What I will share with you and why
I spent about half of our marriage in pain, misery, and frustration before encountering a handful of life-altering perspectives that helped me turn everything around. Today, I have a great relationship: one I often laugh about in sheer surprise, amazement, and gratitude.
Last week I began to share these life-altering perspectives as four “keys” that, once discovered, put an end to my suffering and unlocked a thriving and connected marriage with Zelda.
Today, I will tell you more about the first key I discovered, unconditional high regard – the virtual “skeleton key” to unlocking maximum freedom, opportunity, and connection. It’s a story I’m eager to share with you!
Understanding unconditional high regard starts with its’ opposite
The opposite of unconditional high regard is conditional regard.
Conditional regard means only considering someone as having value, worth, worthiness for love, appreciation, and kindness when we find their behavior to be acceptable, hospitable, pleasant, and enjoyable. Likewise, it sees people as being disqualified for those things when their behavior becomes distasteful, unlovely, inadequate, or downright toxic and abusive and, thus, worthy of low regard.
Yeah, but Sven… doesn’t that mean she can just do whatever she wants and I’ll just be some sort of pushover?
Many men embrace conditional regard thinking it’s how they can create and enforce good personal boundaries. In fact, the opposite is true. Men with conditional regard for others require things from others that they can’t control. They yield their power, agency, and the expression of their values to the condition of others’ behavior.
For example, if a man with conditional regard enjoys being benevolent and generous, he’s only free to be so when he finds people deserving. He loses the superpower of being able to express his values as a willful, deliberate choice rooted exclusively in who he loves to be.
In reality, men who possess unconditional high regard for self and others have superior personal boundaries to those with conditional regard. They become personally unassailable and appreciate being totally in control of who they enjoy being.
I’ll revisit this idea further in my last email after I’ve unpacked more about the remaining three keys.
What conditional regard did in my marriage to Zelda and is doing in many others
Many men reading this are likely to be familiar with the “four horsemen” of the marriage apocalypse: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling.
Zelda and I had all these in spades and statistically, we should have ended up divorced! Had I not discovered this key, I suspect we would be.
It’s clear to me now that each of these four horsemen is directly attributable to conditional regard. I’ve witnessed this in my marriage and seen this pattern play out in hundreds of others.
Here’s some great news though… I’ve seen criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling virtually vaporize within months when just ONE partner improves their regard for the other.
Yes, you read that right. Just one!
Men frequently respond to that with “You’re crazy, Sven!” and then a few days later “Dude!!! You won’t believe what happened!” after discovering this very same thing. I smile every time.
I’ll tell you more about how and why this happens over the next several weeks.
The “four horsemen” surfaced in our marriage as it became increasingly characterized by each of us subtly tracking one another’s behavior as “transactions” we each used to determine our daily regard for one another. This scorekeeping became a breeding ground for toxic levels of disillusionment and disconnection.
Our mutual unmet expectations, something common in the life of every marriage, became the basis for intense judgment and criticism, followed by defensiveness and stonewalling.
Finally, that grew into contempt that eroded our love, passion, and partnership.
“Okay, Sven… so I just need to get my wife to start showing me unconditional high regard, right?”
Not so fast! Here’s an ah-ha I wish I’d had two decades earlier: conditional regard exists in a relationship because it first exists within the individual.
You might be thinking, “Yeah, that’s right, Sven! That’s what she’s doing to me, and I want her to stop being nasty and start having an unconditional high regard for me! How do I get her to do that?”.
I thought that way too! I wish someone could have told tell me what I most needed to hear.
“Sven, focusing on Zelda’s need to change will never work. Turn your focus to yourself and be free, brother!”
I thought I had a partner problem with a simple solution; she needed to stop doing some things and start doing others. If so, I could have the life I wanted. That ineffective idea kept me in perpetual pain and from living the life I desired. Many others confirmed my theory to me as well which didn’t help.
My self-righteousness and glaring disapproval for Zelda, even though I rarely spoke it, was criticism and contempt, and she felt every ounce of my conditional regard behind them. Is it any wonder that we didn’t experience the connection and intimacy I longed for?
Without even realizing it, I treated Zelda (and others) this way because I’d been subconsciously treating myself the same way for decades. Long before I got married, I’d already spent a lifetime living with conditional regard.
Like an insidious slow-growing cancer eating away at my well-being, my conditional approval and disapproval of self had been attacking my heart since childhood.
The value and worth ledger I carried within.
