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“I Love You, but.” – Recognizing Conditional Love

Trained for Conditional Love

We probably aren’t aware of it, but most of us have said the following to someone we love on more than one occasion, “I love you, but.” The problem is the moment we say but we have made that love conditional. What’s interesting is we have actually been trained to think this way. It starts early and is engrained in us so it can be difficult to recognize. However, with an open mind and a willingness to move back to pure love, we can correct this error.

First, let’s look at the training piece. The psychologist, Carl Rogers, suggested more than fifty years ago that simply loving our children wasn’t enough. We have to love them unconditionally for who they are, not for what they do. But, not all of the experts agreed with this philosophy. In his book, Family First (Free Press, 2004), talk show host Phil McGraw says what children need or enjoy should be offered conditionally; meaning they should be turned into rewards that are given or withheld so children “behave according to your wishes.” “One of the most powerful currencies for a child,” he adds, “is the parents’ acceptance and approval.”

If we take Phil McGraw’s point of view, and many generations have, we perpetuate the system most of us were raised in which says we manipulate a child to do what we want them to do by giving love and affection when he or she is good and we withhold love and affection when they are not. But, this doesn’t work on a number of levels. First, the definition of good is most often based on our upbringing which used the same manipulative mindset. It is also based on our personal issues, our internal pain and our fears about not being good enough that comes from that system. Second, that definition of good is inconsistent. What’s good or not good depends on our mood on any particular day. Monday, being creative is applauded; on Friday, when you are tired from the week, it’s a pain in your ass. In such a crazy, unpredictable, fear-driven state of development, it is tough for any of us to gain a sense of security and self-esteem.

I have seen this first hand many times and you probably have, too. In fact, a dear friend of mine was repeatedly told by her father that she was useless if she didn’t have a nine-to-five job. She doesn’t work nine-to-five because she owns a seasonal tourist-based business and some rental properties. In her off-season, I have personally watched her struggle with that conditional fear-based training as she beats herself up for not being more like her sister who works nine-to-five and for not gaining her father’s approval in this area which makes her feel inadequate. She has carried this pain since she was a child.

Using Love as a Reward Doesn’t Work

Studies have shown that being raised in a system where love and acceptance are used as rewards and punishment has a high price. Sure, the kids do what parents want them to do, but they also resent and dislike the parents and often harbor feelings of anger and fear. Children are acting under strong internal pressure rather than out of a real sense of personal choice. The same dynamic occurs in adult relationships where a partner only does what you want out of fear of losing your love or to keep you from yelling, but not because they want to do it. At its core, this is using love as a manipulation tool and it doesn’t encourage a sense of love and acceptance.

The effects of this conditional system are far-reaching. It seems that when children did have successes in life, the happiness of that success was short-lived and then they often felt ashamed, guilty or both. This is because we don’t feel good enough so we don’t feel we truly deserve success, happiness and love. If we are honest with ourselves as adults, we will see that we feel the same way. It’s a messed up system. The message of all conditions that parents place on children, or that adults place on other adults, is that love is not given freely or without cost – it must be earned. Is this what we really think love looks like towards others, including our children? I don’t think so.

So why do we do it? It was done to us so we do it to others, our children, partners and friends, completely unaware of the error in training. We are perpetuating a system of conditional love and that system is damaging into adulthood. In a study that was done where mothers of grown children were interviewed, this was confirmed. As children, those mothers indicated they felt they were only loved by their parents when they lived up to their parent’s expectations. That created unworthiness in them. Feeling unworthy creates a sense of lack in children that we take into adulthood with us, unless it is corrected. Lack creates fear. Most of us are acting out of fear when it comes to love. What’s interesting is that even though these mothers were aware of the negative outcomes of conditional acceptance and love, they continued to use the same system with their own children. The cycle of conditional relationships must come to an end. It starts with us as adults, seeing the error and taking the steps to correct it.

