What is unconditional love
In its true, semantic meaning unconditional love equals affection without any sort of limitation. Love simply flows towards someone (or even an ideal) without any sort of restraint. One might even call it “true love”.
But this definition raises some tough possibilities that beg the question: “without any limits? Seriously?”.
Why unconditional love is a logical impossibility
So your spouse/lover just spilled the beans and solemnly declared:
“I love you unconditionally”
Alternatively, you might be the one that’s so smitten enough to profess unconditional love from now unto the end.
But chances are that neither you nor they are anywhere near to unconditional love. Nor could you ever be.
To figure out if unconditional love is possible or not, all one needs are 5 questions that take you down a deep “love them not” rabbit hole:
Question 1: Would you still love your partner if they stole the last slice of pizza?
Question 2: Would you still love your partner if they had a bad relationship with your parents?
Question 3: If you lived with your partner, and had a mild cat allergy, would you still love them if they bought a cat as a pet?
Question 4: Would you still love your partner if, over time, they became abusive?
Question 5: Would you still love your partner if they decided to fatally poison you on a whim one morning?
The questions took a quick, sudden turn into a dark place, but truthful answers can shine it away.
Chances are that you, and 99,99% of the world’s population would still love your SO if they stole your last slice of pizza. People are hungry sometimes, it’s understandable.
Breaking up over a cat allergy or bad relations between parents and SO’s is entirely circumstantial. You might love cats in spite of your mild allergy, and are willing to work through it.
Maybe you too don’t like your parents, in which case having a partner that annoys them is actually a bonus.
In any case, let’s say that there’s a 50/50 chance of breakup over these issues.
Question 4 is where things go quickly south. Most likely a huge majority of people would split from their partner if they became abusive.
But somehow, love is strong and finds a way. However, would you still love your partner if they decided to fatally poison you on a whim one morning?
As in, they’ll say to themselves “so apparently, a puffer fish is one of the most poisonous animals out there. I’m curious if that’s true. Why don’t I test it on my boyfriend?”
It’s safe to assume that 100% of people would break-up with the love of their lives if said love wanted to kill them just to find out if a balloon fish is deadly or not.
By implication, this means every person has at least one condition in order to love somebody, thus unconditional love is logically impossible.
The questions and the imagined situation have taken the argument into the territory of the absurd, but for good reason. For the vast majority of people (but sadly, not all of them), this condition is so unlikely to ever be broken that it just fades into the background. You forget it’s there.
So everyone has at the minimum at least one condition to love a person.
But loving someone only on the condition that they won’t try to off you over silly things isn’t exactly setting you up for a successful relationship. Consciously or subconsciously, we attach quite a few more conditions for our affections towards a partner.
Love can only be conditional
As a bare minimum, all humans love their SO’s on the condition that they won’t punch your ticket, because everybody wants to live.
Of course, humans don’t just want to live. We want to enjoy our lives, to live well and be happy/content, regret free. As a person grows and matures, they figure out what brings them happiness, what stresses them, what their hobbies and passions are.
For some, being punctual and on time is important. They like the comfort of the schedule and knowing people respect their time.
Others might have a high maintenance career or business they want to nurture. They know it takes a toll on their presence and energy levels, but they pursue it out of passion, or maybe a hope for early retirement and possibly wealth.
Everybody has their own aspirations, habits and particularities that provide them with satisfaction in life.
On the other end of the scale, they’ve also discovered the things they don’t like to do, activities that bore them to death, behavior turnoffs and so on.
When you form a couple with someone, you carry over these habits/beliefs/ideas into the relationship. Depending on how impactful these things are to your overall state of well-being, keeping them might vary from being a “nice to have” to “absolute deal breaker”.
In the end, the things that matter to us the most, that give meaning to who we are, we end up imposing as a condition for love in a relationship.
If these are broken, then the relationshipp breaks with them.
Think of the devoted single mom who breaks up with a new boyfriend who doesn’t care about her kids.
Or the promising artist that ends a relationship because his/her partner is unsupportive, dismissive even.
Relationship sacrifices, a slippery slope.
Of course, some people are willing to giving up on the love conditions that would make them happy.
A promising student might turn down a guaranteed career as a researcher to move with his girlfriend in some backwater town.
