Unconditional Love: What is It & How Do You Find It?
Unconditional love is the hallmark of a strong relationship. There are certain things you can do to make sure unconditional love is in your relationship.
Depending on the history of your love life, unconditional love may be something readily available, in short-supply, or even non-existent. If you’re not even sure it exists, you’re certainly not alone! Many people have never seen what unconditional love looks like in their own families, and so they struggle as adults with giving and receiving such transformative loving energy.
That’s why gaining perspective into how unconditional love works is important. It can get you more in tune with your feelings. It can also help you better understand what work needs to be done – not just in your current relationship, but in your future relationships as well. Love is powerful, and it requires great effort and learning to sustain over time.
Unconditional Love Definition
Describing this type of love we all desire AKA unconditional love is relatively straightforward. True to its name, it exists without conditions (ie., it comes without strings attached). This means you give it without any expectation of receiving anything in return.
Unconditional love finds itself in all kinds of relationships from those we have with certain family members (ie., a child, parent, sibling) to the relationships we develop with pets and even some plants. However, it’s certainly not to be expected and isn’t guaranteed in these or any relationship. It has to at first be possible, and then nurtured and tended to with care.
Consider that you water a flower in hopes it will bloom but if you do feel love in this regard, it exists regardless of the outcome. You water anyway.
In other words, unconditional love in its healthiest form is defined by a level of free-flowing support that naturally brings out the best in both people (or beings involved). This support is born from a deep-rooted respect or admiration.
- Respect for individuality and the distinct nature you and others hold outside any single relationship in life
- Respect for the foundational loving relationship you can develop with yourself and use as a compass in current and future loving relationships
- Respect for the undeniable truth that love changes with events and time (and that people change, too)
- Respect for the other person’s boundaries, needs, dreams, triggers, etc.
- Respect for the other person’s life journey (ie., not trying to “control, take over, steer”)
Relationships based on this highly desirable unconditional love are defined by strength through life’s struggle or, in other words, with kindness in the face of chaos. Life is always a challenge with ups and downs that we can’t predict, but unconditional life isn’t something that fluctuates with events. It only deepens with time. First, we need to find somewhere for it to sprout…
On Finding Unconditional Love in a Romantic Relationship and Beyond
Finding unconditional love isn’t necessarily easy, but it starts at home. It begins by looking inward and assessing your current ways of expressing and receiving love. It’s okay if unconditionally loving someone seems impossible. Unconditional love is nonetheless real, and can be truly liberating.
You might want to do some journaling while you consider the following self-reflection questions:
- Do you have strings attached (ie., conditions) the love you give people?
- What conditions do you place on love?
- What happens when those conditions aren’t met? For example, do you go cold or ice people out?
- How have your reactions to unmet conditions impacted previous relationships?
These kinds of self-examining questions are examples of “the work” that’s necessary to create desired changes in perceptions and actions. If you want to love and be loved unconditionally, you need to recognize the strings first so you can then cut yourself free.
Reading about the five love languages and other forms of love can offer further insight into how you express feelings of different forms of love and how you would like to be treated by a romantic or other partner.
Consider the following:
- Maybe you have some unlearning to do before being able to open your heart in this way.
- Maybe you have opened your heart too haphazardly in the past and you’re wondering what to do differently this time around.
- Maybe you really have been looking for love in the wrong places (ie., places that don’t understand your love language).
Once you have a better understanding of your more dominating love languages (you’ll likely have more than one love language) or those of greater importance in a relationship, it narrows down what to look for.
- Acts of service
- Receiving gifts
- Quality time
- Words of affirmation
- Physical touch
List them in order of preference to get a better sense of what you thrive on as a human being, and what your own needs are. When you know what you’re looking for, you can begin manifesting it into reality rather than wandering aimlessly from relationship to relationship. Healthy unconditional love is not out of reach!
Unconditional Love: Part of a Healthy Relationship
Describing unconditional love is easy when looking at healthy relationships, but it is not as easy to recognize in practice, and furthermore, isn’t a given in every single relationship (and that’s okay, too). You need to understand that some people will not be open to unconditional love because they simply have never seen it, known it, or felt it before. This is why choosing the right relationships is important.
Ideally, you will find someone who can also love unconditionally. This way you both can flourish even during the hard times. However, even love that has conditions can be worthwhile and those conditions may dissolve with time spent together and work from both people.
