Let's Talk About "Unconditional Love"

Let's Talk About "Unconditional Love" September 21, 2010

I’d like to have a discussion here on the topic of “Unconditional Love” ~ its meaning and implications with respect to controlling, unhealthy, abusive relationships.

I am hoping to gather input from all perspectives:

Believers ~ what is unconditional love? Please explain the concept and its specific application in cases in which someone is getting hurt ~ whether physically, emotionally or spiritually.

Unbelievers ~ is “unconditional love” strictly a religious ideal?  Is there a secular version of unconditional love?  How does unconditional love play out in practicality?

What about situations where the abuser is a close family member ~ say, a grandparent, parent, spouse, sibling or child?  How does one show unconditional love for a person who hurts their own relatives?

I’d like to get the discussion started on this note: I used to believe wholeheartedly in unconditional “Agape” love ~ but now I’m not so sure.  To quote one of my favorite skeptics (Uncle Ron ~ who once wrote to me at length on this topic):  

“Unconditional love is good for babies perhaps, but not for adults who aspire to reason and responsibility.”

Whatever “Unconditional Love” is, I am now convinced it does not mean indiscriminate trust or naked vulnerability.

What are your thoughts?

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  • KatR

    “Unconditional love” was a huge “marketing tool” in the abusive church I was in. We played up to outsiders how we were a family, we were brothers and sisters, we loved each other “just like the first century church!” It wasn’t really love based on knowing the person, because you were told you were loved just for being a member.

    I knew it was a lie, because people who I had “loved” I had no further contact with when they left the church and I knew if I ever left I would lose all of my relationships.

    I don’t think I believe in unconditional love now. I know we can all be jerks sometimes, but there has to be a baseline level of acceptable (ie non abusive) behavior for me to continue loving someone.

  • nikita

    Well, exactly. Unconditional love is not equal to unconditional trust, or unconditional approval, or unconditional acquiescence. It is just that: love. You can love someone and disapprove of them, not trust them in certain situations, and not agree to accept terrible behavior. Once I babysat for a little boy who was considered obnoxious and uncontrollable. Everyone told me he needed a lot of spankings to straighten him out. I didn’t think so. When he would start kicking and yelling and striking out at me I would hold him on my lap and not let him go until he calmed down, telling him that I loved him, and if he felt angry he had a right to feel angry, but that I wasn’t going to let him hurt me. And it worked. The point I am making is that you can have unconditional love without permitting the loved one to harm you or treat you badly. That doesn’t mean that your love has conditions. But it does mean that what behavior I am going to permit to be aimed at me is going to have conditions.

    That’s my believer’s ‘secular’ response, not my believer’s ‘faith’ response. But I don’t think the two responses are all that different nor do I think the response changes with the relationship or age of the loved one. The principle is the same to me.

  • nikita

    What Kat is saying about ‘love’ of church members is dead on. I never found that love to be real love in the first place, conditional or otherwise. It’s fellowship, it’s friendship, but it’s not love. And when you leave (or do something out of bounds) the relationship ends abruptly. There are specific people for whom actual love did develop and which love did not change no matter if the church relationship changed. Those were real. Agape love is brotherhood love. Take away the brotherhood and the love kind of goes away too. It is very conditional regardless of what people may say. In fact, I find ‘church love’ to be the most ephemeral and conditional of all.

  • Rosa

    I can love someone and not be willing to subject myself to their behavior, for sure. Don’t believers believe that God distances some folks for not loving him enough – isn’t that the basic definition of Hell?

    Trust is separate. You can’t trust someone to treat you better than they treat themselves, for instance – that would be stupid, and set you and them up for failure.

  • Emily

    Unconditional love and how it applies is quite similar, and quite tied up in, forgivness.

    As a christian, I am called to forgive people who wrong me. If someone sexually abused my child, I am called to forgive that person. But forgiveness dosen’t mean remove all concequences. I will forgive that abuser yes, but they will never come in contact with my children alone again and they will still be reported to the police. People confuse forgiveness and grace with lack of concequence. God forgives my sins, but if I hurt someone I still have to deal with the concequences of hurting someone, forgiveness is not a get out of jail free card. If I murder a man, God will forgive my sin of murder, but he dosen’t protect me from jail and the earthly concequences of such action.

    Similar applies to unconditional love. I love my husband unconditionally, no matter what he does I am called to love him and show love to him. But that does not mean I will allow sinful things to happen in the name of that love, in fact, if I truly love him I will help prevent that. Lets say my father abused one of my children. I am called to love him, but that does not mean I will allow one of my children to be vulnerable to him again, it does not mean I will trust him to babysit again. I love him, but I cannot trust him. You might love an alcoholic, but would you leave beer openly accessable on a table in front of them and then walk away? No, you would put the beer away somewhere safe, for his own sake as well as yours.

    I was neglected and emotionally abused by my mother growing up. I love her, I try to wish good things for her. But I won’t let myself be vulnerable to her mind games, I wont open myself up and let her see all the sensitive bits in my mind. I am closed off in certain areas to her. I won’t allow her to be responsible to care for my children, as I believe she would neglect them. But what unconditional love means is that I try my best to want the best for her anyway, I help her in whatever ways I can that do not put me or my family at risk. We will never be close as I won’t open up to her and make myself vulnerable like that, but I try to keep basic communication open.

