Unconditional love is a noble ideal. We want to be accepted and loved as we are. And perhaps we’d like to see ourselves as spiritually evolved and capable of selfless love.
Unfortunately, loving unconditionally may be a setup to feel shame or heartache when our ideal doesn’t match reality.
Children need to be loved unconditionally. When they mess up, we need to be patient — taking a deep breath and offering guidance one more time. Embodying a consistently loving presence, we create a climate for a safe attachment.
As adults, we also desire safety in our relationships. As we open our heart to another person, we want to trust that they’ll be there when we need them. We may fear being abandoned.
Echoing the silent plea of the child, our expectation may be: love me and supply what I want despite how I treat you. Clinging to a sense of entitlement, we may blame or rage when our partner has needs that clash with our own. Mature love can only thrive under certain conditions, just as a rose needs ample sun, water, and nutrients to survive and flourish.
Loving someone doesn’t equate to always supplying what they want or being infinitely patient and accepting. An immature view of love saddles it with the obligation to satisfy every need, soothe every sorrow, and comply with every request.
A challenge of every healthy relationship is being responsive to our partner while also honoring and being responsive to our own needs and longings. This means permitting ourselves to have limits and knowing our boundaries — having access to our “yes,” our “no,” and our “maybe.”
Loving means being sensitive to the space between you and me. It means being respectful, attentive, and attuned to each other’s feelings and wants. It means slowing down, staying in our body and allowing ourselves to be touched by what they feel — and moved by what they want.
Loving a person means taking their requests seriously and making them happy if we can do so without damaging ourselves. It doesn’t mean we’re obligated to always say “yes.” But declining a request too harshly can damage trust. Regarding sensitive matters, a stark “no” can be dismissive and hurtful.
If we need to decline a request, we can do so with respect and sensitivity. If our partner wants us to visit our difficult in-laws, we can decline with empathy and kindness. We can vulnerably express our fears and concerns to let our partner glimpse our inner process.
Here lies a key to the elusive intimacy we seek: the process is usually more important than the outcome. Letting ourselves be seen and seeing another’s inner life nourishes our love.
Dancing with Fire
Love cannot flourish if we ignore, minimize, or deny our partner’s needs. But neither can it thrive if we deny our own, which is a setup for resentment and distancing.
Part of a loving bond is trusting that our partner can experience occasional disappointment or frustration when we’re not inclined to be accommodating — and that being true to ourselves won’t damage the relationship (as long as we do it kindly). Relationships become stronger when we both have a capacity for self-soothing — taking care of ourselves emotionally when soothing from others is not forthcoming.
This doesn’t mean cavalierly dismissing our partner’s needs — sending them away to soothe themselves when we can’t give them what they want. However, a healthy relationship doesn’t mean fusing or merging. We’re separate people who will have differences that must be respected.
Love cannot mean that our partner must douse their desires in order to accommodate us. Neither can it mean suppressing our own longings in order to wear a spiritual badge of honor: being unconditionally loving. In this way, partnerships are like Dancing with Fire, which is why I titled my book as such. There’s the fire of another’s desires and our own burning needs. Working with the process of how our desires interact is a central part of the art of loving.
Love cannot thrive without rigorous self-awareness and courageous self-honesty. Is our “no” payback? Are we perpetuating a power struggle? Have we stored up hurt and resentment from the past that leaks out?
Healthy relationships require knowing our feelings, our limits, and our motivations. Is it really too painful or overwhelming to visit our in-laws? Or do we half-consciously want them to feel the pain that we felt when they refused a request that was important to us?
One of the greatest gifts we can give another person is the gift of our own personal growth. The more we know ourselves and develop the courage and skills to communicate our inner experience, the more that trust and love can grow.
Some Aspects of Loving
It may not be wise or possible to love unconditionally in the sense of accepting and staying with a partner no matter how poorly they treat you or how destructive it is for you (for example, you feel severely depressed or suicidal). But if we define unconditional love as follows, I’m all in, although I prefer the less grandiose term “mature love,” as defined in my book, The Authentic Heart:
- We’re committed to the process of open, honest, non-violent communication.
- We’re committed to listening carefully to each other and taking our partner’s feelings and wants seriously, while also expressing our own. We’re affected by each other.
- We take delight in making our partner happy. Our heart is large enough to be moved by love and caring, not by duty or obligation.
- Our love overrides the little annoyances that occur in every relationship. We accept our differences and work with them skillfully
- We share power. We don’t always get exactly what we want. Decisions derive from mutual engagement.
The term “unconditional love” can create confusion and set us up for something unattainable. We have a need not only to love but also to be loved. Rather than pursuing an unrealistic ideal, we can do our best to pursue a path that expands our heart, deepens our self-awareness and wisdom, and enables us to love in a courageous, mature way.
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