Almost everyone dreams of being in a loving relationship where there is unconditional love between both partners. While highly desired, unconditional love seems to elude many her seekers. The truth of the matter is that unconditional love is a concept that is pretty hard to grapple with.
While you might have experienced it, or are experiencing it, it’s quite difficult to explain or pin down. How do you selflessly love someone else and genuinely make them happy, and sincerely not expect something back in return? Another indescribable phenomenon of love stares at us right in the face!
But What Exactly is Unconditional Love?
The major problem with the concept of unconditional love, especially in romantic relationships, is that there’s a general lack of good understanding of what it actually means.
The general idea behind unconditional love is to love someone wholeheartedly and unselfishly under any circumstance. It is a love in which one person cares for another person’s overall happiness and health without expecting anything in return.
Having unconditional love for someone is to accept that person for who they are, their faults, and weaknesses regardless of the circumstance. To put it another way, unconditional love is “love without conditions”.
What Unconditional Love Feels Like!
When talking about experiencing unconditional love, the picture that readily comes to mind is the love between a mother and her child. Undoubtedly, the love of a mother for her child is the epitome of a classic unconditional love.
This mother-child-love is a type of familial bond. And ideally, it doesn’t break down irrespective of what the child does.
It is the love given by a mother to a helpless, defenseless, and voiceless child that lay in her bosom. How could she not love her child unconditionally without expecting or even caring if the love given is returned.
As proposed by the “attachment theory”, the child expects this love from at least one caregiver – in this case the mother – from minimum birth to the age of seven. The child expects this love and safety from the mother irrespective of how badly it behaves.
Absolute Bodhicitta is a more esoteric Tantric Teaching. Understanding the principle of Loving-Kindness and Compassion is expressed when one treats all living beings as if one was or had been (in former lives) their own mother. One’s mother will do anything for the benefit of her child. The most loving of all relationships may be that between a mother and her child.
And no matter how badly the child behaves, the mother would in general comply with the child’s pleas. And why wont she seeing that the child doesn’t know any better?
Yet, there are times when mothers do apply some disciplinary measures. A common example is when the child is fond of biting her nipples. This is apparently an example of setting healthy boundaries. The mother is through her disciplinary actions letting the child know what is acceptable and what is not.
But I feel that there’s an age a child matures up to when this love actually stops being unconditional. At such an age, there are often some types of undeclared “strings” that most parents attach to the child’s upbringing. While we may want to say that it might be an unconscious act, the fact remains that it is there.
So, I want to infer that the love most parents offer a child after a certain age is based on some sort of unexpressed expectations of the child fulfilling certain conditions. And that’s why it’s common to hear phrases such as “After all the love we’ve shown you and all we’ve done for you, at least you could have…”
This is the reason why I initially used the mother and child situation in describing what unconditional love truly feels like. I believe that at such infancy, it is very unthinkable for a mother to expect anything in return from her helpless child.
A Puppy Love
The same unconditional love applies to owning a puppy. For the most part it is helpless and completely dependent on the love of the owner. And no matter what the puppy does, the owner is almost always bound to love it. And like a child it is mostly helpless and defenseless.
Just like a child maturing, a time comes when even the little puppy becomes grown enough to start providing some sort of services. And as they say, a dog is a man’s best friend.
Yet, the dog remains largely dependent on the love and care given by its owner. If you own a dog, you definitely know the importance of training and setting boundaries for it.
Early Romantic Love
There is another good way to describe the feeling of unconditional love. This time, it is about the way you loved your partner when both of you first fell in love. This is especially true for the first six months of most romantic relationships.
Remember all the dopamine sensations that characterized the experience? Can you recall how you felt like you were ready to take on the world and could do anything for your beloved?
That’s more like what unconditional love feels like. The willingness to give whatever it takes to ensure the satisfaction and happiness of another person.
And like the other two earlier examples, a high degree of conditional love often sets in later. This is mostly after the “infatuation” or “honeymoon” phase ends. When the oxytocin kicks in, the need for trust which often requires a degree of reciprocity also kicks in.
From the above illustrations, it is easy to deduce that unconditional love seems to be more of an ideal. At the most, it exists mostly at the initial phases of most human relationships.
