Dear Thomas,
I have a beautiful 22-year-old daughter who has been raised in a very loving family. She seems to need, and looks for, this same kind of love in relationships with young men. She has had a couple of relationships, but they all seem to fall short of her expectations.

As parents, how do we help her understand the difference in the unconditional love of parents, and the love of a partner? Or are we wrong, and should she expect the same? Is that realistic? Or, is that kind of love only in books and romance movies?
--Reality Check

Dear Reality,
Whatever age we are, we certainly bring memories of our parents to any new experience of love. Time past is always time present, and at some level the family is always in the room when we are expressing and receiving love. Maybe your daughter is indeed used to an abundance of love, and she wants it in her future.

But I doubt that her disappointment in love is due only to comparison with her family. Every family and every love has its shadow. I think that there is such a thing as rich and abundant love, but it is never perfect. Certainly, she must have picked up, as we all do, some holes in the quality of love in her family, and those may be playing a role in her disappointment. It might be better for you to look realistically at your own love at home, rather than speculate about "unconditional love."

You could imagine love as made up of unconditional and conditional components, but the truth is, I don't like to use these words. "Unconditional" suggests perfection--not the human condition. Let's try "open" and "undefensive" love. You can find such love with people today, but it will always be mixed up with some hesitation, holding back, and illusion.

Love is dynamic. It can keep getting better as people get to know each other. But that implies that it's not perfect in its beginnings. It needs room to grow.

This kind of realistic, imperfect, growing love is much better than the extreme romanticism of pulp novels. Realism adds to the pleasure, because when you acknowledge the holes and dents, your love isn't threatened by illusions of perfection.

So let your daughter take time to discover for herself what love is all about. Be there for her, but don't explain things. And don't be afraid to show the warts in your own love and relationship. She will only benefit from a full, realistic vision of how love can satisfy without being untarnished.
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