Real Love is caring about the happiness of another person without any thought for what we might get for ourselves. Real Love is unaffected by the mistakes and flaws of the people we love. When they give us nothing in return — including gratitude — or even when they’re thoughtless and inconsiderate, we’re not disappointed, hurt, or angry, because our concern is for their happiness. Real Love is unconditional.
It’s Real Love when someone cares about our happiness without any concern whatever for themselves. It’s Real Love when people are not disappointed or angry when we make our foolish mistakes, even when we inconvenience them personally. Sadly, very few of us have ever seen love like that.
Real Love is An Absolute Requirement for Happiness.
Prior to the late eighteenth century, sailors on long voyages often suffered from bleeding gums, tooth loss, and wounds that didn’t heal. Many of them died. The physicians of the day called the condition scurvy, and they tried to treat it with better food, exercise, hygiene, and medical care. But nothing worked until they added citrus fruits to the sailors’ diets. Scurvy then vanished completely, and eventually, we learned that it was all caused by a deficiency of a single molecule – vitamin C. Without it, people starved and died, even though their bellies were full of bread and beef.
Similarly, most of us are emotionally sick and dying from a deficiency we have not yet identified. We try to fill our sense of emptiness with money, power, food, approval, sex, and entertainment, but no matter how much of those things we acquire, we remain empty, alone, afraid, and angry. What we need is Real Love. Without it, we can only be miserable. With it, our happiness is absolutely guaranteed.
When I use the word “happiness,” I do not mean the fleeting pleasure we get from money, sex, praise, and worldly success. Nor do I mean the brief feeling of relief we experience during the temporary absence of conflict or disaster. Real happiness is not the feeling we get from being entertained or making people do what we want. Genuine happiness is a profound and lasting sense of peace and fulfillment that deeply satisfies and enlarges the soul. It doesn’t go away when circumstances get difficult. It survives and even grows through hardship and struggle.True happiness is our entire reason to live.
With Real Love, nothing else matters; without it, nothing else is enough.
The Connection and Life-Giving Power of Real Love
The greatest fear of all for a human being is to be unloved and alone. As a physician, I saw that confirmed many times by people who knew they were dying. Those people were consistently more afraid that no one cared about them and that they would die alone than they were of death itself.
But when someone is genuinely concerned about our happiness, we feel a strong connection to them. We feel included in their life, and in that instant, we are no longer alone. Each moment of unconditional acceptance creates a living thread to the person who accepts us. Those threads weave a powerful bond that fills us with a genuine and lasting happiness. Nothing but Real Love can do that. In addition, when one person loves us, we feel a connection to everyone else. We feel included in the family of all mankind, of which that one person is a part.
Imagine living in a world where all the people are truly happy. In this place there is no fear or anger. The people here are so filled with love and happiness that their only concern as they interact with you is your happiness, and you can feel that with absolute certainty. Because they have everything that really matters in life, they don’t need you to do anything for them. So there is nothing you can do to disappoint them.
As you communicate with these people, you can see that it doesn’t matter to them whether you’re smart or pretty or handsome. You don’t have to do anything to impress them or get them to like you. And they truly don’t care if you make mistakes or say something stupid. It finally and powerfully occurs to you that it’s impossible to be embarrassed or ashamed around these people — because they love you no matter what you do.
That is the feeling of being unconditionally loved — and many of us can’t imagine it. We’ve been judged, criticized, and conditionally supported for so long that the idea of being unconditionally accepted is inconceivable. But I have seen what happens when people consistently take the steps that lead to finding Real Love (Chapters 7-11). They find a happiness that utterly transforms their lives. This is not a fantasy. Thousands of people have successfully used this simple process by which we can all learn to find Real Love, genuine happiness, and fulfilling relationships.
