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Father Michael Schmitz: What can we do when people don’t love us?

I think that my mom loves me, but I don’t know. She clearly loves my sister more than she loves me; they joke around and have a much easier relationship with each other. She seems more annoyed by me, and I just wish she would love me more. It is really painful for me. What can I do?

Father Mike Schmitz
Father Michael Schmitz
Ask Father Mike

Thank you so much for being so honest in sharing this part of your life. I can imagine that this has affected you in more ways than one. We all have people in our lives who do not love us, or people who do not love us like we want them to. And that can be very painful. But when those are people who ought to love us, the pain can increase a great deal more. So please know that what I will offer here comes from a place of understanding and compassion.

Before anything else, what I hear in your question is the temptation to believe that there is something in you that is “wrong,” something in you that in unlovable. That needs to be addressed. You are not unlovable. Yes, there might be people who do not love you, but that does not mean that you are unlovable. As I noted above, we all have people we want to love us who do not. But that is less a reflection on you and more of a reflection on the world in which we live.

The first thing every one of us needs to acknowledge and accept is the fact that the people around us are afflicted with two distinct attributes: they are human and they are broken.

Here’s what I mean. As humans, we each have different likes and dislikes, personality traits, and interests. This is neither good nor bad, it just is. But because of this, every single one of us will find certain other people a bit easier to like. You know that this is true in your own life. Have you ever had the situation where one person says something to you and you laugh at it, and another person says the exact same thing and you are annoyed by it? What was said (and sometimes even how it was said) could be identical, but because we get along with the first person, we are able to receive it with patience and good humor. This isn’t always because that first person is a “better” human or because the second person is a “bad” human; sometimes it is simply because we naturally get along with the first person better.

Backing up and looking at our relationship with those people we find it difficult to enjoy, we can usually identify certain behaviors or traits that we dislike. But if we examined the relationships with those whom we do enjoy, we would find certain traits in them that we don’t appreciate as well. For whatever reason, we simply find it easier to overlook those behaviors in some people. Again, this is not because one group is good and the other is bad. We (as humans) have our preferences, and that tends to come out in who we choose to spend our time with.

There are some people with whom you will share interests. You might find it incredibly easy to have an animated conversation about those interests because you just “click” with them. This “clicking” is not necessarily based off of character or virtue, it is most often based on personality or temperament. And it isn’t that a person is more lovable or less lovable, or that they are good or bad. It is a “valueless” reality. We are all human in this way.

I have seen this go the other way as well. I’ve seen parents who have tried everything to invite their children into their hobbies and interests (or have asked to be invited into the hobbies and interests of their children) only to have the kids reject the presence of their parents. Sometimes, we can more clearly see the ways our parents have failed to love us than we can see the ways we have failed to actively love them. Which brings us to the second distinct attribute of the people around us.

They (and we) are also broken.

Let’s just assume that your mom and your sister have more in common that you and your mom do. Let’s just assume that your mom finds it naturally easier to share thoughts and have conversations with her. Again, this might solely be based on personality and has nothing to do with your ability to be loved or your worth. But the next thing your mom (and all of us in these situations) is called to is to give of herself. You are right: Your mom probably ought to love you better. And you probably ought to love her better. (And I ought to love the people around me better!) And this is what we are made and called to do as followers of Christ: love our neighbors (and even our enemies). But we fail to love as we ought. Why? Because we are broken.

This is true for every person in our lives who has not loved us as they should. This is true for parents, spouses, siblings, friends, priests, religious, and every other person whose role it is to love us well. We do not love each other as we should. When I don’t give the time or the attention that another person deserves, it isn’t because of them, it is because of my broken and anemic heart. When the people in our lives who do not love us as they should, it isn’t because you and I are unlovable, it is because of their shallow and wounded heart.

In these cases, this affords us the opportunity to do two things: extend grace and receive grace.

Your mom (and you) are broken. She doesn’t love like she should. And you don’t love like you should. So what do we do? We don’t expect others to give what they don’t have. We give them the grace to be broken. We give them the grace to accept the love they do offer without the condition that they have to love us how we would prefer. This takes more than we typically have within us.

Because of that we need to receive grace. The people in our lives do not love us the way they should. But why are we waiting for the broken people around us to give what God our Father already offers? The people in our lives will always struggle and will always fail to love us well. But our Father in heaven loves you perfectly. He is not burdened by “personality” or brokenness. With him, you are not only lovable, you are loved.

Father Michael Schmitz is director of youth and young adult ministry for the Diocese of Duluth and chaplain of the Newman Center at the University of Minnesota Duluth.