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.
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.
In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.
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Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.