"Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins." - 1 Peter 4:8
Last week at my church group meeting, we were asking ourselves the question who do we feel unconditionally loved by. My parents immediately came to mind, but that’s an easy answer. Then I talked about my best friend’s love for me and how she has always made me feel more loved and accepted than anybody else. However, when two of my peers answered the question, they both had a lot more trouble than me. Instead of answering who makes them feel loved, they proceeded to talk about how unloving and conditional their family’s love for them makes them feel.
Love is one of my favorite topics to research. I’ve read many books and countless articles, and one thing I’ve come to understand is that someone’s love for us and our perception of their love for us are often times vastly different. From love languages to attachment styles, it is very difficult for human beings to express their love to another in a way that makes the other person feel loved. It often falls short, not because their love isn’t great, but for various other reasons.
One woman in my group wants her family to love her the way the Bible describes in 1 Corinthians 13:4-8, “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”
In a previous blog, I wrote a post titled, “What Love Does,” which describes the ways we show our love for one another. Now I wish to explain how and why our love for each other seems to fall short.
First, let me clarify that I think many people mistake unconditional love and mature love. Countless people try to define love, but I like the way Christians believe that God’s example is the best form of unconditional love. Focus on the Family says, “When we say that God's love is "unconditional," we are asserting that there is nothing we can do to make Him love us either more or less. We don't earn His love by fulfilling a pre-determined set of conditions. He loves us not because of what we are, but because of who He is - for God is love (1 John 4:8).”
Unconditional love means exactly what it sounds like – it is a love without conditions. It means, “I will love you no matter what you do, who you are, or whether you love me back.” Unconditional love is purely based on the person giving the love, and has little to nothing to do with the person receiving the love. It’s an incredibly difficult kind of love to live out.
Mature love and conditional love go hand in hand, but the main difference is that mature love is based on how well you love others. Mature love reflects the growth of a person or relationship. Instead of saying, “I will love you no matter what,” it says, “This is how I will show you my love to the best of my ability, but sometimes that ability won’t be good enough.” Mature love doesn’t measure how much love is given, but rather how much and in what ways love can be shown.
John Amodeo Ph.D., MFT, had some great thoughts about this in his article, “Is Unconditional Love Really Possible?” He says that though we need unconditional love, mature love puts healthy boundaries on how that love is shown. I compare it the difference between a child’s love for a parent versus an adult’s love for their partner. Children can love unconditionally, but they learn to love maturely as they grow, and this is a lesson that takes some far longer than others. For a child, they love their parents no matter what their parents do, whether they are neglected or cared for. When it is time to love a partner, they will love from either their own brokenness or the healthy love they received.
Amodeo says, “For better or worse, mature love can only thrive under certain conditions... we cannot expect love to thrive under sterile or hostile conditions. There needs to be (enough) mutuality.” He goes on to make what I think is a very good list of what mature love looks like:
- “Loving doesn’t mean always supplying what another person wants, being tirelessly accepting, and having no needs of our own. An immature view of love saddles us with the obligation to satisfy every need, soothe every sorrow, and comply with every request.”
- “Loving means being sensitive to the space between ourselves and others — being respectful, attentive, and attuned to each other’s feelings and wants.”
- “Love asks us to take another’s requests seriously and to make them happy, if we can do so without harming ourselves.”
- “Love cannot mean that our partner must deny their desires in order to accommodate us. Nor can it mean suppressing our own longings in order to wear the spiritual badge of honor of being unconditionally loving.”
- “Love cannot thrive without courageous self-awareness and rigorous self-honesty.”
Love is patient, love is kind
To me, it’s not so important that I see them all the time, or that we always get along, or even that they’re nice to me. I want to know how deep and unconditional their love is for me, not how mature.
A great example of this comes from my little cousins and nephew who I was talking to this past weekend about the love they have for their siblings. My nephew is thirteen and his little sister is seven. It is no secret that even their mom thinks her daughter is insane. The child was born crazy, and she does things that make my nephew not want to live with her. He told me about the time she latched onto his legs and bit them with her little razor sharp teeth. Yet, their mom has expressed to me how much her daughter looks up to her older brother. She adores him and wants to be around him often. But she is crazy.
