The Myth of Unconditional Love

“Accept the children the way we accept trees—with gratitude because they are a blessing—but do not have expectations or desires. You don’t expect trees to change, you love them as they are.”

― Isabel Allende

Wives wistfully long for it from their husbands. Fathers demand it from their children. Friends call upon it to restore broken friendships. Who doesn’t want unconditional love?

What is Unconditional Love?

Unconditional love is the kind that endures despite any problem, injury, conflict or issue that may arise. Love that asks for nothing in return, and never ceases, no matter what.

Is unconditional love real? Is it attainable? Is it the foundation of a successful marriage? Is it a natural human need?

Or is it simply an epic myth?

It almost seems to be a need that is biologically built into the human condition. We long for it, but we can’t seem to find it. Is it a matter of finding the right person or doing the right thing? Can only people who are emotionally mature provide it? Is it required for a strong relationship or marriage?

Believe it or not, all of these questions have answers, and they are fairly simple and straightforward.

But first, a fascinating research study.

In 2009, a neuroscientist named Beauregard used MRI’s to look at the areas of the brain that are activated in unconditional love compared to romantic love. He found that unconditional love involves seven separate areas of the brain and that it is different from the brain activity seen in romantic or sexual love. Beauregard concluded that unconditional love is actually a separate emotion, unique and different from romantic love.

Beauregard’s study provides neurological evidence for something that is known by couples’ therapists everywhere: unconditional love has no place in a marriage.

Why can’t we expect it from our husband or wife? Two reasons. First, because it’s impossible for most people. And second, because even if a person could achieve it for his or her spouse, it would be unhealthy for both parties and for the relationship itself.

Imagine a husband who continues to love his wife even though she is a serial cheater, and hurts him over and over and over and over. What incentive does she have to stop hurting him? Actually, none. This dysfunctional, painful relationship can go on forever, unchecked. Because the husband has no bottom line to what he will accept: no limit to what he will tolerate, and his wife knows it.

When it comes to romantic relationships and marriage, we all must earn the love we receive. Unearned love (except the parental kind) is not real, it is not strong, and it is not resilient. Conditional love is meaningful because it’s earned, treasured and protected by both parties.

If you have no bottom line in your relationship, chances are you will sadly find yourself living at the bottom line. You will receive whatever you are willing to accept.

So where, then, does unconditional love belong?

In fact, it belongs in only one specific kind of relationship and going in only one direction.

And that is parent TO child; not in reverse. It is a parent’s job to unconditionally love his child. But parents must earn and deserve love from their child. This is what makes parenthood require a kind of selflessness that is uniquely different from every other kind of relationship that exists in this world.

So essentially we are all wired to need unconditional love, but we can only get it in one place: from our parents. Unfortunately, if we don’t feel unconditionally loved by our parents in childhood, we will grow up to feel in some way, on some level, alone. And we will feel in another way, on yet another level, deprived. 

People who grow up without unconditional love from their parents are growing up with Childhood Emotional Neglect. In addition to feeling alone and deprived, if a parent’s love is highly conditional, the child may grow up to have depression, anxiety, or a personality disorder.

Many who grow up without unconditional love will be driven, through no fault of their own, to seek the missing love in all the wrong places: from boyfriends, girlfriends or spouses. I have seen many people go through many years looking for this special something that they didn’t get in childhood. Sadly, they seek it from the wrong people, in the wrong ways, unaware that they can, and should be, providing it for themselves.

Unconditional Love – Guidelines to Follow

  • Love your child no matter what.
  • Except for your children, be careful about giving your love too freely.
  • Remember that earned romantic love is the strongest kind. Have a bottom line in your relationship.
  • Make sure you are worthy of those who trust you enough to love you.
  • Love is fragile and valuable. Treat it with care and protect it.
  • Do not feel pressured to love your parents no matter what. Yes, they deserve more latitude than anyone else in your life. But it’s not your job to love them no matter what they do to you.
  • Know that if you didn’t/don’t receive unconditional love from your own parents, it’s not too late. You can provide it for yourself now, in adulthood. To learn how, see EmotionalNeglect.com and the book, Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
  • To learn how to feel and share love in a meaningful way despite Childhood Emotional Neglect see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.