A wife might forgive her husbands infidelities in order to keep the family intact and not put their kids through a divorce.
People do this hoping the sacrifice will strengthen the couple, which will then compensate for abandoning the love condition in other ways.
Sometimes, this works out. The husband wises up and works to keep the family together. The student uses his talents to make a prosperous business in his new hometown.
For others however, these sacrifices never really “equalize”. They end up giving and giving, without anything to show for it. The partner is ungrateful of the painful concessions they make, or even demands more for the sake of relationship “harmony”.
And yet these people stick around in these unequal and unsatisfying relationships. They somehow come to the conclusion that however little happiness the relationship provides, it’s still better than being single, or trying their luck again in the dating market.
So they settle into a barren love life, where they receive only the bare minimum of happiness and compromise on most of their conditions for a happy and content life.
Is this unhealthy? Clearly. However, these people have given up on many of their own love conditions and stopped enforcing them. The irony is that in doing so, they’re now a lot closer to achieving unconditional love, at least when you compare them with those who keep their boundaries intact while in a relationship.
So while all love is conditional, it is possible for a person to get very close (but not quite) to the point where they love unconditionally. Only problem is, that’s not exactly a good thing to aspire to.
Unconditional love requires you to abandon your personality.
The closest you can get to unconditional love is to a) not want anything in life and just settle for whatever comes your way and b) have no personal boundaries.
It’s easy to love someone when you don’t have a purpose you’re working towards that might be an obstacle.
For instance, someone who hasn’t settled on career path or dislikes their home town, can move across countries or continents for someone at a moment’s notice.
However, those with a satisfying professional life or business really, really have to think over such a move. Can they hope to rebuild their business again? Can they restart their career from roughly the same place? Is working in the same field even possible? If the answer is no, will the relationship compensate for these losses?
If the answer to all these questions is “no”, then the relationship cannot fulfill the love conditions required to warrant the effort.
When such practicalities aren’t in play, it comes down to personal boundaries. Any sort of relationship is possible if you’re willing to tolerate disrespectful behavior.
It’s conditional love when you break up with someone over their cheating, lying, and hurtful remarks. It’s a lot closer to unconditional love if you’re willing to put up with these and continuing the relationship.
The more you’re willing to give up on what makes you, you, the closer you get to experience that “perfect” love that has no boundaries.
The only problem is, you might not like the end result.
On paper, unconditional love sounds awesome, but in reality it is anything but. It’s kind of like marketing posters of burgers compared to real burgers.
But still, lots of people declare their “unconditional love”. But just because they don’t mean it literally, doesn’t make the declaration meaningless.
What most people really understand when they say unconditional love
The best way read into a declaration of unconditional love is to interpret it as a show of how much they trust you, rather than how much they love you.
It’s the elegant way of saying:
“I love you tremendously because I know I can trust you to respect my critical boundaries, red lines and conditions. Because of this, I can ignore the little stuff that occasionally annoy me.”
Let’s say, hypotheticaly, that your partner requires you to meet a single condition in order to shower you will all of your affection: you will NEVER eat the last slice of pizza.
As long as you stay away from that last slice of delicious Italian food, your partner will love you with everything they’ve got.
However, God forbid you make any attempts.
But if you are unfortunate enough to be allergic to pizza, then your partner could love you unconditionally because he/she knows you can’t break their single love condition even if you tried.
People never love unconditionally, they only say that because they trust you enough not to break their hearts.
The concept of unconditional love could be used to manipulate us
You’re on a date with a promising and attractive person. The conversation flows with the wine, and you ask:
What are you looking for in a relationship?
Well, you know. I really want someone I can love unconditionally, and who loves me unconditionally. I’ve learned a lot over the years, and now I’m ready for true love.
So your date wants unconditional love, and believes in unconditional love. Is that a good thing, or a bad thing? Should you be amazed by their deepness and invest in this person?
As counter-intuitive as it might be (it isn’t), you might want to view this as a red flag, for three reasons:
- They could be new to relationships, and don’t quite fully understand the give and take required to make one work. They heard the marketing for the concept and bought it hook, line and sinker without ever reading the fine print.
- They might be boring and too malleable, without too much going on in their lives, so they are free to give you their hearts with almost no strings attached.
- They might seek unconditional love as a way to signal that YOU should drop your standards and love them in spite of massive character flaws.
