The Myth of Unconditional Romantic Love
My wife loves her cats more than she loves me.
That’s not intended as an attention-grabbing joke. It’s the absolute truth, and I’m OK with it.
One of our cats only has one eye, and is not particularly adept at cleaning himself, and he is her all-time favorite of the dozen-or-so cats she has had in her life. I am sure I’ve disappointed her by not knowing the precise number of fur babies she has nurtured during the past five decades, but that’s not the point. The point is that I rank behind a cyclops with matted fur, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I also rank behind our four kids. Also not really the point, but I don’t want you to think I’m right behind the cats, nipping at their heels. I’m pretty far down Sheri’s love rankings.
If you are an alcoholic in sobriety, working to restore trust to your recovering marriage, I bet you aren’t as high on your spouse’s love list as you think you are, either.
The reason is simple. It’s one of the most misunderstood components of romantic relationships. It is a little thing called unconditional love. A lot of us expect it to grow in places where it can never exist, like the lengthening alleys on either side of the top of my cranium where hair is becoming increasingly elusive. Unconditional love just is not part of a marriage as surely as my forehead is now a five or six head.
Unconditional love means love without conditions. “I will love you no matter what. NO MATTER WHAT!” Our cats could do the most egregious things I can think of – like one could poop on her pillow while the other kills one of our neighborhood’s many baby bunnies and drags its carcass into our living room – and her feline affection would not diminish. There might be some colorful language, and she might turn her plant-misting water bottle on them for a few seconds, but they would soon return to the focus of her cuddly attention.
Unconditional love is also a natural and expected result of procreation. Sheri loves our kids unconditionally, and so do I. I am not going to give an example wherein one of our children does the most imaginably egregious thing, because humans are much more capable of despicable acts than cats, and even writing worst-case scenarios feels like a dirty betrayal. Suffice it to say, there is nothing that could break our love for our children. If you are a parent, I bet you are picking up what I’m laying down.
Romantic relationships – even potentially permanent ones like marriages – are by definition, conditional. I chose my wife because she was attractive, funny, intuitive, adventurous, intelligent, spunky, seemingly fearless, sexually compatible, roughly my age, tougher than me, and she introduced me to Blarney Puffballs at the Irish Lion Pub. Sheri chose me because I came from an intact family, I wasn’t the most obnoxious of my fraternity brothers, I was close to graduating with a rough outline of a career plan, I showed her more than enough affection, and I bought her Labatt’s Blue while my friends and I drank Natural Light. All of those descriptors are conditions. The characteristics that we found acceptably attractive in each other allowed for the condition of romantic love to grow and flourish.
If Sheri had talked of never wanting children, or if I had been a misogynistic racist, or if Sheri had thought soccer was a sissy sport, or if I had bragged about eating cat meat on a spring-break trip to Mexico – any of those conditions would have made love and marriage impossible for us.
So why do so many people speak of unconditional love for their spouses? If romantic love was unconditional, we’d all be married to our cousins because memories of summers with our grandparents would be more important than the sweaty palms and tingle of adventure from a first date or first kiss or first shared order of Blarney Puffballs.
Marriages aren’t based on unconditional love. They are based on meeting each other’s conditions.
Some conditions are instant, like physical attraction or compatible senses of humor. Other conditions grow from time spent respectfully together, like trust, safety and protection. And the conditions that grow are clearly the most important. Most of us don’t get married because we get horney telling dirty jokes to each other, unless we are drinking copious amounts of Natural Light and Labatts Blue in Las Vegas. Most of us get married because we find someone we trust, and who we are confident will help protect us.
So what do we expect to happen when addiction to alcohol becomes an unwelcomed condition disrupting our happy marriages? What do we expect to happen when the person to whom we are bonded goes from protector to the most dangerous mentally, emotionally, maybe sexually and occasionally physically unsafe person in our lives?
When the protector becomes the danger, how’s the myth of unconditional love going to survive that?
I used to drink too much, and seek attention from my wife. I am not talking about sex here, I am talking about any kind of engagement. I would be slurring my words, ranting about politics or some way in which I had been disrespected at work. I would be loud, and stumble a little when I walked. I would wake our sleeping kids, or accidentally spill beer on the carpet. I would create all of these conditions for Sheri to interact with, then I would become enraged when she didn’t want to spend time with me. I would call her names and blame her for the chill in our relationship. I would accuse her of being insensitive and not knowing how to love enough. I would point to her mom’s divorces as evidence of her inability to be a good wife, and I would demand retribution for her transgressions.
Remember, I was slurring, stumbling, spilling, yelling, and ranting, and I was demanding that Sheri start apologizing.
I was supposed to be her protector. Yet, I was demanding that she beg me for forgiveness or face unspeakable consequences.
Does that sound to you like I was offering unconditional love? Does it sound like I was deserving of unconditional love in return?
