I think in a lot of ways unconditional love is a myth. My mom’s the only reason I know it’s a real thing.
– Conor Oberst
I don’t think many people enter romantic relationships with the intention of systematically undermining them, but that’s what happens much of the time. We could ask why this happens, but today I’d prefer to ask how. One way to ruin romantic relationships is to expect unconditional love.
Unconditional love is just what it sounds like: Loving without conditions. If you love me unconditionally, there is nothing I can say or do that would affect your love. There are no rules to be broken that affect unconditional love. This is love without limits.
We could argue that unconditional love applies well in many cases, such as the love between mother and child. Here, however, we’re discussing romantic relationships. How did so many of us come to expect unconditional love in romance? We can only speculate how this is the case! Regardless, unconditional love may do more harm than good to imperfect romances. And that includes yours and mine.
Guided by an expectation of unconditional love, many romantic relationships follow the same recipe for disaster:
1. Expect your partner to love you unconditionally.
2. See your partner as ‘in the wrong’ when he/she doesn’t live up to your expectation.
3. Fight like crazy.
4. Fantasize about being with someone who does love you unconditionally and revel in how they would treat you.
5. Break up, emotionally exhausted, after the delusions are over and you’ve realized you’re stuck with someone who can’t deliver on your relationship dreams. Or, live for the rest of your life in relationship hell.
The source of this catastrophe is step number one. When you expect someone to love you (romantically) without any conditions, you are expecting the impossible.
I know, I know. Spiritual gurus and relationship experts extol the virtues of unconditional love as if it were the ultimate solution. Heaven forbid someone loves you conditionally! How selfish. People who aren’t aspiring to unconditional love are portrayed as unenlightened.
The thinking goes something like this (with exaggerations): Who wants to be with a low life that can’t love without placing a bunch of conditions on that love? Conditions are suspect. Conditional love is selfish and manipulative, right? If you place conditions on your love, you may only be able to love prostitutes, who will love you right back under the right ‘conditions’.
Such is the propaganda of unconditional love. When you challenge unconditional love these days, you’re putting your moral goodness on the line to be judged.
I have two things to say to gurus who preach unconditional love:
1. You’re naive, or…
2. You must not care that you’re misleading people because you’re selling something.
There’s nothing wrong with selling self-help and relationship mastery programs. Yet, knowingly selling something that’s impossible to get with any consistency is wrong. In the end, your customers wind up blaming themselves for not achieving the virtues of unconditional love in their relationships. Your followers are led to believe they are broken, when in fact your product is defective.
Fact is, looking for unconditional love in a grown-up relationship is a lot like looking for the Loch Ness Monster. We’ve all heard of it; we wonder if it’s real, but there’s little proof it exists.
Abby Rodman at Huffington Post
Let’s work the unconditional love problem with a thought experiment…
Pretend you and I enter a monogamous relationship.
Of course, we’ve fallen for the hype and expect nothing less than unconditional love of each other.
And love is a verb, right? Real love is more than a concept. Love dictates your actions, too. You and I want the complete package. We want loving compassion, deep emotional connection, positive regard and regular physical fulfillment. These are the joys of true romantic love.
We’re off to a great start. Things are going well. Until…
I come home one day with a shocking confession: I’ve had an affair. It was a stupid, impulsive act that I will regret forever. But I did it. I am so sorry.
Would your romantic feelings for me change? Would you sleep with me that night? Would you be able to maintain your enthusiasm, warm feelings and a desire for emotional intimacy? Could you imagine still getting goosebumps every time you saw me?
Or, would you be emotionally devastated and wonder if we could ever live in the same house again? Wouldn’t your entire future undergo and sudden, earthquake-like shift? Your love would reasonably morph into a mix of shock, betrayal, resentment, and confusion – and remain so for quite some time.
If you’re reading this and pretending your love for me would not be affected in any way, I don’t even know what to say. But I don’t believe you. If you’re saying to yourself: Of course I would still love you with a full romantic and unconditional love. The positive feelings in my heart would not falter. I would be ready to embrace you, make love to you and carry on without a hitch…..I am that evolved! Then, now is the time to exit this post. I am not as enlightened as you.
Of course your love for me would change. Loyalty is one of the most common conditions placed on romantic love in monogamous. When you betray loyalties, all bets are off. The love changes when this condition is violated.
If you agree, then here’s where we are with the issue of unconditional love:
We love each other fully, on the condition of loyalty. Requiring loyalty protects us both.
We are already outside the bounds of unconditional love. It was easy to get here, wasn’t it? The idea of unconditional love falls apart quickly when you think about real life, what actual people go through.
But wait a minute, you say…
What about the polyamorous folks – those who live in open relationships. They can have sex with other people and still love each other. Aren’t they loving unconditionally?
No. Their conditions on loyalty are defined differently, more broadly. If your open relationship partner came home one day and announced, he or she had sex with a child, for example…
I sincerely apologize for introducing this topic. It’s only to make a point. Open relationships are not unconditional. In a polyamorous relationship, you can typically have sex with other people, under the condition that those people do not include children.