Yes, loving someone unconditionally means loving them through thick and thin and giving this love freely even during times of extreme relationship turmoil (and this can feel like a lot of work!).
For example, if your spouse cheats on you and you find out they’ve been unfaithful, you can experience a broken heart that hurts but doesn’t destroy your unconditional love for the person. You may love them regardless of what they do (or you may not).
Other rather extreme examples include:
- Your teen crashing your vehicle
- Your child telling you they hate you
- Your dog biting you
Unconditional love will not change from these types of events. Nothing can shake it. Even if you feel other emotions like anger, disgust, fear, or disappointment, the love remains.
If you’ve ever said or heard something like, “This is my chosen family,” or “You’re my chosen family now,” this is a sign of unconditional love already existing in your life.
Unconditional love is the feeling behind other phrases like:
- “I may not like you very much right now, but I still love you.”
- “Of course I still love you! I could never not love you.”
- “Loving someone doesn’t just go away overnight.”
- “I need to detach with love.”
- “Your mom and I will always be proud of you.”
Some people may also equate unconditional love with mature love because it’s the kind of love that doesn’t keep score and deduct points for bad behavior.
With all of this said, it’s just as important for you to know that loving someone unconditionally doesn’t mean you stay in an abusive or otherwise unhealthy and unfilling relationship.
If unconditional love doesn’t flow both ways, it also leaves room for unhealthy persons to take advantage, so just remember: Unconditional love isn’t an excuse for harmful and hurtful behavior, especially in a romantic relationship. If you’re experiencing relationship problems, seek support and outside help (professional or peer).
You see, while loving someone unconditionally can sometimes mean different things to different people, it’s never an open invitation to cheat, lie, or steal. It is not an excuse to take advantage of another person’s willingness to love without conditions. While this may feel obvious to some, it may not be to others who have lived in environments with unhealthy power dynamics (e.g. with people with untreated addictions or mental illnesses). It takes practice to unlearn toxic ways of loving and shift toward healthier expressions of love, especially if you’ve learned these early in life from the parenting adults in your life.
If you grew up with an active addict in the home or someone who was actively experiencing mental illness like depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder, you may have learned unhealthy ways of asking for love and giving love. This is not necessarily anyone’s fault, but it’s a wound that needs to be healed, and the future is in your control to change.
How to Love Unconditionally
Loving unconditionally is one of the most rewarding and life-changing goals you can cast.
If you’ve been exposed to negative self-talk from parenting adults and mentors (or if those adults put heavy emphasis on things like “earning love” or “losing points,”) you may need some extra time, patience, and persistence in changing your relationship to love and how you love.
But at any stage in your story, you can start encouraging and nurturing feelings of unconditional love. Try these strategies to get started.
Open the Communication Lines Immediately
Unconditional love is free from the type of judgement you find in power-imbalanced romantic relationships. This means communication lines should be as wide open (transparent and honest) as possible because it’s actually safe to speak your mind. If you’re not sure what this looks like, here’s a few starter tips for getting it right without starting a fight.
If you have a problem, address it as soon as possible and appropriate.
- Actively listen to your partner (head nodding, gesturing, asking follow-up questions)
- Speak softly to be heard and received
- Work to make the other person feel safe
- Allow for silent moments and pauses
- Have serious conversations in a private and appropriate setting (not public or in-front of children)
- Think about what the person said afterwards
- Honor and respect your partner’s opinions, beliefs, and needs even if you don’t share them or understand them
- Use humor sparingly and wisely
Provide Emotional Support in Romantic Relationships
Emotional support is the care work you put into being in another person’s world. It’s the gentle encouragement or vote of confidence that helps your partner see their passions and purpose come to life.
Don’t worry, you don’t need to be cheerleading at all hours or encouraging ideas you don’t believe in, but you do need to be showing a consistent level of support for the other person and their goals outside of your relationship.
In other words, you need to be supportive of the things they love that don’t directly benefit you (other than they make your partner happy and you like seeing them happy).
Share Power in All Your Relationships
Unconditional love (or any form of love for that matter) doesn’t involve games of tug-o-war or relentless battles to win alpha status, prove who’s right, or determine head of household.
Rather, this healthy love type involves reasonable and realistic compromise, fair negotiations, and sometimes personal sacrifice, but never all from one person all the time.
Power-sharing is crucial to maintaining an even ebb and flow that fosters a healthy relationship between two people. If one person hoards the power, an imbalance occurs that leaves people vulnerable to feelings of resentment.
