The 7 Stages of Unconditional Love

The 7 Stages of Unconditional LoveThe 7 Stages of Unconditional Love For a story on YourTango.com, counselor and therapist Michelle Maliniak tells the sad tale of her alcoholic niece.

For a story on YourTango.com, counselor and therapist Michelle Maliniak tells the sad tale of her alcoholic niece. Initially, Maliniak was angry and righteous, trying to control every angle of the situation and cure her niece of her addiction. "Then something changed. I changed. I learned. I forgave and let go. I realized that this was the way it was going to be … I stopped judging her or trying to stop her … Loving someone unconditionally means you understand that you cannot control them," Maliniak was quoted as saying.

The niece ended up dying from her addiction at age 36, but Maliniak has no regrets because "she was loved."

Related: Why you should treat your spouse like a dog

It's beautiful. It's heartbreaking.

It's the kind of story that forces me to wrestle with the question, "Would I ever, in a million years, be strong enough to love that awesomely?" After all, when it comes to unconditional love, we all want more of it in our lives. We want everyone around us to love us for who we are and not for who they want us to become. We want them to accept our quirks and forgive us for our faults. We deserve this. Am I right?

Yet, when it comes to offering that same love to others around us, suddenly strings get attached. We come up with all sorts of excuses, right? If we treated others the same way we want them to treat us, all sorts of bad things would happen! We can't just allow people to do dangerous things, make bad decisions, and wear ugly sweaters and ties. No, we must stop them! It's a sticky double standard, isn't it? We can all become unconditional lovers, though. We just need to navigate all the stages of love.

Stage 1: Crazy Love
When you fall in love, twelve areas of your brain release intoxicating chemicals like oxytocin and dopamine, creating a rush that researchers say is very similar to a cocaine-induced high. Though it certainly feels fantabulous, this initial, in-love high does more than make you feel like a junkie with the munchies. It makes you talk and walk like one, too.

New research from the University of Maryland and Leiden University finds that the more in-love someone feels, the less focused they are. Crazy Love makes us spacey and dopey and just plain "Um, what did you just tell me to do?" "When you have just become involved in a romantic relationship, you'll probably find it harder to focus on other things because you spend a large part of your cognitive resources on thinking of your beloved," explains Henk van Steenbergen of Leiden University.

If you are in this stage, relax. It will eventually come to an end in about three to six months. When it does, you'll be three pounds lighter, all your bills will be past due, and your boss will have you signed up for an Organize My Life retreat.

Stage 2: Numb Love

Stages 1 and 2 overlap. Right around the same time you can't think straight, you'll also feel no pain, literally. When researchers from Stanford studied people who'd been dating for nine months or fewer, they found that their passionate brain chemicals were as effective at numbing pain as prescription painkillers.

Too bad you can't bottle love, you know?

Stage 3: Fun Love

After about nine months, most of those crazy chemicals will have worn off, and that's when the real fun begins. You're still both on your best behavior, and you still genuinely like each other, too. Even mundane tasks like housecleaning seem fun when you do them together, and especially if one of you is dressed only in an apron and a pair of heels.

This stage of love is easy. You might delude yourself into thinking that you are loving unconditionally, but let's get real. Your partner isn't forcing you to work very hard. When you decide to ride bikes with your partner even though you don't really enjoy riding bikes? That's when your fun love starts to become more unconditional.

Stage 4: Forgiving Love

Now things are getting serious. Your partner is testing you, perhaps by leaving socks next to the hamper rather than inside of it (or, in the case of this photo, walking all over your dining room table). Can you accept and forgive? Or do you find that you can only be happy if your partner lives by your rules? If it's the latter, you are loving conditionally, not unconditionally.

Stage 5: Generous Love

You know you are at this stage when you do little favors for your partner without being prompted. You might, for instance, put a blanket over your partner if he's taking a nap in a chilly room, just as I did for my poor cold dog in this photo. As long as you expect nothing in return, you are giving unconditionally.

Stage 6: Romantic Love

Once Crazy Love and Numb Love have worn off, Romantic Love can flourish. "Many believe that romantic love is the same as passionate love," say Bianca P. Acevedo, PhD, of University of California at Santa Barbara. "It isn't. Romantic love has the intensity, engagement and sexual chemistry that passionate love has, minus the obsessive component." Her research shows that couples feel happier when they're in Romantic Love than they do when they are strung out on Crazy Love. They also have more self-esteem and are more satisfied with their relationships.

The secret ingredient: Unconditional love. When partners felt their mates were "there for them," they felt secure in their relationships, her research finds. A second secret ingredient: romance. Don't stop dating. Keep some of the fun from the Fun Love stage, and add a good dose of generosity and forgiveness to the mix.

If you do that, romance can last a lifetime.

Stage 7: Unconditional Love

Unconditional Love isn't the same thing as being a doormat, but it does require you to stretch out of your comfort zone. Never take your partner for granted. Always take responsibility for your own emotions. Control your sharp tongue. Compromise. Give freely. Forgive easily. Laugh, and never stop having fun.

-By Alisa Bowman

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