If you really love someone, you love him or her no matter what, right? Wrong! While most of us would probably answer off the top of our heads that true love should be completely unconditional, when you really analyze this issue, the reality is that there have to be boundaries in order for two people to exist healthily in a reciprocal and loving partnership. Without conditions, you will likely find yourself in emotional free-fall. With that in mind, we decided to delve further into this issue to learn how you can love with all your heart while still keeping your head on straight.
How your brain chemistry overrides logic with emotion
Have you ever looked back on a past relationship and wondered, “Wow, how did I not see those red flags?” Well, cut yourself some slack, because there may actually be a biological force in play in addition to your emotions. Scientists at University College London in the UK reported in the journal NeuroImage that romantic love actually suppresses the brain waves associated with critical social assessment of other people and negative emotions. In other words, once you get close to a person (i.e. you’re falling in love), your brain has a reduced need to assess the nature of that person’s character and resists harboring any negative emotions towards him or her. Yup… you read that correctly: You can be literally blinded by love.
“The suppression of neural activity in areas involving critical thinking and judgment suggests that love is not only blind, but also stupid,” says Dr. Karin Anderson, author of It Just Hasn’t Happened Yet (Clifton Hills Press, 2010) and Associate Professor of Psychology and Counselor Education at Concordia University in Chicago. “This biological reality, compounded by the strong societal pressure to couple, may lead us to forge romantic partnerships that lack the requisite qualities of compatibility in shared lifestyles and goals.” In other words, we “force” ourselves into relationships just to have somebody around or to avoid being the last single person in the group.
The problem here is that blind, stupid love can make someone unwilling or unable to see the realities of a poorly matched partner from the outset. Often, this results in one person getting blindsided later on in the relationship that outside observers intuited as an inevitable outcome. “I hear it all too often; people say, ‘I never thought this would happen to me’ or ‘I never thought he/she could do that to me,’” says Dr. Ish Major, a psychiatrist and author of Little White Whys: A Woman’s Guide Through the Lies Men Tell and Why (iUniverse, 2009). “If we do a little homework, we usually find that the warning signs were there, but they were simply missed or overlooked at first. It’s never a safe idea to get so busy loving someone unconditionally that you overlook patterns of behavior that could lead towards a dangerous end.”
By definition, “unconditional love” is unhealthy in a relationship context
When people speak of unconditional love, it implies love without bounds, limits or reason; in other words, a love that will stay exactly the way it is today, regardless of any upcoming circumstances or changes in either of the people involved within the relationship. In reality, this implies a love forged by unbreakable bonds which will remain strong, regardless of whether it’s returned or not. “Typically, this term is reserved for people speaking of the love shared between family members or the pillars of their faith,” says Major. “Your mother will always be your mother. Your sister will always be your sister. You may fight like cats and dogs, but that basic love and lasting bond will ultimately never be changed.”
However, when this concept is applied to romantic love, things get a little murkier. “Expecting or granting unconditional love in romantic relationships poses real hazards to individual emotional health,” says Anderson. “It creates optimal conditions for abuse (‘I love you unconditionally, so you may treat me horribly, but I’ll still remain true’), codependency (‘I’ll be everything to you and ignore my own needs’), and loss of authentic self (‘I love you so much I’ll be whoever you want me to be!’).” If love is given completely without any conditions attached, then forgiveness for any and all transgressions or slights can be reasonably expected — at all times, and without question. By this definition, you are in effect saying you will be willing to tolerate whatever comes along — good or bad — because you love the person, regardless of how healthy or unhealthy the relationship is for either partner.
“The idea of unconditional love sets the expectation for complete forgiveness, always, but what I don’t hear people talk about in this situation is the idea of forgetting,” says Major. “People remember significant events in their lives and, to that end, tend to remember quite vividly every time they get hurt, both physically and emotionally. The mind remembers these events in the hopes of being able to avoid that pain from happening again. So the question now becomes, where does the memory of that pain go?” It may be less about loving unconditionally than about discovering your personal threshold for forgiveness.
