A Guide to Getting the Love You Never Knew You Wanted

We all want to be loved unconditionally, yet most of the love we give is conditional. Which means we’re all trying to get the love we think we want by giving the kind of love nobody really wants. But what if there is a third kind of love—one we deeply desire but don’t even know we want?


Photo Credit: Bigstock (Eva_eva79)

It’s a Sunday night at the end of a busy weekend and shoehorning the kids back into a school week has been even more cumbersome than usual. We’re finally moving toward bedtime books, when I walk into the basement and see kid-sized, mud-colored footprints all over the carpet.

So, I decide to love my kids conditionally.

While pretending to love them unconditionally.

Without a raised voice or a complaint, I get down on my knees to clean the carpet—the selfless servant loving his family. Except with every spray of the stain remover, I heave a big-heavy sigh. Big enough and loud enough to be heard from my boys’ bedroom. Then, while the spray soaks in, I continue tucking them into bed. But I make sure my shoulders are slumped. I groan with fatigue. I sprinkle in a lot more sighing.

This is my favorite form of unconditional love:

While loving someone, let them know in subtle—and mostly deniable—ways how much that love is costing you. Indirectly communicate that they are a burden to you. Show them how hard they make your life. Of course, you aren’t actually expecting anything in return—you simply want them to feel as distraught as you do about the hard work of caring for them. If they don’t appear to be getting it, you might be disguising it too well. Sigh harder.

If sighing harder still doesn’t work, you might want to experiment with several other thinly-disguised forms of conditional love:

Do expect something tangible in return for your unconditional love. When those you love do empathize with the cost of your care—and their empathy is ultimately unsatisfying—start expecting something a little more substantial in return. From your kids, demand hugs and the promise that they will never complain about you to their therapist. From your spouse, demand more of whatever it is they fail to give you in satisfying amounts. From friends, don’t openly demand anything (that might alienate them), but silently expect them to reciprocate. When they fail to do so, mute them on Facebook.

Sacrifice so you don’t have to sacrifice anymore. My favorite version of unconditional sacrifice goes something like this inside my head: “I worked hard to provide for you all week, so you don’t get to ask anything else of me today.” Of course, true sacrifice tends to be joyfully and gladly given. It is not a get out of jail free card, absolving us of additional sacrifice. Committed, unconditional love doesn’t keep banker’s hours. But whatever. Keep track of your hours.

Do the opposite: care for everyone else, totally abandon your own self-care. Give everybody else good things. Deny yourself the simple necessities of a balanced life. At first, you will feel good about being the most loving person on the planet. This will pass very quickly, and what you will pass into is called resentment, where you will say things like, “I haven’t even had a chance to brush my teeth today.” As if that is someone else’s fault. Pretend it is.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Of course, I’m being a little tongue-in-cheek. But only a little. Most of us do the best we can. We aim for the holiest target and woefully miss the mark. We want to love unconditionally and we hope to be loved unconditionally, but it rarely happens. Why? Because we are human beings and unconditional love is a superhuman phenomenon.

And yet.

There is a third kind of love.

The third kind of love is conditional love that can admit it is conditional.

This third kind of love humbly embraces the weakness of its humanity, confesses its failures, vulnerably expresses its desire to do better, and tirelessly commits to striving for something a little more unconditional, something a little more superhuman.

And here’s the thing: when we receive a little bit of this third kind of love—and perhaps even when we give a little bit of it—we begin to realize it is the kind of love we really wanted all along.

We didn’t need a perfect love; we just needed someone to admit the love they gave us wasn’t perfect. We just needed someone to give us grace for all of the imperfect love we’ve given.

We just needed someone to say that love is messy but we’ll keep muddling through it together.

Muddy foot prints and all.

You can leave a comment by clicking here.