    But more than any actions, unconditional love is a heart attitude. I choose to love people no matter their flaws, but that does not mean I choose to let them walk all over me. I choose to forgive people, but that dosen’t mean I will give them the opportunity to repeat the sin against me. I may never be able to speak again to a person that wronged me, but I will try to love them, and have a heart attitude of love, even though I cannot show it to them in anyway. Love is not blind submission, Love is doing the best you can by someone, wanting the best for them.

  • Toriach

    To me unconditional love means accepting the person as they are, not as you wish they would be. And in some cases that means accepting that a person is an abuser. The next step after that is incredibly hard. I speak from personal experience as a survivor of partner abuse. I kept telling myself that if I was just a little bit more patient etc. etc. I could heal whatever it was within her that made her lash out. But that’s not unconditional love because I kept wanting her to change. What a lot of people forget is that if they do not love themselves unconditionally they cannot love anyone else in that way. So I left. Sometimes love means leaving.

  • clairedammit

    I’m an unbeliever (raised in an Atheist household, an Atheist myself and married to one). unconditional love to me (and I think I can speak for my spouse also) is an ideal. It’s about doing the right thing – loving him if he farts, loving her if she burns the burgers, all that. It means hanging in there when your partner has health issues, or money and career issues, to the best of your ability. It’s what is written in your marriage vows.

    When it comes to your children, unconditional love means you act like the grownup even if it’s hard. You let them be the kids and you do the right thing for them. You put your kids first because they need you to, to grow up.

    Unconditional love does not mean sublimating yourself or allowing someone else to make decisions for you. You have to take care of yourself if you’re going to take care of those you love. It has to work both ways.

  • Unconditional love is love without conditions. Conditions being typically expressed as: “I’ll love you if you do X”…”I’ll love you when you start acting more like this”…etc.

    The problem, to me, is not so much in the definition of “unconditional”…most people, I think, can agree on what that word means. The problem lies in the fact that people define “love” in so many ways. Fact is, there are thousands of ways you can “love” somebody…things like trust, forgiveness, acceptance, limiting options (for their own good), protection. All of these things can be legitimate expressions of love for another person. However, you cannot unequivocally attach “unconditional” to every single one of these things and expect the relationship to work.

    Love requires a hefty does of discernment. *How* you love someone can be just as important, if not moreso, than the mere fact that you do love them. Sometimes loving a person means trusting them, and sometimes it means not trusting them. Forgetting what they’ve done and moving on, or remembering what they’ve done and moving on. In order to love my four-year-old, there are some things I must forbid him to do, like eating too much junk food and watching TV all day. However, when he becomes an adult, loving him will mean that I must allow him to make such decisions for himself. The love itself will not change, but how it is expressed *must* be allowed to change if it is to continue.

    I think one of the pitfalls in the “unconditional love” mantra is that it discourages proper discernment in dealing with people. “You just gotta love(trust/accept/forgive/protect/train/orderaround/insulate/discipline/punish), and if you have to have “conditions” for that, you ain’t doin’ it right.” But conditions and boundaries are both healthy and necessary for human relationships, especially relationships where one party has hurt the other. You aren’t putting a condition on your love for that person…just on the *means in which that love is expressed*, for the sake of you being able to continue loving that person.

  • Becky P.

    To me I suppose it means that you love because you’ve chosen to love that person.

    It however, does not mean that you allow that person to abuse others. You love the person, but not necessarily the actions. You choose to love your child when he/she is being a brat, but you do not allow that child to take a knife and stab your furniture (or anything else). Just because you’ve restricted their actions, doesn’t mean that you don’ t love them. Actually it is quite the opposite–you are showing them that you love them by your controlling their actions.

    If people are abusing others, they have problems (!) and it is time they learn proper behavior. When others allow them this uncontrolled behavior, it’s not love. It’s indifference.

  • I view unconditional love as love that requires nothing from you – given freely no matter who you are or what you have done. I’m a believer, but a bad one at that, probably. I don’t forgive the people who abused me. I don’t love the people who abused me. I could try, but it would be fake, it would be forced, and it would be a lie.

    The thing I dislike about unconditional love is that from my standpoint – it seems that it makes love cheap. I didn’t even know what the quality of love was until I started adopting friends as family and realized just how much I loved them, and how much love actually meant something. Saying I love you to my real family growing up made me believe that love was this empty worthless thing I was required to throw around because I was a Christian. I say that I care about people – about their welfare, and their happiness, and who they are – but love is not a word I fling around about every little thing.

    I think God is capable of unconditional love. That’s what makes Him God. I am not God. This may make me a horrible Christian destined for hell (yes, I know those are two contradictory statements, but my beliefs about God are really contradictory right now) but I do not love unconditionally. Maybe it’s possible for other people, but it’s not possible for me. To say otherwise would be a lie.

  • Paige

    I hail from a reform Jewish family. The reformation movement is the least strict denomination within our faith (also the largest demographic of Jews around the world). My family participated for the fellowship and it was a lovely introduction for me into the importance of philanthropy, academia, and my cultural heritage. The reform movement’s not too big on dogma – very respectful of personal boundaries and theologically it was a decent immersion into the Old Testament.

    I must say, that everyone’s stories here have ripped my heart out. I’m devastated by how much cruelty and manipulation was presented to you as normalcy. I’m so very sorry for all of your losses and I’m tearing up as I’m typing this. I can’t fathom a world without knowing unconditional love. I may have been brought up in a “just barely” religious household; but the love, generosity, kindness and radiance that my parents showered my little brother and me with has been catalyst to every positive thing in my life.

