I often imagine conversations I'll have with my daughter when she gets older. I imagine how I might talk to her about consent, what I'll share with her about mothering, what I want her to know about friendship, and of course, what I want to help her understand about love.
Specifically, I was thinking about how I would explain my love for her. I often had conversations with my own mom where I tried to understand why she loved me, and I don't know that I ever quite got it. So if she ever asks me why I love her, this is what I came up with:
I love her. Full stop. Not because she's so smart (she is), hardworking (she is) or totally warm and funny (ditto, ditto). I love her very being. So there really is no "I love you because". Her beingness is enough.
Now, I also happen to love her hugs, and her thoughtfulness, and how excited she gets. I love it when she dances and I love that she loves reading. I love taking her swimming and showing her the world around us. Those are things in addition to simply loving her. And so even if those things change (and we all change, throughout our lifetimes), I still love her. That doesn't diminish or abate on account of what she does.
So there you go - that's unconditional love.
I think it's pretty amazing, and I also think it's pretty unique. It's the kind of love a caregiver has for their child.
The love we have for our partners is different. It is - and should be - conditional.
As we enter adult partnership, we are really asking for a reciprocal love that flows in both directions. This means that we're stepping away from the "no matter what you do, I'm always here for you" parental love we receive as children to something that's more mature. In order for that love to thrive, it needs to have boundaries around it. Here's a simple example - if your child goes to jail for selling cocaine, there's a good chance you're going to keep visiting them, helping them heal, and loving them with all your heart. On the other hand, if your partner goes to jail for selling cocaine, there's a good chance that'll signify the end of your relationship. It's pretty reasonable in that case to say "you know, I'm not interested in continuing a relationship with someone who's in jail for selling drugs". Now, even that example won't be true for everyone depending on the unique circumstances, and yet we all do have limits. Each of us have things that are acceptable to us in relationship, and things that are not. We have things that we can work with, and others that are deal-breakers. The purpose of loving relationships, after all, is not to endure, but to thrive. How can we thrive when we are not getting the basics of what we need in our relationship?
Committing to love an adult partner "unconditionally" isn't heroic - it's self-sabotage. You hurt yourself at a deep personal level by staying in an environment that isn't sustaining you, and ironically, even the person you're partnered with will end up feeling resentful toward you. This becomes especially dangerous when unfulfilling relationships go on for years - it's bound to lead either to an explosion or implosion of some kind. A relationship with conditions, on the other hand, has the power to be expansive. Neither partner is staying in it out of duty, fear, or familiarity. Instead, each is committed to their own and each other's growth. They are committing to truly respecting each other and to mutually offering that which will sustain and nurture the relationship.
Here's the bottom line: If the person you're supposed to be partnered with isn't available, isn't able to make a commitment, is unwilling or unable to process conflict with you, or is otherwise not going to fulfill the basic aspects of a relationship, then it's perfectly acceptable to let that relationship go, as they aren't able to offer you true partnership. Beyond that, we each have our own version of personal limits and deal breakers. It's up to us to do the work to figure out what those limits are, and whether we're in a relationship that seeks to mimic a parent-child dynamic or one that offers us true adult partnership.
Nicole Perry is a Registered Psychologist and writer with a private practice in Edmonton. Her approach is collaborative and feminist at its heart. She specializes in healing trauma, building shame resilience, and setting boundaries.
About the Blog
This space will provide information, stories, and answers to big questions about some of my favorite topics - boundaries, burnout, trauma, self compassion, and shame resilience - all from a feminist counselling perspective. It's also a space I'm exploring and refining new ideas.