When the world’s great religions admonish us to “love one another,” this is not the same as insisting in every case and every moment we possess warm feelings for everyone. The presence of affection is, in the end, no valid measure of whether we love. To the contrary, the fidelity and quality of love is most fiercely tested in the absence of affection.
Affection is a beautiful thing. An ecstasy. I love to feel it. To pour it out like wine to those I love. To feel my heart open and soar as I bask and bathe in the affection I receive from those who love me. Warmth, tenderness, nurture, cherishment, kindness, empathy, flow – affection is a most delicious human experience.
But in the work of love, affection is not a constant. It can’t be. Affection is love’s variable.
Love and “love feelings” (affection) are two different things. They sometimes, even often work concurrently. But they don’t have to. Sometimes they work separately. And, surprisingly enough, sometimes “love feelings” impede and thwart the work of love.
When the work of love is wrapped in affection, it’s easy. Easy? It can hardly be stopped. It pours back and forth with a mind of its own. It ricochets exponentially, as if from some bottomless well.
When the work of love must proceed without affection, it’s harder. Sometimes much harder. We must simply act in a way that serves the wholeness, wellness and best interest of another. The act of love is generated from principle. Not from feeling. Indeed, this kind of love often requires us to slog through the murk and weight of unhappy feelings – ambivalence, antipathy and displeasure for the subject of our love.
Needless to say, this kind of love (saints notwithstanding) doesn’t come naturally. It goes against the grain of human instinct. Which is exactly why it is such a noble human victory.
And sometimes the work of love requires us to temporarily sacrifice affection, or at least subordinate it for a time. Sometimes our very affection for people is an obstacle to the love they most need from us. Sometimes our felt dependence on their affection for us makes it impossible to risk the work of love.
If I really, really like you, and if I really, really want you to like me … well, sometimes it’s harder to speak the truth. Harder to call you out about healthy boundaries and accountability. To love you, I must sometimes interrupt the flow of affection and have tough conversations. To let the chips fall where they may.
Do you desire to be a good father? A good mother? Then you must be ever-ready to subordinate the need for affection. This is perhaps especially true during adolescence. You must be prepared to be utterly non-reactive to a child’s threats of disaffection or withholding of same. I didn’t say it won’t hurt when they retreat into contemptuous distance or treat you with more or less open scorn. I’m saying parents can’t afford to act out of that hurt. Love requires more. A greater discipline. I don’t need my children to like me. And I’m fine admitting moments when I don’t like them. Affection is NOT the most important rule.
Respect is the most important rule.
Most of us hope for a marriage dominated by generous affection. That is as it should be. But veterans of healthy, thriving marriages know there is no dodging emotional honesty. And sometimes the emotional truth must temporarily disrupt affection.
Enemies are a special case. In the stark absence of affection either given or received, sometimes the only love I have to offer is the mercy of separation. The willingness not to trade malice for malice or, in the worst case scenario, evil for evil. Love means at least forgoing revenge. This is a principle I set as my target, especially when my feelings are clamoring for a pound of flesh. Yes, it is our duty to stand for justice, but justice is not revenge.
I can behave respectfully to people for whom I have little or no affection. I can behave respectfully even to people I don’t respect. People I actively dislike. This is love.
As a beloved mentor of mine once said, “Some people you have to love at a distance.”
(You may drop Steven Kalas a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.StevenKalas is a therapist, author and Episcopal priest. He is the author of the book “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing.”)