Pre-Order LOVEABLE Now! You are enough. You are not alone. And you matter. These are the three fundamental truths of your existence. The problem is, there is a voice inside each of us relentlessly calling them into question. And yet the answer to that voice can be found within each of us, as well. Click here to find out more about my new bookLoveable: Embracing What Is Truest About You, So You Can Truly Embrace Your Life.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

36 thoughts on “A Guide to Getting the Love You Never Knew You Wanted

  1. “We just needed someone to say that love is messy but we’ll keep muddling through it together.”
    Wow. Every word of this is perfect. I never knew I needed this but reading your article hits me spot on and I suddenly feel free (from the obligation/burden/responsibility/insatiable desire to love unconditionally) and oddly, forgiven, for not being able to love unconditionally at all times. Thank you. Can’t say it enough. Thank you.

    • Tree, in my experience, it is usually those who feel most sense of responsibility for not loving unconditionally who are the closest to actually doing so. Yes, indeed, friend, give yourself grace for that small gap between how you love and how you’d like to love.

  2. ha ha I was wondering where you got your degree and how many lives you’ve messed up with your advice – good thing I read it till the end LOL I’m Messy Jess and I’m stealing your messy quote to share with others ; )

  3. Thank you, Kelly!
    It leaves me in awe during those beautiful mundane moments when I know I am offering a messy, badly wrapped gift of my imperfect love and I see it received as the treasure that it is—not because it’s perfect but because it is what I can give and I’m choosing to give it. I feel truly seen, loved, known.
    It does make all the difference in the world not to hold ourselves or the people around us to some unrealistic divine expectation of Love; it frees us and them both from the burden of expecting love so we can freely and joyfully share the gift of love that is between us.
    This one is magic, Kelly.

    • I love your words. But what if I present my badly wrapped gift and they don’t “receive it as the treasure it is”? They set it down, unopened? Or my husband sees that I’m giving the gift to my teen and the teen throws it to the floor and my husband says nothing to me or our teen?
      I understand your point and I very much appreciate Kelly’s point. It makes me embarrassed that I really do give conditional love. But I feel my love tank is always running on E. Where do I look to fill my tank? (I’m not saying I need something in return for every act I do, but how do others keep going? What powers them? And maybe every eleventh act I could get just one in return. That’s pretty conditional I guess. Lol)

      • Absolutely, Shane, our messy gifts can be rejected, ignored, or trashed. We control what we do and how we choose to interpret what we experience, but that leaves a lot in the hands of others.
        Right now, I feel lucky that my family is warm and accepting of the host of personal shortcomings and medical deficits that make my own gift look especially lumpy. But I am also gifting my imperfect love to people who are dramatically less appreciative. I need to be able to give what I can how I can and stay mindful of why I am doing what I am. There are some —your raging teen or bystander husband— we will need to continue to engage with, and for them this messy gift will need to look more like boundaries than cuddles. There are others we engage in a more optional way, and we can identify when our affections and gifts and being squandered there.
        How do people keep going? People are an enormous mystery, for sure. There are days I make mountains out of the smiles and tiny pleasantries because there are days that those have to stand in for someone caring that your moment is brighter.
        I do hope you find spaces that fill your tank back up.

        • Wow, this probably one of the realest, grittiest conversations happening on the internet today. I’m grateful for both of you. Ditto what Shel said, and Shayne, without knowing you in a more personal or professional sense, I can’t give a lot of advice, but what I can say is this: the feeling you have is telling you that something needs to change, and that’s a good thing.

          • Thank you. I appreciate this community more than any other online community I’ve encountered. And I feel comfortable reaching out to your followers knowing we all want the same thing.
            Funny you talk about change. I recently took a transfer from my ER job two days a week 35 miles away, to an “as needed” job, 10 minutes away. I decided my family was more important than any job. (Praying when the bills come in that somehow this great plan of mine works! Lol) So far, I’ve made more dinners, kept the house tidier (my husband appreciates this- my theory is I can clean when the children are grown!), and done more things MY way. So far so good. But it’s only been a month. 🙂
            Next on my to do list to make Shayne happy? Thinking of donating my uterus and all (most of) the hormones that go with it. Hormones are stupid.

