When talking about love, one of the things you commonly hear of is someone saying that they are looking for unconditional love. What exactly does unconditional love mean though?
Does it mean you love all of them? Does it mean you love every aspect of that person? And conversely, if you find you don’t love “everything” about someone does that mean you don’t love them unconditionally? Does that perhaps mean that you don’t TRULY love them?
All or Nothing
The idea that if you love something you must love all of it, and conversely if a relationship has a problem then it means it is not “true love” is surprisingly common. It often goes hand in hand with the idea that if you find “the one” you should never have to work at things, and you will be able to live happily ever after.
This mindset is often referred to as all or nothing thinking. When this happens at a young age, you can chalk it up to idealism and a lack of experience. But when it persists over time, this is a broken thinking pattern (sometimes referred to as a cognitive distortion) and a sign of emotional immaturity.
Incidentally, this particular thinking pattern is often found in people who have avoidant personality types, are chronically unhappy, or are dealing with depression or some form of mood disorder.
It can cause significant issues in relationships, as it sets an unrealistic bar for people to measure up to. If your partner has to be perfect, they will always disappoint.
It’s Still Poo
All or nothing thinking is a broken approach to looking at relationships, and world in general. A lot of things come down to belief and opinion, but the idea that loving something means you have to love all of it is simply incorrect.
Of all the things in the world, most would agree that a parent will always love their children. There are exceptions I suppose, but even when spousal relationships break apart parents will usually try to do the best for their children. So to see how broken the all or nothing approach to life is, let’s take a look at being a parent.
I love my children and would do almost anything for them. I love being active in their lives, and I try to take enjoyment out of the time I spend with them. Does that mean I love everything about them?
I’m past the diaper days, but thinking back to those days does loving my children mean I had to love changing their diapers? Not a chance. Yes, these were my child’s diapers I was changing. And I’m happy that I changed them as it was one of the many experiences that came with being a father.
I changed diapers because they needed to be changed and I don’t think I complained about it much (though that could be denial on my part). Thinking back to my discussion on responsibility, I wasn’t changing diapers out of shame or obligation. I never resented doing it, I simply saw it as something that had to be done.
Did that mean I loved it? Nope. It may have been my children and an important part of the experience of being a new dad. But at the end of the day, it’s still poo.
So what does this have to do with unconditional love? It seems easy to say that you don’t have to love poo, no matter how cute the posterior that it comes from. But the same can be said for personality traits or behaviors. My kids are little and they aren’t finished products. They still have tantrums, and are still learning to understand and control their emotions. As any parent can attest, those times aren’t always fun. In fact, being a parent can be difficult and frustrating at times. I love my children. Does that mean I need to love all their behaviors? No.
Actually, because I love them it means I should recognize when their behavior is problematic and I should work with them to try and improve that. I want them to be the best people they can and give them the best opportunity for a happy future. Giving into tantrums and allowing them to get away with unacceptable behavior won’t do that, and will actually do harm to them in the long run.
My children are dependent on me, but that’s not why I want the best for them. I want the best for them because I love them, unconditionally. The same rules apply for family, friends, and also our chosen partners.
Loving them unconditionally doesn’t mean you need to love everything about them. There can be things about our partners that we wish were different, and that’s alright. Unconditional love simply means that you accept them as they are, accepting both the good and the bad.
I will argue that the “all or nothing” view of love is actually a selfish form of love. If loving someone means you have to love all of them, and any problems means it isn’t true love then you are actually saying you will only love someone when it works for you. You will only love someone when times are good (because if times aren’t good there is a problem, and therefore it was never true love).
Unconditional love involves loving someone even when times are difficult. It means being supportive of the other person, but at the same time being honest with them, even when the truth might not be what they want to hear.
Love vs. Relationships
I believe in love, and I believe love should be unconditional. But what about our romantic relationships? Are they solely based on unconditional love?
Let’s say you meet someone and fall in love with them, but they don’t feel the same way. Is that a relationship? No. You may love them and accept them for who they are. You may think of them all the time and have pictures of them in your house, wallet, at work whatever. But if they don’t feel the same way about you, then that’s just creepy (and probably puts you at risk of a restraining order).
