We hold up unconditional love as the gold standard in our society: a bond so strong that nothing can break it, and virtually nothing must be done to maintain it.
But I don’t think unconditional love should exist.
Think I’m being cynical? Imagine a woman saying of her husband, “I love this man so deeply that I will love him and stand by his side no matter what.” Now, imagine that woman is an abused spouse. Not so romantic is it? In fact, this is something I’ve heard many times over the years from people who were being treated badly by those they loved. But I love them unconditionally can be a dangerous way to think.
Healthy love should always have conditions, standards of respect and care that must be upheld in order for a person to continue emotionally investing in another person.
Someone with healthy boundaries will say to her partner, “I will love you so long as you are kind to me, are honest with me, make me feel safe, and respect me.” Everyone’s needs are unique, so everyone’s conditions are unique, but a person with no conditions is in a precarious spot. When we are honest with ourselves and our partners about our conditions for a relationship from the outset, we give ourselves the best chance of discovering our true compatibility. By being dishonest with ourselves and our partners about our wants and needs, we create opportunities for resentment to build up and destroy our relationships, even if both partners mean well.
When we think of our love for our children, “unconditional love” might be one of the first phrases that comes to mind. But even in this most sacred relationship, love should have its threshold. This isn’t to say that children should ever be put in a position of having to earn their parents’ love, but nor should children (particularly as they grow into adults) expect to be able to treat their parents however they choose and still be loved. For example, think of the parents whose children grow up to commit acts of atrocity or to be emotionally abusive to all those around them? Should those grown children’s families continue to love them and emotionally engage with them? No. Can they still have compassion for them? Certainly, just as we can find compassion for all those in the world, no matter how irredeemable they may seem.
This may sound like a coldhearted view on love, but consider the fact that the unconditional love of a parent, spouse, or friend can take the form of an intense codependent bond that enables cruel or destructive behavior to go unchecked. Ultimately, it’s bad for both people.
It takes courage to ask people for what you want and need from them, but setting your conditions will give you the foundations for deeper, more authentic connections.
Make your conditions known in a loving way using this formula with someone in your life: “Remember when you did . . . ? I really loved that and would like more of it.” This positive phrasing will be received much better than criticism. Instead of “You never do anything thoughtful,” try “That time you brought home flowers last spring really made my day.”