Excerpted from Real Love: The Truth About Finding Unconditional Love and Fulfilling Relationships
Real Love is "I care how you feel." Conditional love is "I like how you make me feel." Conditional love is what people give to us when we do what they want, and it's the only kind of love that most of us have ever known. People have liked us more when we made them feel good, or at least when we did nothing to inconvenience them. In other words, we have to buy conditional love from the people around us.
It's critical that we be able to distinguish between Real Love and conditional love. When we can't do that, we tend to settle for giving and receiving conditional love, which leaves us empty, unhappy, and frustrated. Fortunately, there are two reliable signs that love is not genuine: disappointment and anger. Every time we frown, sigh with disappointment, speak harshly, or in any way express our anger at other people, we're communicating that we're not getting what we want. At least in that moment, we are not caring for our partner's happiness, but only for our own. Our partner then senses our selfishness and feels disconnected from us and alone, no matter what we say or do.
Most of us have received little, if any, Real Love. We prove that every day with the evidence of our unhappiness - our fear, anger, blaming, withdrawal, manipulation, controlling, and so on. People who know they're unconditionally loved don't feel and do those things. But most of us have been taught since childhood to do without Real Love and to settle instead for giving and receiving conditional love. Let me use myself as an example. As a child, I was thrilled when my mother smiled at me, spoke softly, and held me, because I knew from those behaviors that she loved me. I also noticed that she did those pleasant things more often when I was "good" - when I was quiet, grateful, and cooperative. In other words, I saw that she loved me more when I did what she liked, something almost all parents understandably do.
When I was "bad" - noisy, disobedient, and otherwise inconvenient - she did not speak softly or smile at me. On those occasions, she frowned, sighed with disappointment, and often spoke in a harsh tone of voice. Although it was certainly unintentional, she clearly told me with those behaviors that she loved me less, and that was the worst pain in the world for me.
Giving or withholding acceptance based on another person's behavior is the essence of conditional love, and nearly all of us were loved that way as children. When we made the football team, got good grades, and washed the dishes without being asked, our parents naturally looked happy and said things like "Way to go!" or "I'm so proud of you." But when we failed a class at school, or tracked mud across the carpet, or fought with our siblings, or wrecked the car, did our parents smile at us then? Did they pat us on the shoulder and speak kindly as they corrected us? No, with rare exceptions they did not. Without thinking, they frowned, rolled their eyes, and sighed with exasperation. They used a tone of voice that was not the one we heard when we did what they wanted and made them look good. Some of us were even yelled at or physically abused when we were "bad."
Other people in our childhood also gave us conditional approval. Schoolteachers smiled and encouraged us when we were bright and cooperative, but they behaved quite differently when we were slow and difficult. Even our own friends liked us more when we did what they liked. In fact, that's what made them our friends. And that pattern of conditional approval has continued throughout our lives. People continue to give us their approval more often when we do what they want. And so we do what it takes to earn it.
Although it is given unintentionally, conditional acceptance has an unspeakably disastrous effect, because it fails to form the bonds of human connection created by Real Love. As a result, no matter how much conditional love we receive, we still feel empty, alone, and miserable. And although we like to believe otherwise, because we have received conditional love from others all our lives, that's what we tend to give to those around us. We naturally pass on what we were given.
We like to believe we're unconditionally loving, but in most cases we're not. We prove that each time we're disappointed or irritated with another person. We like to think we unconditionally love our spouse or children, but then we become annoyed when they don't do what we want, or when they're not grateful for the things we do for them. As we've discussed, the origin of our irritation is not what they've done (or not done), but the lack of Real Love in our own lives. Fortunately, you can now learn how to make decisions that will bring more Real Love and genuine happiness into your life.
If you're unhappy, don't look to your partner for the cause. You're unhappy because you don't feel unconditionally loved yourself and because you're not sufficiently unconditionally loving toward others. Both conditions have existed for a long time, usually from early childhood. Because your parents are responsible for the love you received as a child, and because any child who does not receive sufficient Real Love is necessarily filled with emptiness and fear, your parents are certainly responsible, to a large extent, for the way you feel and function as an adult. But you need to understand that as an adult you have become increasingly responsible for your own happiness. And so, exactly how much can you hold your parents accountable for your present condition? That would be impossible to quantify. But no matter what the exact extent of your parents' responsibility, it is definitely not productive to blame them for your present unhappiness - while it is useful to understand their role in your life. Understanding is a simple, realistic assessment of how things are, but blame implies anger, which can only be harmful to both yourself and others.
