The first step is understanding why you have conditions in the first place.
"When he proves to me that I can trust him, I’ll love him unconditionally."
I wait a beat. Two. My client is a brilliant and incisive lawyer. On cross-examination, she’d annihilate any witness who said something so inane. I wait another second. All I get is stubborn silence.
"So," I say slowly. "As soon as he meets your conditions, you’ll love him unconditionally."
"Yes," she says. Incisively.
There it is — the essential barrier each of us has when it comes to loving unconditionally, wrapped up in a few words. We want our partners to be the way we want them to be. Once they are, then we’ll love them unconditionally.
Bluntly, you get conditional when you want things your way: Quit smoking dope. Why can’t you make up your mind? Stop talking about the damn Cubs. It takes you forever to get dressed. Don’t floss in the living room. Don’t try to fix me. Stop flirting with other men. Dammit, can’t you load the dishwasher right?
Trivial yes, but the big ones — love, sex, family, kids, religion, money — differ only in degree. It’s still you wanting your way. Even if you claim principle — racism, sexism, abuse — a principle is just a gussied up way of saying, "Do it my way."
(Remember, people fought bitterly to defend the "principle" of denying women the vote, gays marriage, or African-Americans freedom. One person’s principle is another’s moral outrage).
You aren’t unusual. We, humans, want things our way, particularly with our partners. And if our partners don’t do things our way — that is, if they don’t meet our conditions — we can get really righteous, like we're channeling God.
And when we’re righteous, we aren’t loving. Conditions squeeze out love.
Here’s the deal: Your conditions are totally made up. There is nothing divinely ordained about, say, how the dishwasher should be loaded. The moral arc of the universe does not bend toward clean dishes.
You may have your reasons for wanting them clean: disease, aesthetics, spiritual purity, or just plain yuckiness, but those are just your reasons. They’re not your partner’s and they’re not worth a nickel more than his or hers.
Whatever you use to rationalize or justify your conditions — God, science, tradition, the neighborhood psychic — it’s just you using (or hiding behind) someone else to get what you want.
Your conditions were born out of your life experiences — upbringing, family, education, culture, whatever.
In Arabia, you’d be pretty damn conditional if he waved goodbye with his left hand. In the west, it’s a non-issue.
The first step toward unconditional love is to understand that, while your conditions may feel real and the absolute, truth is that they are, in fact, made up. In a different culture or with a different upbringing, you’d have different conditions.
So, you may ask, "What if she’s cheating on me?" or "What if he’s abusing the kids?"
Good question. The critical point here is that a condition doesn’t become a condition because of the specifics of the issue (e.g. abuse or dirty dishes), but by the way you relate to it.
If you're being righteous, dominating, invalidating, or a victim, then you’re being conditional.
(To be clear: if your safety or the safety of your kids is at risk, don’t spend an instant trying to be unconditional — take care of yourself and figure it out later.)
The more you want your partner to be the way you want them to be, the more pain and misery you bring into both of your lives.
When you fight or whine or make him sleep on the couch or abandon her on some random street corner — whatever your tactic is to get your partner to do what you want them to do— you’re manipulating them to get your way.
Manipulation doesn’t change people. At best, it subjugates them. You may be getting what you want (clean dishes), but you’re driving a wedge between the two of you.
This is the psychological function of a condition: to keep you separate and alone because that’s where it’s safest.
Love is scary stuff. It takes extraordinary courage to put your heart out there fully exposed and vulnerable (See Brene Brown’s masterpiece).
Since most of us lack that courage, we humans have invented a thousand ways to escape love’s risks. Being conditional is a big one.
You want to know how to love unconditionally. So what do you do?
The first step is to understand that whatever you are being conditional about is arbitrary and not what’s really going on. You made it up as cover for the true reason you’re being conditional: you’re afraid of loving.
If you get that, then you have a choice: Is my condition of clean dishes more important than love and intimacy? It may be. In which case, leave and find someone who is a master at loading dishwashers.
If not, quit being conditional. Last night, after I had cleaned up, my partner calmly re-opened the dishwasher and rearranged the dishes to her satisfaction — a level of art that is beyond me — added soap, and kicked it off. No big deal.
What you don’t get to do, is to stay in the relationship and rag on your partner for dirty dishes and expect a loving relationship. It won’t happen.
You may, at this point, be strangling your phone or computer with frustration: I get that it’s me wanting things my way. I get that it’s ruining my relationship. I get that half-cleaned dishes are chickenshit next to a hot relationship. But I still want to kill him/her every time the dishes come out dirty. How do I stop feeling pissed off and resentful?
That’s the real question, isn’t it? How do we quit being so damn human and little more Buddha-like? A Buddha into sex, of course. Stick around; I’ve got a few ideas.