Many of us want to believe in unconditional love, as George Strait proclaims it in his perennially popular song, Our Love Is Unconditional:
Our love is unconditional, we knew it from the start.
I see it in your eyes, you can feel it from my heart.
From here on after let’s stay the way we are right now,
And share all the love and laughter that a lifetime will allow.
We insist that “If you really loved me, you would accept me just the way I am.” We want to believe love will last no matter what we do. However, a closer look at the dynamics of romantic relationships reveals a different story.
What Is Unconditional Love?
affection with no limits or conditions; complete love
That sounds like a very tall order. Does romantic love with absolutely no limits really exist?
Unconditional Love Is A Myth
The reality is, we fall in love when certain conditions are met. When those conditions are no longer present, or worse yet, when pain is inflicted, the feelings of love inevitably wane. How we feel about the people in our lives, and especially our mates, is directly related to how we are treated. Love in the romantic sense is conditional, which means that unconditional love is a myth.
In the beginning of a relationship, we instinctively assess the attractiveness of a partner by the way he or she treats us, and by other personal traits. Does he carry on an active conversation, is he honest, is he gainfully employed? Is she fun to be around; does she dress attractively? It would be unthinkable to suggest that one would be likely to fall in love with a person who was rude, unkempt, dishonest, and chronically unemployed. Unconditional love is not how we begin a relationship.
All the while we are assessing potential partners, we know intuitively that we too are being assessed. We do our best to measure up, to be found attractive in the eyes of those we date. We take time to look great, to make good conversation, and to be willing to try new activities at each other’s suggestion. We spend time alone together, giving each other our complete attention. We do our best to create the conditions under which attraction and love are most likely to occur.
Love Is Conditional: It Erodes
An interesting phenomenon occurs once the relationship becomes permanent. Once the vows are taken, the gifts put away, and the ceremony behind us, the intuitive sense we have about what it takes to create the conditions for falling in love seems to evaporate.
The woman who once spent hours primping in order to be found attractive now slouches around the house in sweats. The man who, prior to marriage, gave his girlfriend his complete attention as she talked about the events of her day, now cannot be budged from his spot in front of the television in order to talk with his wife. Time that was previously spent enjoying each other’s company is now spent on separate activities, or with people other than the spouse.
As the pattern continues, partners begin to feel discontentment, loneliness, and perhaps even anger. But the myth of unconditional love makes it difficult to address the situation. If one or the other complains about the change in treatment, the change in conditions, he or she is likely to hear, “Well if you really loved me, you would let me do whatever I want.” Or, “You knew what kind of lifestyle I had when you married me, you can’t complain now.”
Unconditional Love Is Unhealthy
The myth of unconditional love creates an imbalance. It leaves the way clear for one spouse to take advantage of the other’s good will and motivation. For example, many women remain in abusive relationships believing that eventually their love will be enough to change their husbands. So day after day these women are pleasant, courteous; they cook, clean, work outside of the home and take care of the children.
Where is the incentive for him to change? She is loving and giving unconditionally; his lifestyle and his happiness are not compromised. There is no motivation on his part to change. Eventually she will begin to hate him for the pain he causes. The love they once shared will be dead. Romantic love is conditional; it is based on how we are treated.
Abuse is an extreme example, and unfortunately all too common. But there are many other examples, some quite subtle, of how attempting to love unconditionally leads to loss of love altogether. Something as simple as snoring or chronic disorganization can be damaging if left unaddressed for any length of time. If our mates drive us crazy with their habits, we will eventually choose to avoid being with them. The feelings of being in love, or of irresistibility, will fade.
An Alternative To Unconditional Love
What is the answer? If unconditional love is not the way to marital happiness, does that mean we must resign ourselves to lives of disharmony and hurt? No!
Relationships take work, hard work. We’ve all heard it. But how many of us could say specifically what that hard work is all about? If we can recognize that the feelings of being in love are based on how we are treated, then we can recreate those feelings by changing the ways we behave towards each other.
First, we get rid of hurtful behaviors. Abuse is the most serious, and usually begins with a demand that our spouse do something for us. Demands can be as minor as insisting he take out the trash, or as horrifying as forcing her to satisfy a sexual need. Demands do not leave room for saying no. Abuse escalates from this point, with judgmental statements such as, “How can you be so stupid, thoughtless, lazy, out of touch….” Eventually it can lead to losing one’s temper altogether, and even to physical battery. Abuse occurs when we think we have a right to tell someone else what to do.
Stopping abuse begins at the root, with demands. We work at eliminating the idea that it is acceptable to control another person. We substitute requests for demands. Learning to ask our spouse how he or she would feel about doing whatever it is you want, and allowing him/her to turn you down without fear of punishment. It takes awareness and hard work to change habits of control formed over a lifetime. I usually recommend an anger management class with accountability for all but the mildest cases.
Next we look at things that make each other happy. For women, this tends to be affection, great conversation, and honesty, to name a few things. Women want emotional connectedness. Men, on the other hand, tend to want great sex, a fun recreational partner, and a woman who makes his eyes happy. Frequently, couples are astounded to find that they each look for different things in their relationship. So, it becomes clear that we need to be honest about the things we would like if our spouse is going to have a shot at doing those things.
Suggesting a trade works well. He brings her flowers once a week, or takes her out for dinner and conversation, and she agrees to play a round of tennis or try a new sexual idea. The important thing to remember is that both must be happy with all aspects of the trade, so that there are no feelings of resentment. As couples learn what makes each other happy, they practice doing those things until they become habitual. Wouldn’t that get old? I don’t know about you, but I never tire of great conversation, and I suspect my husband feels the same way about sex.
The last ingredient, which takes some time and effort, is to put together an entire way of life that both enjoy. As couples learn to ask how each would feel about decisions in their lives, and to respond with honesty, they can make choices that are good for each of them. This includes the little things like where to dine, and the big things such as a job change or a potential move. One spouse should never gain if it means the other will suffer as a consequence. The resentment is too damaging to the marriage. Using their combined brain power, they can come up with a solution to any issue that will be good for both–and ultimately wiser in the long run.
Sound like a lot of work? You bet it is! But, the rewards are beyond measure. We all dream of having that someone special to share our lives with. The intimacy, the connection, the passion, don’t happen accidentally. It takes honesty and effort to maintain a lifetime of love.
None of us would continue to date someone who behaved in a thoughtless or selfish manner, or who annoyed us to distraction. And we certainly wouldn’t fall in love with someone who did not take our feelings into account. Expecting love to last unconditionally simply because it was once there is like expecting our cars to continue to run without changing the oil, adding gas or keeping up with regular maintenance, simply because we once did those things.
So, when my husband sings George Strait’s song to me, as he does on occasion, he always prefaces it by saying that I should disregard the first line, because we both know that our love is conditional.
© Penny R. Tupy 2002