People come to me a lot for relationship advice and one phrase I find myself using a lot is “Love is unconditional, but relationships require negotiation.” It seems pretty common that people who are unhappy with their relationships have some image carved into their mind of how a relationship should look if people love each other. They believe that there’s a certain way their partners should act if they really loved them and since genuine love is supposed to be unconditional their partners should act that way no matter what they do.
Oddly enough, they almost never come at the problem of their partner not meeting those expectations by seeing it as meaning that their partner doesn’t love them and they should probably move on, but rather they seek to convince their partner to do what they want solely on the basis of that’s what they think loving partners should do. It’s as though they know their partner loves them, but they can’t figure out how to make their partner act like they love them. The irony is that it makes it seem like their love for their partner is extremely conditional on their partner acting in the way they think someone who loves them unconditionally should act. They are usually pretty unamused by my pointing that out.
Unconditional love is a pretty beautiful concept, on its own. The ideal of an indestructible love that can endure anything is as powerful as it is popular. That’s the way genuine love should be, the common belief goes, and it may surprise some to hear me say that I agree with that. I think the core concept of genuine love being unconditional is truth.
Truth, however, has a way of being corrupted. A lot of false expectations have been given justification in the name of loving unconditionally. Every time someone utters the phrase “If you loved me, you’d…” the words that follow are almost certainly a lie. Love is a feeling, and though actions can be motivated by love there is no action that is inherent to love. There are a lot of possible ways to show love and nobody is obligated to show love in exactly the way someone else wants them to. Someone can love someone and be within their rights to never express it at all.
Just because genuine love is unconditional, that doesn’t mean that the person who feels it is unconditionally exploitable. Love doesn’t void someone’s boundaries or their right to act foremost in their own self-interest. It is a cruel thing to seek to control someone through their love, especially when the goal is to manipulate them into acting against their own desires. Someone loving you does not entitle you to getting what you want from them.
That’s where negotiation, defined as discussion aimed at reaching an agreement, comes into play. Negotiation is essential to lasting healthy and ethical relationships. It is possible to sort of stumble into and through a relationship never really talking about what’s going on and where you want it to go, but those relationships tend to eventually take an ugly turn where differing expectations catch the partners off guard, often explosively with a lot of dramatic shrapnel. Imagine a relationship without open negotiation as walking through minefield. It’s possible to make it through to the other side in one piece, but I certainly wouldn’t want to leave whether I get blown up to chance.
That’s not to say that you need to delve deep into every bit of minutia, writing up formal documentation of every detail before the relationship can commence. That’s not what I mean by relationships require negotiation. In a society where people don’t read the actual legal agreements they sign off on half the time, it’s a rare soul that really wants to get down to the fine print details of relationships.
However, given long enough, any two people are going to eventually not see eye to eye with each other and when that happens you should be prepared to negotiate a mutually satisfying resolution. In truth, most relationships that don’t have a pre-negotiated deference in decision making areas (such as a D/s relationship) have several trivial negotiations each day over trivial things like what topping to order on the pizza or what movie they’re going to watch on Netflix. In healthy relationships nobody gets their ideal result from every single decision. Whether it’s taking turns picking movies or putting out alternative suggestions until there’s one they can agree on, the solution has to be arrived at together if there’s a power balance in the relationship. When there’s a power balance imbalance that hasn’t been negotiated beforehand from an equal beginning, there’s a problem. Even if there is a pre-negotiated power imbalance, everyone has a right to advocate for their own needs and remove themselves from any relationship that doesn’t meet them, so I would recommend not leaning too heavily on that Dom card if you’ve got it.
Approaching disagreements with a sense of entitlement to your partner’s compliance without regard to their happiness because you believe their love obligates them to put what you want ahead of their own needs is both selfish and hypocritical. If love means putting your partner’s happiness ahead of your own at all times, then by playing that card is an admission that you don’t love your partner enough to put their happiness ahead of your own.
It’s far better to go into disagreements with the understanding that everyone’s happiness matters equally. It’s better to end a relationship than allow it to persist in a state where anyone involved is miserable. That doesn’t mean that everyone has to be a hundred percent happy with every aspect of the relationship, but everyone does need to feel like being in the relationship is more conducive to their happiness than not being in it would be.
Personally, the more experience I have with relationships, the more I really enjoy relationship negotiation, even if there’s not a problem. I love being sure my partners and I are on the same page and seeing clearly how we are both benefiting from our relationship. I like knowing what will help the relationship thrive, or what might cause it harm. By putting both what one wants from a relationship and what one is willing to put into a relationship out in the open, it makes cooperatively building a relationship that enhances the lives of everyone involved to the maximum level so much easier than when partners treat each other like rivals who don’t want to give too much of themselves away to their opponent.
It’s also really helpful to know when a relationship isn’t going to meet my needs because if that’s the case I’d rather end the relationship compassionately to free myself to pursue better relationships for me rather than linger trying to manipulate or coerce my partner into giving me what they wouldn’t give knowingly or willingly. That is a very easy pit to fall into, often without even consciously realizing it, and one typically with very pointy spikes at the bottom. I have the emotional scars to prove it, and so do those I dragged into that pit with me when I was much younger and less aware of the effects of my actions.
Unless you want to leave a trail of wounded hearts behind you, do not seek to coerce your partners to your will through demands of what they should do to prove their love to you. Be honest. Be flexible. Be as generous in what you bring to the relationship as you desire your partner to be and you may find yourself with a relationship that’s healthier and happier than you imagined possible.
If you can’t through honest and open discussion come to a mutually satisfying arrangement, then accept the hard truth that you can’t always get what you want and move on. Don’t try to force pieces into place that don’t fit, or you’ll end up with something that might work for a short time then blow up spectacularly, leaving everyone involved damaged.
As I said, love is unconditional, but relationships require negotiation. Don’t rely on chance or wishful thinking to get your needs met. Do the work. In the end, you’ll be much more satisfied with the results. The relationships you have will be stronger and more rewarding, while you’ll waste much less of your life hanging onto a relationship that’s struggling along because the people in it aren’t really happy.
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