I’m glad I’m reading The Secret of Staying in Love* by John Powell. These are lessons I need to grasp. Even though he doesn’t reference Bible verses, I believe his point is biblical. This is an excerpt from his chapter “Human Needs and the Experience of Love” about unconditional love. This is the kind of love we need to develop for spouses, children, and parents.
thesis three: effective love is unconditional
Love may be given either conditionally or unconditionally. There is no other possibility. Either I attach conditions to my love or I do not. I would like to say at this point that only unconditional love can effect change in the life of the person to whom that love is offered.
In his work, Conceptions of Modern Psychiatry, from which we took our working definition of love, Dr. Sullivan talks of the “quiet miracle of developing the capacity of love.” He describes being loved as the source of this miracle. The first impulse to change, he says, comes not so much from being challenged as from being loved. Only in an atmosphere of unconditionally offered love will the human barriers to relationships be lowered.
There is a story of a housewife who related that her husband’s love seemed to be conditioned on her keeping the house tidy and in order at all times. She maintained that she needed to know that he loved her whether the house was cleaned up or not, in order to have the strength to keep the house clean. If you understand and agree with what she is saying, you understand the point being made here. The only kind of love that helps us change and grow is unconditional.
Conditional love always degenerates into pan-scale love. Both parties are expected, in pan-scale love, to put a donation into the proper pan so that a perfect balance is achieved. But sooner or later some tension, some pain, some struggle will distract one of the pan-scale lovers, and he will not make his monthly payment on time. So conditional lover #2, refusing to be swindled, removes part of his contribution in order to be sure that more isn’t going out than coming in–until nothing is left but emotional or legal divorce.
There is another question, and it is not so simple. Can we expect one party in a love relationship to continue making an unconditional contribution and commitment of love without a sustaining response from the other? Theoretically, I believe that if a person could continue offering an unconditional love, the other would in time respond. But perhaps it would be too late. If the person trying to offer unconditional love is given nothing in response, to nourish his own capacity and renew his strength for love, the relationship may be brought to an inevitable failure.
In practice I think this possibility is claimed far more than it actually occurs. People renege on their love commitments, run off to divorce courts, and take to falling in love all over again (with somebody else), without ever challenging their personal resources, developing their ingenuity, or testing their coping mechanism. It has been said that love works if we will work at it. I think that this is true, and I think that fidelity will always be the measure and test of human love.
Footnote: “Unconditional love” should be interpreted as an ideal, a goal towards which true love aspires, but which is realistically not within human reach or attainment. We are all to some extent injured, limited by the throb of our own needs and pains. Only a totally unscarred and free person could consistently give unconditional love. Such a person, of course, does not exist.
*Yes, that was an affiliate link. By now, you probably assumed that. Here is another one to make it easier for you to buy a copy of Powell’s book.