If you believe you are in a relationship but the other person sees you as one of the many people they are dating, sorry, again it’s not a relationships.
It doesn’t become a relationship until they return the love, and there is an acknowledgement that the two of you share something together and you are committed to each other. So although love may be unconditional, relationships aren’t. Relationships do have expectations, and some degree of reciprocity is required.
Lets take this idea one step further….
Let’s say you are in a relationship, and the other person checks out emotionally. They stop doing the little things, they stop showing you that they care. You become two people, effectively living individual lives. If that happens, are you in a relationship? It doesn’t matter if there’s a piece of paper saying you are married, or you are living together. Even if one person still loves the other with all their heart, the relationship has effectively ended. Relationships require reciprocity. They are about intent, and effort.
One Sided Love
Now if unconditional love means you will always love the other person, does it mean you will always be there for them?
I believe very strongly in love and in relationships. I believe many relationships fail unnecessarily, and that with a bit of effort most relationships can be saved. So this is difficult for me to say, but I believe the answer is no. Unconditional love does not always mean you will be there.
I have heard countless stories of people who treat their partners poorly (either through active abuse or simply checking out on them emotionally), and then are surprised when their partner eventually decides to leave the relationship. Often this shock is accompanied by a sense of outrage. How could this person leave me? I thought that they loved me?
Some people think that someone “loving them” gives them a green light to do what they want. They feel safe that the other person is committed to them and they will always be there no matter what.
Loving someone doesn’t mean you will put up with anything. Love has to go both ways. If someone says they love you, but don’t back up that claim with their actions then what do you really have? At that point you have nothing.
It doesn’t matter how strongly you feel about someone, if it’s not reciprocated you don’t have a relationship. People have bad days, and people make mistakes; so I’m not saying that the relationship has ended the first time someone gets angry. People run into issues, and you need to be willing to work on them together.
But if someone is consistently treating you poorly, or the relationship becomes very one sided where your love is not reciprocated, then staying with them is not love. It’s enabling them. It’s telling them that the way they are treating you is alright.
No. Sometimes unconditional love means knowing when to walk away. It doesn’t mean you love them any less, but that’s different from always being there.
Meant to Be
All or nothing thinking is broken, and destructive to relationships. There is no such thing as perfect. There is no such thing as loving all of someone. Everyone has bad days. Everyone has their flaws.
There is no “meant to be”. Life gives us opportunities, and it is up to us to decide what we want to do with them. Some embrace the opportunities life gives them, and others squander them.
If you want a strong relationship, you need to build that strength into it. You build that strength with kindness, caring, affection, and effort. And you need to build it together.
16 thoughts on “Unconditional Love”
Our life experiences, our environment growing up as a kid, watching how our parents and older family members treat one another or the people they loved and how they treated us often mold our perception of love..For the young man who saw his father hit his mother and tell her he loves her why does she make him do that, or to the little girl that watches her mom date guys over and over that hit her and her mom tells her she knows the guys love her it’s okay..these two individuals concept of love may be distorted. I guess my question to you is: if one of these individuals get into a relationship abusing their mate but feel like that’s normal would it be considered unconditional love for the mate to one of these individuals to stick around and help teach them a healthy way to love or is this more of the all or nothing unhealthy way? You have such great insight just wanted to know what your thoughts are..thanks for a great post..good read
If I understand the question correctly, you are wondering what my thoughts are when someone is in a relationship that is “imbalanced”. Where one person is abusive, but the other person loves them and is hoping that they will be able to “help” the person and turn them around, and teach them a healthier way to love. Is that correct?
If so, I actually have two upcoming posts dedicated to that very topic. But I’ll give you a bit of a preview…
First, for you (if it applies) or anyone else in that situation, I feel your pain. It is an extremely difficult spot to be in, and there are no easy answers.
I think it depends on a lot of different factors. From your description, the person has a skewed view of love from childhood experiences, so this isn’t something new. In that case, it depends a lot on the type of behavior.
