Saturday, June 5, 2010

Unconditional Love: Myth or Fiction

The other day, I was talking to my good friend Mark K about his not so secret girlfriend Rita. Mark and Rita have what appears to be a wonderful relationship. They're tender and easy with one another; they look at one another adoringly; they seem completely comfortable together.

And yet, they seem not to be completely upfront with one another regarding the relationship itself. Whereas Mark seems to be taking each day as it comes with no thought towards a long term commitment (or more exactly, thinking to not make a long term commitment), Rita appears to be all in. So, I asked Mark about where he sees their relationship going and about Rita's expectations for the relationship.

At that, Mark seemed to jump on the word expectation. Without going into all the verbiage, he was definitely not digging the whole concept of having expectations. At first, I completely missed his annoyance with expectations. But, as it became clear that we were not at all on the same page, I began asking him about what he thought expectation meant.

What Did You Expect?
First, Mark had associated expectation with a sense of entitlement; I expect thus and such means I deserve or I am owed thus and such.

Second, Mark had associated expectation with want; expectation involved translating wants into entitlements.

Third, Mark had associated expectations with unhappiness; when people's expectations go unfulfilled (when they don't get what they want and deserve), they get unhappy.

So, when I ask Mark, "What are Rita's expectations regarding your relationship?", I was referring to what Rita believed to be the most likely scenario. I was using expectation similarly to how you would use it with the weather or time of arrival, e.g., "Do you expect it to rain today?" or "When do you expect to arrive?"

On the other hand, Mark was using expectation to mean: how to translate a good relationship into a bad relationship.

Word Soup
As we talked, Mark and I began to parcel out the various ingredients that he'd thrown into his expectation bouillabaisse. First, there was simply identifying and clarifying wants: what does Rita want from the relationship and what does Mark want from the relationship.

Second, there was comparing and contrasting wants to see how closely (or not) they aligned. Based on their relative alignment (or lack thereof), they could talk about what they might expect from their future together (or not). In business, we might call the process, scenario planning: what was likely to happen, and if so, what would we do. The result of the discussion would likely be multiple potential scenarios, each with an associated probability of it occurring.

Third, after looking at one another's wants and determining the likelihood of one or both of them getting what they wanted, they could each decide how they felt about it: happy, unhappy, or indifferent. The three ingredients that Mark had lumped into the word expectation (what I want, what I anticipate, and how I feel about it) were actually all independent: dim-sum, not bouillabaisse.

Loving Acceptance
Over the past few days, we've been discussing an other overloaded word, acceptance. In Answer: Pair-o-Docs, I wrote: To Love is NOT to Accept. When I wrote this, in my mind's eye I envisioned a mom being told that her child was incurably autistic. I saw not accepting the prognosis as being an amazing act of love. This seemed a bit paradoxical to me as it appears the best way to help a child with autism to not have autism is to totally embrace and accept them and their autism, i.e., the best way to change someone is to accept them as they are.

I must say that I learned a lot through our discussions from my teacher Sree, whom I've never seen, met or spoken to, and yet I've come to count as a friend. What I've taken away from the discussion is that the apparent paradox has to do with our having overloaded the word acceptance.

Let's consider the example of a child being diagnosed with autism. I can accept that my child indeed exhibits all the symptoms of autism. I can accept that he is not like most children. I can accept that his condition will require me to provide more and different kinds of care than I would provide to a typical child. I can accept that it's up to me to do what is required to help my child and that I am the person best qualified to do so. I can accept all the above, and yet embark upon a program to completely change him.

In the end, I can accept the diagnosis without accepting the prognosis. Yet, we often lump them together.

Further, all the above has nothing to do with how I feel about it. I can do all the above and feel heartbroken; I can do all the above and feel angry; I can do all the above and feel at ease and comfortable. What I accept is simply what I believe to be the facts of the matter, the reality, the truth. What I feel about them is something else entirely.

And yet, we tend to intimately associate certain feelings with the acceptance of certain data. To be sure, there are definite patterns: people who accept that they have cancer tend to feel one way, people who accept that they really did just win the lottery tend to feel another way. Still, the emotion and the acceptance of the facts are independent.

So, we have acceptance of the diagnosis (the what), we have acceptance of the prognosis (what the what means or implies) and we have how we feel about them: each independent of the other.

Unconditional Love: Myth or Fiction
Of course, in addressing acceptance of the situation, I never addressed acceptance of the person. I accept that my child has autism. I accept that I am going to do something about it. I decide to be positive and upbeat. What does all this have to do with how I feel about my child?

Although this may seem to be all about my child, I think it has nothing to do him. It's simply about me and how I handle challenging situations. I can love my child and totally panic when I hear the diagnosis, seeking institutional support because I feel completely ill-equipped to help him. I can feel completely indifferent towards my child, and embark upon a empowered program to help him simply because that's they way I deal with challenges. While my feelings towards my child influence how I behave and respond, they are not intrinsically linked to a specific set of actions.

Maybe that's why we use both words, love and acceptance (or loving acceptance). Love does not equal acceptance; they are independent activities that often coincide. However, when we make them mutually dependent, we put ourselves into untenable situations.

When we say that we'll love someone unconditionally, do we mean it? Will we accept infidelity... physical abuse... drug addition... alcoholism... theft? If so, for how long?

When we forcibly bind love and acceptance together, we put ourselves in situations where to not accept means to not love. So, we go out of our way to accept behavior that is detrimental to everyone involved. However, when we see them as independent, then we can be at ease with not accepting someone's behaviors and actions, while loving them. We can lovingly take a friend to a rehab center, we can lovingly discipline our children, we can lovingly divorce.

