“At the core of every human being, I believe — above all else — we desire to be loved unconditionally.”
I let the words linger in the air as the men and women in my living room pick apart this sentence and decide whether they agree with it. A young redhead in her twenties cocks her head to the side, closes her eyes, then nods in agreement.
“That’s true,” she tells me. “Whether it’s my boyfriend, parents, or friends I want to be loved for who I am. No one wants to act fake to earn love.”
The other twenty-somethings grunt in approval. They’ve had their share of fair weather friends or strained family relationships. Some pretend to be stronger than they are to earn approval, even when their life is falling to pieces. Deep within the guts of those gathered is the inner murmur desperate for love, not because of what we do, but who we are.
And that’s why I’m going to have to break their hearts.
I lean forward in my chair, a pained smile forming, then tighten the vice grip. “There’s just one problem…”
The clamp is set. Now for the hammer.
What We Expect Of Others, We Do Not Give Freely
I was twenty-six when my wife left me.
We were college sweethearts with a tumultuous relationship everyone else could see was toxic. We would fight, make-up, proclaim our toxic love for one another, rinse, and repeat. Despite numerous warnings from friends and family, we got married anyway.
A funny thing happened once the ink on our nuptials dried. The things my wife found endearing while dating, she now despised. “Don’t encourage him,” became the catchphrase in our marriage when I would corral a room into one of my stories and become the center of attention. She saw the deep flaw I carried — self promotion, narcissism, and pride. Those defects stemmed from my own insecurities and desperate desire for love and acceptance. But I couldn’t grasp why she refused to love me despite my flaws.
That was the catch though.
I, too, refused to love her despite her defects. I wanted her to change for me and become the woman I envisioned. It was easy to lob criticism from my bunker of self protection when her flaws bubbled to the surface, and she returned the favor in kind. All either of us wanted, was love and acceptance from the other despite our shortcomings. But we both refused to do so.
She left me while I was in Iraq — another casualty of war — and I crumbled to pieces believing love a farce.
The thing was, I didn’t understand it. I just thought I did.
What Love Is, and What It Isn’t
The shocked expressions in the room of twenty-somethings let’s me know I’ve hit my mark.
“Let me explain,” I say to quell the disgruntled looks. “You want everyone to love you unconditionally, yes?”
They nod once more in approval.
“Yet you have your own flaws and shortcomings that make you difficult to love. We all do. We all…suck at some level. Yet, in the same breath that we demand unconditional love, we refuse to give that love to others. Do you see the problem?”
The clockworks are turning and I can tell they’ve caught on. Slowly, they’re realizing society’s dilemma when purporting the Cupidian idea of love so many of us buy into.
If you’re like me, you have friends that broke up or got divorced because they “just weren’t happy anymore” or they “weren’t a right fit together.” Yet, in that same breath they used to claim their undying love and affection for the person they’re moving on from.
These days we believe love is circumstantial. A successful relationship, and whether we’re in love, depends on how happy we are. But if your entire relationship revolves around feelings, what happens when Cupid hits you in the produce aisle of the supermarket? Do you not love your wife or boyfriend anymore?
Regardless of how successful the relationship, you’ll bring in your own set of issues. You’ll have all the warm fuzzies at first, but they’ll crash just as fast as Bitcoin. Your character defects will arise as will theirs, and if you don’t understand what true love is, you’ll eventually bounce. Or upgrade for a newer, sexier model on Tinder. One you claim “gets you.”
That is, until their defects (and yours) arise.
While social media and the latest dating apps feed us these fairy tale farces in bulk, the simple lesson we’re forgetting is this: True love is seeing all the flaws of another person and choosing to love them anyway.
It’s a love that says, I see all of you, and I’m staying. A love that says, things are bad right now, but we’ll work on this together. A love that reminds you, you’re worthy of love even when you don’t deserve it.
When I got re-married (after counseling and learning from brave men who emulated sacrificial love to their spouses), I told my wife something that’s become a joke, but also a major truth in our marriage. I told her:
“I choose to love you.”
She claimed that single sentence was the “unsexiest thing I could have told her.” But seven years in to our marriage she cherishes that quote.
Because it’s not sexy. Nor does it produce the romantic ooey-gooeies for her.
But instead she knows this: I’m all in. Because that’s what love is—unconditional.
Author’s Note: this piece is not meant to discuss abuse, sexual assault, infidelity, or other serious relational issues while telling people to “stick it out for love’s sake.” Believe me, there are reasons to break up (see below)