    I harbor a lot of guilt because I was an archetypal moody, oversensitive teen. Great student, never got in trouble, but very overwhelmed at the time with the typical cattiness of high school social politics. My poor, parents got the brunt of a lot of insecurity-fueled, teenage snippiness. That’s perhaps my greatest shame. My parent’s are sainted and they deserved all the love and respect in the world. I’ve tearfully apologized on many occasions for all of my misplaced venom and they both just chuckle and assure me that they never took my 3 year long bad mood personally. Even though I was curt and distanced towards them – they were always my protectors and my true allies and they diligently researched private prep schools in our area and without much protest from me, I was transplanted into an amazing, safe new school with bookish, kinder classmates. That was the first time I recognized the unconditional love I’ve been blessed with my whole life.

    Even before they rescued me from all the stress I was going through at my public school– they knew I was hurting and they did everything in their power to make my home a sanctuary. They were always waiting with a scrabble board, pizza and an arsenal of corny jokes (even though they should have walled me up in the crawlspace under the house). That’s unconditional love. Being shown that my mistakes did not define me in my parents’ eyes inspired me to reflect that same enthusiasm and devotion back to them 10 fold.

    It’s tragic that the concept of unconditional love and emotional reciprocity would be an anomaly for anyone. Your website epitomizes courage and eloquence. I hope your insightful stories and kind words will one day soften the hearts of your loved ones from the past. Most importantly I can only imagine what a much needed life-line you are providing to those in your former communities for whom this lifestyle was not elective and who may not see much hope. Thank you for sharing your harrowing accounts of a world that is dangerously too below the radar.

    Warmest wishes,

  • Grandma Lou

    Unconditional love…warts and all, you are friends with the object of your affection. Be that your spouse, friend, child or favorite cat.
    But that doesn’t mean you let them walk all over you, the counters, or whatever.
    There is that gentle correction that shows you love them enough to make sure they keep themselves and you out of harm’s way.
    And sometimes it has to be more firm than gentle, but still it has to be done.
    Example…my husband is diabetic. Whoa, could he ever put away the cookies, pies, cakes, etc. In fact he used to always say:
    “I just love that dumb bread!”
    So I had to keep most of that stuff out of his reach, out of the house, and out of his mind. Before we got married he could sit down and eat a whole box of doughnuts by himself! If I didn’t love him, I would hand him another box of them and say:
    “Go for it!”
    I have been married to this character for less than 20 years now, and IMO, it is not nearly long enough. His mother lived to be 102, he just turned 80, and I really want to keep him around, healthy, for the next 20.
    So he gets a HALF of a doughnut IF his blood sugar is within normal range.

  • I too, was in a sort of quiverfull cult. At 4 kids, it seemed to me that the women were being terrible treated and subjected. It was almost as if the church believed that Alice Cooper’s description of the way women are treated in his song, “Only Women Bleed,” was normal and spiritually correct.

    It was easy to get out of that cult. My wife put back on jewelry, bought blue jeans, cut her hair and I remembered just exactly why I married that beauty: her smile returned!

    Now I am a pastor, and a theologian. There is a beautiful irony in these replies. My theological understand of the word agape is “a love that is chosen, not necessarily felt. Love that is an act of the will.” And the irony is (I’m grinning when I write this) that clariedammit, a self proclaimed atheist has the best description, from the New Testament Greek of anyone in these responses.

    I pity the person, especially the believer, who decides that they have nothing to learn from others. clairedammit, Thank you!

    We believe we are noble. We know in our hearts that almost always our intentions are noble and honorable. We strive to an ideal, and fall far short of it. And, I find that God just keeps on loving me.

    For a while, I pastored a church in the Amish country of PA. A deacon in the church molested a 15 year old young woman 5 years before I came. After his wife, a woman whose background was among the “plain folk,” eventually discovered that no amount of submissiveness in the name of unconditional love would make her abusive husband love himself, decided to co-exist in the house with him instead of losing her own self to his sickness. When she withdrew emotionally, he became extremely abusive verbally. On three occasions, he told me of his plan to commit a double murder, suicide. My wife and I begged her to leave him and eventually she did. (Thank God for her Christian Counselor.) Her plain family shunned her to the point of disinheriting her of 2-3 million dollars. My wife and I confronted her father with the news that his son in law had threatened to murder their daughter and grandson. He said: “They are his possession, he can do with her as he pleases.”

    She referred her to a good counselor who helped her see her own self-worth, but I had a lot of work to do with the theology of divorce and separation. The church forced me to resign for encouraging her to leave this monster. Some were pretty clear that I am going to hell for leading this child astray -the old” better as millstone…” But I see it as a birthright issue. Esau profaned his inheritance when he sold his birthright for a meal. A woman who puts up with abuse is selling her birthright and profaning her femininity, her person and her special calling as a child of God.

    Sadly, I am in the exact same situation at the Church I went to, except this time, the predator is going to jail and you guessed it, the church is taking his side. God, I pray, deliver us from false Christians.-

  • nolongerquivering

    Nikita ~ I’m having a hard time figuring in my head how a person can “love” someone and disapprove of them, not trust them, etc. At what point does it become mere word games?

    It all gets so complicated when you consider: does loving someone become a matter of continuing to have good feelings toward them even when their behavior is unacceptable, or is it our continued loving actions? if so ~ is that enabling?

    The example you provided helps me some in understanding the principle ~ but to me the priniciple still seems kind of vague. What happens when you are unable to restrain the abusive person and continue to speak loving, encouraging words to them? If the person is not a small child ~ is an actual, physical threat to you ~ and you cut them off, are you still loving them? How would the person who is cut off know that you still love them?

