I often struggle with jealousy. I go to a wedding where the couple is wholeheartedly celebrated by their parents on both sides, and I feel small and petty watching them from the sidelines as they make toasts and can’t say enough positive things about their children. I would hear friends talk about how restful their mid-semester breaks were at home and how much their family went out of their way to make them feel welcome, and I fight resentment. I see newlywed couples who glow idiotically and have no financial woes or inconveniences, and I wish them well and bite my tongue. I feel like these people haven’t earned their blessings, and I resent that no matter how hard I worked to keep everyone happy and do the right things, I never had what they have.

Yesterday I was plunged into this lonely place again (which is never about the other person, just about the contrast they provide)  during a sermon on baptism, when the pastor started talking about unconditional love in families.  He was saying, how in the kingdom of God, you are unconditionally loved once you’ve entered in (he was alluding to entering the “family of God” by being baptized as infants, and how there’s nothing the baby does to earn this welcome and this family and this unconditional love), and it’s never, ever about performance. The relationship with God is to be a safe place where you are loved by the Father without regard to how you’re performing or pleasing him. Whether or not you are agreeing with him. Whether or not you’re “good.”

Then he commented that this is how it is in healthy families–the parents love their kids by the merit of being their kids, not by merit of obedience, or agreeing with the parents’ viewpoints, or performing or behaving a certain way. The love doesn’t change, because the relationship between parents and child can’t be affected by any of these other things.

And I shriveled up inside, tuning out the rest of the sermon in my effort to not cry, there in the choir stalls. I have never known that kind of love in my family, in general. My mom understands it and gives it, but she is spread so thin that it cannot change the the overall tone of interactions in my family, which is (and has almost always been, for generations) marked by a tone of “what have you done for me lately?” and “why should I help you?” and “you don’t meet my standards, so I don’t have to care.”

The first time I saw real, unconditional love was in Kevin’s family. When I met him, the way he talked about them was just so exuberantly positive that I wasn’t sure it could  be genuine. As I got to know him a little better, I learned that he felt that he was sort of the “bad kid” (comparatively–they are such well-mannered people. I think this just happened because he was louder than the rest of them), and then when I met them all, and saw how they gushed over him and held him in such high regard, I was floored. Even if he wasn’t just exactly the way they hoped he might be, they still adored him and were so pleased to be his kin.

And being there with them was like a balm to me, though I did fight jealousy when I saw the contrast. Unconditional love can exist in families. It’s not a myth. You can disagree with each other over serious ideological issues, and still have a deeply loving, nuturing family.  It’s possible. I kept arranging my breaks from school, and later my weekends so I could spend more time with them, soaking up the healing atmosphere there.

I ache, wishing that I had that in my own family. Maybe it’ll happen one day, but probably not for years. And until then, I’m reminding myself again and again: Kevin and I can do it differently. We can be like his family.

But I’m still not whole, and sermons about unconditional love make me ache. I have to unlearn so much. My jealousy is a holdout of both my own pain and my still-twisted mindset of needing to earn good things, of needing to perform a certain way to get love. I’m hurting my marriage with this mindset, and I’m realizing I’ve damaged a lot of friendships because I loved conditionally and never realized how ugly it was because I didn’t know anything else.

Conditional love is a damning thing.


  • One of the most heart-wrenching moments in my life was when I realized that despite their trumpeting otherwise, my family’s love is conditional. It’s not usually that they withhold their love, it’s that their love comes with a price – usually the price of tearing people down in the name of Christ and love. (“I wouldn’t say this if I didn’t love you.”)

    It’s so hard to unlearn what we were taught so constantly from the time we were young. And it is difficult and sometimes completely unfathomable to see truly unconditional love, or hear about it. Sending love (to the best of my ability) your way – you’re not alone.