 

Jonice

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Laurie - October 14, 2019 Reply

I cannot love myself no matter. I repeatedly call myself ugly and fat. Every single day I say I hate myself. Living like this 50+ years.

Frances M Ball - October 12, 2019 Reply

I think this article is conflating two ideas that are not the same thing.
Having love and showing love
A person can have and never be able to show that love,
A person can behave in a way that shows love even if they do not possess that love.
One can fall in love with a person for who that person is and how that person makes them or makes them feel about themselves even if they cannot show that love, lets say the person they love is married and to show the love you have for them would inappropriate.
Or a person can behave in ways that show love, helping, listening, providing for another but only because they want something from them not out of love, Narcissist.
I cannot bring myself to accept the premise that unconditional love requires unconditional or unending presence in the life of the person you love unconditionally. This is to say that to love someone unconditionally you can’t set boundaries or that there can’t be consequences without the loss of your love.
I disagree with this concept on the very basic idea that to correct your child’s behavior means if they don’t change the behavior you will no longer love them, or that you will abandon them, so in order that you actually love them unconditionally you must accept their bad behavior. In essence you can love the person unconditionally even in the face of bad behavior this does not mean that you must accept a behavior that is hurting you because if you don’t , you don’t love unconditionally. There is loving actions that display your love and there is love. To love is not an action, to show love is. So if you are married and you love your partner, you show your love in actions or by not acting in hurtful ways. If your partners behavior is abusive, setting a boundary that says, if you continue to behave in this manner, I will not remain in your life doesn’t mean you will not have love for them even if you should part ways. Boundaries are not conditions on your love for them boundaries are limits on your show of love, not on the love you have for them. It is vital to distinguish the difference. We do not love our children less based on them making a mistake do we? And if we truly love them we will set boundaries with consequences for bad behavior, if we don’t they will grow up not being able to function in the world. This does not change our love for them. If your spouse repeated cheats, setting a boundary that say I will not remain in your life as a marriage partner unless this behavior stops does not mean that if the behavior continues and you leave the relationship then the love for them is no longer there it only means the love you are willing to show them is no longer there. I guess it is a matter of ones definition of unconditional not so much a matter of love.

JEST - October 11, 2019 Reply

This article rang a large bell for me. I always felt the love from my Mother was like a light switch. Sometimes she’d flip it on & other times she’d have it flipped off. Now, my Dad, it was hard to feel the love because he was not just an alcoholic but he had many affairs & was self employed. He was barely home & when he was he was drunk or coming off of a drunken episode. Coming from a large family, I do recognize my Mother had a lot on her plate. On top of all that she had 3 part-time jobs & was taking classes at a local college. She was rarely home as well. When she was home, she was cranky as h*ll. It does not excuse her behavior though.

My Dad has passed, but my Mother is still alive. She is 86 years old & she is still just as mean than ever. Maybe even worse. Her mantra is “I am (whatever her age is/was) years old & I can say or do whatever I want.” The minute I hear that coming out of her mouth I run for the hills. Thank God one thing I figured out was I don’t have to stay for the verbal abuse; I can leave. Because she is up in years & she is slowly having things go wrong with her body, I try to least phone her once a week. If she starts an argument, it is hard to just hang up on her. I don’t want her life to end with her being mad at me because of some argument of which according to her it is always my fault. I started therapy again because I am feeling guilty about not wanting to spend time with her. She only lives a mile & a half from me.

Thank-you for the article. Jo Ellen

Ann-Louise - October 11, 2019 Reply

Dear Jonice

This was a good read for me. It made me think and feel, about my longing for unconditional love and why it gets hard with conditional love in relationships.
I have always though unconditional love was possible in friendships but I guess there is a limit there as well. And so should it be. Wow, this was a bit mindblowing in it´s simplicity.

