In theory, unconditional love sounds nice, but it feels pretty impractical. One part of us thinks it would be cool, but the other part of us imagines everyone spending their lives playing video games and living on ice cream unless someone cracks the whip.
After all, if we just love and accept someone unconditionally, they can easily remain stuck in unhealthy patterns without motivation to change.
Before we talk about relational love (the love between people), we need to make an important observation. That is, love can only be felt by a recipient when demonstrated in some way by the giver.
If a mother yells at her child, the mother may actually have a strong love and concern for her child’s welfare, but her son or daughter will not feel her love in that moment. The child will feel profoundly unloved and unaccepted.
Similarly, if a husband does not show his love by words or actions, his wife may feel very unloved – even if her husband loves her very much! So, the following discussion is premised on the idea that love has to be a verb – put into action to be discernable.
For our purposes, relational love can be divided into three categories:
- Conditional Love (CL)
- Partially-Conditional Love (PCL)
- Total Love (TL)
Conditional Love and Acceptance basically says, “I love and accept you as long as you meet certain conditions.” Then, we define these conditions. For spouses the conditions might be: I will love and accept you if you are nice to me, courteous, attractive, do the dishes, and make my life happier.
For your child the conditions might look like this: “If you don’t get straight A’s (or keep your room clean, or do your chores, or become a doctor, or make the team, or lose that baby fat), I will be seriously disappointed in you.” Disappointment is a form of non-acceptance.
The benefits of Conditional Love (CL) is that it keeps people working hard to avoid failure. The recipient of CL strives to avoid losing the conditional love and acceptance. When they successfully earn the CL, they feel relieved to avoid failure and are glad they are worthy of the CL given to them.
For instance, a girl named Emily knows her Dad expects her to get a base hit when she is up at bat. Last time she struck out, her father shamed and scolded her. So she glances at him anxiously, then steps up to the batter’s box. One strike goes by. Her heart is beating wildly. Another strike goes by. Sweat drips down her neck.
“Come ON, Emily! You can do it this time!” her dad yells.
A pit of fear forms in her stomach and she swallows hard. “I’m going to be a total loser if I strike out, “ she thinks.
The third strike flies past. “Stee-rike!” the umpire yells. “Next batter.”
Emily slumps back to the dugout and her Dad doesn’t say a word to her all the way home.
“I’ll go to the batting cages every day this week, Dad,” she vows. “I’ll do better, I promise.”
“I certainly hope so,” her dad says. “You gotta do better than you did today.” Emily feels terrible that her dad is disappointed. She did her best but it wasn’t good enough to earn Dad’s acceptance. She felt unloved at that moment.
So what are the problems with Conditional Love and Acceptance?
- CL is based in fear. Fear of failure to earn love and acceptance, and thus feeling unloved and unacceptable. This fear can be a powerful motivator, certainly, but it can create unhealthy results.
Fear of disappointing others can drive us to become hyper-engaged as a way to avoid failure. We become workaholics, perfectionists, hyper-competitive, obsessive, compulsive and extremely fragile emotionally. When we fail, we are devastated.
On the other hand, fear of failure may drive us to become dis-engaged. We don’t really try, we make excuses, we avoid commitments and accountability, we eschew competition and we lie to ourselves and others, we quit. We are so devastated by failure, we fight tooth and nail to escape that possibility by dis-engaging.
- CL is very stressful. A lot of families I know who use CL as a motivator find that their lives are stressful and their children are anxious. When performance based-worth is on the line everyday, the stakes are high. Everyone feels it and becomes serious stressed. After a time, many children and spouses will simply disengage.
- CL damages self-esteem. When our worth is dependent on our performance, we get the message pretty fast, that we are worthless when we fail. We don’t feel that our worth is intrinsic because of who we are. Our self-esteem becomes subject to the opinions of others around us. Because of that external dependency, our self-concept is only as good as the ratings given by our judges. And we can’t control the judgments of others.
- CL damages relationships. One way CL damages relationships is that it fans the fires of selfishness. CL takes the form of, “What have you done for me lately?” We think of ourselves first and see others as tools to enhance our own happiness.
Another way CL damages relationships is by creating the habit of constantly judging others and finding fault. Fault-finding is a pervasive habit that dismisses the worth of a flower garden because of a few weeds. Judgment and faultfinding can discourage almost anyone.
