Is unconditional love possible in a marriage or partnership? THE reason that partnerships—like marriage—experience so many difficulties is that we can’t seem to simultaneously love our partner unconditionally AND need him or her. Let me explain.
Many of us have discovered that it’s relatively easy to unconditionally love strangers. To illustrate, suppose you meet someone for the first time—we’ll call him Mark—in a Real Love meeting. He’s pleasant. He doesn’t hit you in the face or steal your watch. He tells you the truth about some of his mistakes in life, but none of them affects you, so you find it pretty easy to accept Mark completely—unconditionally.
You don’t expect anything from Mark. Why would you? Before you met him, you had no expectations of him. He wasn’t even a part of your life, so why would you now expect him to suddenly make a contribution to your happiness? You wouldn’t. You can love him without expecting anything in return—the very definition of Real Love.
But now let’s suppose you get married. Oh, this is an entirely different relationship. Real Love is freely given, unilaterally, with no expectation of return. With Mark this kind of love is not especially difficult, but from a spouse you DO expect more than you would of others. You expect that your partner will give you more attention than he gives to anyone else. You expect companionship and conversation. When you do something for him, there’s almost always at least a glimmer of hope that he will respond with gratitude or some measure of his own kindness. You expect sexual attention and fidelity.
True Partnership Guiding Principles
True partnership involves sharing everything, so it is nearly impossible to avoid some expectation that your partner would participate in this complete sharing. So, in the face of these understandable expectations, how can you practice Real Love with your partner? I suggest a couple of guiding principles:
- In any given loving situation, designate one person to be the giver of Real Love, while the other partner receives.
- Keep in mind that it is possible, even desirable, for you to think and say about your partner—and to him—the following: “I love you unconditionally, AND I also NEED you.”
First Guiding Principle
Let’s examine the practical application of each guideline. First the intent to designate one person as the giver of love, with the other as a receiver. It may be useful first to see that if both partners are giving to each other simultaneously, significant problems arise:
- Driving a car in heavy traffic requires all your vision, hearing, reflexes, thoughts, and awareness. It has now been documented in many studies that doing ANYTHING else while driving—texting, talking on phone, eating, drinking, smoking, fussing with a child—is dangerous, because it detracts from your ability to give driving the complete attention it requires. Similarly, being fully present to receive Real Love requires all your thoughts, feelings, and spiritual sensitivities. If you are doing anything else—texting, indulging in fearful thoughts, and so on—you will be distracted from feeling loved. It turns out that even LOVING your partner while you’re being loved can be distracting, because you’re trying to do two things at once. Because loving others is such a positive and desirable activity, it’s almost counter-intuitive to believe that loving could ever be a distraction or negative factor. But it can be.
- If both you and your partner are giving and receiving simultaneously, trading—or at the very least the perception of trading—is almost unavoidable. The more you give, the more your partner enjoys it, and the more he will tend—mostly unconsciously—to behave in ways that will motivate you to give even more. This can become quite confusing. One possible solution is to consider that instead of partners loving each other IN RETURN, they are loving each other ALSO—or at the same time.
- Once trading has begun, UNFAIR trading is unavoidable. Why? Because when I give to you, I’m aware of every ounce of effort that went into the giving, while you are not. You couldn’t be. So to me the giving will be big, and your reception of the gift will not be—could not be—as great. And if we have been engaging in this particular form of trading for a while, the effects of Imitation Love will wear off for you, making your devaluation of the gift even greater. Unfair trading is the kiss of death.
So now we’re back to a possible solution to the problems just described: In any given loving situation, designate one person to be the giver of Real Love, while the other partner receives. When I say “designate,” I am not talking about some formal, rigid declaration. You do not have to say, “Okay, for the next five minutes, I’ll be the giver, and you’ll be the receiver.” Just make it an understanding that one person is receiving while the other is giving. What could this look like? Some possible examples:
- Your partner massages your neck. Make the DECISION—a silent “designation”—that your partner is unconditionally loving you. So just let it happen. Enjoy it. Accept it. Let it in. When it’s over, you might say, “I really enjoyed that.” Do NOT offer to massage her neck, or there will be an almost unavoidable tendency for one or both of you to assume that this is an act of trading.
- You massage your partner’s neck, unrelated to the event above. When you’re done, you’re done. You ENJOY the experience of unconditionally loving your partner. You do not expect her to massage YOUR neck. You do not expect any expression of gratitude. Nothing.
- Your partner says, “I love you.” Do NOT say, “I love you too,” which strongly tempts trading. Enjoy it. You might say, “I’m very happy about that,” or “I know, and I like it.”
- Your partner is talking about whatever—work, a relationship, a baseball game, a movie—and you consciously choose to be AWARE of GIVING love in the form of genuine listening. You listen to her with all your attention, without being distracted by what you want to talk about. A great many examples of listening are found in the book, Real Love in Marriage. When you sense that she is truly complete—having expressed herself thoroughly—you might contribute a subject of your own. So this “designation” as to who is the giver and who is the receiver can be quite fluid. It might change several times within a five minute period.
