I had known they were having trouble long before I got the phone call. “Alec (not his real name) has been arrested for drunk driving,” her voice was steady, but I could hear the effort it was taking to stay in control. “He ran into a ditch, but thank God, he’s okay.” Their marriage had suffered a lot over the years, from infidelity to the death of a child, and now this. Through it all, my friend had pledged her unconditional love to her husband, standing by him, giving him second, third, four chances. “How can I not,” she would say, “when I’m a sinner too?”
But this time was different; this was the proverbial straw on the camel’s back. This time, she confessed, she didn’t know if she could still love him without holding back. “It’s just too much,” she said.
We talked and through the grace of the Holy Spirit, I heard myself saying “Unconditional love isn’t the same as unconditional acceptance. Yes, we are called to love, but we aren’t called to be doormats. Sometimes, in order to love, we have to establish boundaries and allow for consequences.”
“But if you love someone unconditionally doesn’t that mean you love them no matter what they do, that you don’t put any reservations on your love?”
I understood exactly what she was asking. “You don’t have to put conditions on your love,” I told my friend, “but you can and should insist on some behavioral changes.” We talked about options, including requiring alcohol treatment and counseling. “Insisting that he get help is love,” I said. “In the end, love wants the best for the other person and sometimes that means making them do things they don’t want to do. You don’t say, ‘I’ll love you if you get treatment.’ You say, ‘Because I love you I insist you get treatment.”
As Christians we sometimes get the mistaken notion that unconditional love and turning the other cheek means saying “That’s okay, I still love you” to every offense. It doesn’t. Sometimes it means saying “That’s NOT okay, and you have to do something about it. But I love you and I’ll be here for you.”
It’s so hard to do when the person involved is someone we are committed to for life or one to whom we have given birth. I think of the parents I’ve known who have had to use “tough love” with a teenager on drugs and the gut-wrenching pain it caused them to say, “You can’t live here if you continue to use.” I think of the mother married to an abusive man and the sadness she feels every day for having moved out with the children. Yet, letting a child hold an entire family hostage to heroin or living every day in fear for your life and that of your children isn’t unconditional love. It’s surrender.
It has taken me most of my life to figure out that real love requires sacrifice, not surrender. It wasn’t surrender that allowed Christ to stretch out on the cross; it was sacrifice. At the beginning of this new catechetical year, it is my prayer for my friend, and indeed for all of you, that families everywhere begin to understand—and live out--the difference.