I woke up on Christmas morning and found myself reminiscing about a few memories I cherished most from when I was married. We celebrated Christmas together with our four kids and family dog Bob. “Bob Dog” used to sit faithfully by his Christmas stocking (yes I am that type of dog mom) and wait until he was told he could have it. He would then start to take item by item out of his stocking and lay down to play or chew his new treasure. I love the holidays and creating time with family and special memories is extremely important to me. I texted my soon to be ex-husband and shared my reminiscing. He texted back that Bob was the best dog ever and referenced his “unconditional love”.
Throughout our relationship my then husband would insinuate that his love was unconditional. Since our separation and impending divorce he has commented that my love was clearly conditional, inferring that’s what enabled me to leave him. Now that I’m over the immediate guilt of ending the marriage and have had some space I have a clearer perspective on the question; Is there such a thing as unconditional love and should there be? I think yes as it relates to our children. I’m a mom so I have to say this and it’s true. (Otherwise how else could I forgive my adult daughter shrinking my best clothes in the dryer so they no longer fit me, but ever so conveniently have become her size?) And yes, for beloved pets. A dog will always welcome you home as if you’ve been gone for months, when you’ve in fact simply gone to take the trash out. Try not to smile when something loves you so much it can’t keep its bum grounded on the floor just because you walked in the door.
What about the reality of unconditional love in a romantic relationship?
NO, I don’t believe in unconditional love.
Adults get to choose who they commit to. It’s a conscious decision. Individually each made that choice in the beginning because the other person was attractive; physically, emotionally, and through positive behavior. This is true for both parties in a loving relationship. Love was built as was respect and friendship. This foundation is what propels couples forward into a deeper, more intimate relationship, and a life-long commitment.
But do we owe loving that person unconditionally from that point forward?
There are 4 pillars needed to support the foundation of a healthy relationship:
- Knowledge: To “know and be known” means there is an authentic desire to discover and know each other’s true selves. Within your relationship you are safe and able to share who you are, to peel back your layers and to be vulnerable. It means wanting to learn and uncover your partners layers too. This is not to say we will like all of them, of course not, but that both want to continually learn about the other. This deepens intimacy.
- Conflict: Healthy relationships hit pot holes, have arguments, and issues. The key is to learn to navigate through them in a respectful manner; one that allows both parties to hold their dignity and reasonable boundaries. Smaller arguments are a great way to learn how to argue well. Like learning to negotiate in a business setting, you can learn how to argue in your relationship. When you’ve accomplished this you learn the following; arguments don’t damage your relationship, even if you’re not thrilled with the outcome.
- Investment: You need to be willing to actively invest in your relationship. They take effort. Yes, they are work. It’s that simple. You couldn’t keep a job you put little to no effort in, yet it always amazes me how smoothly we expect our relationships to run even when we aren’t fueling it with consistent care. It took effort to meet, date, fall in love and commit to each other. It takes equal effort to sustain that love. And it’s worth it… Heck, the “work” can be fun!
- Appreciation: Don’t we all want to feel appreciated? It has been proven a healthy and happy relationship gets at least a 5 positive to 1 negative ratio of interactions and experiences; if something you said hurt your partners feelings there needs to be at least 5 positive experiences to offset the negative impact (this does not eliminate apologizing when needed). It’s easy to get wrapped up in what’s not working, feeling disappointed, or let down. But we “get what we focus on” so why not focus on the positive, your significant others attributes and even their smallest of efforts? To quote Tal Ben Shahar, “When we appreciate the good, the good appreciates”.
Love should be patient. Love should be flexible. Love should provide a safety for each of us to be human. But real love does not negate or degrade the other person. Nor can one person be expected to take on all the responsibility for the health, upkeep and happiness of a relationship.
I used to feel guilty for not loving “unconditionally” in my marriage. I don’t anymore. I want to be clear… I loved my husband very much. But his continual lack of effort and negative behavior towards me eroded my respect and love for him. To address the four pillars for foundation that I talked about above, this is how they positively and honestly worked out for me:
- Knowledge: I put great effort into understanding my husband, what made him tick and where his insecurities and fears came from. I wanted myself to be known too. But it wasn’t safe to share and be vulnerable with him. I was often shamed when I exposed my feelings or needs. So I withdrew and our intimacy diminished.
- Conflict: We didn’t know how to handle conflict. I had poor skills which created issues for us. Withdrawal does not work. He would say degrading things and get defensive. We did try to lean to improve and to use better skills, but we were nowhere near successful enough for me to feel I was on equal ground in the face of conflict.
- Investment: He “invested” in us as a provider. We had a great lifestyle, but not on the home front, in our daily lives, or as a friend. I over invested in our relationship by giving up all autonomy.
- Appreciation: I think we both tried but our failures in the other areas, and our inability to have the positive out weight the negative kept drowning us. Despite the final outcome, I learned to appreciate the positive.
So I made the gut wrenching decision, after many attempts to work it out, to leave my marriage. I left while I still loved him. The difference was that I was no longer willing to be in a marriage and “love unconditionally.” I had conditions and they are called boundaries. I deserve to be with someone who wants to build me up, not strip me down.
I didn’t fail my marriage by not loving unconditionally. I put heroic efforts into our relationship. I gave us huge room to fail and bounce back from. I was flexible even when I didn’t think I could be. I tried to focus on the positive. But in the end I chose self-respect. I chose to love myself more.