The Paradox of Unconditional Love


Christopher Ebbe, Ph.D.    7-22

ABSTRACT:  Human beings crave and need unconditional love, but does it exist, and do we need for it to exist in order to be emotionally healthy adults?

KEY WORDS:  love, unconditional love, conditional love, interdependence, pleasing

Human beings all crave unconditional love, which for us represents security, nurturance, and caring.  We certainly have unconditional needs for this as infants and until we can support ourselves.  This positive caretaking is so meaningful to us that our images of unconditional love (mothers, the Virgin Mary, God) all tend toward the sacred.  In fact, it can be argued that, using the observation that if God did not exist, we would have to invent Him/Her, our need for God may be precisely this—an unchanging, secure, caring image or being that we can hold onto in our minds if not concretely, to provide us with hope and a reason to confidently believe that we will survive in a life worth living.

The common expectation of unconditional love is that one will be loved no matter what—regardless of one’s situation, accomplishments (God loves everyone), or misdeeds (most often, after misbehaving or failing).  This is sometimes expanded to include that the one loving will do anything asked by the one being loved unconditionally, but this is not reasonable since sometimes loving means doing what is best for the one who is loved regardless of what he/she thinks.  We see this when the ones who are loving are parents and the one loved is a drug addict demanding cash or stealing from parents, and the parents employ “tough love” by refusing to “enable” the drug behavior.  They may still feel affection for the loved one and want the best for him/her, but they do not extend unconditional love to include behaviors that unreasonably bring harm to themselves or to the one who is loved.

As a foundation for this discussion, love will be defined as a positive, warm, affectionate feeling involving attachment feelings, identification with the loved one, desire to be close or closer with the loved one, the wish for good things for the loved one, and pleasure experienced in contact with or contemplation of the loved one (Ebbe, 2001).  This is distinguished from sex or passion, which may coexist with love and may stimulate love but is not itself love.

Naturally, our images of love and caring are not built-in but vary with our individual experience of it.  If our early caretakers met our needs fully and reliably, love is a wholly positive concept, while if our caretakers met our needs only partially and unreliably, that concept may be ambivalent or negative.  Even those who have had such negative experiences, using what they see around them of better caretaking in other parent-child relationships, can imagine something better and would like to believe that this is possible and so are able to join with others who have had a more positive experience to “believe in” the abstract image of love.  (For some this image of ultimate caretaking and positivity can seem so real that to some extent it enters that person’s moment-to-moment experience with an equal status with other experience—i.e., feels “real.”)

Such imaging is probably influenced as well by the species’ experience of life at each point in evolution.  For the classical Greeks for example, the gods were more human-like and quite capable of punishing or thwarting human beings as well as helping them.  We seem to assume that they were also just as capricious and out of our control as our own caretakers had seemed to us.  Seeking such help and seeking to influence the gods to provide it seem to have been around for as long as we have been able to organize in our minds an image of causality in helping (i.e., that there are forces in the world more powerful than us that can influence our life outcomes—whether our crops grow, whether our animals reproduce, whether we produce offspring), and we are eager to gain the good will of those forces, through sacrifices and through acting in ways that will please those forces (even to the extent of sacrificing a few of our fellow humans).  As human existence has become more secure and comfortable over the centuries, it has become possible for us to take the negative attributes out of our ultimate caretaker concept and make it totally positive.  We know that things can still go wrong, but it seems to

us that so much is now under our own control (through our own efforts and through divine help) that our negative experiences of caretaking love are abnormal, that life “shouldn’t” be that way.

Our actual experience of unconditional love results from the very strong instinct in human beings to care for our very young.  Most parents would sacrifice themselves to save their children, if that made any sort of sense in the particular circumstances.  When we become able developmentally to comprehend abstract concepts such as spirits and God, we insert our vague image or abstract concept of parental love and caring into our image that we call God.  (This is not claiming that there is no God or divine being, simply that we form our image of such a being out of our own experience.)