So, I asked my nephew if he loved her, and he said, “Well yeah, I have to.” I said that’s besides the point. So then I asked if he would help her if she was in trouble. At first he ranted about how he never wants to help her with anything even when she asks. I brought my fifteen year old cousin into this discussion who has two younger siblings. I asked her the same question, and finally my nephew asked me what I meant by “in trouble”? I rephrased the question, “If your little sibling was being bullied, would you help them?” Both of them looked at me incredulously and without hesitation responded, “Yes, of course.”
I think my lesson was ultimately lost on them, but hopefully it won’t be on my readers. Love should be kind and patient, but sometimes it’s not. My nephew’s love for his sister isn’t diminished because he can’t love her maturely. His love is unconditional, just as many siblings love for each other is. In fact, I don’t even think he sees how unconditional his love is. She can bite him, kick him, yell, throw tantrums, smother him, act wild, and yet he still loves her. And if she truly needed him, he’d be there for her, because he loves her.
That being said, that doesn’t mean my crazy little niece doesn’t love her brother because she bites him. We don’t expect the same things from children as we do from teenagers or adults. Nor does it mean that my nephew should let his sister bite him.
It is really important to note just because we can love someone without conditions, doesn’t mean we should accept abuse, because that is not loving yourself. I would even argue that though many times people love from a place of brokenness or immaturity, if someone is intentionally or purposely trying to hurt you, then that is not love and it should not be accepted.
It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.
My roommate also falls into the category of being envious of other couples who have gotten engaged in two years, or who go on trips all the time together, or are this way or that way. She wants these things from her relationship, but has trouble getting them. I’m not sure if she feels less loved by her boyfriend because he hasn’t given her these things, but it does upset her.
However, she is also thoughtful and considerate of her boyfriend, making him cute presents for his birthday and trying to find ways to make him happy. Even for me, whenever she knows I’m sad, I almost always find chocolate or flowers in my room soon after.
On The Good Men Project, Thomas J. Fiffer explains, “5 Ways We Screw Up Unconditional Love.” One way he says we screw up unconditional love is through “unconditional forgiveness.” He says that when your partner repeatedly does something that hurts you, and you constantly let it go, that isn’t love. “In fact, calling your partner on his or her crap, not accepting lame excuses, and refusing to be a doormat is a higher form of love than forgiving everything to keep the peace,” according to Fiffer. He also says unconditional love has boundaries, which “is nothing more than a healthy understanding of your own value and of what behaviors value and devalue you.”
For my roommate, I think her pride in relationship stems from the healthy value she places on herself and what she deserves. However, her reaction to what happens when she feels devalued or underappreciated is what isn’t healthy. She doesn’t always love without pride, envy, or boastfulness, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t love her boyfriend and actively try to do what’s best for him, the relationship, and herself.
It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs
I’d had similar thoughts a lot throughout middle school and high school. I thought to myself, “If my mom truly loved me, she wouldn’t be going to jail and leaving me alone with my pain.” “If my dad truly loved me, he wouldn’t be marrying someone else and starting a new family I didn’t feel a part of.” “If my parents truly loved me, they wouldn't fight so much. They’d listen to me more, be understanding of my pain, and be there for me when I needed them.” At that time, it didn’t feel like they were doing any of that. I was too hurt to see or acknowledge their efforts.
If someone would’ve asked me who loved me unconditionally at that time, I probably would’ve answered no one except God, and even with Him I’d be questionable. It wasn’t until I got older and healed through a lot of my pain that I was able to see the truth – that everyone who I thought didn’t love me did in fact love me more than I could comprehend. They were just a little broken at the time, and so was I. I don’t remember when I learned this lesson, but I know it took time, a lot of hurt, and even more communication.
