Can love really be unconditional? Ideally, yes; practically, no.
Unconditional love sounds amazing — and in theory, it is something we should all strive for. But should there ever be conditions placed on love? We asked experts Joan Childs and Diane Spear how we can love within the right parameters.
Says Spear, "Unconditional love is that 'towering feeling' (to quote songwriters Lerner and Lowe from On the Street Where You Live) that makes us feel all-powerful, that we can do anything. That's what's needed from parent(s) to child, an important part of helping a child feel secure and confident enough to get through the frustrations of childhood and go out into the larger world of nursery school and all that follows.
Childs continues: "You are to be loved just because you are you. It matters not that you wet your diaper, pooped in your pull ups, vomited on Mommy or Daddy, stayed up all night screaming and crying with a fever and all the other natural mishaps inherent in being a baby. But as you mature, there are expectations and demands that are part of your adaptive process in becoming civilized. Each family has its own set of rules and standards; not that they are necessarily healthy, but it's what they know and plan to pass on to you. When you grow up there are more expectations, depending on the values and norms of your family. Some of you will be expected to go to college; others not; marry wealthy, choose a career, follow in Dad's footsteps, take over the family business, etc."
"But — you knew there was a but coming, right?" says Spear, "that's not part of a healthy adult romantic relationship. Many people who didn't experience that all-accepting, unconditional love arrive at adulthood with the unconscious expectation that their romantic partner will meet those childhood needs, from hanging on the person's every word to loving the person unconditionally."
Spear continues: "To say it again: unconditional love, which is needed in childhood, has no place in a relationship between two adults. If a person is looking for unconditional love from a partner, the relationship will be very frustrating for both partners: one partner is cast as the child and the other (of either gender) is cast as the mommy, and then, maybe, they take turns. It's not age appropriate."
Spear explains that this doesn't mean grown-up love can't be fulfilling. "Am I saying that there's no such thing in the adult world as being loved despite our flaws? No, a reasonable partner will love another person if he or she feels that the good qualities outweigh the irritating qualities and character flaws. Those are conditions. Without conditions, anything goes, which doesn't make sense. A loving parent doesn’t stop loving their toddler during the 'terrible twos'; the parent helps the child deal with frustration and eventually learn to express it in more productive ways. But it would be unrealistic to expect another adult to deal with chronic tantrums and other childishness, unwillingness to work or help, abusive behavior, etc., in a relationship without it affecting the love."
Childs tackles the tricky issue of loving someone, but not all of their behaviors. "When you fall in love and are considering a commitment it is important not only to love your mate, but love him or her in spite of some of the behaviors that you may not love as much as him or her. So this is where it gets tricky. We all want to be loved for the very person we are; not for what we do or don't do. However, in a relationship there will be conflict and most of the time it will be about wanting your mate to make a change in a behavior that you find unacceptable. You can love your guy, but despise his addiction. You can love your lady, but cringe every time she purchases a Louis Vuitton Bag when there is not enough money to make the mortgage payment. So what is one to do when the behavior infringes on the love?"
"It's most important to be true to yourself," Childs says. "Know what you can live with and know what you can't live with. Each of us is responsible for our own choices and behaviors. If you find yourself loving a person and hating a behavior, it has to be addressed. Either you work it out where both can compromise and be satisfied, or you withdraw your proposal or acceptance when you see that there is no communication, compromise or solution. If you don't take responsibility for making your needs and wants expressed, then don't expect change."
Wrapping things up, Childs assures us that perfection isn't the goal. "No two people think and act alike all the time. There must be room for negotiating the differences. To agree to never disagree is the red flag of codependency. Because we each come from different family systems, it is expected to see things through different eyes and ears. Our perceptive modes are different. The goal is to learn your partner's language and appreciate the difference. It is essential to the success of the relationship to have a formula to resolve the differences without capitulating to the other in order to avoid conflict."
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