Unconditional Love: Not All It’s Cracked Up to Be

Bright red heart reads Why I Love You in pink letters

Following an article I wrote about marriage, a reader commented on Facebook:

Marriage requires an enduring commitment, selflessness (dedication to something other than oneself), and a well-developed sense of humor, among other attributes. Selfish people rarely make it work….”

Another reader responded, and then followed with a quote by Ayn Rand:

It is only the selfish, those of rational self-interest, who CAN make marriage and romantic love ‘work’. Ayn Rand wrote, ‘Selfless love would have to mean that you derive no personal pleasure or happiness from the company and the existence of the person you love, and that you are motivated only by self-sacrificial pity for that person’s need of you. I don’t have to point out to you that no one would be flattered by, nor would accept, a concept of that kind. Love is not self-sacrifice, but the most profound assertion of your own needs and values. It is for your own happiness that you need the person you love, and that is the greatest compliment, the greatest tribute you can pay to that person… One gains a profoundly personal, selfish joy from the mere existence of the person one loves. It is one’s own personal, selfish happiness that one seeks, earns and derives from love. A ‘selfless,’ ‘disinterested’ love is a contradiction in terms: it means that one is indifferent to that which one values. Concern for the welfare of those one loves is a rational part of one’s selfish interests. If a man who is passionately in love with his wife spends a fortune to cure her of a dangerous illness, it would be absurd to claim that he does it as a ‘sacrifice’ for her sake, not his own, and that it makes no difference to him, personally and selfishly, whether she lives or dies.’

One of Rand’s key points is that a “disinterested” love is a contradiction in terms. Think about it. Do you want to be loved by a “disinterested” person? One of the most common complaints I hear from people about their spouses or partners is that the other person does not care, or does not seem to care. Or, “I know he loves me. If the house was on fire, he’d do everything to save me. But in day-to-day life he doesn’t act interested.”

A person who passionately loves his life loves his own choices. One of the most significant choices a person makes is to obtain and keep the relationship with the man or woman one loves. This implies self-interest; this implies interest in the progress of one’s own life and well-being. When people claim they seek a disinterested love, they’re actually yearning for the exact opposite of what they most likely want.

People who feel like they’re in “loveless” marriages will respond that they’re seeking the very kind of thing Rand describes. They’d probably even cheer her on everything she’s saying. The key difference is that they’d call this selfless. Why such an error?

When people say they don’t want their partner or spouse to be selfish, what they often mean is, “I want to be cherished.” The person who seems preoccupied with him- or herself, and isn’t paying any attention to his or her spouse, is coming across as not being in love. This might or might not be true, but it’s the lack of attention – the lack of the feeling that “I’m your number one” – that causes the partner to feel frustrated and disappointed.

When someone feels this way in their relationship, they often end up characterizing the disinterested partner as “selfish.” In other words: “He thinks only of himself; never of me.”

But there’s a glaring contradiction: If your partner thinks so highly of himself, then why is he wasting his time going through the pretense of a marriage or relationship with someone he doesn’t really or fully love? And if he does really and fully love you – then why isn’t he expressing it more completely?

Expressing this love, as Rand eloquently points out, would be the deepest and most important expression of his self-interested love of life. As Rand writes, “It is for your own happiness that you need the person you love, and that is the greatest tribute you can pay to that person.”

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