Unconditional Love Can Make You Blind To These Red Flags
How to identify where love ends and toxicity begins.
By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | July 14, 2022
To love someone is to accept them wholeheartedly, blemishes and all. We all know this definition of love. Over the years, certain behaviors, rituals, and symbols have become synonymous with this all-encompassing notion of an eternal bond – such as the institution of marriage and complete non-judgment of your partner.
However, such a binary and rigid view of love can cause us to ignore its many gray areas. We can start indulging in behavior that is to our detriment and allow for behavior that is very obviously problematic.
Mental health research has proven time and again that love can look and feel different from the way it appears in books, movies, and music. Here are three common mistakes people make when they view their intimate relationships too rigidly.
#1. You're too quick to make sacrifices for your partner
Yes, sacrifice is inevitable in most relationships. And yes, it is honorable. But does it always have to be selfless or even necessary? Research says not really.
"It's certainly honorable to put aside one's own self-interest because of your partner or your relationship," explains psychologist Francesca Righetti. "However, our research shows that there is a difficult aftermath for both the giver and the recipient."
According to Righetti's research, this is often what the aftermath looks like:
- The giver experiences lower well-being, as sacrifices inherently require them to willingly give up their preferences and goals. This makes sacrifice an exceptionally costly prosocial behavior for them.
- The receiver is left with mixed feelings. On one hand, the receiver feels grateful, loved, and accepted. But they also feel guilty and indebted.
While sacrifice has this effect on both members of the relationship, women are more likely to experience lower well-being after having sacrificed because sacrifices are often viewed as their duty instead of their choice. This means that they may especially experience the costs and very little of the benefits of relationship sacrifices.
To avoid the pain sacrifice can cause in a relationship, Righetti advises you to follow these two steps:
- Change what you focus on. If you focus on what you have lost after a sacrifice, you are more likely to experience lower personal well-being and relationship satisfaction. Try to look at the bright side of the sacrifice (e.g., looking at how happy the partner is or what you/they can learn from this experience, or feeling proud of being such a generous person).
- Reconsider the need to sacrifice. Sometimes sacrifices are necessary to maintain a relationship. However, there are times when they can be avoided through contingency plans and a bit of adjustment. For example, while moving countries to support your partner's career change is valid, sacrificing your own weekend to accompany your partner to their parents' house when you don't want to might be unnecessary.
#2. You're too lenient in 'letting things go'
Sometimes our loved ones may behave in a manner that is unethical and/or potentially harmful. These situations require us to be completely honest with our partners and ourselves – but it is possible that we fail to do so because we love them.
"When someone close to us behaves unethically, we face a conflict between upholding our moral values and maintaining our relationship," explains psychologist Rachel Forbes of the University of Toronto in Canada.
Forbes' research found that people often experience a deep ambivalence when responding to their significant others' unethical actions – possibly because of people's tendency to share a sense of identity with their loved ones:
The costs of this ambivalence are twofold:
- As a by-product of lenience, the self seems to bear some of the burdens of the misbehavior – feeling embarrassed, ashamed, and guilty about their partner's actions
- The significant other might indulge in the behavior over and over again as they are not called out for it, which can become an extreme cause for concern in abusive relationships
For people who might be struggling with being honest about their loved ones' misbehavior, Forbes has the following advice:
"The ambivalence we feel when confronted with close others' bad behavior is difficult to reconcile," says Forbes. "When faced with a loved one's unethical behavior, it's important to reflect on our moral values and whether the act itself fits within those values."
#3. Your relationship is built around utility
We usually choose to be in a long-term relationship with someone if we are in love with the person they are. However, there might be (in more cases than we would care to admit) other considerations – like the status of the family they belong to, how they can help us achieve our own goals, and other financial and material perks.
While considering someone as a resource isn't completely wrong, it can be a problem when it is the foundation of one's relationship.
Psychologist Xijing Wang refers to this approach as an 'instrumentality perspective,' which is a dimension of objectification, i.e., viewing a person as an object. Under an instrumentality perspective, people are degraded as pure tools whose function is to facilitate others' goal achievement. In essence, once we take an instrumental approach, we only care about how useful a person is to us.
Wang cites two reasons why this approach can have negative effects on intimate relationships:
- No partner will be "useful" forever. People's goals can differ substantially during different stages of life and thus the "tools" they need can vary. In other words, although B may be of help to A for a particular goal during a certain period of time, it is challenging for B to be continuously useful for A. Thus, if A wants B to always be "useful," A will eventually feel disappointed.
- Your partner can feel objectified. Instrumentality can suggest to your partner that they do not have inherent value and bring nothing to the table other than what they can do to help you achieve a certain goal. According to Wang, being treated in such a callous and depersonalized manner by one's partner can be unbearable.
If you are feeling that your partner views you from a solely utilitarian perspective, it is important to know that it is not your fault and you should not let it affect your self-esteem. This is because people are driven by goals, and goal achievement can lead to an instrumental approach which could be a default mode in social relationships, including intimate ones.
Initiating an honest conversation with your partner, a loved one, or a mental health practitioner is advisable in such a scenario as it can directly affect your well-being and self-image.
Having a partner that sticks with you through thick and thin is a blessing. But you need to constantly check in with yourself and evaluate your relationship honestly to ensure that this relationship does not end up turning into a prison rather than a sanctuary.