How others use it against us, and what the term really means.
The concept of unconditional love is often used to guilt-trip and manipulate us into accepting unacceptable treatment or continue relationships that we know we should end. People will use the idea against us, saying “I’m not perfect” and “if you really loved me you’d (insert self-serving action they’d like you to take, here).” It’s weaponized.
In the name of boundless loyalty and commitment, we’re led to feel as though we must work things out and take people back after they’ve hurt us to prove the depths of our affinity. I believe the perpetuation of this idea is actually emotional abuse. To understand what unconditional love is, it’s important to understand what it is not.
Refusing to maintain relationships with those who consistently betray, hurt, and belittle us is not placing conditions on our love, it is establishing boundaries. And it’s difficult for us to effectively love ourselves or anyone else when we don’t set them. Research professor Brené Brown discusses the concept in this video.
When we don’t set boundaries is when we struggle to love without limits as the behavior that we allow from others leads to feelings of resentment. Being open, caring, and optimistic is a challenge when we expect the worst of people because that is what we’ve most frequently received.
So, no, unconditional love is not being disregarded, disrespected, taken advantage of, and then allowing the culprit continued access to our hearts. It is not accepting apologies that aren’t accompanied by changed behavior. I’d contend that this isn’t love at all, not for ourselves or from anyone else.
We all want to feel loved unconditionally — as though independent of who we are, what we have, and what we’ve done, there is someone who cares for us. So, I get why we seek it from our relationships. However, Dr. Jonice Webb argues that even spouses are incapable of offering us unconditional love and that it can only come from our parents, stating two reasons:
“First, because it’s impossible for most people. And second, because even if a person could achieve it for his or her spouse, it would be unhealthy for both parties and for the relationship itself.”
Why would it be unhealthy? For the reasons mentioned above, because it opens the door to emotional abuse and for us to maintain detrimental personal ties. Dr. Webb goes on to say,
“Imagine a husband who continues to love his wife even though she is a serial cheater, and hurts him over and over and over and over. What incentive does she have to stop hurting him? Actually, none. This dysfunctional, painful relationship can go on forever, unchecked. Because the husband has no bottom line to what he will accept: no limit to what he will tolerate, and his wife knows it.”
This scenario personifies the weaponization of unconditional love. People that continually hurt us do so because they know we’ll allow it, based on our already having done so many times before. They use our love for them against us.
Considering the definition of unconditional love that entails enduring every conflict and never ceasing, no matter what, I do agree that neither friends nor romantic partners could or should offer this. But again, I differentiate between boundaries and conditions. Conditions say, “I’ll only love you if….” — while I see boundaries as, “I don’t associate x,y, or z with love.”
From this perspective, I view unconditional love as not only loving someone when it’s convenient, they give you what you want, or satisfy the image that you have of them. I think loving me when I’m annoying, tired and cranky, whether I’m wearing heels or sneakers, when my hair is both styled and uncombed, when I have it all together and when I’m emotionally breaking down, and still thinking I’m beautiful when I look a mess serves as unconditional. I don’t want to feel as though I have to always be and appear a certain way to earn someone’s adoration.
It’s unfair for anyone to flip love on and off like a light switch, making us feel at times that we are undeserving. Unconditional love, to me, means allowing a person (within reason) the freedom to be who they are, to be flawed, and to know that even when they aren’t at their best they remain highly regarded. It is not being made to feel as though we have to meet benchmarks and keep up any type of facade in order to be worthy of another’s unwavering devotion.