Maintaining unconditional love beyond these initial stages in adult romantic long-term relationships is obviously a different kettle of fish.
One basic reality that we have to accept is the fact that we live in a conditional world. Also, we are by nature programmed to have conditional love.
Nothing about us is permanent, physically, emotionally, or otherwise. We all have different beliefs, lifestyles, and needs which can all change over time.
For instance, your falling in love with your partner was because you saw something in them that attracted you to them. In and of itself, that is a condition that drew you to him or her. There is an established condition here which made you prefer your partner above other eligible individuals.
But what happens if your partner stops looking after themselves and start becoming less attractive to you. Would you stop loving them, become resentful, or withdrawn from them?
By engaging in any of these acts, you would be displaying conditional love. This implies that their attraction to you was the main reason why you’ve been showing them love.
Conditional love is when you love someone only because of what you’re getting from them. Loving someone conditionally means showing love to that person because of what you gain from them. This may be because of their job, appearance, possessions, or other material qualities.
Are there are any type of hidden strings attached to your love relationship? If yes, then such love is not unconditional.
Want to know if you are having a conditional relationship with someone? One very simple way is to ask yourself some thoughtful questions. For instance, would you feel the same way about them if they didn’t have or do the things that attracted you to them?
Unconditional Love is Unrealistic
A definition I like about unconditional love comes from Stephen G. Post, PhD, president of the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love. In an interview, he stated that unconditional love is “When the happiness and security of another is as real and meaningful to us as our own.”
The phrases I like here are “as real and meaningful” and “as our own“. Their happiness and security should never go above your own. In effect, it is unrealistic and a misplaced priority to want to love another more than we love ourselves. Or may I say, hypocritical!
This also implies that it ceases to be unconditional love when it starts becoming lopsided, abusive, or violent. Unconditional love does not imply that you have to tolerate hurtful behaviors or become someone’s doormat.
Additionally, if you view love as merely caring for someone, like that of a mother caring for her child, then love can be unconditional. But if this love has to involve a two-sided interaction where there’s a need for growth of the relationship, then love cannot be unconditional.
To say the least, it’s simply impracticable to expect one to “indefinitely” stretch his or herself for another person who isn’t giving anything back in return. Over time, you are bound to feel either exhausted or defeated. Just how long can one remain committed in a relationship with unrequited love?
Occasionally expressing bids of unconditional love are definitely OK. But how practicable is it for one to do that indefinitely in a romantic relationship? More specifically, without the other person reciprocating in any tangible way? This is indeed something to seriously ponder.
Unconditional Love is Not Natural
At this point, it would be safe to surmise that unconditional love also goes against human nature. Human love in general “tends to be conditional on reciprocal calculations, tit-for-tat pay backs,” says Dr. Post.
On its own, nature has a limit of what it can offer us as it operates on a system of reciprocity. Each phase of a cycle in a natural process generally depends on the completion of another. The processes continue till the cycle completes a round and then repeats itself.
The ecosystem must maintain its cycle in order for life to go on as we know it. At least we are all witnesses to what man is irresponsibly doing to the environment today. Most of these actions are in no small way seriously disturbing this natural system.
For instance, a farmer cannot continue planting on the same soil year in year out without letting it to fallow or at least applying manure or fertilizer to replace lost nutrients.
So, interactions between most natural elements are based on a system that is reciprocal. Then, why do we believe that human relationships, with all their complexities, should be any different?
Our Humanistic Proclivities
Being humans, expectations can arise almost automatically – valid and also unnecessary ones. However, attempting to indefinitely kill all such expectations everyday can be overwhelming. The emotional demands of such daily struggles can be enormously exhaustive.
Due to our humanity, even in the best of relationships, we are bound to have disagreements and misunderstandings. The fact that we are most likely to make judgments about each other is by itself conditional.
Also, in a bid to share “unconditional love,” you often start tolerating hurtful behaviors and becoming a doormat. This way, you’re inadvertently passing a message across to others that such behaviors are okay when they are not.
Equally, your practice of such unconditional love might end up enabling the unhealthy behaviors of the receiver. Your assumed unconditional love for them thus prevents them from seeking necessary help. This obviously does more harm to them than your intended good.
