Every now and then I hear somebody explain their love for someone, or justify staying in a relationship that s/he has outgrown, in terms of unconditional love. Two or three months ago, someone used this on me. He was grappling with a growing dissatisfaction in his relationship, wrestling with the pros and cons of leaving it. The biggest pro of staying with his girlfriend, as he articulated them, was that she loves him unconditionally. I left this conversation so bothered by something that I’ve ruminated over it ever since. Something about that unconditional love thing just wasn’t sitting right with me.
I want my mother to love me unconditionally; who blames the mother of a serial killer who still loves her son in spite of it all? If I ever have a child myself, no doubt I will love that child unconditionally. My brother and I have been somewhat estranged for several years due to (in my opinion) complex issues that he’s been grappling with; but he’s still my brother and I still love him, and stand ready to resume a relationship with him when he’s ready. This is unconditional love, and in these cases, I agree that it’s natural and desirable. I am down with unconditional familial love in most cases.
But what about platonic and romantic love? The notion of unconditional love as an ideal for these relationships causes the same reaction for me as nails on a chalkboard. It’s irritating, it’s dissonant, it feels simply wrong. For most of the time since that one conversation, I’ve felt wrong for having such thoughts and feelings – that in this, as in so many things, I’m simply deviant.
Perhaps I am, but not long ago, in an IM exchange with a friend, I was reminded of the writings of Richard Bach. It’s been so long since I’ve read any of his work that I’d nearly forgotten they existed. Later, as I was flipping through various Bach offerings that occupy my book case, I had the sudden memory of a line from one of them: “love me conditionally, please.”
I thought it was from The Bridge Across Forever, since this is the book that most focused on romantic relationships. I proceeded to spend a frustrating hour or so combing through that book looking for the quote before I gave up on it. It kept rattling around my brain, however, until today, when I finally did what I should have done instead of looking laboriously through books: I googled it. Turns out it’s from the book, One. Here’s the context:
“I always imagined that soulmates have an unconditional love. That nothing can tear them apart…”
“Unconditional?” she said. “If I’m cruel and hateful for no reason, if I stomp all over you, will you love me forever? If I beat you senseless, I’m gone for days, in bed with every man on the street, I gamble away our last cent and come home drunk, will you cherish me anyway?”
“When you put it that way, my love could flicker,” I said. The more we’re threatened, I thought, the less we love. “Interesting, to love unconditionally is not to care who they are and what they do! Unconditional love comes out the same as indifference!” (emphasis added)
She nodded. “I think so, too.”
“Then love me conditionally, please,” I said. “Love me when I’m the best person I can be, cool off if I go thoughtless and boring.”
She laughed. “I will. You do the same, please…”
I love this, and agree with it for the most part. There’s something missing still from this passage, though – for me – that I can’t quite put my finger on. It has something to do with the nurturing of growth and expansion between partners, rather than withdrawing when they’re not the best person they can be (although this proves necessary or the best thing for both partners in many cases). It seems to me that when we commit ourselves to each other that we are duty-bound to stimulate each other to new heights, to be ever reaching for that ideal self – and also to support our partners in that quest in whatever ways we can. In matters of platonic and romantic love, self-effacement – in the traditional sense that one sacrifices for the success or satisfaction of the other, or for the sake of ease, comfort, and familiarity – has no legitimate place.
But still, I can’t feel that I’ve gotten to the bottom of it, so if anybody out there has anything to add, please leave a comment. Maybe I’ll amend this entry based on what comes in (if anything), and then it’ll feel complete!