of my step mother who is bipolar and struggling with addiction. I miss her and wish I could reconnect, but I also know that i would just be running in circles if I tried again.


    1. I think that, too, can be a sad realization – knowing when to let it go. I’ve found that as I’ve gotten older, I’ve felt compelled to let sleeping dogs lie. I often ask myself, and this is a bit morbid, if I were on my deathbed, what would I regret? More often than not, the loss of these painful relationships are less likely to be on the list. Running in circles is an apt way to describe them.


      1. I have a strong desire for peace – sometimes that has not served me well, you know that whole “don’t let the sun go down on your anger” thing? I’ve had to learn the hard way that its no always possible. Your thought about regrets is a good compass.


        1. Another pointer I picked up along the way is that we all play specific roles in our family dynamic and when we change, we throw everything into chaos. Bad behavior becomes worse for a time, until things can settle into a new configuration. So sometimes, maintaining the peace is at the expense of keeping the status quo, but at other times, it’s what you do to retain your personal sanity. I vote for sanity every time.


  8. Your blog brought tears to my eyes. Why does family have to be so messy? I have the same feelings about my daughter’s relationship with some of our family members. If only there were an easier way… You literally stole these words from my mouth tonight. ❤ Sending so much love and blessings your way. Congratulations for trying to improve yourself


    1. I had a few tears when I wrote the post. Sadly, all of us are aging, with kids of our own and I wonder if it’s too late. We all scattered to the 4 winds and built lives away from the chaos of childhood. Nobody wants to go back to those memories, so what we share is very little except genetics. Even those of us who remain in touch have very awkward, sometimes painful relationships. I think the more important thing is to recognize the positive connections and emphasize those, build those, so that while there is always a possibility to reconcile what is broken, one’s life is not spent longing for that which may be impossible.
      Thank you for reading and taking the time to share your own feelings.


      1. You are changing the fate of future generations. By demonstrating how to develop good relationships and compassion for others, we take responsibility for the lives ahead of us. We break the chain. Good luck, and I’m cheering for you. You’re not alone


  9. Wow, you are most certainly not alone in your struggle. As I read this it was as if I’d written it myself in some alternate universe. My family of birth has been a continual struggle of wanting to be around them and then being reminded why I’m usually not. My nuclear family is the one that constantly reveals to me the awesome value of doing the hard work in therapy. 🙂


    1. I think a lot of people probably struggle with this – even families where there aren’t issues of addiction and mental health problems. I am grateful, every single day, for the family I live with, but sometimes do long for better connections to my family of origin.


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