  • nolongerquivering

    Hi Emily ~ 🙂

    You wrote: I may never be able to speak again to a person that wronged me, but I will try to love them, and have a heart attitude of love, even though I cannot show it to them in anyway. Love is not blind submission, Love is doing the best you can by someone, wanting the best for them.

    So ~ is love just a matter of how you feel about the person? You can have nothing to do with someone and yet still love them? I really appreciate what you said about your mother ~ setting boundaries and making sure she does not have access to your children because you have a legitimate concern that she may abuse them ~ but if you do not open up to her and don’t make yourself vulnerable ~ is it still “love”?

    I’m wondering how helpful the language of “unconditional love” is for Christians and for society as a whole ~ are we playing word games to console ourselves when we erect firm boundaries and guard our own hearts against those who hurt us ~ but somehow still find a way to call that “love”?

    Please know that these are sincere questions ~ I’m in no way trying to be opposititional ~ just wanting to think through this “unconditional love” thing which so often seems to be used as a guilt-laden head game designed to seduce us into letting down our armor so the abuser can have another shot at us.

  • nolongerquivering

    Very interesting POV, Toriach. Interesting enough, in fact, that I wish you’d elaborate a bit. How can you call it “love” when you leave? Is that love for her? for yourself? In what way is this “love” unconditional?

  • nolongerquivering


    “If people are abusing others, they have problems (!) and it is time they learn proper behavior. When others allow them this uncontrolled behavior, it’s not love. It’s indifference.”

    Well said. Thank you.

  • nolongerquivering

    presentlyhuman ~ I admire your candor here ~ not many are willing to admit that unconditional love is not possible for them. I also “love” your username: presentlyhuman ~ that’s awesome. I hope you’ll consider joining the NLQ forum ~ would love to interact with a “horrible Christian destined for hell” on a regular basis. Thx for posting. 🙂

  • Crowie

    Been lurking the blog for a while now but never posted a comment, so hi!

    However about the topic now I confess I find the idea of unconditional love creepy and damaging. I don’t like it at all.

    When it comes to relationships I much prefer conditional love. I treasure conditional love because love and trust when given freely but where the other being involved has full authority and ability to take the trust and love back is not something that’s just there and taken for granted. It’s an active process instead and it’s re-gifted continually so you are receiving the trust and love again and again and it can then feed back into a more and more treasured relationship.

    Now I’m not talking about conditions such as “I will love you if you’re thinner or if you have a better paying job” or anything like that. I think if someone attaches that sort of conditions you’re not talking about love anymore. Love isn’t that superficial.

    The conditions I like are ones such as: I will love you if you respect my authority over myself. I will love you if you respect my boundaries. I will love you if you understand that I will have to have an existence apart from you as well as with you. I will love you if you do not try to maim me mentally or physically etc. etc.

    If the conditions are broken I think it’s possible to care deeply for the other being involved but on my half anyway the love and trust are revoked.

    This is one of the reasons it’s always a red flag for me when people actively hate cats. Cats definitely love conditionally. You have to earn their affection and trust and if you mistreat them they will stop trusting and voluntarily being around you and I think that’s a pretty healthy attitude.

  • nolongerquivering

    I never would have guessed that “Only Women Bleed” was by Alice Cooper. LOL

    Phil ~ could I interest you in helping to prepare a Quiverfull information packet/booklet for pastors for the Take Heart Project: http://www.takeheartproject.org/advocacy/

    We just want to make 4 quick points:

    1) Warning Signs: Is a Family From Your Church Adopting Quiverfull Ideas?

    2) Danger! How Quiverfull Families Can Negatively Impact Your Church

    3) Prevention: How To Talk About Quiverfull To Potential Converts

    4) Intervention: Dealing With Quiverfull Church Members To Minimize Risk

    If you’d like to help, email me: http://kontactr.com/user/vyckie 🙂

  • nolongerquivering

    Hi Crowie ~ nice to “meet” you. Excellent points ~ thanks so much for your input.

  • nikita

    The thread I see running through all of these responses is that of definition. First, do we agree on what the definition of ‘love’ is? Then do we believe it can be ‘unconditional’? Do we agree on what ‘unconditional love’ looks like? And then finally do we believe it is a good thing to love ‘unconditionally’?

    I think a lot of us are saying the same thing in different ways, and others are taking a different position entirely. But our definitions are the key; unless we understand what we mean by the terms then it is difficult to proceed. That’s the way it looks to me.

  • Listener

    Nikita is exactly right about definitions. How about these:
    LOVE–at its most basic level, it is desiring what is best for another. For an abuser, best would be putting a stop to abusive behavior. Thus, reporting him to police is a loving response. So is limiting the damage he can inflict on me or my loved ones. It is not loving to an abuser to allow him to continue to abuse unhindered. In good, healthy relationships, warm affectionate feelings accompany the desire for another’s best. Love will look different in different relationships and situations.
    FORGIVENESS–means, I will not hold bitterness and recrimination against you. I can determine to forgive you in my heart, but the relationship is not restored until the offender confesses his sin and asks for my forgiveness. Forgiveness does not automatically restore trust, however. Trust must be earned. I will not throw this offense up in your face every time I see you; but you have damaged the kind of relationship we can enjoy until you prove, over a period of time, that you are trustworthy.
    What do you think?

