Love and Wealth are Not Enough
What’s the most important ingredient for a happy life?
Philosophers, clergy, psychologists and researchers of all kinds have offered opinions on this question over the last five decades. Some say wealth, some say religion. Still others say family is the most important thing.
But one factor emerges over and over in study after study as a primary ingredient which must be present in childhood to produce a happy, healthy and well-adjusted adult. That factor is emotional attachment, warmth and care. In a word, love.
This factor was recently studied very specifically by Harvard researchers (Vaillant, 2012) who wanted to compare the effects of childhood financial wealth with childhood warmth. By following over 200 men (yes, only men) over an extended period of 70+ years, they were able to identify clear patterns. They saw that childhood financial wealth has little to do with adult success, satisfaction and adjustment. And that parental warmth and care throughout childhood is a much more powerful contributor.
Some may wonder, “What’s the big deal? Don’t virtually all parents automatically love their children?”
In my years as a psychologist, I have seen for myself that money is not enough to raise a healthy child. But I’ve also seen that love is not enough. At least not the generic, “I love you because you’re my child” kind of love.
Beyond feeling loved, a child has to feel known. A child has to feel that her parents know her and love her for who she truly is: strengths and weaknesses, personality traits, preferences, foibles and quirks. She must feel that her parents see the real her and know the real her. That’s the only kind of love that feels true and genuine. It’s the only kind of love that produces a child with healthy self-esteem, a strong sense of identity, and resilient self-worth.
One question that I often ask my patients is: “Growing up, did you know that your parents loved you? Or did you feel that your parents loved you?” It’s a vital distinction. Because you can know that someone loves you without actually feeling it. Here are some examples of known love vs. felt love:
• A man looks back on his childhood and can see his parents’ love for him in the fact that they provided him with a good home, nice clothes, plenty of food and a good education.
• A woman knows that her husband loves her because he has stayed married to her for 20 years and has never cheated.
• A child knows that her parents love her because they buy her lots of toys and games and take good care of her.
• A man looks back on his childhood and can feel his parents’ love for him in the memory of his parents taking turns comforting him every night for weeks after his beloved hamster died.
• A woman feels that her husband loves her because he noticed that she seemed unhappy lately, and asked her about it with care and concern.
• A child feels that her parents love her because they understand that the reason she got in trouble in school is because she was upset that her friends have been excluding her lately.
Of course, there is no clear line between knowing and feeling. Most people look back on their childhoods and see some of both. The real question is did you feel it enough? Did you feel that your parents truly “got” you? Did they understand and know you for who you truly are? Do they now?
If the answer is “yes,” then you probably got an excellent foundation for success in your life. You probably know yourself, your own preferences, foibles, weaknesses and strengths. And you probably feel that overall, when you add it all up, it adds up to “good enough.”
If the answer is “perhaps not,” then you may still have received some positive things from your childhood. And it certainly helps if you at least had the knowing type of love from your parents.
But without enough of the true, genuine kind of feeling love in your childhood (Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN), you may struggle in adulthood with self-doubt, self-discipline, self-blame or self-care somewhat more than other people. You may marry someone who, like your parents, does not have the ability to know the real you, and love you for the full and complete picture of who you really are.
If you suspect that this may be true for you, here are some suggestions to put you on the road to providing yourself with both knowing and feeling love:
1. Acknowledge that your parents were limited in what they could provide you. There is a reason for your struggles. It’s not your fault.
2. Make it your goal to get to know yourself. Pay attention to yourself in a way that you never have before. Notice your interests, passions, preferences, likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses. If you can, write down every discovery so that you will have a long list of words that describe you.
3. Start paying more attention to your own feelings and emotions. As often as you can, pause and ask yourself, “What am I feeling right now? And why?” Make an effort to accept what you feel as valid and important. Work on learning to accept, understand, manage and express your feelings.
4. These three steps can be very challenging. For guidance walking you through the process, and to learn more about the effects of growing up without feeling love, Take the Childhood Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
You can spend a lifetime chasing dollars, possessions, or the wrong kind of love. Or you can stop, realize that life is short. And focus on what really matters.
To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, see my first book Running on Empty.
This article was originally published on Psychcentral.com and has been republished here with the permission of the author and PsychCentral.
I think that this article touches bit on what I have come to feel about love.
As a child, my parents were too emotionally pre-occupied to be particularly nurturing and supportive – particularly during my adolescence. From my mother, I developed the idea that my best way to express love was through patience, deferring my needs, and through self-sacrifice. My father worked away, and when I
attempted to share my feelings with my mother, I was actually teased and ridiculed. In retrospect, my family was experiencing significant financial trouble at the time, that was kept from us kids (ostensibly to protect us) and I am sure that the magnitudes of my teenaged angst seemed petty, at the time, in comparison – but the impression made felt permanent.
I was lucky, in one respect: I experienced love as a source of emotional support, from my grandmother.
Anyway, I grew up thinking that the way to express love was through acts of patience, overlooking transgressions, and doing nice things for the people in my life, but not expecting much from others, accepting impassivity (or the absence of complaint) as approval.
People who expressed their love emotionally, potential partners who ‘led with their hearts’, freaked me out – I didn’t know how handle them. I missed out on a lot of life as a result of a lack of confidence in emotional expression.
Eventually, I sought therapy, and got to the point where I met someone, we got married, and had a child.
It’s not perfect, but we try to make it work. What I have found, and what led me your work, was this renewed sense of love, particularly as a parent, expressed as acts of patience, but my son, as a child gives and receives love in terms of emotions. I take care to make sure that he ‘feels’ loved, but I lack confidence that he does indeed feel it – particularly when he acts in ways that are different to my expression of love – acting impatiently, or making excessive demands for my time or attention and I begin to feel frustrated and resentful.
In those instances, I suspect that he knows he’s loved, but may not really feel it. Not like when we share happier times, and we share a sense of joy with each other.