A few weeks ago, I received a letter from a reader who was struggling to maintain compersion (happiness due to others being happy) because their metamour (their partner’s other partner) resented their existence.
As part of their letter, they wrote Love shouldn’t be conditional and for me it’s not.
While this wasn’t the main point of their letter, it did get me to thinking — and to writing — the following:
Should Love Be Unconditional?
…I am not sure it’s easy to take what you said in passing for granted as a kind of gospel truth — that love shouldn’t be conditional.
There’s a philosophical gray area here. Whether or not unconditional love is a state to strive for is actually quite a controversial premise. I’ve seen people come down credibly on virtually every side of this issue that you can imagine.
…there tend to be some very reasonable arguments both for and against. Here are a couple:
- Love shouldn’t be conditional. We shouldn’t have to earn someone else’s love by doing certain things, being a certain way, providing them transactional benefits. If it’s more about these conditions (what they can do for us, how much prestige they add to our life by being linked to them, etc.) than about enjoying spending time with the person themselves, then one might argue that it’s not even love.
- Conditions can, however, serve a vital purpose in loving relationships. Unconditional love is a beautiful concept in theory, but when it comes to romantic love, we need to be able to set conditions with other adults (such as boundaries, etc.) in order to promote healthy relationships.
I actually agree with the broad strokes of both of these stances.
And so I’ve more or less taken the position that the health of a relationship is less about whether that love is unconditional or not — and more about what the conditions are, if any.
Are they petty concerns? Are those conditions about the pursuit of status or attempting to outsource most of your life’s hassles to someone else?
Or are any conditions you have in place about making sure you’re protected and not vulnerable to abuse?
If it’s the latter, I don’t see any problem with it.
In that post, I also invited readers to weigh in on the question of whether love should be conditional or not. And you did! Thank you!
I received many outreaches via comments and reader mail. Here’s what you said:
Feelings and Behaviors Are Different
Some of you drew a distinction between the feeling of love and the behaviors that take place in a loving relationship. You argued that the feelings themselves could be unconditional but stated that it was certainly appropriate to draw boundaries and to qualify certain behaviors as acceptable or unacceptable within a relationship.
As another reader put it, while love may be unconditional, the relationship is always conditional.
Love Is Always Conditional
Some of you argued that love is always conditional. That it doesn’t matter how much you love someone if they abuse or mistreat other people in an unethical manner or if they do something else to violate your core values.
You said that “unconditional love” is one of those platitudes that sound really good in theory but typically don’t make much sense in practice (one reader compared the idea of unconditional love to the saying “love means never having to say you’re sorry,” another thing that sounds so pretty in theory but doesn’t really square with how humans tend to interact with another in the real world, with real feelings and real concerns).
You were also very clear that love is not something owed to other people – it either happens, or it doesn’t. And if conditions change, so can loving feelings and positive regard towards someone. Tough sometimes, but the truth.
Unconditional Love Diminishes the Value of Love
I also heard from readers who believe that loving without conditions actually devalues it. If we love others no matter how they treat us or how they treat others, then what is love, really? Is it something to be striven for or valued? Or is this form of love simply a state of being held emotionally hostage by another person? And if that is true, why would we sign up for such a thing?
Some of you argued that unconditional love is more akin to obsession — in the way that it functions.
Unconditional Love Is Only Appropriate From a Parent Towards a Child
I heard from multiple people who said that unconditional love is really only appropriate from a parent towards a child. Others pointed out that it doesn’t necessarily work in the other direction, however — as there are abusive parents, and their children shouldn’t be forced to love them unconditionally.
I was surprised to note that I also heard from a parent who said that their love for their children is conditional — because they wouldn’t support their child if they instigated a great harm against the world.
It Depends on How You Define Love
Some of you very astutely pointed out that whether unconditional love was desirable or possible in a healthy context did seem to revolve around how you were defining “love.” (The issue with conflation of different emotional realities and experiences due to English using a single word, love, to denote many different states is well established.)
One reader said that wanting the best possible outcome for someone in any circumstance, one way that they could define love, could very well be unconditional.
Self-Love Can Conflict With Other-Love and Win the Day
Some other readers pointed out that loving someone else doesn’t necessarily mean that you always do what that person wants — particularly if what they want conflicts in a zero sum way with your own need for self-protection and self-love. Because of this, you can still love someone and simultaneously need to set some pretty hefty boundaries, even end up leaving the person in question, if their actions are causing a dangerous situation for you (or others close to you).
Thank you folks! I had a great time reading and thinking about your responses.
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