This past week I was explaining to my nephew that my dad was twenty when he had me, but thirty-five when my sister was born, so we were raised very differently. My nephew joked that that’s why my sister came out so much better. My parents were young, had no guidance, and no clue what they were doing while raising me. As an adult, I can look back and make a list of all the things my parents did wrong in raising me. I can, but I don’t. Maybe I used to when I was younger, in more pain, and less mature in how to love others.
In the midst of pain, it is easy to keep a record of wrongs, it is easy to be angry, to be self-seeking, and dishonor others. It is easy and natural, and even though I was once angry at my parents and doubted how much they loved me, I now see that their love for me never wavered. My mom was loving from a place of brokenness. My dad was unhappy and wanted to love himself by marrying someone who made him happy. Neither of the decisions they made was because they loved me less, but I couldn’t see that when I too was broken and unhappy.
Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth
At one of her lowest points, she says she felt like she failed as a mother. Everyone was telling her what an awful mother she was, that I was better without her, and that she should just leave me alone. After a while, she believed these words. She thought that maybe they were right. She thought I would be better off with my dad and I could be a part of a new family and be happy and forget about her. She thought that if she left my life, it would truly be the best thing for me. And she was prepared to do it.
She says she picked me up from school one day (I was probably twelve), and we were on the bus together. She’d already made her decision and she was prepared to tell me right then and there. After telling me she was leaving, she planned on dropping me off with my dad and never returning. As we sat together in the bus, she says I was really excited to show her something, but she wanted to say her words first. She needed me to know what was about to happen. She told me she had something to tell me, but I was too excited telling her I wanted to show her something first. She kept trying to explain to me that she needed to tell me something, but I pulled out an essay from my backpack and insisted on showing it to her first. I had just gotten an A on it and wanted her to read it.
She finally agreed to read my essay. I was assigned to write about a heroic historical figure and talk about who my hero was. I wrote about Harriet Tubman and then proceeded to explain that my hero was my mom. I went on about how and why my mom was my hero and all the amazing qualities I saw in her. My mom started crying and hugged me, and she didn’t tell me the truth about why until years later.
She believed she was a terrible mother, and because she loved me, she believed it was best to be out of my life. The truth, however, was that I loved my mom and needed her. The truth was that even though she was making a lot of mistakes, I still saw her as a good mom. The truth was that my love for her was unconditional, just as her love for me was. If she would’ve left my life for good at that time, I might’ve hated her. I might’ve resented her for a very long time. And I might’ve never understood why. I would’ve never known, or been able to believe that she was leaving because she thought it was the best way to show her love for me.
The truth is hard to see when you’re broken, but it doesn’t make it any less true.
It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres
Anyone who has ever had their heart broken can tell you that love does not always persevere. Anyone who has suffered through a divorce or death of a loved one can tell you that love does not always hope. Anyone who was been cheated on can tell you that love does not always trust. And anyone who has ever been abused can tell you that love does not always protect.
However, I think about my family when I think of these words. My dad’s youngest brother was a heavy drinker and drug abuser since a very young age. He couldn’t take care of himself on his own, so he was sent to live from one sibling to another throughout his life. When I was in high school, he lost his job, and by my senior year, my other uncle who we both were living with kicked him out. By the time I was in college, he ended up in a trailer on a plot of land my family owns.
Every week his oldest brother would give him money for food, and every week my uncle would spend it on alcohol and get black out drunk for days. Years later my uncle would admit to me he was purposely trying to drink himself to death. He had decided that he wanted to die, but he didn’t want to hurt his family who he knew all loved him. He rationalized that drinking himself to death would be the best way, because by the time he did die, they would already hate him, thus experience less pain by his death.
During the time he lived in that trailer, we all thought he would die any day from an overdose or liver failure, and he could’ve. However, my family didn’t stop trying to help him. They found rehabs for him, recovery homes, Christian support groups, anything my uncle would agree to go to. Eventually, he did go, and over the course of the next few years, he was more and more sober. When the programs ended, my dad and their oldest brother gave my youngest uncle a job with them in their company. They also provided a room for him at their shop, and paid him with gift cards or food, knowing he’d probably use any money he could on drugs or alcohol.