Why healthy love between two partners must always be conditional
“From working with and meeting thousands of couples in my mediation practice, I know that love is C-O-N-D-I-T-I-O-N-A-L,” says Laurie Puhn, J.D., author of Fight Less, Love More: 5-Minute Conversations to Change Your Relationship without Blowing Up or Giving In. “To put it clearly,” explains Puhn, “when certain actual conditions are missing in a relationship, the love disappears and the relationship will dissolve.” Puhn says that in order for a mature love to survive and thrive, the conditions for supplying five essential human needs must be met: appreciation, respect, compassion, trust and companionship. “If any of these is compromised by lies, neglect, rudeness, unnecessary criticism, stubbornness or secrets, for example, then the love is no longer grounded,” says Puhn.
“While it’s nice to know there will be love and forgiveness no matter what, you need to know your partner cares enough to get upset if you cross the line — you need to know that your partner has enough self-respect to have limits, and that if a limit is crossed, there will be negative consequences,” agrees Major. “Oftentimes, I see couples lose respect for each other when these boundaries aren’t established. If you don’t set these clear boundaries, it can be an unspoken invitation for your partner to walk all over you… not unlike a doormat.” Truly unconditional love to the point of overlooking personal slights and infringements upon one’s well-being can be dangerous. “Unconditional romantic love is always unhealthy… to say, ‘I love you regardless of what you do or say to me’ is absurd,” says Anderson. “Not only is it unhealthy for the one loving unconditionally, it’s also unhealthy for the one on the receiving end. It creates a false ideology, i.e., ‘Love means being completely selfish, putting my own needs and desires above my partner’s at all times.’” In unconditional love-based relationships, the receivers often stagnate in their own personal growth and development by having their narcissistic egocentrism constantly reinforced.
“The key thing to remember here is that love, unconditional or otherwise, isn’t supposed to hurt,” says Major. “Remember that you deserve to be happy, too. So while facing a barrage of hurtful things happening within a relationship, I don’t question the idea that people do choose to love unconditionally; the more important question becomes, why would you?”
How to love freely, but stay within healthy boundaries
“While love does blind people initially to their mate’s flaws, over time, the reverse happens — people eventually come to expect and overlook the good while focusing on and bemoaning the bad,” says Puhn. “The goal in a healthy relationship is to live in the middle zone where you recognize both, but choose to spend most of your energies verbally acknowledging the good. Only bring up the flaws that affect you by discussing them in a constructive and helpful way.” Puhn suggests couples remain alert to the little moments when they can breathe life into their relationship with simple, positive statements, like “Thank you for getting me that glass of soda” and “I’m going to bed now, just want to say good night.”
For most of us, romantic love means being in a relationship with someone that is mutually rewarding, pleasurable and beneficial. If anything ever happens to change those conditions, that romantic love can (and often does) fade. “Typically, when couples speak of ‘unconditional love’ it’s with the unspoken understanding that certain criteria will always be met; that is no one cheats, lies, steals, or abuses the other,” says Major. “Depending on who you are, you may not need all of these criteria to be met in order to proclaim your ‘unconditional love’ for someone; you may only need one or two of them to be satisfied. It’s different for everyone, depending on your temperament and your romantic history or reference point.” As long as those basic understandings are being met, a couple can love each other ‘unconditionally’ without losing anything in the process. It’s only when those basic conditions start to break down that the rationality and logic behind “unconditional love” should be challenged.
Perhaps it’s time to reframe the idea of “unconditional romantic love” in more moderate terms. The concept may be more attainable if it’s viewed as something that endures despite unfavorable circumstances. In this case, you wouldn’t ask yourself or a partner to disregard the relationship’s realities, but instead to look at it as the glue that helps you work through obstacles together or strive to compromise with each other in mutually satisfying ways while respecting each other’s pre-set limits and boundaries. With that in mind, you can truly be free to love with all your heart.
Kimberly Dawn Neumann (www.KDNeumann.com) is a New York City-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in Cosmopolitan, Redbook, Women’s Health, Marie Claire, Maxim and more. A frequent contributor for Match.com’s Happen magazine, she’s also the author ofThe Real Reasons Men Commitas well as the founder of www.DatingDivaDaily.com. She is looking for an unconditional love... uh, with a few reasonable conditions attached.