“On Whose Terms” Do We Love Others?
Updated: May 18
Marisa Guerin, PhD – May 11, 2021
Not too long ago, I was preparing for a visit with friends (at long last). Excited to be seeing them and wanting to bring something special for the occasion, I paged through my favorite recipes for sweet treats. I enjoy baking, and making food for people as a way to show my love for them seems to be embedded in my Spanish-Irish-German DNA.
But this time, a doubt appeared in my mind. I remembered that my friends, like so many people including myself, tried to pay attention to their diets and found it a lifetime challenge to stay focused on healthy eating. My impulse to bake treats would sabotage their best intentions. With a sigh, I turned my mind to other ideas for how to show my affection and appreciation for them. I felt disappointed in letting go of my idea of how to show that I cared about them – which doesn’t make much sense, when I think about it. With some chagrin, I recognize how very often I am prone to barreling ahead with my enthusiasm for something, without stopping to think if it is what the other would actually most like. I have a long way to go to learn to love others “on their terms,” not on my terms.
This particular wording and idea is not my own. As some of my readers know, I am currently co-writing a book about Thérèse of Lisieux with my friend Br. Joe Schmidt. Thérèse wrote of spending her life trying to understand what she called “the science of love.” On this quest of hers, Therese gradually developed the heart qualities that signaled to her that she was on the right path for loving herself, loving others, and loving the world. Some years ago, as Joe was describing Thérèse’s approach to love with a Carmelite religious, the Carmelite said to him, “Oh, I see: Thérèse loved others on their terms, not her own.”
Exactly! This somewhat-unexpected wording is right on point. It sounds straightforward and generous. But as it turns out, Thérèse’s attitude of loving others on their own terms demanded self-discipline; it required of her a vigilant attitude of empathy and compassion. For example, in her role as mentor to the newer members of the convent community, she responded with great creativity in order to adapt to the unique temperament of each Sister. “Some of them I have to catch by the scruff of the neck,” Thérèse said to her sister Pauline, “others by their wingtips.” * As she navigated daily life with personalities both agreeable and not, Therese did her best to be kind, with sensitivity to the other person and to her own limits. (If she couldn’t find in herself any gracious way to cope, she came to rely on the last resort of leaving the scene until she could.)
Loving others on their own terms requires emotional maturity. Small children can’t do it. Even we grown-ups can’t do it easily. And perhaps the phrasing sounds strange. Using words like “on their terms” makes love sound almost like a legal contract, as if there are some conditions or boundaries that put limits around love. Surely that isn’t right…isn’t love something that is given freely and completely?
I think the notion of loving another person on their terms isn’t so much about limiting how much we love them; rather, it is learning to love them by respecting their boundaries, understanding their reality. When I love another person on their terms, it means I have to pay attention to what they want, what they need, what they prefer. I have to understand their point of view, their context. And I have to love them enough to meet them there, rather than in my context, within my wants and preferences.
Interestingly enough, Thérèse also demonstrated this idea in the way she tried to be loving to herself, on her terms, respecting her own boundaries and needs. She had an honest view of her own limits and frailties. She knew she would have to figure out ways to respond lovingly to others that respected her own truth as well.
The discipline of compassion and love for the other on their terms, not mine, can find its way into big and little gestures in our personal relationships. It requires that I think first of the other and respect their reality. What conversation topics do I bring up when I am talking with a family member or a friend? Do I ask about what’s on my mind, or what’s likely to matter more to them? As we connect, am I tuned in to their mood, their energy?
Sometimes, it’s even more demanding of my own heart to love another on their terms. How much do I assert my needs or wants if I am dealing with a relative who is physically or mentally ill, or upset, or for whatever reason is just not able to respond to me as I hope? What if my friend or spouse cannot be there for me as I wish they would be? Can I recognize and make the loving choice to accept this reality, without holding a grudge? Can I make myself present to them in a way that respects their needs or boundaries and brings them good? To love others as they are, at least in this moment, may mean that I set aside my own needs and preferences. Sometimes I may have feelings of being hurt, but they aren’t the whole story of my love for another.
And of course, here comes the balancing point: When is accommodating the other not the right thing for me to do? What are the boundaries I should set to best honor my own reality and to love myself on my terms? Just as Thérèse is a good model for how to respond to others creatively and kindly according to their needs, her example also encourages us to take care of ourselves.
There are occasions when our love for another person might inspire us to temporarily put aside our own desires, and that could be well and good. But if trying to be loving to another person means that we routinely go past our own ability to cope peacefully, then we have started to be unloving to ourselves. We can feel it on the inside when being helpful to someone begins to generate resentment in our hearts. We notice the drain when we give more than we have in reserve. We take a risk when we “run the engine without oil,” operating as if we have endless capacity. Not only is this a fantasy, as if we were omnipotent, but it also violates our integrity, the truth of who we are.
Thomas Merton put his finger on it, speaking to activists for peace: “To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence.” * *
What I am learning from Thérèse is this: Loving myself without violence to my own life means being honest enough to know my limitations and to set realistic boundaries. Even when I must say “no” to another, I can try to do so with kindness, with a spirit of compassion for myself and for them, and with whatever creativity I can muster to search out a win-win. If “their terms” are beyond what I can or should handle, then that is the place for boundaries – not marked with hatred or anger, but set with gentle firmness. Thérèse wrote, “We should never allow kindness to degenerate into weakness.” *
There is a balancing act that is involved in being a loving person who loves others, loves herself, loves the world and the Creator. What at first might sound like a capitulation – loving others on their terms – is instead a mature intention combined with a keen respect for reality. It calls us to an attitude of empathy and compassion for the other people we travel our days with, along with an honest willingness to recognize our own needs and fragility, too.
What Thérèse ultimately learned is that any love she had to give was flowing from the love she received. In her understanding, this was God’s love, the transcendent love in which all are held.
As with every topic I ponder in these blog posts, this reflection is about something I hope to be able to live more fully over time, not something I have mastered. It’s all part of the journey, isn’t it?
* (Story of A Soul, Translated by J. Clarke, Third Ed. 1996)
** (Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 1968)