Spoiler Alert: Unconditional Love Is a Myth (Mostly)
My mom once told me that the reason she always wanted to have a child was so that at least one person would love her unconditionally. If I think of the implications of that statement both from the perspective of how lonely and unloved she felt and what an unbearable burden that was on me from the moment I was born, it makes me weep. While I wasn’t conscious of this as a child growing up, I was very much aware of my role in life. I understood at a deeply unconscious level that without my unquestioning devotion to my mother, she felt empty, and what child wants that for a parent? So I learned early on that love, or more particularly unconditional love, meant putting the needs of others ahead of my own and not establishing any boundaries that would make the other person feel as though my love came with conditions. If that sounds like a recipe for disaster, it is.
Cue a recent episode of Glennon Doyle’s podcast “We Can Do Hard Things,” where she interviews Nedra Glover Tawwab, MSW, LCSW, a New York Times bestselling author and expert on boundaries. Glennon asked if unconditional love even exists if one truly respects one’s own boundaries in relationships. The short answer? No. Tawwab begins by giving her definition of a boundary, which is basically establishing what you need. This can also include things you will not tolerate. A good analogy of this in my brain is the concept of consent. Saying either yes or no is expressing a need. A partner acknowledging this is their respecting your boundary. Tawwab goes on to explain how even in a romantic relationship we begin to establish conditions before we consider dating someone, like do they enjoy travel or do they want to have children. We base our decision as to whether or not to continue the relationship on how compatible we are with that other person. Conditions are inherently a prerequisite for a healthy adult relationship that isn’t about control or manipulation.
To say that my brain exploded in that moment would be an understatement. I had never thought about relationships like that, but through that lens I began to recognize why some of my relationships are healthy and others aren’t. I never learned the concept of a boundary until I entered into therapy and even now I often struggle with establishing them and believing I deserve to have them. I get a tremendous sense of guilt when a boundary of mine elicits someone’s ire or sadness. So I often have the urge to just cave and do what another person wants just to maintain the peace, even if that would mean abandoning myself.
Ironically, the one person who I feel the closest to and who I established very clear boundaries with immediately was my husband. I don’t believe it was simply that we were compatible. When we met he was seeing a therapist and she acted as a de facto guide for him throughout our courtship. I think her sense of the possible red flags was acute and as a result we established a very strong emotional bond based upon deep conversations about our needs, wants, and desires prior to progressing in any physical capacity. I’m not saying our marriage has been perfect or always easy, but I do have a distinct sense with my husband that my needs and boundaries are valued and not a burden. This is why I knew I could trust him when I began therapy for sexual abuse.
With friendships this has been a different story, especially friendships with women. And I’m not sure that the onus on the difficulty is solely on myself. I feel like women are so socialized to be people pleasers that boundary setting is a challenge both ways. This can lead to ruptures whenever something occurs that goes against someone’s needs because we don’t know how, nor do we feel at liberty to assert our boundaries, which inevitably leads to resentment and the relationship ends. My theory my entire life was that I was a bad friend, but really I’m a bad self-advocate, and so are a lot of us.
I can hear you thinking “What about romance?” and “What about soulmates?” or “What about ‘in sickness and in health?” Those things aren’t about unconditional love, they are about commitment to and authenticity to both oneself and to the relationship. For this to truly work we have to be willing to articulate our needs to one another and to believe that we truly deserve for them to be met. And where appropriate to perhaps negotiate, compromise, and adjust our needs. Entering into a relationship with the expectation that another human can read your mind and intuit what you want and what you are willing to put up with is a recipe for disaster. Learning to voice our boundaries in a clear, kind way is the ultimate marker of respect for self and others.
So where might there be room for unconditional love? Babies and pets. Think about it. Neither a baby or a pet can verbalize what they need and without our unconditionally meeting their needs they would literally die. In a way they are the ultimate boundary machines asking for what they want, nay demanding it, by crying, barking, or meowing at us. They establish what they want and we choose to care for them even if they misbehave, puke on us, or talk back at us. Children begin to have this sense of entitlement socialized out of them as they get older and are encouraged to fit into the cultural norms of the family unit regardless of if this is truly what they want or need. And I suppose animals can be trained to some extent, but even then, a parent who brings a child or a pet into their world does so (hopefully) with the understanding that it is their ultimate act of selflessness to care for these beings without any expectation of anything in return.
Which brings me back to the beginning of this story and my mom having a baby to love her unconditionally. I can view her desire through a compassionate lens, but as someone who has spent the past seven years healing from the resulting emotional neglect and covert incest I endured, which was born out of my mother’s need for unconditional love, I can also begin to give myself a bit of grace in my decision to distance myself and put up some boundaries with her. I cannot re-socialize another person or make them understand my need for autonomy, but that shouldn’t make me feel guilty about wanting it. And if I’m honest about my inner dialogue surrounding this, I may be actively convincing myself that I don’t have to feel guilty about this until the day I die.
Getty image by Tyas drawing