The idea of romantic love as a conditional right is a belief I have falsely acquired from childhood. Since my youth, I was both told and shown from my father, media, and the men I have dated that I can achieve love if I stay youthful and physically attractive, appear and act in a feminine way, have passions and a stable career, remain easy-going and mentally strong, work hard, dress well, maintain a positive mindset, and also exhibit that I can cater to the emotions of my lover, the demands of a conjoined living space, and the bottomless needs of my potential children. It’s an exhausting set of demands, and the requirements are not exactly conductive to developing and maintaining a loving relationship, as the amount of work it takes to achieve all of the above leaves little time to devote to another person. Moreover, the love that is formed is primarily given or received on a conditional basis.
Loving in such a manner is a practice that has grown rampant in our individualistic and achievement-based culture, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation.[i] In modern society, we are applauded for our material achievements and trained to admire and give attention to those that are powerful, put-together, wealthy, well-connected, and beautiful. This conditions the majority of us to accept love on the basis that our lover (and even ourselves) exhibit such traits. But, as practical as it may be to pick a partner based on their tangible benefits and/or the value they can give to you, it is an isolating, unfulfilling, and temporal approach to love and connection.
Fortunately, this conditional approach to love has not extended to most friendships, and perhaps primarily due to the fact that- as a society- we place less value on our non-sexual unions. In platonic relationships, physical attraction is not a requirement, and there is a decreased emphasis on financial stability, emotional regulation, and compatibility due to the fact that cohabitation, combining finances, raising a family, and building a life together are not expected.[ii] However, in today’s romantic relationships, requirements are much more stringent, as our partner’s natures will significantly affect our physical wellbeing, emotional states, assets, and any potential children we co-parent. Additionally, unlike our deepest friendships that mainly form in high-school or college, our most-committed romantic relationships tend to develop in our twenties and thirties, when the immense demands of building and sustaining a career, a stable living situation, and a family are at their highest. This leaves the majority of us over-burdened, exhausted, and unable to focus on an emotional and sensual connection with ourselves and our chosen partner. Furthermore, the anxiety that we feel over the demands and expectations of modern life is inevitably correlated with and connected to that partner, and it takes a lot of reflection, empathy, awareness, time, and effort (time and effort we don’t often have) to be able to accurately communicate and delegate the burdens of cohabitation, co-financing, and co-parenting while also distancing our partner from being the cause of such stresses (and at the same time retain the initial chemistry that helps to sustain such a deep bond with another person).
Because of these conjoined obligations, modern love is a remarkably trying ideal for us to uphold, especially since we enter it with such high-expectations. And it’s nearly impossible to maintain when you consider that most of us are searching for perfection in career, finances, home, family, health, and love (what we consider to be, when combined, the necessary pillars of a successful life).
Now, what I just exposed above is not an enlightening take on modern romance, especially amongst those who have been in a long-term, conjoined relationship while also successfully navigating the demands of a career, a home, finances, and children. But what I would like to divulge on is the fact that the lessons learned through modern dating often leave us unprepared for the task of building and maintaining such involved partnerships.
Perhaps the biggest detriment towards modern romance is the manner in which we treat dating and love as a business venture: conditional in nature and practical. Modern dating coaches encourage their listeners, viewers, and clients to approach dating as a power dynamic in which the goal is to gain power over the other in the courting phase, and even beyond, by getting the person more interested in you than you are in them, or to at least make the person believe in that reality so that you are viewed as a ‘high-quality mate.’[iii] Although this approach is unbecoming to long-lasting love, it is sensible towards finding suitable short-term connections because we are conditioned to value people who exhibit social power and reserve; so embodying such traits- even through false or exploitative pretenses- is often how we achieve the task of finding (but perhaps not maintaining) a partnership. Furthermore, it is needed advice for those who continue to chase after unavailable prospects or who allow themselves to stay in manipulative or abusive relationships; for even if the emotion of love is unconditional, the act of being in a partnership with a grown individual is conditional on one’s ability to adequately fulfill the base requirements of partnered life. Therefore, I don’t blame dating coaches for promoting such a self-serving approach to love, as many of them believe that they are (and are) providing a beneficial service for others.
