Thomas Fiffer wants you to get unconditional love right, so you don’t break your heart trying.
There’s this thing everyone talks about called unconditional love. You hear about it from people who seem to have good relationships. You see it plastered all over Facebook. Unconditional love is presented as the purest form of love, the gold standard, the summit of bliss we’re all trying reach. And you begin to think, if I could just learn to love my partner unconditionally, or better yet, if I could find someone to love me unconditionally, I would be supremely happy.
Because I want you to be supremely happy, I’m calling bullshit on unconditional love. I’m not saying it doesn’t exist. But it doesn’t mean what you think it does, nor does your supreme happiness depend on it. So let’s correct some major misunderstandings. Because if you try to love unconditionally and you get it wrong, you will be miserable. Supremely miserable. And you won’t be doing your partner any favors either. You’ll be creating a relationship in which you tolerate and enable hurtful behavior that doesn’t serve either one of you. Here are five things I’ve learned about loving unconditionally that you can put into practice for better, healthier relationships. When you practice these yourself and expect them from your partner, your understanding of love will change, and your whole life will change with it.
1. Unconditional love is not an obligation; it’s a choice. Loving your partner unconditionally doesn’t mean loving—or staying—no matter what. The power to love, to give love, and to walk away from love always resides with you. If someone abuses you, or is cruel to you or your children, holds you back in life, or consistently trashes your sense of well-being, you’re not obligated to stay or to keep giving your love to that person. You may still harbor a kind of love for this scoundrel in your heart—a love that keeps a safe distance—but you are not required to leave yourself vulnerable to emotional or physical harm. Saying no to hurtful behavior is not setting a condition for love. It’s simply saying I love myself first, and I refuse to abandon my self-love to indulge in the love of another who hurts me. Some people do choose to remain in relationships that don’t bring them happiness or worse, bring them harm. Justifying this choice with the excuse of, “But I’m obligated to love unconditionally,” perpetuates powerlessness and a victim mentality. Choosing to be with a person who respects you, honors you, treats you with kindness, and enriches your life is actually the first step to loving unconditionally; it prepares the ground for unconditional love to flourish.
2. Unconditional love doesn’t mean unconditional forgiveness. Your partner does something that pisses you off—big time. Or repeats the same mistake twice, or five times. Or says something that’s, well, unforgivable. Unconditional love doesn’t mean you let it go. You can demand—and accept—your partner’s apology, but you don’t have to forgive unconditionally, meaning without defined expectations for future behavior, in order to love unconditionally. In fact, calling your partner on his or her crap, not accepting lame excuses, and refusing to be a doormat is a higher form of love than forgiving everything to keep the peace. First, it challenges your partner to a higher standard of behavior, which is in the best interest of the relationship. And second, it enables your relationship to grow by ensuring that you and your partner learn from your mistakes. Relationship dynamics do not remain static, and sometimes, the way partners interact with each other needs to shift for the relationship to improve. Unconditional love requires you not only to allow but also to enable that shift by making your forgiveness meaningful and real.
3. Unconditional love is not a kind of love but a way of loving. If you’re a parent, you know that you can love your child and simultaneously hate what that child does. Your child’s horrible behavior doesn’t make you stop loving your kid; but it does compel you to treat your child differently in the moment and respond appropriately with corrective action. So to say, “I love my partner unconditionally” doesn’t mean you love that person with some mystical purity that transcends your everyday interaction. Instead, it means that in every interaction, you come from a place of love. That place of love means you act respectfully and treat your partner as an equal. That place of love means you don’t judge or try to control. And that place of love means you don’t hit below the belt and use your partner’s vulnerability against him or her. Those are the conditions you don’t violate.
4. Unconditional love has boundaries. To understand this, it helps to understand the value of boundaries and that boundaries are not selfish. A boundary is not a condition you set that says, I’ll only love you if you do x, or I won’t love you if you do y. A boundary is nothing more than a healthy understanding of your own value and of what behaviors value and devalue you. While it is necessary in some cases, particularly in high-conflict relationships, to attach consequences (such as leaving) to the violation of a boundary, in an unconditional love relationship consequences are not needed. The consequence is the impact to the feelings of the person you love whose boundary you have crossed. If your partner knows that coming home late without calling makes you feel unappreciated and disrespected, your partner can choose not to engender those feelings in you, because he or she doesn’t want you to feel them. Setting a boundary is making your feelings known, and respecting a boundary is making a choice to respect your partner’s feelings and making that choice from love rather than fear of retribution. Failing to express clear boundaries sets up a dysfunctional dynamic in which partners cross lines and cause pain unintentionally, then suffer the angry reaction to the offense—a pattern of interaction that erodes love over time.
5. Unconditional love is not one-way. If you love your partner unconditionally, as described above, but your partner doesn’t love you the same way, it isn’t unconditional love—it’s damaging self-sacrifice. Similarly, you need to hold yourself to the same standard you expect from your partner and that your partner adheres to. Unconditional love is a mutually supportive dynamic in which both partners pull each other up to the healthiest way of loving and neither partner tears the other down. Many people get stuck in unhealthy, self-destructive relationships because they think that applying the healing salve of what they believe is unconditional love to a difficult or even abusive person will change that person into the partner they desire. Trust me. It doesn’t work. Despite our conscience and sense of morality, the human animal tends to do exactly what it can get away with. No more, no less. Your one-way unconditional love will never heal or change your partner. It will only change you into a bitter and resentful person. Demanding that your partner love you in a healthy, respectful, reciprocal way—which sounds like setting a condition but is actually recognizing your own self-worth—is the only way to improve your relationship.
I don’t know what you thought unconditional love was, but I’m betting it wasn’t this. I know when I first fell in love, I thought it was something different, and it took a long time and a lot of pain for me to learn these truths. So I share them with you as an act of love, a gift forged in the crucible of my suffering. Because love isn’t supposed to hurt. Abandoning yourself, sacrificing your happiness, stifling your true character, and giving up your dreams is not unconditional love. It’s unconditional surrender. It’s ceding the territory of your joy before the first shot is even fired. To achieve intimacy, you do need to take off your armor. But always remember, your heart is sacred ground.
For more of Thomas G. Fiffer’s writing on love, check out his book, What Is Love? A Guide for the Perplexed to Matters of the Heart, on Amazon.