Tough Love

By Olivia Ford

“When love is not madness, it is not love.”
Pedro Calderon de la Barca

If the family is a basic unit from which we learn all other relationships from – I’m screwed. There’s not a lot my family does right. We like to make fun of each other; in our home, mockery and sarcasm have comfortably supplanted genuine communication and affection. Where most people learn cooperation, I’ve acquired a deep respect for autonomy; and instead of support, self-sufficiency. We don’t eat meals together, we don’t share interests and the only thing we’ve managed to do consistently is forget someone’s birthday every year.

When faced with traditionally monumental familial occasions, we flail. Every Christmas we go see a movie. After opening presents, left with a full day meant to inspire bonding and warm feelings, we gratefully opt out for the manufactured gore and explosions of an action film instead.

And yet, there’s never been an absence of love. It is often obscured and more often realized as a last resort, but it is always there. When my parents dropped me off for my first year of college, my mom complained about everything. The four-star hotel my dad booked to impress her overlooking the downtown San Diego bay was a needless overpriced luxury. The cloudless skies and sun were making her pristine skin break out in a rash. I wasn’t even setting up my room correctly, every inch should be scoured with cleaning product before I could even consider unpacking.

It wasn’t until I erupted at lunch and asked her why she was being “such a bitch” that her guard finally collapsed. To me, the image of love is my mother’s exhausted, puffy, crying face in the booth of a mediocre Mexican restaurant, admitting she is afraid to be alone without me.

It’s no wonder I’ve had so much trouble finding love outside of my family. Broken love, buried love, belittled love is the best love I know. It’s the kind of love I thought I had found this spring.

One of my good friends, a notorious womanizer and cynic, shockingly revealed his feelings for me one night. He pulled me aside and, holding my hand to his heart, told me he had always had a soft spot for me. It didn’t matter that I had hooked up with his friends, it wasn’t about sex, he just wanted to be able to kiss me whenever he wanted. It was a moment so perfect it paralyzed me with fear. I would have been surprised to hear it from anyone, but especially from him, a guy who used to brag about making his girlfriend sleep in a separate bed after they’d had sex because “he didn’t like to cuddle.”

But I couldn’t give in right then and there. For me, it was too romantic to be love. Too easy. It wasn’t until he reverted to acting casually and making crude jokes with me that I felt comfortable seeing the hidden feelings that lingered between us. Only then did I let myself imagine a relationship born out of our mutual insecurities and hard exteriors. A real love, I thought.

There was a time when I encouraged my parents to overcome their own insecurities and indifference to romance. Though legally married for twenty-two years, they’ve spent the last ten as near strangers. It’s not just that they sleep in separate rooms; they have completely different friends, cultures and values. As their sole shared passion, I thought I might inspire a restored feeling of friendship between the two by suggesting my dad ask my mom out on a date. It didn’t go well.

My father called me after, quite upset, and blamed me for expecting too much of them. They had grown too far apart. They did nothing but fight. I was naïve and stupid for thinking things could be repaired. This was my fault.

Things didn’t work out much better for my own relationship. As soon as I made myself available, I found I wasn’t wanted anymore. The boy was seeing other girls again. All declarations of soft spots and admiration were forgotten.

When I brought it up, he told me he had no idea what I was talking about. He was drunk the night of his confession and didn’t remember saying any of those things. When I cried in the middle of a crowded room talking about it with him again, days later, he was equally curt and cold. I was making a big deal out of nothing. I shouldn’t be upset. We were too young to be in relationships. I was naïve and stupid for thinking otherwise. This was my fault.

I should have hated him after that. I should have shoved, spit or screamed at him – but to dismiss cruelty is too easy. The real torture lies in understanding it. I could no more easily hate this boy who rejected me, than my own dejected father. If my family has taught me anything, it’s that real love isn’t always pretty. We might say and do hurtful things to the people we care for most when it’s too hard to face our own vulnerability, but I never doubt that my dad loves me, even when he’s too broken to show it. And I still maintain that the boy I cared about is better than he allows himself to be. Drunk or not, the way he kissed my forehead that first night was too tender, too genuine and too unwarranted to have been born out of anything other than love. And his unfortunate retraction was too harsh, too cowardly and too uncalled for to have been anything other than fear for the feelings he professed.

Perhaps more important than how my disjointed family has taught me to recognize the strains of real love, is how I have learned to persist through them. When these two men berated me with their own self-loathing, I had the sense not to fight with senselessness. On both occasions I nodded my head through silent tears, accepting their hurtful words, because my love was real enough to know it was what they needed.

My dad has since apologized, but my friend has not. I suppose that’s what’s special about a father’s love; even in imperfect families it’s infinitely more reliable than any boyfriend’s. And yet, I refuse to dismiss the idea of that boy entirely. We no longer live in the same city and haven’t even been in contact recently, but I can’t help but wonder if he still thinks of me now and then, as I do of him.

The truth is, because of my family I’m able to look past the faults of a broken whole and salvage the beauty concealed in the pieces and details. We might forget birthdays, but they make the ones we do remember extra special. We might see inappropriate movies on religious holidays, but we do it together. And we might not always express ourselves openly, but we do care.

So, as far as relationships are concerned, I’m sure I’m bound to tolerate too much and hold on too long. Given the circumstances I’ve come from, it’s only natural that I trust in the frailty of imperfections. To me, love isn’t omni-benevolent. It’s a thing of consequence, it’s the thing that can only hold you by haunting you a little, and the thing that has the power to make you a better person, but more often makes you a worse one. My family has taught me these realities about love, and in doing so, have made me a person who loves fearlessly.


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