Contrary to popular belief, all love is not real love. Surprised? I was too.
Unfortunately in today’s culture, a few imposters masquerade about, often unchallenged, warping our view of what love truly is, how it acts, and what it requires. In his book Real Love, Dr. Greg Baer calls these imposters “imitation” love. When we fall for (or use) these types of “imitation” love, it undermines our relationships, dishonors God, and dishes out pain all around to both the giver and the receiver.
Don’t believe me? Think about any unsatisfying relationship you’ve ever experienced. Think about the brother or sister or parent or boyfriend/girlfriend or best friend where things “fell apart” in the relationship. Think about the events leading up to your heartbreaking separation, and how you felt. Think about the questions you asked yourself and the frustrations you experienced. Chances are you questioned the validity of their love for you (or maybe even your love for them). In any heartbreak or separation, it seems the quality and genuineness of the love is always questioned. And for good reason.
In my life, I’ve met two types of people: those who truly love me, and those who don’t. Many of my biggest mistakes have been when I’ve confused the two. When I have reached out and asked for real love from people and received imitation love in return, it has quickly moved me into a place of anger and sadness. Sadness that I didn’t receive what I asked for, and anger at how someone could be so selfish and treat me so badly. If I saw the warning signs of “imitation” love before I let this person hurt me, perhaps the pain could have been avoided.
So then the question is, what is real love, and what are the types of imitation love?
“Real love is unconditionally caring about the happiness of the other person” –Greg Baer
Let’s look at a few key words from that definition to help determine if it is a good way to summarize love. First, real signifies that there are indeed other types of love people give and receive that are not genuine, as we have already discussed. Secondly, the word unconditional means that in order to truly love someone, we must go beyond simply ‘caring’ for them. While that can be helpful to friends and family, caring is not loving. The term happiness, referring more to a stable state of being as opposed to a fleeting emotion, means that we are chiefly concerned with building and maintaining a state of joy and peace. Finally, the term other takes the entire phrase and definitively positions this real love as being other-centered, not self-centered.
Let’s pause here for a second. Honestly: what would it feel like to have someone love you unconditionally? What would it be like to know that all of your flaws and faults were accepted? To know that someone else was chiefly concerned with your wellbeing, instead of their own? How would that impact the way you felt towards that person? How would that impact the way you feel on an everyday basis?
What would it feel like to have no real love at all?
A life without real love starts in childhood
As children, we all come into the world with a need for real love. As an infant, we receive more unconditional love and affection (hopefully) than any other stage in life. We are literally dependent upon another human being (or beings) for survival. Without them, we would die. We give virtually nothing in return, and require a lot: money, time, affection, and devotion.
Yet, as we grow up, the love may begin to fade, or take on a less impactful form. Children who experience a lack of real love or an increase in imitation love begin to develop a hole in their heart. They feel sad or lonely or afraid, and will seek to eliminate this pain with any number of remedies. If left unmet, this need will continue to fester in their hearts all the way up through their teenage years and into adulthood. This leads to their indoctrination into the world of imitation love.
Imitation love (The four ugly cousins of real love)
“Imitation” love, as Dr. Baer calls it, comes in four main forms: praise, power, pleasure, and safety. These four types of imitation love are things we crave and seek out when we are lacking real love. We seek praise because it fills us up quickly and makes us feel good about ourselves. We seek power because with it, we can forget about our weaknesses and fears. We look for pleasure because it tickles our senses and satisfies our bodily cravings (specifically with substances, sex, food, or other sense-focused pleasures). Finally, we will even turn to safety as a means of securing ourselves and walling up against all love and pain by cutting ourselves off and isolating. Ultimately, imitation love only serves as a cheap knockoff when compared to the real thing, and it affects everyone from children to full-fledged adults.
While many parents believe they are loving their children when they praise them for their accomplishments, this ultimately serves to condition a child if the parent does not provide the same amount of care and affection when the child makes a bad choice or fails to succeed. For example, when a child performs a good behavior, they get praised. But when they do something wrong, there is usually a consequence or punishment, often times accompanied by a withdraw of love, and in some cases, messages of guilt or shame. This provides a conditional love that causes the child to accentuate his good behavior and hide his faults. If the child only gets praise when he’s “good” and punishment when he’s “bad” he will soon learn to hide and run to safety, which Baer calls a “protecting” behavior.
If parents truly seek to love their children unconditionally, they must understand what real love looks like, and choose to pursue it and avoid imitation love. In recent years, I discovered that the mistakes my parents made in loving me was not because of a lack of desire to show affection and care, but because they didn’t know how to love me the right way. It was a simple crime of ignorance, not malice. In our family’s healing journey, we all (including myself) had to learn to love differently – which included things like owning our faults, setting healthy boundaries, and choosing to love each other from a place of fullness inside of each one of us – otherwise, we would simply be using imitation love to cover up the emptiness and fear inside.
Choosing real love
Real love puts the other person first, chooses to accept their faults, and strives to meet their needs in healthy and affirming ways. The problem most people experience is that real love requires effort, while imitation love can be faked effortlessly. When people don’t get real love, they seek after the four types of imitation love in an attempt to fill that void their child-like heart still carries. They end up in unhappy relationships, broken marriages, and codependent friendships in order to try and beg someone to give them anything to fill that hole.
Real love fills the hole, because it is always shaped to meet the needs of the other person. Instead of caring about how the other person makes you feel, Baer says that unconditional love focuses on appreciating and affirming how the other person feels.
Finally, let’s talk about a few ways to practice real love in friendships and the family:
-Ask your child or family member how they feel on a regular basis. Make it about them, not about you. Hear their feelings and empathize to the best of your ability.
-Ask your child or family member what their needs are and how you can love them better. Never forget that in same-age friendships or relationships, the other person is typically a more authoritative source on their love needs than you are
-Engage in regular, intentional communications about your child or family member’s hopes, dreams, fears, and struggles. These conversations allow for an exchange of true compassion and love between the two of you.
-Spend time doing what your child or family member likes to do. Communicate that your love is not just for the person and what they do for you, but that you want to be a part of the things the other person loves.
-Never allow the existence of imitation love in your relationship with your child or family member. Learn to identify and eradicate all false forms of love as they appear (and they will continue to appear, so you need to continually work on this).
In the family, real love can be the tool that we use to restore healthy patterns of communication. Real love ultimately disarms us and pushes us to a place of peace, joy, and serenity. While imitation love is just a cheap way to try and fake the love we truly want to give/receive, real love is an effort-charged way of truly expressing to another person:
“I love you. I would do anything for you. I want to know who you are on the inside. I want to support and be there for you. I want to know what makes you tick and how I can be a better parent/partner/family member to you. Help me learn what it means to love you and what your heart longs for, so that I can step in and be the person you’ve always needed to love you.”
Robert Tucker is the Director of Outreach and Communication at the Institute for Healthy Families. Graduating with an M.A. in Communication from Liberty University, Robert is passionate about using effective communication to help families better understand how to be healthy and whole.
To read more about this topic, check out “Real Love” and “Real Love in Parenting” by Dr. Greg Baer.