Somewhere in childhood, I drifted away from my heart’s natural state of just being. I learned a system based on doing and having. I began adding worth entries to an internal ledger I carried around based on what I could accomplish or acquire.
This balance sheet of doing and having, my triumphs and failures, my acquisitions and accomplishments, became the basis for my sense of value, worth, and worthiness for love.
My ledger had simple rules… more successes or stuff, more worth. More failures or less stuff, less worth. Get a good grade, more worth, fail a class, less worth. Get a girl’s attention, more worth, hear her say “eww gross!” or “you’re ugly!”, less worth.
On and on, this exhausting rat race to achieve and acquire my way to a sense of well-being went.
Ledgers aren’t sexy, and competition is terrible foreplay.
Regardless of the positive deposits I made, my ledger balance never inspired Zelda to give me more love, respect, admiration, appreciation, passion, and sex. In fact, she was downright adversarial, and I deeply resented her for it! I felt like no matter what I did, it was never good enough for her.
I was exhausted and experienced deep feelings of being unappreciated, disrespected, rejected, and alone. I compared myself to others, producing anger, jealousy, envy, frustration, bitterness, shame, and other unpleasant emotions. Life and marriage felt like ruthless competition.
I didn’t know then that I wasn’t feeling things others were doing to me, but the fruit of my internal, competitive, scorekeeping system of transactional love.
Competitions have winners and losers. Someone has to win and be better than others, and because of my low sense of self-worth, it had to be me or I’d feel like an unlovable, unworthy loser.
My system was leading me to relational bankruptcy.
Unsurprisingly, I also brought the four horsemen of criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling into my marriage, along with my system of alternatively qualifying and disqualifying myself and others for value, worth, and love. Meanwhile, my ledger was working against the life I constantly desired.
After twenty years of working hard and endless efforts to escape feeling like a loser, I felt like I was nowhere close to experiencing that intoxicating feminine delight I had yearned for since I was six.
Instead, I felt emptiness, impossibility, and exhaustion. My transactional regard for myself and Zelda led me closer to relational bankruptcy every day.
I fought these feelings, deeply conflicted between wanting out and hoping for change, for seven “war years,” as I call them. Those were very dark years for me filled with numbing and fantasizing about starting over.
Then a beautiful thing happened – I got sick.
One day, I developed a bad cough. For the first time in our marriage, Zelda left for the guestroom so my cough wouldn’t disrupt her sleep. In all of our marriage, I never left our room to get a better night’s sleep. My scorekeeping indicated I was the winner here. I won the “who’s more dedicated to the other” competition. Why then was she doing this?!
I did what I always did when I felt these emotions; I added it to my internal ledger as another example of where Zelda was no longer worthy of my love. As I tallied the numbers, I became more convinced I needed to end my marriage.
By sheer synchronicity, I stumbled upon a preview of a Steve Horsmon video in google search results. It must have piqued my curiosity and caused me to watch. I don’t remember what it was, only that I thought, “Woah, this guy is making a lot of sense!” and watched a few more.
I booked a call, expecting a wise older man to validate my accounting and divorce conclusion and give me the pep talk I needed to do the right thing and divorce.
Instead, he led me to see Zelda through a different lens of empathy and compassion. Not what I expected, but what I truly needed.
My cough went away, and Steve’s words continued to provoke me within. I was sick of living in pain and suffering and beginning to realize that my misery was sourced within. I needed a rescue, and it was becoming clear after seven years that it needed to be a self-rescue or it would never happen.
I started asking myself many questions, starting with “Am I allowed to self-rescue?!” – a question that many people like me from faith backgrounds get very hung up on, and I was no exception.
Discovering the first key of unconditional high regard
“In all affairs, it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.”
― Bertrand Russell
There is no single, profound moment where unconditional high regard just snapped into place for me. It didn’t happen that way. I learned it by first understanding the emptiness of my conditional regard story and realizing it had nothing to offer me for finding value, worth, and significance as a human.
I kept asking more questions.
The kind of questions I started to ask
I asked questions like:
If my value and worth come from doing things, what are the criteria, rules, and requirements? What are they? Who sets them and what gives them the right? How can I know when I’ve met the criteria for worth? What if I were a fraction of a percentage too short?
In performance and achievement-based systems of winners and losers, wouldn’t the losers be worthy of whatever lack they experienced? What if one of my kids were one of those losers? Would I be okay with that?
