You Better Work! Conditional vs. Unconditional Love

I don’t spend nearly the time I did in my 20s contemplating the nature of love. These days, when I think about love, it usually is in reference to my family. But, ever curious, I looked up the term “unconditional love” the other day. It is interesting that most searches on the term come to the conclusion that unconditional love is the best kind of love and the sort we should all be aspiring to. And yes, when I re-read my diaries from my 20s, I remember that I dreamt of nothing but my heart’s undying thirst to be seen or to be completely known. I was on the prowl for someone who spoke my language, who saw me, loved me and never wavered. A religious experience. Akin to something like heaven.

I’ve been thinking about all this as I read yet another bedtime story ending in “happily ever after” or beginning with a love that was “at first sight”. I worry most that these ideas teach my daughter that love is easy. That she will one day be rescued by a love that will require nothing of her. Not to mention all the issues of beauty ideals, female passivity and disempowerment that these stories bring up… but that is entirely another post!

So, I revisited the sage words of our dear friend Leon Wieseltier, who married my husband and I at our wedding. I don’t think what he said that day made real sense to me yet. But his words stuck with me and because they have, I wanted to understand what he said more deeply. Here’s a passage from our wedding day:

“We have all been instructed, by poems and by popular songs, ever since the troubadours airily wandered in search of romantic perfection, that the highest form of love is unconditional love; but I have long believed that this is not the case — that conditional love is greater than unconditional love. To be loved unconditionally is to be loved in defiance of, and in indifference to, one’s qualities. It is the love of a parent for a child – but who would wish to be loved by one’s wife or one’s husband as one is loved by one’s mother or one’s father? When one loves conditionally, by contrast, one’s love has its basis in the character of the beloved. And the beloved has the ineffable satisfaction of knowing that he has earned the love that he receives, that he has won his love with what he is and not with who he is. Conditional love is love with open eyes; and who would wish to be loved blindly, as if love were afraid of its object, and could not withstand an accurate apprehension of it? Conditional love is justified love, and the joy of justification may be the greatest joy that a reflective being can experience..”

Aha, I say! I think I now know what he is really getting at. Yes, unconditional love exists, it exists with my children. I love them deeply, painfully, with every bone in body, with every fiber in my soul. It’s almost too frightening to write that I don’t know how I would survive should anything ever happen to them. I would have to be held back from scratching the eyeballs out of anyone, anything that double-crossed them. I love them in spite of however they challenge me, however they may let me down, however they may let themselves down. My love for them is constant. I imagine most parents feel this way. No matter how fast they try to outrun me – and yes, they eventually will try – I will keep the pace and be there at the finish line. This is as it should be. I whisper my constancy to them at night. I count the ways I love them until they tell me to be quiet. I think children need to hear this ad nauseum. I whisper and yell it till I’m blue in the face. Their sense of self depends on it. And it’s easy to do this because it is the truest thing that I know. My love for them in unwavering and I it always will be.

Romance, well, to me that is a different story. It’s not that I do not love deeply but I love deeply because we have struggled to find an understanding across the infinite distances that lie between two people. I think this is romantic. I think the idea that we must fight, grow, compromise, give up, give in, get honest in order to live out a life with another person is romance in and of itself. Why would we assume that true love exists with a stranger? Why would we assume that there is only one soul out there worth committing our lives to? Why, when we do make this commitment, in whatever form it shall take, do we then assume that we deserve this love no matter what our behavior? I agree with Leon, that romantic love is not unconditional. It is wholly conditional. It is something that has to be nurtured, cultivated and thought about, often. True love should not be ignored, but often is, because we believe that it ought to be unconditional.

True love, to me, means I will meet you in the middle. It means that I have to struggle for it. It means that if I mess up, you have every right to walk. My romance keeps me on my toes and forces me to act when I’ve been lazy or blind. Maybe this is easier for me to say now. I do think that our unconditionally blind love for our children forces us to be mindful and care for our own commitment to each other.

We have a friend in her 90s who was married for 50 plus years until her husband passed away. Before I was married she told me that her only advice for a successful life together was to hold hands every night before we went to bed. Again, this resonated without being entirely clear. I realize now that she was suggesting that it is important to meet in the middle at the end of every day. It implies that no argument can bleed into a second day. It implies that even the smallest acknowledgement is essential. No matter what your mood, at the end of any day you must be grateful, however exhausting, disappointing or wonderful the day may have been.

You see, to me, love – true love, real love, whatever you want to call it – should be earned! I bet that’s not a very popular thought. People don’t like to hear that romantic relationships balance on a dime measured in pluses and minuses. But I believe it does. It requires negotiating terms and agreeing on common beliefs. It means making way for each other, it means compromising and doing things that we just didn’t sign up for. I find the idea of blindly loving, loving without openness or responsibility to be foolish. My romance forces me to rise to the occasion. Finding a way to function in a love relationship is one of the highest forms of human enlightenment. I believe that if we each can really learn to communicate and live out our personal lives responsibly, the world could change!

