By Ox Drover
I was led to believe as a child that we should “love unconditionally” and that we should “forgive unconditionally.” This was the rule around our house. I did start to notice, though, that while I was to apply this “unconditional forgiveness and love” to others, those same people did not always apply it to me.
When my children were born, I felt the first real and true “unconditional” love I had ever felt for anyone. I would gaze into the crib and watch my child sleep, little fists curled up, ten perfect little fingers with ten perfect little finger nails. The warmth of this truly “unconditional” love swept through my heart and made my eyes tear up with joy.
Even when my two-year-old son poured a full box of fish food into the aquarium and I had to clean it out and change the water the second time in a week, I did not stop loving him or hold a grudge against him for his behavior. I took the responsibility for his actions because I had left the fish food where he could reach it, and he didn’t know any better. I laughed as I cleaned out the aquarium that I would be so dumb to leave it where he could reach it a second time.
As my children grew and became more independent and self motivated teenagers, I would occasionally become quite frustrated and even angry with them for some of their behavior, especially defiant behavior, but it never dawned on me to not forgive them, or to hold a grudge or to stop loving them, no matter what they did, or even to fear them. I had no concept at that time, that one of my children might actually wish in a long term continuing way to do me harm. My love for them was, I thought, absolutely “unconditional.” Just as my love for my mother, I thought, was unconditional. No matter how angry I got, I knew that I loved her and no matter what she did that upset me or hurt me, it never dawned on me that I could ever stop loving her or that the things she did actually came from a deep down desire to control me, even if this resulted in my harm.
Though there was somehow a difference in how I was required to give her “unconditional forgiveness” and forget about anything she had ever done to me, while she would frequently and critically remind me of things I did as a defiant teenager, I still believed I loved her unconditionally, just like I loved my kids unconditionally, no matter what they did or said.
Throughout many years I held on to this belief, which, I am finding out now, is a fantasy. There are behaviors so heinous that I can no longer love someone. So, in truth, my love for my mother and even my love for my children is not truly “unconditional.” In truth, forgiveness does not include trust and a resumption of a relationship with that person if what they have done is so heinous that you fear them.
I realized that fearing a person precluded me from actually loving them. When you love someone you trust them. When you don’t trust someone, you can’t really love them. WOW! What a revelation for me! If I am afraid of a person, I cannot truly love them. I can be angry with someone I love, I can even be furious with someone I love. If I am afraid of a person, can’t trust them not to hurt me intentionally, how can I love that person at the same time? For me, it was impossible.
I might love the “fantasy” of them, but not the actual scary person that is the real them. When I realized, finally, that my psychopathic son wanted me dead and I began to be afraid of him, I realized the man sitting in a prison cell was truly evil, malicious and dangerous. I also realized I was a fool if I did not take the threat seriously. Then the “love” I had felt, that I had believed was truly unconditional, seeped out, and one day I realized it was gone.
My other biological son, who was at that same time married to a psychopath himself, had distanced himself from me, disappointed me, and to some extent devalued me, which saddened me, but I still loved him … because I was not afraid of him. In spite of everything, I realized he would not ever deliberately hurt me, or want to deliberately hurt me. Yet, I realized that if he became dangerous to me, or I started to fear him as well, that I would not be able to continue to love him either.
When my “good” son’s wife (now ex-wife) tried to kill him after he found out about the affair she was having with a psychopath, his “unconditional” love for her also evaporated. He started to realize that she was dangerous. Before the attack on my son with a gun by her and her boyfriend, my son had found out about the affair and offered to “go to counseling” and to “work it out” with her. He loved her, and her affair was not something that made him afraid of her. It was only his fear of her after the attempted murder that made him able to detach from his love from her. His love that he had thought was unconditional, his commitment to the marriage that he thought was total, was destroyed by the fear for his life.
I had always thought my loyalty and commitment to my family members and friends was total and unconditional. When I started to experience true fear of some of these people, it made me realize that the only unconditional love in the universe is God’s. The Bible tells me to “love” my enemies and pray for them, but the “love” commanded in the Bible is not the feeling, in my opinion, that we normally call, in English, “love.” The “love” commanded for our enemies means to do “good to them” rather than seek revenge, but it has nothing to do with the “love” we feel, that “squishy” feeling I had leaning over my infant’s crib. It was not that loving commitment to my child that meant I would have thrown my body in front of an attacker, freely giving my life to save my child.
On a thread on Lovefraud some time back, a blogger (whose name I no longer remember) wrote that it is noble of us to throw ourselves in front of a bus to save our loved one, but not when the bus is being driven by the psychopath we are trying to save! I can’t think of a better analogy that this one.
In the end, I realized that no healthy love is truly “unconditional.” I also realized that boundaries are healthy, and that I needed to learn to set boundaries. I needed to protect myself from attacks, and that my fear or distrust of someone precludes me from having a relationship with that person. Fear precludes me from loving them.
For most of my life I tried to live up to the fantasy of “unconditional love” for those in my family, even those in my family who were psychopaths. It never felt right to me, but at the same time, I was committed to this stance because it was what I thought was “normal” and “expected.” When my family devalued me, when the “unconditional” love from them depended on controlling me, using me, abusing me, and then instilling fear into me, I finally “saw the light.” I realize now that real love is kind, love is caring, love is respectful, love is many good things, but it is never about control, never about punishment, never about deliberately inflicting pain or fear. Healthy love is never completely “unconditional.”