How can a society be just and civil if some are winners and some are losers? How can we have peace if we’re all competing to be better than one another? Wouldn’t war, violence, and things like genocide are justifiable to the “winners”?
How could I have a longing for love more profound that doesn’t exist?
Every question I asked led me to the same single conclusion; if value, worth, and worthiness for love are based on doing, security and bullet-proof confidence are not possible. No peace, rest, or fullness could be found in a system based on comparison without being better than virtually everyone.
“There’s got to be a better way!”
I wondered what would be necessary to live in a whole new way where value, worth, significance, and worthiness for love were disconnected from comparison, competition, disharmony, insecurity, hopelessness, and endless exhaustion from trying to achieve.
This new way would need to be one where the value and worth of humans were unconditional, equal, unchangeable, and irrevocable – even by self.
It would need to be concrete, free of pass or fail criteria. It had to offer unassailable value and worth, or security and abiding confidence would be impossible.
Where would such value come from, or “who” would give it?
I learned to value freedom over certainty.
Some existential questions like these can’t be answered with absolute certainty. However, I discovered I didn’t need certainty because I have the capacity and freedom to live in whatever story I choose, certain or not.
Since I get to decide what story about my value, worth, and significance I will live in, why would I choose to live in a story where I am powerless, hopeless, and exhausted?
Why not choose a story that offered superior results to what I had been living?
So I did!
I chose to live with unconditional high regard, a better story that produced better results. A story where my value, worth, and significance are immeasurable, incomparable to others, irrevocable, and based on being instead of doing.
And it produced gloriously superior results.
What is unconditional high regard, and why is it different?
Unconditional high regard is not an experienced feeling but a chosen perspective. It’s a willful and deliberate choice to see every human through a lens that assigns them equal value, worth, and worthiness of love for reasons far more profound than their behavior.
I think of it like a lens that I look through where a human’s value and worth are not for me to define, only acknowledge. This lens gives me understanding, empathy, and compassion instead of judgment. It gives the benefit of the doubt, stops taking things personally, and stops creating suffering meaning from other people’s behaviors.
Since it’s not a transactional lens, it allows for appreciation and kindness toward others based on my values, not their behavior. Unconditional high regard is an incredibly powerful lens!
What did unconditional high regard unlock for me?
This foundational key released me from my despairing sense of worth and, ultimately, my criticism, contempt, and bitterness toward my wife by giving me an entirely new perspective.
When I realized that my value and worth are based on being verse doing, I concluded that it must be true about everyone else’s too! If I wasn’t my behavior, then Zelda wasn’t hers either. Her worthiness for love had to be the same as mine.
I’d always assumed the behaviors I encountered were “reality,” but I’d just been experiencing my thinking about behavior! I had been supplying the horrible, painful meaning in all my stories! Believing we were each more than our behavior allowed me to consider the stories I had always told myself about what our behavior meant. I learned that those are stories I am free to interpret however I want to.
I discovered that my understanding of what things mean is not just coming from me, it’s not fixed. I can change it.
If I am the one creating meaning for why other people do things, why wouldn’t I create meanings that lead to the life I want for myself and Zelda instead of the ones where I suffer?
So I started choosing meanings for the behavior I saw in others based on that high regard lens. I began choosing to see others with value, worth, and as good. Therefore, they must be doing their best and have reasons for their behavior that made sense to them.
I started judging less and accepting more and this led me to decide meanings that gave Zelda more benefit of the doubt, compassion, empathy, no judgment, and lots of warmth.
Day by day, as I lived in my new story, no longer defining myself or others by behavior, my life rapidly began to change. It felt terrific as my cold, bitter, angry, and resentful heart started to feel warm again. I lost my defensiveness as I gained experience living in the assurance that my value was safely secure.
The warmth, Zelda would say, is what melted the contempt, ended the critique, and overcame the stonewalling. My heart’s warmth also warmed her heart, which is why it only takes one person to begin this transformation.
Those four horsemen have never returned to our marriage, but if they do, I am confident the key of unconditional high regard can lead the way out once again.
Coming up next week
Next week, I will share with you how this first key of unconditional high regard granted me access to the second key – ownership. I’ll tell you how one sentence in a conversation over cheeseburgers in Puerto Vallarta set me on the path to discovering and using this second key.
Can’t wait til next week to discover more about the Four Keys?
Click here for my free introductory class on the Four Keys to Masculine Mastery & Thriving Connected Relationships (no email or credit card required)