Will you love me unconditionally?

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Are we supposed to love our partners unconditionally?  Some people think that the only kind of love is the unconditional kind – challenging, sacrificial and imperative.

When I think of unconditional love, I think about babies and dogs.  Babies need to be loved without any conditions.  They manage to get vomit and poo on things that have never before experienced those substances.  They appear to have no regard for the ear drums, schedules or sleep patterns of their parents.  They are content to announce their neediness in any and every circumstance, audience be damned.  They just don’t care – but it’s more than that. 

At the beginning of life, we don’t yet have the capacity to do anything but… be needy and yell about it.  It’s pretty much our full range of skills (alongside accidently making cute faces and rude noises).

I reckon most of us would agree that the last thing we should say to a newborn is, ‘Get a grip on your impulses, kid!  If you don’t stop this disgusting habit of spewing down Grandma’s favourite hand-knitted cardigan every time she picks you up, I’m going to have to leave you in the car.  And no milk for you until I know you’re listening.’

That would be ludicrous.

Instead we say, in a variety of ways:

  • ‘You are wonderful, just as you are.’
  • ‘Is there any need you have that still needs meeting?’
  • ‘Poor darling, your tummy must be sore.’
  • ‘Well done for getting rid of all that wind.’

My point is that, while this is perfect language for a bub, it’s not really appropriate for our adult relationships.  It doesn’t really even cut it as our babies become toddlers, then children, then teens does it?  Imagine saying to your 2 year old, ‘I love you so much my darling that I have no problem with you ripping all the pages out of our books and stuffing them in the toilet bowl.’  Or to your six year old, ‘You’re so loveable that I don’t mind at all if you cut holes in my shoes and scratch the car with rocks from the garden.’

And imagine saying to your 16 year old, ‘I love you and the way you randomly lift your butt cheek off the chair and fart loudly at the table when our friends come over for a meal.  Well done for getting rid of all that wind.’

The love we teach our young babies is certainly the unconditional kind but the older the child becomes, the more the love lessons shift to the ‘conditional love’ variety.  I love you unconditionally and I’m also going to teach behaviours that will help you feel acceptable in social settings.  It’s a bit like were saying, ‘I do love you, but I’d love you a tad more if you didn’t draw on Aunty Suzie’s walls with permanent markers.’  To our children, we necessarily offer both of these variations of love.

But, to our partners?

It would also be ludicrous to give our friends or partners a message that, in effect says, ‘I will only love you with the kind of vomit-cleaning, insult-ignoring, poor-behaviour-absolving love that makes all the resulting hurt imperceptible to me?  I will always love you absolutely unconditionally – regardless of your behaviour.’  (Note: This may however, indeed be the message you give to a partner if you’ve decided to be a carer for them while they are incapacitated or have lost the ability to care for themselves).

The reason this kind of ‘blind unconditional love’ message doesn’t fit for most adult relationships is because we are just that… adults.  Unlike newborns, we do have control over our reactions and our behaviours and we shouldn’t expect anyone to put up with serial thoughtlessness that results in shaming and injury.

We can’t just do what we want, expecting immunity from the consequences.

A final thought about parental love – while we teach our growing children that some behaviours translate as more loving, and more lovable, then others – we’re unlikely to lose the unconditional love that is contained in the parent/child bond.  You might recall hearing on the news, a mother of a hardened criminal expressing heartbreaking sentiments like, ‘I know that he’s done terrible things, but I love him.  He’s my child.’

Unconditional love is a powerful gift from our caregivers that solidifies a deep sense of acceptance and worthiness as we go out into the world.  However we shouldn’t bank on our partner’s willingness to continue to offer love, in all its guises and out-workings, regardless of the quality of our behaviours.

Dogs, on the other hand….!  Now they are the masters of unconditional love.