3. Unconditional love is not a kind of love but a way of loving.
If you’re a parent, you know that you can love your child and simultaneously hate what that child does. Your child’s horrible behavior doesn’t make you stop loving your kid, but it does compel you to treat your child differently at the moment and respond appropriately with corrective action.
So to say, “I love my partner unconditionally” doesn’t mean you love that person with some mystical purity that transcends your everyday interaction. Instead, it means that in every interaction, you come from a place of love.
That place of love means you act respectfully and treat your partner as an equal. That place of love means you don’t judge or try to control. And that place of love means you don’t hit below the belt and use your partner’s vulnerability against him or her. Those are the conditions you don’t violate.
4. Unconditional love has boundaries.
To understand this, it helps to understand the value of boundaries and that boundaries are not selfish. A boundary is not a condition you set that says, I’ll only love you if you do x, or I won’t love you if you do y. A boundary is nothing more than a healthy understanding of your own value and of what behaviors value and devalue you.
While it is necessary in some cases, particularly in high-conflict relationships, to attach consequences (such as leaving) to the violation of a boundary, in an unconditional love relationship consequences are not needed. The consequence is the impact on the feelings of the person you love whose boundary you have crossed. If your partner knows that coming home late without calling makes you feel unappreciated and disrespected, your partner can choose not to engender those feelings in you, because he or she doesn’t want you to feel them.
Setting a boundary is making your feelings known, and respecting a boundary is making a choice to respect your partner’s feelings and making that choice from love rather than fear of retribution.
Failing to express clear boundaries sets up a dysfunctional dynamic in which partners cross lines and cause pain unintentionally, then suffer the angry reaction to the offense—a pattern of interaction that erodes love over time.
5. Unconditional love is not one-way.
If you love your partner unconditionally, as described above, but your partner doesn’t love you the same way, it isn’t unconditional love—it’s damaging self-sacrifice. Similarly, you need to hold yourself to the same standard you expect from your partner and that your partner adheres to.
Unconditional love is a mutually supportive dynamic in which both partners pull each other up to the healthiest way of loving and neither partner tears the other down.
Many people get stuck in unhealthy, self-destructive relationships because they think that applying the healing salve of what they believe is unconditional love to a difficult or even abusive person will change that person into the partner they desire. Trust me. It doesn’t work. Despite our conscience and sense of morality, the human-animal tends to do exactly what it can get away with. No more, no less. Your one-way unconditional love will never heal or change your partner. It will only change you into a bitter and resentful person.
Demanding that your partner loves you in a healthy, respectful, reciprocal way—which sounds like setting a condition but is actually recognizing your own self-worth—is the only way to improve your relationship.
I don’t know what you thought unconditional love was, but I’m betting it wasn’t this. I know when I first fell in love, I thought it was something different, and it took a long time and a lot of pain for me to learn these truths. So I share them with you as an act of love, a gift forged in the crucible of my suffering.
Because love isn’t supposed to hurt. Abandoning yourself, sacrificing your happiness, stifling your true character, and giving up your dreams is not unconditional love. It’s unconditional surrender. It’s ceding the territory of your joy before the first shot is even fired.
To achieve intimacy, you do need to take off your armor. But always remember, your heart is sacred ground.