There is no phrase so misinterpreted as "unconditional love." People use it as an excuse to stay in bad relationships or to shame someone into staying in one. They use it for some ideal they chase when they are not even sure what it means. They use it when they say, "I believe in marriage," or "I believe in loving someone until they can love themselves." or "I'm religious and want to love unconditionally," or "I can't say 'If you do this, I'm out' because that is not unconditional love."
Unconditional love REALLY means, "I love you no matter what happens," NOT "no matter what you do to me." It means UNDER ANY CONDITION life throws at us. I promise not to scream at you because I'm having a bad day. I promise not to look for love elsewhere if you are. I promise not to blame you if we hit the skids.
The original marriage vow ideal is love, honor, and cherish, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health. In other words, the "for richer or poorer...." part means UNDER ANY CONDITION. If we're rich or we're poor. If we're sick or we're healthy. If the sun is shining or it's snowy. No matter WHAT conditions our relationship has to endure. I will love, honor and cherish you.
Unconditional love does not mean "I love you if you hurt me." That is not in any wedding vow imaginable. No one says that on their wedding day or whenever they commit. And no one SHOULD.
Commitment ends when repetitive hurt comes in or when a relationship ending INSTANCE comes in (cheating/abuse). Unconditional love means, "I love you. Love is an action, and you come first with me." Unconditional love means, "I love you NO MATTER WHAT CONDITIONS OCCUR." No matter what life throws our way, I will not take it out on you and I will not forget you exist."
If we are healthy, we must set boundaries for people to stay or go in our lives. These are standards, and they don't disappear when you find someone to settle down with.
Many people get upset when a person continues to be the person they met. "He's so messy!" "She's a nag!" If those things were present when you met and built a loving relationship together, why is it different now? Accepting someone, warts and all, means you knew this going in, so why did you expect it to change?
We're not talking about terrible, horrible things like cheating or abuse. We're talking human foibles. We're talking about the little irritants that were present when you met. If you overlooked them then, continue to overlook them now. If you need some compromise because now that you're living together, it's turned into a GIANT irritant, that's fine. But don't lose your mind or withhold your love over it.
On the other hand, if your partner's behavior is hurting you, why are you getting in deeper instead of getting out? You can't accept unacceptable behavior, put a ring on it, and expect it to change. However, if you really can't accept it any longer, it's time to go.
It's not fair to enter into a relationship expecting someone to change but that's a mistake you can avoid in the future. Don't let anyone tell you that you promised to love and cherish and now you're stuck. You're not. But if you have a good partner who is good to you and you make a commitment, unconditional love means you don't love that partner under ONLY good conditions or withhold love when they forget the jar of pickles for the party. You love that partner no matter what life has in store for you including their occasional lapses, mistakes and goofups.
The strength of a couple does not depend on picnics and football games. It depends on how they respond when there's a hurricane, the roof is leaking, the baby is crying and the dog needs to go out. It's how you respond when his aunt shows up drunk and crying and her mother left her father for the 100th time and has overstayed yet again. You can work that out or fall apart. A strong, "unconditional love" couple, works it out. There may be some shouting, some pouting and some tears, but everyone stays respectful and works to the goal of the good of the relationship, not the goal of winning this damn argument.
Some couples go through growing pains as they figure out what kind of couple they're going to be and what coupledom is going to look like. If you can't work it out early on, you might need to accept that this is not the person for you. In Getting Back Out There I suggest a "Couples Inventory" to figure out what kind of couple you're going to be. What is it going to look like? What is important? What is negotiable or non-negotiable? But part of growing into a loving couple is not sweating the small stuff and realizing that so much of it is small stuff.
Many couples argue over forgetfulness. That's a human trait. No need to punish someone over the toothpaste cap or the toilet paper roll. Don't say, "If you loved me unconditionally you would remember the damn toothpaste cap." Unconditional love is not petty and doesn't bicker over stupid things.
Love honor and cherish your partner who loves honors and cherishes you. Treat each other with kindness while accepting the annoyances, irritations and things you're going to argue about no matter what. Accept human foibles that don't result in your hysterical crying. Accept the things that make you sigh and roll your eyes. Accept some arguments but fight fair. Don't keep laundry lists, don't call names and don't hit below the belt.
Love honor and cherish means to keep it in perspective. You accept someone's flaws while welcoming healthy debate and avoiding truly hurtful behavior. Compromise where possible. Know what is negotiable and non-negotiable going in and know if your partner makes a good life partner or not. If you look at life the same way and have the same attitudes and can get on the same side when life gets tough, you have a winner. If not go your own way until you find someone who loves you no matter what life throws at you. Unconditionally.
Excerpted in part from Getting Back Out There: Secrets to Successful Dating and Finding Real Love After the Big Breakup by Susan J. Elliott (Da Capo 2015)
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