Let’s talk nuts-and-bolts today: Love. 

Why do we talk about “unconditional love”? It occurred to me this morning that by definition, love should be unconditional, shouldn’t it? Do we ever talk positively about conditional love?

Someone on one of my online boards said her parents loved her conditionally, then proceeded to tell a horrible tale of manipulation and emotional abandonment. 

Here’s my question: is “conditional” love ever appropriate?

I’ve said in the past that when I had my daughter Emily, diagnosed when I was 5 months pregnant with a condition that would kill her at birth, I was given the gift of experiencing unconditional love from the giving end. I would not be able to receive any of the “benefits” of parenting (grandchildren, “I love you,” watching the child become an adult, etc.) Emily could only receive love, and not (while in this world) give love back.

We talk about God’s love as unconditional as well. Now, what about everything in the middle?

Is “conditional love” even something that can exist? Because once you attach conditions to love, isn’t it “usefulness” or “approval”?

Of course, someone will point out that if someone you love does something terrible, of course you’re going to back off. And if there’s long-term neglect of the relationship, you’ll fall out of love. Okay: but that’s not conditions, really. That’s in the realm of “dealbreakers.”

Here’s a thought: in unconditional love, the default state is to be in love, and the other person’s actions don’t enable the flow of love as much as either reinforcing it or, if they’re egregious enough, causing a rupture.

In unconditional love, you would continue loving the person even if the other person never acknowledged you. Or even if the other person didn’t like you at all (presuming, of course, that this never manifested in behavior, which might change your perception enough that the love would evaporate.)

If love is conditional, then the default state is not to love the person, and the object’s actions don’t reinforce love but only give a temporary stamp of approval to the relationship as defined.

Which, to me, is not love. The conditional state above would only ever be able to zero out.

Is that ever appropriate? I would say in the early stages of dating, yes. But in every other area of life (in parenthood, in friendship, in a marriage) it’s not.

So let’s abolish the term “unconditional love” and make sure everyone realizes “unconditional” is folded into the term “love”.


  1. AnotherFaceintheCrowd

    I fear I cannot agree with you on this one. A lot of love *is* conditional on not being betrayed or intentionally harmed. Deal-breakers imply that there IS a DEAL and hence conditions. I’m sorry, there is no such thing as an unconditional deal. That’s nonsense.

    Love that isn’t conditional on that you can find in dogs — you can starve them, beat them, yell at them and they’ll still stick to you, look out for you, be glad when they see you… now *that’s* unconditional.

    Even with children, when I contrast what I’d like to believe (that a parent loves a child unconditionally) with reality, the conclusion is inescapable that the extent of love a person has for his or her children is in part contingent on that person’s choices and perception, neither of which can be completely divorced from the cultural milieu in which that person functions. There is a very strong instinct to bond with, love, invest heavily in and protect our children but as a species, we do pick which ones to raise, how much to give and people can and do distance themselves from their children, yea unto abandoning them altogether. That’s not unconditional love.

    This is in sharp contrast to other primates. No wild-living primate mother has ever been observed to deliberately harm, much less abandon, her baby. There isn’t a single human society where this is not known to happen. Crucially, its extent is greatly influenced by culture and personal circumstance*. It would be nice to say that it was solely a manifestation of mental derangement, but that’s not true and it sits in shocking contrast to just how true and how deep that love can be. The mother-child bond is one that easily lasts 60 years and spans 2-3 generations — that’s not weak or fickle. And yet…

    I like your musings, but in this case, I’m afraid reality is against you.


    *and when you consider parental under-investment; choosing to not do everything you can for your children, it’s even more pervasive.

  2. Ivy

    I’m with Dei. If there are deal breakers, that means the love is conditional on the deal not being broken.

    And love can extend beyond people. I love knitting. You know me well enough to know that’s not an exaggeration. And there are times when a pattern is driving me bonkers enough that I don’t love it anymore. It doesn’t last, and usually I’ll muddle through, shove it in the back of the closet, rip it out, or just run it over with the car a few times and pretend it never happened. Ultimately I’ll fall back in love with knitting, but clearly it is conditional on the pattern working as written–or close enough that I can figure it out–on the yarn behaving, and on the needles not doing stupid things. Run out of a discontinued yarn on the bind off row of a Shetland pi shawl–the knitting love goes right out the window for a bit there.

  3. Lane in PA

    Well, as a child who grew up in a home where love was very conditional, and given/withheld as reward/punishment, a behavior which continues to this very day, I would like to add my two pennies.

    I agree with Dei’s analysis, and would like to take it a little further.

    Unconditional love is for infants. Feeding, caring, and loving an infant cannot be based on any conditions (although as Dei pointed out, it is in the human species). And conversely I believe children love their parents unconditionally, even if there is a history of parental abuse. But I think in the latter case, this love will eventually change or evaporate once the child realizes and understands the betrayal of trust.

    If this were a perfect world, and I wish it were, I would agree wholeheartedly with Jane’s ideal of what Love should be. It is what I believe Christ was trying to teach a populace who had been living in a very conditional world. In the Old Testament, our Creator was described as being very conditional, and there were dire consequences for not meeting these terms, thus the concepts of Heaven and Hell.

