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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Toxic Myth of Unconditional Love

Unconditional Love: the most sparkly and toxic bit of 1970′s pop psychology!

And, alas, arguably the most enduring bit as well.

I am sorry, Virginia, but there is no such thing as unconditional love. Nor should there be! But before you write me off as an heartless monster, allow me to explain: we must distinguish carefully between two very separate ideas, “self worth” and “unconditional love”.

We all have an innate worth, one every living thing is born with. To quote The Desiderata “you are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars, you have a right to be here”.

We do NOT all have, thereby, the free pass that is the heart of the idea of “unconditional love”. You may be born with an innate worth, but you are not born with the right to hurt, manipulate, or transgress against others. You are not born with a right to be loved “no matter what”.

Or, to phrase things a little differently, once you are beyond infancy, the love and respect you get in life is earned.

The phrase “unconditional love” was brought into the lexicon in response to a traditional parenting style in which love was confused with approval. “Spare the rod and spoil the child” was the motto of that particular theory of childrearing, and parents felt very comfortable withdrawing love and affection in response to misbehaviour of any sort.

This was a devastatingly effective childrearing tool in a culture that valued conformity and obedience. Unfortunately, it has equally devastating side effects. First and foremost, it strikes at the notion that you are born with an innate worth. You become entirely dependent on an external locus of control (the approval of authority figures) for that sense of self worth. And that is a very sad and destructive state of affairs.

Some bright spark realized, quite correctly, that a parent’s love should not be revoked each time a child misbehaves. Unfortunately, they responded with the idea of unconditional love; to whit that parents should love their children no matter what.

By and large, parents do feel an overwhelming love for their children. But an important piece of wisdom is missing from the unconditional love approach: namely, that love and approval are two different things. You can love your child even when you do not approve of what that child is doing. ie. "Child dear, we love you very much, but we do not approve of you bullying your friends to give you all their cookies at lunch time. Let us sit and discuss this situation and find a better way to get your needs met.”

Unconditional love is merely the film negative of "obey thy parents". Same sorry picture, image merely reversed. It keeps the worst part of "Old Testament Parenting", where love and approval are hitched together (Old Testament Parent: you only get love IF you earn approval), and replaces that sorry doctrine with the equally toxic "you always get love so you always get approval" (Unconditional Love Parent: Oh sweetie, your telling me to f**k off is wonderful proof you are secure, confident, and fearless!)

The effects of offering children that steady diet of unconditional love and unconditional approval have been disastrous. Children are particularly adept at reading "subtext", at picking up the tension generated by their parent saying one thing whilst feeling another. Unconditional love and approval parents will expend enormous amounts of money and effort in a well meant, but unrealistic effort to prevent their child experiencing any kind of failure or mediocrity. The parent will say "I am committed to my child's success and happiness in life; there is nothing I wouldn't do to make sure s/he succeeds". The child, while grateful for the interest and involvement of their parent, cannot help but read the subtext: "Kid, you really don't cut it, and I cannot bear for you to be anything less than stellar, so I am stepping in here."

And we have all met the result; adults and children who are untrained in the hard work of earning love and respect, who misbehave regularly in their relationships for the simple purpose of checking to see if they are still loved "unconditionally". Not a pretty picture!

Parents are not immune to the doctrine of unconditional love. For those of you, who like me were born before the Flood and enjoyed the theatre release of “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?”, you will recall a scene in which Sidney Poitier and his father disagree on the life decision Sidney is making. “I BROUGHT YOU INTO THIS WORLD, YOU OWE ME!” shouts Sidney’s dad, by way of saying children should listen to their parents and do what they are told. I was, as a child, shocked that Sidney replies he doesn’t owe his dad a thing. How could Sidney be so mean to his dad? Many years later I realized that no child “owes” his parents for the simple fact s/he was born, brought into this world, loved, fed, clothed and housed, and kept alive. When a couple conceives, they sign on for those things; indeed the right to basic care is owed to each child first by his parents, and collectively by all the other adults in the culture.

What is not owed to the child is anything much past that. Your job as a parent is to provide the conditions whereby your children can grow up into adults who can take care of themselves and their own happiness (which, incidentally, includes the ability to love and nurture others). You may choose to do more, but that choice is elective, not a moral imperative.

Our experience of love, once we are past infancy, is an outgrowth of the relationships we have. And at the core of healthy relationships are the choices we make…to be kind, helpful, loving, to support the other person, to take active good care of them as we would have others take active good care of us. We earn love and respect thereby. And we have a right to expect our relationship partners will reciprocate in kind.

There is no shortcut to earning these things, no shortcut to building self esteem. You cannot build the self esteem of another beyond telling them they have innate worth: in particular you cannot build self esteem by lavishing un-earned approval on a child. Beyond infancy, we can only earn love and self worth by accomplishing positive goals.

I will end this with my favourite quote from the Dalai Lama. It is a good phrase to live by, covers every situation, and detoxifies much of the unconditional love misunderstandings that abound in our world:

"Your task in life is to pursue your own happiness,
but only insofar as that pursuit does not compromise the happiness of others.”


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