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Natural Awakenings Atlanta

Letter from the Publisher: Romantic Relationships Aren’t About Unconditional Love

Feb 01, 2024 06:00AM ● By Paul Chen
We asked readers to contribute to this issue by responding to a simple question: How do you define “love”? It’s the first time we’ve done so, and I have no idea why it took us so long!

I worked as a qualitative market research professional in a previous life; in other words, I conducted focus groups and in-depth interviews and provided analysis and reporting. While I would normally enjoy delving into this small sample to see if there’s some “center of gravity” in the responses, I am more content with the facts that 1) we received a number of responses, 2) for the most part, contributions were well written, 3) it is clear that people gave thought to what they wrote and 4) while it is impossible to draw conclusions, I’ll lean into my bias that all of our readers are lovely human beings.

The first definition Merriam-Webster offers for “love” has three parts: a) “strong affection for another arising out of kinship or personal ties,” b) “attraction based on sexual desire,” and c) “affection based on admiration, benevolence or common interests.” All three have something subtle in common: love has to do with our personal identity or benefit. For example, kinship means “my family” and “personal ties” means “my friends.” Sexual desire, of course, has very much to do with what people want for themselves. Admiration is a positive feeling we experience, so again, “love” is defined in such a way that there is personal benefit. Receiving another’s benevolence speaks for itself, as does sharing common interests with others. 

And yet, the word that we use to express the highest level of love imaginable—“unconditional”—is understood to mean that we expect no benefit from the love we offer to the point that we don’t even expect that love will be given back in return. In other words, our highest ideal of love has nothing to do with our identities or desires. 

That’s why I believe that romantic love—as much as we worship the ideal and wish for it in our own lives, treasuring the passionate moments shared with romantic partners—is the least “unconditional” of all so-called “loving relationships.” We expect to be as close to the center of our partners’ lives as possible, to be an object of their love, devotion, attention and sexual desire. These expectations place conditions upon our romantic relationships. 

The evidence that supports the assertion that romantic love rarely involves unconditional love is the animosity that follows breakups. A YouGov poll found that 58 percent of Americans surveyed report that breakups “are usually dramatic and/or messy,” and 38 percent say that “staying in touch with an ex will do more harm than good.” Only 17 percent say the opposite. If romantic love was truly unconditional, it wouldn’t matter if the relationship endured; love would. 

A song titled “Let Her Go” by the English folk singer known as Passenger captures this truth for me. Here’s a portion of the lyrics:

Only know you’ve been high when you’re feeling low
Only hate the road when you’re missing home
Only know you love her when you let her go
And you let her go

These words describe perhaps the most ironic of all life situations: that if we express undying love while in a romantic relationship, we will only know that it is truly undying when it comes time to part. But are we able to do so with grace and gratitude and wish nothing but the best for the person who no longer wants to be with us? 

As with many things in this life, my understanding of love is a function of spiritual teachings. My Buddhist tradition defines love as the wish that another is purely happy. “Purely” is an essential concept here. It refers to a happiness that comes from within, one that is not predicated upon external factors such as wealth, status, partner and so forth; it arises from a peaceful mind. Unlike Merriam-Webster’s definition, this definition of love has nothing to do with the identity or desires of the person offering love. It is truly unconditional. 

As we celebrate the month of love, may we all endeavor to inquire about the true nature of love and to revise our definitions accordingly. ❧

Publisher of Natural Awakenings Atlanta since 2017, Paul Chen’s professional background includes strategic planning, marketing management and qualitative research. He practices Mahayana Buddhism and kriya yoga. Contact him at [email protected].
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