    Jane, I think maybe “betrayal of trust” might work better than “deal breaker” which has too much of a corporate connotation to me. In Dr. Jeanne Safer’s book “Death Benefits”, she wrote: Betrayal doesn’t offend your pride, it destroys your soul.”

    I appreciate you bringing this subject to your readers’ attention. It is worthy of discussion, and it is a complicated issue at that. I look forward to reading others’ opinions.

    In conclusion (got 1/100th of a penny left) I might add:

    Dogs probably are the only domesticated species that love us pathetic human beings unconditionally, as Dei pointed out. They love us despite our flaws, warts and all. But I have my suspicions about Pit Bulls.

  4. knit_tgz

    Depends on what you mean by love. And depends on what you mean by unconditional. Christian love, yes, unconditional is the way. Which does not mean we do not relate in a conditional way.

    I will care and wish the best for people I love, but with some of them I must relate with certain conditions/boundaries. We are called to love even our enemies, but I am sure God does not want me to not have boundaries in relating to my enemies (and put myself, or my health, my mental health or my loved ones in danger).

    1. knit_tgz

      I hope I wasn’t too confuse, but I’m not managing to explain myself better, sorry!

  5. philangelus

    I’m surprised by the responses.

    First, I don’t think animals have the same kind of “love” as humans do. THey definitely have strong feelings, but I don’t think it spreads into the same idealism. I own cats, and I watched (and blogged) a cat grieving, and I know cats experience love, but I think there’s a qualitative difference between feline love and human love. Humans in part love potentiality whereas animals live in the present.

    Next, maybe “dealbreakers” was the wrong word, but I think with love, the default should be “continuing to love” as opposed to “keep proving to me you’re worth loving.” That once you attach that condition to love, we’ve turned it into “approval” and it’s lost all meaning. When someone loves you, though, you instinctively want to please that person, so you do in a way keep trying to prove you’re worth loving. So instead of calling it deal-breakers, we could call certain actions “love-breakers,” but they’re generally egregious actions.

    Tania, you can engage in Christian love but still put firm boundaries in place. We see God himself engaging in love but putting up firm boundaries, for one thing.

    If there are conditions on love, then what is it really?

    1. tgz

      Tania, you can engage in Christian love but still put firm boundaries in place. We see God himself engaging in love but putting up firm boundaries, for one thing.

      That’s what I meant by Christian love being unconditional while the way we relate being conditional.

      Actually, I have an ex-friend (loooong, sad and *scary* story, scary being the operative reason why that person is my ex-friend) with whom I simply do not relate, but I still pray for that person, for that person’s good, and I can truly say I love (in the Christian way, maybe not in the emotional, feel-good way) that person the best I can.

      Jane, I think the reason why there’s so much dissent is that you haven’t said what kind of love were you talking about. Romantic love, for instance, is conditional. I no longer love in a romantic way my ex-boyfriend, but I can truly say I love him in a Christian, agape way. General-love-feeling (as in “being in love” or “being awestruck with a friend” or something like that) is fickle, besides being conditional. My emotional love for God comes and goes. Even my rational love for God comes and goes! When both go away, my love-commitment is the one that remains, I guess.

  6. Lane in PA

    Maybe humans need to learn to live in the Present, in the Now, instead of focusing on the love potentiality, if I understand you correctly. I wonder how we humans would behave if we were blissfully unaware of the pain of death as animals are. Would we be more joyful, more involved in the moment, instead of fretting over the unavoidable demise of our life in this plane of Being? Are we robbed of living our life to the fullest because we fear death?

    Perhaps animals do not experience the same kind of Love we humans claim to do, but one thing we have in common is Desire. Humans are driven by Desire surely as all animals are.

    But the above is not the crux of this discussion. It’s about unconditional love. And I think you have hit upon an important area of your questioning with the statement “keep proving to me you’re worth loving.” And yes, once that condition is attached, it becomes “approval” and our society is sickened with dysfunctional families, just as mine is, who have wasted so much time, energy and “love” in the pursuit of approval of a loved one who demands unconditional love but is not willing to return the same.

  7. cricketB

    For me, love is a matter of offering and taking opportunities. If you don’t, you both stop offering opportunities, and love fades.

    Infants constantly offer and accept opportunities. As we get older, we don’t need as much (I’ll hold my own bottle) and harder to please (No, I won’t eat peas today). We also get caught up in our own lives. (I’m not hungry now — I’m playing dolls.)

    When my daughter wanted to learn to spin (something that also interested me), I happily spent $40 on spindle and roving, manually turned the drop spindle for an hour or two, and bragged to all about how much she improved over the first 10 yards. She’s in several sports, so we often have the opportunity to support her that way.

    I need to work harder to find things to do with my son, and things to brag about. . At the same store, my son picked up a $22 skein of DK black for an unspecified project. I’m close to a monogamous knitter, and don’t stash, so spending on wool just in case isn’t in the budget, so we didn’t buy it. He’s not in any sports or clubs. Fortunately, he’s still offering me opportunities, but I have to put down my own interests and take them. We played Toon last night. He’s a great DM, but I don’t brag about it since very few people know what I’m talking about.

    It’s all too easy for that sort of love to devolve to “I only show I love you when you want to do something that fits what I want to do,” or “when you give me something I can brag about.”

    Kids don’t care about how much you know, until they know how much you care.