Updated on 01.29.09

It Can’t Love You Back

Trent Hamm

A few nights ago, my wife had to work late, so I was charged with an evening at home alone with my three year old and one year old.

We did the usual things. We ate dinner together (spaghetti – my son’s favorite food). We played with his train set. I read several books, mostly selections based on my daughter’s whims since she’s just discovered the fun of having books read to her.

Eventually, we decided to watch a nature show. The three of us cuddled up on the couch. All three of us were tired – I could have easily nodded off right there. My son leaned in close to me on the right, and my daughter nodded off in the crook of my left arm.

It was easily the best evening I’ve spent in a very long time.

Before my children were born, I used to obsess a lot over the things I could accumulate. I’d buy video games and DVDs and gadgets. I surrounded myself by tons of things – and they were a source of personal pride to me.

At some point, though, I realized something about all of that stuff I had accumulated: I loved it, but it didn’t love me back. It never can and it never will. I can’t build a healthy, happy, mutual relationship with the things I had purchased. All it could really do is rub a bit of salve on an emotional or psychological wound, but at the end of the day, I was left empty.

There is no material item on earth that can compare to being cared for by others – and caring for them, too, in a mutually healthy relationship. The feeling I get when my wife cuddles up next to me in bed just as we’re drifting off to sleep. The happiness I felt when those kids snuggled in with me on the couch. Even simple things, like a nice phone conversation with my mom or a note sent by a close friend.

Realizing this brings about a sea change in how you spend your money. Instead of spending your money on gadgets and cars and other things that serve as a salve on your feelings, you want to instead use your money to protect the ones that you love the most and provide them with happy experiences. Instead of spending my checking account down to the minimum in order to acquire a new gadget or program, you want to keep some in reserve to protect those that you love.

Many single people will read this and assume that I’m talking mostly about married people and people with children. I’m not. Single people without children have opportunities to be involved with as many or more powerful relationships with others than married people or parents do. One of my closest friends spends most of her waking hours working with the mentally handicapped and their families. Another close friend of mine is a hospice volunteer. In both cases, they’ve had the opportunity to build strong relationships with others – and in both cases, the people involved have come to find that accumulating stuff really doesn’t matter that much.

In the end, things cannot love you back. They can’t provide you with the sustaining, loving relationships that we all need. Instead of chasing that sweet new car or that amazing home electronic setup, why not consider shoring up those relationships that bring love into your life? The best first step you can take is getting your own financial house in order – and opening yourself up to those simple moments with the people you care about, like my evening cuddling with my kids on the couch.

Good luck.

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  1. Studenomics says:

    What a powerful piece. Honestly I get what you’re saying and the point you’re trying to convey. It is just difficult for someone my age to realize that the things you own don’t mean anything. I never think whether or not the gadget loves me back, I just think of it as a nice thing to own. What you mentioned is definitely a view point that I will try to embrace on day, it will just take longer for me to fully understand as opposed to someone your age with children.

  2. Tori says:

    Amen, amen, amen!

  3. skelvis says:

    you have put into words what i have known for sometime. took e too long to figure it out. Glad you found it out when your kids were little

  4. Katie says:

    Awesome post, so true.

  5. Bravo. Well done. This post will be forwarded to my friends. Thanks.

  6. Sarah says:

    Very well said. I am reminded of the bible passage that goes…”but what does it profit a man, if he gains the whole world, but loses his soul?” The people in our lives, the ones that we love and that love us back…they are part of our souls. I don’t want to gain the whole world and lose my soul.

  7. Amber says:

    You can also love yourself enough to not care about newer things and instead care about your future, and the people that will be in your future. I’m not going to get anywhere better in my life by buying a new car or a new tv, but I will get to a better place if I learn how to control my spending impulses and embrace frugality. I am single with no kids, but I got to the point in my life where myself was enough reason to want to change my spendthrift ways.

  8. Geron says:

    I enjoyed reading this post.

    While material things can bring temporary happiness, lasting joy only comes when you love or receive love.

    When I think of the sources of joy in my life, my wife, family, God, friends, I come to the realization that none of these are material things. However, wealth brings lasting joy when used for the benefit of others because an act of generosity is an act of love.

  9. Nothing compares to true love. We’ve all heard “money can’t buy happiness”, but it’s so true! Excellent post!

  10. Jason says:

    And at the same time the “things” can’t hate you back or be a source of frustration or unhappiness, as is sometimes the case with children/spouses etc. Trent, I suggest you think about the flip side as well sometimes.

