When talking about love, one of the things you commonly hear of is someone saying that they are looking for unconditional love. What exactly does unconditional love mean though?
Does it mean you love all of them? Does it mean you love every aspect of that person? And conversely, if you find you don’t love “everything” about someone does that mean you don’t love them unconditionally? Does that perhaps mean that you don’t TRULY love them?
All or Nothing
The idea that if you love something you must love all of it, and conversely if a relationship has a problem then it means it is not “true love” is surprisingly common. It often goes hand in hand with the idea that if you find “the one” you should never have to work at things, and you will be able to live happily ever after.
This mindset is often referred to as all or nothing thinking. When this happens at a young age, you can chalk it up to idealism and a lack of experience. But when it persists over time, this is a broken thinking pattern (sometimes referred to as a cognitive distortion) and a sign of emotional immaturity.
Incidentally, this particular thinking pattern is often found in people who have avoidant personality types, are chronically unhappy, or are dealing with depression or some form of mood disorder.
It can cause significant issues in relationships, as it sets an unrealistic bar for people to measure up to. If your partner has to be perfect, they will always disappoint.
It’s Still Poo
All or nothing thinking is a broken approach to looking at relationships, and world in general. A lot of things come down to belief and opinion, but the idea that loving something means you have to love all of it is simply incorrect.
Of all the things in the world, most would agree that a parent will always love their children. There are exceptions I suppose, but even when spousal relationships break apart parents will usually try to do the best for their children. So to see how broken the all or nothing approach to life is, let’s take a look at being a parent.
I love my children and would do almost anything for them. I love being active in their lives, and I try to take enjoyment out of the time I spend with them. Does that mean I love everything about them?
I’m past the diaper days, but thinking back to those days does loving my children mean I had to love changing their diapers? Not a chance. Yes, these were my child’s diapers I was changing. And I’m happy that I changed them as it was one of the many experiences that came with being a father.
I changed diapers because they needed to be changed and I don’t think I complained about it much (though that could be denial on my part). Thinking back to my discussion on responsibility, I wasn’t changing diapers out of shame or obligation. I never resented doing it, I simply saw it as something that had to be done.
Did that mean I loved it? Nope. It may have been my children and an important part of the experience of being a new dad. But at the end of the day, it’s still poo.
So what does this have to do with unconditional love? It seems easy to say that you don’t have to love poo, no matter how cute the posterior that it comes from. But the same can be said for personality traits or behaviors. My kids are little and they aren’t finished products. They still have tantrums, and are still learning to understand and control their emotions. As any parent can attest, those times aren’t always fun. In fact, being a parent can be difficult and frustrating at times. I love my children. Does that mean I need to love all their behaviors? No.
Actually, because I love them it means I should recognize when their behavior is problematic and I should work with them to try and improve that. I want them to be the best people they can and give them the best opportunity for a happy future. Giving into tantrums and allowing them to get away with unacceptable behavior won’t do that, and will actually do harm to them in the long run.
My children are dependent on me, but that’s not why I want the best for them. I want the best for them because I love them, unconditionally. The same rules apply for family, friends, and also our chosen partners.
Loving them unconditionally doesn’t mean you need to love everything about them. There can be things about our partners that we wish were different, and that’s alright. Unconditional love simply means that you accept them as they are, accepting both the good and the bad.
I will argue that the “all or nothing” view of love is actually a selfish form of love. If loving someone means you have to love all of them, and any problems means it isn’t true love then you are actually saying you will only love someone when it works for you. You will only love someone when times are good (because if times aren’t good there is a problem, and therefore it was never true love).
Unconditional love involves loving someone even when times are difficult. It means being supportive of the other person, but at the same time being honest with them, even when the truth might not be what they want to hear.
Love vs. Relationships
I believe in love, and I believe love should be unconditional. But what about our romantic relationships? Are they solely based on unconditional love?
Let’s say you meet someone and fall in love with them, but they don’t feel the same way. Is that a relationship? No. You may love them and accept them for who they are. You may think of them all the time and have pictures of them in your house, wallet, at work whatever. But if they don’t feel the same way about you, then that’s just creepy (and probably puts you at risk of a restraining order).
If you believe you are in a relationship but the other person sees you as one of the many people they are dating, sorry, again it’s not a relationships.
It doesn’t become a relationship until they return the love, and there is an acknowledgement that the two of you share something together and you are committed to each other. So although love may be unconditional, relationships aren’t. Relationships do have expectations, and some degree of reciprocity is required.
Lets take this idea one step further….
Let’s say you are in a relationship, and the other person checks out emotionally. They stop doing the little things, they stop showing you that they care. You become two people, effectively living individual lives. If that happens, are you in a relationship? It doesn’t matter if there’s a piece of paper saying you are married, or you are living together. Even if one person still loves the other with all their heart, the relationship has effectively ended. Relationships require reciprocity. They are about intent, and effort.
One Sided Love
Now if unconditional love means you will always love the other person, does it mean you will always be there for them?
I believe very strongly in love and in relationships. I believe many relationships fail unnecessarily, and that with a bit of effort most relationships can be saved. So this is difficult for me to say, but I believe the answer is no. Unconditional love does not always mean you will be there.
I have heard countless stories of people who treat their partners poorly (either through active abuse or simply checking out on them emotionally), and then are surprised when their partner eventually decides to leave the relationship. Often this shock is accompanied by a sense of outrage. How could this person leave me? I thought that they loved me?
Some people think that someone “loving them” gives them a green light to do what they want. They feel safe that the other person is committed to them and they will always be there no matter what.
Loving someone doesn’t mean you will put up with anything. Love has to go both ways. If someone says they love you, but don’t back up that claim with their actions then what do you really have? At that point you have nothing.
It doesn’t matter how strongly you feel about someone, if it’s not reciprocated you don’t have a relationship. People have bad days, and people make mistakes; so I’m not saying that the relationship has ended the first time someone gets angry. People run into issues, and you need to be willing to work on them together.
But if someone is consistently treating you poorly, or the relationship becomes very one sided where your love is not reciprocated, then staying with them is not love. It’s enabling them. It’s telling them that the way they are treating you is alright.
No. Sometimes unconditional love means knowing when to walk away. It doesn’t mean you love them any less, but that’s different from always being there.
Meant to Be
All or nothing thinking is broken, and destructive to relationships. There is no such thing as perfect. There is no such thing as loving all of someone. Everyone has bad days. Everyone has their flaws.
There is no “meant to be”. Life gives us opportunities, and it is up to us to decide what we want to do with them. Some embrace the opportunities life gives them, and others squander them.
If you want a strong relationship, you need to build that strength into it. You build that strength with kindness, caring, affection, and effort. And you need to build it together.