I follow a lot of online forums where therapists ask questions or raise topics for discussion. Recently there has been a very active debate about unconditional love. The main question is whether it is just an ideal or is it something that can actually be achieved. I have clients who have asked the same question. Or worse, they criticize their partner for not having unconditional love.
But what I see too often, both in the online forums and with clients, is confusion between emotions and actions. I read the comments of other therapists saying that unconditional love is impossible because people need to set boundaries and boundaries are conditions. Clients often say things like, “if you loved me you would do x, y and z.”
But those are comments about actions. As I’ve said before, emotions are meant to be felt. Sentences such as I was angry so I had to punch the wall, aren’t true. I was angry so I CHOSE to punch the wall is accurate. Love is no different. Despite all of the pretty quotes and images saying “love means never having to say your sorry” or “love means accepting someone unconditionally”, the truth is that loving someone doesn’t dictate action.
Let me explain what I mean. For several years I worked at Briarpatch, a fantastic agency that provided services to runaway and homeless youth and their families. I did a lot of family therapy. I’ll be honest, I saw some parents that I don’t think felt much, if any, love for their children. But what I saw more often was this – parents that loved their children intensely but didn’t have have the skills, knowledge or emotional maturity to make good decisions about how to treat their children.
Some parents had such fear about bad things happening to their children that they tried to control their kids in ridiculous ways, driving them away. Others thought that being critical or using severe punishments was the way to protect their children that they love so much. Others just didn’t have the emotional skills to be vulnerable and connect in gentle, loving ways because they had never seen those things themselves. But despite some of the incredibly hurtful things those parents did, they loved their children so much.
The flip side is true, too. Actions don’t have to be harsh or hurtful in and of themselves. It may be setting a boundary about how we are treated. Some of those parents were kind and caring but their children chose to do hurtful things. Those parents had to set tough boundaries, like taking away something meaningful or even calling the police. That wasn’t because they didn’t love their children but rather because they did AND they had to protect themselves.
The same holds true in other relationships. Sometimes people don’t have the skills to act in ways we think are kind and loving despite loving someone. And sometimes we have to set boundaries with someone we love. Actions are important. We should have expectations of others about the actions they take and we should set boundaries around that. But none of that necessarily speaks to whether or not we love someone.
Love is an emotion. The reality is that you might love a person for the rest of your life AND decide that it is too harmful to have them in your life. That is a tough choice to make. But when you look at the relationships in your life, don’t let the need to have expectations of behavior or to set boundaries become confused with the question of love.
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