Evolution of the Self

On the paradoxes of personality

Unconditional Love is Possible—But Only From Yourself

In close relationships unqualified love is, frankly, an unattainable ideal.

“Of all the people you'll ever know, you’re the only one you’ll never lose.” ~ Source Unknown 

I’ve long contended that to have a conflict-free relationship, what’s necessary is to create a clone of yourself (though if you’re “straight,” one that’s gender-opposite). And then, of course, marry that clone. But, at least for the foreseeable future, such technology isn’t yet on the horizon.

As regards self-and-actual-other relationships, the potential for unconditional love is remote. For here the possibilities for conflict are nothing short of staggering—particularly in intimate unions. Just consider how many things there are to disagree on:

  • Individual and couples' goals
  • Philosophy of life, and what values should be given priority
  • How much time should be spent together—and apart
  • Which friends are acceptable to the other
  • How decisions on recreational activities are to be made: when and where to go, what to do and how, etc.
  • How parents and in-laws should be dealt with—what boundaries to set, how much time to devote to them, and so on
  • How differences in religious (or non-religious) preferences and practices are to be reconciled
  • How arrangements and decisions relating to career(s) are to be arrived at
  • What displays of affection are acceptable—and how public they can be
  • What the role of sex should be in the relationship—and how much, what kind, when and where, etc.
  • How much the union should abide by conventional standards—or, what behaviors are to be agreed upon as fitting and proper?
  • How crucial decisions are to be made—jointly? individually?—and just how are disagreements and conflicts here are to be resolved
  • How about household chores and obligations? Who’s responsible for what? and what’s fair (a woefully subjective matter, and one that no higher authority may exist to appeal to)?
  • How are any children in the family to be reared?—a truly enormous variety of potential issues here (which would take a post all its own to catalog) . . . and last—but anything but least—
  • How are family finances to be handled?

Given all these areas for couples’ dissension and debate, the question becomes: Can you be quarreling about any one of them and—in those moments of agitated discord—be experiencing unconditional love for your mate? Ideally, yes. But, practically, I see this as extremely doubtful. For whenever a discussion degenerates into squabbling, bickering, or (alas) heated disputation, at a very deep level your partner has just become your enemy. And in that antagonized state of mind and feeling, though your underlying love for them may remain intact, it’s frankly altogether missing in action. During such a riling “arguing interval,” a chasm opens up between the two of you. And you can’t honestly profess that you’re feeling any love at all for them.

See All Stories In

Unconditional Love

Is it reality or myth?

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

And it’s the same thing with you and your partner’s having needs that may be at odds with one another. For example, if your mate needs to feel closer to you at a time when you’re craving solitude, their asserting this quite reasonable need isn’t likely to endear you to them. On the contrary, it will probably lead you to feel more distant from (or even resentful toward) them. Even though you may love them dearly, if right now you need them to validate and give priority to your need to detach—over their need to connect—and they’re simply not able or willing to defer to you, there will be a discomfiting break in your relationship. And during this time your essential caring for them will all but vaporize.

Which illustrates that no matter how much we may love someone, if they fail to meet certain in-the-moment imperatives, or conditions—based on our wants, needs, preferences, and moods—our ability to maintain caring for them will be substantially affected, such that it can hardly be characterized as “unconditional.”

Consider also your partner’s espousing a point of view that you can’t help but find embarrassing, wrongheaded, naive, or even repugnant. You’re bound to feel a certain disappointment in them and, as a result, somewhat alienated from them, too. That is, harboring such feelings is likely to lead you to emotionally detach from them—a withdrawal incompatible with your usual feelings of devoted commitment. In fact, it’s also possible that their differing viewpoint may make you feel less loved by them (!).

Obviously, there are countless examples of how you and your spouse might get out of sync with each other and so not feel supported, empathized with, or understood. In short, not feel loved. And this really isn’t anybody’s fault. It’s just that there will always be times when you don’t—or rather, can’t—feel as close and loving to your partner as you might wish.

