“Till death do us part …” Isn’t it beautiful when couples in movies say these words? It would be even more beautiful if most of those couples didn’t just say it as a formality…

When the marriage counsellor asked Melissa why she wanted to divorce her husband, Mike, her answer was simple: She no longer loves him. Mike was bitter: “Whatever happened to ‘For better or for worse’?”, he asked. “What about our 12 years together? Didn’t it mean anything? What about all the sacrifices we made?” Melissa shook her head. “I can’t love someone who isn’t there when I need him. You are always busy at work and you are neglecting me and the kids. When you get home, you are always fiddling with the car’s engine. I think perhaps we got married to young.”

You listen to Melissa’s words and wonder about the term “unconditional love”. We all know that we have to love our spouses unconditionally, but sometimes it is so hard! How many times have you came up with conditions and threats if you and your partner don’t agree on a matter? How often do you criticise your partner because he is not as considerate as your friend’s “nice” hubby? How many times has your husband hinted that if you had looked more like Angelina Jolie, things would have been much hotter between the sheets?

No one is perfect, neither you nor your spouse. We are just people – each with our own nonsense, whims and funny habits. Is it then ever possible to love someone unconditionally? What does unconditional love mean anyway?

Love is a verb

Anri van den Berg, a psychological counsellor from Pretoria, believes that it is important to first consider “love” itself. We tend to think of love as a feeling that we have to experience, and if this is case, it is perfectly understandable that love could be something that can come and go, which can be there one day and disappear the next,” she explains. If we accept this definition of love, it is almost as if we are at the mercy of love – as if it is something that is beyond our control. So, it is therefore quite normal to hear in practice “the love that was between us, is just not there anymore” or “I just don’t love her anymore” – as if we cannot do anything about it or change anything in this regard!

Love, however, is anything but a mere feeling. Love is a choice – it is a decision you have to make anew every day, especially when the going gets tough! Love is a verb! Unlike that first feeling of butterflies in the stomach, love is not a “condition” that we are subjected to. When we get that butterfly-feeling, the world is a beautiful place, the person who make us feel this way is the “best thing that ever happened to us”, he has no faults and would never have any.

That new, exciting butterfly-feeling paints everything in a soft, fuzzy pastel palette and it is great, we were created this way. This feeling is necessary so that we can get to know each other’s good sides, see the potential in our relationship and then transition to making the choice of loving unconditionally. Based on this, unconditional love is to take responsibility for yourself and your own choices. You have to choose anew every day to love your spouse, despite his faults, and not because of what you are getting from him.

It is a mindset

Unconditional love is not something your partner has to earn, or something you can use to manipulate him with – it is a choice that YOU make. It is YOUR attitude towards your partner. But to love unconditionally doesn’t mean that you are a rag he can mop the floor with! Loving unconditionally also doesn’t mean that you have to look the other way when your partner mess up.

If there are things that cause friction or that are bothering you, it is imperative that you sort it out in a healthy and efficient way. Setting your boundaries, expressing your personal needs and sharing concerns with your spouse does not mean that you don’t love unconditionally. A healthy relationship is one in which roughly 80% of both parties’ needs are met, so it is important for couples to communication about all aspects of their relationship.

But why is it so hard to show unconditional love to your partner? “Because relationships are hard work and we are selfish,” Anri says. If you think carefully about it, we all enter into a relationship with the hope and expectation that our partner will somehow meet all our needs. He/she is going to be who and what we want them to be, when we want them to.

And then, the knockout!

We decide that someone is worth marrying based on how the person makes us feel and think about ourselves and what the person does for or mean to us. And then reality knocks us out! The lens of that butterfly feeling slowly slips away and we realise that the other person is a totally unique individual – someone with a unique set of expectations and needs of his own. Someone who entered the relationship with the same hope – that we would live up to his expectations and meet his needs.

Two completely unique people, with different examples of how marriages work and ideas about what is expected from the husband and wife respectively, must now build one happy future together. We find ourselves being disillusioned because we firmly believed that our relationship was going to be a breeze, since being in love while experiencing that butterfly feeling is so easy, and we were never quite prepared for how difficult it is in reality!

Because we are self-centred individuals, our focus is often on the other person’s faults and shortcomings. We focus on the things we don’t get, who he is not and the things that he doesn’t do in an around the house. If that is the case, it is completely understandable that unconditional love is an extremely difficult, abstract concept. But before you say: “See, unconditional love IS an impossible concept,” here is Anri’s five tips for applying unconditional love.

This is how you make it possible:

  1. To be able to love unconditionally, couples must start to realise that relationships require continuous hard work, and that it takes two people who are committed to each other. One cannot expect to be the best sportsman without putting in the time and effort to refine your skills. Similarly, one cannot expect that a relationship with two completely diverse individuals will follow a healthy path all by itself.
  2. Always remember that we are human beings and therefore, per definition, we are anything but perfect. You and your partner will make mistakes, time and time again. There will be times when you will be bitterly disappointed in your partner. It is what you do with those mistakes and how you handle them, that is crucial.
  3. Turn that finger that you so easily point at your partner around and ask yourself some honest, difficult questions. How can I be a better spouse to my partner, where can I improve or make a better effort, how do I show my partner that he/she is really important to me? In 99% of cases where individuals start focusing on their own shortcomings and start seeing and applying love as a daily choice (and a definite verb) in their relationships, the results are incredibly positive!
  4. Don’t sweep problems under the carpet – no matter how small or irrelevant they may seem. Small problems add up and later become big problems, making the choice of “loving someone” much more difficult. Tackle and resolve issues as they arise.
  5. Communicate in a healthy and efficient way. Don’t attack or accuse the other person when you are talking about issues. Stay calm and rather discuss the underlying emotions created by your partner’s actions or choices. The moment someone feels attacked, they become defensive and no longer listen with the intent to understand. Instead, they look for a weak spot in the person’s attack and it is then that one starts fighting about whether or not the vehicle that drove past was red or blue. The actual issue gets lost. When one listens with intent, to understand the other person, the message that comes across is: “You, our relationship, are what is important to me.”

It is when we truly try to understand each other, when we get to know each other well, and support one another through our experiences and the relationship’s up and downs, that we realise that all the effort and hard work is worth it. And it is then that unconditional love becomes a privilege.

Article written by Thalia Brüssow