We have all heard the phrase, “I love you just the way you are.” It’s echoed throughout romantic comedies, romantic dramas, and we all know the bright-eyed Billy Joel song of that same name. It is a beautiful notion, a state of love that we intuitively seek and yet… what does it mean exactly?

Does it mean that we love someone for absolutely no reason? Does it mean we love them without any justification? Does it mean that we love them no matter what they say and do? Does it mean we love them no matter what they don’t say and don’t do?

I find it amusing, for example, when parents of young children say, “I love my child unconditionally.” It’s relatively easy to love a toddler or young child unconditionally—they haven’t learned to talk back, they aren’t out in the world making mistakes, and they still love being around their parents, and freely offer them love and affection. But when they become teenagers, they’ve not only mastered the skill of talking back, but they have opinions that they don’t hesitate to express, they’re subject to a stormy sea of mood swings, and prefer to go out rather than to spend time at home. 

It is the same with our romantic partners. In the early days of a new relationship, every single thing the object of your affection does fills your heart with butterflies and a sense of love that feels as though it will never tarnish. Fast forward five years, ten years, twenty years and that feeling of love will be entirely different and often a lot less accessible. This is when a phrase like “I love you just the way you are” is now up for renegotiation. This is also when the beauty of unconditional love can be practiced.

Unconditional love doesn’t go anywhere, it is always existing and vibrating within you, it just becomes a little less accessible in times of stress or conflict. The soul of your child is the same at fifteen as it was at two and the soul of that person you fell madly in love with is the same as the soul as the person whose socks, you’re picking up 15 years later. 

It is easy to say we love our partners just as they are when we are getting what we want from them. But unconditional love is the experience of sharing, giving, and tending to our love even when it isn’t easy to access. There will always be days when we are not “getting” what we want from our partners. 

The difference between ego-based love and unconditional love is that the latter has the ability to grow endlessly, always creating a more profound and stronger bond. Unconditional love is not about power, wealth, or self-esteem. Loving unconditionally means valuing the characteristics in a person that are a manifestation of his or her core self. The only expectations are to be heard, respected, and treated with human dignity. Unconditional love is the foundation of a happy relationship, and it is not only attainable, but it is also a birthright for absolutely everybody. 

When you practice loving someone unconditionally, you strive to see the best in them, but you also see the worst, and you love them anyway. You give your love in the moments when it isn’t easy, remembering that we are all in the middle of our stories as they’re unfolding. 

Most of us assume that we are going to have a healthy child, or that our partner will take care of us in sickness and in health. When these assumptions turn out to be false, we are forced to reconsider what we’re basing our love on. In these moments, it becomes clear that our love is conditional or unconditional, depending on how we respond to these dramatic changes of circumstance. For instance, a married couple may feel happy until the wife loses her six-figure income. This is an opportunity to embrace change and to activate the love they swore to one another as they took those marriage vows. If you are going to be partners, this means you’re partners through the ups and the downs. Elevated love requires a willingness to face and overcome the challenges that will inevitably occur and do so together.

It’s hard not to react when your partner is skillfully pushing your buttons or screaming that they hate you. It’s hurtful to be on the receiving end of this, but the road back to connecting to your partner, and the unconditional love you feel for them, means seeing things from their perspective. An excellent tool for this is learning to shift your perspective to ask: How are they feeling right now? What is beyond the apparent anger? What are they frustrated about? What hurt or anxiety is prompting them to lash out at you? Once again, we’re talking about a simple shift from “What I am feeling?” to “What are they feeling?”

Get in touch with unconditional love by refocusing on your partner’s positive qualities instead of their bad behaviors or the flaws that you perceive in them, or all of the ideas you have about how they “should be.” Release ideas about how you wish they would be and accept them for who they are and what they do offer. Reconnect to the essence of the person you fell in love with and, you’ll be amazed to see, how that feeling of deep love never left. It was there, waiting for you, all along.

Monica Berg is an international speaker, spiritual thought leader and author of “Rethink Love: 3 Steps to Being the One, Attracting the One, and Becoming One.

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