The Powerful Benefits Of Unconditional Love For You & Your Lover

How much importance do you put on unconditional love in your relationship?

Tina Turner once famously sang the question “what’s love got to do with it?” and followed her inquiry by letting us all know that love is a second hand emotion. To add insult to loves injury, she then wondered why we need hearts when hearts can be broken. Good question, Tina. Luckily we have five YourTango experts to help answer the question. So, what’s love got to do with it? Relationship expert Aja Duncan is joined by Michelle Maliniak, Marie Kane, Chrisi Santana, and Suzann O’Koon to help answers Tina’s question. Hint: the answer is “everything”.

To start, Maliniak suggests that “love” is a subjective term. “When we love, does it mean we have to like everything they do? Does it mean we never get angry or disappointed at the things they do? What does it mean to love unconditionally? It means we accept them exactly as they are. We know what we can and can not expect of them and love them anyway. It doesn’t mean we give them everything they want or tolerate frightening or mean behavior — it means we protect ourselves and forgive them.”

Santana adds that when you love someone unconditionally, you do nice things for them, and the feelings of joy spread from the recipient to the giver (that’s you!) The benefits are not only emotional but physical as well. “Isn’t it a great feeling when you do something for someone? Maybe you cooked dinner for your partner who had to work late, or spent the time listening without judgment to a friend after they had a bad breakup. Doing things for others helps with our own stress levels. Focusing on a positive action for someone else makes us feel good about ourselves. Lowered stress levels benefit not only our heart (studies have shown that love can reduce cholesterol levels, which lowers your chance of heart attack), but our whole body and mind as well.”

Humans are also social creatures. We need to interact with others. Santana adds that “Showing unconditional love for others deepens our relationships. On the flip side, receiving love or help from friends and strangers can make us feel gratitude, and being grateful leads to happiness and overall good mental health.”

Loving Unconditionally

“The most important thing in this world is to learn to give out love, and let it come in.” ~ Morrie Schwartz

Love is a strange and beautiful thing.

I always thought I knew what love meant. I grew up hearing the words all the time. It was on TV, in books and magazines, and people all around were saying it.

I thought I knew how to love. I mean, I told my teddy bear that I loved him because he kept me safe at night. I told my sister that I loved her, only if she was nice to me and would play the games that I wanted.

But if I didn’t get that new limited edition beanie baby, I felt differently for my parents. If my friends at school didn’t give me the birthday presents I wanted, I felt differently for them.

I seemed to only love the people and things that would give me something in return and that would allow life to go on the way that I wanted it to.

I never truly felt love, a love that was unconditional and all encompassing, until the day I first saw my dad cry.

My friends always tell me that my father is the happiest man that they’ve ever met. He greets everyone with open arms, and his smile is so big you can practically count all of his teeth.

The other day I came home, and my dad looked sullen, the smile usually spread across his face missing. He looked into my eyes and just collapsed into my arms, sobbing.

I could feel his sadness before I even heard the tears, from the way he put his entire body weight on me as if he needed help just standing, and the way he gripped me so tight like a child does with his mom on the first day of school.

My sister had just made a rash career decision that would leave her in a large amount of debt and temporarily unemployed. And my dad just didn’t have the money that she needed to help her out of her situation.

Growing up, my dad always told us that his one purpose in life was to give us the life that he never had. And in his eyes, at that moment, he had failed.

You see, my parents are first generation immigrants from Vietnam. They come from impoverished families, both with more than 10 siblings each. Their journey to America is almost like a fictional tale to me, something that they rarely talk about, with my dad escaping first, then my mom, aunt, and sister, who almost didn’t even make it out alive.

At first, the American Dream wasn’t all that it was made out to be. Yes, freedom rang, but so did the challenge of learning a new language, a new culture, a new way of making money and supporting a family.

But somehow, they did it. They raised my older sister and put her through college. They raised my aunt, and put her through college. They raised my twin sister and me, and put us through college. And in the midst of all that, they found a way to sponsor all of their own siblings to emigrate to the land of the free.

Relationship 911: Unpacking Shame

The ways we perceive the actions of others reflect how we see ourselves. I knew I had a problem with shame because of how I’d been treating my partner.

It began innocently enough.

