Unconditional love and personal boundaries.

Jason Brien. 

Most people would agree that when it comes to family, love should be felt and expressed unconditionally. We should love and accept our family members through thick and thin. No matter what. Blood is thicker than water. Some marriages also start off with this idea and promise of unconditional love. When the couple are standing at the alter and before placing the ring on each other’s fingers, they make a pledge to support each other “In sickness and in health. In richness and in poorness, etc”. Unconditional love means offering our love freely and without conditions and without strings attached. Unconditional love means loving people even through hardships, mistakes, and frustrations. What is the cost of unconditional love on our mental health though and is conditional love a ‘healthier’ alternative?

When we pledge unconditional love to another, we are essentially giving them the right to treat us however they want to. Good or bad. After all, unconditional love requires that we love the other person no matter what. We will always forgive them. What if they treat us poorly though or we are simply unhappy for whatever reason? Does our pledge of unconditional love require us to remain in an abusive or unhappy relationship regardless of its impact upon our mind, body and emotions? When we are raised to view unconditional love in this traditional manner, we are faced with the conflict of accepting that which makes it harder for us to love ourselves unconditionally (abuse and unhappiness) just so that we can love the other. We become unhappy and we may become depressed.

Is viewing love and relationships through a conditional lens a healthier alternative then? It is my belief that we can only engage in unconditional love towards others if that love has conditional features. Conditional love requires us to set rules, limits or terms on our love and how and when it will be expressed. Conditional love can also require the other person to expend effort in order to continue receiving our love. Conditional love is essentially a quid pro quo. Is this a bad thing though? Why should we give people a free pass to receive our love no matter how they treat us? We have a right to good mental, emotional and physical health, don’t we? Why should we allow others to abuse that right?

This is why having unconditional love WITH conditional features is important. Having unconditional love WITH conditional features doesn’t mean that we can force people to jump through hoops to entertain us before they can receive our love. We do not have the right to force people to juggle chainsaws whilst reciting the alphabet backwards just because it gives us a laugh. Unconditional love with conditional features simply means that we will only provide someone with unconditional love so long as their actions towards us are not jeopardising our ability to love ourselves unconditionally. This is where personal boundaries come in. Personal boundaries allow us to love both ourselves and others.   

What is the purpose of personal boundaries? Boundaries come in all forms (physical, sexual, emotional, time, intellectual and material) and their purpose is to communicate to others permissible ways of acting towards us so that we can protect our emotional, physical, mental and spiritual health (so that we can continue loving ourselves). A boundary communicates to the other person “I love you but I also love myself and if I am to continue loving both myself and you, I need these things (boundaries) in place until or unless you can modify your behaviour”. The other person then has a choice as to whether they comply, negotiate or ignore your requests/boundaries based on how much they desire your unconditional love.

Personal boundaries are not always easy to set and they can even be completely ignored. Boundaries which are appropriate for some people may not be appropriate for others. In the vast majority of cases, but not always, there is no need to impose sexual boundaries on our children or parents for example. There are also a variety of different ways boundaries can be enforced depending on the need and the audience. For example, sending a child who just hit you to their bedroom is an appropriate time and physical boundary, but would it be appropriate to set the same boundaries in a scenario where a boyfriend or sibling hit you? Probably not.

Imagine an elderly mother who is abusive only because of her dementia (or any other illness). A lot of people may decide that the only way that they can continue loving their elderly mother unconditionally, without jeopardising their love for themselves, is by admitting the elderly mother to a care facility and visiting them every week or so. Some people might judge such a decision harshly but all the son or daughter has done is impose time and physical boundaries upon their elderly mother. The elderly mother is not being imposed with emotional, intellectual, sexual (wholly inappropriate) or material boundaries. In a way, it is fortunate that the son or daughter were able to  find a way to impose these two boundaries in a manner which didn’t negatively affect their elderly mother.

Not everyone is that lucky. If only we could send an abusive spouse or friend off to a facility and only visit them every so often. Wait… isn’t that kind of what a break up is? Sure, you are not sending them away to a facility to be cared for by others (unless you called the police on them and they went to jail as a result), but you are creating time and space between the two of you so that you can continue to love yourself and thus love them. If the abuse does not stop, you may make the time and space between the both of you more permanent. You may end the relationship completely and you may impose extra boundaries (sexual, emotional, etc). If the other person does not respect your boundaries, you may have to get lawyers or the police to enforce these boundaries for you.

If you do end any relationship permanently, you do not have to stop loving the other person unconditionally. When you were in a relationship with them, you set the conditions for how they could receive your unconditional love DIRECTLY however, for whatever reason, they could not (or would not) meet those conditions and so now you are choosing to express your unconditional love for them INDIRECTLY. You may do this by directing loving prayers towards them before you sleep at night. You may choose to do this by not speaking ill of them despite how much they may have hurt you. You may love them unconditionally simply by being respectful and courteous in any interactions you may be forced to have with them.