My uncle’s story is not at an end yet, but he is at the best place he could be for now. What’s important, though, is that his story could’ve been over at any point in the past years, and all the hope, perseverance, and protection would’ve seemed lost. If my uncle had died during those years he was trying to kill himself, it wouldn’t have meant that my family didn’t hope or try to protect him. And if he were to die today, it still wouldn’t mean that. Even when my family felt hopeless and helpless, they still continued to love my uncle.
Love never fails
I think we go through life expecting everyone else to be mind-readers. If someone loves us, they should be able to know exactly what’s important to us and how to give us everything we need. If they don’t do these things, then they must not love us. We accuse others of not loving us unconditionally when we are the ones putting conditions on them.
It’s true that sometimes, if someone is not meeting your needs, then perhaps they don’t love you. This depends on the type of relationship and the circumstance. More often, I think it’s just because they don’t know what you need or how to give it to you.
In my church group, when I answered the question of who makes me feel loved unconditionally, I thought of my best friend because she makes me feel more accepted and supported than anyone else (excluding my parents). To me, having someone truly see who I am, all the good and bad, and still accept me makes me feel incredibly loved, as well as having someone who is always there when I need them. All those who make me feel loved do both of these to different degrees.
When someone doesn’t feel accepted, it’s hard for them feel loved. My dad lives by the philosophy that if you can’t accept someone for who they are, then don’t have them in your life; but if you can’t live without them, then you have to accept who they are. I think it’s a very wise philosophy, because it sets boundaries needed in self-love and love for others.
We should not accept everyone and everything a person does. That is not mature love. We shouldn’t accept when someone hurts us, is being harmful to their self or others, or is outright abusive. When we do accept those things, this is the way that love fails, because you are no longer loving yourself. However, we should accept others the same way we want to be accepted.
Time to talk about another uncle, because I have a lot of them. There is an uncle I lived with for most of my life who could be described as emotionally abusive. He made me feel lazy, selfish, and like a slut. This wasn’t his intention. He was genuinely trying to make me the best version of me I could be, and to him it was his way of showing he loved me.
I know my uncle loved me because he’d do nearly anything for me. I saw that he felt like he had to take the role of a father to me, which I didn’t need because my dad was very much in my life and a very good dad. My uncle has taken me to school for years, took my mom and me to church even when he hated her, given me money for trips, spent lots of time giving me lectures that he thought would help me grow. But he loved me from a very broken place, which ended up hurting me a lot.
He never knew or understood what I needed, and even when I tried to explain it to him, he struggled greatly with trying to love me properly. I loved my uncle, and I thought that if I were the way he wanted me to be, then he would love me better.
About a year after I moved out, he reached out to apologize for a lot of things. He even repeatedly tried to spend time with me, and I knew he missed me. I was the only daughter he’s ever had.
I have never stopped loving my uncle and no longer question his love for me, but I would never live with him again. I think Fiffer describes it very eloquently when he says, “Abandoning yourself, sacrificing your happiness, stifling your true character, and giving up your dreams is not unconditional love. It’s unconditional surrender.” I no longer surrender who I am for who my uncle wanted me to be.
People do fail in the way they love us. They do it all the time, some in worse ways than others. No one can love perfectly. That’s part of being human. But we often fail to acknowledge the way we fail ourselves and others. We don’t love ourselves enough to set boundaries or express our needs. We love immaturely by not being able to accept others, despite still wanting them in our lives.
If I haven’t made my point clear yet, just because we love imperfectly doesn’t mean we love any less.
Love is so complicated and there are few who know how to do it right, and none that know how to do it right all the time. When I think of my parents’ unconditional love for me, I feel lucky not only because they love me in such a supportive and accepting way, but also because I believe this is the way they love me. Often times it’s our own broken perception that gets in the way.
Love doesn’t say, “I will never fail you or make any mistakes.” It says, “Despite all my mistakes and the ways that I fail you, I still love you.”
What Loves Does
God's Unconditional Love
“Is Unconditional Love Really Possible?”
5 Ways We Screw Up Unconditional Love