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.