How to Know Who Loves You Best

The people who love us best can’t read our mind. They don’t know what we’re going to say or do next. But when we say something or do something clumsy, they trust the goodness of who we are. They can read our heart


Photo Credit: Mark Philpott via Compfight cc

It’s spring again in Illinois, and that means a lot of things—green-soft grass, pollen everywhere, thunderstorms, soccer games, and the countdown to summer. It also means a big empty box sitting in the foyer of my daughter’s preschool, advertising the countdown until the chicks hatch. We arrive at the school on day zero and peer over the edge of the box.

Nothing yet.

I ask her where the eggs are.

My daughter looks at me somberly and says, “The chicks didn’t have a momma, so we needed to keep them warm in an escalator.”

I think about telling her it’s called an incubator, but I know what she means and not every moment needs to be a teaching moment. I smile. She smiles and grabs my hand and we walk into her class together.

How do we know when we belong?

The people we belong to know what we mean.


I’ve seen it countless times over the years.

In the middle of a marital or family therapy session, someone will say something gutsy and loving and I know exactly what he or she means, but it’s stated clumsily and with an ounce (or more) of protectiveness and defensiveness. As an objective observer, I can see the tenderness through the messiness.

I hold my breath, hoping I’m not the only one who knows what was meant.

And then I cringe a little inside when the meaning of the words is missed altogether, when the heart of a loved one isn’t known or trusted or believed in. I cringe because showing that good heart took courage and now it will probably go more deeply into hiding.

But then there are the other moments.

Moments in which the heart stumbling through the words is seen and its goodness is trusted and its beauty is believed in. There are other moments in which a partner or a family member sees the incubator through the escalator.

A place of belonging is not the place where someone can read our mind or anticipate what we might say. A place of belonging happens when someone receives the words we’ve already said or the things we’ve already done and, sometimes, understands their meaning even better than we do.


Recently, my wife and I were having lunch in a fast food restaurant. We were talking about the many things happening in our life, when I realized we had forgotten napkins. Mid-thought, I got up, retrieved a napkin for myself, and sat back down. My wife looked at me and said, in equal parts amusement and annoyance, “Were you planning to get me a napkin, too?”

I smiled sheepishly and retrieved one.

When I sat back down, she looked at me and said, “I know in your heart you want to get me a napkin. You want to think of me and show me love. But sometimes your anxious brain doesn’t cooperate.”

In a fast food restaurant, my wife knew what I meant.

In a fast food restaurant, I belonged.


In two weeks, my family will be moving to a new town, where we will work and live and love and keep growing up. We’ll be leaving our town, but far more importantly and painfully, we’ll be leaving our people. The people we belong to.

How do I know we belong to them?

Because they know what we mean.

Over the years, I have been messy and angry and distracted and absent and sad and confrontational and withdrawn and overjoyed and clueless and scared and a little too brave and I’ve made mistakes and I’ve hurt feelings and I’ve cared well for the people I love and I’ve cared poorly for them, too.

But when my love has been an escalator, they’ve known I meant it to be an incubator.

It takes time and courage and not a little bit of luck to find a community like that. Even more, it takes time to trust and believe the way they see you is for real. To trust it isn’t going away. To trust they will be there for you, especially when you are at your sloppiest.

Our family’s transition this month is more pronounced than some, but I think most of us are in some way moving between places of belonging. We’re always leaving some people, taking others with us, and meeting new people along the way. So, perhaps the words of gratitude I feel right now are words we all need to share with the people we have, do, and will belong to:

To those we are leaving behind, words fail the gratitude we feel for the ways you have loved us, even when we used the wrong words. To those who will remain with us along the way, thank you for standing by our side and loving us in the midst of our crazy. And to those we are moving toward, thank you for being patient with us. We are going to show ourselves to you. We hope you can see who we are, underneath all our mess.

When we say escalator instead of incubator, we hope you know what we mean.

