My experience in our childhood home was not one of unconditional love. Affection and praise was earned though a seemingly arbitrary set of rules, and punishment often came in the form of withheld love.
“I don’t feel like speaking to you,” my mother would say dismissively through clenched teeth. “Go to your room, I don’t even want to *look* at you right now.” Always the personal attack for dramatic emphasis – not only did she not want to speak to you, you were so awful she couldn’t even bear the sight of you.
We were valued for our good behavior, especially if it brought our mother praise. Notable accomplishments worth bragging about were applauded, so long as my mother’s position as best and smartest remained unthreatened. Problems and struggles of an ongoing nature were barely tolerated and best kept to oneself.
Of course I rebelled. I rebelled against the bizarre performance mentality (as in, college wasn’t considered a requirement for approval but impressing our fellow church congregates with the appearance of a family bond and closeness was). I pushed buttons to test my theory that my mother’s love was a transitory thing. It was depressingly easy to prove.
I kept this habit of pushing buttons to prove the fleeting nature of love as I entered into adult relationships. I believed that love was based on behavior and the knowledge made me angry. “Sure you love me,” I would sneer inwardly, “we’ll see how long that lasts.” And out with the button pusher.
Will you love me if I get sloppy drunk? Will you love me if I get drunk and mean? Will you love me if I spend all of your money? If I get fat? If I go crazy? If I cheat on you? If I leave you but then beg come to back? Will you love me if I let you know that I really, genuinely need you? Will you love me if I let you know that I actually don’t? A million questions, a million different buttons to be pushed and, in the end, I always proved my cynical point: love was fleeting and based on behavior.
Looking back some years separated from that time of tumultuous relationships and desperation to find a love that wouldn’t leave, I can’t help but feel sorry for the partners I encountered. Anyone in their right mind would have left the mess I was, it was hardly their fault they just happened to be proving my point as they did so.
All of this was brought to mind recently during a conversation with a friend struggling to find peace in her relationship. Through her own anger and sorrow she was able to express that her partner struggled to understand the concept of a love that wasn’t ever going to leave. She was insistent that, despite their rather sizable struggles, she was going to prove the existence of unconditional love.
Our conversation brought to mind one particular partner from my 20s. His name was Jerry and it was him who taught me that love can truly and unconditionally survive anything.
I remember the first hint of the kind of love I had never experienced before. I was a new driver, having not gotten my license until 24 years old, and was backing his very nice car out of his garage to run a quick errand. I’m sure you can imagine what happened next. My heart in my throat and tears in my eyes I went inside the house to tell Jerry that I had not just hit the garage with the car but, in my attempt to right the situation, had done some serious damage to the car. Jerry got up and followed me outside to look at the car. He took a deep breath and then another. He put his hand on my shoulder, squeezed in gently and said, “I love you.”
That was it. No shaming. No fighting or yelling or guilt.
Later as the button pushing phase of our relationship came he responded with the same level of grace. If I were drunk and viciously cruel he would say the next day, “It hurts me when you act like that. But I love you and I’m not going anywhere.” I can only imagine the personal cost to him of saying again and again “I don’t care what you do, Seana, I’m not leaving you.”
And he didn’t. Through four years of relationship, through my bipolar diagnosis, through my increasing drug and alcohol abuse, and much more, he never left me, he never stopped loving me with a pure and genuine love.
Eventually, as my alcoholism worsened, I left him. Even so, he never withdrew his love. Through a chain of my suitors and one steady partner on his part, we remained good friends. When I went to jail he bailed me out. When I needed a place to crash he gave me his couch. When I needed to cry, he was there.
Today we are both happily married to our respective spouses and are still occasionally in touch. Though the romantic love has long since gone, he is still one of my very favorite people on the planet. I credit Jerry with my ability to accept love, I owe gratitude to him for my ability to understand that unconditional love does indeed exist.
I want to be clear that he never sacrificed his own wellbeing in order to offer love to me. He never went broke for me or lost his friends or house or job. He protected himself as he needed to and still extended a loving word or deed.
The point is this: people need to know that unconditional love exists. People do not need tough love. Honestly I’m not even sure how “tough love” ever even became a thing. People need to know that when they are down you will swoop them up with love, not that you will leave until they figure it out. All of us need this. All of us.
Maybe before you give up on someone entirely you might try reminding them, as many times as it takes, that you love them and always will. You can do this while sharing a bed or a home, or you can do it from a safe place across the country. But you should do it. As often and as genuinely as you are able.
And someone should be doing this for you.
I’m grateful to know that unconditional love exists. I’m grateful to know that Jerry is in the world somewhere holding an evolved and different love for me than what it was when we began.
I hope I can pass his kind of peace on to those I meet.
I’m grateful that, thanks to his example, my daughter will never have to wonder the way that I did. J
Unconditional love is real. It’s a beautiful, beautiful thing.