I´m not sure I understand this:
“Make sure you are worthy of those who trust you enough to love you.” Would you like to explain it?

    Jonice - October 14, 2019 Reply

    By that, I just mean that we are all responsible for making sure we treat other’s love with careful attention. By loving us, they are making themselves vulnerable, and that is a gift that should be honored and cherished and cared for.

Pam - October 10, 2019 Reply

I don’t understand what you mean by “earned” love?

Maxine L Lawson - October 9, 2019 Reply

Dear Jonice,

Your book sounds extremely valid. I can recognize so many of my own emotional problems. – anxiety, slight depression, a sense of being somehow inferior to everybody else, loneliness, . My deeply selfish mother’s daily mantra was ‘after all I have done for you…..’ It felt like being blackmailed simply because she had given birth to me. Where can I obtain a copy of your book please ? I don’t like ordering things on-line.

Maxine

    Jonice - October 9, 2019 Reply

    Both of my Running On Empty books are available on Amazon and everywhere else online. I hope you find answers in them!

      JEST - October 11, 2019 Reply

      Jonice: I think you missed Maxine’s inquiry. She wanted to know where she could get copies of your books without purchasing them ‘online’. Can you buy them from Barnes & Noble or any other retail book store?

      Maxine: I am not sure where you live. I know bigger cities have retail book stores. I am from a small town, which fortunately, we have a small bookstore. If they don’t have a copy, they are more than happy to order for you & when it comes, you go pick it up. Barnes & Nobles used to do that too for their customers. Two other suggestions I have is, if you have a friend or relative who doesn’t mind ordering things online, have them order it for you. Also, check out your local library. The one we have, will order a copy of a book that they don’t have from a statewide library. You basically check it out & return it. It is also free.

      Wish you the best of luck. Jo Ellen

        Jonice - October 14, 2019 Reply

        Yes the books are in most bookstores, especially Barnes & Nobles, all across the US.

Judith - October 9, 2019 Reply

Hi Jonice,

I believe that unconditional love is NOT A MYTH!!…
It is the love that the three in one God of the Christian Bible and faith share…
I started recovery through the 12 steps of AA…
I am an adopted, adult child of an alcoholic ( dad a ww2 vet… PTSD)…
I was blessed to go to the Late great Queen Mary Hospital in Hanmer Springs, New Zealand… It was there I met firstly phileous /brotherly love, which I accepted safely… Then 2 days later had this stronger love triggered…& I panicked, couldn’t remember what I had done first time, and shut down…but a week later I accepted it and that opened a whole new world to me… I understand that not only is this love, Agape, the love that the God of the Christian Bible shares …but also what those who receive and accept it…God’s family share too!!
It has been like a canoe for me…as I have gone on through the river of life, carrying me on safely as I learn and heal!! I don’t believe it is what causes us to stay in an abusive relationship…that is our CEN areas that aren’t healed yet!! I know several who like me heard God clearly say ‘get out’… And for many reasons we didn’t!! Until much later!!!

As a child I became a vulnerable narcisist, and my ex was an OTT one … But I started growing…and left him behind!!!…I have done deeper study into CEN & NARCISISTIC behaviour’s as a room mate relationship turned toxic… Because of that study & CEN this last year, I have learned so much!!! It was 3rd time lucky for me…I was ready to understand and see what was really happening!!! They left, lies and all…fortunately I found my missing personal belongings before their property left my section!! ..they have started to grow too now…I became to sick to have anyone else around!! I have bounced back, and am sharing your CEN, with many I meet who are lonely and lost!!!
Thank you for you informative writings…
A big help in growing!! Blessings for you too!!
Judith

    Jonice - October 9, 2019 Reply

    Dear Judith, I’m glad you are figuring things out and protecting yourself. I am honored to have a part in that.