  • Raven

    I am an unbeliever (lifelong, in fact) and no I would not say unconditional love is a purely religious thing. It simply means loving fully, with no “only ifs.” I would tend to argue, actually, that love, like ethics and “good” works” in a religious context are almost by definition conditional. I am often asked how can one be good/love/give/hope without God. But doesn’t doing those things because God wants you to, moves you to, expects you to, or will punish you if you don’t make them not only conditional, but motivated out of self interest? Isn’t the person who does all those things because they want to, because they are the right thing to do, without threat of reprisal or hope of reward; aren’t they the more selfless?

    In practical terms, it doesn’t mean automatically permitting or overlooking anything. It doesn’t even necessitate having a relationship with that person. It simply mean that you love them, you love that they are there in the world, that you would help them in any way you could, that you will always care, and not expect anything in return. It means you will let them leave if they wish, bless their happiness, always tell them the truth, etc. (I hate to be so trite as to fall back on song lyrics, but “You Owe me Nothing” by Alanis Morrisette says it pretty well.) It’s not about what someone can or will give me back for loving, it’s just that I love. Period.

    Loving anyone unconditionally is not the same as permitting or enabling abuse, however. You can still love an alcoholic, an addict, or a violent abuser, while at the same time stepping back from their cycle of abuse. In fact, sometimes, it’s the only way TO love them….

  • Keshet Shenkar

    I basically agree with Judaism’s view, which is that the first love has to be for your own self care–we don’t say “till death do us part” in Jewish weddings, because we don’t believe that a person should promise to love someone else if it will mean hurting themselves.

  • I was planning my reply on the way over to the coffeeshop only to find that Nikita had already taken the thoughts right out of my head! Then, Vyckie’s follow-up question makes it clear that there are different definitions of “love” working here.

    In the abusive groups that foster codependence (at the very least), “love” tends to mean “obedience”, “unquestioning”, “giving in”, “submitting to authority”, and all kinds of behaviors and attitudes that are, in my opinion, nothing that “love” is. I define “love” to mean “actions taken for the good of another”, when you do stuff that will benefit the other person’s growth and development. Sometimes that means doing something they want; sometimes it means holding them to boundaries (ie not allowing them to hurt you, since hurting you is ultimately as bad for them as it is for you).

    When your actions are striving for the benefit of everyone in the situation, then you are loving them. When you have to hold a boundary, you are not putting conditions on your love, you are working for their growth and development (as well as for your own). This rethinking of “love” was one of the first topics I covered in my blog.


    I keep meaning to come back to it and write more about what a radical, “wasteful love” (to quote John Spong) looks like when the concept isn’t being co-opted by power-mongering controllers.

  • Sporkey

    I agree with the “unconditional love doesn’t mean to let someone hurt you” posters. That was my understanding of it. But I also think of it is as this: Out of all of the different kinds of loves that are out there, unconditional love should be the most special and therefore seldom. It certainly shouldn’t be for all people, whether someone feels it or receives it. I think it’s much more important to unconditionally love a child than it is to love an adult. If I choose to have a child, I have made the decision to birth, clothe, feed, and invest in the future of a human being. It is not the fault of a child that they exist so therefore they should have love without conditions. That’s not to say that you should never punish or guide them when needed.

    I also don’t think unconditional love should be for relationships, because love in romantic relationships are very different, works in a different way, and comes about in an entirely different manner. I’m not saying that no one should ever feel unconditional love for a significant other because that may happen – I just think that kind of love should be earned rather than a given. It may turn into it but it certainly shouldn’t start out that way, nor does it have to turn into unconditional love. You can still love someone with your whole heart and do anything for them but still make that love contingent on things like respect, admiration, and life goals. Like Crowie, I find it a bit creepy in the context of a relationship. I don’t have to love someone anymore if they can’t love me the way I ask to be loved. I may still feel affection for the person but I certainly don’t have to love them. Even if I loved them at one point with what felt like my whole soul.

    I think unconditional love is more of an ideal on a relationship level – if it’s attained, that’s wonderful and special, but it doesn’t have to be the only love a person should feel, and if it’s never felt, but there’s still love, that’s okay too. My problem with it in the context of relationships is that it just seems far too easy for an abuser to DEMAND unconditional love, with “unconditional” standing in for “obedient”. I think it is healthy to have conditional love with a partner, that may or may not down the road develop into the unconditional type.

    In terms of religion, I believe that God loves me unconditionally and in return, wants me to love God unconditionally as well (“Love the Lord your God with your whole heart, whole soul, whole mind” or something like that – been a while since I looked it up, and I’m too lazy to now). Basically, that God will always love people and that people should try to love God as God loves them. Unfortunately, I think that a lot of people demand that a person loves God in the same way an abuser would demand that his partner loves them, where unconditional = obedient.

    Come to think of it, people really do get the two concepts confused – that unconditional means obidient, unthinking, not critical.

  • I totally agree with everything you said, right down to the cats. 😉 William Branham hated cats – maybe he found them too much like adult women.

  • Kinesionics

    I try to bring unconditional love to my relationships. For me, this means that the other person knows that no matter what they have done, whatever things they are ashamed of, they are safe with me — safe in that I won’t burden them with a judgemental attitude towards them. This doesn’t mean that I don’t recognize some behaviors as reprehensible, but it does mean not treating the person as though they were irredeemable because of it.

  • KR Wordgazer

    To me, love has to do, first and foremost, with an understanding of the intrinsic worth and value of the human being. It’s seeing the worth and value of the person not in what they do, but in the fact that they are human. This is love’s foundation.

