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.