“Love me when I least deserve it, because that’s when I really need it.” ~Swedish Proverb
Are you able to love (and be loving to) your partner even when s/he acts in ways that are unlovable?
The above quote speaks to the power of unconditional love—knowing that you’ll be loved and accepted no matter what, even when you “least deserve it.” Such loving experiences are indeed powerful. Parents often strive to give their children unconditional love, but is unconditional love possible in marriage or long-term romantic relationships?
And if it’s possible, is it desirable and something couples should strive for?
Relationship Help: What Is Unconditional Love?
Simply put, unconditional love is love without conditions—you are loved without having to earn the other’s love. For example, parents love their children not because they get good grades, keep their room clean, follow directions, attend college, etc.; instead, the child is loved for who s/he is, independent of his/her decisions and actions. This accepting and nurturing environment allows the child to internalize love even while receiving the message that certain behaviors (like hitting siblings, biting others when frustrated, calling others names, throwing a tantrum in public) are considered inappropriate and unacceptable.
The message, “I love you even though I don’t like how you’re acting” lays a sturdy foundation of self-esteem and self-worth.
- But should the unconditional love parents surround their children with be the prototype for adult relationships?
- Is this kind of unconditional love in romantic relationships even possible?
Joanna recently told me that she loves her boyfriend Gabriel “unconditionally” and that she could never see this changing. When asked to describe Gabriel, she stated, “Gabe is the most thoughtful person I know. We’ve dated almost three years now and he’s kind and considerate, he worries about me…”
Gabe sounds like a great guy. The behaviors she describes (Gabe’s emotional generosity, attentiveness, considerateness) are clearly what we’d all want in a spouse/partner—all positive traits that have strengthened the bond and love that Joanna feels toward Gabe. And ultimately, it is the demonstration and expression of Gabe’s loving kindness that continually touches Joanna’s heart and feeds her love.
Even if Gabe went through an emotional rough patch and became sullen and withdrawn for a period of time (imagine he lost his job and became moderately depressed as a result), we can imagine that Joanna would still love and support him—even if she didn’t like the changes she now had to deal with.
But isn’t it also fair to say Joanna would expect that at some point Gabriel would rebound and return to his previous, emotionally available self?
In other words, she’d wait and try to help her boyfriend; she’d endure these painful, unwelcome changes out of a sense of love and commitment, yet in the background of her mind it would be natural for her to anticipate Gabe’s emotional return—hoping that the loving, thoughtful and emotionally available Gabe is only on temporary hiatus due to his emotional struggles.
Responsible Love (Rather than Unconditional Love)
But what if Gabriel’s emotional rough patch (which included being emotionally withdrawn and unavailable to Joanna) lasted six months? Would she still hang in there with him? What about a year? Two years? Five?
Couples need to be patient. We need to give one another the benefit of the doubt for having a bad day or bad week. We do this out of love; we do this out of commitment (knowing it won’t be easy at times); we do this out of kindness and understanding for what our spouse/partner might be going through; we do this because we know we’re going to have our own struggles and we hope at those times to be on the receiving end of loving-patience.
But couples today aren’t the martyrs of yesteryear—fewer couples are willing to endlessly endure and suffer for the greater good of their marriage or relationship. Couples expect (and demand) that with love and commitment comes the mutual responsibility to act in loving and emotionally generous ways.
At some point, would it be reasonable for Joanna to demand that Gabe get his act together (maybe try harder or get the help he needs) and become the man she initially fell in love with? Isn’t our love conditional if it is based upon the expectation that our partner will be kind, considerate, loving and responsive to our needs?
The mantra of loving-responsibility (as shared by one couple):
- I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and be generous with my love, even when you’re stressed or upset for some reason;
- I’ll give you the space you need to decompress emotionally and relax when you’re feeling overwhelmed and need space;
- I’ll support you the best I can when you’re struggling and filled with doubt;
- I’ll support and challenge you in an effort to bring out your best, even when you don’t believe in yourself;
- I’ll try my best to understand your perspective, even when my viewpoint seems so right to me;
- Despite my loving generosity, there are no excuses for disrespectful or demeaning or abusive behaviors—these will never be tolerated;
- While we need the freedom to be emotionally real with each other in ways that do not exist in other relationships, we also need to try harder with each other and push ourselves in ways that do not exist in other relationships;
- There is no such thing as perfection, and ideas of perfection should never enter into our relationship discourse. However, our love and commitment to each other does center on a foundation of loving-responsibility—to hold one another responsible to do our best and be our best for each other. We cannot stop trying and fall victim to laziness or complacency without significant repercussions. Neither one of us can act unloving, unkindly and selfishly without expecting serious fallout. To be in a committed relationship with me means you are responsible to me and me to you;
- While there will be arguments and lulls and ruts, there are no free rides in our relationship—we love each other conditionally because this is how we uphold our responsibility to each other.
Couples Communication and Intimacy Resources
Healthy marriages and relationships are built on a foundation of communication.
To discover effective, simple to use communication strategies, click communication workbook for more information about my popular ABCs of Effective Communication Workbook.
Until next time!
Dr. Rich Nicastro