The Backstreet Boys once sang, “I don’t care who you are, where you’re from, what you’ve done, as long as you love me.” This romantic notion of unconditional love is something many people dream of finding. But relationship experts and therapists say that may be a myth — an ideal that’s not only unattainable but actually undesirable.
Before hopeless romantics pick up the slack, that doesn’t mean a fairytale type of love doesn’t exist. It’s about really defining what healthy love looks like and not taking the term “unconditional” love so literally. In fact, marriage and family therapist Yeshiva Davis of K&S Therapeutic Services, Inc., likes to use the term “unconditional regard” instead, which means “treating your partner with love and respect while maintaining boundaries and having love.” and respect for yourself”.
Ahead, Davis and other experts break down the idea of unconditional love.
What is unconditional love?
“You love someone and nothing else matters. It allows people to love unconditionally, freely,” Davis defines. “You don’t base it on what someone does for you or what you want in return. You just love them and want nothing more than their happiness.”
She and psychologist Dr. Paulette Sherman agree that it is also a type of love that is completely unaffected by the outside world and the circumstances surrounding the two people. It exists by itself.
Additionally, relationship expert and author Susan Winter says, “Unconditional love is a spiritual and romantic ideal. It is something to aspire to in disposition and character. Unconditional love is the act of perpetually putting your partner’s well-being and happiness above your own. the ‘self’ for the happiness of ‘the other'”.
Is unconditional love accessible?
While any or all of these definitions sound great, experts agree that’s not an entirely realistic way to look at relationships and marriage. “Unconditional love denies the ‘self’ and in doing so would work against the grain in a mutually satisfying relationship. A better option would be to prioritize your mate’s happiness while meeting your own wants and needs,” admits Winter.
Practicing forgiveness and wanting your partner to be happy just because you love them are good things. But, there are also some aspects of true “unconditional” love that can be problematic.
According to Davis, true unconditional love should be given to babies and toddlers who have no control over their behaviors and emotions. It is something that, rooted in genetics and blood relationship, is often evoked in parent/child relationships. But in romantics, it can actually be toxic, she says. “It means non-acceptance is a bad thing. You can’t have limits…You have to blindly love someone and blindly accept their behaviors. [It’s like]”Love me and provide me with what I need despite how I treat you…” This is super unreachable because a healthy relationship requires mature, positive problem solving and negotiation. .. so that both people can have a good and loving life. Unconditional love doesn’t make room for that.”
For Sherman, unconditional love in a romantic relationship is not common, but not impossible. The trick is to define it in a healthy way as a love that is definitely not based under conditions (i.e. “I will only love you if you do this”) but still leaves room for boundaries, disagreements and growth.
“Love doesn’t have to be self-repressing or sacrificial to be worthy,” says Winter. “Healthy love can be rewarding and generous – giving and receiving. True love does not need to deny the individual for the sake of the couple.”
Signs of Healthy Unconditional Love
So how can you achieve a healthy type of unconditional love? Winter says it’s about each partner accepting the other as an imperfect human being. “It’s the ability to forgive yourself and start over while learning to better manage the challenges of life as a couple,” she explains. “This type of unconditional love only requires the will to be fair, rational and compassionate.”
At the same time, conditional love is also a problem. You don’t want to find yourself in a “tit for tat” situation, as Winter puts it, where you’re keeping score. “Conditional love can become the norm in relationships that have endured recklessness, betrayal and dishonesty,” she continues. “During the honeymoon, unconditional love feels effortless. But as time passes and resentments build up, conditional love can become the more dominant strand.”
Healthy love is a delicate balance that may seem complicated, but it really boils down to mutual respect, trust, understanding and, of course, love. Here are some signs of healthy unconditional love:
- Don’t be afraid to say how you feel even if it’s a negative feeling
- Mutual trust
- Knowing each other’s love language
- Agree to disagree
- Encourage individual goals and interests
- Have friendships outside of the relationship
- Make others a priority
- Respect everyone’s needs and wishes
- Take full responsibility for how you present yourself in the relationship
- Treat your partner with respect and acceptance
- Want your partner to be happy
Signs of unhealthy unconditional love
According to Davis, unconditional love suggests “you have to put up with me no matter what I do.” This creates a potential breeding ground for emotional abuse as there are no parameters for acceptable behavior. Forgiveness is key to a relationship, but someone who takes advantage of it and repeats bad behavior assuming they will be forgiven is a recipe for disaster.
“You can love someone and choose to set boundaries or not be with them romantically. That’s an important distinction,” Sherman recalls. Some signs of unhealthy unconditional love include:
- Stay together because you are codependent
- Enduring emotional or physical abuse
- Persistent sexual or emotional infidelity
- Persistent financial infidelity
- Giving up your own needs for the sake of your partner
How to Nurture Healthy Unconditional Love
Sometimes the above issues can appear even in healthy relationships. Hurtful words are exchanged in arguments; cheating sometimes happens. “What makes it harmful is if it’s left untreated and it’s constant and accepted,” Davis says.
And throughout a lifelong relationship like a marriage, outside forces will inevitably enter the relationship as you navigate life together. Children are born, family members die, and illnesses or financial difficulties arise. It is unrealistic to assume that your love will not be affected or challenged by these things. Successful relationships take work, and there are ways to nurture your love so it’s a healthy, flexible type of love that makes room for happiness in both partners.
Davis advises having honest conversations early in the relationship to learn more about each other’s needs and communication styles. Understanding each other’s personalities and differences is essential. It can help you avoid feelings of resentment or even martyrdom along the way, she says.
“You can nurture healthy unconditional love by taking responsibility for the partner you want to be instead of pointing fingers,” Sherman adds. “You can practice acceptance, respect, kindness and forgiveness towards your partner. You can remember that your partner is a separate person who has a different perspective, upbringing and desires and there should be enough room in the relationship for both people.”
For Winter, the idea of getting to know your partner as an individual, as well as learning to say “I’m sorry,” are key factors in maintaining healthy love. She uses the term “emotional control panel” to describe a person’s inner workings and what motivates them. Understanding and getting to know this is “key to eliminating unnecessary arguments and friction,” she says. “Listen to your partner. Really listen to what they say and learn Why they feel what they feel about a given topic. This will keep you in tune with each other, allowing warm feelings to flow throughout the relationship.”
Where do wedding vows come into play?
When you say “yes” in front of your family and friends, you are making vows and promises to your partner that are meant to last a lifetime. But, Winter notes, these vows are established long before “incidents of pain and injury occur. At that time, the words are easy to say. addiction, financial infidelity).”
Experts agree that the wedding vows are “ambitious” and, according to Winter, they “set an intention.” But, just as life goes through phases, so does love, and it’s “everyday behavior that dictates the outcome of love’s continued presence,” she recalls.