Unconditional love is love devoid of anything but love. It is limitless, timeless, and does not come with any terms and conditions. The ultimate beauty of unconditional love is that it depends completely on the giver and not the receiver.
Yes, we choose to love unconditionally, and we also choose who we give it to. And yet, you are in bliss either way: when you give unconditional love or when you receive.
Defining Unconditional Love
Looking at the phrase “unconditional love,” the simple and straightforward understanding is love without any conditions attached. You love someone, and that’s just it. You don’t justify your love for the person, and the reason you love them is because you love them. Simple! Unconditional love is a selfless love that a person chooses to give to another person without expecting anything in return.
Unconditional love is generally attributed to a mother/parents’ love for their children and an infant’s love for their parents. When we hear “motherly love,” we automatically understand that there is only love, love without any strings, love without expectations, just pure love. A child does not care who their parents are, whether they are rich or poor, good-looking or ugly, monstrous or generous.
They just love their parents. However, when the child grows up, the unconditional love may no longer be unconditional. And this can happen both ways – parents’ love for children and vice versa. But we’ll discuss this later.
Now, let’s look at the origin of the term “unconditional love” to understand it better. Carl Rogers, a humanistic psychologist who developed client-centered therapy, mentions “unconditional Positive Regard” as one of the key conditions for a therapeutic relationship.
He started this concept in the 1950s, and in his book On Becoming A Person, he has credited Stanley Standal for the term. Unconditional Positive Regard is close to unconditional love as it embodies warm acceptance and genuine caring without any condition. Isn’t unconditional love the same? Acceptance of a person in their entirety, caring for them and expecting nothing in return.
However, does this mean that unconditional love only existed in the twentieth century? Absolutely not! In the essay Love published in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2017, Helm Bennett writes that agapē comes closest to unconditional love as it is defined as love independent of reasons and is attributed to God’s love for people and people’s love for God. Kenneth Boa, DPhil, in his article The Five Loves—and the Greatest of These Is Agapē, defines agapē as a “willful choice to put another’s interests above one’s own; an unselfish, giving (even to the point of sacrifice), and unconditional love.”
So, love that is all accepting with genuine caring and giving without expecting anything in return (not even love itself) is unconditional love.
Conditional Love Vs. Unconditional Love
“I will love you if…”
“Why can’t you love me like I love you…”
“I have always loved you so much, and this is how you return the favor…”
Raise your hands if you’ve heard the phrases/sentences above or something similar to them! That’s conditional love for you. When love comes with an attachment before or after the love-word, it loses the unconditionality. Hence, the biggest distinction between conditional and unconditional love is obviously in the conditions attached.
After learning about unconditional love, conditional love may begin to sound a little harsh and even selfish. However, conditional love is more prevalent, and let’s say, more logical. Prevalent because most of us practice conditional love, knowingly or unknowingly.
For instance, romantic love is totally conditional love because both parties are in a romantic relationship where they give love to receive love (if not plain materialistic things like gifts and kisses). And logical because why should I love you if there is nothing in it for me? Give and take, balance, Newton’s third law of motion – all in favor of conditional love. Right? Wrong.
Let’s look at conditional love through Carl Rogers’s humanistic perspective. According to American Psychological Association ( APA), Conditional Positive Regard is “an attitude of acceptance and esteem that others express toward an individual on a conditional basis, that is, depending on the acceptability of the individual’s behavior per the others’ personal standards.” However, Rogers believed that conditional regard hinders psychological development resulting in future personal maladjustments.
Furthermore, a study carried out at Montreal University found out that unconditional love “is mediated by a distinct neural network relative to that mediating other emotions” involving seven areas of the brain. For the research, all participants were shown a series of pictures of people portraying intellectual disabilities. Still, only the participants in the controlled group were given instructions to feel unconditional love for them.
The fMRI scans from the controlled group showed that giving unconditional love activated the brain’s reward system responsible for releasing dopamine, the neurotransmitter responsible for our feelings of pleasure.
At a glance, conditional love seems practical, but unconditional love fares better in the long run. I trust you to make an informed decision when it’s time to choose how you want to love.
Is Unconditional Love Possible?
Unconditional love is a matter of choice. So, whether or not unconditional love is possible is actually up to us, the individuals.
In his article On love: Conditional and Unconditional John Welwood write about how ordinary unconditional love is. According to him, we regard unconditional love as a “high ideal to strive after” and, as a result, “distance us from it by obscuring its basic simple nature.”
To understand unconditional love, we must go back to basics and trust our heart, which he emphasizes on opening because it actually thrives on free-flowing love. He believes love “in its deepest essence knows nothing of conditions and is quite unreasonable.”
