What Is Unconditional Love And Is It Healthy To Cultivate In Your Relationships?

by | Apr 21, 2023 | Relationships

Society often imposes the idea that unconditional love is the epitome of familial, romantic, and platonic bonds. Above all else, we should strive to love others with “no strings attached” as, arguably, it’s the pinnacle of love. But, is loving someone unconditionally, just because you’re expected to, actually healthy?

Being A Parent

Take a parent’s love for their child, for instance. “Unconditional love is often used to discuss parental love [because] essentially, this is love that is actively given to another person even when that person makes mistakes or fails to meet our expectations in some way,” explains marriage and family therapist Juliet Kinkade-Black, LMFT. A large part of raising healthy children is allowing them the space to make mistakes and learn from them without refusing love for perceived failures—or, loving them without conditions. (More on that later.)

But as a grown adult who has experienced a wide variety of relationships—both in type and quality—the idea that you should love anyone, even family, regardless of their wrongdoings seems pretty far-fetched. Having empathy and giving grace to others who mess up from time to time is important, sure, but what happens when the lack of “conditions” comes at the expense of your well-being or emotional safety? While many might like to believe that you can always love a person “no matter what,” there are just some events and circumstances that can change those feelings.

Meet The Experts: Juliet Kinkade-Black, LMFT, is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in San Francisco, California.

Leandra Desinord, M.Ed, NCC, is a marriage and family therapist based in Atlanta, Georgia.

WH asks the experts…

Think about it: If you found out your partner lied to you, a friend betrayed your trust, or a family member had done something terrible to someone you loved—would you still love and accept them unconditionally?

Unconditional love may seem like something out of a heartwarming Hallmark movie on the surface, but when you dig a little deeper into the reality of how this type of love manifests, the concept of unconditional love is subjective, abstract, and undeniably complex.

That’s why WH tapped relationship experts to explain exactly what unconditional love is, what it isn’t, and how you can love someone “unconditionally” in a healthy way. After all, figuring out how this nebulous concept fits into your actual life can help you better navigate it and decide how it might benefit you and your relationships.

What is unconditional love, exactly?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines love as “a feeling or disposition of deep affection or fondness for someone” and unconditional as “without any conditions or limits,” meaning unconditional love is exhibiting an intense devotion to someone else in the absence of limitations.

But how does that definition actually translate into real-life bonds? Truth is, every relationship is different, but a general understanding of the term stems from practising selflessness toward loved ones. “Unconditional love can be the active choice to extend love to someone without the expectation of reciprocity or benefit, without strings attached,” explains Kinkade-Black. For example, not keeping score within your relationship is an expression of unconditional love. This may look like cooking your partner dinner after they had a long day at work without the expectation that they’ll handle tomorrow’s meal—you’re simply doing so because you care about them and want to ease their responsibilities.

It’s also fair to say that loving someone unconditionally comes from a place of pure intention and wanting the best for the other person. “The way I view it, unconditional love is a form of love that transcends the typical societal expectations,” says marriage and family therapist Leandra Desinord, M.Ed. “It’s the purest form of love given.”

This kind of love can manifest in many different ways, like two partners who vow to commit to each other although they may be experiencing a rough patch in their relationship, or family members who extend forgiveness to one another even when they’ve been deeply hurt and wronged—because they still love that person.

What isn’t unconditional love?

The idea of unconditional love is based around hope and mutual acceptance, but there can also be a somewhat darker side to it.

“Because many people define unconditional love as loving someone no matter what, they often find themselves in situations in which others are breaking their boundaries, causing discomfort, or placing them in harm’s way,” explains Desinord.

“This is certainly not the concept of this type of love. Bell Hooks said it best in her book All About Love: ‘Love and abuse cannot coexist.’” For example, if your partner often pressures you to have sex, even when you’re not in the mood, and justifies their need for sex with their way of expressing affection, that is not unconditional love—their “love” obviously has conditions and their actions are a clear disregard of your boundaries.

In the same vein, “unconditional love” can also pressure victims to stay in abusive situations or relationships because they feel the need to abide by them and stick it out—even if their partner intentionally hurts them.

“Unconditional love can sometimes be used to justify staying in an unhealthy or even abusive relationship because someone might say, ‘I love my partner no matter what, even if they hurt me or are unfaithful to me,’” says Kinkade-Black. And staying in a relationship that’s harmful is a prime example of what unconditional love is not, she notes.

Reminder: Protecting your boundaries, your energy, and ultimately yourself, in any relationship should come before all else. Unconditional love is about loving someone without expectations—it’s not ignoring relationship issues, tolerating abusive behaviours, or neglecting your own needs.

