Unconditional love isn’t love. It’s a fantasy. It makes no sense and it’s toxic.
The idea of unconditional love sounds magical. You find your soulmate, they see your truest inner self, and they love you no matter what. The fact that they truly get you allows them to always find the good in you. Your deeper self, they insist, is pure. From there, they love you no matter what.
No wonder we all clamor to find such a love. There is so much in the world that tells us we are broken. Often times, we even judge ourselves to be flawed. It sounds absolutely wonderful to have complete and total acceptance in the eyes of a lover. What freedom that would bring!
But there is a sinister consequence of such ideas.
Who is being accepted unconditionally?
When we stop and look at the self, we find, at best, very temporary stability and, at worst, complete contingency. The self doesn’t seem to be a particularly consistent entity. Think of yourself from six months ago (a relatively short time). Are you not different now than you were back then? Have you not had some shift in perspective or adoption of habit change you?
Almost everyone will answer yes, but even those answering no can recognize that you could have answered yes. You could have been different than you are right now. You could very well be a different you.
The existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre said, “We are our choices.” What he is getting at is that we are constantly free to change. There is no “deeper self”, there is only what we choose to become. Every moment we are inventing ourselves, and we are always free to invent ourselves differently.
Who we are is just who we decide to be.
Why unconditional love fails
Doesn’t this make unconditional love a good thing? If we are prone to change, shouldn’t we be with someone who will love us through those changes?
The answer is yes to a degree. If we are to be loved over time, our partners will necessarily have to accept a great deal of change. However, this is different than completely unconditional love.
As we said earlier, the concept of unconditional love rests on the idea that someone sees your deepest self and, from there, understands any and all actions. But there is no deepest self. There is no wellspring of purity that bursts forth to justify all actions.
There are only the actions themselves.
This is where unconditional love turns toxic. If such a thing is even possible (which, realistically it probably isn’t), it would necessarily involve completely misunderstanding the loved person.
If I love you unconditionally, I must think there is some stable entity in you that will always be the same, regardless of how you change externally. If not, what am I loving? To love you regardless of what you do means I either:
A). Believe there is some deeper you which stays the same forever. In this case, I love that deeper you. But that deeper you doesn’t exist, and even if it did, it would be unknowable from the outside.
B.) Believe there is no deeper you and love every successive version of you without discrimination. But this would basically be the same as not knowing you at all, because there is nothing about you in particular that I love. It’s all the same to me who you are. This is an incredibly shallow view of love.
Either way, the person who loves unconditionally is totally blind to who you really are. They don’t know you, they only know a mirage that they project onto you.
The consequences of loving “unconditionally”
This kind of love produces a few toxic byproducts.
For starters, you stay completely unknown. Your partner doesn’t actually get to know you, they just get to know an idea of you that they created. We’ve already established this point.
Additionally, your partner can’t help support your growth. If your partner loves you in a truly unconditional manner, they will love the couch-potato sweatpants-for-the-seventh-day-straight version of you as much as the one who picks up a new and fulfilling hobby or strives for that promotion at work. While that might sound nice, this level of extreme comfort will ultimately allow you to justify wasting your life and furthering toxic behavior patterns in yourself.
The final point I’d like to make relates to the first. This unconditional love will obscure who you are from yourself. Relationships necessarily involve trust. You have to trust your partner on some level, or else the relationship is almost disqualified definitionally. If you are with someone who loves you unconditionally, this means you’re almost guaranteed to trust that they see you for who you are.
As we’ve established, they don’t. They can’t really see you for who you are. They have to be willing to constantly learn about who you are as you discover it yourself. If someone loves you unconditionally, they are going to be fixated on a deeper you that isn’t there. This image will block out who you really are and keep that constant disconnect in place.
What makes this problem worse is that, by trusting that your partner sees you, you become susceptible to misunderstanding yourself. You will be inclined to buy into what your partner tells you you are. This radically compromises how you’re able to create yourself moving forward. You’ll start to believe that you essentially are the person they say you are.
Paradoxically, unconditional love often results in caging the loved one in and discouraging their growth.
A better kind of love
So, if unconditional love is toxic, should we resign ourselves to cynical, highly contingent love?
I say no. I think we can be even more romantic by furnishing love with the right conditions.
Love your partner, but love them so long as they retain the parts of them that seem the healthiest and most authentically fulfilling. If you are with someone who is intensely curious about the way the world works, that’s a good condition to set for your love. That curiosity truly is a defining characteristic for that person, and if it brings them a deep sense of meaning, you should anchor them to that characteristic.
There should be a fundamental core of several of these types of positive conditions. Maybe you love someone so long as they are deeply moral, intensely curious, very driven, and kind to others (these are admittedly shallow reasons, but they work as an example).
The conditions can change. Let’s say that same partner eventually stops being so curious. You can then pivot so long as those other conditions are still in play and replace the curiosity with a new positive trait the partner develops. In this way, the conditions serve to allow you to understand your partner without confining them.
One final thing to note:
The conditions are only the minimum your partner meets to allow you to love them. I’m not saying you should disdain parts of your partner. I’m saying that in order to love the whole of them, they must meet certain criteria. The conditions are the soil that lets love bloom.
Imagine your partner plays a lot of videogames. This is entirely different depending on the context of the rest of their personality. If they are doing nothing outside of this but partying and napping, you’ll probably be upset. However, if they spend time working and volunteering and use the videogames as a way to recharge, you can love that they play videogames, as it contributes to the wonderful human that they are.
Unconditional love sounds like the pinnacle of romance, but it isn’t. Real love requires you to love things about your partner, things that are specific to them that you would miss if they were gone. If you would love your partner even if they completely changed in every conceivable way, then you aren’t loving anything other than you’re own projection.
Real love involves loving through change, but on the condition that this person you love retains some of the qualities that make them, them. In this way, adding a few conditions to love might actually be the most romantic move you can make.
Thanks to Tre L. Loadholt.
This post was previously published on medium.com.
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