One wrongheaded notion that wreaks havoc with relationships is the expectation by one or both parties that love should be unconditional. In reality, the only unconditional love between humans is the love of a parent for a child.
Between adult romantic partners, it’s unsustainable, destructive and unhealthy. According to psychology professor Karin Anderson:
“Expecting or granting unconditional love in romantic relationships poses real hazards to individual emotional health. It creates optimal conditions for:
Abuse (‘I love you unconditionally, so you may treat me horribly, but I’ll still remain true.’)
Codependency (‘I’ll be everything to you and ignore my own needs.’)
Loss of authentic self (‘I love you so much I’ll be whoever you want me to be!’)
If love is given completely without any conditions attached, then forgiveness for any and all transgressions or slights can be reasonably expected — at all times, and without question. By this definition, you are in effect saying you will be willing to tolerate whatever comes along — good or bad — because you love the person, regardless of how healthy or unhealthy the relationship is for either partner.”
What are the conditions necessary for deep reciprocal love?
“From working with and meeting thousands of couples in my mediation practice, I know that love is C-O-N-D-I-T-I-O-N-A-L,” says Laurie Puhn, J.D., author of Fight Less, Love More: 5-Minute Conversations to Change Your Relationship without Blowing Up or Giving In (Rodale, 2010).
“To put it clearly, when certain actual conditions are missing in a relationship, the love disappears and the relationship will dissolve. In order for a mature love to survive and thrive, the conditions for supplying five essential human needs must be met:
If any of these is compromised by lies, neglect, rudeness, unnecessary criticism, stubbornness or secrets, for example, then the love is no longer grounded.”
Respect is a prerequisite to love, yet the giver of unconditional love is impossible to respect, because he/she lacks respect for his own emotional needs. Dr. Anderson:
“Unconditional romantic love is always unhealthy… to say, ‘I love you regardless of what you do or say to me’ is absurd. Not only is it unhealthy for the one loving unconditionally, it’s also unhealthy for the one on the receiving end. It creates a false ideology, i.e., ‘Love means being completely selfish, putting my own needs and desires above my partner’s at all times.'”
If the conditions of trust, honesty, loyalty, etc. are violated by one or both parties, the relationship changes. Love erodes. Harm and injury, whether physical or emotional, are incompatible with love. It cannot survive betrayal unconditionally.
In fact, a desire for or expectation of unconditional love is common among egocentric narcissists who seek a constant supply of adulation. They demand unconditional love but it’s one-sided.
Dr. Ali Binazir, author of Tao of Dating, does his best to dissuade a woman from expecting any such thing:
“The whole point of love between two adults is its conditionality (note: the I’m cool with the love of parent for child being unconditional, but that’s it). In a loving relationship, we enrich each other’s lives, catalyze one another’s growth and enjoy each other’s company. Otherwise, what’s the point? Surely we don’t need to date someone to get bickering, loneliness and uncertainty via home delivery when the world’s got plenty of that stuff floating around for free.”
Binazir shares Professor Barbara Fredrickson‘s two conditions that are prerequisites for real love:
“If you assess your current circumstances as threatening or dangerous in any way, love is not at that moment a possibility for you.”
“True sensory and temporal connection with another human being. This happens through real-time sensory contact with another human through touch, voice, or most important, eye contact.”
If either of these conditions is compromised or broken, then what you’ve got is not real love.
Sometimes people say they want unconditional love, when what they really want is unconditional commitment. “Promise you won’t leave me no matter what.” While they may not ever be guilty of harming or injuring their partner directly, they may change or become complacent in ways that erode love and with it, commitment.
For example, our partner may change over time in ways that we never signed up for. A layoff may turn into years of couch surfing. Self-harm and escapism in the form of addiction or excessive spending disrupts the household. Anger issues or other mental health issues may present. Indifferent parenting alienates one’s spouse.
In A Guy’s Take: Is Unconditional Love a Myth? dating coach Eric Charles points out that even if love didn’t have conditions, sexual attraction does:
“To do something unconditionally means that you do it without any criteria, conditions, or expectations…Look, you selected each other based on a criteria. There were conditions. I can’t imagine that either you or your man just threw on a blindfold, pointed at a crowd of people and randomly chose each other.
You met each other’s conditions for a relationship partner and you expected that you would both continue to meet each others conditions.
Yes, you love each other, but a relationship is more than just love. Relationships have conditions! Biological attraction has conditions!”
Charles suggests how it should be done:
“A much more helpful view of relationships is that you are in service of one another. The man you are with gives to you in loving service as best he can… and you give to him in loving service as best you can too.”
Do the best you can, and expect your partner to do the same. If your realistic and fair expectations are not met, expect your feelings to change. Love is an emotion, a feeling. It can and will change depending on conditions.
Unconditional romantic love does not exist. I can guarantee that anyone who demands it from you is a lot more concerned with getting than giving.