  11. Amateur says:

    Things can’t love you back, but there’s really nothing like the joy of buying stuff to share with people who will love you back – whether it be dinners out or toys/games. Sometimes, it’s hard to balance that.

  12. Ranga says:

    @Jason (#7), I agree with you. Esp the unending lifelong commitments are too much for the ‘return love’ that we keep thinking of always.
    Trent leans more towards ‘happily married family persons’.
    There could be a few articles about the benefits of being single; not a lonely paragraph after ‘however’ clause.

  13. Daisy says:

    Another post to remind me why I love your blog so much.

  14. sometimes these posts bore me. But I hadn’t spoken to my fiance today because she was out with her mom and it made me realize how much i missed her. I’ve been playing Wii all day, but it wasn’t as fun as hanging out with her. Thanks Trent!

  15. Ian P. says:

    You can explain (for example) the debt snowball method to someone until your blue in the face, but often it’s best to just take a step back and take a high level look at our lifestyle to see what the real problem is.
    One of your best posts, Trent. Sometimes you really hit one out of the park.

  16. IFMom says:


    I’m in my early 40s, and what I took away from Trent’s article was this: inanimate objects do not provide emotional fulfilment. People and relationships provide emotional fulfilment, and that’s what most well-adjusted humans strive for in their life.

    My car does not give me love. Nor does my house. But what these things represent are a lifetime of good choices: getting an education, having a job, saving money, staying out of “bad debt”. These choices begin in my 20s when I was in college and didn’t run up credit card debt for Spring break vacations, beer & pizza or gadgets.

    My husband made these same choices in his life so we are fortunate to be in a financially stable situation despite the current national economical crisis.

    Your 20s & early 30s is when you’re building the financial foundation for your future. If that foundation is shaky, it’s hard to stabilize as you get older. The longer you postpone building your financial foundation, the harder it will be to ensure you are in a position to withstand any economic crisis.

    It’s a lot easier to sleep at night when you know your financial foundation is stable, your friends and family are your support system, and you’re not trying to get love from your car…which might be repossessed because you can’t make your car payment.

  17. AJW says:

    Things also can’t betray you, lie to you, steal your stuff or run over your dog.

  18. What a heartfelt post! I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

  19. naomi says:

    This one is going on my wall…….

  20. pima says:

    Very nice post. Very visual.

    I belong to a group of friends who get together once a month for a potluck. This group has come to mean so much to me.

  21. tom says:

    Wow, what a wonderful post.

    I am 23 and everyday I realize that money does not matter as much as the relationships you develop.

    And this post really explained that to me clearly, its all about the love you get back, such as from your partner, friends, family and in you case kids and others may get it from their pets even, such as a dog.

  22. Lisa says:

    Man, that was sappy. :)

  23. Dale says:

    Not to rain on anybody’s parade but even though my cruddy old truck can’t love me back it’s never gone out of its way to dissapoint me either.

  24. Grace says:

    Hello Trent,

    You are absolutely right. If nothing else, I hope that this recession teaches us this simple fact: that our relationships, be they family or friends,always trump money and things.

  25. IRG says:

    Jason writes:
    And at the same time the “things” can’t hate you back or be a source of frustration or unhappiness, as is sometimes the case with children/spouses etc. Trent, I suggest you think about the flip side as well sometimes.

    Yes, Jason. You’re right. There is, always, a flip side to life. And Trent, often in a blissful state it seems when writing (good for you, Trent) chooses not to include that bit.

    Things don’t love us back. But every person we love will not love us back either, and that includes those with the label of “family.” That’s where so much of life’s pain comes from: expectations of what “should” be or what we’d like. Sigh.

    A lot of heartache comes from the expectation that if we love and give love, we, too, will be loved.

    And, for many (but certainly not all), this is the case.

    But I can think of tons of hospice workers, social workers and others who have devoted their lives to helping others who must deal daily with the frustration of knowing that theirs is a one-way street. Nevertheless, they get up each day and give, knowing that the only “return” on their “investment” of love is the sheer act of giving.

    Trent makes a good point about not investing your energy and love in things to the exclusion of people (something people, ironically do when they DO NOT GET love in return for the love they give!).

    But love is not something you give with an ROI in mind. You love, because you LOVE. You give it freely without the thought of what comes back.

    If it does come back, wonderful. If not, it does not lessen your love.

    And no, I’m not advocating staying in relationships where love is unreciprocated. I’m talking about love as a gift we give freely or not at all.

