When Unconditional Love Just Isn’t Enough
This past year has certainly been a season for understanding unconditional love and boundaries, however painful as it may have been. But it’s also been a time for me of healing and understanding things in very different ways than they first appeared.
I had an argument recently with an old friend about the concept of unconditional love. In the process, boundaries were crossed and old, old wounds were reopened to the extent that we cannot be friends right now. Things long buried came to the surface and have disturbed my peace of mind and my sleep, and it will take some time and space to find my positive feelings for this man again as he’s left me emotionally in a place in our distant past that was shattering. Over the last few years, he’s spent quite a bit of time analyzing the concept of unconditional love and what it means as if this is a new phenomenon in the universe. I already know. I’ve known for a long, long time, both in his presence and in his absence, and I’ve practiced it even when I was left behind and even when I was too hurt or angry to remain in a mere friendship.
I cannot love someone to that depth and just cut it off like a light switch. It may fade with time, but unconditional love tastes like a curse when it cannot be returned as unconditional love. Unconditional love is a state of being, not an action of giving love. It cannot be helped. It just is. But it’s not an excuse to be a doormat. Loving unconditionally is not an invitation to be mistreated or disrespected.
Unconditional love is not a synonym for lack of boundaries or a free ticket for the other person to plow right through boundaries. Boundaries are not a bad thing. They’re just brackets of self-respect.
In our…discussion…with this old friend, I felt accused of not practicing unconditional love because there were certain behaviors I could no longer tolerate. That’s been true of most relationships where I’ve reached the end of my boundaries–not the end of my love–and had to reinforce the boundaries by leaving the relationship because my partner simply could not and would not respect the few boundaries I put between us. It’s been suggested that I therefore love conditionally–meaning that if a man doesn’t behave well with me, then I won’t love him anymore. If only that were true, then relationships that are defunct or on hiatus would be so much easier for the heart to bear!
In many hours of assessment since this argument, I have reaffirmed that when my love is unconditional, then it still lasts, long after the relationship.
The love does not go away. It lingers like an unscratchable itch in the heart.
But what is conditional is whether I will stay with someone I love beyond reason if his behaviors violate my boundaries and call into question my own self-respect as well as his respect for me and mine for him. Will I have enough respect for myself to demand to be treated better? Is that condition bad? Not to me, though it may sound unreasonable to a man who has abused the privilege of my love.
I’ve heard it said recently that the most important thing to women–pardon the generalization–is being loved while to men, it’s being respected. I saw this play out with a former co-worker of mine, a very sweet man with a horrible addiction.
He drove away his wife and two young sons. They still loved him unconditionally, but they could no longer live with someone who behaved so badly. It’s not that they took away their love, but they were enablers who eventually lost respect for him and he lost respect for himself. He had to look at his boys and understand that they thought he was a joke. Eventually, he hit rock bottom and had lost his relationship with his family as well as most of the people he was close to. But the story doesn’t end sadly.
It could have.
Instead, he understood that having their unconditional love meant that the relationships could be rebuilt, but first he had to rebuild their respect for him. He healed those relationships relatively quickly by taking action to prove himself, by doing the hard thing and taking responsibility for the behaviors that plowed through their boundaries and hurt them. That started with having enough respect for himself to make a change, and letting his sons and wife see that the change was real. It’s been heartwarming to hear his stories of rebuilding those relationships with the people who never stopped loving him.
So love isn’t necessarily conditional just because one person in the relationship has boundaries they aren’t willing to flatten along with their self-respect. I understand better now what unconditional love is, not just for someone else but for myself, and that means setting boundaries sometimes and giving myself the respect that I deserve rather than letting myself be annihilated by someone else’s selfish actions.