    The second aspect of love lies in always wanting what is best for the intrinsically valuable human being you see before you. This is love’s motivation.

    “Unconditional” love means the understanding that love is not about performance. The intrinsic worth of a person does not change based on what they do. Wanting what is best for them is not contingent on whether you like their behavior or not.

    So if I unconditionally love an abuser, this means that I recognize that his true worth as a person has not changed, even though he’s an abuser. He has not become a worthless, throw-away person. But wanting the best for this abuser means that I want him to learn, and to sincerely desire to learn, not to be an abuser. I disagree with the idea that unconditional love means you don’t want the person to change. Exactly the opposite, in fact — if the person has an attitude or behavior that’s destructive to himself or others, love doesn’t want to leave him there, because that’s not what’s best for him.

    Wanting the best for someone sometimes means that you have to leave them. Wanting the best for them sometimes means you have to say, “I will never stop loving you, but I can have no more contact with you until and unless you stop being destructive to me, because that’s not good for you or me.” We must love ourselves unconditionally too– always recognizing our own intrinsic worth, wanting the true good for ourselves as well as others, and understanding that our own worth does not change based on our performance.

    All the other things we call love– affection, attraction, trust and the rest, I see as needing to be built on this foundation of understanding of worth, and wanting the best for the loved one. All these other things can be, and are, conditional. You can love someone and still feel the need to withdraw affection. You can love someone even though you’ve stopped feeling attracted to them. You can love someone and understand they can’t be trusted.

    With this kind of love, you can love anyone. All you have to do is stop for a moment and see a real human being with intrinsic worth there before you, and want the best for them. With this kind of love, I can buy a homeless drug addict a sandwich or give him a coat, but not enable his habit by giving him money, and not make myself vulnerable by inviting him to my home.

    My love for my family differs from my love for that homeless man because intimacy, affection, trust, companionship, etc., are added to that basic idea of worth and wanting the best. But they are still built on that same foundation.

    A lot of what passes in churches for unconditional love is not like this, however. It is more along the lines of “I will see your intrinsic worth as a member of my group, but once you leave the group, you cease to have worth.” This is the opposite of unconditional love– this is conditional acceptance. It’s only masquerading as love.

    I loved my parents dearly when they were alive, but since they were alcoholics, we didn’t have the trust and intimacy we could have had. They also knew quite well that I wanted them to want to get well. But that didn’t change my love for them, just for who they were.

  • Mary C.

    KR, what a beautiful response! I am a regular visitor to NLQ, and have never posted anything before, but I really, really wanted to thank you for this.

  • Elizabeth

    Agape is just a baseline, the knowledge that deep down, everyone has some human worth. Even the people we despise have redeeming virtues. That doesn’t mean we should trust them. Love does not equal trust, or even respect. They tend to go hand in hand, but not always.
    (this is coming from an agnostic ex-Catholic)

  • Elizabeth

    You’re getting your loves mixed up. 🙂 Filia is brotherly love. Agape goes beyond that.

  • Jenny Islander

    The tradition I was raised in emphasizes that while the culture teaches love as a feeling, Christianity teaches love as a verb. The famous love verses in the New Testament are a list of what love does. In addition, God is love. So how does God demonstrate love? In a nutshell, God never discards us, but God doesn’t condone evildoing either. God guides and corrects when we are deliberately or inadvertently going wrong. And sometimes we are left to go our own way and discover the consequences thereof. (Needless to say, my church does not teach divine wrath except in the context of the history of theology.)

    If I get the chance I will elaborate but I have 3 sick kids incl. 1 who is literally climbing up me–gotta go–this is part of u. love–act loving even when it isn’t convenient (although this doesn’t mean letting the nursing baby bite me).

  • Dana

    After watching a documentary about someone who ended up in prison, my husband and I had the following conversation:

    Husband: “If I ever went to prison, would you come and visit me?”

    Me: “Depends on what you did.”

    Husband: “What!! You wouldn’t visit me?”

    Me: “Not if you molested or killed a child.”

    Husband: “I would never do that!!”

    Me: “Good.”

  • valsa

    Of course unconditional love isn’t only a religious ideal. Nothing is solely a religious ideal- religion has never invented the wheel. In fact, when I think of unconditional love, I don’t think of religion at all, but instead, of the mother/child bond. That is the most common form of unconditional love I’ve come across in my lifetime.

    As for what I think unconditional love is, as an atheist- it’s just loving someone, no matter what they do. It’s kinda in the name. Love Without Conditions. I think it’s epitomized by this phrase, that I often tell friends and family who piss me off and don’t want to leave me alone to simmer down, “I love you, but I don’t really like you (right now)”

    Now, like I said, I usually think of unconditional love in the form of the mother/child bond (or, less commonly, a father/child bond) I could dislike a child of mine. I could disapprove of the actions of a child of mine. I could understand that, for safety and sanity, my child and I may have to be apart. That doesn’t mean I don’t love them. However, that’s not to say that people who try to unconditionally love don’t have their limits. I think, if my child tried to hurt me, I could still love them. However, if a child of mine grew up to, let’s say, rape and murder children- I think that would go beyond my capability to love them any longer.

    Some very rare people might be able to love 100% unconditionally but I cannot. And I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t want to either. We’ve all seen, in high profile, heinous killings, the mothers of the offenders saying how their child is really innocent or how people just don’t understand them, etc. I don’t think anyone wants to be that woman.

  • Dana

    Whoops. I submitted that comment too fast.

