Wouldn’t it be great to find someone who loves and accepts us as we are? Many times during psychotherapy sessions, my clients have uttered some version of, “I just want to be unconditionally loved! I want someone who can accept me with my flaws and foibles.”
I’m very sympathetic to our desire for a partner who is not bent on fixing and changing us. As psychologist Harville Hendrix has suggested, one purpose of adult relationships is to heal old childhood wounds. A common wound is not feeling seen and accepted as we are. Love relationships can help us feel welcomed, wanted, and embraced, despite our limitations.
But since others have their own set of needs and vulnerabilities, there’s a limit to what they can accept. Clinging to a demand that we be unconditionally loved can give us license to be self-centered or destructive, which might include having affairs or being emotionally abusive. Can we really expect our partner to accept such damaging behavior?
It’s a pleasant fantasy to desire someone who’s unalterably there for us, regardless of how obnoxious we might be. Might our plea for unconditional love be a convenient way to use romantic or spiritual language as a way to cling to our narcissism and avoid noticing how we’re affecting others?
What Self Do We Want Others to Love?
Sure, we want to be accepted for who we are. But here’s the rub: are we actually being who we really are? Or are we being a self that has been reflexively constructed to avoid the more vulnerable aspects of who we are? Have we built walls of defenses and mistakenly taken this fabricated self to be our authentic self? And then proudly insist that others accept and love this distorted, reactive self?
The notion of unconditional love raises tricky, but interesting questions. Are we expecting our partner to love our nasty, prickly self? Is being angry or critical hiding something deeper that we don’t want to face and feel? Might our aggressive outbursts reflect a defensive pattern whereby we’re hiding more tender, deeply authentic parts of ourselves? Criticism and contempt have been identified by researcher John Gottman as a reliable predictor of distress and divorce.
If we have a pattern of lashing out angrily when we don’t get our way, we may insist that we want to be accepted for that. But how might you feel if your partner lashed out unpredictably, perhaps when you’re feeling most vulnerable? Even a saint would have difficulty experiencing love during such moments.
As expressed in my book Dancing with Fire:
We may hide our true feelings because we don’t want to feel uncomfortably exposed. Consequently, our feelings may come out indirectly. Distancing from what is alive inside us may explain why we feel irritable, moody, or angry sometimes… It takes a quiet inner strength to expose what is vulnerably alive inside us. We can relate to others in a more direct, fulfilling way as we become mindful of what we’re really experiencing and show our true feelings and wants without misdirection, games, or shame about who we really are.
Dealing with a Difficult Partner
You want to be loved as you are? That’s understandable. You want to be accepted with your human flaws and limitations? Of course! But it’s easier to garner compassion if your partner can trust that you’re making a sincere effort to grow as a person — to become more aware of your true feelings and longings.
If you’re in a situation where you have a challenging partner, you might recognize and accept their tendency to be reactive and critical. Your love might prompt you to work on this issue rather than separate, including looking at your possible contribution to cycles of conflict. But it would be unrealistic to practice unconditional love in the sense of accepting hurtful behaviors without voicing how they affect you and asserting that it’s not okay to be treated this way. This would be self-neglect, not unconditional love.
If you have a partner who pleads with you to seek help through individual or couples therapy, you might want to consider it. Perhaps see this as an invitation to uncover and reveal more of who you really are — and to do so together. It’s difficult to see ourselves clearly without reflections back from wise, caring others. As the sage Rumi suggested, “Without a guide it will take you two hundred years for a journey of two years.”
Children need unconditional love. But mature love requires mutuality. Just as our garden needs ample sunshine and water, we need to be sustained by respect, understanding, and nurturing.
The good news is that love relationships can help us awaken to our blind spots. Rather than demand unconditional love, we can take responsibility for how we’re contributing to conflicts. We can notice and express the more tender feelings beneath our prickliness. We can practice giving ourselves the love and acceptance that we want from others.
If we can be courageously mindful of what we’re really experiencing inside and express these authentic (usually more vulnerable) feelings and longings, then we just might find that we become more lovable. Showing who we really are is more likely to elicit the love and acceptance we’re longing for.
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