Point 1 is a matter of life experience. Some people have a knack for making a relationship work, and understand how to balance out their needs with their partners. Others need more time and relationships under their belt until they figure it all out. And then there are the idealists who watch too many romantic comedies.
Point 2 is for people who aren’t bogged down by ambitions or obligations, so they want their partner to love with the same carefree attitude.
Point 3 is another big one that needs to be taken into consideration.
Our culture views unconditional love as the highest and purest form of emotional attachment to someone.
Popular opinion would make you believe that conditioning your love is a morally terrible thing to do, or that you can’t actually talk of real love by doing so.
Alternatively, it might be considered immoral or selfish, and that it applies undue pressure on the partner to conform to your standards.
Thus, it’s easy to feel guilted if your partner says “You don’t love me, because true love is unconditional” or “If you did love me, you would ignore those small mistakes of mine”.
But you shouldn’t feel guilted, especially if your conditions are rational, and well thought out, such as demanding your partner doesn’t raid a joint savings account, or frequently holds late night message conversations with an opposite sex co-worker (or same sex co-worker for gay couples).
In this case, the demand for unconditional love is essentially a manipulation tactic. It works by painting the normal, healthy love that comes with strong boundaries as being “dirty” or “inferior”. It implies that you could be doing more for your lover than you’re currently doing, or worse: that you’re outright hurting them by holding them to an “unreasonable” standard.
When someone demands unconditional love, the subtext might be to manipulate the other person in the relationship to bear all the efforts and sacrifices in a relationship without making an effort on their end.
Imagine this: you’re spouse or partner has changed from being relatively laid back and relaxed, to stringent, severe and overly disciplined. This new version of him or her is easily set off by things that are minor, or inconsequential.
But you fell in love with the old version because that’s you wanted in life: a relaxed partner, who didn’t get wound up over small things and even made the small obstacles seem fun.
You loved the old version, maybe even unconditionally. You might even have professed as much.
But you’re not ok with how the person has changed. You don’t like having to walk on egg shells all the time.
There’s one talk or more on the subject. You both agree the edginess and irascibility aren’t healthy for you or relationship.
And then comes the reply:
“If that’s such a big deal to you, then it means you don’t love me. True love is unconditional. I thought you said you love me unconditionally.”
It’s easy to fall for the trap and feel guilted into capitulating. You then give up on an important condition of yours for having a good, healthy relationship. From there on out, things will go downhill. If you accept the unconditional love hypothesis, you now have to suck it up, and tolerate your partner’s new found negativity.
Of course, this only applies if your love condition was sane to begin with.
Sometimes, we really do need our lovers to twist our arms like this in order to give up on absurd or overly selfish standards, or only serve to suffocate the relationship.
Overall, conditional love is safer, more predictable and satisfying than its unconditional counterpart. That being said, finding the right love conditions can make or break a relationship.
A few basic guidelines for finding the right relationship conditions
Coming to terms with the conditionality of love begs the question: “What conditions should I impose for my love?”
Having too few conditions turns you into a pushover with the personality of a houseplant. Tilt too much on the other side however, and you’ll end up a high-maintenance monster that wears down a partner.
Finding the right amount of conditions is a tricky job. But even trickier is deciding on a set of particular ones to impose in a relationship.
What one should take into account however, is that the Earth has seen billions of relationships over the course of human history.
Statistically speaking, most of them have ended up as breakups.
Of the relationships that didn’t shatter, a good part of them either became dysfunctional, boring, utilitarian or just passionless.
But then, there’s a smaller subset of relationships that did achieve happiness. As in true, constant passion from start to finish (or maybe with some breaks here and there).
Each of these relationships worked because the people in them figured out the what conditions worked for them and the relationship as a whole.
But what worked like a charm for successful couple A, might have been a disaster for successful couple B.
Or it might be even more extreme: the conditions that made couple A successful might have been so specific, so particular, than no other couple in history could have pulled it off.
The point is that no two relationships are exactly the same. Some relationships work precisely because of how unusual the conditions are.
In the end, there are no universal templates a couple should follow to discover relationship happiness. Just some basic, common sense guidelines:
- The condition should work to improve the relationship.
- As a rule of thumb, err on the side of fewer conditions.