Every time you interact with your partner, you have many choices for how to respond to your partner. You can respond with defensiveness, anger, jealousy, insecurity, irritation, selfishness, indifference, and their ilk. Or, you can respond with love, and its relatives: humor, kindness, gentleness, and the like.
We all know that responding with love strengthens relationships. So why don’t we always respond with love? Part of the problem is that as imperfect humans, our moods and weaknesses get in the way. The other part of the problem, though, is that we often insist that the other person needs to behave lovingly before we do.
If you think about it, requiring that the other person behaves lovingly first does not make sense. First of all, if the other person is thinking the same thing, you will both be waiting for the other person to make the first loving response, and no one will ever make it. Second, you can only control your actions, so it doesn’t make sense to stake the health of your relationship on your partner’s actions, which you cannot control, when you can effect it with your own actions, which you can control.
I suspect that the reason many people insist that their partner behave lovingly first is that they have bought into two lies: 1) kindness must be earned, and 2) kindness is weakness. Behaving kindly comes from your character, not from the behavior of people around you. As Matthew 5:46 points out, there is no special merit in loving people who are treating you well, because anyone can do that. Also, kindness and weakness are certainly not the same. You can respond with kindness to your partner and still have healthy boundaries. You can still say no to unhealthy behaviors from your partner. Being loving does not mean that you become a doormat or allow your partner to behave badly. It simply means that you approach interactions kindly and gently instead of with the intent to attack, tear down, or control your partner.
As Carlson asks, “What if you didn’t demand that your partner was loving in order that you remained loving?” What is the worst that could happen? Most likely they will respond in a loving way, but even if they don’t, what have you lost? No matter what their response, you will know that you have put in your best effort to create healthy interactions, and that you chose to behave in a way consistent with your best self.