The Foreignness and Comfort of Unconditional Love

I have pretty pronounced social anxiety. I don’t talk about it much with most people in my life, because I feel like I’m a bother and a chore on most good days. It has a lot of facets to it, my social anxiety. It’s complex. And one of it’s many sharp-edged sides is hyper-analyzing words and actions of other people in relationship to me. So I have a complicated relationship and history with the words, ‘I love you,’ and kind of with love in general.

I know that’s a peculiar thing for me to type on my sappy blog about my hopefully (not hopeLESSly) devoted relationship where I promote the romance novels I write. But I mean, seriously. Love was a mystery to me for most of my life (and still is sometimes), particularly those three words. I thought they were fake. I thought they always came with strings. 

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My parents never said them…not to me, not to my brother, not to each other. Ever. I’ve never heard that phrase spontaneously uttered within my family. Sometimes my mom tries to say ‘I love you’ to me now, but it’s forced and weird, like she’s trying to perform ‘Mom’ on a television serial or something. None of my other family members say it. At least not to me. None of my old, real life friends say it. And on the occasions when I’ve sincerely, open-heartedly said it to them, it clearly made them uncomfortable. One friend of mine…who READ at J’s and my wedding…actually gave me that Mr. Miyagi line from The Karate Kid in response to my well thought out and emotional ‘I love you.’ 

You…pretty okay too.” 

Yes, really.

One high school boyfriend tried saying it in the past, but it felt weird too. It felt like he was saying it as an expectation because we’d been together X amount of time, and also sort of like he thought he was going to get something from me by saying it. (He didn’t. He didn’t even get an ‘I love you too.’ Because…I dunno…it just felt wrong on a lot of levels.)
That guy’s ‘love’ was patently conditional. I had to last a certain amount of time, I had to perform certain actions with and for him and then I ‘earned’ an ‘I love you.’
Not to say conditional rewards, even expressions of love, are always worthless and shitty. I’m a big, dorky, historical overachiever. I LIKE ‘earning’ things. I do. And I mean, at least I had things I could do that he’d give me the words in response for, even though they felt damaged or empty or…not like I hoped they’d feel. My family and friends didn’t even give me that kind of opportunity. And I tried it with them. To ‘earn’ the words. Or even the feeling that was behind the words, even if they never got said. But that whole business with my high school boyfriend just felt all kinds of wrong, and never hearing them at all from anyone else in my life, particularly people I’d been told were ‘supposed’ to love me also felt wrong. So I didn’t really know what to make of love and the words ‘I love you’ by the time I’d met J. 

J tells me he loves me a lot. I love it. And I love J a lot. Obviously.

I know it felt GREAT when he said, ‘I love you.’ I could tell he meant it. I loved saying it back. I meant it too. I always mean it when I say it, but J was really the first person I said it to that meant it back. We still say it to each other multiple times a day, and have for going on fifteen years (yeah…we’re That Couple), and it still feels right and significant and magical, and it’s not a rote, ‘That’s what I’m supposed to say…I don’t have anything else to say…’ type of deal. At least that’s still how it feels to me.
When I get down and anxious, sometimes I ask J to ‘tell me something good,’ and he always says, ‘I love you,’ first. I love that. I love J. I can feel that he loves me and I’m grateful that he says it a lot, because even though I never heard it before he was in my life, I NEED it. I need those words. And I love those words. I love it when he says those words. But occasionally, over the years, usually when I’m thinking about how singular J is as a presence in my life, and looking back on my relationships with virtually every other adult human I’ve ever known, I get insecure. Not about or with J, but about the words…about the sentiment behind the words. Unconditional love is still really foreign to me, even though it brings me such immense comfort. I still have stretches of time where I don’t think I deserve that kind of love…where when I’m wrapped up in happiness and comfort and contentment, I figure it’s all going to bust apart soon. So sometimes, I ask J why. Not because I don’t trust him, but because I don’t trust unconditional love as a concept still.
Here…I mean this happens…

J: I love you.
me: Why? Why do you love me?

He always answers me even though I know he dislikes the question. At various points in the past, his answers have been lists of things about me that he appreciates (’You take good care of me. You take good care of our family. You care so much about other people. You want to do what’s right. You want to make people happy. You’re smart. You’re pretty…’), and once he said, ‘You’re a good person,’ which made me feel like a katrillion bucks. I remember those lists and compliments, but they never speak loudly to me…almost like I forgot them…when my anxiety’s really flaring up. Even when they’re his voice saying them. And I can tell each time I ask that question, it always frustrates him. I wish my insecurity would just shut the hell up and stop driving me to ask it. I’m grateful that J is so patient and kind with me, because I do…still…continually…ask it. J’s answer is usually…almost always…one of these two…

I just love you.” or
“Do I need to have a reason?” 

Those answers used to frustrate ME. Because I wanted him to tell me things he likes about me that I could use as like a jump starter on my battery of things to like about myself when I was in one of those dark places. I thought if he couldn’t give me a reason (or many reasons), it meant I wasn’t enough or doing the right things for him to come up with a reason (or many reasons), and if he couldn’t give me a reason, maybe it wasn’t real. Before J, I’d only seen ‘love’ as something doled out with stipulations and after completing the correct sequence of tasks or offering up the right kind of service or sacrifice (if THEN). But I know that’s not only not fair…that it’s not his job to make me like me…but also, it’s silly of me to get frustrated by how unconditional J’s love is for me. Those are actually the BEST answers for when I’m in one of those dark places.
They mean J loves me even when I’m so strapped for a reason to like myself that I’m begging him to give me some. J loves me regardless of my feelings of whether or not it makes sense or if I deserve it. J loves me even though unconditional love feels so bizarre and unique to me that I still question it regularly. J just loves me. He doesn’t need to have a reason. That’s so…weird. But also…amazingly good. 

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