“If he loves me, he’ll love me unconditionally.”
“If she loves me, she’ll want to become the best version of herself for me.”
Couples, sometimes, clash with each other due to their opposing expectations and beliefs about romantic love. All of us carry with us a philosophy of life, an understanding of how the world should and does work. Therein, we also possess a philosophy of love. Based on our childhoods, and what we learned or were bereft of, we form conceptions of what it means to be in love. If you grew up starved for it, love is unconditional, the proverbial pot at the end of the rainbow that only appears real in fantasy. If you were a child during the height of the self-esteem movement in the US, you likely consider love as something you’re entitled to. And if love was inconsistent, growing up in a context in which you were chronically fighting for attention, then love is ensconced in a meritocracy, where only the best and brightest earn it.
Some of my clients often clash with their partners without really understanding why. Fundamentally, they not only expect their spouses to read their minds, but also can’t fathom the possibility of them having a different view of love. They wonder, “Does he really love me if he doesn’t want to change?” or “Why can’t she just accept me for who I am?” It’s easy to conceive of your partner’s actions as representations of how they feel about you. And, when you’re certain of their meanings and fear having your belief confirmed, nothing is explored and nothing is resolved. Unfortunately, many of us tend to personalize how our partners treat us, yet they often treat us how they expect, and want, us to treat them.
If I don’t want to change, chances are that I don’t want you to change, either. If I want to be a better a man, chances are that I also want you to be a better woman, for both you and me. In extreme cases, as with narcissistic personalities, a partner may expect wholesale improvement from their spouse but desire to be loved unconditionally. Here, the narcissist feels entitled to having the best partner in the world and, simultaneously, believes that it’s only fitting since he’s so exceptional himself. However, most of us aren’t pathologically narcissistic and, thus, don’t engage our partners in highly hypocritical ways. But, nuance, another unfortunate circumstance, is frequently lost.
While it’s healthy to want your partner to improve somewhat; it’s also healthy to want to be loved for who you are. Interpersonal well-being is a matter of degree, rather than of type. The above-noted philosophies of love are extremes and should be discarded in those forms. Expecting unconditional love in the romantic realm is childish, since people tend to end relationships with individuals who fail to match them in maturity. But expecting your partner to meet all of your needs and fully adapt to your idealistic image of them is just as foolish, even if you’re working on becoming your best self. I often ask my clients: what is good enough? And how do you know it when you see it?
Idealism offers the illusion of security. If your partner is perpetually adapting to your vision or you’re receiving unmitigated love, you’ve cultivated what you never had in childhood, the sense of emotional safety. Ultimately, that is what control boils down to. So, “good enough” is threatening; “good enough” is little more than veiled chaos. When exploring their philosophies of love with one another, a couple, more often than not, discovers that each person loves the other, finding that they were simply searching for differing forms of affection. “I didn’t want to change because I wanted you to see and love me for who I was.” “I wanted to change you because I knew everything that you could be.” Misunderstandings are more common than rejections. And therapy, or even talking to a friend, may help you foster the resolve needed to explore your partner’s views. While it’s easy to chalk it up to a lack of care, the culprit is usually a lack of empathy. If you don’t believe me, go ahead, ask your partner and find out.