    What some of us take from Trent’s post is that we should use our energy on maintaining relationships with the people in our lives, and not primarily with our stuff. (Cause it isn’t just the buying of it that creates problems. How many times have you heard a spouse complain about being left alone while the other one engages in their hobby?)

  26. Susan says:

    I signed up today and this is the first post I received. What a great piece. I recall when my daughter was in her 20s and not especially happy with her life. I told her to try to look for a chance to be nice to people and it would make her feel better about herself and her life. A couple days later, she told me that she’d bought a cup of coffee on her way to work and saw a homeless woman who looked cold. She gave the woman her coffee. She understood then what I meant about giving love. One doesn’t have to have a family to give and receive love – the opportunities are boundless. The key is to seek those opportunities. They don’t cost a penny, but they make you feel like a million bucks!

  27. graham says:

    I feel like applauding. I’m so glad I found your blog!

  28. Joan says:

    Really great post. Enjoy every minute you can with your children. One day you will wake up and find them grown. You could write a book on parenting.

  29. anon says:

    Is it too much to ask for both?

  30. me says:

    Best piece ever written on this site.

  31. Tall Bill says:

    I’m old enough to have experienced with warmness the song: “People, who need People are the Luckiest People in the World”… when it first came out. It opened a door in my way of thinking about Humanity that has taken be on a really wild roller coaster through life that I could not nor would not trade for anything. I enjoy your readers comments as much as your writing at times Trent, as they represent views from a wide cross section yet how we are all more simular than apart. Thank you for sharing your heart :-)

  32. Saver Queen says:

    I think sometimes the readers of this blog take things too literally, instead of just taking the most valuable points from Trent’s perspectives. I don’t think Trent tries to make statements that are true in every single circumstance – they are just passing reflections and you can extract the key message without dissecting it too deeply.

    It’s true that personal relationships are far from perfect and of course not every single person that you meet or love will always love you back in the way you want them too.

    But that does not make the point here irrelevant, that the time invested in personal relationships will usually reward you with fulfillment – deep, satisfying fulfillment that brings meaning to your life.

    Possessions may bring temporary joy or satisfaction, but they will never supply you with what, as humans, we truly crave.

  33. Maureen says:

    Snuggling your babies- that’s bliss. Life doesn’t get any better than that. You are a very rich man!

  34. ngthagg says:

    Reading this article brought to mind some very special moments from my life, when I’ve been able to touch someone’s heart. Those memories are so bright and vivid that I will never forget them.

  35. Cherish those moments with the kids! Those are the things they and you will remember until your dying days . . .

    I tell my wife all the time– I want the kids to remember this or that, and I know they will.


  36. Bertha says:

    AMEN! AMEN! AND AMEN! You are SO right about this! I wish I had learned this lesson sooner!

  37. sarah spence says:

    I read this post while feeding my (almost) 3 month old baby girl. I’m going to shut the computer off and concentrate on that…

  38. Eva says:

    Hi, I read your posts in my e-mail box for a long time. I really love them. Thanks for your post always!! Your post give me much!

    After reading this post, I just sit there and thinking for a long time. I realize i did some wrong things in past, I must pay more attention to my family, relatives and friends.

    Thanks a lot!

  39. Great post! We are also journeying together as a family as we live frugally and spend less. It has definitely brought us all closer together, and that’s why we are glad to share our money saving tips and bargains with others through our blog, so they can share the journey with their families as well.

    Thanks for the inspiration!

  40. JanB says:

    @Jason – Things can absolutely be a source of frustration and unhappiness. If you buy that new car or home or something on a credit card that you had to have and now can’t afford (and can’t sell) that thing can cause you great grief. With so many people losing their jobs right now I think more and more people will have there “things” be a great source of unhappiness. If anything this post is more true in these tough economic times. People are having to rely on family and loved ones for help, a material possession is never going to give you that.

    One of your best posts Trent!


  41. Tom says:

    I know people who work crazy hours to make their monthly payments and don’t get to spend time with their families.
    It just doesn’t make sense to me.

  42. Lily says:

    As a mother with grown children I reminised about my own happy moments when my kids were little.

    Now, an empty-nester, I invested in a small dog to force me get out of bed – rain or shine – to walk her. For a small investment at a shelter, I found a gorgeous, three-year old pure-bread Jack Russell. Talk about an unconditional return of love. A dog will love you more than itself.

    Today, a beautiful sunny day in the California South Bay area, I took my dog to a dog park to run and play with other dogs. The park was jam-packed with beautiful dogs, their proud owners, and playful, happy children. There was a spirit of joy, laughter, and sheer amusement at the park.