“Are you really going to eat all of that?” I’d ask playfully, as if monitoring his eating would negate my own cravings.

“You did what in high school?” I’d gasp, appalled at whatever crazy anecdote came up. As if I were Mother Theresa.

I was looking at his past under the same negative microscope with which I judged my own. This served to confirm my belief that my mistakes made me a bad person.

Shame was deeply rooted in my relationship history, but I covered it with false bravado, impulsiveness and deflection. Subconsciously, I kept focus away from my own negative qualities by looking for them in others. Even in those I loved.

At the time, I saw this as a positive behavior. I would point to something I saw as a fault in my lover, then actively assert myself in “helping” him fix it. I thought that this made me a good partner. But in truth, I was anything but.

I didn’t know how to love someone without trying to improve him or her somehow – even if my words said otherwise, and even if I didn’t really want to change them. I couldn’t help myself. Judgment, blame and shame were all that I knew, even when life was good.

“Blame is [a] defensive cover-up for shame. Blame maintains the balance in a dysfunctional system when control has broken down.” – John Bradshaw, Healing the Shame that Binds You

I could say that I developed these habits because of my religious upbringing, where love came with conditions. Or I could blame my actions on past relationships, because they all seemed to have been dysfunctional in this way. But to actually solve the problem, I would have to look at the common denominator in these factors: me.

I didn’t know how to love myself without pretense or perfectionism. And because I didn’t take the time to admit this before I entered the relationship, it took a big toll on my partner. I was ruining my life, without even realizing it.

At the time, I was convinced that I was in the right. I believed that caring for people in spite of their shortcomings was the same as unconditional love. The very foundation of my relationships had been poisoned by shame. I acted defensively by default, manifesting of my own deepest fears. I truly loved my partner, but I was doing it wrong.

It took a great deal of therapy, self-reflection and rock bottom moments for me to finally have the guts to look in the mirror and acknowledge the fearful person staring back at me.

Marriage 101: Expectations Vs. Reality

 Once upon a time, two newlywed lovers rode off into the sunset.

just marriedIt was a perfect end to a perfect day: The Bride (wearing an off-beat vintage dress that totally said “I’m not like other brides”) took a celebratory swig from a flask in the passenger seat. Her Groom squinted like a sultry James Dean, driving toward the horizon with wind in his hair. The sexy beats of Arctic Monkeys accompanied them as they drove; they thought of the red-hot road trips they took when they had first been dating. This new beginning was just a continuation of a love that was already good.

The couple held hands and agreed: this was perfect, they were perfect, and the future was going to be perfect.

Being married wouldn’t change a thing, they swore. This was the happy ending they’d always wanted. Two lifetimes of buildup and anticipation, all those years of searching…everything led up to this moment.

Soooo…what now? Neither one knew for sure.

The Bride kept drinking her whiskey and the Groom kept playing the same songs on repeat and they tried to do the same things they did before the ceremony, before the proposal, before moving in.

It worked, for a while. But the sunset had to end sometime. What would they do in the morning?

Clouds moved in to cover the stars. The Bride and Groom were now Wife and Husband, and they tried their best not to mess things up.

“What do married people do?” they asked themselves. Both came up with their own answer, based on what they’d seen their parents, friends and TV couples do.

Wife made a nice dinner and set the table for Husband, because she heard she should prioritize quality time. Meanwhile, Husband picked up an extra evening shift at his job, because he heard he should save to buy nice things for Wife.

All it took was a phone call to disappoint them both. Gone were the days of long drives and free flying and throwing bouquets out the window. Now, he was a husband who worked long hours and she was a wife who ate pot roast alone.

“Why does he make me so sad?” She sighed. “This doesn’t seem like us.”

“Why does she make me so angry?” He groaned. “I thought that we would be different.”

She expected a date night; he chose a night with the boys. He expected they’d spend their day off at the beach; she preferred couples’ counseling. On and on and on it went.

One year later, this perfect pairing was dissatisfied in every way. Why?

Things weren’t really that bad, were they? He didn’t cheat, she didn’t lie, and neither one spent all their money. Plus, they were trying so hard! It didn’t make sense that they’d be so unhappy. Was marriage itself to blame?

True story: When my husband and I were married, we were convinced we’d never be like “other” couples. We felt like two single people who just happened to be getting married. “Nothing would change!” we vowed.

