We all understand the value of unconditional love, but sometimes it is easy to love someone…and sometimes it’s hard.

And when it’s hard? That’s when it really matters.

A rebellious teen. A husband who is experiencing a mid-life crisis. A friend who has hurt you. For some of us, it can be something even littler—someone who isn’t making time for you, who you’re frustrated with or have just grown apart from.

Loving unconditionally doesn’t mean ignoring hurts or allowing yourself to be walked over; it’s about choosing to love even when it’s hard. That can include setting boundaries—and boundaries can be an important part of helping other people—but sometimes it involves sacrifice too.

It’s hard to define where this line is, and I’m not sure there’s any clear answer. I’m not proposing that you allow abuse or infidelity or repeated hurtful behavior. But choosing love and giving 100% even when the other person doesn’t “deserve” it by any logical evaluation can ultimately strengthen a relationship.

What does that look like in reality?

1. Speak kind words.
The most important lesson my mom ever taught me was to not speak badly about my husband in any setting. That doesn’t mean I won’t share a struggle with a close friend I trust in order to ask for advice or prayer, but I never complain about him to anyone, even when I’m so mad or annoyed or broken-hearted that I can’t see straight.

And the same goes for my kids. I’m just not one to complain about my kids, even when they are driving me nuts. Focusing on the negative parts of any relationship—and especially speaking them out loud—makes those things grow in your mind and heart and make it harder for you to show love.

Speaking kindly about the people you love is only one side of the coin, though; speaking kindly to them is the other. I have an Italian temper that I come by honestly but I’m not proud of at all, and that means that I can get snappy real fast. It’s not easy for me to hold my tongue when I am frustrated, annoyed or hurt, but when I take a deep breath, step back and choose to speak kindly, it really does make a difference in that relationship.

“Two things cannot be in one place. Where you tend a rose, my lad, A thistle cannot grow.” —The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett

2. Make a list of the things you appreciate.
During those times when you’re having trouble remembering why you love someone, take the time to make a list of all the things you love. I love Meagan’s story of her marriage-divorce-and-remarriage to Jon, and I especially love that being apart showed her that he was already all of the things she was looking for in a partner, even if he wasn’t perfect. Sometimes we focus on the bad things so much that they crowd out all of the good, but it works the other way too: we can focus on the good things so that they crowd out the bad instead.

3. Avoid envy.
When we’re in a difficult situation—whether it’s with a spouse, child, parent, or friend—it’s easy to look to other people’s relationships, real or fictional, and envy the things they have that we don’t. The hero in a romance novel is much more romantic than any real man, the way a relationship appears on Facebook is usually only a fraction of the whole picture, and you might think that someone who doesn’t complain about their kids or motherhood has a perfect life.

Rather than comparing the difficult relationships in your own life to an idealized version in someone else’s, avoid comparisons at all costs!

4. Don’t pull away.
Although I love to cuddle my babies and toddlers, I’ve found that hugging my girls as they’ve gotten older doesn’t come as naturally for me, especially when I’m upset with them; however, when I do make the effort to reach out and give my tween a hug in the midst of a meltdown, she literally melts in my arms.

Even if physical touch isn’t your love language, it’s such a strong and powerful way to connect in the middle of conflict. It offers a physical connection even when it feels like your hearts and minds are completely missing each other, and it reassures the other person that a disagreement or argument doesn’t change your commitment to the relationship.

ACTIVITIES & QUESTIONS

  1. Who do you need to practice loving unconditionally?
  2. Do you need to get out of the habit of venting or complaining about that person to other people?
  3. Take some time to make a list of 10-20 things you love and appreciate about them.
  4. Do Facebook, Instagram or the books you read cause you to envy other relationships and feel worse about this one in comparison?
  5. How can physical touch help you build a physical bridge in that relationship even when things aren’t going well?

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