The Myth of Unconditional Love Can Keep Couples In Unsafe Relationships
Patients frequently talk to me in therapy about their expectations of unconditional love in their romantic relationships, as well as the struggle of giving or receiving it. When I respond with, “Well, love is always conditional,” I’m consistently met with shock. That response is understandable. Culturally, we are fed the notion that the love we are supposed to have for and from our families and romantic partners should be expected to exist no matter what. Yet, this ends up keeping people trapped in a lot of unsafe or harmful relationships.
While the idea that love is always conditional can at first sound cold, scary or lonely, I see it, instead, as warm and generous for couples. It means that each partner has to continually work to hold him or herself responsible for keeping the conditions safe for love.
In For Better Or For Worse, There Has To Be A Limit To The Worse In Relationships
In romantic relationships, the idea of unconditional love is tied up with “for better or for worse.” I believe that how “for better or for worse” gets interpreted can become a trap. It raises the question: exactly what is “worse” allowed to mean?
In a safe, loving relationship, there has to be a limit to worse. If, for instance, worse indicates that a partner can be as mean as they want if that’s how they’re feeling or how their current stress is affecting them, a relationship can’t stay safe. Worse cannot mean demeaning, belittling, punishing, or disrespecting a partner because that violates the conditions of love being safe.
Accepting That Healthy Love Is Conditional Allows Couples To Be Open To The Investment Permanence Requires
Although it can seem surprising on its face, accepting that healthy love is always conditional presents an opportunity for couples. If couples can accept a partner has the right to leave if conditions become unsafe, then they can be fully open to the investment that permanence requires. Rather than taking a partner’s presence for granted, couples can feel continually accountable for creating a safe relationship.
How can couples navigate conditional love? I often hear from patients a fear of sharing what they need from their partners, or letting their partner know that something is making conditions unsafe that could destroy the relationship or push them away. But rather than avoiding these topics, couples can take conflicts or expressions of needs as an opportunity to actively cultivate a safe relationship.
When we’re operating under the assumption that “real love is unconditional,” then we think that merely deciding together one day that that the relationship should be forever is what keeps it permanent. However, in reality, an active, evolving commitment to being curious, open, and responsive to the conditions our partners and we need for love is what makes the relationship last.