In five years, we imagined that of course we’d have romantic evenings of punk records and bourbon on the rocks. And in ten years, naturally we’d have the same careers and wear the same styles of clothing. And in twenty years, obviously we’d be the coolest parents/best friends/partners on Earth. Everyone would envy how non-traditional and happy and open we were. “Traditional” marriage was for the birds, we said!

These weren’t bad intentions at all. But eventually, our unconscious expectations of what should be threatened our conscious dreams of what could be. It took a great deal of listening on both sides to dissect the reasons why we expected the things that we did. And it was hard to admit that people weren’t lying when they warned us that marriage would change things.

Here’s where we went wrong: My expectations and his expectations did not match our collaborative goals. And the higher our expectations, the greater our potential for disappointment.

As much as we denied it, that piece of paper became more than ‘just a piece of paper’ the second we went beyond “I do” and claimed our “supposed tos” and “should.” And it’s okay. I believe that most couples go through this, at some point.

The first few years of committed cohabitation are specifically primed for chaos. The people you both were when you met will have changed by the time you walk down the aisle. And it’s often not until the glow wears off that you notice that anything’s changed. When that happens, it’s not necessarily bad. Just hang on. It takes love, patience and a sense of adventure to navigate what happens next.

I’d thought marriage would be just like dating, just with both of our names on a contract. I imagined we’d be the same people, forever. But that’s like saying “if I win millions in the lottery, I’ll still act like I do making $20,000 a year!” How silly.

When an event or person changes your life, your identity must be affected somehow. If this didn’t happen, no one would grow or evolve. We’d all still be raging toddlers, learning nothing and accomplishing nothing. But while change is a good thing, it’s stressful.

Sometimes opportunity feels like a crisis. Even something as wonderful as finding your soul mate can spark a personal breakdown. But the difference between a breakdown and breakthrough is the way you go about handling it. Change works in your favor, if you let it.

Expansion requires letting go of old limits, and this includes unrealistic expectations. And it’s not as scary as you might think. You can lower your expectations without compromising your standards. 

It’s common for couples to articulate the same vision for their marriage, but display conflicting expectations through their actions down the road.

Nobody’s immune to unrealistic expectations, even the most non-traditional of couples. Overcoming this pattern is a challenge that can only make you better, together.

I’m grateful for all of it, now. Good and bad. We’ve been through a lot, and we’re stronger for it. We’re clear on what our relationship is and have chosen to accept and love it for what it is now, not what it “could” or “should” be down the road. At first, I thought letting go would mean accepting failure. But the results proved me wrong in the best way.

Now that we’ve stopped judging ourselves by old rules that don’t work, we’re free to meet the ideals we’d envisioned at the start! Our worst fears were never realized, once we learned to let go of them.

just marriedLove is not a perpetual ride into the sunset. Sometimes it’s two flat tires in a blizzard. And that’s fine! At least it’s not boring.

When that sunset ride ends and you run out of gas, get out of the car and push. Hold on to each other through the next morning, the next sunset, the next disaster and dream come true. Have faith in your future beginnings, because there will always be more.


P.S…Laugh, if you can. It helps.

How I Learned True, Unconditional Love from Adopting Our Dog

We owned our dog Moe for five years.

Over Memorial Day weekend in 2014, my boyfriend and I adopted our English bulldog Moe.

Never before have I experienced the pure, unconditional love I had with Moe. I used to read stories about how the love between a dog and its owner is unlike any other. Having had the privilege of caring for Moe for five years, I’ve truly been able to see that.

Disclaimer: Shortly after I wrote this piece, Moe passed away unexpectedly. I rewrote some of this piece to reflect that.

A Bulldog with Lots of Special Needs

moe-outdoor-portraitI had grown up with labs but my boyfriend was dead set on a bulldog—a wrinkly, lovable, stubborn as hell English bulldog. I nervously agreed, having no idea what I was getting myself into.

Once we brought Moe home, he threw up on the carpet pretty much as soon as he stepped through our threshold. We laughed it off and he soon adjusted well. A few days later, when the vet came by (we don’t have a car so we found a home vet) we realized just how much work Moe would need.