        • Thank you so much for the insight. I appreciate your response. I am so good at this at times, and so horrible at other times.
          Some days I think, yes! Shayne, you got this! And other days, I want to run away and start over.

          • That sounds a lot like doing it right feels, Shayne. Feeling in the groove one day and horrible at things the next is something I can guarantee you that you are not alone in. Given how hard we can be on ourselves, I have to think you are doing good things. Congratulations on making those job changes and incorporating what they can bring into your life. That was a brave and beautiful choice.

      • Hi Shayne,
        I understand wanting to know how to fill one’s tank when we are running on E. What I have found out works is to go to my friends or loved ones who do love me and kind of carry me through and affirm me when I am feeling quite unloving. I also have been loving myself and the little girl inside me, especially when I have messed up because I have found out that THAT is the time I most need to be loved. If others can’t or won’t give me that love that I need, then I give it to myself and that gives me the power to keep going, warts and all. We oftentimes look for affirmation and love from outside of ourselves when in reality, WE are the ones that can give us what we most need.
        Hope that helps!
        Blessings to you!

        • This is such a good point. Especially during this time of year when I want a special memorable Christmas and often it is not what I have in my mind. (I try very hard to uncommercialize it and make super over the top memories for my kids.) This year I tried something different. I took the day for myself, put on the Christmas music that I like, burned some evergreen candles, and decorated the tree and my house all day. By myself. It felt good.
          I often forget that I can make myself feel good. Maybe I’ll try to write positive things down when feeling on E.

  4. Wow!!! My favorite Wednesday morning read just hit me full in the face and I thank you. My son and I just had a discussion over conditional and unconditional love 2 days ago with me in tears, because I realized how conditional my love was. Thank you for continuing to teach and touch us all, even grandmas!
    This continues to be my favorite Wednesday read of all time!

  5. Those are some priceless words. It seems that this has been the mantra coming from my [divorced now] parents. Always showing me generosity while telling me how they wish they could do more. I try to mirror the example given, to people, and their varying situations, that I come in contact with daily

  6. Excellent post this morning! So necessary for me to hear during this season of “joy” where the majority of responsibility for providing that falls on me. Don’t get me wrong I love this season; I just try too hard to meet everyone’s expectations. Thanks for giving me permission to take off my Superwoman cape and love my family.

  7. THIS: We just needed someone to give us grace for all of the imperfect love we’ve given.
    If that isn’t the most humbling thing I will read all week I don’t know what is. If I had a tail, it would be tucked under….Thank you for a timely reminder during a season that can be fraught with expectations!

  8. Hmmm.
    “Of course, true sacrifice tends to be joyfully and gladly given.” “We aim for the holiest target and woefully miss the mark.”

    Says who?

    Really, who in the heck came up with that impossible, unrealistic standard? In fairness I think that is what you’re driving at with the 3rd type of love, but I gotta challenge the basic assumption here.

    Yeah, you were supposed to clean the foot prints (your turn in the barrel), and yes you were supposed to be a whinny martyr while doing so. You executed love PERFECTLY.

    Living with people under the same roof is infinitely hard. The challenge it presents one (patience, tolerance, forgiveness) are really hard things to do. I submit you can’t claim to love someone UNTIL you have to forgive them. But that flies in the face of the sacred cow of unconditional love.

    It seems like there is this unchallenged assumption that love is easy; and if it ISN’T easy (or feels easy?) that somehow that means it is phony. I cannot agree.

    Again, I think (hope) that is what you’e driving for in the 3rd type, but please push harder. Let’s kill that sacred cow.

    • I’m with you, brother. I think you could even say that it is the sincere suffering that much love entails that leads to the most growth, transformation, and freedom. Necessary suffering, as Richard Rohr calls it. What you’re saying, I think, is that love DOES, in the words of Bob Goff. Even when it is exhausted and fed up, it still gets down on its knees and cleans up the mud. Couldn’t agree with you more. Having said that, a little less whining couldn’t hurt. 🙂

      • Love “DOES”. I like it. It offers a way for me to love even when it doesn’t feel like what I think love should feel like. An honest love, if you will.
        I still think some whining is acceptable. It has to be. Otherwise, I get caught in the trap of condemnation. Loving myself is every bit the requirement that loving others is – and often more difficult.
        Thanks Kelly, I appreciate you and what you do with this site.

