We tend to think of love in extremes. We either wax nostalgic over a perfect first kiss or wallow in the angst of a tumultuous breakup. But most love lies somewhere in between.
Once we’ve glided through that delicious honeymoon stage, before the inevitable fallout, there’s the love that we live in on most days. It ebbs and flows with the rhythm of our schedules, habits, and moods.
As a lifelong serial monogamist, I thought I understood this day-in, day-out sort of love. After all, this love was where I spent most of my relationships, including one that lasted a full seven years. That’s a lot of day-in, day-out. But I was wrong. I may have loved before, and been “in love,” but I’d never actually loved a man unconditionally until I fell for G.
And as soon as I realized I loved G unconditionally, I also realized why all my previous relationships ultimately ended. Love that isn’t unconditional is doomed to fail. That sounds dramatic but stay with me here: conditional love has too many terms and conditions, unspoken expectations, concessions and resentments. It’s a love that comes with strings attached. And the more we pull on all these strings, the messier conditional love gets. The relationship becomes a delicate dance of sidestepping the truth and backing away from conflict.
Unconditional love, on the other hand, creates an entirely different dynamic – a foundation of compassion and acceptance. Loving without limitation removes doubt and resentment. There’s no reason to judge or nitpick. There’s no reason to hold a grudge or fight dirty. Loving unconditionally makes it easier to overlook bad habits, resolve arguments, and endure even the darkest days.
Here’s what I’ve learned about unconditional love, and how it made me a better person:
Unconditional love means…loving the whole person.
Have you ever carried around a mental list of things you’d like to fix about your partner? Have you ever thought that he’d be your dream guy if he just found a better job or stopped playing video games all the time or fixed that chipped tooth? Me too. In fact, I could rattle off an exhaustive list of every ex-boyfriend’s less-than-perfect traits.
This if-only approach to relationships is far from being unconditional love, though. If you think of your significant other as a fixer-upper, you’re in love with the potential rather than the person.
No, there is no perfect guy. But when you find the guy who is perfect for you, you’ll love all of him. You’ll love the entire package, even if it includes scars, bad habits, annoying character traits, cellulite, or obnoxious in-laws. You’ll support his growth but you won’t want to change him.
G didn’t fit the idea I had of the perfect guy. I would have envisioned someone at least five years older, clean-shaven, and living a hell of a lot farther from his family. But once I fell for G, I didn’t wish he was a little more this or that. I didn’t mind his beard or our age difference. I didn’t mind that his family lived a few footsteps away (which would have been a deal-breaker with any previous man). I was even on board with his staunch commitment to early bedtimes and his questionable taste in movies.
I didn’t feel like G lacked anything I needed or wanted, so I wasn’t tempted to catalog his faults or turn him into some sort of DIY project. I loved him just as he was. That is unconditional love.
Unconditional love means…choosing to fix your problems rather than fight.
If you polled my ex-boyfriends, they’d all tell you that I never hesitated to put on the gloves and go a few rounds. I used to take almost any snarky comment or poorly-timed sigh as an invitation to argue. Any time I felt wronged, retaliating took precedence over loving.
G was the first boyfriend I didn’t want to argue with. Ever. Even when he tried to pick fights (and believe me, he tried). I simply had no interest in hurting him, driving my point home, or otherwise “winning” an argument. Loving G unconditionally made it easy to prioritize my love for him over any disagreement – even while he was criticizing, yelling, or stomping around.
This doesn’t mean I never lost my temper with G, but my first reaction to him picking a fight was typically concern or empathy, not anger. I spent most of our arguments wondering why he was upset rather than thinking up comebacks. And I had usually forgiven him before he had even stopped yelling.
Choosing compassion, understanding, and forgiveness above all else – even in the face of hurt or anger – is a hallmark of unconditional love. Accepting the whole person makes it easier to approach arguments as problems to be mutually resolved rather than dividing lines. Why fight when you’re on the same team?
Unconditional love means…putting in the work.
Love is easy when things are going well. The real test is how well you love each other in your worst moments, because that’s when you both need it most. I’m not talking about bickering while stuck in traffic or coming home to find out his dog chewed an eight-inch hole in your brand new sofa. I’m talking about loving each other through the big stuff: serious illness, death, grief, job loss, financial ruin, legal battles, or mental health issues. These are the challenges that often tear couples, or even whole families, apart. But these same challenges can result in a much stronger, closer relationship if you manage to love each other well through them.
It’s easy to realize just how committed you are to your partner when devastating news hits. Do you love this person enough to endure major surgery or chemotherapy? Do you love this person enough to work overtime while he’s on unemployment? Do you love this person enough to endure months of grief or depression? Do you love this person enough to accept that the obstacle you’re facing may have nothing to do with you, and then bear the brunt of it anyway?
I have often found myself hovering with one foot out the door when the proverbial shit hit the fan. But G told me about some of his tragic past on our first date and I didn’t consider bailing for even a moment. When I realized just how much his past heartaches were sabotaging his present wellbeing, I did my best to help him feel accepted and understood. I was willing to love G through his darkest moments of grief and anguish. I was willing to put in the work.
Yes, I hoped G would heal. But I wanted him to find peace because I didn’t want him to suffer, not because I yearned for him to be perfect. I knew that many of his broken parts would probably stay broken – I loved him anyway and I never considered leaving. Unconditional love is all about doggedly doing the work, even when it’s gritty and grimy and thankless.
The caveat: unconditional love doesn’t guarantee anything…
You’ve undoubtedly noticed that I’ve been speaking in past tense. This is the part where I tell you that unconditional love doesn’t guarantee a fairytale ending, or even some longevity, more than any lesser kind of love. G broke up with me. It seems that my unconditional love wasn’t enough for him, or perhaps he simply didn’t love me unconditionally in return. I doubt I’ll ever know…
So what’s the point, you’re asking. Well, this is the point: roughly four months with G taught me more about love than I learned in seven years with my ex-boyfriend. I learned how to love more completely than I ever have, without hesitation or judgment. I learned how to forgive swiftly and let go of resentments. I learned that even the most heartfelt love will be messy, that I shouldn’t expect perfection. I learned to love in the moment, without any concern for that engagement ring finish line I used to focus on.
I loved G better than I’ve ever loved anyone, so our time together somehow doesn’t feel like a failure. I may have lost him but I gained the capacity to simply love well. This is the first time a romantic relationship has ended and I haven’t been filled with regret for my behavior. I treated G gently. I accepted him as he was and I signed up to put in the work. I loved him unconditionally, without a doubt. This isn’t the outcome I envisioned for me and G, but it’s a big step toward the kind of enduring love I hope to find – and give – someday. I’ll take it.