There are two ways to love: conditionally and unconditionally.
Conditional love is not really love. Love doesn’t hurt. It doesn’t demand. It’s peaceful. It sustains. When people say love hurts, they aren’t talking about love. They are talking about something else – quite possibly conditional love.
We know conditional love because the good, positive, affirming feelings only exist as long as we are getting our emotional needs met. When we are being stroked, we “love.” When we are being attended to, pleased, treated in the way that we want to be treated, we feel loving. When the object of our affection looks the way we like, has ideas we approve of, and behaves in ways we find pleasing, we love. When these conditions are not met, we stop loving.
Unfortunately, when both parties are engaged in conditional loving, we’re always scrambling to be the object of the other person’s desire in a world where the conditions for hitting that bull’s eye is always changing. If I fail to wipe my feet today, it might cost nothing if my love is in a good mood. If I do it tomorrow, it might cost me a raised eyebrow. If I catch my love on a bad day, I might get pummeled with verbal abuse. Each time I do something, I am either creating or destroying love, yet I am not always sure how much my behavior gains or costs because the other person is in charge of the score card.
It’s a very stressful way to relate because you are always being judged and are always judging – even if it’s not conscious. You’re always falling short of expectation. Perhaps you are keenly aware of how you fail your partner as well. None of those things really create love.
Conditional love also limits the number of people you can love and the number of ways you can love. Conditional love says, “I want a person who is X, Y, and Z (fill in the blank with attributes like: is tall, has a sense of humor, likes to go out and dance, is social, likes dogs, wants to live in the country, has a college degree, is into fitness, has a good relationship with his mother, has a close family, wants kids, is kind, never yells, is good with money, etc). You want these attributes because it pleases you. There is nothing wrong with that, but it may close you off to other suitable matches. Those matches may help you to grow and support you in ways you never knew to ask for. They may open you up to love in a way that you never knew was possible.
If your love language is gifts and your partner shows love through acts of service, you are going to feel unloved unless your partner conforms to showing love the way you want to receive it and is okay with not being appreciated for the loving gestures that aren’t perceived that way. It’s not impossible to learn how to deal with this, of course. It’s more authentic, and perhaps more satisfying, to give love in the way that feels natural to you though.
When you love conditionally, the relationship can only be as good as your awareness of the other person’s needs, moods, and desires and your ability to deliver. It will always be a balance between what you want and what your partner wants. Your relationship will always be a compromise.
Unconditional love requires none of that. It doesn’t depend on what your partner does, is, believes, or looks like because it isn’t about receiving. It’s not about giving to get. It’s about giving.
In an unconditional love relationship, you give what you want to give, when you want to give it. You accept the person as he is without expecting any changes. If he leaves the toilet seat up, sends you flowers when you’re allergic, or prefers to text when you want a phone call, it doesn’t matter. You don’t judge those things or hold them against him. You love him anyway.
And when he doesn’t want to go camping this weekend (or ever), doesn’t enjoy country music, and isn’t as handsome or fit as you’d prefer, it’s all good. You accept that this is the whole package and love him anyway. (This is not saying that it’s wise to choose someone who is incompatible as a life partner. Compatibility is the glue that holds relationships together).
Loving unconditionally does not hold your partner responsible for your happiness. You are responsible for your happiness. If you don’t like when she talks to you while you are reading, you let her know. Ask her not to do it again. Or you accept that that’s what she does and give her your attention. You don’t get angry or resentful. You certainly don’t deduct love points for it because you realize that she’s not responsible for your reaction to her behavior. Since you are responsible, you can choose to love her anyway.
When you love unconditionally, you take care of your own needs. You let your partner take care of his or her own needs. When you find that you are hitting a wall, you get help for it. You don’t expect your partner to be your therapist, doctor, parent, or savior. Your partner can support you, but you accept that it’s not his or her job to “complete” you. In fact, if you feel the need for completion, you use that information to find ways to make yourself whole.
This is not to say that you don’t ask for or receive help. This is not saying that you also don’t give it. It is just saying that ultimately, you are your responsibility. If your partner provides you with something, it’s a gift, not an obligation. When we see contributions as gifts, not something that is owed to us out of love or in payment for what we give, it creates a sense of appreciation. It also removes any sense of keeping score.
When you are whole and living in gratitude, you don’t come from a place of weakness or want. It makes it easier to appreciate loving gestures for what they are instead of seeing them as “less than” because it’s not what you wanted. When you are whole, disappointment when things aren’t the way you’d prefer isn’t so great because you are whole. It has little impact on your life. When you are whole, it’s easier to give freely and receive with joy.
Think about it the way you love your pet. We don’t really expect our pet to be anything other than who he is, do we? We don’t expect a dog to drive a car or to take out the trash. When you can treat your people with the same consideration you give your beloved pet, your relationships will be far more satisfying.