Unconditional Romantic Love
Most times in romantic relationships, people want a sense of safety that will make them feel that the other person is not going to abandon them for the flimsiest reason.
Likewise, they want some sort of assurance that their partner will remain committed to loving them unconditionally no matter what the future brings.
But such expectation in a romantic relationship is a sure recipe for developing an unhealthy relationship. Expecting to love an alcoholic, a liar, or a cheater unconditionally will definitely be wearisome to the soul.
Yet, there are those who feel like they unconditionally love someone despite being abused. But on closer analysis, a lot of such relationships are not actually based on unconditional love. For the most part they are codependent relationships.
Also, such love relationships mostly result from manipulations by the abuser. At times, the person remains in it because of their personal anxieties about living without the abuser.
In effect, you would naturally not be with someone who you know is taking undue advantage of you. The possible reason you would remain in such a relationship is because you are somehow getting some benefits out of it – no matter how queer they may be.
Unconditionally Loving Someone Romantically
Yet, I do believe that one can unconditionally give of his or herself to another in a romantic relationship. But this can only be done when such an individual has “truly” come to accept and love themselves for who they are.
Being full already they are not seeking any form of validation or approval from another person in order for them to have a sense of self-worth or completeness.
They are bringing to the relationship a whole and complete human being. Having accepted themselves, they can stand on their own two feet. As a result, they do not require their partner or any other person to define or complete them.
Unconditional Love has no place in a romantic relationship.
While they can successfully enjoy a loving relationship with another individual, they can also remain fully on their own as a person they like and respect.
Self-Love in Unconditional Love
Most of the time, the way we love and desire to be loved has a lot to do with how we really view ourselves. The general idea is that the love we accept is a reflection of the love we believe we deserve.
However, it is foolhardy to expect to love and be loved unconditionally when we’re depending on someone else to make us happy.
As a result, I cannot overemphasize the importance of self-love in being able to love someone else unconditionally.
Thus, the best approach to giving and receiving unconditional love would be to first love yourself. This means learning to show yourself the same unconditional love you’re trying to show others. You have to experience unconditional love first hand.
To get to this level of loving yourself involves unconditionally accepting your personal authentic feelings and longings. It will require opening up yourself and looking deep down within to see yourself as being lovable and worthy.
This means that you have to fully accept yourself as you are. And this is despite any perceived flaws you might have or mistakes you might have done in the past.
One important thing at this point is to accept the reality that no one will accept all of you as you would like them to. Only you can do that. So, accepting you for the person you are is unconditional love in and of itself.
When you’ve ensured that your personal love needs have been met, then you’ll be in a better position to show others the same kind of love.
Also, it is only when you’ve been able to accept and embrace your own imperfections, that you can more readily accept those in others.
Assertiveness in Self-Love
Healthy and loving relationships need a high degree of openness and honest communication. These two qualities call for self-esteem which is part of what self-love helps to bring out in us.
So, while you’ve learned to love yourself, it is also imperative that you are able to communicate your needs and desires to your partner in a respectful manner.
As humans, we have an innate craving for acceptance, kindness, and intimacy in our lives. But you should never neglect communicating your needs and seeking their fulfillment while you are fulfilling the needs of your partner or others.
I also like the way Jesus described self-love in Matthew 22:39 when He replied the Pharisees by saying “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The keyword I like here is the word “as”.
In simple terms, you’re to love others in the same way you love yourself. The same and not above the love you have for yourself. Your self-love is thus as important as the love you show to others.
Need for Boundaries in Unconditional Love
A discussion about unconditional love cannot be complete without stressing the need for healthy boundaries in relationships. A fundamental aspect of true unconditional love involves both expressing your boundaries and respecting those of your partner.
Knowing your own personal boundaries is also part of self-love. As a result, you should be able to clearly define the limits of what you consider to be appropriate and healthy behaviors and responses from your partner.
Also, it is imperative that both partners are aware of their personal boundaries in the relationship. Thus, both partners need to have a sense of commitment to communicating their personal boundaries in a loving and non-threatening manner.
In communicating your boundaries and limits, it is also important to adopt a flexible mentality. With such a mindset, is will be much easier to adapt and compromise when necessary. After all, everything must be done for the overall good of the relationship.
