I fall in love with people. This is a strange thing for an introvert to confess, because for the most part I prefer my own company in solitude, or alongside a four-legged companion. But when I do spend time with people, I do it deliberately and only among those with whom I really want to spend time…people I’m in love with. I’m not talking romantic love (though that has certainly been the case in my days when I was single), but just pure damn-the-torpedoes adoration for those who really ignite my heart.
Being in love with people used to get me into a lot of trouble. I mistook my feelings as an indication of rightness. I revered mountains, I adored horses and puppies, I cherished my work…so the rationale followed that love pointed me to things that were good for me. Hence, I would stalwartly commit to these love-inspired friendships, romantic relationships or work partnerships, turning a blind eye to bad behaviors or misaligned values. Growing up with the Beatles anthem ‘Love is All You Need’ and fueled by the ideology of unconditional love, I was hell bent to ensure that love would conquer all––align the values, straighten out the disfunction, heal the lunacy.
I lived in a naive binary which equated to something like this: either love unconditionally and therefore keep people in your life; or don’t love them and therefore don’t have them in your life. It wasn’t until I found myself in a toxic relationship with someone I deeply loved, yet knew unequivocally they were hazardous for me, that I felt the paradoxical rip of extracting them from my life, and still loving them.
The profound grief in the wake of that breakup was confusing. Was I sad because I should have kept them around? Was I devastated because I should have tried harder? Was I bereft because I made a mistake? No, I was grieving the loss of someone precious to me who was still alive, but for my own self-preservation, I could no longer be with.
There are times in life when someone we love becomes someone we barely recognize. The person is still physically there, but psychologically they are gone. Some of the most common reasons this can happen are addiction, dementia, traumatic brain injuries, and mental illness. If you have never lived through loving someone in such a situation, this can be hard to understand. But regardless of how they look on the outside (and to the rest of the world), they do things they would never have done, they say things they would never have said, treat you in ways they never would have treated you.
And there are also times when we ourselves are the ones who have changed. We’ve outgrown the superficiality. Or we find we suddenly have no tolerance for the racism, or the negativity. Or we are bored with their excuses. Regardless the reason, we find that our energy diminishes in their company and cannot, for our own self-preservation, continue the relationship. But we still love them.
This kind of grief where the person is still alive, but ‘lost to us’, is referred to as “ambiguous grief” or “ambiguous loss”. Ambiguous grief is devastating because it cannot be resolved; there is no closure. It’s often the fear of experiencing this excruciating form of grief that keeps us in toxic situations, or relationships that no longer serve us.
It took me years to learn that my love for another is just a tiny doorway into an entire universe of possible consciously designed alliances––aligned values, practices, habits, actions, agreements, and expectations if the relationship is going to thrive. And that if that universe is not available, the door must be closed, and the relationship stopped, or distinctly altered…all while keeping the heart unbearably open.
As I get older, I am increasingly able to love unconditionally, yet I am also learning an even harder skill––to relate conditionally.
Dr. Stan Tatkin, author of Wired for Love: How Understanding Your Partner’s Brain and Attachment Style Can Help You Defuse Conflict and Build a Secure Relationship says in this way we become ‘dangerous’ in our relationships. In other words, we take no crap. We will simply not stick around if treated badly. I aspire to be dangerous in that way––love people but no longer tolerate bad behavior towards anything I hold dear: my family, my friends, my business and the people inside it, or my heart.
I’m not saying people I care about can’t make mistakes. Mistakes are an awesome opportunity for growth. Yet is there repair? Do they take responsibility? Or do they blame, justify and deflect? Is there learning and growth from the mistakes? Are we able to engage well together in conflict, with maturity and kindness?
It’s interesting how this attitude of conditionality works for me both ways. I deeply appreciate those who expect me to be a good human around them. I love who I am inspired to be around particular people who also relate conditionally. They inspire me to be accountable, responsible, kind, mindful and integrous. They make me a better human. And I do the same for them; I inspire them to be a better human too. Everyone benefits.
In designing robust, resilient, accountable relationships, you have to teach people how to love you. People don’t automatically know what words, actions, gestures, agreements, habits, or practices have meaning for you. Metaphorically speaking, you may adore chocolate and they delight in strawberries. With the best of intentions, they dump a truckload of strawberries at your front door and then wonder why you are not smiling. But unless you tell them chocolate is the way to your heart, then you can’t expect to ever feel met. You have to actively teach people––‘these words, that action, this gesture, this habit’. If you just expect them to know, you are in for a rough ride––and so are they.
Conversely, they have to want to be teachable, to be willing to listen to your instruction and then love you in the way that works for you, and not in the way they think you should feel loved. And you want to be teachable too. This means being curious about what works for your friends, your children, your team, your beloved. What are all the specific ways that they feel valued, cared for, respected? I have a loved one for whom accuracy is important. It helps them feel safe. Little things like me paying attention to the exact price, the exact date, the exact time or the exact cost translates into them feeling loved by me. I could tell them that the difference between $100 and $105 is only five dollars…but I’m missing the point, and invalidating their needs. Learn your loved ones’ heart-codes.
I often suggest to clients that they journal about what conditions they have for others in order to be in relationship with them. What are the actions and behaviors that make you feel really cherished? For many, they’ve never actively considered what those conditions might be. This exercise can be enlightening. Take it a step further and examine the relationships you have. Do they operate within those conditions? If not, it’s probably time for some truthful conversations and clear requests.
Love, all by itself, is not enough. Love just opens the door. Then comes the very hard work of being the best humans you can be for each other––in intimate relationships, friendships, all the way to teams and other professional relationships. To me, that work is the real love.