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December 18, 2019



Here we go again. As the holidays are approaching, you can hardly turn your head in any direction without being plied with messages about family love. For some, of course, this is true and joy abounds and for others, the holidays are filled with dread and heavy planning on how to cope. Sometimes I feel that stretchers and IV units would be better equipment to have on hand than candy canes and egg nog. As I hear reports of harshness, slights and jealousies at family gatherings, it is clear emotional ruptures of every size and shape become highly prevalent under the pressure to be connected and not disappoint. In many ways, we are told directly and subliminally that family is our main, if not our only source of love; BLOOD IS THICKER THAN WATER. Blood is thicker but is it love ?

The phrase, ‘blood is thicker than water’ creates a measure; family ties offer better love than love from other sources. Love in it’s most alive form, feels pretty good and not all love feels the same. There are countless ways to be expressive with people we love and who love us. The thing is sometimes your expression even well intentioned falls flat. I love rock n’ roll blues, my sister winces at the thought of anything but Mozart. Is wincing if I happen to mention my taste, really a loving response ? Dozens of winces create a tear.

USABLE love characteristically feels a certain way, offering a lightness of being in which you feel recognized, cherished and received in safety, free of judgment. It’s motivating and inspiring and it comes easily. Sometimes the word flow applies. I recognize it easily with people and their pets; it’s immediate, happy and clear. Animals are not opinionated and even if they are every once in a while, they are not big on rejecting you when you feed or walk them later than usual.

Some families offer KNOWABLE love. You can see that you are loved through behaviors though you may not be able to feel comfortable wavelengths in the connections. With any luck, your creature needs are met; food, clothing, shelter and intellectual guidance all of which take considerable effort and are gratitude worthy.

Knowing that you are loved and feeling loved are distinct experiences. Sometimes we feel genuinely aligned and close and sometimes there is appreciation with a space between. Some spaces between are more like chasms which can send us crashing.

I remember a movie scene in which two sisters are sitting together at a dining table. One sister is snarky and rude to the other and laughs at her. It’s an unpleasant interaction. The sister being teased expresses annoyance. The jabbing sister says but ‘I’m not laughing at you, I’m laughing with you.” To which the jabbed sister replies ‘but I’m not laughing. Scene: pained expression, no eye contact ; fade to black.

Recently in my office, I listened to a mother and her 22 year old daughter haggling over love like it was a commodity rather than an experience of. The mother in frustration, sputters;
‘You know, I love you.’ Her daughter grimaces, ‘I know you love me, I can never feel you love me.’ As I witnessed them, honestly, I wasn’t feeling the love either and yet this mother and child were willing to sit with me, a relative stranger, exposing themselves with embarrassing issues even taking responsibility for some of their not so wise choices. I don’t know anyone who was able to let their mother know how isolated they were feeling without being met by a guilt laden response. This mother was on edge but she was there and paying to be there with money, heart and time. I understood they loved one another and yet the vibration between them was less than ideal. Their natural approach to life rested on different footing. One was spontaneous, lyrical and artistic and the other was methodical, practical and dutiful. They were cut from a different cloth. Still not every thread was incompatible. They worked to find some genuine common ground and what was essential; discontinued making one another’s differences wrong. The understanding in this acceptance was the salve.

Within blood ties, there is no guarantee that both knowable love and usable love are available. No statement like ‘blood is thicker than water’ overrides your personal experience of love because repeating instructions on what is supposed to be will not genuinely change anything. You feel and receive love or you don’t. Rating one kind of love over another creates dishonesty and useless feelings that lead people to devalue love that is chosen versus love from blood ties. This does not support anyone through feelings of aloneness. Only being present and creating authentic connections inside and out can speak to that.

A few weeks ago a friend lost her brother from whom she was estranged. She received this message from a dear friend; “You always have a place with me. I hope knowing how wonderful you are will bring you some solace with the loss of your brother. We might not be biological family but we are family of choice.”
As we go into the holiday season, enjoy the love that is there for you in whatever way you can feel truly valued. When family ties are challenging, there are always your chosen people, your canines, movies that you want to watch, popcorn and new days ahead to forage, collect and cultivate potential love in many forms that can present itself in an instant.

Martine J. Byer, LCSW -writer and psychotherapist

212 865-5763
646 498-9045

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