Branwen Brown - October 7, 2019 Reply

Unconditional love is that of an Auntie to her nephew who he loves her in return, there is folks in your life you may be able to experience this love with. Grandparents have this with their grandkids, no expectations just admiration.
It takes being open to love in other forms. It was sisters or aunties that helped me see what love was.. so then that gave me the inspiration to find more, you know it when you see it,
It’s the old friend, when you’ve known them for twenty years but haven’t seen them in the last five, but they still get excited and will hug you, when you see each other in public,
If it wasn’t for the few ladies that loved me as a kid,,( when mom was busy working at life.)
I wouldn’t be as kind as I am today,
Anyone that has been nice to you in your life, that is love! It grows when you return the care and consideration.
Greatest gift you can give is your time.

    Jonice - October 9, 2019 Reply

    Well said, Branwen, thank you!

Shannon H Schaefer - October 7, 2019 Reply

I am not sure about the unconditional love from a parent to a child once that child is an adult. Emotional immaturity has the ability to create and wreak incredible havoc in the relationship between a parent and an adult child. Selfishness, a me mindset, unwilling to consider another person’s feelings, unwilling to compromise, being defensive, uninterested in resolving conflict just not wanting to be at fault, all these from an adult child makes a relationship very unbalanced. An unbalanced relationship is not a healthy one. An unhealthy relationship is not beneficial to both parties. If the relationship is not beneficial/positive then I think unconditional love is not realistic, it sets you up to endure some of the same behaviors/treatment of CEN. You will be made to feel emotionally irrelevant all over again, marginalized, ignored, it becomes a second round of what you experienced as a child except now your child is doing it to you.

    Jonice - October 9, 2019 Reply

    Dear Shannon, everything you said makes sense and is very true. But I do know that, in general, when a parent stops loving a child for any reason, it harms the child. That’s not to say that there are many complex situations that can muddy those waters considerably.

Jerry - October 6, 2019 Reply

My mother was hospitalized for several years before passing away when i was only 13. My father was emotionally cold and distant. In therapy as an adult, I addressed my difficulty asserting myself with men of authority, and learned how to speak lovingly to my self. In my marriage, however, my wife picked up on my need for motherly love and refused to be/provide that (she’s very narcissistic). Consequently, even when our relationship is going OK, I still struggle with feelings of aloneness and deprivation. Loving myself doesn’t seem to be enough..,.there’s still unconditional love from another that is missing.

    Jonice - October 7, 2019 Reply

    Dear Jerry, please do look at the Find A CEN Therapist page and find one near you. It will help to talk with a trained professional about this and get some support and guidance. You deserve it.

Terilyn - October 6, 2019 Reply

Now I know I am not responsible for selfish parents who demand respect unconditionally but did not provide basic love for their children. Thx!

    Jonice - October 7, 2019 Reply

    Good! I’m glad this article has helped.

Diana - October 6, 2019 Reply

I am curious (and not entirely convinced) about this topic of one-way parental unconditional love for a child. What happens when that child is an adult (say over 40) and he/she becomes verbally and emotionally abusive? And what happens when this type of behavior occurs over years, perhaps decades?

I would argue that at some point, it is extremely difficult to love such an adult child and that the onus does not remain solely on the parents. We are all human beings, and respect typically begets respect. But loving your child, especially one who is an adult, “no matter what” is not a true validation for any relationship.

    Jonice - October 7, 2019 Reply

    Once abuse of any kind enters the picture, everything changes. We must all protect ourselves from abuse, no matter what.

Nathan - October 6, 2019 Reply

Not adopted but I’m worried about how people who were orphaned or adopted would read “Unfortunately, if we don’t feel unconditionally loved by our parents in childhood, we will grow up to feel in some way, on some level, alone. And we will feel in another way, on yet another level, deprived.” If your parents couldn’t give you that love, are you emotionally predestined to suffer CEN?

    Jonice - October 7, 2019 Reply

    You may have CEN, but fortunately, CEN can be healed. You do need to work at it but it is not a life sentence at all.