    I laugh every time I remember that conversation. I am a Christian, but probably not a very good one.

  • Jenny Islander

    OK, I’m back.

    Love as a verb rather than a feeling brings it out of the realm of pie in the sky. We all know people who _preach_ undying, unselfish love, but _live_ as though their convenience was the only thing that mattered in the world. Walter Mitty fantasies of dying to save one’s wife and kids from a home invasion are all very well, but love works itself out in the day-to-day things. Last night my husband helped me with a screaming teething baby and a preschooler who was vomiting every hour on the hour. And then he got up and went to work. That’s love. And he didn’t say, “If you will clean up this house, or lose 20 pounds, or do sex exactly how I like, or never ever disagree with me, I will consider you worthy of help.” That’s _unconditional_ love.

    Unconditional love does not mean unconditional forgiveness. Forgiveness is another concept that is treated as an emotion when it’s really a verb. It is the act of ceasing to expect repayment of a debt. It isn’t a blanket invitation to pile up more debt, either. Forgiveness may mean cutting all contact.

    Love never fails, but, being human, we can come to the end of love for a particular person. My abuser killed my love for her. When I realized that she would never admit what she had done to me, I forgave her. In my case, this meant mourning her before she had even died, because she might as well be dead.. When she at last destroyed herself (she had a lot of addictions), I was the least broken up of her kids because I had already grappled with the unfinished business and quit wasting spiritual energy on an uncollectable debt.

  • Cassie

    I’m coming in late here (I’m a lurker, but a once-a-week one!), but I really wanted to chip in because I loved the post.

    I’ve found this a difficult topic over many years, because of the two situations that I see “unconditional love” talked about. One is where the phrase is used to convince rational adults to endure abuse (and where the emphasis never seems to be on someone’s right to expect love in return!). The other is in working with deprived/abused children, where it is often used to emphasise the need of every child to feel loved for who they are, not who their parents think they should be.

    Those people I have met as adults in my life, including my partner, I do not love unconditionally, and I do not ‘try’ to. To ask me to, as presentlyhuman said, diminishes my love. The people I love (friends and partner) are awesome, I love them for their awesomeness. Love is not built in a vacuum (it’s not a choice!), it comes from a relationship that is built over time.

    I do think family is more complicated. Children DO love unconditionally, even when it would be safer if they didn’t. Many parents also love unconditionally – the bond between parent/child is biologically/hormonally based, and really strong. When working with abused children, it is important to seperate out their love for the abuser from their need to be safe. Many kids find it shameful to admit they still love their parent abuser – it’s necessary to acknowledge that that happens, that’s it’s natural, and give them tools to deal with that without returning to the abusive situation. That’s where the definitions get tricky I guess – but language isn’t the relevant conversation at that time 🙂

    I guess I also think children need unconditional love from someone. I find this hard – when does that become dangerous? (I’ve seen abusive teens!). But children NEED to be loved, and withholding of that love based on bad behaviour/personality the parent doesn’t like – is one of the most destructive things a caregiver can do. Teaching a small child about how to live with others/acceptable behaviour needs to be done in a way where they never feel like they are unloved, I think.

  • Kris

    What a tough subject, and *so* hard to answer clearly – at least for me. I grew up in a Judeo-Christian family, and was taught that unconditional love is not “I love you because…”, “I love you despite…”, but simply “I love you”.

    I have a sister who is a recovering drug addict. I realize that her choices were not nearly as damaging as those of my first husband who was verbally and emotionally abusive. Still, her choices went against everything I believed about ethics and morality. She said and did so many hurtful things that when she went into her latest rehab program, I stopped taking her phone calls. Did I still love her? Yes – she is my sister, and I will always love her. I don’t *like* the choices she made, and for many years, I didn’t *like* her. I didn’t want to be around her, she didn’t make me feel better, or happier, or more energetic, or *more* anything. She was spiteful and bitter and angry and jealous and vindictive. However, I ached for her – what she was doing to herself emotionally and physically and the scars that are left behind.

    I still don’t speak with her, but now, it is her choice not mine. I still love her. I always will.

    My first husband? I don’t love him, but I also know that I never truly did. I loved who I *thought he was*, and when he revealed that he wasn’t that person, I couldn’t love him as a husband or a friend. I love him as a person, and I want him to be the best that he can be. I choose not associate with anyone from that chapter in my life, but I don’t not love them.

    Unconditional love means that we want the best for someone, no matter what. I can love someone with agape love, but not like them in the least.

    It’s a murky, quirky place to explore, and, like other topics, when you throw in theology or human nature, it gets even muddier.

    Excellent post…

  • Jenny

    You can love someone and not like them. I don’t like my mom… there are a lot of things I don’t like about her at all, but I do love her and she is my mom.

  • I think that love, at its core, simply means I acknowlege their humanity and treat them as respectfully as I can. This means that my freaky and abusive ex, while obviously a total asshole, also diagnosably mentally ill (which doesn’t help the asshole part), is still a human and should be treated as such. That’s unconditional love, in my book. Somewhere in there, there is still a shred of humanity…and I have to believe that the *ideal* for him was never that he would grow up to be an abuser, or that he would later become mentally ill. All I have to do to feel unconditional love towards him is remember that he was once a two year old. No one can hate a two year old.

    That said, I can certainly despise what he has done, fight for my kids, and make no bones about the fact that his abuse will not continue, ever, if I have anything to say about it.

