Ask an Expert: Can Love Truly Be Unconditional in a Relationship?
We often think of the unconditional love between a parent and child or a dog and its owner, but what about between romantic partners? What exactly is the definition of unconditional love, and is it a realistic foundation for romantic relationships?
Unconditional vs. Conditional Love
In its simplest definition, unconditional love means that you love without expecting anything in return. It’s not that your love is limitless or without boundaries, but it’s not contingent on getting anything back. Loving unconditionally means the other person’s needs and happiness is just as important and meaningful as your own. You care for and love someone without any strings attached and don’t worry about how it benefits you.
Conditional love, on the other hand, is a more nearsighted form of love. Its definition is all in the name: you are offering love based on certain conditions. Even a parent can express conditional love to a child. For example, if an adult child goes against a parent’s wishes, the parent might say something like, “I always gave you so much love, and this is how you repay me?”
In romantic relationships, someone offering conditional love might say, “I will stay with you, but only if you refuse to take that job.” (The keyword “if” is a common sign of conditional love.) Someone who loves unconditionally will say, “I love you no matter what comes our way.”
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Is Unconditional Love Healthy in Romantic Relationships?
Yes — to an extent. It is definitely healthy to love someone with no strings attached; otherwise, you’re not truly loving them, right?
That said, it is unhealthy to offer love without boundaries. Unconditional love does not mean you love someone regardless of their toxic or abusive behaviors. As much as you might care for someone, there are still certain boundaries that need to be enforced.
A common misconception about unconditional love is that you love someone no matter how much they mistreat you, but that’s simply not the case! When you continue to stay with a toxic partner, you’re not showing unconditional love — you’re showing codependent love. In a codependent relationship, one partner is too reliant on the other, often going out of their way to please them, even when they are being treated poorly — and that is not the same as unconditional love.
In any healthy relationship, basic expectations need to be fulfilled. Each partner should feel a sense of safety and be treated with respect and kindness. After all, your needs and happiness are just as important as your partner’s! Unconditional love does have its limits, and if you are being subjected to hurtful behavior, it is okay (and necessary) to let go.
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How to Offer Unconditional Love
Unconditional love is extremely beneficial in romantic relationships, as long as you offer it in a healthy way. It’s important to remember that your only obligation as a loving partner is to communicate your thoughts and emotions with love and respect. You might feel like you need to be everything for your partner, but you should not be giving it your all at the expense of your own needs.
True, unconventional love means you take care of your partner while still protecting your own needs. It also means:
- You don’t let the little things turn into deal-breakers for your relationship (your commitment outweighs little disagreements)
- You feel equal in your relationship and neither of you feels resentment toward the other
- You practice effective communication so that both of your needs are met
- You are empathetic, rather than defensive, when it comes to discussing feelings
- You are protective, but not possessive or jealous
- You encourage your partner to have outside relationships (i.e., with friends and family)
- You are both able to open up and share vulnerabilities without fear of judgement
At the end of the day, a relationship founded on unconditional love feels a deep sense of connectedness, intimacy, and safety. Your partner is your best friend! You share everything and anything and aren’t afraid to do so.
Unconventional love means you are confident in your commitment to each other and know that all of those inevitable disagreements aren’t going to change that. You’re going to be mad at each other at some point or another — it’s only natural! But, when you unconditionally love someone, you won’t immediately turn to resentment. You understand that people have their flaws, and you’re more than willing to find common ground to keep the relationship thriving. You accept your partner for who they are and would never think about changing them.
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When Unconditional Love Comes to an End
In all honesty, we, as humans, are programmed to love conditionally. It is only natural to step away from a romantic relationship when we feel our love and respect is not reciprocated. The beautiful thing about unconditional love is that it is the ultimate acceptance of someone for who they are, without wanting to change them.
That said, people’s needs change over time, and the unfortunate truth is that relationships do end, even if there is unconditional love. When you see a couple break up amicably and still express love for each other, it is the prime example of two people who loved unconditionally, but knew that they no longer connected romantically.
The bottom line? Relationships that lack unconditional love have a tougher chance at succeeding. If you are not willing to grow and change with your partner, you’re not likely to make it in the long run — and that is what unconditional love is all about.
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