To lose love is terrible, but to never have had it is worse still

Earlier this month, I wrote a column suggesting that the only “true love”was that existing between parent and child. Several contributors to the comment thread remarked – quite rightly – that I was ignoring the fact that there were parents and children who did not love one another.

I know this can be the case, however rare, and it is a tragedy. An unloved child can barely survive – experiments with chimpanzees have shown that, even if they are well fed and sheltered, to be removed from their parent’s nurture is disastrous, and they will waste away and often die.

Human beings are perhaps more resilient, since they can at least conceptualise such behaviour and try to explain it. Unfortunately, children who are unloved have, like all children, an unformed set of conceptual tools to make sense of such things. They are also extraordinarily vulnerable: they rely absolutely on their parents for their survival.

Their need for their parents to be benevolent is so urgent and intense that is bound to lead to a certain amount of rationalisation. The logic might go something like this: “I cannot afford to believe that my parents do not actually have my best interests at heart, or in fact, wish me harm. Therefore I must ensure I have some kind of agency – that is, the hope that I can, through personal effort, find a way of making them love and protect me. If they are punishing me by not giving me their love and protection, it is my fault. And if it is my fault, by working hard I will find a way to behave of which they will approve, and therefore deliver their love to me, which I so urgently need.”

The fact that this way of behaving will probably have no effect on the behaviour of their parents is beyond the child’s resources or comprehension. So they fall into the pattern of desperately trying to please their parents at any cost. And every failure, they feel as a personal failure, rather than a lack on the part of their parents.

This is a tried-and-tested recipe for depression later in life. As any psychotherapist knows, most depressives are people who want to be good, but can’t find a way of doing it. They hate themselves and consider themselves failures. This is often rooted in their relationship with their parents, and their struggle to be acknowledged and cared for.

This behaviour may continue long after the parent has been separated from them, or is dead. Guilt and a sense of failure may be a lifelong curse for such people. Stronger children, perhaps, will find the wherewithal to reject unloving parents, or at least see them for what they are. They will be furious with their parents – but this may be a more functional way of responding to a lack of care, rather than the continuing desperation to please them. And the fury may eventually be replaced, one day, by a relatively painless indifference.

The damage is mainly on the child’s side, but of course, it is no picnic being a parent who is unable to love – as some women who suffer postnatal depression may be able to testify. Parents who don’t love their children may be condemned, but they also are an object for pity, perhaps even sympathy. For, in not loving their children, they are not only harming them, but also inflicting a wound on themselves from which they can never recover. It may not be their fault – their own childhood experiences may have led them to such a stance or orientation.

To lose love is a terrible thing. To never have had it – or never to have given it – is worse still. So, yes – I must acknowledge that the love between parent and child is not always true love. It is simply the love that every child passionately needs, and has the right to expect.