Love without condition is love without boundary, and love without boundary is bound to hurt
I blame Disney movies for making me believe in unconditional love. Something about a gorgeous stranger sulking over my comatose body in a selfless display of unyielding devotion caught my attention as a kid. As creepy as I find it now, back then, it made perfect sense. Boys grew up to marry their mothers’, girls grew up to marry their fathers’, both loved with a never-ending love, greater than the day they’d pledged it to one another, and all was happy in their happily ever after. Then reality struck, our perfect parents became ordinary people, and all of a sudden love wasn’t so simple anymore. My first heartache taught me a very valuable lesson, that love without condition was love without boundary, and love without boundary was bound to hurt. And it did, hurt pretty damn bad too. But not enough to make me halt my hunt for unconditional love. This particular guy may not have been capable of doing it right, but someone out there was, or at least I hoped. There was no way I was about to accept that I was both looking for and promising to give a love that was impossible to get from or give to an intimate partner. Nope. Something about this fantasy had to include the fairytale I’d spent my whole childhood hearing about, if not, I was in for a lifetime of disappointing heartaches and one big rude awakening.
Unconditional love is defined as affection without condition, limitation, or the expectation of reciprocity. Most people, like myself, have only ever heard tales of two strangers finding unconditional love with one another. Having witnessed this social phenomenon with their own two eyes, not many can say that they have, myself included. I’ve come to the shocking conclusion that the reason for that is simply because it doesn’t exist. That’s right, there is no such thing as unconditional love within the context of romantic relationships. That’s not to say true love between two people is a myth, but the infinite, measureless, duty-free kind is most certainly the Lochness Monster of love. And it should be, any form of love that asks you to separate your partner from the impact of their behaviors isn’t the kind of love you want to make yourself vulnerable to unnecessarily. Granted, there are some relationships whereby that kind of emotional exposure is simply unavoidable.
Take the relationship between mother and child, for example, one of the strongest human attachments known to man. According to a study out of John Hopkins University, School of Nursing, the attachment between mother and child, known as maternal attachment, is a bond rooted in biology, widely documented across countless genus’s and species’, and thought to be at the core of the preservation of new life through provision and protection. A mother’s love, given that mother is a healthy one, is given, not gained. Many mothers attest to experiencing an adoration for their child while still growing them in their womb. And studies show that infants can actually recognize their mothers by sight just a few hours after birth, displaying an emotional and physical attachment within just mere weeks. There’s no denying the bond between mother and child is built upon a two way street, Mother’s Day is one of our biggest holidays for a reason. It’s easy to love your mother considering that, in a perfect world, she’s the first person to love you. And she does so through teens and terrible two’s, late night crying and flu season coughing, first love and first heartbreak, scuffles at recess and pubescent bouts of rebellion. Mothers have taken life for their children and given their own. There’s a reason maternal love, when it’s actually love, not abuse, is heralded as being the purest, most authentic, most humanizing form of love one can experience and/or expel, that’s because it is. Too bad you can only get it from your mother.
A study conducted at the University of Arizona by cognitive Neuroscientist, Mario Beauregard, found that maternal love and romantic love, at the neurological level, had far more differences than similarities. Using an fMRI procedure, Beauregard and colleagues captured and studied the brain imaging of several participants as they were shown images depicting maternal love and romantic love. What they found were staunch differences in brain activity between the two stimulus, leading them to conclude that romantic love and maternal love were not rooted in the same thought processes. When shown images depicting romantic love, researchers noted participants displayed activity in the right caudate nucleus and right ventral tegumental regions, brain areas rich in dopamine that contribute to the brain’s motivation and reward system. And when the study isolated gender as a factor, men demonstrated high levels of activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), the region of the brain associated with facilitating the identification and grading of the sexual appeal of a stimulus, go figure. In contrast, when shown images depicting maternal love, participants collectively displayed activity in parts of the amygdala and nucleus accumbens at levels associated with emotion and empathy. Both male and female participants exhibited thought patterns in line with achievement and reward when thoughts of romantic love were evoked. Regardless of the specific motivation for attaining it, all participants saw romantic love as something to be earned. and things that can be earned can be lost. Unlike unconditional love.
Unconditional love sounds sweet, but let’s unpack what we really mean when we require love without conditions from our romantic partners. Conditions are like boundaries. Those boundaries aren’t a requirement for your love, they’re the best conditions for that love to exist. Should you find your partner in violation of those boundaries, that doesn’t mean you love them less, but it might mean loving them within the confines of a romantic relationship aren’t the best way to go about expressing it. Loving your partner through sickness and in health is about love that isn’t based on situation, but if your partner generally treats you poorly (regardless of situation or circumstance), well we’re not really talking about an isolated situation anymore, we’re talking about a pattern of unhealthy behavior. In case no one’s told you, you’re not obligated to be in relation with people who treat you poorly, no matter how much you love them, no matter how much they say they love you, no matter how long you’ve been with them, no matter how much they say they’ve sacrificed to be with you.
Unconditional love is beautiful when it’s a baby knocking the bathroom door down, denying Mommy even an ounce of privacy, or unknowingly stealing all of Mommy’s big moments with that adorable single-tooth grin. If you’ve ever been furious at your child only to find yourself gushing over something adorable they’ve done just moments later, the fact that you found them adorable that soon after should tell you just how unconditional unconditional love really is. There’s very little a child could do, outside of set fire to the entire neighborhood (with you still in it), that would cause a mother to question their love for them, and even then, tons of mothers would find at least one way to absolve their little angel of any wrongdoing. Call it a gift, I suppose.
But that same love within a romance doesn’t sound anything too much like love. Repeated violations of privacy and attention-seeking behavior from an intimate partner aren’t adorable offenses, they might even be deal-breakers, and good if they are. Romantic love, unlike maternal love, isn’t about provision and protection, not anymore at least. We needed our mothers to keep us alive in not so many words, our partners’, not so much. Every man who has ever asked me to love him without condition was essentially asking me to love him like his mother, and in doing so, I found myself parenting my partners and resenting them for it. We choose romance, so why not choose the kind we actually want, the kind we can actually succeed? Setting boundaries communicate to our partners what feels good to us and what doesn’t, it’s then up to them to choose whether or not to honor those boundaries. We can’t fault our partners for violating boundaries we don’t communicate to them or pretend aren’t there, and trust me, those unspoken expectations have a way of creeping up on us one way or another. There’s no benefit to luring lovers with promises of a love we simply cannot give.