There is a difference between Unconditional Love and something I call “Unconditional Positive Regard.”
Unconditional Love is what parents are supposed to give to their children. It means that the child is not yet ready to be fully responsible for their behaviors, so that they can bring the parent their “poopie diaper” and the parent will clean it up and will still love them. It is to be expected.
Unconditional Positive Regard, on the other hand, is what peers can give to each other. It means “benefit of the doubt” or “I will first judge you to be innocent and give you a chance before I jump down your throat.”
Unconditional Positive Regard does NOT mean Unconditional Love, because we adults are (or are supposed to be) responsible for our behaviors towards one another. It is one of my ten “Adult Emotional Competence Skills” which are all included in the mnemonic REALADULTS (the “U” is for Unconditional Positive Regard and you can find it and the others in my earlier post of the same name or in my book LVAC Nation.)
You see, if I bring you my emotional “poop” and you put up with it or “clean it up” for me time and time again, you will eventually resent me. (Put another way, I will lose Emotional Credibility with you, which, as you may recall, equals trust + likability.) You will become more my parent or babysitter than my peer.
The problem is, however, that we often expect, no, we DEMAND Unconditional Love from our peers, especially our spouses, either directly or indirectly.
We want to be able to behave impulsively, without restraint, or to treat them any way we want in the heat of the moment but to still expect infinite understanding, patience, and immediate forgiveness. (Sounds an awful lot like that “poopie diaper”, no?)
In other words, we subconsciously want them to be our perfect, all understanding and all forgiving parent, while we are the helpless victim child.
Unfortunately, this is just not realistic in adult peer-to-peer relationships like marriage, and it leads to hurt, disappointments, and resentment, as well as both emotional AND physical disconnect.
In fact, the reason I came up with the term Unconditional Positive Regard in the first place is that at least it is something we adults CAN give to one another on a day-to-day basis without adding to the disconnect and resentment between us. And it’s something we can work with.
With Unconditional Positive Regard, we are responsible for our behaviors, and when we behave in a less than Emotionally Competent manner (e.g. outbursts, acting out, not following through, devaluing, wrong tone, sarcasm, lying, ulterior motives, manipulation, selfishness, etc.), we are willing to accept feedback about our behavior from the other person and we are also willing to try to correct it in order to preserve the connection between us. (Ever wonder where all the sex goes in so many marriages? It goes right where the emotional connection and Emotional Credibility went—out the window!)
Unconditional Positive Regard, or benefit of the doubt, says that when you are mean or less that considerate with me I won’t immediately jump down your throat or become defensive or angry right away, but I WILL point out your behavior to you and what I would rather have from you. Your job is to then listen to my feedback and use it to grow into your most Emotionally Competent adult self.
Unconditional Positive Regard is an active, dynamic process between two adults, neither of whom are perfect reference points for mental health, but both of whom are willing to learn from each other’s feedback.
As many of you who have read my books (or this blog) already know, we are all just “somebody else’s messed up kid” anyway, so why expect you or your spouse to be some sort of perfect adult or parent to one another, or, on the other hand, to put up with bad behavior from each other while trying to preserve the connection between you?
Use Unconditional Positive regard to say to your spouse, “Hey, I’m not your parent and you’re not my helpless victim child. I will give you the benefit of the doubt here to explain your behavior, and then I’ll tell you what I think about it so we can come up with something better for ourselves and for our relationship.”
If you don’t learn to talk like this to each other, you’ll just get defensive instead, or you’ll pull back and withdraw from one another; nothing will ever get resolved or worked through and your relationship will grow more distant and less emotionally and physically intimate as time goes on.
If, on the other hand, you DO try to talk like this, you will be building up a customized, extremely valuable relationship with the other person; one in which you can each improve yourselves using the other person’s Unconditional Positive Regard, along with their accompanying observations and feedback, as tools for your own personal growth.
Remember, adult peer-to-peer relationships, and especially marital ones, are really about YOU. We grow as INDIVIDUALS within the relationships we have with other people and when we go through the difficult, often gut-wrenching work of ironing out the issues we have with one another in an honest, open-minded, optimistic, and exploratory manner.
(Please see my new book, Don’t Get Married! -Unless You Understand A Few Things First, for more. In it I discuss the concept of marriage as an Emotional Laboratory for individual growth.)
All the best,
Anthony Ferraioli, M.D.
(Next time I’ll tell you how to identify pain.)