“Love seeks one thing only: the good of the one loved.” —Thomas Merton
We don’t just want love; we need love. We were created to seek love as urgently as we seek food and oxygen. And sometimes we’ll do desperate things to get it.
Secular research explains our need to be loved as a primal instinct for self-preservation—belonging to a group increases our chances of escaping hungry predators (see Primal Wiring, Survival and the Need to Be Loved). From a spiritual perspective, our need for love motivates us to search for God and the fellowship with him that he imprinted on our souls. In both cases, finding love enhances our sense of well-being, while being denied love carries the subliminal threat of extinction.
In attempting to satisfy our need for love, we often navigate our relationships on the premise that “giving love gets me love.” We attach strings to our loving acts, and sooner or later those strings entangle us.
Love with strings attached is needy and conditional. Its underlying message reads, If I do __________, then I expect you to love me. Or, If you love me, then you will do __________.
We invest in relationships expecting to get love in return. We balance obligations with performance and notice when others “owe” us. At our most vulnerable, we may perceive rejection—the denial of love—in any situation that does not clearly affirm us.
Needy love is motivated by fear. We fear we will not be loved for ourselves, so we attempt to secure our connection with others by attaching strings—we may try to please and impress, or we threaten to withhold the very love that others need from us.
What we say or do for another may look like love, walk like love, and quack like love, but if it has a condition attached, it is not the kind of love that nurtures, the kind we all need to satisfy our souls.
The best example we have of real love is given to us by the One who calls himself Love. God’s love is unique because it is unidirectional—it flows out from his fatherly heart without requiring anything from us.
The psalmist describes God’s close and protective love for us from the moment we are born, before we can even get our eyes open or have any awareness of how to love him back:
You have kept me safe from birth. It was You Who watched over me from the day I was born. My praise is always of You. (Psalm 71:6)
God desires our love, but he doesn’t need it. When we ignore him, turn our backs on him and walk away, he doesn’t stop loving us because his love flows in one direction. He calls us beloved and cares for us with a tender and cherishing love simply because he chooses to do so and not because we are obedient or particularly worthy of his affection.
If we want to love each other the way God loves us, we can begin by identifying the strings we attach to our relationships and learning to love without them.
5 Ways to Love Without Strings
(1) Believe that God loves you. Believe it through and through, all the way down to your toes. The more we trust God as our source for real love, the fewer expectations we’ll put on others and the fewer strings we’ll need to help us feel secure.
(2) Observe the generous and unconditional way that Jesus loved and follow his example. God promises to help us grow and perfect our love as we become more like Jesus in the world (1 John 4:17).
(3) Recognize when you are imposing a condition on your loving act. Try to love without the “if” restriction.
(4) Choose to love others and let that decision rule your behavior, especially when you don’t feel loving or when the other person disappoints you.
(5) Surrender your relationships to God. At every turn his Spirit will show you what real love looks like and help you mature toward a capacity to love so rich and full that it crowds fear out of your heart (1 John 4:18).
Beloved [that’s YOU!], let us love one another, for love is from God. (1 John 4:7)
When have you felt loved by another person with no strings attached?