She took an ear culture and it was soon determined Moe had MRSA, or a antibiotic-resistant staph infection in his ears. I’d have to wear latex gloves to administer medication. His paws were raw and infected and he’d need daily ear cleanings, paw cleanings and wiping out of his face wrinkles. All I could think of was the word YIKES. However, as Moe looked up at me with his red and watery eyes, I could sense that he was comfortable here—he knew he had found his forever home. I sighed and thought about how we had no idea where he was from birth to three, and lived with a single mom and her school-age child from three until he was five-and-a-half, when we adopted him from a local rescue, Lost Dog and Cat Rescue Foundation. I remember thinking, What was your life like as a puppy, buddy? I hope you were okay. I already could tell I was falling in love with him.

moe-familyBefore Moe passed at 10, he took thyroid medicine, heartburn medicine, two different types of pain pills and Zyrtec for allergies every morning. He ate prescription food and sometimes had trouble walking. He peed all over our floor and refused to use the potty pads we placed all over our apartment like a second carpet.

You know what though? I wouldn’t have it any other way. I know there are articles out there that say people who say their pets are like children are crazy. I used to think that too—until I started spending my days wiping Moe’s butt because he has an amputated tail and muscles aren’t 100 percent back there. He often woke up in the middle of the night to scratch his itchy ears against the wall or panted heavily when he accidentally shoved his nose into his favorite blanket. Laying with him to get him to go back to sleep reminded me so much of having a child. There was nothing better than placing my hand over his paw as he drifted back into whatever dogs dream about. It not only comforted him, but in a weird way it comforted me as well.

How Moe Taught Me Patience

moeMoe was very much like a typical bulldog—slow and stubborn. The morning I originally wrote this piece, he refused to come inside. He was loving the chilly 50 degree temperatures combined with warm, early spring sun. Back when he would go for longer walks, he would often stop and sniff every tree and bush. I mean every. Single. One.

This used to frustrate me and try my patience but I realized just how little dogs are here on Earth. They take time to stop and “smell the flowers.” I learned to love when Moe does this because it teaches me to take a deep breath and just enjoy life around me. The work and other duties can wait.

I am so grateful I did stop and enjoy life with Moe. Bulldogs often pass quickly and unexpectedly, and Moe did just that. He woke up last Wednesday morning and was gone two hours later.

He Loves Me, No Matter How Messy My Hair Is

president-moeOne of the best parts of dogs is that they are completely nonjudgmental. They love you unconditionally. Moe held to this standard (and then some!). He didn’t care what I weighed and it didn’t matter to him if I was wearing a ripped, three sizes too big t-shirt and my hair was a mess. He stood guard in the bathroom while I showered, not caring if I sing out of tune as I washed my hair.

Once, when I was really sick and fainted in my apartment, I regained consciousness to Moe sitting and staring down at me. After that, he spent the next few months acting out at around the same time I fainted and had to call an ambulance. I realized he was so worried about me that he was deeply affected by that episode for weeks. I had never thought about how deep our relationship was until then.

Moe Has Taught Me to Treasure Every Moment

moe-christmasAs I mentioned earlier, dogs don’t live that long and bulldogs live even less than other breeds. Knowing that taught me to not take every moment I had with him for granted. I laid with him at night on the floor, petting him and taking in his musty doggy scent, thinking about what an odd-looking, stubborn and stinky creature he is. I would think about that and smile, because he was mine and I was so glad.

Since Moe passed, we have received five different bouquets of flowers and one gigantic gift basket from my boyfriend’s workplace. The convenience store next door has asked for a photo of him to frame since he often stopped in for Slim Jims. The comments on social media have reached over 1,000. His old owner even contacted us to let us know that he was so loved and sent us pictures of him from his younger years. We are forever thankful for her selfless decision to put him up for adoption in order for Moe to get the care he needed.

I have learned that the love Moe gave was released into the world and is now coming back to us tenfold.

moe-sweatshirtNot only did I not take Moe for granted, I now don’t take moments with my boyfriend, friends, family and loved ones for granted either. Ever since we adopted Moe, my gratitude and genuine love for those in my orbit has grown immensely. For that, I’ll be forever thankful for our boy. We will miss him terribly but will remember all the love.

Continue that gratitude and celebrate your next anniversary with one of these seven ideas.