I have always felt uncomfortable hearing people say “I love you” to each other before hanging up the phone.
I feel the discomfort more so when people say it to me, expecting to hear the words back. It always follows with an awkward silence and some strange, unexpected response like “Thanks.”
For a long time, I envied anyone who could make the statement freely and mean it. It has often made me feel like I am missing a crucial part of my brain; like there’s some wire in there that’s disconnected, resulting in sporadic system failures.
It wasn’t until I was in college that I realized just how much of this uneasiness was the result of my own childhood and home life.
In most homes, hugging, kissing and saying “I love you” is customary. For me, the concept of any of it happening, especially on a daily basis, was foreign.
Although my mother will argue that all three existed for a time in my younger years, the memory is very faint, if not nonexistent, and when I think of home now I think of warm, fond memories of four cohabitants versus a Brady-bunch style family.
The hard truth is our parents are the foundation for who we become. They are the first people we look up to and, no matter how our personalities begin to take form in our teenage years, we take more from our parents than we’d like to admit, including how we learn to give and receive love.
Alicia Jackson, the coordinator of clinical programs at Florida A&M University, has learned much about this “observational learning” style in her six years with the Office of Counseling Services.
“How our parents see friendship, talk about friendship, and illustrate friendship to us affects how we think about what is healthy [or] unhealthy in friendship,” Jackson explained.
“If we have abusive, dysfunctional, and/or emotionally unhealthy relationships with [our parents]; we then begin to replicate what we think is love, intimacy, affection in our personal relationships with others,” she added.
In a way, your social personality is almost genetic. My mother is quite shy when it comes to meeting new people. Very rarely would she ever walk up to a new person in a room and spark a conversation, a trait I undoubtedly inherited from her.
Neither of my parents have a lot of friends, either, which could be the reason both me and my sister fancy smaller circles.
When considering love, the absence of affection in my home makes it difficult for me to perceive love in relationships, whether romantic or platonic, because the traditional things that symbolize this connection don’t register as endearing.
In contrast, it pushes me to distance myself from others sometimes because the sight of them is almost ingenuous to me, no matter how well intended the opposing party meant for it to feel.
Like me, many others struggle with breaking free from the effects of emotionally toxic home environments when entering the dating scene.
People whose parents never told them they loved them may have difficulty telling this to others. Those of us who grew up without experiencing consistent affection tend to struggle with sensitivity and being affectionate in a relationship. Others whose parents have never been in a long-term relationship, or whose parents only engage in polyamorous relationships, may feel incapable of commitment.
When you throw in societal standards and gender roles, the mixture can feel chaotic and impossible to overcome. However, a lot of this is just a mental game.
Though we came from them and adore them, we are not our parents, unless we choose to be.
It seems an unlikely statement, considering there have been countless studies that confirm that people often suffer the same fate in marriages and relationships that their parents did.
Oftentimes we forget that our parents are just like us and learned how to feel and show love from their own parents.
Not showing affection became a tradition my mom passed down from her parents, who didn’t believe in public displays of affection in front of children. My father comes from a Caribbean household, which I’ve learned is traditionally emotionally unexpressive; love is an idea that is understood versus shared.
The reality that you could end up in the same cycle your parents are caught in is a daunting one, but it is possible to overcome.
“Just because you never experienced love, remember you are worthy of love, you can still give love, and you can choose to live your life differently than you were raised. The way you began, doesn’t have to be the way you end,” Jackson said.
For a long time, I faulted myself for the barriers I created when it came to relationships in my life. Then I realized if I created them, I could dismantle them.
It’s not at all easy, but we are capable of creating any reality we want. However, it all begins with a choice. You must start with some reflection and decide to make a commitment to yourself and what you want.
For me, it was realizing that whether or not I needed it growing up, I want to prioritize affection and showing love in my own life.
The challenge with this becomes how do you learn to do something you have never seen modeled, and most importantly, how do you unlearn what you know.
Jackson, a mental health professional, says therapy could be a good place to start uncovering and understanding the root of certain behaviors in relationships, and just how you can change them.
“Therapy is a great way to determine what are those things that are most important about love that I seem to lack or I am not the best at conveying,” Jackson said. “Often, people find that there are some deep, private and hidden things that have happened in their past that have hindered their ability to be open and vulnerable.”
To start, Jackson suggests creating your own definitions of what love means to you, how to express it and “determine some healthy ways to cultivate love in your everyday life.”
This could mean starting as small as complimenting yourself in the mirror or doing some good in the community to outwardly express love towards strangers and those closest to you.
It’s also important to evaluate those around you as we learn love from others in our life. If someone you are close to isn’t giving you the treatment you want, reconsider the relationship.
“Remember, the Kingdom of Kush wasn’t built in one night. We are all works in progress and everyone’s journey is different. Being committed to doing things differently means I am going to face some challenges, but have faith that those changes can lead to a better you,” Jackson said.
We all have trauma we associate with our parents, families and childhood in very different sizes. We can shift blame for personality traits but, at some point, we must take the reins back and decide how we want to move forward.
Love languages, though often influenced by them, are not inherently genetic. While there is some truth in the statement “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” the apple does fall and break off from the tree.
You can choose to decide to be rooted in the shadow of your parents’ love traditions, or you can grow a new understanding of the word. Whatever you decide, be patient with yourself. It takes time to reprogram your thinking, but over time the work will be well worth it.