Swans Commentary » swans.com March 13, 2006  



The Love Extortionists


by Charles Marowitz





(Swans - March 13, 2006)   "Give us a big kiss before you go," says the puckering mommy with half-shut eyelids as her dutiful 6-year-old busses her smack on the lips. When, at the end of his school day, he returns home, her open embrace will be like a cuddly extension of the cushy great womb from which the child first sprang into the world.

When he goes to bed, he will be exposed to yet another Love Ritual. "Who's mommy favorite little boy and who loves mommy best?" "I love mommy best," squeals the drowsy, tousled-headed child who wants nothing more than to sink into slumberland, although there will probably be another protracted hug-and-kiss before sleep is actually permitted. This ceremony will be repeated ad infinitum before playtime, parting, breakfast, lunch, dinner, and bedtime. Often, it is the parent who craves more reassurance than her bewildered child.

If a tiff disturbs the harmony of this curious love affair, if the delinquent child accidentally breaks a precious object or acts disobediently to Mummy or Daddy, or prefers the company of his capering peers to his more sedentary parents, the ritual will be brusquely suspended. But only temporarily. By the next day, it will be back in place, the vows of love pledged again with reinforced fervor.

In routine and involuntary actions such as these, love is constantly extorted to reassure Mummy and Daddy that there will always be an endless flow of gushing affection between their offspring and themselves.

As time goes on, the Love Ritual becomes formalized, then routinized and ultimately rigidified. That's to say, like all mechanically iterated gestures, it becomes empty. The assumption of shared love between child and parent will remain until the child, fed up with the need to demonstrate what is no longer felt, rebels into rejection or spirals into neurosis. What follows then is flight: severance of relations with the possessive parent and a desperate attempt to crack the frozen layers of love that have congealed around a purely ceremonial relationship. An expensive shrink will eventually come to the conclusion that his/her problem is that more love was demanded by the parent than the child could possibly deliver, and the realization that it was prompted from a sense of duty rather than genuine affection downloads the guilt which ultimately triggers the neurosis.

We all know about a child's need for love, the nurturing love that gives the child security and defense against the buffets of the world, but we do not heed the parent's need for a similar kind of love; one that assures Mother or Father that the turmoil and sacrifice of rearing a child has been rewarded by the prize they have assiduously worked for years to obtain: an unconditional and inviolate proof of affection.

As time goes on and parents get older, the need to be loved by their children exponentially increases. Ironically, it becomes less and less manifest in their children, who are now preoccupied with love objects of their own: dates, parties, members of the opposite or same sex. As children are frantically trying to assert their independence and discover their own personalities, the clinging parent desperately tries to reassert their parental authority, the corollary of which is the demand to be loved as they were when children. The result is anger, resentment, bitterness, and rupture. How could the darling little child who had always been so loving suddenly turn against them? Of course, if they were honest enough to examine the nature of the love they drew from their children they might have to admit it had been extorted rather than given freely; a conditioned reflex rather than a natural impulse.

I am not deriding love nor its importance in childhood to both parents and children. I am saying only that one can as easily be bludgeoned by love as uplifted by it. When it is obsessive and tries to fill a vacancy in the parent, it is no longer that reciprocal feeling both parties pretend it to be. It is a "show of feeling" wrenched from the child by the parent which inevitably rebounds upon the extortionist.

Just as the criminal extorts money from helpless victims that are coerced into purchasing protection, so children resent the affection that is wrested from them by compulsion. "Who loves mommy best?" "I love mommy best -- and if I don't, mommy will find some subtle way of withholding goods or services, social approval or emotional succor, until I do!"

The fault must be laid squarely upon the shoulders of obsessive parents who turn their child into a churn that constantly produces routinized affection. If parents could be made aware that they are inculcating an unhealthy dependency that, in later life, will rebound on them, they might cultivate the tender restraint that is so much more enabling to the child than the slobbering kiss and the suffocating embrace.

Ultimately, it is this warped love, this manufactured sense of esteem, which produces the worst psychic consequences for the adult. Although there is much in Freudian psychology that has become highly questionable, Freud's basic premise that the inner life of the child determines the character of the adult remains an unassailable truth.

In place of a love that is consciously engendered and methodically indoctrinated, parents should try to establish a tender concern that takes the form of quiet reassurance and tacit concern. Supportive actions can just as readily be heart-to-heart chats or exchanges of letters, objectively offered advice or quiet counsel, judicially-timed intercession or discreet absence. Ways of letting go instead of clinging hard. Gestures that validate the sovereignty-of-self that children instinctively develop when they naturally begin to loosen the ties that parents have forged. Those gestures are not as demonstrative as hugs and kisses but they issue from the same source: the desire of parents to affirm the love of their children. And they avoid the manufacture of false affection, which is not only a curse of family life, but social intercourse on virtually every level.


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About the Author

Charles Marowitz on Swans (with bio).



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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art12/cmarow41.html
Published March 13, 2006