Hi Dr Ali,
I’m hoping that you can help me to resolve an inner conflict. My understanding of unconditional love is that you accept a person exactly as he is; you do not try to change him. My understanding of boundary setting is that you explain to a person when his behaviour makes you feel uncomfortable or disrespected, and if the behaviour persists, you walk away. If you say to a person “I accept that this is who you are, but I do not accept this behaviour in my life, so I need to leave this relationship”, are you not putting conditions on how you are receiving the person? The person may even believe that he is acting in a loving way, doing his best, yet he is repeatedly demonstrating this behaviour that makes you feel not so great. I know that you are a proponent of “no ego”, but isn’t boundary setting automatically an act of egoism? Walking away from a relationship from a place of “self-love” or “self-respect” still requires “self” or ego. Is there any way to integrate the concepts of unconditional love and boundary setting, which seem to be mutually exclusive? — Tammy from Ottawa, Canada
Thanks for a great letter, Tammy! Unconditional love, boundaries, ego – all great concepts. And it’s important to remember that they are just that – abstract concepts. Of those, perhaps unconditional love is the most abstract. At best, it’s an unattainable ideal, like the horizon, and at worst a stressful hobby, like chainsaw juggling.
In fact, the whole point of love between two adults is its conditionality (note: the I’m cool with the love of parent for child being unconditional, but that’s it). In a loving relationship, we enrich each other’s lives, catalyze one another’s growth and enjoy each other’s company. Otherwise, what’s the point? Surely we don’t need to date someone to get bickering, loneliness and uncertainty via home delivery when the world’s got plenty of that stuff floating around for free.
What is love anyway? In her recent book Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do and Become, Prof Barbara Fredrickson says, “Although you may subscribe to a whole host of definitions of love, your body subscribes to just one: Love is that micro-moment of warmth and connection that you share with another living being.”
I also like her three-component definition of love: “Love is the momentary upwelling of three tightly interwoven events: first, a sharing of one or more positive emotions between you and another; second, a synchrony between your and the other person’s biochemistry and behaviors; and third, a reflected motive to invest in each other’s well-being that brings mutual care.”
She also makes it abundantly clear that this emotion we call love is way conditional. The first precondition is safety: “If you assess your current circumstances as threatening or dangerous in any way, love is not at that moment a possibility for you.” The second precondition is connection, “true sensory and temporal connection with another human being.” This happens through real-time sensory contact with another human through touch, voice, or most important, eye contact.
This means that if someone’s cruel to you and makes you feel unsafe, it’s not real love. If it’s long distance and you can’t see each other iris to gold-specked iris, it’s not real love. If you can’t caress his or her forearm, if you’re afraid of expressing your needs, if you play mostly in parallel instead of engaging with one another, then it’s not real love. You have lapsed into the realm of the abstract, in the same realm as dragons and democracy.
I really like Prof. Fredrickson’s formulation because it emphasizes the concrete and not the abstract. What do you actually feel in the presence of this person? This echoes what I’ve said before and I’ll say again: fulfillment is not a person; it is a feeling. If you’re with someone who’s great on paper but whose company doesn’t evoke fulfilling feelings, it’s probably the wrong person.
There is one kind of unconditional love that we should exercise all the time but most of us forget to. That would be self-love, and exercising it is the most selfless thing you can do.
Let me explain. The purpose of your existence on this planet is to contribute your highest gift. I don’t know what your gift is – maybe it’s painting, or designing buildings, or cooking, or raising great children, or running a world-moving enterprise. Self-love, then, is the noble impulse to get rid of all things that get in the way of giving your highest gift. This is another way of saying ‘setting boundaries.’
So if there’s some guy or gal who’s giving you grief and getting in the way, it’s time for that person to be put on ice. Yeah, so you got married, bought a house and had two kids together. Whatever! You were probably really drunk while it happened. Snap out of it! This is what divorce lawyers are for, and however much they cost, it’s still less than what the next 40 years of your life is worth.
So when you’re exercising that kind of self-love, don’t think of it as involving self, or ego, at all. You’re doing it for the world. In fact, one of my synonyms for ego is separation. To separate yourself from the rest of the universe by attending to just one measly human being who’s depriving the world of your gift is the most selfish, egotistic thing you can do. Think Whitney Houston. Is the world a richer place because she devoted herself to a dissolute and abusive partner? Nope. We’re never going to hear her sing again, and that kinda sucks.
At the same time, let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that somehow we ourselves are entitled to unconditional love, or set that as our ideal for a relationship. You need to be nice; you need to engage; and you need to care. In other words, you’ve gotta pull your own weight.
Of course, if you’re already selflessly giving your gift to the world, you’re all good! Your ego’s out of the way because you’re being of service to all those around you, you’re automatically setting boundaries, and you’re feeling great. So be the gift, and the rest will take care of itself.