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.