Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Problem with Unconditional Love

It’s one of the great modern questions: how do you keep desire alive in a long-term relationship? You know, in a marriage.

Many young people believe  that if they have found “the one” and if they are both totally in love, that desire will always be there. Older people know better, but prefer not to disabuse the young of their illusions.

Now, Daniel Bergner offers what seems to be a paradoxical suggestion: the belief in, expectation of and longing for unconditional love is “the ultimate assassin of desire” in such relationships.

The idea feels so strange that it is probably true.

After all, if the therapy culture is prescribing unconditional love as the cure for all that ails you, you can be confident that unconditional love is a problem.

Bergner has just written a book  called What Do Women Want?, so he has done what we like to call field research.

He formulates his idea in a chatty paragraph:

What I've been saying—and what, all self-mockery aside, I do believe, based on the years I've spent listening to researchers and therapists and just living life—is that the longing for unconditional love is the enemy of lust, that the ideal of being loved no matter what is the ultimate assassin of desire in long-term relationships. From our parents we can hope for the unconditional, but with our partners we have to constantly earn love and win lust or love will fade and lust will disappear for both partners.  

But, Bergner asks, why should this be so?

I would say that unconditional love is infantilizing and patronizing, and that it is very difficult to continue to lust after someone who treats you like a child.

I would also say that someone who loves you unconditionally must ignore both your virtues and your vices. It may feel like win/win, but it is also lose/lose.

If you gain nothing by doing well and lose nothing by doing poorly, then you are being diminished and demeaned. You are being told that it doesn’t matter what you do. And if it doesn’t matter what you do, why do anything?

Someone who loves you unconditionally will love you even if you are a scoundrel, even if you betray his or trust, even if you are disloyal.

In your experience, is such behavior a turn-on or a turn-off?

To look more closely, I would modify only one point in Bergner’s argument. Perhaps this shows how old I am, but, in times of yore, unconditional love was the province of mothers, more than fathers.

Traditionally, mothers have loved their children unconditionally while fathers expect their children to earn their  affection.

To clarify the point, a child expects to be loved and nurtured by his mother, regardless.  At least at first, at a time when a child is most vulnerable and most in need of his mother, she will naturally love him unconditionally. As he grows, her love will also need to be earned, but he will always know that, if push comes to shove, his mother will love him no matter what.

A mother’s nurturance does not need to be earned. It does not require compensation. In many ways, it’s instinctive behavior and it is, like virtue, its own reward.

When it comes to fathers, things change. A child really needs  his father to be proud of him, and pride must be earned through achievement.  

Won’t his mother also want to be proud of him? Yes, she will. And won’t she expect him to earn her pride? Yes, she will. For her, however, her feelings of pride will never eradicate her willingness to offer unconditional love.

The more a child functions in a social world, the more he will need to learn how to earn love, not to expect it to be given with no strings attached.

In truth, a child will be better motivated to improve his behavior if he knows that his mother will always love him but that his father will not. 

A child who receives unconditional love from both parents will be more likely to believe that he can get away with anything. A child who receives conditional love from both parents will be more likely to believe that he must never fail.

Mothers love their children unconditionally because their relationship normally contains no sexual desire. As a sidelight, if this is true, then Freud’s belief that sexual desire originates in a taboo against incest turns out to be nonsense.

Mothers nurture; fathers socialize. Of course, mothers also work to socialize, but they never lose the feeling of nurturance.

But, what happens when a school offers children unconditional love. It becomes a nurturing, but not a socializing environment. If it is stoking their self-esteem and protecting them from the possibility of failing is, pardon the expression, mothering them. This will naturally make  it more difficult for these children to take their place in society. It will also make it more difficult for them to experience the pride in achievement.

If the possibility of failure has been eliminated, then the chance of building pride, to say nothing of character, has also been eliminated.

If you cannot fail you cannot succeed either. You will become demoralized, feeling that you gain nothing by getting things right. Once you know that you cannot get it right or wrong you are more likely to give up, thus falling into depression.

As we know, depression stifles sexual desire. When people are depressed they lost their confidence and their pride, but they also, notably, lose their appetite, for food and for lust.

If a woman offers a man unconditional love she is, effectively, treating him like a child. This level of disrespect will demoralize him and cause his desire to wane. No man wants to be treated like a child and no man lusts after a woman who treats him that way.

If a woman allows a man to believe that she will forgive him anything, she is sacrificing her self-respect by trying to make herself purely motherly.

We expect that a wife will stand by her husband in time of trouble. But that does not mean that she should stand by him no matter what. 

If she stands with him it’s not because she loves him unconditionally but because she has a moral obligation to remain loyal, even to a fault.

Loyalty, given and received, might be confused with unconditional love, but loyalty has limits. If someone betrays your trust, you are under no moral obligation to continue to be loyal.