 

But what about your relationship with...you? For this is the ultimate solution to the universal human need, or hunger, for unconditional love. There’s no reason that over time you can’t develop a relationship with yourself that guarantees you—and for the rest of your life—a love without qualification. In this regard I might mention that one of my most widely read posts for Psychology Today is titled: “The Path to Unconditional Self-Acceptance.” In it I discuss how (warts and all) you can come to embrace yourself without restrictions or reservations. And finally, such unequivocal acceptance of self is virtually synonymous with unconditional self-love.

This earlier post elaborates on how—even while fully aware of your weaknesses and limitations—you can become totally self-accepting. More than anything else, undertaking such deeply personal work involves developing greater self-compassion. You need to recognize that given your defenses, blind spots, insecurities, and the harmful things you may have been exposed to, you really are doing the best you can—and have been all along. Additionally, you need to stop evaluating yourself according to standards that don’t really fit who you are, or what you can realistically expect of yourself.

As you succeed in accepting yourself more—in simply coming to appreciate who you are, and are not—the self-judgmental barriers that have prevented you from loving yourself other than conditionally begin gradually to fall away. And, to reiterate, it’s precisely in this much more kindhearted and understanding self-recognition that lies the path not just to unconditional self-acceptance but also to unconditional self-love.

So the question is: How self-critical are you? Do you regularly disparage yourself for behavior falling below whatever standards you set for yourself? And when you fall short of these expectations or goals, can you tell yourself that, nonetheless, you gave it your best effort. That either you couldn’t, or shouldn’t, have anticipated that you’d do any better than you did. That the prevailing circumstances were such that the nature of your performance had to have been negatively affected: You were just too tired, upset, angry, hurt, confused, out-of-sorts, etc.)?

Cultivating such a benevolent attitude toward yourself—not only one that’s more benign and forgiving, but also more charitable, considerate, and sympathetic—comprise the essential ingredients of self-love. And with this profound attitudinal shift, such love of self can eventually be "set in stone"—virtually automatic.

True, it may represent an unusually positive self-bias, but what exactly is wrong with that? Unless such a favorable disposition toward self is little more than self-deception, denial, or grandiosity, why shouldn’t you be in the habit of generously giving yourself the benefit of the doubt? Isn’t that what you do—or aspire to do—with others whom you love? Besides, as long as you carry inside old "programmed" feelings of guilt and shame, regret or remorse, you’ll never be able to experience genuine happiness. For feeling happy has as much (or more!) to do with your relationship with yourself as it does toward anything outside you.

At this point, it should be obvious that it’s generally far easier to become unconditionally self-loving than to extend such unqualified love to another. For, as I emphasized earlier, when your basic wants and needs diverge significantly from your partner’s (or, it could be added, your child’s, parent’s, best friend’s, etc.), your feelings toward them inevitably take on a negative cast. But for yourself (unless you’ve yet to resolve old self-conflicts), since there’s only one of you, your greatest need in any given situation cannot but be in accord with itself.

Consider also the lengthy list I provided initially of topics on which couples can (and frequently do) disagree. Given the unavoidable differences that inform all intimate relationships, there will be periods in which the love deeply embedded in the relationship simply cannot rise to the surface. Temporarily at least, it’s nowhere to be found: undetectable, imperceptible, totally astray.

Yet with yourself personally, your viewpoint can hardly help but be in unison with itself. So the unconditional love for your mate that’s intermittently elusive (or, for that matter, theirs for you!) is potentially always available...And—just like a clone!—it’s both from you and to you.

Note: If you know of anybody who might have some interest in this post, please consider sending them the link. And if you’d like to check out other posts I’ve done for Psychology Today, click here.

© 2014 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

---In invite you to join me on Facebook, as well as to follow my miscellaneous psychological/philosophical musings on Twitter.

Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., who holds doctorates in English and Psychology, is a clinical psychologist and author of Paradoxical Strategies in Psychotherapy.

more...

Subscribe to Evolution of the Self

Current Issue

Love & Lust

Who says marriage is where desire goes to die?