I was once working with a group of teenagers discussing “integrity agreements,” which I described as “either spoken or unspoken agreements not to hurt each other.” These integrity agreements are the fabric of our society. This belief, that we won’t harm each other, is what allows us to walk down the street without worrying about getting shot or intentionally run over. I discussed with the teens how every time we break integrity agreements with each other—every time we cheat, lie, abuse, or harm—we weaken the agreement and create unstable relationships.
Their families might keep taking them back after a breach of the agreement, I explained, but there could come a point in time in which the integrity of the relationship has been so severely damaged that it cannot be repaired. Some of them, from experience, knew exactly what I was talking about. But one of the teens said, “But my mom and dad love me unconditionally. They have to take me back.”
As we have witnessed in countless homes and families, this is not actually true. Parents don’t welcome their kids home no matter what. Kids don’t have to embrace their parents no matter what, and spouses don’t stay married no matter what.
It is my observation that unconditional love may still have conditions.
“Unconditional love” is aspired toward in the realm of personal and spiritual growth as the highest form of love. But what is it exactly? How do you do it? And is it really possible? Is it maintained regardless of integrity?
In some circles, unconditional love essentially means love no matter what. We tend to think that unconditional love is the love of family members and of married couples. In fact, when we say “I do,” we are essentially saying, “I’ll love you no matter what—for better and for worse, in good times and bad.”
My personal philosophy is that there is a difference between unconditionally loving someone and unconditionally living with them, staying in close proximity to them, or remaining in a relationship with them.
We can love someone unconditionally from a distance while having conditions for how they treat us. We can pray for them, wish them well, and want the best for them while maintaining boundaries about how we are treated. Unconditional love in its purest sense doesn’t mean allowing someone to repeatedly abuse or harm us, no matter what.
I’ve often thought that if marriage vows really reflected the truth of how people were going to behave, they would say, “I’ll love you forever in my heart of hearts, but I’ll only stay married to you until you cheat, lie, or become irresponsible with time or money.”
So my invitation is to contemplate this concept—and feel free to share. What does unconditional love mean to you? Can you love someone and still choose not to be around them? Is it more “spiritual” to put up with behavior in the name of love, or to love yourself enough to draw boundaries?