The Backstreet Boys once sang, "I don’t care who you are, where you’re from, what you did, as long as you love me." This romantic notion of unconditional love is something that many people grow up dreaming of finding. But relationship experts and therapists say it may be a myth—an ideal that is not only unattainable but actually undesirable.
Before hopeless romantics tune out, that’s not to say that a fairy-tale type of love does not exist. It’s about really defining what a healthy love looks like and not taking the term "unconditional" love so literally. In fact, marriage and family therapist Yeshiva Davis of K&S Therapeutic Services, Inc., likes to use the term "unconditional regard" instead, which means "treating your partner with love and respect while maintaining boundaries and having love and respect for yourself."
Ahead, Davis and other experts, break down the idea of unconditional love.
What Is Unconditional Love?
"You love someone and nothing else matters. It allows people to love without any strings attached—freely," defines Davis. "You don’t base it on what someone does for you or what you want in return. You just love them and you don’t want anything more than their happiness."
She and psychologist Dr. Paulette Sherman agree that it is also a type of love that is completely unaffected by the outside world and circumstances surrounding the two people. It exists on its own.
Furthermore, relationship expert and author Susan Winter says, "Unconditional love is a spiritual and romantic ideal. It's something to aspire toward in disposition and character. Unconditional love is the act of perpetually putting your partner's wellbeing and happiness above yours. It involves sacrifice of the 'self' for happiness of the 'other.'"
Is Unconditional Love Attainable?
While all or parts of those definitions sound lovely, experts agree it’s not a completely realistic way of looking at relationships and marriage. "Unconditional love negates the 'self,' and in doing so, would be at cross purposes in a mutually satisfying relationship. A better option would be to prioritize your mate's happiness while also attending to your own wants and needs," admits Winter.
Practicing forgiveness and wanting your partner to be happy just purely because you love them are good things. But, there are also some aspects of true "unconditional" love that can be problematic.
According to Davis, true unconditional love should be given to babies and toddlers who don’t have control over their behaviors and emotions. It’s something that, rooted in genetics and blood relation, is often talked about in parent/child relationships. But in romantic ones, it can actually be toxic, she says. "It means non-acceptance is a bad thing. You are not able to have boundaries...You have to love someone blindly and blindly accept the behaviors they do. [It’s like], 'Love me and supply me what I need despite how I treat you...' That's super unattainable because a healthy relationship demands working through issues in a mature and positive way and negotiating...so both people can have a good and loving experience. Unconditional love doesn't make room for that."
For Sherman, unconditional love in a romantic relationship is not common, but not impossible. The trick is to define it in a healthy way as a love that is certainly not based on conditions (i.e. "I will only love you if you do this") but still allows room for boundaries, disagreements, and growth.
"Love doesn't need to be self-repressed or self-sacrificing to be worthy," says Winter. “A healthy love can be rewarding and generous—giving and receiving. True love doesn't need to negate the individual for the sake of the couple."
Signs of Healthy Unconditional Love
So, how can you achieve a healthy type of unconditional love? Winter says it is about each partner accepting the other as a flawed human being. "It's the ability to forgive each other and start anew while learning to better handle life's challenges as a couple," she explains. "This type of unconditional love asks only for the willingness to be fair, rational, and compassionate."
At the same time, conditional love is a problem as well. You don’t want to get into a "tit for tat" situation, as Winter puts it, in which you are keeping score. "Conditional love can become the norm in relationships that have sustained ongoing thoughtlessness, betrayal, and dishonesty," she goes on to say. "In the honeymoon period, unconditional love feels effortless. But as time goes on and resentments build, conditional love may become the more dominant strand."
Healthy love is a delicate balance that may seem complicated, but it really boils down to mutual respect, trust, understanding, and well, love. Some signs of healthy unconditional love include:
- Not being afraid to say how you feel even if it’s a negative feeling
- Mutual trust
- Knowing each other’s love language
- Agreeing to disagree
- Encouraging individual goals and interests
- Having friendships outside the relationship
- Making each other a priority
- Honoring each other’s needs and wishes
- Taking full responsibility for how you show up in the relationship
- Treating your partner with respect and acceptance
- Wanting your partner’s happiness
Signs of Unhealthy Unconditional Love
Per Davis, unconditional love suggests "you have to put up with me no matter what I do." This creates a potential breeding ground for emotional abuse because there are no parameters for acceptable behavior. Forgiveness is key in a relationship, but someone taking advantage of that and repeating bad behaviors assuming they will be forgiven is a recipe for disaster.
"You can love someone and still choose to set boundaries or to not be with them romantically. This is an important distinction," reminds Sherman. Some signs of unhealthy unconditional love include:
- Staying together because you are codependent
- Enduring emotional or physical abuse
- Enduring sexual or emotional infidelity
- Enduring financial infidelity
- Forfeiting your own needs for the sake of your partner
How to Nurture Healthy Unconditional Love
Sometimes the above issues can pop up even in healthy relationships. Hurtful words are exchanged in arguments; cheating happens sometimes. "What makes it harmful is if it’s not addressed and it’s constant and accepted," explains Davis.
And throughout a lifelong relationship like a marriage, outside forces will inevitably enter the relationship as you navigate life together. Children are born, family members pass away, and illness or financial hardships occur. It is not realistic to assume that your love will not be affected or challenged by these things. Successful relationships take work, and there are ways to nurture your love so that it is a healthy and flexible kind of love that makes room for both partners’ happiness.
Davis advises having honest exchanges early on in the relationship to learn about each other’s needs and communication styles. Understanding each other’s personalities and differences is key. This can help you avoid feelings of resentment or even martyrdom along the way, she says.
"You can nurture healthy unconditional love by taking responsibility for the partner you wish to be instead of pointing the finger," adds Sherman. "You can practice acceptance, respect, kindness, and forgiveness to your partner. You can remember your partner is a separate person who has a different perspective, upbringing, and desires and there needs to be enough room in the relationship for both people."
For Winter, the idea of getting to know your partner as an individual, along with learning to say "I’m sorry," are the main factors in keeping healthy love alive. She uses the term "emotional control panel" to describe a person’s inner workings and what makes them tick. Understanding and getting to know this is "essential for eliminating unnecessary arguments and friction," she says. "Listen to your partner. Really hear what they're saying, and learn why they feel the way they do about any given subject. This will keep you in harmony with each other, which allows warm feelings to flow throughout the relationship."
Where Do Marriage Vows Come Into Play?
When you say "I do" in front of your family and friends, you are making vows and promises to your partner that are meant to last a lifetime. But, Winter notes that these vows are set long before "incidents of pain and hurt occur. At that point in time, the words are easy to say. There are no emotional anchors attached that need to be considered (ie. betrayal, selfishness, addiction, financial infidelity)."
Experts agree that wedding vows are "aspirational," and per Winter, they "set an intention." But, just as life goes through phases, so does love, and it’s "the day-to-day behavior that dictates the outcome of love's ongoing presence," she reminds.