My older son is in love. First love. Nicholas Sparks novel kind of love. My younger son just started junior high, so we’ll be on this road of navigating romantic relationships for a while. I was recently reminded of an essay by Martha Beck that offers a helpful metaphor for how to identify unhealthy forms of love in relationship, and I realized it applies all forms of relationship, including family and work. Edited version below.
If you went into a garden, recruited a spider, and asked it what do you love most? The spider would answer, I love flies. This is true. Spiders destroy a tasty fly the way I destroy a cheeseburger. And how does this love cause a spider to behave? It makes a sticky web, catches flies alive, wraps them up to keep them from escaping, and keeps them there, conscious but helpless. Then, whenever the spider needs a snack, it scurries over to the fly, injects it with venom to dissolve some of its insides, and slurps out some of its life force.
This is the way many people think of “love”. They will say, in all honesty, that they love their children, their friends, their family, more than anything in the world. But their love is consumptive, not productive or giving. They need their “loved ones” to feed them emotionally, so they imprison people, trap them in webs of obligation or guilt, paralyze them to keep them from going away. They love other people the way spiders love flies.
Before we try to lead ourselves in (or out of) a relationship where conflict is occurring, we need to remember this; the goal of real love is always to set the beloved free. If someone else’s “love” requires that you abandon your own soul, it’s a spider love. if you find yourself trying to control a loved one, sorry but you’re a spider. That’s not really love at all but a form of fear and a perceived need to control.
There are two red flags that will usually start to wave when real love disappears and spider behavior begins. The first is the deception, by which I mean saying or doing anything at all that is not honest for you. The second is the word make. When you do something even slightly dishonest because you’re trying to make someone do or feel something, love is no longer running the show. This is just as true when you’re trying to make people feel good and loved as it is when you’re trying to make them follow your orders. People-pleasing and guilt-inducing are control strategies too, just less direct ones.
If you’re on the giving end of spider love, you’ll feel grasping, needy, angry, wounded, or all of the above. If you’re on the receiving end, you’ll feel a desperate desire to escape, often muted by your own rationalizations. You might think stuff like “Mom’s just trying to make me happy, that’s why she offered me a house if I take this job/get plastic surgery/leave this girlfriend.” Or: “Coach only screams at me because he’s trying to make me achieve my potential.” Or: “My colleague just wants to make sure I get home safe, thats why he texts me every night after work for hours.”
If you find yourself repeatedly convincing yourself someone loves you, check yourself for spider blood. If your body tenses and your mood darkens when you think of the person who’s trying to “make you happy,” listen to it. If you feel wretched and panicky when you feel the need to control someone else, realize you may be a spider yourself.
Either way, walk away. Detach. Unhook. Whatever your role in the drama, drop it and begin focusing on real love, the kind that always frees the one who is loved. You can think of it as self-leading love because when you are leading your own life, you will naturally want to empower others to lead theirs. That’s a love worth leading for.