Unconditional love

I occasionally come across people talking about unconditional love as a wonderful thing, as a thing to which we should aspire in long-term established relationships.

This alarms me, and I think it’s unhealthy.

I think there is only one form of unconditional love that makes any sense: that of a parent for a child. No matter what you do, no matter who you are or what choices you make, your parents should love you utterly and unconditionally (not all are capable of that, because parents are humans too and therefore flawed and sometimes get it wrong, but it’s how it ought to work).

If we consider love to be an action – not just a feeling of warmth and care but also the way you treat someone, the way you act towards them, the way you take them into consideration – then loving unconditionally ties you in to some alarming obligations.

Even The Rake, with whom I hope and intend to be together until death, knows that my love for him is not unconditional. If he were to deceive me repeatedly, or treat me cruelly in any number of ongoing and awful ways, my love for him would eventually fade and die. And that’s not why he doesn’t treat me badly (he treats me well because he’s an awesome human being who loves me a whole lot, not because of a fear of sanctions) but it’s a fact.

The only way in which unconditional love can be taken as healthy is if you consider ‘love’ as a word to be referring specifically and solely to a feeling, not to a behaviour or in the context of a relationship. In this way, it’s possible to love someone for all your life who treated you unforgivably badly, and yet also take the healthy decision to remove them from your life entirely.

I don’t think love can exist without reciprocity, though; I think that’s something else – something we don’t quite have a word for – or at least, it’s not the same kind of romantic love as we recognise between two people who are ‘in love’ with each other. For example: unrequited love, as a concept, confuses me – how can you possibly love someone in that way who doesn’t love you back and never has? That’s different again from the slow sad fading of love – sometimes unevenly – between two people who were once in love.

It’s brutal and self-destructive to love someone who doesn’t love you back or who treats you badly, and it’s not healthy. The only way that level of absolute self-sacrifice can make sense is within a fundamentally and unalterably uneven relationship – a parent and child.

Correspondingly, how can it be comfortable to be ‘loved’ by someone no matter what? Part, I think, of what people value in being loved is that sense of being known, being understood, being truly seen – feeling that someone knows you so incredibly well, and loves *you*. Someone loving you absolutely and literally no matter what implies that it doesn’t matter who you are or what you do – or even that they don’t much care. It’s a bit like meeting someone two or three times, then they suddenly and effusively declare you to be their new best friend and talk about how super-close you are. They’ve looked straight past you – that’s not about being known and understood at all. I don’t want to be loved unconditionally – I want to be loved for my self and for my actions and choices, and I want those who love me to make an active choice to want me around.

My love is absolutely conditional, and a choice I make, and I’m more than happy with that. No-one I love and care about is in my life because of an obligation or because I have no choice; instead, I see love as a constant repeated choice, as well as a feeling and a collection of actions. I choose to continue loving those I love, because they are amazing and worth it.

Massive Attack: Teardrop


9 responses to “Unconditional love

  1. Devil's avocado

    The deal for unconditional magic mother-love is that it’s one-way. It’s constant and everlasting, whatever the changing emotions of the recipients might be.
    Yes, adult love-relationships need to work both ways.

  2. Devil's avocado

    Today, I heard a story, via a friend, of extremely conditional parental ‘love’. The Christian parents refused to attend the wedding of their over-21 year old daughter because she was pregnant. This is not an anti-Christian comment; it’s despair that boundaries can be set which have no flexibility.

    • That’s really heartbreaking, and – from my understanding and readings of Christianity – goes against the fundamentals of the religion.

      The flip side is the groups of lovely Christians I saw lining the route of Pride in London over the weekend, holding signs saying ‘we’re sorry for the way our church has treated you’, ‘it’s against my religion to hate you’, and ‘God’s love is queer too’.

  3. Pingback: It gets better – You’re amazing just the way you are! | Most Viewed Youtube Video

  4. I could not disagree with you more.

    LOVE should always ideally be unconditional. Leaving abusive situations should always be an unconditional, too. Love doesn’t mean putting up with abuse. Love doesn’t mean not having and enforcing boundaries. Love doesn’t mean not meting out consequences for behavior. I can’t understand why that confuses people. I think that people confuse the concept of “forgiveness,” too.

    One day, I’ll adequately be able to explain what I mean. I’ve tried to do it so many times without complete success. It’s one of my biggest frustrations to not have the proper words!

    Jesus is most often used as an example of unconditional love (outside that parent/child relationship in which many people achieve as close to an unconditional love as they’ll ever get). And no, I’m not a believer; I’m not Christian.

    According to the story, he died to save humanity. That doesn’t mean that he didn’t set boundaries about things that mattered to him. He hung with prostitutes. He kicked out money-changers. He scolded hypocrites and Pharisees. He dared to envision a radically new world. Would you die to save someone you don’t know? According to the myth, he did.

    Why is that admirable?

    Because of its power to transform others into a better version of themselves. Doing that, person by person, builds a better world for all.

    We forgive others because THEY need it. We also forgive others because WE need it, too. Having forgiveness in our hearts has nothing to do with the stories of an abused spouse, for instance, staying with an abuser because he says, “But I LOVE him.”

    No. Unconditional love would involve leaving the abuser and wishing him well anyway, even as you press charges against him. For most of us, that is a process, that forgiveness. Some of us are never capable of achieving it. And yet, the sense of relief when you’ve really and freely forgiven someone, when you fill your heart with unconditional love for them?

    There’s nothing like it.

    I forgave the person who hurt me most and it transformed my life. I came to have sympathy for his faults and failings. I dealt with the consequences of growing up feeling unloved and abused in my own life — actually, I still deal with those consequences. But the sense of freedom at not carrying around hate in my heart anymore? The relief at having love there? Being able to somewhat understand him?

    It’s indescribable.

    If the Rake were to make a series of bad decisions, you may find it necessary to leave him. All well and good, even though it would be sad for both of you. But trying to pretend that once you’re bonded with someone on that level that the love you’ve experienced together disappears? That’s naive. You may call it hate or you may even try to feign indifference. Every time you fell in love after that leaving, you’d remember Rake. You might be so damaged because of Rake’s misbehavior that you felt like you never wanted to fall in love again.

    If, though, you could manage to love him anyway? The relationship that went sour ceases to have such power over you. And it allows him spiritual and psychological room to learn from his mistakes and to become a better man. Even though you set a boundary and enforced it, you would wish him well, you would wish him to become the man you always knew that he could be.

    Doesn’t mean that you have to let him back into your life.

    • Ah, I think this is where we end up poking at the definition of love. I agree with you that in many cases the bond of love never truly disappears – but in many cases it does (people really do just fall out of love with each other; to pretend otherwise is disingenuous). And I also talk in the post about how ‘love’ isn’t just about the way you feel about someone, but is also an action – the way you treat someone, the way you take them into consideration etc.

  5. Oy. There’s no way to edit that comment. The Greek model of love isn’t a perfect one, but there are at least four types of love in Classical Greek thought — agape, philia, storge, and eros. You can feel more than one type of love for the same person … and agape comes the closest to capturing the idea of “unconditional” love.

  6. Devil's avocado

    Hi quinkygirl. I admire your ability to forgive but to say that “…trying to pretend that once you’re bonded with someone on that level that the love you’ve experienced together disappears…” is “naive”, is begging the question. Conditional love can certainly come to an end; no pretence is needed!

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