- CL creates a power disparity. Because of the judgment inherent in CL, an unlevel hierarchy forms where the giver of CL is in a “one-up,” and the recipient of CL is “one-down.” The giver wields an unfair amount of power which creates the potential for abuse.
Partially-Conditional Love and Acceptance says, “I love you in spite of your failures.” The benefits of Partially Conditional Love (PCL) is that it encourages some acceptance of others with their flaws. It is somewhat less stressful than CL because PCL cuts others some slack when they don’t measure up. Like CL, PCL also encourages constant striving so that the receiver of PCL can feel acceptable and loved when they earn the PCL.
Here are the problems with Partially-Conditional Love:
- PCL is guilt/shame based. In our family, we have a joke that highlights the flaws of PCL. When somebody makes an obvious mistake, I will say to them, “That’s alright. I still love you . . . just not as much!” Why does that have an element of pathos? Because in most (highly successful!) families, this is how we love each other. We shame the person who failed and cover it with a veneer of magnanimity, while at the same time, we threaten to withdraw our love and acceptance. Ouch!
- PCL is more self-righteous than CL. When we imply that because we are so charitable that we will overlook the flaws of others, we have set ourselves up in the judgment seat, but want to wear the halo of a saint. Again, it also creates a power disparity.
Total Love with Totally Loving Boundaries
Total Love takes the failures of others as an opportunity to build the relationship. Total Love views failure as a gift to both the giver and receiver of TL. Total Love views flaws and failures as an opportunity to build trust, loyalty and reciprocal love. Failures and distress are an opportunity to actually strengthen the relationship AND inspire personal growth through safety and trust, not guilt and fear.
How can the failure be a gift to both people?
- Builds Loyalty. Since children and spouses expect negative feedback from failure, your showing Total Love and acceptance after failure creates instant gratitude and relief. The child or spouse will be genuinely surprised at your generosity and will want to align together. It’s a fantastic way to build trust, bonding and respect in a family (or other organization).
- Changes Paradigms. Until the family member fails, everyone assumes love exists because of good performance (CL). Successful kids and spouses think they are “earning” your love. Until the failure, the child or spouse labors under the assumption that your love is of the CL or PCL variety. So an obvious weakness in a family member provides the crucible on which Total Love can be forged. When receiving Total Love after a failure, both parties know for sure that the child or spouse is accepted regardless of performance.
- Speeds Progress. Since the fear of rejection and shaming are dissipated, the defenses are down and both parties can look at the failure with great honesty. Issues that may have been avoided before can be approached and solved in an atmosphere of confidence and support. People are willing to take risks because they don’t fear failure. People can progress more rapidly because they see themselves more clearly.
As all top performing athletes will tell you, the greatest achievements don’t occur when they are anxious and afraid of failure. And the greatest achievements don’t occur when they are disengaged and defensive. Great performers succeed the most when they are relaxed, confident and focused on the goal. This “triple-threat” is what Total Love can create.
- Enhances Positive Emotions. Total Love conveys respect for and faith in the individual. Total Love is affirming and encouraging of the best that is in both parties. Both people feel uplifted and inspired rather than guilty and angry. The benefits to the individuals and the organizational culture are enormous.
- Develops Healthy Motivation. By experiencing Total Love, a family member desires to achieve because of love, respect, curiosity and ambition rather than because of fear. Total Love motivation is balanced and doesn’t result in extremes that are self-defeating.
- Builds Skills. Failure in family members is a direct gift to you because it provides opportunities to practice Total Love and become really skilled at it. It also provides a way for your integrity to be tested and strengthened — it’s one thing to talk a good game, and quite another to perform well under pressure. You can get to the point when you actually say to yourself, “That’s totally okay that they biffed it— it gives me a chance to practice my TL skills and build our relationship.”
The giver of TL becomes more compassionate, more visionary, and more of a leader. As someone said, “The difference between a manager and a leader is that people choose to follow a leader.” By engaging in Total Love, people will choose to follow you for all the right reasons.
Along with Total Love, one must use Totally Loving Boundaries to keep everyone safe and secure. (Please see my post on Healthy Boundaries). Totally Loving Boundaries are clear about the guidelines and consequences but you don’t need to ditch your Totally Loving stance in order to do this. Total Love and Totally Loving Boundaries are challenging to learn, but in the end, will change not just your professional and family relationships, but also change your own life.