The Effect of Not Feeling Loved
Without Real Love, we feel empty, alone, and afraid. We can’t tolerate those feelings, and we’ll do anything to get rid of them. From the time we were small children, we all learned behaviors that made us feel good temporarily and gave us a sense of relief from our emptiness and fear: winning the approval of other people, getting angry, criticizing people, having sex, making money, controlling people, drinking alcohol, using drugs, and running from difficult relationships, to name just a few. All the unproductive things we do with each other in relationships — lying, criticizing, anger, withdrawing, and so on — are just reactions to the pain of not feeling loved. That doesn’t excuse the foolish and hurtful things we do, but it does explain them. Not feeling unconditionally loved has terrible consequences.
Imagine yourself again in the middle of the ocean (p. 1:2). But this time, there’s no island, no one to help you, no lifeboat — and you’re drowning. You’re exhausted and terrified. Suddenly, a man grabs you from behind and pulls you under the water. Completely overwhelmed by fear and anger, you struggle wildly to get free, but your efforts are unsuccessful, and you remain underwater.
Just as you’re about to pass out and drown, I arrive in a boat and pull you from the water. After catching your breath, you turn to see that the man who pulled you under the water is also drowning, and it’s obvious now that he only grabbed you in an attempt to keep his own head above water. He wasn’t trying to harm you at all. Knowing that, your anger vanishes immediately, and you quickly help him into the boat.
Let’s examine what we can learn from this imagined experience — about ourselves and about other people.
Why do other people hurt us?
Only moments before I arrived, you were absolutely certain that the man in the water was a killer. Sitting in the safety of the boat, however, you determined with a single glance that he wasn’t trying to hurt you at all. He was only trying to save himself.
And so it is in relationships. People really don’t do things with the goal of hurting us. When people hurt us, they’re simply drowning and trying to save themselves. People who don’t feel unconditionally loved are desperate and will do anything to eliminate the pain of their emptiness. Unfortunately, as they struggle to get the things that give them temporary relief — approval, money, sex, power, etc. — their behavior often has a negative effect on the people around them, including us. But that is not their first intent.
Other people hurt us only because they are reacting badly to the pain of feeling unloved and alone. When we truly understand that, our feelings toward people, and our relationships with them, change dramatically.
Why do we hurt other people?
When the drowning man first grabbed you from behind, you were understandably angry at him, believing that he was trying to kill you. In fact, you fought to free yourself, and if you had been strong enough, you could have drowned him.
And again, it’s the same in relationships. Without Real Love, we feel like we’re drowning all the time. In that condition, almost everything seems threatening to us, even the most innocent behaviors. When people get angry or criticize us, we don’t see them as drowning and protecting themselves. We become afraid and defend ourselves, using behaviors that often result in injury to others.
It is not our primary goal to hurt the people around us. But when we don’t feel unconditionally loved — when we’re drowning — we’re desperate. We don’t think clearly as we do things to feel better and protect ourselves. And those things often hurt other people.
Why do we get angry?
One of the ways we hurt people is to get angry at them and blame them for our anger. But other people never “make” us angry. If we all understood and remembered that one principal, very few relationships would fail. Most relationships fall apart because we angrily blame our partners for something they did or did not do. We need to remember that our anger is really a reaction to a lifetime of trying to survive without unconditional love. That’s enough to make anyone angry. We get angry because then we feel less helpless and afraid. Anger protects us and briefly makes us feel better.
In relationships, we only get angry because we don’t feel loved. In that painful condition, we lash out at anything that threatens us — which is almost everything. Anger is terribly destructive to relationships, but when we’re drowning, we don’t react reasonably to the situation at hand; we react to many years of emptiness and pain, and we protect ourselves from every imaginable threat to our safety.
As we find Real Love, it’s like being pulled out of the water into a boat. Our fear and anger simply vanish. Loving relationships then become natural and easy.
And all the other stupid things we do
We do so many stupid things in response to the pain of not feeling loved. We use money, power, sex, praise, approval, drugs, and alcohol. We cheat on our spouses. We criticize people and blame them for our feelings. We argue with those we love and insist on being right. We withdraw from those who might hurt us, even though that separates us from the very people we want to be close to. We even pick up guns and shoot each other. We do all those things to minimize the pain of feeling unloved.
