Over the last few months, we have had several conversations with a man who is struggling with a difficult situation. His best friend is having an affair and is planning a new life without telling his existing girlfriend with whom he has lived for almost seven years.

Not only is this friend distressed by the hurt awaiting the girlfriend, who is also a dear friend to him, his philandering friend has repeatedly put him in a situation where he is expected to lie about it to his girlfriend. Moreover, the affair partner is engaged to someone else and has not informed her fiancé either.

The man has pleaded and cajoled and tried repeatedly to help his friend see the error of his duplicitous behaviour and the likelihood that this volatile new relationship will not last. His advice is rejected and his friend implies that he expects non-judgemental acceptance.

In a carefully worded letter to his friend explaining his conflicted emotions, he has resolved to step back from the friendship. He is willing to rekindle the friendship should his friend amend his ways and seek forgiveness in the future, but for now, is unable to continue as a collaborator in deceiving the girlfriend.

Unconditional positive regard

Unconditional love. Non-judgemental acceptance.

These phrases are bandied around as if they were the self-evident gold standard for relationships. They stand as uncontested wisdom in a world where our relationships are far from flourishing.

This week, we were listening to a Jordon B. Peterson podcast in which he interviewed Bishop Robert Baron of Los Angeles. We find the insights of both of these intellectuals compelling and it was especially the case when their conversation approached the topic of love.

Baron was formed in the seminary during an era with a strong emphasis on the psychology of Carl Rogers. Rogers is known for his work in self-esteem and coined the phrase ‘unconditional positive regard’ to describe the role of the therapist for the client.

The idea was that the therapist would be a completely non-judgemental presence expressing neither approval nor disapproval of the client’s choices. This would facilitate the process of radical honesty so enabling the client to more readily accept and explore all aspects of themselves.

The idea of the neutrality of the therapist is a foundational principle of counselling practice, including in marriage therapy, where counsellors are trained to be indifferent to whether the marriage survives or ends.

Throughout the later part of last century, many seminarians, priests and religious were formed under this philosophy and subsequently, there emerged a strong culture of non-judgementalism in the pastoral work of the Church. We’ve seen this manifested in the substitution of the word ‘choices’ for ‘sin’ in many sacrament preparation programs and the ‘rebranding’ of the Sacrament of Penance to Reconciliation.

The idea of ‘unconditional love’ was also ascribed to God and became the go-to defence whenever someone was challenged or criticised for their moral choices or life-style; “God loves me as I am!” and “Don’t judge me, you hypocrite!” are catchcries that persist to this day.

The thing is, the idea that God’s acceptance of us is unconditional isn’t supported by scripture or tradition. To be sure, God’s love is relentless and unceasing, and it is true that nothing we do can make God love us more or love us less, but it is an error to equate this with unconditional, non-judgemental acceptance.

God’s love is, in fact, a demanding love – a love that requires obedience to God’s commands in order for its fruits to be manifested in our life.

There are countless stories in the Gospels where Jesus confronts sinners with great mercy, but it always includes the admonition to ‘sin no more’. And for those who are righteous and keep the law, he challenges them further to ‘leave everything and follow him’.

Christ’s love, though endlessly forgiving, calls us to moral excellence – what we phrase: ‘radical demands – extravagant mercy’

What is Love?

Baron, a student of the writings of Thomas Aquinas, points out that ‘love is willing the good of the other’. This, in our evaluation, is one of the best definitions of love we have heard. It elevates love from a mere emotion to something that resides in the will, that aspect of our humanity that moderates our emotions and intellect.

Unconditional acceptance, on the other hand, implies that the one doing the loving is indifferent to whether the other is behaving in ways that lead to flourishing or destruction.

Jordan says that when he is working with a client, he has ‘unconditional positive regard’ for that part of them that is seeking growth, that yearns for psychological maturity and wholeness. He does not have ‘unconditional positive regard’ for the part of the client that keeps them enslaved with addictive or destructive behaviours and beliefs.

He approaches his clients with openness and acceptance but does not shy away from issuing challenging feedback when it is required. This is his professional responsibility.

Applying it to couples

The influence of the methodology of Carl Rogers was not restricted to professional settings. Many of his ideas were also adopted into relationship theory and taught to couples through educational courses, during therapy, and via books.

Married couples were often taught to provide unconditional acceptance to each other and by extension to their children. This was particularly so in regards to emotions.

Emotions are morally neutral and thus should be accepted without judgment by both spouses. Yet it is also true that some emotions like panic, terror, rage for example, cause people distress and unconditional acceptance doesn’t really help them or those who live with them.

Moreover, many people extrapolated the idea of unconditional acceptance of emotions to unconditional acceptance of the behaviours that arose from those emotions. This was a dangerous and damaging idea that facilitates abusive behaviour and normalises the breaking of sacred vows.

Perhaps the most damaging application of unconditional acceptance was to the experience of ‘falling in love’. Called limerence in the scientific literature, the emotional experience of falling in love is associated with a potent cocktail of neurotransmitters that induce a state of euphoria and intense, addiction-like attachment to the object of one’s affections.

It quickly became the norm for people to assume that if they fell in love with someone other than their spouse, it simply had to be accepted and they were obliged by the intensity of their emotions to act on them. Many, many marriages break down due to this fallacious idea.

Indeed, the idea of unconditional love and acceptance is a contradiction of terms, for how can one ‘will the good of the other’ if one is indifferent to whether the other is flourishing or decaying?  As Peterson and Baron noted, the practice of unconditional acceptance often amounted to trading long-term growth for short-term peace.

Eternal perspective

For Christians, there is another important dimension to take into account; we are living not just for this life, but for eternal life. Authentic love recognises the reality that our ultimate good in eternity must also be taken into account in difficult situations.

It reminds us of a man whose marriage had ended. Though his ex-wife had remarried and there was no hope of reconciliation, he remained faithful to his wedding vows.

A secular counsellor criticized him for his failure to face reality. She encouraged him to begin dating and rebuilding his life. But he was facing into reality; it was a different reality to the counsellor’s one; the spiritual reality of a vow made before God with eternal consequences.

He continued to love his spouse even though she had wounded him deeply. Had she ever sought forgiveness, he would have readily offered it to her though it would be very hard work for both of them to restore the trust in the relationship.

And this is perhaps the nuance we need when thinking about unconditional acceptance. Love calls us to honour the emotions and experiences of others but not to accept any and all behaviours that arise out of those emotions.

Love calls us to do the hard work of facing into difficult truths about ourselves and our marriage, and to accept that peace-at-all-costs is not possible or healthy.

Finally, love, genuine love, requires us to always be willing to offer forgiveness to a wayward spouse. For indeed, God’s relentless love is always ready to offer us another chance if we sincerely repent and seek forgiveness.