AT Martin - October 6, 2019 Reply

I’m not sure earned love is something “good.” Essentially, you have to keep your guard up and you don’t trust the other person and they don’t trust you. Isn’t love about trust? If you cannot trust someone, how can you offer love to them? It seems that human love is something too avoid. Animals understand what unconditional love means. It is trust, it is a natural thing (it does not need to be earned), and you know that bonds will never be broken. If you take the time to love an animal, you will learn what real love is. It is unconditional and it is unbelievable. If you think that you need to build barriers and punishment to maintain “love”- you have never experienced true love. I don’t think many humans are strong enough to feel true love. Animals understand it and were born “knowing.”

    Jonice - October 7, 2019 Reply

    Interesting way of thinking, AT. But I would have to counter that the love of another human is more valuable because it is more complex. Animal love is simple. It’s wonderful, yes. But it’s not like being loved by another person who truly knows you.

      Anna - October 8, 2019 Reply

      Jonice, you talk about how important validation is, especially to us CEN people, but I find your reply to AT Martin very invalidating. It made me angry and hurt. When you say animal love is “simple” and somehow inferior to human love…it’s invalidating. To many lonely people, elderly people, a pet can be the closest and only companion, reason to live and get up in the morning. You invalidate these people’s experience. Humans can hurt and play games etc., but animals never. When I was depressed and had suicidal thoughts…I didn’t do it, because of my dog! If animal love is less “complex” than human love, it is a GOOD thing, because it means it’s more pure, I would say unconditional.
      Animal love is definitely not simple! I’m a rider. To gain the trust and bond with a horse who has a troubled background, it takes time and patience and is incredibly beautiful experience! I don’t actually care whether it’s “love”, I’d prefer to say it’s true connection. And it’s very real and profound. Let’s not argue. I just want to say that the thing is not that animal love is somehow inferior or less satisfying or less important than human love…they are just very different kind of experiences. That’s what makes both of them so special!

        Jonice - October 9, 2019 Reply

        Dear Anna, I certainly do not mean to devalue the love of an animal. It is a wonderful and valuable kind of love, for sure! I only meant to encourage people to also strive for love from and for other humans, as it requires growth and change and adjustment in a different way that I think is healthy for everyone. Thank you for your comment!

Alex - October 6, 2019 Reply

Growing up with difficult parents, I developed the belief that some of my greatest expressions of love were acts of patience – in effect, not objecting when my feelings were not considered, or setting my own feelings aside in the belief that doing so (taking one for the team, so to speak) benefitted someone else. Unfortunately, as a result, I’ve carried that association into my adult relationships, with less than satisfying results. One of the revelations I’ve experienced as a parent, is how my son expresses his love at moments of joy, like when he cried out ‘I LOVE you Dad!’ as he mastered riding a two-wheeler for the first time, or caught his first fish.

Certainly parental love requires a fair share of loving patience, but I wish I experienced more joyous expressions of love with my spouse, my siblings, and my parents.

Can you suggest any references from your books to help with this?

    Jonice - October 7, 2019 Reply

    Dear Alex, have you read the parenting section of my book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships? It will help you enormously, I think.

CJ Darlington - October 6, 2019 Reply

I enjoy all your articles, but this is a really good one and something I’ve been wondering about lately. Thank you!

    Jonice - October 7, 2019 Reply

    Dear CJ, I’m so glad. Thanks for your comment!

Robert - September 28, 2019 Reply

I’d been thinking of a phone conversation I’d had [twenty years ago] with a neighbor/high school classmate/close friend, of decades before that, who asked me why no one ‘taught’ us boys what the difference between Love and Lust was-in our ‘formative years’. Your article was the first post on my ‘LinkedIn’ items today. Thank you for noting Beauregard’s neurological [decade-old] research…

    Jonice - September 29, 2019 Reply

    I’m glad you found the article interesting, Robert!

Hyacinth Charles - September 28, 2019 Reply

Much needed article to help demystify relationship health and clarify for us when unconditional love is appropriate.

    Jonice - September 29, 2019 Reply

    Thank you Hyacinth!

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