Recently, someone asked me to elaborate on what it means to love people—especially family—unconditionally:
“For me, to do this fully would at times be to my own detriment. Sometimes it’s just too much ‘stuff,’ too much drama. What do we do when we can’t hold that space for them? Or worse…when their stuff is just toxic. And how to discern when to do this and when you just…can’t/shouldn’t.”
That first sentence is important—“to do this fully would at times be to my own detriment.”
That sentence reveals a false underlying assumption about what it means to love unconditionally—real love is never, ever to our detriment. It’s just not possible.
This highlights that the way we perceive love in our Western society is not accurate. Or, at least, that it’s been hijacked by romantic ideals and Hollywood movies.
So I want to backtrack and explain fully why unconditionally loving someone is never to our detriment.
For one, when we love someone unconditionally, it means that we don’t mind what they say or do. What they say or do has no impact on our love for them. Our love for them flows out of us at all times—we never shut down that flow.
Whatever they do, whatever they say, we fully accept it:
I accept you, as you fart in bed, play video games until two in the morning, fill my children up with sweets when they come to visit you, vent your anger on me. I do not judge you. I do not wish you were different. I accept you. This is who you are.
But this is only half of the equation. The next part is the most important part: The power aspect of the equation. The boundary part of the equation. The self-love part of the equation.
This is where we ask the simple but powerful question:
If this is so, then what?
If you’re going to fart in bed, how am I going to respond, while I continue to fully love and accept you?
If you’re going to play video games until two in the morning, what’s my response?
If you’re going to vent your anger at me, what do I do?
Because to fully love and accept a person does not mean to fully love and accept their behaviour or their words. It means we love the person and we respond appropriately to the behaviour in a way that is loving to both us and them.
This might mean naming very clearly what they’re doing and how we feel about it. It might mean removing ourselves completely from a situation because we’re not going to subject ourselves to that experience. It might mean choosing not to allow this person in our life—all the while loving them completely unconditionally.
This is when our ability to communicate clearly, stand our ground, put ourselves first, and risk losing the approval and conditional love of other people is tested.
Because when we learn to love unconditionally, other people don’t always like it.
Case in point:
I had a confusing-as-all-hell, manipulative and abusive relationship with a man for a number of years. I thought I loved him deeply, but I was always on him to change his behaviour and sort his sh*t out so our relationship would get better.
One particular evening, after a difficult week—month, year—I walked in on him engaging in some behaviour that I didn’t want to be around, and that I didn’t want to have around my son.
Normally, I would get angry and mad and we would fight and it would be a huge mess. This time, something in me changed completely. Instead of going into all the old patterns, I paused. I stood there and breathed and felt into the reality of the moment. I saw through the behaviour of the man to the deep pain that was causing it, through to his unconsciousness around his own pain and through to his unwillingness to look at that unconsciousness and pain.
I saw it all. And in that moment, I finally loved him—I completely accepted who he was.
I walked out of the room and back to the lounge and stood there.
Okay, this is who he is. I fully accept him in this place.
Now, how do I want to respond?
In that moment, it was clear. His pain was not mine to fix or heal or rescue. And I didn’t want to live out those experiences anymore. My response was to walk away—with total unconditional love.
That was the end of that relationship. Not because I stopped loving this man, or because the love wasn’t strong enough, or because he didn’t love me. But because I also loved myself unconditionally and realised I didn’t want to keep choosing that reality.
This is unconditional love, and it’s very different from what we often think of as love in today’s society—something that is really a bargaining chip. We’re often perceiving love as a way of getting other people to behave the way we want them to behave so that we feel the way we would like to feel. And when they deviate from making us feel good, we shut down the flow of love to create leverage so they’ll behave how we want them to behave.
This is not love.
It’s the same thing in family situations.
There are often deep, painful wounds from childhood still running old patterns in our subconscious, and these patterns prevent us from unconditionally loving our family. Why? Because to do so would feel painful and vulnerable, because often all the old unexpressed pain and hurt from decades ago is still residing in our hearts.
But the only way to love is to do this—to open up, be vulnerable, and feel whatever needs to be felt in this moment.
That’s the hard work that needs to be done on our end—being courageous enough to feel fully what’s going on inside of us in each moment.
And, unfortunately, things don’t get easier once we start loving in this way. We can still find ourselves in toxic or abusive family situations. However, when we’re loving unconditionally, our relationship to these situations changes as we make no attempt to change or control what is happening outside of us.
Instead, we acknowledge the reality of it and choose how we are going to respond in the face of it.
This is hard. F*cking hard.
Often the response we know we need to take—like opting out of a regular family lunch because we’re continuously harassed by one family member and no other family member takes it seriously—upsets our family.
We have to be courageous enough to handle the fallout from our actions.
Because when we love unconditionally, we shine the full light of love on all the unconscious behaviour that is happening.
And no one likes that—not when they’re intent on staying unaware. This is okay. This is the choice we make—to face our unconsciousness or to hide from it. Not everyone we love will want to face their lack of awareness.
Start loving unconditionally, and you will start to face unconsciousness—in yourself, as you clear out all the old pain and hurt from your heart, and in other people as you stop behaving the way they would like you to behave.
Real love doesn’t care what you do, how you act, what you say or how you behave. It accepts all of you, as you are, in each moment, even the most unconscious moments.
So next time you feel like you’re being pushed to the edge of your ability to love unconditionally, check in with yourself:
Are you first loving yourself unconditionally?
Are you completely accepting the other person as they are?
If you are accepting them as they are, and you are loving yourself unconditionally, how do you want to respond to what’s going on?
Notice if there’s hesitation or resistance to saying or doing what you know you need to say or do.
That resistance or hesitation points to fear—usually fear that this person won’t love us anymore.
But you know what?
That’s none of our business.
Our only business is to love, and to respond truthfully to reality as it presents itself.
This is real love, unconditional love, powerful love, centred love, the kind of love that is always within, never runs out, and spills out everywhere.
Best of all, it never depends on a subject—on the other.
It only requires your courage to open up and let it flow.
Author: Kara-Leah Grant
Image: Wikimedia Commons
Editor: Emily Bartran