I've never met a parent who got up in the morning and thought, Today I could unconditionally love and teach my children and fill their lives with joy. But, no, I think I'll be selfish, critical, and demanding instead. You need to understand that your parents loved you as well as they knew how and that they certainly didn't set out to cause you emotional pain. The fact is that if they themselves didn't have enough experience with Real Love, they couldn't possibly have given you the Real Love you required. Moreover, you are now responsible for the decisions that will make you loving and happy, and if you continue to be resentful and angry, you will not make wise decisions in the present.
When I talk to people about their unhappy lives and relationships, I don't dwell on the past. I don't make them victims of their past experiences. However, I find that it is occasionally useful to make them aware of what effect their past has had on their present unhappiness. Cheryl was very unhappy, and she blamed it all on her husband. I explained to her that her husband was not the cause of her unhappiness. "Your life was incomplete long before you met your husband," I told her. "You came to your marriage already missing something, and you hoped your husband would supply what was missing and make you happy. When he didn't do that, you blamed him for not fixing everything in your life. You were missing the one thing in life that we all must have in order to be happy and to have loving relationships."
"And what's that?" asked Cheryl.
"Real Love - unconditional love. When people don't get enough unconditional love as children, they feel terribly empty and afraid. People who feel empty and afraid can't be happy, and they can't have loving relationships, because they're too busy filling their own needs and protecting themselves. You hoped your husband would love you unconditionally, but he couldn't because he'd never been unconditionally loved himself. He, in turn, hoped you would unconditionally love him, but you couldn't, either, because you hadn't been unconditionally loved in your childhood. Neither of you had the love that's required to make a successful relationship. So you tried to make each other happy with other things: praise, sex, money, control, things like that. But those things never last for long."
"But I did feel loved. My parents did love me," Cheryl insisted.
I've heard many people say that, and they're always sincere. Who, after all, wants to believe his own parents didn't love him? "How often," I asked her, "did your father hold you and tell you he loved you? How many times each day was he obviously delighted when you entered the room? How often did your mother sit with you and ask what was happening in your life - just to listen, not to give advice?"
Cheryl was speechless. Although she'd been raised by parents who were as good as any she knew, she couldn't think of a single time when any of those things had happened. I continued. "What happened when you made mistakes and disappointed your parents? Did you feel just as loved then as when you were 'good'?"
As Cheryl described the details of her childhood, it became obvious that her father had mostly avoided her. Her mother had been kind when Cheryl was obedient, but she was critical and harsh when Cheryl "misbehaved." Finally, Cheryl realized that she had never felt unconditionally loved. I then made it clear that there was no blaming in this, just an attempt to understand the real cause of the fear and anger in her life.
Once Cheryl understood that her emptiness, fear, and anger had been caused by a lifetime of feeling unloved, two very important things happened: First, she experienced a dramatic change in attitude toward her husband. She stopped blaming him for her unhappiness. That blame alone had nearly destroyed their marriage. Second, she began to take the steps necessary to find the Real Love she needed, and that changed her life completely. We often need to see that we were not unconditionally loved in the past, not so we can blame our parents or any particular person, but so we can stop blaming the partners we have now and begin to find the Real Love we need to create the genuine happiness we all want.
Some of you may believe that if our childhood was less than perfect, we just need to "get over it," like a bad dream. You may think that what we were given (or not given) so long ago couldn't possibly continue to affect us now. But look what happened to Cheryl because she'd failed to receive Real Love as a child. Without the most important ingredient for happiness, she grew up empty and afraid. As I spoke with her further, I learned that she'd reacted to her emptiness and fear by manipulating and controlling all of the people around her, not just her husband. She was destroying her life, and without Real Love that's what people continue to do, all the way into their seventies and eighties.
You can't build a solid house on a rotten, shifting foundation. But if you were not unconditionally loved as a child, that's the kind of foundation you have, and no effort you put into the walls, windows, and doors will ever be fulfilling. You have to fix the foundation. Fortunately, as you find Real Love now, you can heal all the wounds of the past, repair the foundation, and build the kind of life you've always wanted.