Is Unconditional Love Possible?
What we're really asking each other for, and what we should seek instead.
Posted Aug 09, 2015
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we were loved and accepted exactly as we are? Many times during psychotherapy sessions, my clients have uttered some version of, “I just want to be unconditionally loved! I want someone who can accept me with my flaws and foibles.”
I’m very sympathetic to the desire for a partner who is not prone to fixing and changing us. As psychologist Harville Hendrix has stated, one purpose of adult relationships is to heal old childhood wounds. A common wound is not feeling seen and accepted as we are. Love relationships can help heal childhood deficits by allowing us feel welcomed, wanted, and embraced as we are.
Each individual, however, has their own set of vulnerabilities and needs; there is a limit to what others can accept about us. Clinging to a demand that we be unconditionally loved might give us license to be self-centered or destructive. If we have affairs or are emotionally abusive, can we expect our partner to keep tolerating such damaging behavior?
It’s a pleasant fantasy to desire someone always to be there for us, regardless of how obnoxious we might be. Could our plea for unconditional love be a convenient way to use romantic or spiritual language as a way to cling to our narcissism and avoid noticing how we affect others?
What Self Do We Want Others to Love?
Sure, we want to be accepted for who we are. But are we truly being who we really are? Or are we being a self that has been defensively constructed to avoid the vulnerable aspects of who we are? Have we built walls of defenses and mistakenly taken this fabricated self to be our authentic self? And then proudly insist that people accept and love this distorted, reactive self?
The notion of unconditional love raises tricky questions. Are we expecting our partner to love our nasty, prickly self? Is being angry and critical hiding something deeper that we don’t want to face or feel? Might our aggressive outbursts reflect a defensive pattern whereby we hide more tender parts of ourselves?
Criticism and contempt have been identified by researcher John Gottman as reliable predictors of relationship distress and divorce. If we have a pattern of lashing out in anger when we don’t get our way, we may insist that we want to be accepted for that. But how might you feel if your partner lashed out unpredictably, perhaps when you’re feeling most vulnerable? Even a saint would have difficulty experiencing love during such moments.
As expressed in my book Dancing with Fire:
We may hide our true feelings because we don’t want to feel uncomfortably exposed. Consequently, our feelings may come out indirectly. Distancing from what is alive inside us may explain why we feel irritable, moody, or angry sometimes… It takes a quiet inner strength to expose what is vulnerably alive inside us. We can relate to others in a more direct, fulfilling way as we become mindful of what we’re really experiencing and show our true feelings and wants without misdirection, games, or shame about who we really are.
I have found Eugene Gendlin's research-based approach known as Focusing to be especially helpful in uncovering deeper feelings.
Dancing with a Difficult Partner
You want to be loved as you are? That’s understandable. You want to be accepted with your human flaws and limitations? Of course! It’s easier to garner compassion if your partner can trust that you’re making a sincere effort to become more aware of your true feelings and longings.
If you have a challenging partner, you might recognize their tendency to be reactive and critical. Your love might prompt you to explore this together rather than separate, which includes looking at your possible contribution to cycles of conflict. But it would be unrealistic to practice unconditional love in the sense of accepting hurtful behaviors without voicing how they affect you and asserting that it’s not okay to be treated this way. This would be self-neglect, not unconditional love. In some situations, it might be easier to love unconditionally from a distance rather than remain in a partnership that is destructive.
If your partner pleads with you to seek help through couples therapy, you might want to consider it. Perhaps see this as an invitation to uncover and reveal more of who you really are—and to learn how to do so together in a constructive way. It’s difficult to see ourselves and our interactional dynamics clearly without reflections back from a wise, caring guide. I have found the research-based approach of Emotionally Focused Therapy for couples (developed by Dr. Sue Johnson) to be particularly beneficial. As the sage Rumi suggested, “Without a guide it will take you two hundred years for a journey of two years.”
Children need our unconditional love. But mature love is nourished through mutuality. Just as our garden needs ample sunshine and watering, we are sustained by respect, understanding, and nurturing.
The good news is that love relationships can help us awaken to our blind spots. Rather than demand unconditional love, we can take responsibility for how we might be pushing our partner away and souring the promise of love. We can learn to soothe ourselves and ask for what we want in a tender way. We can notice and express the tender feelings beneath our prickliness. We can practice enveloping ourselves in love and acceptance during those times when it is not forthcoming from others. These are powerful ways to protect and fertilize love.
If we can be courageously mindful of what we’re really experiencing inside and express these authentic vulnerable feelings and longings (rather than attack or shut down), then we may become more contactable and lovable. Showing who we really are is more likely to elicit the love and acceptance we long for. We then stay bonded not due to some obligation or demand to be unconditionally loving, but because of the resonant connection that binds our hearts.
John Amodeo, Ph.D., MFT, is author of the award-winning book, Dancing with Fire: A Mindful Way to Loving Relationships. His other books include The Authentic Heart and Love & Betrayal. He has been a licensed marriage and family therapist for 35 years in the San Francisco Bay area and has conducted workshops internationally on relationships and couples therapy. www.johnamodeo.com
© John Amodeo