Growing up, I watched my mother and father having rows and shouting at each other and vowed to avoid emotion. It helped that Dad was an industrial chemist (we did our own drycleaning with a carboy of carbon tetrachloride we kept in the garage) so I did science at school and university. It helped even more that Mum didn’t believe in physical displays of love. She sent me Valentine’s cards well into my 20s – but hugs were out.
We now know that our growing brains need both the physical and the intellectual experience of love – or the necessary circuits don’t form. So I grew up with a bit missing – and apparently I am not alone.
And it doesn’t have to be dramatic – or obvious, or gender biased. A mum and dad of my acquaintance, reacting to their six year old crying at the departure of his playmate for a week’s holiday:
Her: Cheer up! You’ll see him again soon.
Him: Of course you’re sad. It’s OK to cry. Here, have a hug.
Check out your own reaction to people’s upset-ness. We’re a bit uncomfortable with emotion and try to suppress it. But in its absence our interpretation of the world can be seriously flawed. I asked the science graduate what he did when a situation frustrated and angered him. “I turn the anger into icy logic” he said. “Good luck with that” I said. I didn’t hire him. He reminded me of me.
“I want to know what love is” is a great song by rock band Foreigner. In my 20s I went through a succession of girl friends, desperate to fall in love but unable to prove to my one-sided scientific mind that this was ‘it’. I got married, still uncertain if this was love. The only proof I had was that Jen could make me madder faster than anyone else in the world.
In the months before and after Jen’s death in 2008, I was working constantly with a therapist. I needed to be in top shape to support Jen beforehand and then to support me after. The earthquakes of emotion broke through my defences, allowed the therapy to reach the parts it needed to, and I started to build the missing circuits.
CBT (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy) is the NHS’s favourite answer to mental health problems. It works by changing the stories you are telling yourself about life. It works at the beginning when you are probably in a bit of a state. As emotion dies down it works less well and can become just a talking shop. You can ‘get’ why you tell yourself the unhelpful stories that you do but the only thing that will shift them is engaging with the emotion that implanted them.
Trust me. I know what love is.