- Your partner reaches out and puts her hand on your knee. Enjoy it for a moment. You MIGHT put your hand on her hand, but at first this is simply an act of RECEIVING what she is GIVING. Learn the distinction. After a “while,” you might actually change the dynamic, and touch her hand in a way that you are the giver. And all this happens subtly, freely, and without words. You’ll get better at it with practice.
Second Guiding Principle
Now the second guiding principle in the giving of Real Love in a partnership: “I love you unconditionally, AND I also NEED you.”
The one quality in a partnership that makes Real Love more difficult than it is in other relationships is the condition of NEED. If I need you, it’s very difficult for me to love you UNCONDITIONALLY, because as I love you I will almost always be thinking about what I need. I will strongly tend to love you SO THAT you will fill my needs. This is why young children CANNOT unconditionally love their parents. Unconditional love means giving without any expectation of getting something in return. Children DO need and expect their parents’ love in return—as it should be—so they can’t love their parents unconditionally.
So how can we love our partner unconditionally and still need them? AWARENESS. We simply choose to be aware of the potential conflict between love and need. Although a simple concept, implementation is not easy, which is THE reason that partnerships—like marriage—experience such difficulties.
How the Guidelines Work
So let’s illustrate how this could work. (Obviously you may change the genders of the following discussion to fit your particular situation.) Let’s assume that in a given situation, you unconditionally love your partner. You care about her happiness without expecting anything in return. But wait, we have a problem here. You DO need her. You need her to run errands when you can’t, to perform certain household duties to complement your own, to have sex with you, and so on.
How do we resolve this problem that you unconditionally love her but also need her. Simple. You remember the axiom, “I love you unconditionally, AND I also NEED you.” How does this help? You must completely dissociate your love and your needs. But again, how is this possible? In almost every case where we NEED something from someone, we have an EXPECTATION that they will fill our need. Expectations are uniformly associated with DISAPPOINTMENT when they are not met. You can change all this mess when you make a conscious, deliberate, and consistent decision that your NEEDS will not be accompanied by EXPECTATION. Really, it can be that simple.
How is this possible? Instead of EXPECTING that your needs will be met, you can HOPE that your partner will fill your needs.
Now let’s get specific. You need your partner to be kind to you, to support your emotionally. Of course you do. You would not have engaged in a partnership with someone who would be emotionally UNsupportive. We need love. We need it from as many people as possible, but with a partner our need is even greater. If you EXPECT love from your partner, however, you have a problem, because no partner can be loving all the time. Solution? Simply make a choice not to expect love, but instead to HOPE for love and to be GRATEFUL every time she offers it to you. Moreover, you can ASK for love as often as you wish.
Now, let’s make it even more difficult. Let’s suppose that every time you and your partner discuss finances—or sex, or the children, or whatever—she becomes tense and irritable. You NEED her to be less combative, because her fears are interfering with productive conversations—as well as your peace of mind. Simply remember to unconditionally love HER first, and then to express whatever your needs are.
You (to your partner): I’ve noticed that when we talk about money, you become afraid, and then you get pretty unhappy. I’d like to help you with that, if I could.
Her: Money talks always turn into a fight, and I hate it.
You: In your family money was always an issue. There was never enough, and you never got what you wanted. And it always ended up in conflict, which you hated. So it’s understandable that you’d feel the same way about money talks now. It’s old patterns, but I think we can change them. I admit that I have made this worse for you, by not listening and not paying attention to your fears. But now I’d really like to help.
Her: You just want me to be calmer so the discussions are easier for YOU.
You: I admit, if you were not afraid about money, my life would be easier. That’s true, but I’m telling you that my FIRST concern here—the subject of this conversation—is making YOU happy. I’d like to help you decrease your fear because YOU would be happier. How? I will make every effort to NOT express any disappointment or irritation. I will listen to everything you’re saying. And the most important thing is just a suggestion to you, because it’s something I can’t do by myself.
You: Just trust me. Don’t trust me that I’ll get it right all the time, just that I’ll be more aware of loving you. All your life people have not paid attention to what you wanted. I can’t tell you that I’ll do this perfectly, but I CAN tell you that I am now more conscious of what you need, so when we talk I’ll be more AWARE of loving YOU, and then only SECONDARILY will I get what I need, which is more peace and less contention around this subject and overall in our marriage.
Let’s modify the above example a little to further illustrate the principle we’re discussing:
- Your partner pays the bills for the month. This is an assignment that she has either accepted or volunteered to do. It’s routine. But you make the conscious choice to ENJOY it as an expression of unconditional love. You might even say, “I appreciate your paying the bills every month. It makes things easier for me.”
- Your partner does NOT pay the bills for the month, an assignment she has either accepted or volunteered to do. You still NEED her to do this, but rather than become irritated—an expression of expectation—you talk to her about the need for consistent attention to this task. You ask if there is something you could do to help her with it. Is there anything distracting her from completion of the job?
The important lesson to take away here is simple, despite all the words and examples above. THE reason that partnerships—like marriage—experience so many difficulties is that we can’t seem to simultaneously love our partner unconditionally AND need him or her. Just remember to first and always love unconditionally. THEN, in that environment, you can request that your needs be filled—as often as you wish. You can hope that your partner will fill your needs, but you will not expect that she do what you want. You will not be disappointed when your needs are not filled. The results of this approach can be unspeakably rewarding and joyful. Try it.