My good friend Audra shared this post yesterday. It made me stop and ponder.
I know why Audra shared that post. It’s easy to see why. If you’ve ever had dealings with a narcissist or otherwise personality disordered person, you may come away from the experience completely shellshocked. A lot of people have trouble recovering from abusive relationships. What makes recovery especially difficult is that abusers never acknowledge the trauma they inflict on their victims. They lack empathy. Completely selfish and callous, abusive people act as if the people in their lives are totally expendable. If you’ve fallen prey to an abuser, you have no doubt felt unvalued and ignored. That’s not a nice feeling.
Many people, in the wake of an abusive relationship, resolve to be smarter and tougher. Some of them look at the patterns of behavior that led them into the abuser’s clutches in the first place. Sometimes they share well-meaning memes like the one above, which on the surface, seem to make sense. However, since I am a bit of a word nerd, I have issues with the adverb, “unconditionally”.
According to dictionary.com, the word “unconditionally” means absolute, and without limitations. A person who does something unconditionally, does it with unwavering devotion, no matter what. It sounds good, doesn’t it? However, since absolutely no one is perfect, I don’t think it’s possible for most people to truly love unconditionally. Everyone has a red line, and that is not a bad thing. The closest a person might come is perhaps in a parent/child relationship, but even parent/child relationships can be fractured when one person does something egregiously awful.
Let me put it this way. Let’s say you have a dear friend from childhood. You know each other extremely well and you think you love your friend “unconditionally”. This means that you love him or her regardless of anything he or she says or does. You think there is no limit to your love. This person can do no wrong. You assume that friend has those same feelings for you.
Then, one day, you come home and find your good friend standing next to your dead dog, smiling. You can see the dog suffered before its demise. Your friend, who has never done anything like this before, looks jubilant and asks you if you’d like to have lunch. You react with shock.
“What the hell happened here?” you ask, completely aghast.
Your friend, whom you love unconditionally, says that he or she suddenly got the urge to torture and kill your dog. Knowing you love them unconditionally and will forgive them no matter what, he or she grabbed a shovel and bashed the dog’s brains in just before you came home from work. Then, as you stood there in shock, your friend gleefully described the dog’s prolonged suffering as it slowly died. Ten minutes prior to finding the bloody scene, you thought you loved your friend “unconditionally”. Can you say with certainty you’d still feel that way after your friend’s sudden act of violence, even if it was the first time it happened? What if your friend was later diagnosed with a mental disorder. Would that make what he or she did more acceptable?
What if the situation were reversed? What if you had someone loving you unconditionally and you really messed up somehow. It could even be by accident. What if you had a major lapse in judgment that resulted in severe injury or even death? What if you accidentally killed their parent or child? Would you really expect the other person to keep loving you without measure or conditions?
“Loving unconditionally” sounds like a nice idea. I just don’t think it’s possible or even healthy for the vast majority of people, even the most accepting and loving ones. My husband, Bill, is truly one of the kindest, gentlest, most loving people I have ever met. But even he has his limits. He tried to love his ex wife without condition. She did not return that love. I don’t know why. She might not have been capable of loving him. But it seems to me that requiring someone to love unconditionally, which was one thing she did try to require of Bill, means that she must be willing to do the same. She couldn’t do it. In retrospect, neither could he. When she repeatedly debased and humiliated Bill, he began to withdraw from the relationship. Loving her “unconditionally” would have required him to keep adoring her, despite the abuse. As a person with a healthy sense of self-preservation, he couldn’t continue the relationship. I, for one, am delighted that he couldn’t stay with his ex wife.
Even non-abusive people have different ideas as to what loving “unconditionally” means. Moreover, if you expect to be loved “unconditionally”, then you must also love that way. Ask yourself if it’s possible for you to truly love unconditionally, no matter what. I think if you really consider what that means, you’ll find that you can’t, and probably really shouldn’t do it, although many people might come close to loving their parents or children “unconditionally”.
Sometimes dogs can love unconditionally. They don’t care what you’ve said or done. That’s why they make such good therapists. Dogs, and other pets, don’t judge. They don’t have a concept of judgment and they don’t have egos that get in the way. It’s much easier for a dog to forgive and forget than a person. But actually, come to think of it, not even all dogs can love unconditionally. A really abused dog will remember that abuse and not trust. But they’re probably better at unconditional love than most humans are.
Is it really possible to “love unconditionally”? I don’t think so. I think I’d change that meme to one that says, in essence, don’t waste your time on people who don’t value you. It’s not as catchy, but I think it works better.