Pure Heart Boundaries:
In defense of unconditional love
Many relationship experts denigrate the idea of an ‘unconditional’ love as a romantic fantasy, even harmful to forming a real and lasting connection. The general argument is that, to create a healthy, mutually rewarding intimacy requires firm boundaries, i.e. conditions. I propose boundaries only serve to give ourselves the time and space to heal from our past traumas at our own pace. To me, loving unconditionally just means embracing mutual personal growth. The only prerequisite I place on unconditional love of others is unconditional love of self. Finding a partner who creates their own boundaries and doesn’t take yours personally is a rare accomplishment, but not impossible. The heartbreaker is that even unconditional love does not guarantee compatibility. When we truly want what is best for both of us, sometimes the best way to show love is to walk away.
Pop culture’s favorite trope, repackaged over and over again, is the search for, finding of, subsequent loss, and recovery from an all-encompassing ‘one true’ love. Our favorite movies and songs often tell familiar stories of blind euphoria and crushing disillusionment. These cautionary fables carry the implied warning to ‘be more careful next time.’ The idea that we have, en masse, been misled or even brainwashed into chasing an impossible dream is frightening and believable, but, as is often the case, the truth is scarier than the fiction. I believe we dismiss the possibility of soul mates creating instead the narrative of the ‘hopeless romantic’ in defense of our own experience, rather than suffer the reality: it is scary to trust someone else, and painful when they betray us. Being vulnerable is difficult, but the only way to connect with another human intimately is to let them see us in our full flawed glory. Our fear is what keeps us separate. Our fear is what causes us to distrust and betray.
While I highly encourage careful examination of both self and the relationship following a breakup, I fear too many people skip over introspection and jump straight to accusations and guilt. We can easily blame a combination of our partner’s flaws and our own denial or naivete, and pledge we won’t get fooled again. Just as it is tempting to assign a single cause to a broken relationship, there is comfort in the belief that an epidemic of ‘loving too much’ is behind the pervasive theme of heartbreak saturating our contemporary media. Romantic infatuation as curse is an ageless fable made prevalent in modern society by increased longevity, leisure time, and social connection. Communication and information technology have removed the barriers of geography and exponentially expanded our options. We now have access to huge databases of potential partners. Instead of being limited to a series of face to face interactions, bounded by space, time, and social conventions, we can superficially scroll through endless possibilities. With so much information, decision fatigue can set in and paralyze our senses.
Ancient constructs in our brain designed to keep us safe from unnecessary risk can also inhibit our ability to see our relationships for what they are: rewarding, dynamic, often challenging vessels that must occasionally break and be renewed. Relation’ships’ are not destinations, but vehicles which we travel with each other through our lives. Many biological and psychological processes can interfere with building the necessary boundaries to remain present and fully ourselves in our intimate relationships.
Based on C. Robert Cloninger’s research, a study in Belgium defines Harm Avoidance as behavioral inhibition, “a genetically determined bias towards being cautious, apprehensive and overly pessimistic.” The predisposition to avoid risk is a function of the reptilian brain, and has evolved with us for millions of years to ensure our safety. In some individuals, security is the highest priority.
Oxytocin is a brain chemical similar to dopamine. Where dopamine responds more to incentivize short term gains, and immediate attractions, oxytocin is involved more in long-term attachments. Breastfeeding, for example, releases oxytocin in the Mother’s body, reinforcing the mother/child bond.
Sunk cost, a term coined by Economist Richard Thaler provides another powerful reinforcement. Even if we are unhappy with where our relationship is headed, we are biased towards saving it. We will choose to invest more time and effort into recovering something than building something new, because we attribute value to the work we have already put into the broken relationship. Rather than cut our losses, accept defeat, and move on, we will continue to throw good love after bad.
Forming strong yet compassionate boundaries is a healthy way to forgive while holding accountable, both others and our own self. Boundaries come with consequences, e.g. if you say x, I will challenge you. If you say y, I will remove you from my life. The former, empathizing with and finding ways to disrupt someone’s violence. The latter is realizing we have too much of our own work to commit ourselves to disrupt this particular harmful pattern. Just being yourself, doing your own work, may be too much for some to accept. Without proper boundaries, they will interrupt, reject, or invalidate you in an effort to drag you into their internal conflict. If we take responsibility for someone else’s work, we rob them of their agency and place an unreasonable expectation on ourselves.
Boundaries are better understood as reflections of our past rather than reactions to our present. Boundaries should not be delivered or received as judgements of the other. They are helpful to communicate to partners, but that is secondary. No explanation is required other than a heartfelt desire. The strength or necessity of an emotional boundary is not decided by rationale, reception, or acceptance. An excellent boundary may be scorned or rejected immediately. Setting a boundary to escape enmeshment or manipulation is essentially reclaiming your own emotional territory, and can be portrayed as an act of interpersonal war. A healthy boundary will destroy an unhealthy relationship.
Healthy boundaries serve to remind ourselves to not take other people’s unpleasant, triggered, ignorant, or otherwise problematic behaviors or attitudes personally. They remind us that we are fragile or broken and deserve our own patience and compassion in fortifying or repairing those weaknesses. They create space to protect ourselves and allow us the time to heal. Giving yourself permission to have whatever boundary you feel necessary is unconditionally loving yourself. Allowing others complete trust to establish and enforce their own boundaries, even if they are incompatible and make a close relationship impossible, is unconditional love.
Additional reading and sources:
Definition of Harm Avoidance, (Baeken, De Raedt, Ramsey, Van Schuerbeek, Hermes, Bossuyt, & Luypaert, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.brainres.2009.08.010 2009)
Oxytocin and Breastfeeding,
Sunk Cost Fallacy and Love,
Partnership and negotiating needs https://www.gottman.com/blog/why-you-need-to-accept-your-partners-needs/