  • You aren’t alone in this, babe. Let’s meet THIS week. :*

  • Lindz

    Hey Hannah, thanks so much for your post this morning! I applaud your openness and honesty! (You are a lot braver than I!) If there is anything I feel like I can relate to is that jealousy you speak of, of wishing to be ‘normal’, or not just ‘normal’ but somehow not have to walk around with the pain you hold. I know it was something I prayed about for many years, and finally found restoration.(Not with my blood relatives but restoration none the less) I pray God restores you and your heart, even if its not with your blood relatives but with God’s family who loves you!

  • Totally get that, and wrestle with that kind of loneliness myself (not because of my family, though). But you’re right…finding that community that accepts you without condition, and *accepting* that they accept you without condition. Thankfully, Jesus is helping us learn this, yeah?

  • I’m right along side you in this. I am working through some anger towards parents ( and pastors) who would only “love the lovely” ( or in my case, love those who did the “right things”). Anytime my life has looked different than what was expected of me, I felt incredible loneliness. Friends would become more concerned about “my sin” than about me or they would just stay away. My parents would become rule enforcers whose only aim was to get me to follow their rules. I remember one time, during the early days of my relationship with Derek, crying for an entire evening because I thought I couldn’t love Derek and be loved by my parents.

    It is difficult the to get in the mindset that love is not dependent on how I act. Here’s to unlearning all the crap that we were taught growing up!

    • Ugh, yeah. Been there. Things get better for you?

      I found that after leaving KW, few of my old friends were interested in being genuine friends with me outside of that church. Being away at college made that easier, but I was still the outsider there, too (not a pastor’s kid, not well-to-do, not endlessly optimistic, cynical about church stuff). Sometimes it’s not worth it to fit in and keep those relationships, though. With family that’s a lot harder.

      • Things have definitely gotten better with my parents, but there is always that tension of expectations of what I should be doing vs how my life actually looks.

  • Are you inside my head?

    • Ha, glad you enjoyed this.

  • I’m so glad you are blessed with Kevin….Matt has kind of been the same blessing in my life, teaching me what unconditional love is.

  • I struggle with this on a regular basis in my family, particularly with my mother. In my family, you are constantly rejected if you don’t meet a certain standard of behavior that is not ever clearly defined. However, one thing that helped me work through some of the pain and frustration that I feel towards my family is to try to put myself in their shoes. My mother, for instance, grew up in post-WWII France where everyone was suspicious of each other and had not gotten over the fear of family, friends and neighbors possibly turning them in for, depending on which part of France you lived in, supporting the Nazis or being against them. What that did to my mother’s family was destroy any trust that built up between sisters, brothers, parents and caused much division in her large family. My mother has never fully gotten over this and, even to this day, insists that what happens in the family, stays in the family. I seem to have gone off topic here a little bit, but what I’m trying to get at is that our parents are products of their own upbringing and the choices that they have made over time. I have found that, by trying to understand what has made my mom who she is, I am more easily able to forgive her for the emotional abuse that I experienced from her. God is constantly working to heal all our hearts from the inevitable hurt we cause one another. I’m so grateful that He is patient with us.

    • Right, and I’m not trying to hold anything over them. I understand why things were the way they were and I don’t blame anyone. But that doesn’t mean the pain isn’t real.

      • I agree, and I hope you don’t feel like I am trying to say that your pain is not real. I highly respect what you have written here and feel that, by sharing your pain, you are helping others get through their own.

  • Ouch! My heart’s hurting for you tonight. Unconditional love and acceptance are things we all need, and not receiving those things from our family of origin is hard thing to bear. So glad you have Jesus and Kevin to lean on–and Kevin’s family, too! They sound good for you 🙂

  • Karen

    Thank you for sharing your heart. It raises questions in my own heart. As a mom, am I loving my children unconditionally? Do they interpret my frustration with their lack of obedience as conditional love though I love them more than life itself?

    I hope to also encourage you. Know that you are dearly loved. You will make peace with these giants you are facing. I know because God loves you. He knew you were fighting against the tears that morning in church, hoping no one would notice the change in your countenance. He is close to the brokenhearted. I know firsthand. Know that you are on my heart and in my prayers.