The Myth of Unconditional Love in Romantic Relationships

By Esther Perel & Mary Alice Miller

“I love you no matter what.”
“You’re driving me crazy.”

“That is so thoughtful of you.”
“How could you do that?”

“I want to spend forever with you.”
“I can’t do this anymore.”

“I want more time together.”
“I need space.”

How often have we said and heard these phrases? How often have we said and heard them within one relationship? For those of us who are painfully aware of what makes our loved ones difficult to live with…what do we think makes it hard to live with us?

“Relational Ambivalence” is the experience of contradictory thoughts and feelings—of love and hate, attraction and disgust, excitement and fear, contempt and envy—toward someone with whom we are in a relationship.

We experience it with our parents and our siblings. We feel the tug between the parts of us that are forever entwined with them and the parts of us that want to separate ourselves.

We experience it with our children, those beings who teach us a love we’ve never known as well as an unparalleled frustration that can incite harmful thoughts.

We experience it with our friends, the ones we don’t really want to see but end up feeling obligated to invite to our wedding.

We experience it in the early stages of dating, when commitment to another feels as if it might come with a loss of self. We may want an experience of mutual love, support, and security, but not if it takes away our freedom.

We experience it in a relationship that has not been growing, that feels stuck, when we engage in that treacherous cost-benefit analysis wondering if we could do better.

We experience it in long-term relationships in which—faced with a range of experiences from toxicity to boredom—we can become plagued by the question “should I stay or should I go?” We feel trapped in the relationship but we don’t want to lose what we’ve built together—a home, a family, a little universe that sometimes feels like heaven and, other times, feels like hell.

Ambivalence exists in every relational configuration, but we put a lot of pressure on romantic love, in particular, to rise above it. We are taught that love is unconditional, passion is absolute, and that finding “the one” should clear us of all doubt. But relationships are never black and white. We learn that romantic love is supposed to flood us with certainty and thus there is no room for ambivalence. But ambivalence is as intrinsic to relationships as love itself.

When it comes to romantic relationships, “till death do us part” isn’t just a vow, it’s a plan. But what happens when plans change? What happens when we’re not meeting each others’ needs? What happens when we make mistakes or when the person we love behaves in a way we can’t tolerate? How about when the relationship gets tainted with lies, betrayal, or duplicity? We suddenly remember that love can hurt, and hurt deeply. And one of the most challenging experiences of ambivalence is when we find ourselves still loving the person who has hurt us deeply.

Ambivalence is an uncomfortable feeling. Heavy with contradictions, it makes us doubt our feelings and choices. It can cause us to think we’ve failed or that, no matter what decision we make, we will fail. This discomfort makes us crave a definitive answer. So we force ourselves one way or the other. It usually falls along three lines:

Option 1: We Leave. We cut and run.

  • We end the relationship that has too many ups and downs.
  • We tell our narcissistic parent they won’t be in their grandkids’ lives.
  • We tell our struggling sibling we won’t support their bad habits anymore.
  • We initiate a “friend breakup,” (a heartbreak that doesn’t get nearly enough attention).
  • We move toward the equal and opposite future of our current reality.

Option 2: We justify staying even though it doesn’t feel right.

Whether it’s because we feel we don’t deserve better, because we’re afraid to be alone, or because we feel we don’t have a choice. All of these painful and complicated feelings sometimes hide under the banner of “unconditional love.” It’s beautiful to say “I love you unconditionally,” but love is not an obligation, it’s a gift. When it becomes coercive—when our partner says “if you loved me, you would accept me wholly”—we’re actually experiencing a distortion of love. And, sometimes, these are also situations in which a lack of self-love is disguised as unconditional love for a person who doesn’t deserve it.

Option 3: We hold the ambivalence.

Ambivalence takes up emotional real estate in every relationship; it just depends how much. We often think we need to resolve the tension and come to a resolution. Sometimes we do (in abusive relationships, especially). In most situations, however, holding the ambivalence is, in itself, a form of radical acceptance. This may be true for how we accept our relationships and for how we accept ourselves.

This option asks us to sit with the feeling of ambivalence for a while. Stop trying to justify, stop negotiating, and just sit with it. Can we accept that we can wholly love a person without having to love every part of them? This is a much more realistic expectation of romantic love and relationships. Maybe it’s healthy to allow ourselves to really, really not like the person we love sometimes. Maybe it’s a necessity. Consider this: perhaps the highest form of love isn’t unconditional. Maybe it’s closer to Terry Real’s description of self-esteem: our ability to see ourselves as flawed and still hold ourselves in high regard. Can we do that for our relationships, too?

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