In fact, unconditional love cannot exist without the element of boundaries. Thus, an important sign of your partner’s unconditional love for you is the respect they have for your personal boundaries. Constantly violating your boundaries is a clear sign that they neither respect you nor love you unconditionally.
The more both of you honor your boundaries, the stronger you will grow together and be able to mutually love each other unconditionally.
What Unconditional Love Should Be Like!
Unconditional love should be seen as the basic goodness and total acceptance you express towards another person without really expecting anything in return.
But, this doesn’t imply always giving people what they want or tolerating abuse, neglect, or other possible deal breakers. Loving someone else should never be at the expense of your own happiness and needs.
We should rather think of unconditional love as an expression of love and respect for another person while still maintaining good personal boundaries and protecting one’s self. This ensures that you feel safe with them, and them with you.
The understanding is that you need to stop being everything to another person. Instead, you should recognize what your obligations are to them by being attentive and attuned to their needs.
Likewise, you need to establish healthy limits and boundaries that will guide the relationship. This way, while honoring their requests, you’re not causing any harm to yourself.
Overall, the goal is to let the other person understand where you stand – what you can tolerate and what you will not. This way, both of you are able to work out a mutually benefitting outcome for the good of the relationship.
Through this way, you also become more capable of accepting your partner when they are at their worst, and enjoying them when they’re at their best.
Experiencing Mutual Unconditional Love
An unconditional love relationship should provide an environment where both partners respect and support each other without expecting much in return.
It should be an environment in which each partner values the other primarily for the mutual empathy and support they bring into the relationship itself.
Love… What is love? Love is to love someone for who they are, who they were, and who they will be.
– Chris Moore
The act of giving to the other person itself should normally be the satisfaction derived from loving someone unconditionally without expecting anything else in return.
I believe Emerson Eggerichs, PhD, author of Love & Respect, puts it in a very elegant way when he said “Unconditional love means there’s nothing your spouse can do to get you to stoop to a level that causes you to be unkind or harsh.”
Also, Dr. Eggerichs adds that “Unconditional love sometimes means the most loving thing we can do is have a hard conversation” about our partner’s pitfalls. This is simply beautiful. And it doesn’t give any room for you to tolerate or ignore any unacceptable behavior.
In such an environment, irrespective of how difficult, conflicts in the relationship stands a greater chance of being resolved respectfully.
One thing that can help to resolve such conflicts in a relationship easily is to put the health of the relationship above all else. So, you may need to step back and look at the bigger picture of your relationship and what needs to be done to keep it thriving and growing.
Dealing with Unrealistic Love Expectations
It might also be necessary for you to look inward to discover if you have any kind of superficial expectations about what unconditional love actually means.
This is important because when trying to give unconditional love and you feel you can’t, such unrealistic expectations might make you end up doubting your loyalty and also your ability to give love.
So, you need to question any unrealistic expectations you might have about unconditional love. Try finding out why you have such expectations and work on letting them go.
As a final thought…
The general idea of unconditional love in a relationship is indeed a very noble one. Yet, it is obviously very difficult, if not impossible for most people to achieve.
In all honesty and under normal circumstances, none of us can indefinitely provide unconditional love to our partners or others in our lives. The most we can do is to try to be as loving as possible.
Thus, the secret is to find a middle point that can get us pretty close as it would be unwise to totally reject the concept.
What we need is a right perspective about what a true unconditional love relationship can be. Then couples can work together to build strong mutually unconditional love relationships.
The truth is that it is extremely difficult to attempt loving the adults that most of us have become. The only way out is to love ourselves first by fully expressing unconditional love to the person we are. Only then can we effectively get into a mutually unconditional love relationship with another person.
Only those who have been able to love themselves unconditionally can fully express unconditional love to another person in a romantic relationship. When two people on such a personal level, love themselves unconditionally, they can more readily develop a deeper, more meaningful, intimate, and empathic unconditional love together.
All in all, you might never get to find and experience true love until you have unconditionally learned to love and accept all shades of who you are. It all starts from within you as nobody else can love you better than you can love yourself.
This post was previously published on loving-relationship.com and is republished on Medium.
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