Practice Makes Progress
You can practice to love unconditionally with pets and plants. Write down any current expectations you may have. Some examples include expecting your plants to grow, flower, or fruit and expecting your pets to love you in return (give affection) and behave appropriately because of how much you love them.
While having expectations is healthy and normal, attaching those expectations to love is a choice. If you want to change this relationship to develop a different type of love, a power-shared and compassion-first love, you’ll need to begin dropping expectations attached to your feelings of love.
Again, you don’t need to drop your expectations, but if you want to practice loving unconditionally, you need to cut the strings attached to your actions.
The same holds true when we talk about unconditional self-loving. Ask yourself what current conditions limit your capacity for self-love? Is it the concept of grades, salary, weight, or where you live? From now on, consider these external factors as giant concrete walls standing in the way of loving yourself unconditionally.
Grab a hammer.
As these walls come down, self-acceptance and forgiveness can begin to take root. Now, rather than building walls for protection, you are growing roots for strength.
Unconditional Love Isn’t Relationship Insurance
Feeling or receiving unconditional love also doesn’t mean that your relationship is shatterproof. Breakups and divorces happen even when unconditional love is present (and that’s okay!). Sometimes enforcing your personal boundaries will be a driving force behind leaving unhealthy relationships (and this is a positive thing!). You can still love people from afar when necessary for your personal wellbeing and safety.
Unconditional love can be experienced as:
- A selfless act
- Unconditional positive regard (complete acceptance)
Love like this can outlast marriages because it’s not attached to contractual ways of loving or what only one person can provide in return (AKA conditional love). Without this binding force, you’re free to find your own happiness and love exactly as comes naturally because you’re not doing it performatively (ie, because you promised you would, because that’s what you’ve always done, because that’s what you know is expected).
Unconditional love can also be defined by everything it’s not. Like all kinds of love, the concept of conditional love exists on a spectrum. It can sound like many things from stark remarks to subtle and insidious comments:
- “After all I have done for you, you owe me this.”
- “If you love me, you’ll do [insert anything here].”
- “I need you to forgive me right now!”
- “Don’t you love me?”
- “I would have expected at least a thank you.”
- “I did all that, not that I expected anything in return, but something would have been nice.”*
- “You know, they could have at least acknowledged the amount of effort I put in.”
- And any and all phrases starting with, “If it wasn’t for me…”
*When people say aloud to others that they expected nothing in return for whatever they did, they likely expected something (even if praise and recognition). Otherwise, they wouldn’t think to mention it.
Unconditional Love Still Involves Healthy Boundaries
Your love may not cost a thing, but loving unconditionally doesn’t mean you become a doormat and pushover, either. It means you recognize and respect another person’s boundaries while wanting and working for their happiness and encouraging them to continue making independent choices that serve their highest interests (even if it doesn’t serve yours).
Don’t worry, your own boundaries serve your best interests. These boundaries define the space you take in this world. Specifically, they define the space where you end and another person begins.
You can think of them as your soul boundaries, spirit boundaries, mental health boundaries, or physical (personal space) boundaries – anything that reinforces your own well being. Different people in different situations will have different types of boundaries. Whether or not it makes sense to you, respect a person’s communicated boundary anyway.
Defining Your Own Boundaries in Unconditional Love Relationships
A time will come when you’re ready to set boundaries with deep work-revealed intentions with a romantic partner. This means you’ll be fully prepared to embrace the purpose behind each boundary and acknowledge why they are important. This will help you in maintaining new boundaries with others and in respecting new boundaries others may establish over time.
To begin narrowing down your own boundaries, you can do a self-check on the following specific boundary examples:
- Monogamy and nonmonogamy
- Sexuality and gender expressions
- Time and energy (including how many days a week you can spend together)
- Body hair, modifications, tattoos, surgeries, medications, etc.
- Culture, religion, ethics, and beliefs
- Co-parenting or in-law visitations
- Drugs and alcohol consumption
The healthiest boundaries are those that are communicated clearly and maintained despite any initial or continued backlash. If you’re still not sure where your boundary lines are, reread the list. Whatever thoughts arise while reviewing it can become your starting place for setting boundaries in loving relationships.
Some boundary examples from the above list may include:
- I am only comfortable in a monogamous relationship.
- I am open to dating people from across all spectrums.