One of my favorite sayings in relationships is choosing a partner is choosing a set of problems you can live with. Can you live with them? If it were never to change, would that be acceptable?
Unfortunately, you can never change someone. You can lead by example, and that can influence them. But if someone has a problem, or broken world view, they are the only ones who can ever fix it. To do that, they have to accept and recognize that there is a problem, and be willing to put in the effort to address it. If they aren’t willing, nothing will ever change.
Often people with a problem don’t recognize that there is an issue, and they aren’t willing to change. Instead, they deny, blame, or rationalize. They frequently find ways to turn it around, so the issue is really “your” fault. As you said, they will hit someone, and say something like “I love you, why do you keep making me hit you?”
If you choose to stay with someone in the hopes that things turn around, you need to set boundaries. Never forget, you are important too. Your needs are important, and you need to be validated in the relationship. Setting boundaries is setting the conditions that you need in order to remain in the relationship. If they are used to getting their way, they may push back against boundaries at first.
It’s up to you to decide what to do. For me, I need to know that I am valued in a relationship. I need to know that my needs matter to my partner, and that we are building a life together. And I will give my partner every opportunity to show me that I matter. If that isn’t the case, the choice isn’t an easy one by any means, but my answer is to move forward in a life where I have a chance at finding someone who shares my beliefs.
Walking away doesn’t mean you love someone any less. It just means you love yourself more than you love them.
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Fortunately it is not me, but I have found that more young women such as teenagers or ladies in their early twenties are dealing with abusive relationships. Sadly they are relying on their peers to advise them on what to do. I find it a very disturbing trend. I just wanted to ask you because I think you have great insight when it comes to love and healthy relationships. I am an advocate in trying to empower young girls and healthy relationships. I’ve written a book and I try to listen and continue to give advice when asked. I look forward to your other posts. Your blog will give me another resource to give to the young girls that I talk to. Thanks for responding
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Thanks for the kind words. I have a number of upcoming posts that I suspect you will be interested in.
I’m also an advocate of healthy relationships, and long term relationships in general. I think people bring in a lot of baggage, and we tend to have very unhealthy outlooks. My own views on relationships continue to grow and develop as I mature, and I try to espouse my beliefs on what a healthy relationship constitutes.
I’m not a counselor (though I have considered the schooling for it), but I do believe I have a fairly solid understanding of relationships and what makes them work and not work.
Thanks for stopping by.
Yeah I agree..I enjoyed everything you had to say..keep putting your thoughts out there and I know I’m going to keep reading them..I almost think it’s better that you’re not licensed. .I think it makes you more approachable and human..but good luck if you do I think you’ll be great at it!!
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Love could be so complicated sometimes. It’s hard for me to even understand it from time to time. It’s difficult seeing the difference between love and lust for younger people and we often mistake puppy love (or Romeo and Juliet love) as the greatest thing in our life. But I suppose it takes chemistry and understanding to gain that type of relationship with another person.
Yeah, I would agree that love can be very complicated, and very difficult. I think it *should* be easy – if you love each other, then love each other. But the reality gets much more complicated.
I don’t think it’s just young people who mistake lust and love. The early stage of love feels great, and long term love is deeper, but it’s hard to maintain the early passion. Yet we all remember it, and miss it (if we haven’t worked to maintain it in our own relationships).
In the early days it’s all hormones and doesn’t take work. But maintaining long term love requires effort.
Thanks for reading.
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“If your partner has to be perfect, they will always disappoint.”
This is a concept that many face in long-term relationships, but I also think when an individual is seeking someone in the dating pool, it negatively influences his/her options. Why do I believe this?
People seek this “perfect” sculpture of a man/woman, but in reality, the items on the “perfect” checklist are unrealistic. It doesn’t mean you cannot discover someone who is “perfect” for you, but the “perfection” people seek sets unrealistic expectations. When they meet someone in the dating pool, due to this “perfect” checklist, no one seems to measure up.
