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 and destroying them, but that’s what happens much of the time.
We could ask why this happens, but today I’d prefer to ask how.
Answering this question requires killing a sacred cow: unconditional love.
So many relationships follow a 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, chronically.
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’re left were a mere human being. Or, live for the rest of your life in relationship hell.
The source of the 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 to which you should aspire. Heaven forbid someone love you conditionally! How selfish. People who aren’t capable of unconditional love are portrayed as degenerates.
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. And when you challenge unconditional love these days, you’re putting your moral goodness on the line.
I have two things to say to gurus who preach unconditional love:
1. You’re wrong.
2. You don’t care that you’re wrong (while the evidence in your own life proves it) because you’re selling something.
There’s nothing wrong with selling. Yet, knowingly selling something impossible to get with any consistency is wrong. In the end, your customers wind up blaming themselves for not reaching the virtuous heights 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 this through with a little thought experiment…
Pretend you and I are entering into a romantic relationship.
Of course we expect 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 are after the complete package. We want loving compassion, deep emotional connection, positive regard and regular physical fulfillment. These are the joys of true romantic love.
And we’re off to a great start. Things are going well. Until…
I come home one day and confess that I’ve had an affair. It was a stupid, impulsive act that I swear I will regret forever. But I did it. I am so sorry.
Would your feelings toward me change in any way? Would you be sleeping with me that night? Would you be maintain your warm feelings, compassion and romantic spark? Would you still get goose bumps every time you saw me?
Or, would you be emotionally devastated and wonder if we can ever live in the same house again? I am guessing your love would morph into a mix of love, pain, resentment and confusion – and remain so for a long, long time.
If you’re 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 love. The positive feelings in my heart would not alter. I would be ready to embrace you, make love to you and carry on without a hitch…..
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. When you betray loyalties, all bets are off. The love changes.
So, here’s where we are: We love each other fully, under the condition of loyalty. Requiring loyalty protects us both.
And 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. Are they loving unconditionally?
No. Their conditions on loyalty are merely defined differently, a little more broadly. If your open relationship partner came home one day and announced he or she had sex with several children, for example…
Right? Forget it. Open relationships are not unconditional. You can have sex with other people, under the condition that those people do not include children. If you’re inclined broaden to these conditions and include children in defense of unconditional romantic love, then I hope you’ll leave my site immediately.
Loyalty in one form or another to the relationship is a universal condition of romantic love.
I will love you forever, on the condition that you are loyal to me. If you prove 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 obviously still applies. In fact, the loyalty condition will probably grow stronger than ever.
People who rebuild after an affair are people working with their love conditions. This is not wrong. 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 disloyal partner.
The idea that you should love your partner unconditionally, while expecting unconditional love in return, is a horrific misconception of romantic love.
Try on these and see how you do….
Imagine your partner lies all the time. You never know when he or she is telling the truth.
Imagine your partner becoming a drug addict.
Imagine your partner not taking care of himself or herself (not showering, for example) for long periods of time.
Imagine your partner taking domestic advantage of you – not pulling his or her weight, at all, around the house.
Imagine your partner refusing to work, period.
Imagine your partner spending tons of money behind your back, year after year.
Imagine your partner behaving badly in any number of ways, over and over, for years, and still expecting you to be full of love, ready to serve and hop in the sack anytime for passionate sex.
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 it to someone who will abuse it. You don’t want to invest your emotions into people who mistreat you. You want to avoid being used, ignored or taken for granted. I don’t blame you. I don’t either.
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 romantically regardless of how she is treated? 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.
Now, 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 also slowly change?
I guess what I am suggesting here is that we all 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:
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.
Finally, you may have realized that all of this has everything 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 be defective if you can’t love someone who ignores your needs.
Think about it. Loving something 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 with 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 and place conditions on your heart. You deserve the safety and respect and love that follows.
If you have a tendency to set yourself up for failure in relationships, or can’t manage to express your needs and negotiate happiness together, you might consider coaching. It can make a significant difference in your love life.
And keep in mind…underlying all this may be a negative psychological attachment. If you’re not familiar with healthy romantic relationships, or if some part of you seems to resist them, then you definitely want to read my book, Your Achilles Eel. This is not a relationships book per se, but it will absolutely explain why some part of you may be seeking out painful, unfulfilling relationships.
You can get it on Amazon, or receive PDF copy of it for free by joining my email list below.