When you understood that the man in the water was not trying to hurt you and was only trying to save himself, your anger disappeared, and you were glad to help him into the boat. You had no more desire to struggle against him or hurt him. When we feel unconditionally loved, we also lose the need to protect ourselves and do the things which hurt our partners. That makes a huge difference in relationships.
My own experience with drowning
I know something about drowning. Having insufficient unconditional love in my life, I spent a lifetime acquiring money, power, and the approval of others. No matter how much I earned, those things completely failed to make me happy. Despite having what the world called a successful life, I was desperate for relief from the pain of feeling empty and alone, and I turned to some very foolish solutions for my discomfort. I became a drug addict for years and caused great harm to my wife and children. I became depressed and suicidal. People who are drowning don’t think clearly. They hurt themselves and everyone around them.
We Have Not Been Loved Unconditionally
Most of us have received little, if any, Real Love. We prove that every day with our unhappiness — our fear, anger, blaming, withdrawal, manipulation, controlling, etc. People who feel unconditionally loved don’t feel and do those things.
As a child, I was thrilled when my mother smiled at me, spoke softly, and held me. I knew from those behaviors that she loved me. I also noticed that she did those pleasant things more often when I was “good” — when I was quiet, grateful, and cooperative. In other words, I saw that she loved me more when I did what she enjoyed, something almost all parents understandably do.
When I was “bad” — noisy, disobedient, and otherwise inconvenient — she did not speak softly or smile at me. On those occasions, she frowned, side with disappointment, and often spoke with a harsh tone. Although it was unintentional, she clearly told me with those behaviors that she loved me less, and that was the worst pain in the world for me.
Nearly all of us were loved that way. When we made the football team, got good grades, and washed the dishes without being asked, our parents naturally looked happy and said things like, “Way to go!” or “I’m so proud of you.” But when we failed a class at school, or tracked dog poop across the carpet, or wrecked the car, or fought with our siblings, did our parents smile at us then? Did they pat us on the shoulder and speak kindly as they corrected us? No, with rare exceptions, they did not. Without thinking, they frowned, rolled their eyes, and sighed with exasperation. They used a tone of voice that was not the one we heard when we did what they wanted and made them look good. Some of us were even yelled at or physically abused when we were “bad.”
Other people in our childhood gave us the same conditional approval. School teachers smiled and encouraged us when we were bright and cooperative, but they behaved quite differently when we were slow and difficult. Even our own friends liked us more when we did what they liked. In fact, that’s what made them our friends. And that pattern of conditional approval has continued throughout our lives.
Picture in your mind some of the people close to you — parents, children, spouse, friends — and predict the expression on their faces…..
- if you completely forgot their birthday.
- if they said “hello” to you and you responded by walking away and angrily mumbling something under your breath.
- if you were an hour late for a special dinner they had prepared for you.
- if you got them nothing for Christmas after they had spent a great deal of time and money buying a gift for you.
- if you snapped at them after they’d said something quite innocent to you.
Do you honestly imagine that they’d smile and be delighted with you if you did those things? Of course not. In almost every case, they’d be disappointed and unhappy. In addition, most of them would probably be hurt and angry — which would be entirely understandable. However, such reactions clearly demonstrate the conditional nature of their love.
Real Love is, “I care how you feel.” Conditional love is, “I like how you make me feel.” Conditional love is what people have given to us when we did what they wanted, and it’s the only kind of love that most of us have ever known. People have liked us more when we made them feel good, or at least when we did nothing to inconvenience them. It was natural and unintentional that our parents and others did that, and they did it from the time we were small babies.
Although it is given unintentionally, conditional acceptance has an unspeakably disastrous effect because it fails to form the bonds of human connection created by Real Love. No matter how much conditional love we receive, we still feel empty, alone, and miserable. Tragically, most of us have filled our lives with that empty “love,” and that is the real reason we’re now unhappy in our relationships — not because of anything our present partners have done or have not done. This principle is easily important enough to repeat: if you’re unhappy, don’t look at your partner for the cause. You’re unhappy because you don’t feel unconditionally loved, and that’s been going on for a long time, usually from early childhood.