For centuries, the perfect end result of any romantic relationship is unconditional love.
We’ve read it in magazine articles. Love novels. Movies. Blogs on the Internet. Everyone is searching for unconditional love in their romantic relationships.
A number of years ago, I started working with a young woman as her counselor helping her relationship to reach a higher level of acceptance, compassion, understanding, and love.
She had told me many times that she loved her boyfriend unconditionally, more than any other man she had ever dated.
In her late 30s, with many relationships behind her, she loved to throw the word unconditional love around like rice at a wedding. As we continued to work together, I started to see a crack in the façade of her relationship.
Was it really unconditional love? And what is unconditional love?
I posed those two questions to her as a homework assignment that I wanted her to explore and bring in her written answers during our next Skype session.
She did. I was shocked. But maybe I shouldn’t have been.
Her answer was that she unconditionally loved her boyfriend, which is how she could stay with him during his weekend bouts with alcoholism. She went on to say that even though he neglected her many days during the week, never returned her calls, and chose not to attend any family functions with her… That she still unconditionally loved him.
Red flags were dancing all over my head. I was sitting in awe as I watched her talk about him on the Skype screen, thinking how sad it was that we’ve come to this point in society, that we put up with people’s nonsense, emotional abuse, and addiction… But somehow that allows us to claim that we just unconditionally love that person.
It’s nonsense. It’s ridiculous. What I eventually was able to show her, is that she didn’t necessarily unconditionally love this person, but she was unconditionally codependent with him as hell.
Does that make sense? It’s a matter fact if you go into some of the well-meaning 12 step groups today, you will find people talking about how they have unconditionally loved their husband for 40 years of marriage, even though he brought the family to its knees financially through his addiction to alcohol.
Whenever I hear those stories I shutter. I shake. I want to scream. Or maybe, I want to cry.
Codependency: The fear of being alone
In 2002, I labeled codependency as “the largest Addiction in the world.“ And it is. What many people call unconditional love is a severe form of codependency. They mask it with these pretty words, unconditional love, but what it really means is they’re afraid to be on their own. They’re afraid to be alone. They’re afraid to set boundaries with consequences. They’re afraid to stand up for themselves. They’re afraid to call an addict an addict, an emotional abuser an emotional abuser.
It’s like a painting a house filled with termites that are chewing through the outside wood of the house, and hoping somehow that that layer of paint which looks really pretty today, will be there tomorrow. It won’t. The termites will laugh, as they chew their way through the new layers of paint because we’ve never gone to the termite nest.
It’s the same with unconditional love or in most cases codependency.
Until we go to the root of the codependent behavior, the enabling, the justification, the denial… There is no way that these relationships will ever show any sign of unconditional love.
Unconditional love is extremely rare
We explain this concept in even greater detail in our brand new book, “focus!“, where I say that unconditional love is extremely rare between two people in a romantic relationship. It might even be impossible to reach between a boyfriend-girlfriend, husband wife, girlfriend girlfriend, boyfriend boyfriend… It might even be an almost impossible height to reach in love, but of course, it’s worthwhile going after.
I believe the new attempt to define unconditional love, might be in this little story.
Define unconditional love
Take my former client above. I advised her during our sessions, to learn how to set healthy boundaries and consequences with her boyfriend. I coached her and counseled her on how to say to him that she did love him immensely, and she was going to give him 60 days to get clean and sober because of his weekend bouts with alcoholism. I told her that this was a sign of unconditional love, that she could love him so much that she would set a boundary and a consequence that would benefit him, as well as their relationship.
At first, she pushed back. She didn’t get it. But within six months she was understanding the teaching that I was giving her. Unconditional love can be shown in the way we set boundaries and consequences. If I didn’t love this person so much, I wouldn’t bother setting boundaries and consequences. But because I want to see this relationship last, grow, I will set boundaries and consequences knowing that the person might walk away and reject me.
This is also a sign of unconditional love for ourselves, proving, once and for all, we are worthy of being respected and loved all at the same time.
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More By David Essel