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Relationships

Dispelling the Myth of Unconditional Love

Unconditional love is an illusion. Sacrifices and gifts are the reality.

Key points

  • Most people admit that unconditional love is an illusion, yet they expect that their love relationships will not be subject to compromises.
  • Partners should identify what sacrifices they are willing to make, what gifts they give without resentment and what they receive in return.
  • By acknowledging these gifts and sacrifices, couples can avoid resentment and be more realistic about what makes their relationship thrive.

In the four-plus decades I’ve been treating patients, I have observed how many people continue to trust in improbable outcomes, even when they don’t materialize. No matter how many times they are faced with disappointment, they continue to believe that the next time, their expectations will come true.

One of the most common of these deeply-rooted irrational fantasies is that true love should be unconditional. That, somehow, if people profess undying devotion and commitment to one another, they will be guaranteed that love will not require compromises, that all needs will be automatically met, and that forgiveness will heal all transgressions.

In the early months of many relationships, it may seem that way. That “honeymoon period” certainly does seem as if there is nothing either partner could do to disappoint or turn the other away. People newly in love do tend to treat one another as forever-beloved, symbolic children who will always be the center of their lives.

Yet, that is not the way actual relationships work. Those early months of unconditional generosity and devotion predictably give way to emerging needs that may have been hidden when the relationship was new. As the initial passion and excitement wane, both partners soon realize that not only will all of their needs not be met, but that they will have to compromise many of their needs to keep the relationship intact.

Compromise Is Part of Every Successful Relationship

Interestingly enough, most people, when honestly sharing those beliefs with me, know that unconditional love is only a myth and has most probably never existed in their lifetimes. When I ask them if they have ever experienced totally unconditional love, they readily admit that is an illusion. Even in childhood, touted as the time when unconditional love should be most guaranteed, almost all people know that they were expected to behave in certain ways to maintain their parents’ approval and trust. Lifelong friends, when facing the actuality of what has kept their friendship thriving, know in their hearts that the trust between them is based upon willingly making compromises for each other to maintain the trust between them.

Yet, most people do not predict these reasonable requirements when they begin a new relationship. They continue to expect that their love relationships will not be subject to the emerging compromises that are predictable, and feel disillusioned when their partners begin to ask for more or give less.

I believe that it is crucial that relationship partners recognize that compromising one’s own needs for the better good of their relationships is part and partial of every successful partnership, and begin that honest exchange as early as possible in their relationship. If they feel adequately appreciated for the sacrifices they’re willing to make and acknowledge what they have gotten in return, they are more likely to not slip into the martyrdom and resentment that erodes the potential quality the relationship might have a chance to create.

How to Talk About Compromise with a Partner

What do relationship partners need to recognize and identify what compromises each will need to make, and what gifts are given easily and without resentment? How can they best communicate those thoughts and feelings to each other early in their relationship?

The following guidelines may help:

If you are currently not in a relationship, do this exercise as if you were still in your last important relationship. If you are in a current relationship, ask your partner to complete the same four steps with you. The first two are about willing sacrifices. The second two are about appreciated gifts.

Step 1 – Make a list of the ways you sacrifice your own needs to make your relationship function at its best.

Step 2 – Make a list of the behaviors you believe your partner sacrifices in the same way.

Step 3 – Make a list of the things that you easily give to your partner that you do not regret nor require reciprocity.

Step 4 – Make a list of what you believe your partner gives to you that he or she enjoys giving.

Step 5 – Your partner may not know when you are giving from your heart and when you are sacrificing your own needs for him or her. Or that you realize when he or she is doing the same. To help create better understanding between you, add one of the following numbers after each item to add clarity to your sharing.

Frequency of Behavior:

1: Some of the time

2: Often

3: Most of the time.

Here are some examples of a step 1 compromise:

  1. I don’t start conversations late at night when you are tired even though I feel the need for resolution. Frequency: 2
  2. Even though I would love more affection, I don’t ask you because I know it is hard for you. Frequency: 3
  3. I’d so appreciate more time alone with you. Frequency: 1

Here are some examples of a step 2 compromise:

  1. You let me sleep in on the weekends, even if you’re tired, too. Frequency: 2
  2. You’re kind to the people I care about, even if you don’t like them. Frequency: 2
  3. You go out of your way to remember the things that are important to me. Frequency: 2

Here are some examples of a step 3 gift:

  1. I tell you how much you mean to me. Frequency: 2
  2. I reach out to help you whenever I can without your having to ask me. Frequency: 3
  3. I’m caring to your parents even when they are difficult. Frequency: 3

Here are some examples of a step 4 gift:

  1. You like to surprise me with things that matter. Frequency: 2
  2. You love to make me laugh. Frequency: 3
  3. You care about the things that matter to me, even if they don’t to you. Frequency: 2

Now share your lists with each other. Take the time to compare what you find that you already knew and what you’ve learned about each other that is different from what you expected.

Sacrifices and Gifts Evolve Over Time

Unconditional love is an illusion. Sacrifices and gifts are the reality. Once couples are able to give up the illusion and embrace the reality, they can be more authentic, more appreciative, and more realistic of what their relationship actually takes to thrive.

All people change over time, as do their experiences and needs. Successful couples stay current in exchanging this crucial information with each other. What may be a gift at one time can become a sacrifice at another, and vice versa. New needs may emerge as relationships mature and deepen, or as unpredictable events occur. New sacrifices might be required during crises that both partners are not prepared for but must learn. And new gifts may emerge that neither knew they could give but want to.

What is important is that both partners stay open and honest with one another, and realize that they might not be able to be what the other needs at all times or in every way. When they face those realities, the myth of unconditional love gives way to chosen and accepted conditions that are not only understandable but possible. Acceptance and forgiveness become the guardians that keep resentment and martyrdom defeated.

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