Loyalty in one form or another to the relationship seems to be a universal condition of romantic love.
I will love you on the condition that you are loyal to our agreement. If you prove to be disloyal, I will not be able to help falling out of love with you.
Whoa! Stop right there!
Couples overcome affairs all the time and some even say the disloyalty was the best thing that ever happened to their relationship. They are so much stronger now.
Yes, this happens. And it’s great that some people can dig deep and get past the betrayal. I would argue that, because of the affair, the love is still affected, however.
The couple inevitably goes through a very painful, often emotionally void period in which love is dead or compromised, after which they must reevaluate and rebuild their foundation. This is a far cry from unconditional love. The condition of loyalty still applies and is the reason for the need to rebuild. As a result, the loyalty condition will probably become stricter than before.
People who rebuild after an affair are people working with their love conditions. This is not wrong or unenlightened. It’s real.
After rebuilding the relationship, what happens if the offending party cheats again? And again? Is love still likely now? If unconditional love were in play, then it would have to be. But it’s not likely – and may not even be possible for a human being to love a chronically disloyal partner.
The idea that you should love your partner unconditionally while expecting unconditional love in return is a tragic misconception of romantic love.
Try on these and see how you do….
Imagine that your partner:
Lies all the time. You never know when he or she is telling the truth.
Becomes a drug or porn addict.
Stops taking care of himself or herself (not showering, for example) for long periods of time.
Takes advantage of you – not pulling his or her weight, at all, around the house.
Refuses to work or contribute financially, period.
Spends tons of money behind your back, year after year.
Behaves badly in any number of ways, over and over, for years, and still expects you to be full of love, ready to serve and hop in the sack anytime.
Are you up for any of this? I am guessing not. But why not?
Because you have conditions on your heart. You don’t want to give yourself to someone who abuses you. You don’t want to invest your emotions in people who mistreat you. You want to avoid being dismissed or taken for granted.
I don’t blame you.
And I don’t want any of the above for my wife. So, I do my best to honor the conditions of our love. I love her. Why would I expect her to love me romantically regardless of how I treat her? Loving her, how could I possibly expect her to go right on loving me even if I were to chronically abuse her?
Expecting love in return for mistreatment is either naive or monstrous, take your pick.
Stop expecting yourself to love your romantic partner unconditionally. Stop expecting to be loved unconditionally. It sets your relationship up for failure.
There are always people in wonderful, healthy relationships who claim their success is due to unconditional love.
I am so happy in my relationship with Steven. We love each other unconditionally. He’s always there for me. And he’s so responsible and loyal. I can depend on him for everything I need. Of course, I do the same for him. We’re so lucky.
You are so lucky, but not because of unconditional love. You’re fortunate because you and your partner are living up to each other’s expectations. You’re thrilled because your love conditions are satisfied.
What would happen if Steven suddenly stopped being there for you? What if he slowly grew irresponsible and disloyal? Wouldn’t your love slowly erode?
I guess what I am suggesting here is that we square ourselves with what we agree to when we fall in love and expect to stay in love.
Do place conditions on your heart…
Don’t avoid reality and pretend you and your partner aren’t mere mortals. You’ve got conditions that protect your heart. Honor them. I suggest being overt about them.
I promise to love you and expect that you will:
• Be loyal
• Treat me with respect
• Take care of yourself
• Be responsible financially
• Spend enough time with me
• Meet my needs
• And I will do the same for you.
In other words, it’s OK to expect others to earn your love. And you should expect yourself to earn theirs – every single day. In this way, your relationship becomes dynamic and capable of continued evolution.
All of this has to do with honoring personal boundaries.
If you don’t have expectations (or conditions) in your relationship, how can you have boundaries? You both have needs. Are you going to stay in love if you systematically ignore those needs?
Unconditional love would suggest that, yes, you can (and perhaps should) stay in love. In fact, under the guise of unconditional love, you may feel defective if you can’t love someone who ignores your needs.
Think about it: Love someone without any expectation that they will meet your needs or be receptive to your efforts to meet theirs. I know this might sound nice. Who wants to be that person who places either/or expectations and consequences on other adults? Do what I want or else…
I didn’t create human psychology, but I’m here to tell you that your partner should meet your needs….or else. You won’t be able to stay in love otherwise. And you shouldn’t.
Many of my coaching clients have needed to learn to get clear about their needs and communicate them clearly. They’ve also had to pay close attention to their partner’s needs and negotiate their way to fulfillment. And it works when both parties are even a little open to the process.
Even when only one party is interested in the work (almost all of my clients are working with me individually) this kind of clarity about love, conditions and needs changes the dance in the relationship.
Forget everything you’ve heard about unconditional love in romance and place conditions on your heart. You deserve the safety and respect and love that follows.
And keep in mind…underlying all this may be a negative psychological attachment, in which you unconsciously set yourself up for failure in a variety of contexts.