If there’s anything I learned from my marriage, and subsequent divorce, it’s that the adage of “unconditional love” didn’t quite cut it for me.
Some people interpret unconditional love as being limitless. No matter what happens in the future, they can’t imagine anything happening that would stifle their ability to deeply love their chosen partner. Others see it as loving someone regardless of the circumstances or situations, a commitment that they’ll see it through together and come out still loving, honoring, and respecting one another on the other side.
However, I think for many people the idea of unconditional love is portrayed as a willingness to love someone despite their flaws and imperfections. That’s certainly how I was taught to view it. This relationship dynamic was modeled out for me in family members, friends, and the media — really, anywhere cis-het couples showed up. I internalized the notion that some things simply couldn’t be changed and as a woman, it was my role to get on board and start accepting and settling.
So I did.
I rode the “escalator of life” and coasted along to all the achievements and moments that made for a nice, respectable existence. College, check. Boyfriend, check. Job, apartment, grad school, engagement, house, wedding.
And I was profoundly unhappy.
I didn’t have the perspective or language to fully encapsulate it at the time, but in hindsight, it’s clearer to me that what I was experiencing was a slow suffocation. My ability to grow as a person was being hampered by the fact that I was settling for the expected life path with someone who was not right for me.
I remember trying to describe it in therapy. The best analogy that came to be was a tugboat towing a cruise ship. I was pushing and straining and working, all the while struggling to pull my partner along behind me. At the very least, I wanted us to be on equal footing, giving equal effort. And the best-case scenario would have looked like a partner who encouraged and inspired growth and actively participated in trying to grow himself.
When layered over the traditional definitions of unconditional love, could I have done it?
Could I continue to love someone in the future, anticipating that the future would look different than what I envisioned for myself and for us? Could I continue to love someone regardless of the current circumstance or situation, knowing it was brought on by apathy, complacency, and contempt? And if we did manage to come out the other side of that, could I still respect my partner and trust that he respected me?
Ultimately, the answer was no, so we went our separate ways. I don’t make an effort to broadcast my divorce, but I also don’t try to conceal it. Recently, for the second time in two weeks, a woman reached out to me to share her misgivings about her marriage. Both times, they asked me what it was like on the “other side.”
It felt odd to me, thinking about the “other side” of divorce because I haven’t fully stepped into the persona or identity of a divorcee. There are days when my ex-husband doesn’t cross my mind at all. There are others where I’m still distracted by something that reminds me of him or I catch myself thinking about our relationship.
Generally speaking though, if I’ve learned anything, it’s that the other side of a relationship that isn’t right for you only deepens your convictions in what you know is right for you. It’s not right for me to ascribe to the idea of unconditional love because my love is, in fact, conditional. There are certain dealbreakers I can’t make concessions for, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with you having dealbreakers, too.
Here are three of mine.
Tolerance for Racism
As a mixed-race, Asian American woman, this one is deeply personal. No, I’ve never experienced the degree of racism that Black, Brown, and Indigenous people do. But regardless of race or ethnic background, I need a partner who is staunchly anti-racist.
Anything otherwise tells me they view themselves as intrinsically superior. How can anyone expect to build a fair and equitable relationship with someone when you know they view everyone who’s not like them as less than? I can accept that we all carry racist beliefs instilled in us by a white supremacist society, but I can’t unconditionally love someone who tolerates direct or indirect racism.
Which carries into my next one…
Refusal to Acknowledge Privilege
I admit I felt challenged by the concept of privilege when I first learned about it. I mean, how dare anyone suggest that my accomplishments weren’t a product of hard work and dedication. Later, I finally understood the nuance and recognized that holding multiple privileges is not something to feel guilty about — rather, it’s something to recognize, disclose, and leverage in ways that advance equality for everyone.
Having privilege doesn’t mean you haven’t struggled. It means you haven’t struggled because of who you are.
My ex is a white man; educated, able-bodied, heterosexual, Christian, and financially stable. He refused to contend with the reality that he inhabits what is arguably the most privileged body possible. With each attempt to broach the subject, he would dredge up a lived experience in his life that relied on hard work, dedication, being well-connected, or some other indication that he earned what he got.
When I tried to explain to him that his ability to do those things (work hard, be well-connected, have the time to dedicate to a skill) was, in fact, a product of privilege, he bristled before shutting down. The stalemating, the cold shoulders, the terse words. It all piled up into a heap of resentment and we both felt it.
You shouldn’t have to hold your beliefs close to your chest just to avoid offending the person you’re in a relationship with. Nor should you resign yourself to accommodating someone who doesn’t want to ever challenge their beliefs about the realities of the world we all live in.
Professional and Personal Complacency
I didn’t think I’d become an entrepreneur until I did. I never thought owning a small business would fulfill me, personally and professionally, the way it does and I sincerely wish everyone could have that same opportunity to be as self-actualized in their work life.
I know there are good jobs out there that don’t have to tick all the boxes to be “good”. That being said, it was tough for me to be with someone who had such little professional drive and ambition. While I was trying to make the leap to full-time self-employment and stretching my creativity to its limits, my ex felt neglected. He didn’t think I paid him enough attention or took enough interest in his leisure activities, but I disagreed.
There was a long-term vision floating around in my mind, a future where there would not only be ample time to enjoy leisurely hobbies, but enough passive income to support whatever choices we might want to make together. Maybe I didn’t do a good job communicating that to him, or maybe I was unfairly expecting him to just take my word for it, but either way, we weren’t seeing eye to eye on this and other issues.
While he never went so far as to undermine or sabotage my efforts, there was a marked lack of support and a sense of dismissiveness around my business. He saw his financial contributions as a free pass to remain indifferent to everything else.
If you’re someone who loves to learn, wants to be better, or otherwise grow and develop into whatever kind of person you want to be, you’re better off alone than with a partner who doesn’t support you or want to see you grow.
My parents divorced after 23 years and I sometimes wonder if I would have ever considered the option if that weren’t the case. But I clearly remember my father once waxing poetic about relationships to a younger version of me, and he said, “You have to choose: you can either be happy, or you can be right.”
And in the case of my marriage, staying in it would have meant I was neither happy nor right. I’d be sacrificing some of my deepest values and conceding to what I knew wasn’t right, and in the process would remain profoundly unhappy even if I could temporarily convince myself that I wasn’t.
I often think about these other women who have approached me and disclosed their misgivings about their marriages. I don’t want them to feel like dissolving a marriage is a mark of personal failure. I consider my marital exit as one of the greatest catalysts for supreme joy in my life. After thinking about it more it seems to come down to this: putting conditions on your love is not doing a disservice to the idea or sanctity of love, nor is it doing a disservice to yourself.
And instead of love without conditions, maybe we can choose to love with conviction. I may not always be happy, and I may not always be right, but that’s the type of love I wish I had been taught all along.
This piece is a response to the Know Yourself Writing Prompt #63: What have you learned about yourself from previous relationships?