On “unconditional” love with conditions

To all of you who comment – I love you guys. You frequently say things that are really insightful, things that make me think. Reader Anotherone made just such a comment recently regarding fundamentalist parents and conditional love:

I think a lot of fundamentalist parents love their children in supremely conditional ways, and the lightning fast retraction of that love comes right after the phrase, spoken with sickening gravity, “we need to talk.” At least, that’s how it was for my family.

Of course, parents like mine say that they will always love us no matter what we do. But the “love” that remained once we didn’t toe that oh-so-narrow line of their expectations was so abstract and theoretical as to be meaningless. When I strayed from the very narrow margin of acceptable behavior, attitude, or belief, the “we need to talk” line would come out, and *everything* about our relationship would change.

That phrase always ushered in the emotional shitstorm of them trying to get me to behave and believe like they wanted. The dire warnings about what befalls the Biblical fool would come out (God, even after all these years I can quote Proverbs like nobody’s business).

The two siblings nearest my age and I suffered under this pattern for years. We’d buckle under the pressure and acquiesce when they pulled out all the emotional stops. (Who wants to be the hell-destined fool, after all?). But in college, when I had the space I needed away from the toxicity, I wouldn’t buckle any longer, and the relationship all but ended. There was the cold distance, the open disapproval, the anger, talk of my ingratitude and foolishness, warnings about broad path of destruction. No more emotional support, no physical support, and the limiting of contact with my siblings.

It was a de facto shunning, papered over at the end with a deadly calm politeness (on their part, not mine–I was a hysterical mess). Of course, the craziest part was that my “rebellion” would have been utterly unnoticeable to anyone outside my family. By the standards of larger society I was the goodiest of goody two shoes.

Life out of my family’s web is *so* much better–so much happier, and more peaceful, and sane. But damned if those emotional shitstorms didn’t leave their mark.

For years I have bristled at the suggestion that my parents’ love for me was only conditional. After all, they always told us they would always love us no matter what, and who am I to question a parent’s love? I long connected their anger when I didn’t toe the line to their fear that I was taking a path that would bring myself pain, both in this life and in the next. The doctrine of hell, after all, justifies just about any action here on this earth if it will keep someone from eternal torture.

Anotherone’s comment made me rethink some of that. This part is the key:

Of course, parents like mine say that they will always love us no matter what we do. But the “love” that remained once we didn’t toe that oh-so-narrow line of their expectations was so abstract and theoretical as to be meaningless. When I strayed from the very narrow margin of acceptable behavior, attitude, or belief, the “we need to talk” line would come out, and *everything* about our relationship would change.

My relationship with my parents went from sunshine to thunderstorms the moment I stepped outside of their narrow margin of acceptable behavior. Everything changed. What remained sure didn’t feel like love. It felt like manipulation, pain, and degradation. “Shunning” is a good word for it – being treated like a pariah. All for what? For stepping off the narrow margin of acceptable behavior.

Throughout that period, my parents assured me that they loved me. The pain they felt, they said, was because of how much they loved me. Their tears, their anger, their efforts to make me live my life the way they wanted – it was all because they loved me.

But in practice it felt like they were pulling out all stops to make me do what they wanted, live like they wanted, say what they wanted – it felt like it was all about them, not about me. In practice it was like they couldn’t see me, this person they said they loved. In practice it was like they didn’t want to get to know the person I had become, and kept imagining me to be the person I had been – and working to force me to be that person once again. It was like what they loved was a figment of their imagination, an image they had dreamed up in their minds, not me. It was like they loved an idea rather than a person.

This is tricky, because love is so very hard to define. The dictionary says “a feeling of warm, personal attachment or great affection.” Even that, though, doesn’t say very much. My parents would definitely have said they felt “warm, personal attachment” and “great affection” towards me. But what does that mean in practice? Anyone can say they love someone, after all. In abusive relationships, abusers often maintain their hold over their victims by expounding on how much they “love” them. How, then, are we to define what love is and what it isn’t?

I don’t have all the answers, but I do know that trying to force someone to be something they don’t want to be isn’t love. Using manipulation in an attempt to make someone do what you want isn’t love. Withholding affection and smiles until someone conforms to your desires isn’t love. Only treating a person kindly if they do exactly what you want them to do isn’t love. Preferring to imagine an image of who someone is rather than actually getting to know them as a person isn’t love. Trying to force someone into a box isn’t love.

I think Anotherone is onto something. Fundamentalist parents may claim to love their children unconditionally, but there are conditions: stay on the straight and narrow and we will shower you with love and affection; step off the straight and narrow and all hell will break lose. And let me tell you, that second option is not fun.

When We Expect More of Our Children than of Ourselves
Evangelical Christianity’s Patriarchal Alternative to Fifty Shades of Grey
HSLDA on those “Radically Atheistic” Public Schools
What the Ruff, the Spotted Hyena, and the Cuttlefish Taught Me about Gender and Sexuality
About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.


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