Come to think of it, the love that a newborn and its parents experience can illustrate the basic simple nature of unconditional love. As a newborn, they are devoid of conditions, and we could doubt that the parents start out by listing reasons to love their infant.
What are the chances of a new mother asking her newborn to listen to her and be obedient, or else she will hold her love back? What about a new father listing out conditions that the child must adhere to and earn fatherly love?
Instead, you will witness the flow of unconditional love, the basic and ordinary love, overwhelming the hearts of these new parents. And it is all because (to quote Welwood) “Unconditional love has its reasons which reason cannot know.”
On the other hand, conditional love has become the norm in today’s fast-paced money-hungry power-mongering world. We learn right from our childhood to behave “well” to win some brownie points.
Our reward oriented lifestyle keeps pushing us to focus on “earning” love, “deserving” love, “exchanging” love to coexist through a symbiotic relationship. There are advantages for sure; after all, it is mutually beneficial to all parties involved.
Owing to the ease and comfort the conditional love provides, albeit short-lived, we prefer to stay in our conditional love bubble and build concrete walls around our heart against unconditional love and put it up in an inaccessible ivory tower.
Then, what should have been the default form of love turns into a high ideal, and we become oblivious that we can and only we can undo it all.
So, is unconditional love possible? Absolutely yes! The question is, are we ready to love unconditionally?
How to Love Unconditionally
When you think of how natural and spontaneous unconditional love is, we may have to start asking ourselves if this is not the only way to love.
- Believe in the existence of unconditional love: We live such fast-paced lives that we don’t have time to “stand and stare” and marvel at the sight of a crimson sunset or the delicious aroma of the stroganoff your mom’s making. These simple pleasures of life are absolutely free, but we have overlooked them for so long that they seem inaccessible. Unconditional love shares a similar fate. It is absolutely free and accessible once you begin to believe in it.
- Loving someone unconditionally is a choice: Seeing is believing, and believing is seeing. Once you believe in unconditional love, you will start seeing it everywhere and anywhere. Then, it becomes a matter of choice. When you consciously choose to love a person unconditionally, you will set aside your judgment, silence your inner critic, and completely and warmly accept them into your life, into your heart, and love them for who/what they are in their entirety.
- Practice makes unconditional love: We have been accustomed to terms and conditions, so it will be challenging not to expect anything in return. Often at times, you have to swat away the what-ifs and if only’s that may buzz around and threaten your choice. At such times, remember the Taoist teaching of clarifying muddy water: “let stand becomes clear.” So, be patient, and continue practicing against the doubts until it becomes a habit.
- Learn to love yourself unconditionally: Since you need a little practice, why not start from yourself. The words of Ravi Shankar rings most real, “Find the love you seek, by first finding the love within yourself.” We are led to believe that loving ourselves is “selfish,” and this is precisely how our waters get muddied. Stay calm, stay focused, stay the course!
- Loving- Kindness Meditation (LKM): Meditation has become synonymous with medication, as it has innumerable rewards benefitting both physical and mental health. LKM, in particular, can help immensely in understanding and developing unconditional love. A study on the effects of LKM on social connectedness showed that only a few minutes of LKM helped increase “feelings of social connection and positivity toward novel individuals on both explicit and implicit levels.” LKM is believed to develop components of unconditional love like positivity, connectedness, and ultimate acceptance.
How do you know if someone loves you unconditionally?
If you believe unconditional love could be anything from the Hollywood movie scenes with amazing background scores, it’s time for a reality check because it is more implicit than explicit. To know if someone loves you unconditionally, you must feel rather than see it outright.
- They listen to you: Listening does not involve the two ears; it consists of the mind and heart too. They will make you feel heard because they listen to you wholeheartedly.
- They accept you: You are maybe a work in progress but a work of art still. Where others may see you as a clump of clay, they will see the masterpiece.
- They are kind but not blind: They will get upset if you give them enough reasons, but they will let it pass because they know you are more than your momentary mistake.
- They are there for you: Whether you need a shoulder to cry on or a punching bag to throw a few jabs, they will find a way to be by your side.
- They will give and forgive: Even when you continue to get and forget… no brows raised, no questions asked, no judgment passed.
- They make your worst self feel less bad: Even at our best, we are our worst critic, but for them, you never cease to amaze them. You are their miracle!
- They love themselves unconditionally: They love themselves despite the imperfect being that they are. They are super comfortable in their skin with flaws and all.
Unconditional love defies all that we have become conditioned to believe, that there is a price to pay for everything, and nothing comes entirely free. In a world where every being begins or ends somewhere with a row of applicable terms and conditions, unconditional love stands out from the crowd. Lofty as it may sound, but the only way of love is unconditional love. So, love and love unconditionally.