    Had I not had this dog, my husband and I would have probably spent more than necessary by going to a movie and dinner. But now that we have a dog that we are enjoying, we are better able to control the urge to spend on things like movies and dining.

    Life is good. And your post reminded me of that.


  43. greg says:

    I feel like my bicycle has actually loved me back and we’ve had so much fun and enjoyment going to all sorts of beautiful places. It cost me 1500 Deutschmark (around 750 $) back in 1987, and again the same amount to keep it in good shape over the last 22 years.
    And I think that my 3 year-old son’s trains (Thomas&Friends) also love him back. He often prefers being with his trains over being with his friends.
    Trying to come up with a rational explanation how objects can love you back, I’d say that they objects can engage you in such a way that you love yourself back, and the objects become part of you and your life.

  44. I actually have a theory that our stuff secretly hates us. We blame all of our problems on it, leave it on shelves to be forgotten, and generally keep it in terrible condition. So far no one has taken me up on a campaign to end clutter abuse. ;)

  45. Adengappa says:

    Well said, @Greg and @Lily (#29 , #28). You have rightly stated that its not only people, but also things and pets which we can love as much as we do with people.
    I would like to add: measure the ‘return love’ by how much we would miss ‘it’ (person/thing/pet), if its suddenly taken away from us.

    That will surely solve the person-vs-thing argument for most of us.

    I am single, and haven’t handled babies for the past 10 years; so I don’t know how it feels !

  46. Nice post Trent. You do a good job of creating an image and framing your point in a touching way. Your writing keeps improving. Keep it up! I am finally realizing how difficult writing is as I work on my own blog!

  47. Dena Bugel-Shunra says:

    Thanks Trent, that is a beautiful essay, with lasting value.

    I’ve blogged about it (in a post that will only come up Sunday morning, PDT) and thank you for it.

  48. WhirlMind says:

    Well said, Trent.

    @Jason, on Comment #7 :
    Things can’t hate you back, is probably a weak argument. But, the point that Trent might do well to mention the flip side of things and cover his views is a valid.

    May be, Trent can raise such a flip side, (just as he raises the case of the single), and cover how the possible merits of his view overwhelms the flip side.

    IRG @ Comment #17, does that very well, by saying Love is not an RoI thing, the more unconditional it is, the better you feel.

  49. Sharon says:

    IRG said:
    But I can think of tons of hospice workers, social workers and others who have devoted their lives to helping others who must deal daily with the frustration of knowing that theirs is a one-way street. Nevertheless, they get up each day and give, knowing that the only “return” on their “investment” of love is the sheer act of giving.

    Thnak-you. As someone who works with the mentally handicapped, I know that it is a one-way street. I have loved almost every person I have served in this field. The experiance has been rewarding. But it is not family. Trent, your essay was great, but went off the mark when you talked about singles who are able to give in relationships. Consider the main point of your article:
    “There is no material item on earth that can compare to being cared for by others – and caring for them, too, in a mutually healthy relationship.”
    and then your comments on singles:
    “One of my closest friends spends most of her waking hours working with the mentally handicapped and their families. Another close friend of mine is a hospice volunteer. In both cases, they’ve had the opportunity to build strong relationships with others – and in both cases, the people involved have come to find that accumulating stuff really doesn’t matter that much.”
    While the end result may be that they realise stuff doesn’t matter, they are not in relationships where _they_ are cared for and are mutually healthy.
    And if either of those friends snuggled with the people they cared for in bed or even on a couch…they would lose their positions post haste and could be looking at jail time.
    Maybe you need to have a guest write a post about healthy and inexpensive relationships for singles.

  50. Jeff says:

    Right on! My wife said that the tipping point for NOT getting her PhD was that she could not cuddle with it on a cold winter’s night.
    Jesus essentially said the same thing in Matthew 6:19-21. We need to constantly reevaluate where we are putting our treasures.

  51. DrFunZ says:

    Whoa! Let’s stop beating up Trent. He writes a blog that we are free to read or not read.

    re: single people. I have been single my whole life. It is a choice, not driven by lack of opportunity or inability to commit. Around 22, I felt called to and then committed to something else that takes all my energy and knew that it would be incompatible with an intimate partner, as inconceivable as that may seem to many. Yet, I have been joyful, fulfilled and loved throughout my 50+ years. I have many friends, men and women, some going back 40 years. We get together often, we help each other out emotionally and, right now, financially, because one of my friends is out of work. We find lots of way to NOT spend money together and we have fun doing it. (pot-lucks, road trips, camping, canning, book clubs, sharing DVDs, books, house-sitting pets, etc.)