Giving and Experiencing Real Love

We experience the same dynamic in our relationships as adults because the conditional training repeats itself on all fronts. Let’s look at how we treat our significant other with the same manipulative, conditional patterns of using love and acceptance to get what we want from someone else. I have said before that we are most often drawn to another for pain relief. That is, we are hurting from the belief that we are not good enough and that something is missing or wrong in us, so we look outside of ourselves, to another person usually, to take that pain away and make us feel whole. But, when that person doesn’t do what we want them to do or say the right thing, we get angry, resentful and we automatically withhold love and acceptance from them. In fact, we usually make them our enemy. But, how can our beloved also be our enemy? Why would we ever withhold love and acceptance from them? It just doesn’t make any sense.

Let’s clear up this error about love that has been taught to us so we can move forward with a better idea of what love really looks like and use that as our means of fostering the next generation. First, we must understand that there is no such thing as unconditional love because real love can’t be anything but unconditional. Unconditional love is what’s called a tautology. A tautology is the needless repetition of an idea using different words. It’s like saying free gift, blend together or end result. Unconditional love is needlessly repetitive. There is only conditional love or love. And conditional love isn’t love, it’s fear.

We not only love others conditionally, we love ourselves conditionally, too. So, where do we start unraveling this conditional mess we have gotten ourselves into? There are two starting points; one is to practice loving yourself unconditionally, the other is to practice loving others unconditionally. Either way will put you on the path to real love for all. It is also important to see that what we have been taught about love isn’t true. Each one of us must investigate this and experience this truth for ourselves. Then it will motivate us to make the changes necessary.

Deep down we know in our heart love isn’t conditional so withholding love and acceptance from a child, a partner or a friend isn’t necessary. When someone doesn’t act or say what you think is right, you will have to get in the habit of not taking it personally. Accept their point of view as theirs, not as a threat to yours. Accept that they may do something different than you want them to do because of their conditional training and fears – not because they are doing something against you.

We are all struggling and suffering with this conditional training. We must see each other as kindred spirits, not as enemies or as someone who is here to make me feel better about myself. It is not easy, but it is imperative that we practice not taking our love away from another as a means of getting the outcome we want. This takes awareness and a goal of getting back to real love.

Loving another is the same as loving yourself and there is never a reason to withhold that love for either one. When we withhold love we are not experiencing love. Only by extending love, expanding love or giving love do we experience love ourselves. You will know this is true because when you are angry at someone else, what are you experiencing? Love? No, you are experiencing the anger. When you blame someone else for your bad day, you experience the energy of that blame. So, anything we project onto others we actually experience ourselves. The question is: What do you want to experience in your life? Judgment, anger, guilt, blame and resentment or love? In order to experience love, you have to give it- to or others. Real love is that simple.

“I Love You Even When.”

Real love is expressed, expanded and experienced within when we love others even when they say or do something you don’t like. It doesn’t matter how they dress, what their hair looks like, what job they have, where they live or who they love. In the realm of unconditional love, nothing matters except love. Anything less isn’t love – it’s conditions, it’s control, it’s fear.

The remedy for loving our children unconditionally is the same for loving our partners and friends and, most of all, for loving ourselves unconditionally. It means we allow differences of opinion, we explain our reasoning in order to open a dialogue and gain understanding and we look for and find common ground in the spirit of collaboration rather than a manipulative power play. Real love means we encourage without exploitation and we discuss issues without blame, resentment or guilt. Finally, and one of the key things we can do, is to let go of thinking it has to look and act just as we want it to. Making your child or partner out to be an idiot just because they don’t see it the way you see it is just your fear. There is more than one way to come to the same conclusion.and there is more than one conclusion.

Love doesn’t have to be earned and on a deep, heart level, we all know this. Every parent I have ever met has told me they love their children unconditionally. Our parents would probably say the same thing. And while that may be true, what counts are outcomes. How do our children and partners feel when they mess up in our eyes? Are they still loved and accepted? Is that the message we are sending with our words and actions? If not, it is time to change. We are the change. We can correct this massive error of a conditional world based on fear and create a real world based on love and acceptance. Start today by becoming aware of when love is conditional in your life. That awareness gives you the power to change your world! “I love you, but.” becomes “I love you even when.”

Kohn, Alfie. (September 14, 2009). When a Parent’s ‘I Love You’ Means’ Do as I Say’.

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