JENNY R. SUSSER, PH.D.

POWER & PERFORMANCE SPORT PSYCHOLOGY SERVICES

Unconditional love?

Posted by on Nov 16, 2019

Can love be unconditional? There are several “questions for the ages” and I think this qualifies as one. I don’t know about you, but I have heard about unconditional love for as long as I can remember. A badge of sorts, the brass ring of relationship, calling love unconditional seems to take it beyond ordinary love and into the stratosphere, elevating it to a level of safety and permanence. We wield it like a sword, though, slashing it about, protecting some and slaying others. If you are deemed worthy of my unconditional love, then I must be amazingly generous, and you must be wonderful…to me. But what happens when this so-called unconditionally loved relationship fails? Because you know, relationships fail sometimes. So, how do we reconcile the love we once called forever or unconditional? I think we place too much power in love in a relationship. Yes, that is what I said, too much power in love. We love to love (me too), and love is great, however, it is only one ingredient in an entire recipe for a successful relationship. But it feels so good, how can it not be the most important, you ask? If you have ever baked or cooked anything, you know each ingredient plays a role. Some are interchangeable, some are optional, some are malleable, and some are critical. A new oven can change the results. Weather can impact the baking time. And experience can make or break it all.

My mom was really big on unconditional love. She talked about it a lot, especially when she was upset with people. Which to me, takes it out of the unconditional realm. If you piss me off and that affects how much I love you, then how unconditional is my love for you, really? People are going to piss you off, no matter how much you love them. As a matter of course, the more you love someone, the more time you spend with them, the greater the opportunity for pissing each other off! We live in a total fantasy that any relationship with meaning can exist outside of discourse. And therein lies the rub (I’ve always wanted to say that!). If we hold our love in a place that excludes discourse, then is it really love?

When I think about unconditional love, defining it becomes a challenge. Do you have a great definition for it? I almost wonder if it is an oxymoron or simply repetitive. If it is an oxymoron, then there is no such thing. Love would be just love, and you either love someone or you don’t. My family has a funny quirk, to call it mildly. Historically, people will cut off someone that upsets them greatly. My mom and her mom did it constantly. It was hard to tell if they were on speaking terms or not because it changed so often. It is in our DNA to withhold your love if someone pisses you off or hurts you. It is an element of my family that I am ashamed of and that has caused great confusion for me when it comes to love. How can you say you love someone and then a minute later, tell them you never want to speak to them again? I have worked hard to not be on the “I’m never speaking to  you again” side of the conversation, but that hasn’t prevented me from the other side. I know my family is not the only family with this unfortunate trait, but it still pains me every time.

If the term unconditional love is repetitive, in other words, you don’t need the word unconditional, then love is just love. I often wonder if we can have variations on love, like degrees. I love some people more than others, just saying, and I think we all could say that. We tend to attach feelings to actions, for instance, I would do anything for a family member or my wife, but perhaps there is a limit for my best friend. But is there? I think about one of my best friends, Doreen, and yep, I would pretty much do anything for her, too. If push came to shove, I would not hesitate to give my life for her, like I would for my family. Okay, so is that how I define love? I wonder to myself if I would do that for my best friend from high school, who I still care for but haven’t seen in twenty years. Would I do anything for her still? So, then I wonder if that is love or not? Do I need to quantify something in order to be able to say I love it? Oh, this all makes my head hurt.

Early on in my career, I did a lot of marriage counseling. It wasn’t something I looked for or advertised, but somehow, I wound up with a bunch of couples struggling to stay together. The more couples counseling I did, the more I realized that love is not enough. Love is necessary, but not enough, and perhaps not even the most important ingredient. The people in my family love yet still cut each other off. But what about like or having an affinity for someone? How important is it that you like the people you love? And then there is respect. I think respect is the silent make or break ingredient in any relationship. Love is easy to give, and so is respect initially. But it is easy to lose respect and still love someone, it just changes the deal. So, what about trust, you ask?  Well, I think respect and trust are like the index finger and thumb…they only work well when used together.    

So, here is what I think happens over time in a relationship. Since the brain seeks the path of least resistance, we make a big effort at first and then as the deal gets sealed, we relax. When we relax, we communicate less, and that allows things to build up. If we didn’t have very good communication to begin with, this can happen faster. When things build up, so do our defenses, making communication even more difficult. Our defenses are padded with emotion, and when a human being is hurt, it can be so hard to get “to the other side,” as I like to say. Recently, Mette (my wife) and I relaxed on a few things in our communication. It wasn’t intentional, it wasn’t acute, it was an oversight and happened over a few months of stress on other issues. We simply forgot to check in on a deeper level about a couple of key issues. And then, my mind, seeking the path of least resistance, filled in some blanks, and they weren’t in her favor. I wound up with a devastating hurt that shut me down completely. I made up a very bad story about it and then proceeded to take it out on her. In response, she shut down in self–protection and the relationship just sucked for a short while. It took nearly going to blows (not really), but mentally and emotionally duking it out until I was able to hear her completely and vice-versa. Boy, was I wrong. I couldn’t believe how wrong I was! And I was so wrong that it actually wasn’t that hard to admit it once I saw it. Ever the generous one, she laughed at me through some tears, I apologized, she apologized, and we were renewed. Sort of like a bad flu re-sets your immune system, we had a hard reset on us. It is back to brilliant and dare I say, unconditional love.

Loving her was not nearly enough to get us through that period and ultimate fight. We needed much more than that. We needed a deep commitment to getting through it. We needed to respect each other because out of my respect for her, I looked for her to be telling me truth, which allowed me to question what I was considering to be true when it wasn’t. And, I honestly like Mette. She is fun and funny and clever and thoughtful and generous and just plain wonderful. After all of these years, that is actually the path of least resistance for me because that is the best place to be in for us. Unfortunately, I haven’t cracked this code with some of the people in my family and while it makes me sad, it doesn’t make me give up. We each have our own cross to bear, emotions to manage, stories to create and stick to. As a result of writing this, I have decided that I don’t really like the term unconditional love. There is love and there is other. Some people I love and some people I other (a new verb), such as like or admire or enjoy or even tolerate, but maybe not quite love. I also don’t subscribe to withholding love just because you pissed me off. I may become angry or disappointed, but that won’t affect my love for you. When my mom was hard to deal with, I still loved her. With her gone, it brings me solace to see that and allows me to feel love for her even when we talk about the difficult times we had with her. So yes, love can be unconditional, just make sure the other stuff is included, too.