What Does It Mean to Love Unconditionally?

What Does It Mean to Love Unconditionally?

What would it mean to experience this kind of love in your life?

Unconditional love is love that is freely given – it makes no demands and has no expectations of the object of its love (Watts & Stenner, 2014). It is often conceptualized as existing independent of romantic love, sexual desire, even the bonds of family, although of course love can be given unconditionally in each of these situations. What distinguishes unconditional love is that it is motivated and sustained by sheer care and satisfaction in giving love (Gilligan, 1993).

When a person acts on unconditional love, they are not acting to satisfy their own needs (Post, 2003), although it feels good to act out of unconditional love. When one feels unconditional love, one embraces the happiness of others without coveting it or growing jealous.

To feel unconditional love for another person is not simply feeling empathy or compassion for them (Beauregard et al., 2009). Empathy is understanding and feeling what another person is feeling – we can do these things without feeling love for another person. Similarly, compassion is a desire for another person not to suffer, and unconditional love is not limited to times when a person is suffering.

The one brain imaging study on unconditional love found that the patterns of brain activation are different when people focus on unconditional love versus romantic love or love for one’s child (Beauregard et al., 2009). It is clear from their results that the reward system in the brain is highly activated during experiences of unconditional love, which suggests that unconditional love may be characterized by finding the successes and happiness of other people to be intrinsically rewarding. This reinforces the idea that unconditional love is not about benefiting from the situation, but it is instead about feeling good about somebody else’s good feelings.

“When you look into your mother’s eyes, you know that is the purest love you can find on this earth.”
― Mitch Albom

Unconditional Love vs Conditional Love

Conditional love is love based on the degree to which the object of love satisfies our expectations (Welwood, 1985). In other words, it is based on the answer to the question, “What does this person do for me?” People feeling unconditional love are not concerned with this question, because their unconditional love is not based on their own wants or needs.

Why Is Unconditional Love Important?

For decades now, therapists have discussed how a version of unconditional love called unconditional positive regard is a crucial element of effective therapy (Wilkins, 2000). Unconditional positive regard in therapy is when a therapist provides utter and complete acceptance and support, regardless of what the client says. Surely, many of us reason, this is the ideal context for sharing one’s deepest and tenderest experiences.

Is Unconditional Love Real?

Unconditional love is sometimes referred to by the Greek word ‘agape’, which means unconditional love for others and is often used to refer to the kind of love that the Christian god feels for humans or the self-sacrificing, altruistic love that Jesus felt for his fellows (Lee, 1998). This is a useful context for our discussion because it highlights the aspirational nature of unconditional love. None of us will reach the levels of self-sacrifice and altruism that Jesus is said to have shown – this is not a realistic goal, but it is a powerful guiding principle (Wivestad, 2008), something that we can try our best to embody. Thus, unconditional love is something that we express through action. It is not something we can continuously and always feel toward others, but it is real in the sense that we can try again and again to manifest unconditional love in our lives.

Is Unconditional Love Healthy?

Feeling unconditional love toward others is associated with healthy outcomes, especially for interpersonal relationships. For example, men higher in agape love are less likely to be coercive toward their romantic partners (Russell & Oswald, 2002). More generally speaking, people who score higher on rating scales of agape love are more likely to forgive others (Kim et al., 2022), and forgiveness is associated with better well-being (Griffin et al., 2015).

In Sum

Unconditionally loving others, by all accounts, is a psychologically healthy activity to practice. As human beings, we naturally move in and out of states of being self-centered, fearful, angry, and so on. It is not easy to stay in a place of unconditional love, but the more of it we can feel and act on, the more fulfilling and healthier our lives will be.

References

● Beauregard, M., Courtemanche, J., Paquette, V., & St-Pierre, É. L. (2009). The neural basis of unconditional love. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 172(2), 93-98.

● Gilligan, C. (1993). In a different voice: Psychological theory and women’s development. Harvard University Press.

● Griffin, B. J., Worthington, E. L., Lavelock, C. R., Wade, N. G., & Hoyt, W. T. (2015). Forgiveness and mental health. In L. Toussaint, E. Worthington, & D. R. Williams (Eds.), Forgiveness and health (pp. 77–90). Netherlands: Springer.

● Kim, J. J., Enright, R. D., & Wong, L. (2022). Compassionate love and dispositional forgiveness: does compassionate love predict dispositional forgiveness? Journal of Spirituality in Mental Health, 24(1), 95-111.

● Lee, J. A. (1988). Love-styles. In R. J. Sternberg & M. L. Barnes (Eds.), The psychology of love (pp. 38-67). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

● Post, S. G. (2003). Unlimited love. Templeton Foundation Press.

● Russell, B. L., & Oswald, D. L. (2002). Sexual coercion and victimization of college men: The role of love styles. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 17(3), 273-285.

● Watts, S., & Stenner, P. (2014). Definitions of love in a sample of British women: An empirical study using Q methodology. British Journal of Social Psychology, 53(3), 557-572.

● Welwood, J. (1985). On love: Conditional and unconditional. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 17(1), 33-40.

● Wilkins, P. (2000). Unconditional positive regard reconsidered. British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, 28(1), 23-36.

● Wivestad, S. M. (2008). The educational challenges of agape and phronesis. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 42(2), 307-324