  9. Whenever I read your blog posts, I want to unconditionally say, “you suck..again!” That’s ’cause that’s the only response I have when you use your gifted skill of “head and heart surgery”to expose my dark side with each and every post! I can run, but sure can’t hide. I find myself craving a sip…. a drop… of love back from my partner, just to sustain me in what seems sometimes like a harsh desert. I see now how even my five year old can give her love conditionally…ah, the innocence is over already! So, yes, I have no choice to nourish myself in anyway I can: if nothing more than to just to get through some days. I struggle with “muddling through,” and question how much longer this “test” need go on. For now, though, that’s what I’ll do because life is messy, sometimes.

    • David, I’m sure your situation is far more complicated even than you could articulate here. I hope you’ll enlist someone, a friend or professional, to help you sort through your expectations and to make decisions about where to assert yourself and where to submit yourself. Thanks for being so open to my words, even when they challenge you.

      • Thank you, Kelly. It’s a daily dance and I’m fortunate to have support as I walk through this. I’m pretty clear where this path is leading. Pointing out anyone’s shadow side, except my own, is a place I won’t go. It’s always a pleasure to read and hear about your journey. We are more alike than not.

  10. Hi Kelly. I have read you faithfully for several years although I have never before posted. You are a good and wise, though unmet, friend. I not only appreciate your wisdom but also your willingness to share the messiness of your own life even though you have all of the credentials which would indicate that you have graduated to the ‘grown-up’ life of integration and understanding or whatever it is that marks a true grown-up. Your vulnerability often makes me laugh out loud because it hits so close to home. And I sigh a small sigh of relief that if a highly trained and experienced psychologist is still working it all out then I shouldn’t be surprised that I’m still working it all out too. About this post, what really hit me is that I often find it easier to extend the ‘3rd kind of love’ to others (not that I do it anywhere close to perfect) than to myself. I realize that I have a feeling of dread heading into the holidays because I know that there will be so many ways that I will look at myself as not up to the task before me, even if it is just staying in the moment and being present. I think I’ll just focus on laughing a little more, breathing a little more deeply, and going to bed at night appreciating what I did give to the folks in my life – and to myself – instead of feeling disappointment that I didn’t give more, or I didn’t eat perfectly or shop perfectly or exercise perfectly or ………. Thank you!

    • Everything you said! Yes! If only we could all meet up for 30 minutes prior to bed and give each other hugs and affirmation, a whole group of us would go to bed happy I bet!

      • Agree! And it would be great fun – and a way, I bet, to catch up on the day’s laughter quotient.

  11. Not quite sure of what you are saying. For me a parent who loves a kid unconditionally , accepts the kid as he is and does not use love and acceptance to leverage behavior, that the kid does not feel more loved when he behaves or does well at school and does not feel he needs to do to get my love or approval. A parent’s concerns and unmet expectations can be addressed by collaboratively solving problems with kids finding mutually satisfying solutions that address both concerns. So parenting is about solving problems rather than addressing behaviors.

  12. So badly needed the reminder, thank you Kelly!

    One of the best lessons I have learned in the past few years is that giving is for the giver, not the recipient. How (or if) they receive it is not a part of the equation. Only that I have given from my heart and with love.

    I have also learned that only I can fill my love tank. Sure it feels amazing when I am recognized by someone else. But to truly fill the tank, the gas must come from inside me.

    The best, most expansive gift I give myself is the recognition that I do not own it all, cannot own it all, and do not want to own it all.

    I’ve learned to say “no.” The truest gift.

    “No” allows me to find the humor in the muddy foot prints. (At least they were outside and not in front of screens!)

    Thank you for the unconditional love you share through your words. They always seem to be exactly what I needed that day.

    … I’m off to brush my teeth. 😉

Comments are closed.