More from Danny Silk’s book, Keep Your Light On:
Healthy relationships truly are the most valuable, meaningful, and satisfying of human experiences. But what are the qualities that make up a healthy relational connection? If you don’t know, then you won’t be able to assess whether or not your relational practices are helping to build and strengthen a connection. Like a house, a relational connection needs to have specific elements to complete its structure, or it will be unsafe and vulnerable to disaster.
As with all houses, building starts with the foundation. The foundation of a healthy relationship is an agreement to practice unconditional acceptance and unconditional love.
Unconditional acceptance says, “You are not me and I am not you. You get to be you and I get to be me in this relationship.” This does not mean you have to unconditionally accept one another’s behaviours. Rather, it means that you do not control one another.
Not controlling someone while not accepting his or her (negative) behaviour looks something like this. Imagine my son has been playing in the backyard and happens to step in dogs’ muck. I don’t want his shoes to touch my carpet, so I meet him at the back door.
“Son,” I say, “Feel free to come in the house once the dog mess is gone. You can take your shoes off or wash your shoes off.”
“I love you. Take your time.” My voice is calm, and I have a smile on my face.
Not wanting dog mess in the house doesn’t mean I don’t want my son in the house. I separate him from the mess. I can love him and still require him to get rid of the mess before he comes inside. He may try to force his way in. However, I can assure you, people can’t force their way into my house—or into my trust, vulnerability, and intimacy. I am the only person who allows people into my house. This is not controlling someone else—this is controlling myself.
Unconditional love says, “No matter what you do, I am going to pursue the goal of connection with you.” Anxiety naturally arises when personal differences show up in a relationship, and fear will tempt us to run away from each other. But in committing to unconditional love, we commit to keep moving toward each other even when we’re scared. We will do whatever it is we need to do to protect our connection.
Sometimes you have to be willing to agree to disagree over something in order to maintain your connection. My relationship with an old and dear friend was almost destroyed over our different opinions on a certain moral issue. However, we decided to put our relationship first and be at peace even though we approached the issue in opposite ways. We still don’t agree, but we won’t let our disagreement create a wedge in our connection.
Conditional love and acceptance means that we are willing to pull away from our connection under certain circumstances. The minute we happen to scare the other person or they scare us; we will be tempted to withhold our love and disconnect. And because disconnection only produces more fear and anxiety, we will widen our distance at an alarming rate. This threat effectively prevents two people from feeling free to be themselves because they instinctively know the connection won’t be strong enough to handle it.
In contrast, when we commit to unconditional love and acceptance, we protect each other’s freedom. Everything that we offer to the relationship comes freely from our hearts, not under coercion. Yes, committing to pursue and protect my connection with you means that I will be thinking about how my decisions will affect you while making adjustments accordingly. But managing myself to protect our connection is the ultimate expression of freedom—that is what it means to be a powerful person.
Without the foundation of unconditional love and acceptance in a relationship, we simply cannot be free to be ourselves. It’s only when we remove the option of distance and disconnection from our relationships that we create a safe place to be ourselves. We cast out fear, inviting each other to bring our best selves forward.
Yes, it’s vulnerable and scary to keep your love on toward someone who has become a perceived threat—you cannot guarantee what he or she is going to do. But you can guarantee your own choice. And you can always choose connection.
From Keep Your Love On, by Danny Silk.