- I would consider converting to another religion.
- I don’t drink alcohol.
It’s also important to have a conversation (or many conversations!) about other people’s boundaries. Knowing what people are and are not comfortable with upfront saves time later in miscommunications, misunderstandings, and missteps over boundaries.
For example, you may want to know if someone, in turn, is only comfortable in an open or polyamorous relationship. While these may seem like technicalities that have little to do with unconditional love, respecting your own and other people’s boundaries is a key component in establishing the types of real bonds unconditional love can grow in.
Backlash From Healthy Boundaries
If you’re new to setting personal boundaries, you may have to face some backlash from people who are less than thrilled you’ve found your voice. Boundary backlash happens because setting boundaries requires changing — and many people are resistant or hesitant to changing for a million reasons including emotions like fear and anxiety and self-limiting beliefs and behavior patterns. When you appear to be changing or developing different boundaries than previously existed, you hold up a mirror to other people’s behavior, too.
While the other person may very well be impressed and intimidated by your emotional strength and commitment to your best interests, they may not express this as such. Instead, they may express negative emotions.
Boundary backlash sounds like this:
- You’re no fun anymore (judgement)
- You never say ‘yes’ anymore (disappointment)
- You’ve changed (disapproval)
- What are you trying to say about me, then? (defensiveness)
- The phone not beeping anymore (abandonment)
Yes, you may lose a few people who just will not be able to accept your healthy boundaries because they cannot set and maintain their own. It may sound harsh, but losing these people is ultimately much healthier than losing your voice and constantly having your boundaries crossed, ignored, or otherwise disrespected. Cut the cords and let yourself move to find the unconditional love we all desire and deserve.
If these are irreplaceable people in your life, you may want to consider talking to them about boundaries before deciding to end the relationship. If you need help, you can start by reviewing this common list of healthy boundaries and considering where your relationship with this person stands. This way, you’ll have real-life examples to draw upon.
In your relationship, do you both:
- Ask permission
- Take each other’s feelings into account
- Show gratitude
- Remain honest
- Give space (avoid codependence or controlling behaviors)
- Show respect for differences in opinion, perspective, and feelings
- Take personal responsibility for your role in the relationship and actions
And don’t worry if things seem like a condition-laden mess right now. Change comes quickly when you start doing the work and maintaining your own healthy boundaries with healthier people won’t be a problem; it’ll just be the norm. With these boundaries in place, you can release yourself to love freely (without hidden costs) and fears that lead people to create unhealthy attachments, jealousies, and confines around relationships in the first place.
Is Unconditional Love Healthy?
The short answer is, yes: Unconditional love is healthy.
The longer answer is that several small studies support that unconditional love is healthy, but in order to understand what that really means, we need to look at how these studies actually define unconditional love. In most cases, unconditional love is measured by nurturing behaviors, affection, and emotional warmth.
- Unconditional love activates or lights up the same areas in the brain’s reward system as romantic love and maternal love, according to a study using brain imaging technology (known as neuroimaging).
- Parental unconditional love towards infant children in particular has been associated with their greater emotional resilience or strength against adversity in later adulthood (resulting in less distress).
- Parent-child unconditional love has also shown potential in offering some protective benefits against childhood traumas (meaning that if something traumatic happens, the child may have a more favorable response and recovery).
Unconditional love can provide a secure foundation for children to learn because they feel supported if they make mistakes (which we all do). As we age, this type of love provides a beautiful opportunity for people to become their full selves without worry of abandonment and to experience a sense of security unmatched in relationships where people keep scores.
Unconditional Love Can Be Used in Unhealthy Ways
While unconditional love is a healthy and mature feeling, in some worst case scenarios, some people can use it in very unhealthy ways to gain control and power.
In toxic relationships (romantic relationships or other), unconditional love can be something you’re made to believe exists in your relationship when it’s actually an idea that’s being weaponized and used against you.
For example, you may hear things like:
“No one will ever love you like I do”
“You’re lucky I love you like I do”
“You’ll never find someone to put up with you the way I do”
“How can you complain with all I do”
There’s a lot of “I” in there, and that’s not what healthy and selfless love sounds like. That’s what manipulation and sick love sound like.
Addressing your relationship with love may not feel easy, but it does lead to personal transformation, an increase in self esteem, and even the possibility of a greater sense of self love. Once you start the process, you’ll find that unconditional love is possible everywhere and with everyone. Look inward!