    But this does not solve the intimacy issue which is expressed in many of these posts. One cannot expect long-lasting intimacy unless one is willing to commit to the relationship, invest in it and, yes, take the risk of being burned. Many single people call themselves single, but really are otherwise. They are in relationships that are essentially marriages without vows. As such, they bring that intimacy into their lives.

    For the other singles, those who still seek intimacy but are not in a relationship, for whatever reason, or those who are willing to forgo that one-on-one partner, I would say, find that which fulfills you – persons, work, hobbies, God, etc. Look seriously at what the world needs, listen to the needs of others and MATCH YOUR GIFTS AND TALENTS with those needs. Others call us to be our fullest selves and we can find great joy in that. I am of the belief that single people are not single by “default”; single people do not exist simply because they didn’t or couldn’t be married. That seems ridiculous to me. There is a special and necessary place in this world for those who choose the single life.

  52. Joey says:

    @ Sharon:

    Agreed. The part about seeking comfort in caring for others rings hollow for singles. These are very much one-way relationships. If they weren’t, people in helping professions (psychologists, social workers, etc) wouldn’t need supervision and peer support groups, which they absolutely do.

  53. Sharon says:

    @Joesy..Thanks. That is exactly what I was trying to say.

    @DrFunz…You said exactly what Trent should have said. Ensure that you have friends and be grateful for them. They are your support and source on intimacy (in the sense of having someone who knows you well and cares for you.) And your point that having a fulfilling job may be even more important for those without an immediate family, although it is true for anyone. Trent’s point seemed to be that a fulfilling job will fill the need of comfort and intimacy for a single person. Nope.
    And ..um….if you think that this is “beating Trent up” maybe you should go back and read the posts on hanging laundry and the review of “Scratch Beginnings”.
    But I nominate you to write the guest post. I’ll even be nice.

  54. Mom says:

    Realizing that “things” are only things is an important step in everybody’s life. Sometimes it takes years to fully understand what life should really be about.

    When I finally came to realize that things were taking over, I started getting rid of much of the clutter that surrounded me.

    Life is so much easier without so much stuff to get in the way.

    Oh – one more thing – those moments of snuggling with precious little people are the absolute best.

  55. Kathy says:

    Oh this was soooo good. I needed that reminder.

  56. Battra92 says:

    As someone who is single and is never having kids I just can’t quite relate to these posts all the time. Maybe I’m just too cynical about the world at large.

    To me saving money is about security. I won’t ever have to provide for anyone so I just want to be able to be free from financial worry so that I can concentrate on more important things.

  57. Angie says:

    I just found your blog today and I thought this was beautiful. This morning, while DH got ready for work, the kids came in and snuggled with me in bed and we just cuddled and watched TV. I’m a SAHM, and although I occasionally miss the “stuff” that my job payed for, my little ones make the sacrifices totally worth it.

  58. Dan says:

    Money will buy you the dog but only love can wag the tail.

  59. Martin says:

    Excellent and timely post given the state of the economy. I am reminded of the book inscription from the angel Clarence in “It’s A Wonderful Life.” The inscription reads, “Remember, no man is a failure who has friends.”

  60. Sarah says:

    Such a great post! Thanks so much for your consistent encouragement… I love that your site can be counted on to remind me of priorities, and not just of how to make my dollars last. :)

  61. miguelarm says:

    Perfecto, that’s it. Una noche de clarividencia, ;-)

  62. Anon says:

    Language is powerful. I grew up in England in the 50s and 60s. As children, we were taught only to use the word “love” if the object in question could love you back. For all other things, we used “like”. Therefore it is correct to say “I like ice cream” but NOT “I love ice cream”–because ice cream cannot love you back. You can modify this by saying, for example, “I like ice cream very much”. It is also OK to say “I love my kitten”, because a kitten CAN love you back (at least it looks that way). That is one difference between Love and Like.

    Maybe we would all do better controlling our stuff if we thought and spoke with greater precision.

  63. Sandy L says:

    Great post and I loved Greg #43’s comment.

    It made me think of my son and his “blankie”. It provides him immense comfort and security. He also talks about how snuggles on it give him “blankie energy”.

    People do get attached to things. I usually think these things are usually tied to a positive life experience. …like my ratty hiking boots and backpack that have visited countless places with me.

    It’s kind of like when a song or smell makes you think back to a different time in your life.

    Very thought provoking..thanks.

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