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

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