If you’re searching for a future mate you can love — and who will love you — unconditionally, please stop. If you’re currently in a relationship and you’re waiting for the unconditional love part to kick in, you can go ahead and stop that, too.
Unconditional means, simply, without conditions. Without rules. Without expectations. Fact is, looking for unconditional love in a grown-up relationship is a lot like looking for the Loch Ness Monster. We’ve all heard of it, we wonder if it’s real, but there’s little proof it exists. All adult relationships have conditions attached. Whatever your expectations are of your partner (fidelity, honesty, transparency), there’s usually trouble brewing when they’re not met.
If you’re looking for unconditional love, you’re really looking to be parented. And that’s not an attractive quality in any adult person. Parents may love their children unconditionally (I do, most days) and people may love their pets unconditionally (who wouldn’t love this face?) but the love between equal partners is inarguably different. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we acted and spoke with abandon and were still loved unconditionally by our partners? It might be. But we can’t. Not if we’re looking to have any peace or longevity in our relationships.
Whenever I hear someone say, “But I want to be loved unconditionally,” I cringe. What does that even mean? That you want to be your most basic, infantile self and still be adored by your partner? That your parents didn’t give you the unconditional love you needed to feel whole so you’re still out there looking for it? If that’s the case, know the healing can only come from inside you. No other adult on this planet can fix that for you. If you lucked out and got unconditional love from your parents and you’re seeking a partner to replicate that, you’re signing up for big disappointment. Really big.
Let me back up. Wanting unconditional love isn’t the same as wanting your partner to love your whole self. My partner has seen all of me — the good, bad, ugly and ugly-plus — and he still sticks around. And I’ve seen the same in him and I’m still here and happy. So, maybe what we should want isn’t unconditional love but nonjudgmental love. Don’t judge me for my insecurities, my guilt, my shameful places. Don’t love me in spite of those things but because of them. And wanting that kind of love is more than okay.
Words matter. And mature, self-aware adults who use the words “unconditional love” to describe what they want in a relationship are using a misguided vernacular. Not only that, but the fruitless search for that Loch Ness Nessie of relationships stops many folks from ever finding true, meaningful love because, at the first signs of critique or strife, they look for the nearest exit.
When I work with couples, I ask them to tell me the rules of their relationship. If they can’t name them or they look at me like I’m nuts (or both), I ask them to create a rulebook for their relationship. That way, both partners know the parameters and the conditions by which the relationship will remain intact and healthy. (Think about it: When you’re feeling hurt, angry or confused in your relationship, it’s often because you feel one or more conditions of the relationship have been violated by your partner.)
As we head into the holiday season, we’re bombarded with what advertisers tell us love and family should look like. Every gift-giving moment is Kleenex-worthy. Every meal is white linens, matching china and perfect turkeys. But we all know (We. All. Know.) that’s not the case. Cousin Sally re-gifts. Uncle Harry gets drunk. Side dishes get inedibly burned. But that doesn’t stop us from celebrating — and it doesn’t stop us from loving the whole, messy experience.
And that’s what love between partners looks like, too. It’s chaotic and funny and real. It’s not camera-ready. It has conditions. It’s two people who agree to love, accept and honor each other — while holding up their ends of the relationship bargain. In sickness and health, in boredom and excitement, through the glorious, tedious everydayness of life.
Carrying a torch for mythical, unconditional love may prevent you from finding what’s even better: a wonderfully authentic, sticky, rewarding, bumps-and-all conditional love. A love with rules but not judgment. Hold out for it or adjust your lens. Either that or book your flight to Scotland. Nessie is waiting.