The Rules of Unconditional Love It might sound crazy, but having an unconditional love for your spouse may just be the most important step you make in your marriage. BY ESTHER BOYKIN, LMFT
By following the rules of your marriage, you're free to love unconditionally.
“ Unconditional love is the kind of love that you have for a person not in spite of, but because of their flaws.”
This past weekend I enjoyed a bachelorette party with my best friend from college. For two days, a houseful of women gathered to celebrate love and the new beginnings of marriage. It was a wonderful weekend to reflect of the joys of new love. In the early stages of marriage many couples would say that their love for one another is unconditional. There is much talk of loving each other regardless of flaws and finding the "perfect partner." I know that some experts may disagree with the idea of unconditional love between partners—citing issues of co-dependency and enmeshment—but in my view, a great marriage has an element of love and affection for one another that supersedes any faults or flaws. Call me a hopeless romantic, but I believe that love, even between spouses, can and should be unconditional.
Unconditional love is the idea that our affection for each other is not based on a certain set of behaviors or characteristics. It’s the idea that you love your wife because of who she is not only if she stays a size six or cooks dinner every night. It’s the kind of love that engaged and newlywed couples believe in. Unconditional love is the kind of love that you have for a person not in spite of, but because of their flaws. Your love is all that makes them who they are and wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s blissful and wonderful until real life starts to intrude.
Rather than talk about the way they want to treat each other and the set ground rules for managing conflict, couples usually start out too drunk on love and lust to pay much attention to the logistics of sharing a life. Unfortunately, in time we all sober up and suddenly realize that we don’t necessarily like everything that’s been going on. Suddenly what was cute or quirky is irritating. Your husband’s ambition, which was once sexy and powerful seems arrogant and self-serving. Or your wife’s attention to detail may suddenly seem like nit-picking and controlling. This is the moment where couples start to wonder what went wrong. How could someone who loves us unconditionally find fault with who we are? The problem must be with love… right?
Setting Ground Rules
The obvious thing to say here is that the love has changed, that our spouse no longer loves us unconditionally, but that’s usually not the case. The truth is that most couples I meet at this point are just as in love with each other as ever. The problem is not that their love has changed, but that the rules of the relationship were never established or are in need of an update. You see, while love can be unconditional, healthy relationships need rules.
I know, this seems counter-intuitive to that stars-in-your-eyes, heart-pounding, life-changing love that once dictated your behavior. The fact is, however, that relationships need boundaries in order to sustain the stress and challenges of life. I often compare the need for boundaries or relationship rules with parenting. In general, parents love their children unconditionally, but in order to raise children there must be rules. This is how we teach them to get along with others and learn to understand the place in the world. Rules or boundaries allow a child (or a spouse) to clearly understand how to have positive interactions with the people they love and how to effectively express their needs. The happiest, most secure children are those who live with parents that are comfortable and clear in expressing their love and expectations. Intimate relationships, like marriage, need the same guidance to create a secure and lasting bond.
Boundaries are simply rules of engagement, a set of guides for how we interact and what we need from other people. Boundaries allow each person to maintain their individuality and grow with each other rather than compete for control or autonomy. Boundaries also protect the commitment of a marriage and foster long-lasting, healthy emotional connections. It is healthy boundaries with the outside world that help some couples remain faithful while others may struggle with issues of infidelity or mistrust. Boundaries also protect individuals in the relationship from abuse and exploitation. While you may love your spouse without conditions that does not mean you ought to live with them in an unsafe or emotionally detrimental situation. Boundaries allow us to love freely and deeply while establishing a clear understanding of what is acceptable.
Your Path to Unconditional Love
So how do we keep our deep and unconditional love while establishing clear and healthy rules for our relationships? Open communication and honest personal reflection are key. Whether it is negotiating how you will manage your finances or understanding how and when you need to be comforted and encouraged, establishing relationship rules requires both partners to be open and honest with themselves and each other. These moments of honesty and clarity are not always going to come in the form of civil conversations or carefully negotiated lists. Sometimes, these moments are unexpected and the things you learn are not always what you want to hear. If you can take the risk to be honest and vulnerable in these times, you may find the key to move your marriage forward in a positive way.
A favorite marriage moment for me in which my husband and I established rules around maintaining our home life came when, in the midst of an argument, I accused him of not being as much of a "modern" man as he claimed. In a moment of frustration I told him that he wanted an old-school wife that would stay home and cook and clean for him, not an equal partner as he always proclaimed. I said he was a chauvinist and truly expected him to be offended and defend his prior commitment to having a modern marriage where we shared everything 50/50. Instead, I got a moment of honest communication. Much to my surprise I was right and had just put words to what he had been struggling with for some months. He suddenly realized that he needed to be honest with himself and me about what he really wanted in our marriage.
It turns out that what he really wanted was for me to play a more "traditional" role at home; not exactly a role that fit with the very independent, modern feminist woman he married. That doesn’t mean that I quit my job and stayed home ironing shirts all day to fulfill his desire. Nor did I pack my bags and leave to find someone who wanted a wife that would rather pursue graduate school and career than mop floors and change diapers. Instead, we finally had an honest platform from which to negotiate our own rules about how we would manage our domestic and family responsibilities. Interestingly enough, we both learned more about who we really were in the process. It turns out that I am more traditional than I thought and thoroughly enjoyed staying at home with our children, while going to school and pursuing part-time ventures. He found that he was, in fact, a lot more like the guy he claimed to be when it came to diaper changing and taking care of babies. Thankfully we learned these lessons together and were able to be supportive of each other’s goals and needs. No matter where you are in your relationship, the unconditional love can last a lifetime. All you have do is make it part of the rules.
Eshter Boykin is the co-owner/founder of Group Therapy Associates and is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Virginia. Eshter graduated from Virginia Tech (Go Hokies!) and earned many of my residency hours working with some wonderful therapists at Gainesville Professional Counseling Center. After years of working in a group practice Esther began Group Therapy Associates with Llouana Harper. Esther has a special interest in couples, adolescents, and women’s issues. In addition to clinical work, Esther is also a part-time writer and full-time mother and wife.