The larger reality of love, however, seems to be rather the opposite of our idealized and unconditional idea.  Children seem to sense that there are things they could do that would result in parents abandoning them, and most love in the adult world is actually conditional, no matter how much we want to pretend that is not.  This is part of a more general concept that when we are or act in ways that another receives as positive, he or she is influenced to respond to us more positively, while if we are or act in ways that are received as negative, they are influenced to respond to us more negatively.  This starts, of course, with our own experience as infants, as we rather inchoately first perceive that there may be a connection between how we are perceived and how we act with how we are treated by others (first our caretakers and then other humans).  We seek to maximize the positive treatment that we get by being and acting in ways that will lead to the most positive treatment we can get (presenting ourselves, acting, giving forth impressions).

Thus, our experience of others, even our instinctually caring parents, becomes for most us a mixed positive/negative picture.  However, our fear of negative treatment may be so great that we deny the negative treatment entirely in an effort to hold onto the positives in our ultimate caretaker concept.  This inability to experience both positive and negative aspects of another at the same time (termed “object inconstancy”) leads to unrealistic views and expectations of others—particularly to chronic dissatisfaction with others who don’t treat us uniformly positively and to our efforts to ascribe motives or circumstances to our abstract concept that would “explain” or justify the negative treatment (e.g., “My mom had a lot on her plate,” “God works in mysterious ways”) and allow us to avoid fully recognizing the reality of how we have been treated.  (Realistic or insightful understanding of the situation of a caretaker should always be sought, of course, as when an adult child looking back can appreciate his/her parents’ own idiosyncracies and struggles.)

Each of us is wired up to act in what we perceive to be our own best interest—i.e., to move toward experience that feels good and away from experience that feels bad, so we will feel more positively toward someone whose interactions with us result in good feelings and more negatively toward someone whose interactions with us results in bad feelings.  A few individuals may be able to overcome this inclination through development of great understanding and acceptance of others, or by reducing their survival and/or emotional dependence on others, but by and large infants, children, and adults all follow this pattern. Thus, any love that develops between two people will almost inevitably be affected by how each treats the other, thus making it to some degree conditional.

Our lifelong longing for the security and support of unconditional love betrays our difficulties giving ourselves enough good treatment and support when we don’t get enough from others.  We are also “built” with an inclination to “line up” with those around us (to agree with them and become more like them), so almost inevitably (with perhaps a few heroic exceptions) being treated badly (abused, shamed, enslaved, etc.) will result in a lowering of our own estimations of ourselves, thus making us vulnerable to influence from others.  So, on the one hand we can learn to give ourselves love and support, while at the same time we are pulled to agree with those who degrade us just as much as we are to agree with those who love us.

For many, this desire for unconditional love results in ongoing conflict with parents who are perceived as not providing sufficient love and with children who move away and seem not to care about their

caretakers any more.  We may feel that giving up this hope and battle is to acknowledge that all love is conditional, and we are loathe to give up our idealized, unconditional hope.  The greatest test of this is with our significant others, and many battles in these relationships are really about dissatisfaction with the other’s love rather than the superficial focus of conflict (whose turn it is to do the dishes, whether the dishes can be left overnight, whether to get a puppy, etc.).  The hard fact is that this love, too, is ultimately conditional.

We can do quite a bit to maintain the love of a spouse.  We can mature in loving, so that we can give unreservedly to our partners instead of keeping our private scorecard of who loves who more and who did what to whom.  We can overcome our own deficiencies in loving and caring so that we contribute less to relationship conflicts.  We can care enough to learn what helps our partners to feel good and be happy and then use this to contribute insightfully to their happiness.  If your partner does the same, it is very likely that the relationship will continue to survive and be vibrant.  However, if we judge our partner’s love against our own notion of perfect, unconditional love, the relationship will founder.

In our view, the perfect parent would provide continuous and unconditional love, so if we have not accepted that no adult is going to receive perfectly unconditional love (except, perhaps, from parents), it makes sense that we might be happy to transfer perfect parent status to God and attempt to get unconditional love that way.  Some people can make this real enough in their imaginations to enjoy it, and, of course, it would be even better if they got it through direct interaction with God.  It takes greater ego strength and fortitude to accept that one will never as an adult get unconditional love like that one received from one’s parents.

