If there is principle that every self-help guru and relationship specialist can agree on, it’s that the only way to lasting relationships is through ‘unconditional love’.
It could be the worst advice possible.
Unconditional love, as we understand it, is either unattainable or undesirable. Either way, it isn’t really love at all, and we would do best to quit fooling ourselves that it is.
The confusion stems from a common misunderstanding. When considering unconditional love, we typically think of examples such as a mother, who loves her son even when he disobeys, or a wife who loves her husband even when he wrongs her, or, notably, God, who loves his children even though we sin. The thought is that the love of the mother, the wife, and God, is given freely no matter what the other does, and so it is thought to be unconditional.
But is this truly unconditional?
It would be a mistake to think that there are no conditions even in these cases. The mother loves her son because he is her son, and that condition is necessary for her to love him even when he disobeys. Her love is reciprocated by the mere presence of her son, by the mere status of her as a mother.
Likewise, the wife loves her husband because he is her husband, which is a condition as much as any requirements of fidelity or protection. This is proven by the fact that she flatly disapproves of behavior in another woman’s spouse that she so blithely accepts in hers.
The ultimate example of unconditional love is that of God’s love for his children. This is underscored by the premise that God did not need to create us and that he certainly did not need to save us. His giving his only son in Jesus was the ultimate form of unconditional love, and the greatest height to which we can aspire. But are there no conditions on God’s love? Did he not get anything in return for the death and resurrection of Jesus? The condition, of course, is that we are human beings—his children. He wouldn’t have shown the same love for the animals of the earth or the plants for that matter. Similarly, he got in return our salvation, which he may not have needed, but certainly he wanted.
In reality, unconditional love is impossible, because whenever there is love, there is a subject, a person to which that love is directed, and as long as that subject is a person, there are conditions. As in John 10:3, “He calls his own sheep by name.” When you love, you love a person, and that in itself is a condition.
The greater problem with the concept of unconditional love is not a misunderstanding of ‘unconditional’ but a misunderstanding of ‘love’.
In his book Real Love, Dr. Greg Baer says that most failed relationships are based on what might be called a ‘transactional mentality’, where affection and support are earned only by meeting demands set by the lover. The husband takes out the trash only if the wife will fix dinner; he gives her a massage not because it pleases her but because he knows that she will return the favor.
This transactional mentality leads to a kind of commoditization of one’s mate—he or she becomes simply a means to an end, as opposed to a full human person, and is treated like a possession.
From that stems all the problems that couples might experience. The feeling of always having to prove oneself and a lack of support lead to trust issues and a closing off that alienates both.
The solution, naturally, is unconditional love, which Baer defines as seeking the happiness of another without expecting anything that we might get in return. The husband takes out the trash whether or not the wife cooks up a scrumptious steak sandwich; he gives her a massage because it pleases her and not because she will give him one later.
But is this truly love?
We are reminded of the parable of the caterpillar and butterfly. A little boy found a caterpillar on a limb and asked his mother if he could keep it. She said he could if he take care of it. So he dutifully fed it leaves and protected it in a jar. He watched excitedly as the caterpillar wrapped itself into a cocoon in preparation to morph into a butterfly. But when he watched the butterfly poke through, he noticed that it was struggling so much that it looked to be hurting itself. He hurriedly grabbed a pair of scissors and cut open the cocoon to let the butterfly out, expecting the butterfly to instantly take flight. But its body was too swollen and its wings were shriveled and weak. The boy thought he was helping the butterfly, but in reality he was depriving it of an essential struggle to build strength and reform itself into its final state.
Aquinas defined love as willing the good of the other. Does that mean giving affection to or serving someone no matter what? Not at all. It means holding them up to objective standards of goodness and encouraging them to achieve those standards. It might include giving affection and serving them, but not necessarily.
The call for unconditional love is too easily seen as an excuse to not meet expectations, whether someone else’s or one’s own or those of God. One psychologist has suggested that adult relationships are specifically for healing the wounds of childhood neglect and rejection.
The refrain is familiar: A heartbroken lover wishes that his mate would just love him unconditionally, that is, accept him with faults and all. But he is not really asking for love. In reality he is asking for affection, appreciation, and acceptance, which are the trappings of love and often accompany it, but they are not the same thing. In effect, he is asking for someone to cut open his cocoon.
We long for the three ‘A’s as a part of being human—they give us the sense of being loved, and so we seek them out whether or not they are accompanied by love. But one can receive affection, appreciation, and acceptance without love, and that is where the problem comes in. For the lover it is inauthentic; for the beloved it lowers expectations. For both it is detrimental.