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Next Post: The Power of Friendship (When Friendship is a Verb)

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Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

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23 thoughts on “How to Know Who Loves You Best

  1. Sorry but I need to say with equal parts of amusement and annoyance, that I don’t really like when I read “my wife”, “my daughter” my, my…. so many times in your posts (which I am a fan of). I know it shows love and affection and it nearly gets close to cuteness, but in literary terms, isn’t better to say: My wife Mary in the first reference to your wife, then just say Mary when you need to refer to her again? My daughter Sally did this, ….then I said to Sally that. I think it flows better, I think it gives them a chance for independence and for a life of their own when they cease to be “yours” this “yours” that… I hope you understand the incubator behind my escalator. With gratitude for another beautiful and inspiring post and all the best with the move. Sure all will go well. ps: Maybe you can’t use their names for privacy reasons? Or it can only be your preference, which I respect.

    • Dan, you’re the second person in the last few weeks to mention this, so I’m glad you did; it’s worth addressing. And you hit on it exactly. Those who’ve been around UnTangled from the beginning know that I used to use my kids’ names, but I decided one night in conversation with a friend that I was already making enough unilateral decisions about their privacy, and I would at least protect their names. So, I stopped using them. I suppose it does run the risk of coming off a little patriarchal, but I’ll have to trust you all can read my incubator through my escalator. Incidentally, I’ve never used my wife’s name, because it’s exactly the same as mine, and that would just be confusing. : )

  2. “It takes time and courage and not a little bit of luck to find a community like that.”
    Great encouragement for all of us. I’m sure you’ll continue to find it. After all, it has much more to do with “you” than “them”. 😉
    Keep on escalating

    • Mike, thanks for this! And thanks for your comment last week; made me laugh. : ) I hope you enjoyed the post as much as the title!

  3. Reading through my tears. People have loved me to health like this. I am learning to love like this. I am learning to sit through the messy to get to the meaning.
    Bless you and yours in this transition!

    • Carrie, your comment made me think of Gregory Boyle’s book “Tattoos on the Heart.” You might really resonate with it. Blessings to you and yours, as well!

  4. In your moving up the escalator to your next adventure, know that somewhere there is your next incubator, planned for you by Him Who loves you best, providing warmth and nurturing, just like before.

  5. Kelly, for being an imperfect person, as we all are, you have the most perfect way with words. I aspire to think like you do in some way before I leave this earth! You really are wonderful and write meaningful words that sink in. Thank you for providing us all with your heart through your words!

    • Catherine, this is really kind of you to say! Thanks for knowing I’m imperfect and sticking around anyway. : )

  6. God bless your wife for giving me words for my husband and son “I know in your heart you want to get me a napkin. You want to think of me and show me love. But sometimes your anxious brain doesn’t cooperate.”

    God bless all of you on your next journey!

    • Thank you, Eden. I’m pretty sure it was the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me. May you bless your guys with those words, too!

  7. I was searching for these words the other day, the escalator/incubator/napkin thing, but I didn’t say it quite so eloquently. It was to my best girlfriend, though, so possibly I didn’t need to say it at all. Well illustrated and written, Kelly.

    • Ardys, thank you for this. And I think you’re right, sometimes we express it to a friend, not by saying it, but just by continuing to show up.

  8. Wow! Just wow! Reading this brought tears of joy to know that someone else understands clumsy communication. After 39 years of marriage my husband and I have developed our own special communication style. It encompasses the many moods of us but especially the many seasons of our love. Best wishes to you and your family as you begin your adventure!

  9. “…the meaning of the word is missed altogether, when the heart of a loved one isn’t known or trusted or believed in.” Those words hit home. I am on the journey of divorce in large part because slowly I grew silent and slipped away after repeated assaults with the blunt end of my clumsy heart-felt words.

    • Said beautifully Jennifer as I am in the same boat. U were able to concisely summarize 10 years of arguments in three sentences.

  10. But what if your wife really needs you to get her napkins; and while she can understand that your anxious brain just makes it impossible to fill that need right now, what then? What does she do then?

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