Iris Murdoch said that “love is the difficult realization that something other than oneself is real”. Boy, is that the truth! The commitment to living my life with someone, the commitment to caring for and raising children has taken me out of myself. It has forced perspective and balance into my crazy self-absorbed world. And even though I sometimes don’t like it. Even though I sometimes want to scream “This Is Not My Deal” (a direct quote from my four year old).

It forces me to WORK! Or WERK… is that how you kids spell it these days? Any which way, I’m glad I’ve cleared this one up for myself.


Sarah Sophie

  • Kelly Stahlman

    Not my usual post, bit this is a great article. Enjoy!

  • Becky Phelan

    Beautifully and thoughtfully put. And kudos for telling your kids over and over again how much you love them. Knowing it is great, but hearing it is truly precious.

  • Linda Goodman

    absolutely lovely.

  • Katy Hunt Rathke

    My husband once told me that he loves me unconditionally but that I love him with conditions. I knew he was right and that is how I have always been in relationships. The funny thing is, I started to think that it must be a character flaw. However, your article put it all into perspective. I love my two boys more than life itself and know that I always will. I don’t have the same certainty with my marriage because even though we are happy, I know that there are deal breakers that could come up in our future. I would never be that woman who “stands by her man” no matter what and I am not ashamed but proud of that. That means that yes, we must work at it every day, make the right decisions and CHOOSE to love one another. I don’t think that is a bad thing. Thanks for the insight.

  • Jena Evans-Turnbull

    This is perfect. So wonderfully articulated. I will remember this, not only in my own marriage, but when I teach my children about what it means to love and to be married.

  • Jillian Bodden

    This is the most honest thing I think that I have ever read about love and commitment.

  • Hernandez Diaz

    This was truly a perfect Statement for the definition and the difference of Conditional and unconditional Love and I really do agree with you. One thing, I’m gay and I dont have kids (yet) I am fairly young and I don’t think I will be ready to have kids any time soon ( adopt or surrogate etc.) but I agree with loving your kids unconditionally, I feel the same way with my friends and family, I love them unconditionally, flaws and all I accept them for what they are wholly and I thank god everyday ( some times I say my prayers while I’m taking a shower LOL) that they are in My life and I am so grateful for what I have. When it comes to my boyfriend, I love him Conditionally, It may have came as a love at first sight thing because I did met my boyfriend when I was 18 and on myspace none the Lest but, it grew to this wonderful, adult relationship that I always wanted when I was young, it is by no means a Fairy tale and I have started to notice this, that Fairy tales are wrong and, romantic movies are wrong all these kinds of stories about love at first sights and romance films I think fogs our mind to the reality that love comes with compromise and it comes with conditions. What we should have been though when we were small is that love, you have to work at it and I agree with you completely. I Love my bf wholly and fully, I accept him, flaws and all but if he were to ever do something severe to damage our love I will not stand by my him anymore, I mean I would be angry and mybe consider to working it out, but that is what true love is right, you work things out for better or worse. You work things out all the time, you stay honest, and you stay in love everyday and every night, and I am fortunately lucky enough to do that every single day with my love. and he will be my Love for right now~

  • Kathleen Lievanos

    : ) thank you for writing this!

  • Bianca Rocha

    I couldn’t agree more with you! I think it’s wonderful to have this clarity, especially when almost everything we read/watch tells us this unconditional magical love myth, when in reality we should work for our happiness (and there’s nothing wrong with it)! Thanks for sharing your story in this amazing article!

  • Angel Fernandez

    This is just beautiful. I actually choked up! Thanks for this. :)

  • Bianca Rocha

    I think ‘Debate Exposes Doubt’ by Death Cab For Cutie is a great song about the subject.

  • Ashley Elizabeth Otto

    This is near perfect.

  • Sarah Rantissi

    to post a comment

  • Anne Cuddy

    thanks for this!

  • Jennifer Still

    Girl, I love this. I meant to say that before but I’ll say it now – so so true!

  • Stephanie Lodge

    This makes me feel better about the way I approach relationships. I know I’m never going to feel that inseparable can’t live without you feeling. Always thought it was just because I wasn’t romantic.

  • Liz Haebe

    This was amazing. And so honest. I am actually going to save this because it’s just too perfect, and I might need to see it over and over as a reminder. Great job, Sarah!

  • Elisabeth Miller

    This was so beautifully written. Thank you.

  • Arnelle Booysen

    This is possibly the most beautiful article I’ve read. So honest and wise, it made my heart soar with happiness. I love your articles!.

  • Mara Alejandra


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