So What?
I think there's something to this idea taking words that we've overloaded and disassembling them into their component elements. We take something like expectation which simply means what you anticipate to happen, and we load it up with concepts such as entitlement, desire and unhappiness. We take words like acceptance which simply mean a grasp of the facts at hand, and we load them up with concepts like happiness, love and resignation. When we take them apart, we open new avenues of thought, new opportunities.

Although this may all seem a bit theoretical, it has real, practical implications as to how we view and relate to one another.

Fascinating... (or at least it is to me.)

Happy Saturday,


  1. good morning Teffy ;) been busy with my biz....
    i find it curious to frame your acceptance quandry summarily, yet "embark upon a program to completely change him." ??? For me I'd find it clearer to frame it...a program to fascilitate him choosing to choose different choices, become more aware of his change himself....(if it is what he is motivated to explore). It seems, as we often do, to think we are championing to change people, but i see it differently. I accept that I cannot, and do not have any power to change anyone. Larry

  2. I think that it would be interesting to look into what "unconditional love" means - or simply: what does it mean to love?

    Can you love a man who abuses you? Like with the autistic kid: can you love him and work on "inspirering him to want to change"? can you love him and not get abused?

    I guess it depends if loving someone includes actively supporting the person in getting what he want for himself - regardless of what he wants - and it depends on wheter you believe that he is just abusing in order to get something else, which you would happily help him getting.

    When we ask for how long can I love a person who abuses me, are we really asking: how long do I want to stay with him - and do we then see leaving as an unloving act?

  3. Fascinating indeed, Teflon - the way words take on a life of their own and start dictating how we feel and how look at the world; the connection between love and acceptance; the resulting inquiry into what love means in the first place. (I even see the seed of a question: who is a person?). The free, clear and loving way in which you facilitate these discussions is really appreciated.

    Thanks also for bringing 'unconditional love' out of the shadows and into the spotlight. You ask if loving somebody unconditionally means accepting their infidelity/abuse/alcoholism/etc., and go on to speak of accepting this detrimental behavior in the sense of it being a prognosis (extending into the future). I would aver that accepting an alcoholic spouse involves a clear-eyed recognition that they are alcoholic right now, and loving them might involve the additional step of wanting that not to be true in the future, and lovingly & respectfully steering them to a rehab center. I think the problem is indeed the word accept - Webster's uses both the following definitions (among others):
    1. to endure without protest or reaction; to regard as proper, normal, or inevitable
    2. to recognize as true
    I certainly wouldn't want to endure abuse or alcoholism without protest or to regard it as proper or inevitable, but recognizing it as true in the moment would be in everybody's best interest, albeit just a baseline action. In fact, we could regard acceptance, the objective recognition of what is, as the most basic act of perception, (though it's not necessarily common; a neurosis is essentially imperfect acceptance of what is).

    On another note - when we talk about loving a person, who exactly are we talking about? The person as he is now, with the detrimental behaviors he has now? Or the person we hope he will become in time? Or the rest of the person now (ie minus the detrimental behaviors)? Teflon: you referred to this earlier.

    As for love, like 'God', that word is so overused and loaded, I'm just about ready to toss everybody's definition overboard and make up my own. But for now, I'm going with Bears' 3-point definition.

  4. BW, Welcome back. I agree with you in terms of method; it's more effective to inspire someone to want to change than to 'make' them change. Nonetheless, the goal is for them to change. It's the intention that's in play here regardless of how effectively we accomplish it.

    Joy, I think we usually see 'leaving' (quitting, giving up) as an unloving act. However, the point I'm making is that there's nothing inherent to an action that makes it loving or not loving. You can love someone and work on inspiring him to change; you can not love someone and work on inspiring him to change. You can love someone and leave, you can hate someone and stay.

    Practically speaking, it's easy to love someone unconditionally as long as it doesn't cost me anything to do so. The test of conditionality comes into play when I begin to trade what I want and what I consider to be best for me, for what the other person wants and considers to be best for her. Prior to that, unconditional is free and therefore meaningless.

    The challenge comes when I must choose between what's best for me and what's best for someone else. The Kobayashi Maru would be finding a solution that satisfies both of us. The real challenge occurs when there's no such solution at hand. What do you do?

    Again, even here, I don't think it's necessarily a question of loving; it's a question of wanting. Some people even get to the point where they decide that they're loved by the people who do what they want and not loved by the people who don't. There are people who give us exactly what we want without loving us and vice versa. Again, they're independent.

    Finally, there's the question of manner. Some people assume that having a loving manner is the same as loving. Having spent a lot of time in business, I would disagree. There are plenty of people who are expert at what we would call the grin-f&*k. They exude an amazingly loving manner while never exuding love.

    The main point I'm making is that, while we can find strong correlations between love and action and love and manner, they're not inherently connected. They're independent.

    Once we get past all the overloaded words, the question that remains is, "what is love?"

  5. love? is to be happy with.
    authenticity, with oneself......being in touch, totally, with oneself. For me,life, and how each of us experience it, is entirely a 'do it to ourself experience.' Love, as I first heard it expressed by Bears, is the ONLY emotion.....everything else represents a lack, some subcategory of fear, which is simply some degree of fear......entrapping one from the totality experience of loving.....feeling awesomely grateful. BW....on a cold wet, and life is bountiful :) BW

  6. Maybe we are back to: is love a feeling or a behavior.
    As a feeling I can love you unconditionally regardless of my acts
    As a behavior I only love you uncondiationally if I am willing to help you get what you want even when it is not what I would want you to want.
    - I believe that you could still love you uncondiationally and want you to change your wants...

    Big Love



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