“How Can You Be a Parent and NOT Understand Non-Possessive Love?”

a fence with a hole in it
Image by Keith McDuffee / CC BY

“I have this one friend who’s always getting on me for having an open marriage,” she says.

Been there,” I say.

“Really?” she says. “What happened?”

“With just that one friend or the others?”

“There was more than one?” she asks.

“Of course. This was quite a while ago. And I lived in rural Maine. Back when I opened up, no one else around me had even heard of the word ‘polyamory’ before.”

To be fair, I’d only learned about it recently myself from a friend who had opened her own marriage secretly a few years prior to telling me.

“So I was pretty much surrounded by people who were asking me if I was crazy. Telling me I’d ruin my life. Whatever,” I say.

“What happened with those friendships?” she asks.

“Well, some of them learned to at least stop saying that kind of stuff aloud. Took the agree to disagree path. Some actually changed their minds and decided while it wasn’t for them that they got how it could work for me. A few actually went on to open their own relationships. And some I don’t talk to anymore. Some of those falling outs were for other reasons. You know, certain friends are with you forever but others come and go. Honestly, yeah, there were a few where the open relationship thing was just too much. But those were a definite minority. And they weren’t my closest friends, so it turned out not to be a huge deal,” I explain.

She nods. “That makes sense.” After a moment, she adds, “I think what gets to me most is that she has kids. She should know better.”

“Huh,” I say. “What does having kids have to do with anything?” I ask, not making any obvious connection.

She tells me that they’ve been talking a lot about philosophy and ethics, like they normally do. Since they’ve known each other from college when they took those kinds of classes together. She majored in it; her friend took a minor. “We’ve been discussing love, how it can be possessive versus non-possessive. Well, that’s been my view at least. She keeps insisting that love is always possessive. Which is an odd thing to hear from a parent.”

“You think so?” I say.

“Yeah,” she says. “The love that a parent feels for a child is selfless. It’s different than lust. I mean, it’s not eros; it’s agape.”

While we only have the word “love” to cover many types of emotions in English, the ancient Greeks had several (anywhere between four and eight depending on which expert you ask). Eros is the word for sexual love, where we get the English word “erotic.” Agape is a word for big, universal transcendent love. Love for the universe, humanity, or a deity. That kind of thing. And according to my friend, this is the same kind of love that parents feel for their children (although it’s worth noting the Greeks typically used storge as the word meaning love for family).

Some Parents View Their Children as Their Property

“Well,” I say, choosing my words very carefully. “Sometimes it turns out that way, sometimes parents love their children selflessly.”

“Sometimes?”

“Unfortunately, there are parents who actually do love their children very selfishly. Who treat their kids like possessions. I’m not saying it should be the case, but it happens.”

As her expression darkens, we talk about parents who view their children as their personal property — or at the very least as an extension of them. Instances where a child was viewed as essentially a clone whose main purpose was to become a mini me and then carry on the family name. Whose existence is viewed primarily as a way to ensure a form of eternal life for the parent, stave off the fear of their own mortality and what that ultimately means.

There are children who are born and who from the instant they come into the world are being squeezed into some mold their parents envisioned for them, without any  personal say in the matter. And who when they challenge these expectations are met with threats or acts of violence, abandonment, or both.

The examples abound. They’re everywhere in literature, pop culture, history, the local newspaper, and even in our immediate friends circle.

It’s something that she usually doesn’t think too much about because she herself has supportive parents who respect her agency and have personally sacrificed a lot for her happiness.

But it’s unfortunately the lived reality for many other people.

Fear and Possessiveness

“Where do you think it comes from?” she asks me.

“Possessiveness?”

She nods.

“Fear,” I say.

“Fear?” she says. “Not greed?”

“I mean, I’m sure greed is a thing for some people. But I tend to think of greed as an effect rather than a cause. An action rather than an emotional reality. I think it’s fear powering it all, behind the scenes. Fear that you won’t have enough. That even if you’re okay now that you’ll eventually reach a rough patch when your fortunes change and you’ll take a big hit and what was once enough won’t be anymore. So you need to keep well more than what you need, and you have to keep it close to you and guard it from other people,” I say.

“Which would look like greed,” she says.

I nod.

“And with love, that could look less like a dragon’s mound of treasure and more like rampant possessiveness? Because someone is afraid of being alone… because they want to find some security. To bring something in so close to them that they never can lose it.”

“Something like that,” I say.

“Except that doesn’t really work with people, does it? Treasure doesn’t walk away on its own, but people absolutely do,” she says.

“They do,” I say. “And some people will walk away because you’re trying to hold them too close. Start to feel suffocated. Like you don’t trust them or respect their freedom.”

“Like children who don’t talk to their parents once they’re adults because their childhoods were horrible.”

I nod.

*

Books by Page Turner:

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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