Whether or not we continue to believe in perfectly unconditional love, we are practical enough to begin early to act in ways that maximize the conditional love that we can get.  This activity we generally call “pleasing” another person or God.  In this effort, we are conditioned to feel successful and affirmed when we see evidence of having pleased another, since basic levels of pleasing are needed for continued acceptance as a family or group member, and higher or more subtle levels of pleasing are attempted to produce even more positive responses.  This pleasing is necessary and engaged in by all of us (except a few who either don’t have the cognitive ability to understand the basic concept or have angrily rejected the necessity of pleasing since pleasing feels like excusing parents of others from the responsibility to love them better). 

Much childhood pleasing involves being “socialized”—coming to learn and accept the forms and customs of the surrounding culture, like how to eat properly, how to deal acceptably with our bodies’ waste products, and how to speak the same language as others around us, though we also are open to learning more idiosyncratic ways of pleasing others (the specific preferences of individuals we seek to please).  Females, who mature in social skills earlier than males, are generally better at pleasing than males, and pleasing is more important for females than for males, since females are muscle-wise weaker than males and because female children get less approval and favor than male children in general (probably because mothers, as females, have a more libidinous connection with their boys than with their girls, and because male children in most cultures can continue the family name and status).

Pleasing is always done for gain of some sort, but pleasing can be sincere (open-heartedly wishing the best for the person being pleased) rather than wholly self-serving (acting in pleasing ways but not having positive intentions for the person being pleased).  Honesty and integrity call on us not to lie to others through our behavior, but we can accept that pleasing can be done both to seek gain for oneself and to benefit a person about whom we feel positively.

We can learn and polish the basics of pleasing and getting along well with others, if we choose to, including—

  • taking others into account when we choose our behaviors
  • having a positive attitude toward others
  • approaching others in a friendly way
  • being happy around others
  • giving others basic acceptance
  • treating others compassionately
  • being kind to others
  • treating others with respect and courtesy
  • seeing others as basic equals
  • refraining from taking advantage of others
  • refraining from trying to force others to do what we want
  • being understanding with others and understanding others accurately
  • using accurate empathy
  • attending to others’ emotional needs
  • supporting others’ sense of security in the world
  • supporting others’ sense of self-esteem
  • being honest with others
  • being responsible
  • treating others fairly
  • sharing and being generous with others
  • bringing appropriate humor to our interactions with others
  • communicating effectively with others
  • cooperating effectively with others
  • controlling one’s behavior so as not to harm others
  • managing one’s emotions so as not to harm others

(See Living Wisely, Deeply, and Compassionately (Ebbe, 2022) and the essay Unconditional Love (at for details about how to embody these desirable qualities.)

In the harsh light of reality, unconditional love is a myth that does not exist for any of us, although the love of a parent for a child can approach this ideal.  Most children try to pretend that they will always be taken care of and accepted in the family group, and perhaps initially believing this is necessary for us to mature as emotionally healthy (as healthy as humans can be, at any rate), since small children cannot yet envision the longer-term issues of love beyond caretakers including our own self-love.  We do know that childhood experiences of abandonment and total rejection result in great difficulties trusting the love of others.  Believing in the unconditional love of caretakers for the first few years is probably the best route to becoming able to love open-heartedly (not just selfishly) as an adult.  In this view, it is necessary for us to tolerate and even foster the belief in children that they will always be OK and that things will always turn out all right (the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, the cartoon images of beneficent animals that are actually dangerous to us in real life, God).  Armed with this belief, children can grow and gradually tolerate the facts that they will not always be OK and that things will not always turn out OK.  So, the notion of unconditional love is technically untrue but may be necessary for our successful maturation.  As adults we can potentially view with relative equanimity the fact that others’ love for us can change, and we can believe that we can survive that.

Since wishing to find unconditional love in others throughout our lives leads to much frustration and disappointment, it may be better for us as adults to accept the fact that all human love is to some degree conditional (stop looking for unconditional love) and focus instead on making ourselves into the best partners or recipients of love that we can be!  Human love is always conditional, because it is human beings who are giving it, because how we feel toward others is partially dependent on how they respond to us, and because human beings are subject to contextual factors (illness, aging, bad luck) that involuntarily affect their ability to love.