On two occasions, Sheri called my parents in the middle of a traumatic night of emotionally abusive alcoholic manipulation. Both times, I was incensed that she brought outsiders into our internal marital issues. Both times, she was without options, and more scared than she had ever before been, trying to protect herself and our kids from the dangerous traitor to whom she had pledged her love and trust.
When the dust had cleared and the intoxication had worn off, I would feel like the one who took the high road. After all, I had never called her mom and railed about what a bitch her daughter was. I was stoic. I endured. I was the one whose trust had been violated. Really, if you think about it, I was the hero of this dysfunctional story.
What a crock of shit. My thinking – my unintoxicated reasoning using an alcohol-warped, temporarily sober brain – had me as the victim because my wife didn’t want to hang out with me while I was drunk.
I owed her a phone call to her mom to set the record straight.
A funny thing has happened after six years of sobriety. I have resumed my role as Sheri’s trusted protector, and she remains the safest person in my life as well. When I think back to the alcoholic trauma in our marriage, I am not mad at her for her reactions to my addiction. I am not interested in sharing the blame or finding things she could have done differently. I am enraged that the love of my life was put in danger. I am furious that her trust was broken and she had to face a vicious enemy alone.
Marriage is very much about mutual protection. Anyone who threatens my wife or kids has to go through me first. I am not particularly daunting, but I will stand between my family and any potential danger. That is not noble or unique. That’s part of the gig when we get married and have kids. We become someone else’s protector.
So what about when the danger is coming from inside the house?
The conditions that led to love were broken between Sheri and me. I broke them. Me. My alcoholism. I had to earn back her love. I had to replace bad memories with good ones. I was blessed with her patience, and I am painfully aware that many alcoholics are not afforded the privilege of that one last chance.
And many alcoholics cling to the myth of unconditional romantic love. If you think your relationship should survive, or you deserve forgiveness, or she can’t let go because she brings up the past, I would be willing to bet you think she owes you some promise of unconditional love.
There is a better chance of my receding hairline magically changing its mind.
I am one of the lucky ones. My stubborn, idealistic misconception of marriage gave way to curiosity about reality before all the conditions that brought Sheri and I together had slipped away. I learned, she forgave, we rebuilt trust, we picked ourselves up when we stumbled, and our very conditional marriage is thriving like never before. Sheri loves me more than I imagined possible.
But she still doesn’t look at me like she looks at those cats.
If you are realistic about the conditional nature of romantic love, and you think you could benefit from interaction with others who are bouncing back from the destruction of their high-functioning alcoholism, please consider joining us in SHOUT Sobriety.
Matt, you put into words a concept that should be obvious but whose opposite (“unconditional love”) is inexplicably and universally considered some sort of ideal by many. How ridiculous to claim that you love your spouse no matter what he or she does, that nothing he or she could do would affect your feelings. Where is the virtue in that low bar? You’ll literally disregard everything someone does, ie, have no conditions for bestowing your trust and affection? The only people I can love like that are my children, whose faults are probably at least partly my fault and whom I remember as innocent vessels. A spouse who declines to fulfill basic conditions such as fidelity, emotional availability, and trustworthiness is not going to evoke or deserve the same love as one who does. Thank you, Matt.
I love how you describe unconditional love in a marriage as a low bar. I wrote this article, and I never considered that concept, but you are absolutely right. We SHOUD have to earn romantic love.
Matt – Thank you for this. It is a relief to finally hear that marriage love doesn’t have to be unconditional, or more aptly that I don’t have to FEEL like I have unconditional love in my marriage. What you said here makes complete sense. I also resonate with your sentiments of: “I am enraged that the love of my life was put in danger. I am furious that her trust was broken and she had to face a vicious enemy alone.” I’m finally actually feeling compassion for my husband that was lacking when I was drinking (during which I would think things like: “why does he make this such a big deal?” “why can’t he just accept my drinking?” “what’s his problem?”). His trust was certainly broken and that’s an awful thing that he had to face and is still rebuilding. You and Sheri give the rest of us hope!
Thanks Jennie! I appreciate your support, and I’m glad this concept makes sense and brings relief to you, too.
I believe in life as 8 circles. #1 is yourself and God. Cast your character defects out past Circle #8. # 2 has two parts- 2a is your spouse and yourself as soul mates. 2b is your cats, dogs, & dependents living with you. #3 to #8 you can stack up as you wish.
Addicted people cause their spouse to think they are in further out circles so we need to get them back into #2a.
So said- are you a thermometer (powerless other than to measure the temperature) or a thermostat ( has power to change things to colder or warmer)? If your spouse is a person with Grace, your life will get warmer if you work for it and your spouse returns to Circle 2a. If not it is time you make hard decisions and make your life what you want it to be as you hold the power to change your life and find a soul mate to live with you in circle #2a. Take care of yourself first.
Wow, Alan! That’s some deep stuff. Thank you for sharing your perspective. I love the thermometer / thermostat analogy.