This causes the individual to overlook someone “perfect” for them specifically, but due to this imperfect being lacking one or two items on a checklist, the individual disappoints entirely. It’s akin to the 80/20 rule, where the person meets 80% of everything you desire. However, missing the 20% somehow computes in your mind, that the person in question is lacking 100% of what you desire. I see this time and time again.
Interestingly, the person begins blaming the dating pool, as the reason they cannot find a suitable partner. LoL. I don’t believe there is such a thing as a “perfect” being, but I do believe that you can encounter someone “perfect” for you. In other words, the individual ends up being the right fit–for you. I’ve been with different partners since my teen years, but I didn’t encounter the right fit, until meeting my wife. She’s not “perfect,” but she’s the right fit for me.
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Yeah, sometimes I wonder where peoples heads are at. I’ve spoken with people who want/expect that their partner will be an intellectual who is knowledgeable and able to talk about anything, they also have to have a high paying job, and the body of a gymnast (for men) or Victoria Secret model (for women).
I look at the people who are expecting these sorts of things and think:
a) those sorts of people generally don’t exist. Or if they do, they are about as common as sasquatch.
b) what about you? For you to expect/want that, what exactly do you think you are providing to the relationship?
Standards are good and all. Attraction is important, but beauty fades. The attraction has to extend past someones body and into their soul.
At the end of the day, money, beauty and intelligence are a lot less important than someones heart and how they treat you.
This is an interesting post which brings to mind several things for me. First is that obviously my Ex had some of this all or nothing mentality, and as he became unhappy he reaches the conclusion that if we were meant to be we shouldn’t have had these problems so he walked out. But I also fell for the fallacy that is someone truly loved me they would be there no matter what. Ultimately, he cheated and that is in no way my fault. But I think that if I hadn’t taken divorce of the table in my head, and just assumed we were forever I could have been a better partner to him.
It’s a pretty loaded thought. I’m not sure if I had been better he would have appreciated it, since he had expectations of perfections and I could never be perfect. This post is still very important. I’ll take these lessons with me onto my future. Maybe one day there’ll be a lucky guy who can benefit from these insights.
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I think we all fall for the fallacy that “love is enough”, and that if we love someone we will be able to work things out.
In some ways love *should* be enough. But the ability to deal with conflict and manage stress are also pretty damned important, and no matter how much love there is, when people have poor skills in dealing with stress and conflict it will spill over into the relationship.
My takeaway from the past few years is that relationships require consistent effort. In a relationship you need to take the other person into account in the things you do.
that doesn’t mean it will work out, or that they will always be there. But it gives you a pretty good shot.
When someone has the perfectionist approach, the relationship will always disappoint. And it will cause the relationship to either fail or be unhappy.
To me, acknowledgement that things will never be perfect, but can always be better with communication and effort is probably the best path to relationship satisfaction and success.
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It’s so validating when someone else says something you have said. I just said a few days ago, ” I love you, but I need to go. Maybe we can revisit this in 6 months, but if you feel I’m trying to make you someone you’re not then it’s not fair to either of us. I want to talk about our relationship and understand it and you feel that its a waste of time. You’re blaming me for things that you don’t want to address. My love hasn’t changed but I have to go.”
In your post, you mentioned, “Loving someone doesn’t mean you will put up with anything. Love has to go both ways…But if someone is consistently treating you poorly, or the relationship becomes very one sided …then staying with them is not love. It’s enabling them. It’s telling them that the way they are treating you is alright…Sometimes unconditional love means knowing when to walk away. It doesn’t mean you love them any less…”
Exactly. It’s tough but you have to respect yourself and have boundaries for how someone treats you. I love him whole heartedly. There is no reason to be mad, and every reason to continue to love fully while being clear. Very appreciated post.
It’s been a while since I wrote this post, but looking back on it I think it’s one of the more important posts that I’ve written. Not sure if important is the right word, as I don’t think anything I have to say is necessarily “important”. But although I believe very much in marriage and long term relationships, loving someone doesn’t have to mean staying with them no matter what. Boundaries are very important, and if someone continually doesn’t respect yours then sometimes loving means knowing when you have to let go.
Thanks for the comment.
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