November 26

Unconditional Love

Posted by William Berry | Filed under Blog | 7 Comments

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In my line of work there is a decent amount of discussion of unconditional love. Many believe it to be the ultimate in love, unparalleled to any other type. Many believe it to be the healthiest form of love.

First, it is my contention that the general way people discuss it, is not unconditional love. It is another overused, misunderstood term. In fact many terms which are referred to in psychology and that have become part of the English vernacular are misused and misunderstood. But they are for other articles. This article will concern itself only with unconditional love.

Carl Rogers (a renowned psychiatrist who developed Person Centered Therapy) used the term to describe what he felt was necessary for parents to have for their children in order to facilitate healthy development. He believed that it also became essential to demonstrate unconditional positive regard for clients to help facilitate the healing process of therapy. In the sense of a parent for a child, unconditional love does exist. Unfortunately, far too many parents demonstrate conditional love for their children, which can result in the rejection of their child when the behavior they demonstrate doesn’t coincide with the parent’s expectations.

This is not to say a parent can’t be angry with their child. What it does say is that the parent doesn’t withdrawal love as a result of the child’s behavior. As a parent you can, in a healthy way, withdrawal a lot of things. But love, if it is unconditional, is not one of these things. So it is the opinion of this author that unconditional love does exist between some parents and their children.

Where the term unconditional love may be misused, misunderstood, or perhaps minimized, is in regard to the love between romantic partners. I have had clients and clinicians alike discuss how they love someone unconditionally. If this is true, I would find it either immensely beautiful although possibly unhealthy or complete and utter nonsense.

Lets simply break down the term to begin: unconditional- according to Merriam-Webster unconditional is defined as not conditional or limited, absolute, unqualified. The example they provide besides unconditional love is unconditional surrender. In an unconditional surrender, there is no negotiation; no guarantees are made to the surrendering party. So, if love is to be unconditional, there need be no reciprocation on the part of the partner. The person gives love regardless of the outcome, regardless of the other person’s behavior. There are no qualifications to the love.

Admittedly, I may not know what romantic love is. This has been told to me by several people I was romantically involved with. To explore what romantic love is and where it comes from, I will write another article in the near future dealing with attraction to a romantic partner. For now it will be assumed the reader has there own definition of love which involves feelings of tenderness and care for another individual. It can also be assumed that as this love is unconditional, it is everlasting. After all, if there are no conditions on love what would result in its demise?

So let’s look at what the combined words forming the term might mean: an unqualified, absolute feeling of tenderness and care for an individual, regardless of their behavior. The reason this can be viewed as unhealthy is simple: if an individual is mistreating you do you continue to love them? I often use the example of a romantic partner becoming abusive. When the partner is abusive toward the other individual it would be unhealthy to continue to love them.

One of the best definitions of love I have heard describes it as a feeling and a behavior. If you love someone, you treat them as such. If you abuse them, you are not indicating love. Even if we use the definition above, beating or berating someone does not evidence tenderness and care for them. When someone continues to claim love for an individual who consistently abuses them, this love would be unhealthy. If that individual were my client, I would be exploring why they attach such strong emotions to someone who consistently demonstrates they do not love them. And I would be relatively convinced the answer would lie somewhere in pathology.

The argument usually given when someone is challenged about their unconditional love for another is that they love them, but won’t stay in a relationship with them any longer. This seems to be an acceptable answer, and is definitely healthier than staying with an abusive individual because you love them unconditionally. The question therein would be is that really unconditional love.

In Buddhism one goal is unattached compassion for others. This is also a goal of many religions, including Christianity (think brotherly / sisterly love and turning the other cheek). This seems like an impossibility, yet Buddhism (and other religions) are full of seemingly contradictory actions. Regardless, if this is what the person is describing when they say they love another unconditionally, than there needn’t be an argument.

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This entry was posted on Thursday, November 26th, 2009 at 6:26 PM and is filed under Blog. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

7 Responses to “Unconditional Love”

  1. Alexi on November 28th, 2009 at 12:51 AM

    I think that there are conditions on all kinds of love. I think that there are different/ more drastic conditions in parent/ child relationships, but they still exist. For instance, mothers of serial killers that stop loving their children seem a lot more healthy to me than mothers that love their children no matter how terrible their actions are. Whereas, in non- parent/child relationships the love can end for mistreatment, lying, cheating or for no reason at all. I think it takes a lot more for a parent to stop loving their child, but that it is still possible, and therefore there is no truly unconditional love.

  2. William Berry on November 30th, 2009 at 11:39 PM

    You make an excellent point Alexi. However, I believe both exist, in that a parent may continue to love their child despite their hideous behavior, or they might withdrawal the love as a result.

  3. Onidia on December 2nd, 2009 at 9:36 PM

    You can only understand the love of a mother for their children if you are a mother.A mother does not love her children because they are criminals or not. A mother of a serious killer is going to suffer because his son is different to the rest of the people and for the punishments that he is receiving for his crimes.

  4. Danny on January 20th, 2010 at 9:24 AM

    The expression of unconditional love means that the person loving is in a state of love such that they are unaffected by the tugs and pulls of external forces and influences. This is like one of the ideals of Buddhism that you mentioned, universal compassion. That is no different from unconditional love. However, these teachings are derived from the spiritually advanced state of these masters. To simply practice what they practice is like practicing flying an airplane without an airplane. If you want to fly, you need to actually be in the airplane.

  5. William Berry on January 20th, 2010 at 3:46 PM

    Excellent comment Danny.
    Thank you.

  6. Vania on June 22nd, 2012 at 10:35 AM

    Unconditional love to me, means having an open heart towards someone, no matter what they do. It means YOU don’t close your heart to them because of their behaviour. You may however, choose to have boundaries, and that does not mean your LOVE is conditional – for love is in your heart – but it might mean your engagement with that person is conditional. ‘Tough love’ – a concept used often with people in a relationship with an addict, does not mean that they stop loving the addict – their heart is still open to that person – however, there are conditions around being with that person, engaging with him/her.

    Does that make sense?

  7. William Berry on June 22nd, 2012 at 10:49 AM

    It makes perfect sense.
    Thank you for the comment.

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