    That’s what unconditional love means to me. Unconditionally, I can love the two year old in there….and at the very same time, despise what the grown man did to me, and even hate the monster he ended up becoming. This EVEN means I can, at the same time I despise what he became, I can authentically hope that he, someday, makes changes and works to become a better person.

    This isn’t some pollyanna-ish warm fuzzy feeling of love, btw. I hate what he did and I hate the nasty thing he chose to become. I hate the mental illness that took some bad choices and made them even more horrific. I hate the crap he’s pulled through the divorce process. I hate the sick twisted person he now is. Looking at him literally makes me want to vomit.

    But I can still recognize the two year old in there somewhere, and also recognize that nobody wants to grow up and become an asshole. Somewhere inside of that man, there is a little kid who could have made some different choices. I will honor that bit of humanity, and in so doing, I show love.

    This is just me, though. I think everyone has to go through their own journey in figuring out how to handle the complex mess of feelings that come from dealing with adults who have been abusive. I don’t think there is necessarily a right or wrong. It’s more just figuring out what is healthy for YOU, what helps the healing process for YOU. And, since everyone is so different, there should be no requirement to “unconditionally love” anyone.

    PS. I’m in total agreement about how the concept of “unconditional love” gets used in seriously disfunctional ways in the Christian community.

  • Vicki

    I once heard someone say “Hate the sin; love the sinner”. It can be hard to truly separate the person from the actions. It’s also hard to see someone so opposite ourselves, who seems to be so “evil” and consider loving them in any way. To love all people unconditionally means that we’re saying that we love people like Hitler and Bin Laden. That can be very hard for people to wrap their hearts and minds around.

    I was going to write that I think unconditional love is loving the soul of the person, in which we all share a spark of the Divine, while still working to help them be the best people they can. But, then I wondered, “Is that truly unconditional?” I’m not sure. What do you think?

  • Vicki

    This sums up what I’ve spent 20 minutes trying to say. Thank you.

    I think the above post works for the completely secular, as well as people who are religious. I was raised Catholic, but as I’ve matured I’ve come to view some of the things within the Catholic Church with disgust. I love God, and I love His Son, but I do not agree with many of the actions carried out in their names.

    For the religious folk, we recognize that the spark of humanity that we love in all people is our birthright as God’s creation. He created the Universe and truly loves us, even if we tell Him to go spin on it. His son died, willingly, through torture and humiliation, because He loved us so much. The problem, I think, with many churches are that they use this idea to subjugate. They say “Jesus died for you, and you are a sinner. You are not worth it!” But how glorious would it be, instead, if we were told “Jesus, God’s only Son, died for you BECAUSE YOU ARE WORTH IT.” I wonder if things would be different if this was the message we all internalized instead…

  • nolongerquivering

    Good point, Vicki. I once heard Dave Hunt speak about “self-worth” ~ he said that if we were actually worth the price that Jesus paid to redeem us ~ it would not be grace. He gave the example of someone paying a high price to purchase a very valuable vase ~ that is an exchange ~ on the other hand, if someone pays a high price to purchase a broken, worthless clay pot ~ that is a testament to the extraordinary grace and mercy of the one making the purchase.

    That example was supposed to reinforce the idea that the more worthless we are ~ the more gracious God is for ransoming us from the hell we deserve. So ~ this teaching supposedly exalts God ~ but now that I think about it ~ it makes God into a major egomaniac or a caricature like the stereotypical Jewish mother who always guilts her kids into doing what she wants by reminding them of all she suffered to bring them into this world. Ugh.

    Anyway ~ I do agree that if we all internalized the message that we have inherent value ~ and that applies to ALL people ~ not just the True Christians … yeah ~ that would be glorious.


  • CocosButter

    I pretty much agree with Journey about unconditional love…and it has no bearing on being a believer or atheist to me, anyway. I have been in a few abusive situations but that does not mean that I stopped loving that person. I just simply distanced myself from them, away from the abuse. I don’t think I had to forgive them because I love them. I forgive them for ME more than for them. My forgiving them also doesn’t mean I condone what they did either. I think too many, including many religious, use unconditional love as an excuse to allow certain things or have a blind eye to things so they don’t have to deal with the real issue. It starts a problem where people can’t separate their love for a person with the things they are doing.

  • I think the CONCEPT of unconditional love springs completely from what used to be called “motherlove”. Unconditional love is the (usually) natural and appropriate way a MOTHER loves her infant. Perhaps we all remember what it was like to love and be loved like that, and want more. Want it into adulthood, where, just possibly, it isn’t appropriate anymore, at least, not between adults.

  • Leah

    Coming from a believer’s viewpoint, unconditional love seems to be a concept that is only truly practiced by God. As imperfect humans living in an imperfect world, our love may strive to be unconditional, but will inevitably fall far short. I believe a parent’s love for their children can be close, but not a perfect simulation of agape love. When looking at relationships between adults – it seems that love must take into account a reality that is defined by God. If we view ourselves as precious children of God who have been adopted into His family at a great price (Christ’s blood), then our true value and worth should be evident (unless warped by patriarchal teachings). In the case of abuse, I truly agree with some of the previous comments. Ignoring the abuse is not love, but harmful to the abuser and the abusee. Removing yourself and loved ones from an abuser is acting out of love of yourself (seeing yourself as valuable and precious to God) and your children as well as seeking what is best for the abuser. I think that is the best that can be expected in this world where atrocities are practiced on a daily basis and even encouraged by some religious authorities. I have the utmost respect for those women who have had to go through such awful circumstances – may God bless you all.