A dear client of mine recently had to say goodbye to her mother who passed away three months after being diagnosed with cancer. My client fully participated in her mother’s dying process. Much healing occurred as the daughter accompanied her mother down the last part of the river of life’s journey, to the final waterfall, which we can all hear off in the future. My client said all the things she needed to say, while also being present to witness her mother.
After my client’s mother died, my client said that she grieved, in part, the loss of a mother’s unconditional love, “something we can only receive from our moms.” I responded by acknowledging the nourishment we receive from a mother’s unconditional love, but also I discouraged my client from romanticizing the role of a mother’s unconditional love in our lives.
Unconditional love is most typically expressed from parent to child. And those of us who receive it are fortunate. Yet, it is a childlike experience and not something to seek or try to replicate when we become adults relating with other adults. Our parents do not truly know or understand us, not the way our adult partners can.
Is there anything deeper than a mother’s unconditional love?
There is a deeper form of love available to us as adults—deeper than a mother’s unconditional love. There is love that flourishes after our partner comes to deeply know and understand us. This love is conditional. It is based in part on our willingness to honor certain commitments we make. It is based in part on our willingness to accept that the world looks different when seen through our partner’s eyes. Sometimes we make compromises to accommodate the ways our partners see the world, not because they demand we do so, but because we choose to do so. In my relationship with Hannah one of my compromises was to stop flirting. I like to flirt, I always have. After Hannah and I married she told me she perceived my flirting as disrespectful, so I stopped.
For us to grow to the point of having healthy adult/adult love relationships we must individuate from our parents. Part of this process occurs as we grow ourselves up in relationship to our parents, and part of this occurs when they die. However, if we romanticize the unconditional love we received, or wanted to receive from our parents, we run the risk of never fully individuating.
We can cling to the love we experienced as a child, and even try to recreate it as adults, or we can recognize it for what it was—appropriate and healthy for children—and then move toward a deeper love, a more penetrating love, a more grown up love than anything we have ever experienced before.
And if we do so, and if our moms are emotionally healthy, they will be happy for us.
Ironically, if we create a sufficiently mature way of relating with our partners, we can feel as if we’re experiencing unconditional love. This occurs as a result of being so consistent and so congruent with our agreements that we seldom need to renegotiate our agreements or express our disappointment. And when we do need to express ourselves, we do so maturely and lovingly.