Yet, when applied, the ideals they propagate tend to merge with the negative aspects of individualism, perfectionism, and pragmatism in our society, edging on the way in which dating has become increasingly detached, combative, and callous. It’s both a fortunate and unfortunate aspect of the modern world that the majority of us are inexperienced in vulnerability, rejection and failure, and are therefore petrified of the possibility that someone is unwilling to return or at best respond to our advances. Because of this, we learn to approach dating coyly, hiding our personal wants and desires for fear that they will be rebuked or that this person will highlight our self-perceived unworthiness. When you combine such a state with the game-like steps provided by dating coaches, it not only encourages, but condones, a detached and antagonistic attitude towards the external world and it makes it so that individuals that abide by such principles aren’t actively expressing or going after their wants and needs, but rather spending their effort and time figuring out how to get someone interested in them in a disingenuous and misleading manner. [iv]
It is this mentality towards love that is detrimental towards building supportive relationships and a stable network of individuals. Yet it is the primary type of connections that are formed in the modern era, especially in large cities. But, contrary to convention, it is not powerful to enter into a connection with someone believing that the person who exhibits more interest or who has fallen first is in the less fortunate position, for people with a developed confidence based on self-reflection and self-acceptance don’t mind showing more interest in another person, as they are strong enough to know that they can deal with the pain that can occur if that interest isn’t reciprocated. Conversely, those who have not yet found peace and strength with their inner vulnerabilities tend to shun honest displays of connection and prefer being in a position of power over another, perhaps because they are unsure of their capacity to deal with emotional upset or have an underdeveloped sense of personhood and identity that any pain and inner turmoil they feel or that is connected to them becomes deeply personalized, even if it’s for a short duration.
Unfortunately for those of us who suffer from the power-based mentality of relating to others, the work that goes into such bonded relationships can seem less appealing than the short-term appeasement of casual flings or prolonged- but noncommittal- interactions that only require youthful rapport and chemistry. Such relationships are not wrong, and they do have their merit, but if one continues down that path for an extended period of time, it can leave one fearful of intimacy, incapable of forming committed partnerships, hostile towards external circumstances, and with no one to rely on when issues appear in their lives.
The benefits of loving and being loved by select individuals unconditionally is that you will have others that will mitigate your mistakes, failures, and misfortunes as well as a community around you to experience the pleasures and pains of life with. It takes effort, but for many the work put into manifesting and maintaining such relationships does pay off. And yes, it is a difficult task that requires a delicate balance of selfishness, selflessness, and self-awareness, concepts that the best of us will not be able to get right all the time.
But we shouldn’t get it right all the time, because unconditional love[v] is not a power game to perfect.
[i]Men, as well as women, also operate under the principle that they can only be loved under certain conditions (such as: if they are wealthy, ‘masculine’ in physical or mental form, or successful). This is likely due to the fact that partnered men are often chosen based on their physical appearance, social status, and financial wealth.
[ii]Of course, a conditional mentality towards love can also extended beyond romantic relationships. Many of us now expect perks from our friends, often pertaining to an increase in social status. (And this is particularly so in regards male friendships, as emotional expressions of rapport and vulnerability are often discouraged from men and the bulk of male-male relationships are formed due to and through common interests, hobbies, or work, places where hierarchal power and emotional reticence are necessary components of social acceptance.)
[iv]Moreover, the lack of experience in unconditional love does not prepare one for parenthood and the experience of being shit on (both literally and figuratively) by a being that you give everything to and who gives you nothing but difficult love in return. Unsurprisingly, those that struggle with loving and being loved unconditionally tend to shun, fear, chide, or look down upon children and childrearing.
[v](and- many would argue- life in general)
If you want to experience the merits of unconditional love, seek out the youngest of society.