Anonymous said...

I have what are called "issues" associated with the things we call "money" and "work."

At one time I had trouble earning money to pay my bills with a male therapist. Alluding to the unpaid bill, he says to me, "Do you beleive in unconditional love?"

So here is the condition imposed on his "love": you have to pay for it! Where did my "therapist," a Christian man who beleives in the ideal of God's divine love, learn to send the message, "You have to pay for "love?"

I will give you a clue. All adults are giant former infants who had no money and offered love to get love: which did not always occur under reasonable and reciprocal conditions.

Anonymous said...

I don't like either/or questions so where is the middle ground. I think of E.F. Schumacher's "Two types problems", convergent (technical problems with well defined criteria) and divergent (problems where you come up with radially different solutions based on which aspect of the problem has your atttention.)

I guess the key idea for me in regards to love is to see external expressions of love are mirrors of internal expressions, so if you're an addict and shows yourself "unconditional love" then you allow yourself to act out destructively, or irresponsibly and believe you're powerless to change, because (fill in rationalization).

So a difference is if you love an addict (or a family member), you can leave them, kick them out, etc, but if you're an addict, you're stuck with yourself. Like I had to evict my brother from my house because of drug use and I couldn't trust his friends in my house when I wasn't home, and tried some childish rules with him (no one in the house when no one else is home, or all asleep), but he rebelled from the rules, and so I went through a formal eviction process to a judge, and he agreed to 6 weeks, and the eviction records would be sealed if he followed through, so I had to play hardball to his excuses. I never bothered challenging his innocents on drug use, I had enough evidence. I had to accept he could be dead on the street in 3 months, but it couldn't be my fault. And he did end up dying 3 years later, although not on the street, and I was lucky enough to find peace with him, and he admitted he might have died in my house from an overdose without being homeless in the winter to get him to agree to go into a drug program.

I don't know about unconditional love, but I never stopped caring about him, never stopped wanting him to succeed. I knew he had a harder life than me, dropped out of school in 9th grade with learning disabilities that made him hate school. He worked hard, and was terrible with what money he had, but he was also generous.

Before I evicted him, I talked to friends about how to handle it, and negotiate, and we role-played, so one friend said whenever I said what I needed, I'd look at him for agreement, and he tried to think of any excuse and I'd just keep working with that, and he said he could wrap me around his finger and get me to back out of anything, just by refusing to agree, to accept my request was fair and reasonable. So that helped me be more firm, and see he needed rules of behavior from me, even if he objected.

I'll never be a parent, but needing to parent my brother somewhat helped me see more what its like. My brother rightfully rebelled, but really he was angry at his own weakness, and wanted someone to push against. He was older and always bigger than me, but I stood up to him, and I was willing to get in a physical fight with my adult brother, not because I wanted to hurt him, but because that physical aggression was needed to prove I was serious. My body language said I wasn't going to back down, and I still felt his pain the whole time, because he had to make hard choices while I was safe, with a home, and a job and a life worth protecting, while he had none.

I perhaps don't even know what's conditional or unconditional love there. Maybe conditional just meant that I had to give him the chance to fail, and not try to save him, so conditional love means he had to see in me a reflection that was strong enough to carry the pain he felt, while unconditional love just wants to be sad and regretful.

Didn't mean to share all that, but just thinking about my experiences. I remember the phrase, "He's not heavy, he's my brother", so he could be a scoundral, and he'd still be part of me, so that's the reflective aspect - we need both kinds of strength inside, so both come out in our relationships, and ideally someone is there with the right skills and caring when you need a mirror.

Anonymous said...

I did a search and found this article from a few years ago, standing firmly against "positive or negative conditioning". I don't want to agree, but unsure why. I guess I agree against articifial rewards or punishments, but support direct rewards of acomplishment and consequences. Like the Ant and the Grasshopper fable, the Ant may or may not show compassion for the lazy grasshopper when winter comes, but I can see a need to "let decisions play out" and expect the grasshopper to ask for help rather than expect it.

"The studies found that both positive and negative conditional parenting were harmful, but in slightly different ways. The positive kind sometimes succeeded in getting children to work harder on academic tasks, but at the cost of unhealthy feelings of “internal compulsion.” Negative conditional parenting didn’t even work in the short run; it just increased the teenagers’ negative feelings about their parents."

"Alfie Kohn is the author of 11 books about human behavior and education, including “Unconditional Parenting” and “Punished by Rewards.”"

Bobbye said...

The problemwith talking about 'love' is that modern people do not think it necessary to define the term. The Geeeks had four, may-be five different words for 'love'. They at least attempted to define what they were talking about. Moderns assume everyone knows what love is. As a life coach,Stuart, do you just assume everyone you coach knows what the word means?

Unknown said...
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Mariam said...
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