What are the benefits of giving and receiving unconditional love?

Loving and appreciating the people around you for who they truly are, flaws and all, can deepen the bonds you share with others, says Kinkade-Black.

“Every relationship can be based on love freely given without reciprocal expectations. In fact, friendships, family relationships, and even casual colleague relationships can be made richer and more enjoyable for everyone when they are free from expectations,” she explains.

On the other hand, having strict expectations in a relationship can sometimes place a lot of pressure on people to live up to certain standards or behave in a certain way to benefit the other person—unconditional love can help relieve that stress.

Beyond enhancing the quality of your relationships, there are also tangible health and emotional benefits to practising unconditional love, notes Kinkade-Black. “There are amazing physical and mental health benefits to receiving unconditional love, especially for developing children,” she says. “These include increased immunity to illness and disease, increased stress resilience, healthier brain development, and [most] importantly, healthier relationship development across the lifespan.”

Can love truly be unconditional?

The short answer: It’s unclear.

Think of it this way: Even though your parents may love you “unconditionally,” the fact that you are their child, in and of itself, is, well, a condition. Oxytocin, a chemical in the brain released when a person feels love and connection, has been shown to help parents bond with their children, increasing trust and support between them, according to The Gottman Institute. In fact, during childbirth and the postpartum period, oxytocin plays a key role in regulating and controlling processes that ensure a safe birth and the health of mother and child. In the maternal brain, oxytocin also controls the initiation of the mother–infant bond and the mother’s emotional responses towards her child, according to a 2021 review article published in Frontiers in Endocrinology.

Because oxytocin isn’t typically released when parents see other children besides their own, they don’t share that same bond. Therefore, they don’t have the same emotional response of unconditional love.

Romantic Partnerships

The same can be said for romantic partnerships (thanks again to the increased release of oxytocin during the early stages of romantic relationships, per a 2012 study). So while your partner may have certain quirks or habits that annoy or frustrate you from time to time, you can typically put up with them because you love them.

Arguably, a better word for this concept of unconditional love may be “wholehearted” love, says Desinord. This way, you can choose to love someone fully while still protecting your peace and sticking to your boundaries.

“We are human, and so despite our best efforts to love fully unconditionally, conditions do arise,” says Kinkade-Black. “But, if I love someone with my whole heart, I can make a choice—an active choice—to set my conditions or expectations aside and strive to love more fully every day.”

Other than loving your S.O. wholeheartedly, here are some other tips for maintaining a healthy partnership:

How can you love someone “unconditionally”?

While the concept of unconditional love may be more myth than reality, you can still strive to love those around you wholeheartedly. Ahead, experts share how:

1. Define what love means to you.

Rather than focusing on ridding your relationships of conditions (which, as Kinkade-Black explained, can occur naturally due to sheer human nature and brain chemistry), start the practice of loving others wholeheartedly by looking within yourself, suggests Desinord. “Define what love means and looks like for you, and provide that to yourself,” she says. “Once you master having love for [the] self, you’ll experience a love that transcends conditions while maintaining your boundaries.” Plus, gaining self-confidence and getting firm on your needs can teach you so much about how to love and appreciate others, while still putting you first—which, reminder, is never selfish.

2. Reframe your relationship focus.

Choose to spend your time and energy on the positives of your relationships, rather than dwell on the minor negatives, recommends Kinkade-Black. “We want to say ‘absolutely no’ to the negative stuff we see. It’s not that we pretend it’s not there, but we want to be selective with our energy,” she says. “[Instead] say ‘absolutely yes’ to the things that are going well. Turn your energy to what’s right, and there’s always something right to focus on.”

Say you have a coworker who always chews their gum loudly near you. Rather than having that one annoyance hinder your overall view of them, choose to turn your energy on what you love about them—like when they bring books or treats to share with the office, shares Kinkade-Black. “Over time, building this muscle of turning toward what’s going well can build a very genuine, active love—a wholehearted love,” she adds.

3. Practice empathy.

Yet another crucial step toward giving and receiving wholehearted love is developing empathy, says Kinkade-Black. For example, if your partner comes home and announces they suddenly quit their job, you might be tempted to get upset or even exit the relationship. However, using empathy to see the situation from their perspective might help you better understand why they had to make that difficult decision, Kinkade-Black explains. “Practice building your empathy muscle. That really starts with actively being curious about what your friends, family members, and partners are experiencing,” she says.

The bottom line

As long as you are aware of your own boundaries and emotional limits, unconditional love—or, uh, wholehearted love—can be one of, if not, the deepest form of affection you can experience.

This article was originally published on www.womenshealthmag.com

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