Why Unconditional Love Will Destroy You (Usually)

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 14.472% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

People idolize puppies and children when it comes to their endless supplies of unconditional love. Kids love you no matter what they do, goes the saying, and that’s why children are love.
Said people have never dealt with a screaming baby at three in the morning who wants to be fed now. Or a cat, curling up on your keyboard because he wants petting when you’ve got a project due in an hour.
The truth is that children and dogs generally have the same unconditional love that all sane people have: If you don’t give me what I need, I will resist as much as I possibly can. They just don’t have the power to leave, or even necessarily to understand how they’re being hurt. Most abused dogs, it should be noted, are tied in a back yard somewhere so they can’t run away, and if a three-year-old is getting whomped by some abusive jerk, that jerk can sadly convince them this whomping is normal.
What you see in pets and kids is not unconditional love. It’s a love thoroughly dependent on their last meal, their comparative powerlessness, and a warped understanding of what’s normal.
Because unconditional love expressed through action is crazy.
Now, a friend of mine – and I wish I could remember who – wisely said there’s two types of love: love through action, and love through emotion. And if you’re wise enough to divorce the two, you can let the emotions burble and splutter within you all you like, and not have that emotion-love affect the action-love.
As a real-life example, I still love my ex-girlfriend. Deeply. I think about her probably two or three times a week, and wish she was still in my life. Some part of me will always be a little in love with her. Based on some friendly interactions, I think she’d probably be willing to get back together, at least as friends.
But realistically, I look at how we interacted, and how much damage that did to me. In some ways she actually hated the things about me that I valued the most, and made me feel bad about having reactions to some spectacularly shitty things she did… and I don’t see that as having changed. And so, regrettably, I think Well, I will always love her, but that doesn’t mean I have to let her hurt me again.
And I look at this beautifully written cartoon for the seventieth time, and don’t talk to her.
So if you’re describing unconditional love as “internally unconditional, externally bound,” then I’m cool with that. I love people I haven’t let myself talk to in years, because the internal-love I feel for them is not an excuse to endure their shitty behavior.
Yet I don’t think most people make that comparison. For me, I have to overthink relationships – because as a depressive, for at least six weeks out of the year, my emotions are telling me everyone would be better off if I was dead. So I’ve learned that raw feelings are a pretty spectacularly bad way of making decisions.
As such, I’m finely tuned into the damage of unconditional love.
Unconditional love, in my experience, is what abusive parents try to tell their kids in order to justify the damage they feel like dealing out. We love each other no matter what, they say as they’re insulting and undermining and destroying you,And that’s why we don’t leave one another.
In other words, “Love” becomes twisted into this sense of “You enable my behavior no matter how bad it gets.” (Usually with a healthy dollop of “If you don’t stay with me, then you don’t know how to love and are hence a bad person.”)
And so what you wind up with are people endlessly swallowing huge gouts of abuse they should never put up with, because they’ve tied the concept of “love” directly into “enduring.” For them, unconditional love means that no matter what happens, I’ll be there for you. Just like Christ, right?
Except that Christ flipped a few moneylenders’ tables in His lifetime. He snap-corrected His followers when they were wrong.
Christ loved you, but even the Son of God wasn’t willing to take your shit.
The sad lesson of the world is this: Act like a rug and people will walk on you.Which is to say that most people don’t consider your needs when interacting with you: they consider theirs. And most people won’t stop taking from you, figuring quite rightfully that you’re a human being in charge of patrolling your own borders, and you’ll tell them when it’s time to stop.
If you have internalized the idea that “unconditional love” means “unconditional support,” then you become a resource and not a human being. And while there are wonderful people who won’t abuse you, they aren’t the ones who’ll seek you out. An abuser doesn’t care about you, he cares about what you can give him… and so, to an abuser, what you perceive as “love” he perceives as “an all-you-can-eat buffet.”
And is that really love? Giving people everything they want usually turns them into monsters. And you’ll find in a tragic amount of instances that the “love” these people feel for you dries up pretty toot suite when you stop doling out things upon command.
No. The weird thing is, standing up for yourself makes you a better person. There’s a lot of talk of “privilege” in liberal circles, but the truth is that so much of what’s considered “privilege” stems from the idea that certain people are trained to expect better things, and usually won’t shut up until they get them. You can see that from watching my impoverished relatives dealing with doctors; they get life-threateningly bad medical service because they’ve been trained that whatever the doctor says, goes.
Strangely, they get better when someone who’s willing to contradict their physicians stays with them. They get a better class of medical care not because they’ve got different doctors, but because someone hauls in a different set of expectations.*
Unconditional love trains too many people that it’s somehow wrong to tell our loved ones no. Me? I tell my loved ones “no” all the time. I won’t lend them $500 when they gambled their last paycheck away, won’t lend ’em a couch to sleep on if I think they’ll steal from me, won’t lend them a car if I think they’ll drive drunk. And yet I’ve seen all of those actions justified under the umbrella of “unconditional love.”
No. My love is thoroughly conditional in the sense that if you want to keep my love within an accessible distance, you’ll need to treat me with respect. I may still love you if you treat me badly – but I’ll love you from wayyyy over there, where you can’t get your toxic little mitts on me.
I think that’s sane. I think that’s healthy. And I think that’s the kind of love we should strive to teach as a community.
I think that is, in all ways, the best kind of love.
* – Which isn’t to say that privilege gets fixed if every poor person demands better. There’s often negative feedback built in where the unprivileged are actively punished for demanding better things… but that’s an essay for another time.


  1. Life Lessons
    Oct 11, 2013

    Well done!! Thanks for this excellent article.

  2. Ellen
    Oct 13, 2013

    I must admit, I am somewhat taken aback by this post. The idea that unconditional love between parent and child is usually used as justification and continuation of abuse stuns and confuses me.
    To me, the idea of unconditional love is simply that in the majority of human beings, a parent will love their child no matter what. They may not always like the child, they certainly won’t always be thrilled to be around the child or un-angry at the child. And, when the child grows up, there are very sad very extreme cases where the parent may have to love from afar to protect themselves (as you describe towards the end).
    I think the majority of people have unconditional love for their parents as well… though for some reason I would observe that it is more often a child needing to force distance from a parent than a parent forcing distance from a child, again, that doesn’t mean a lack of love.
    I certainly don’t think that people are going around suggesting that we should have unconditional love for everyone, or for large numbers of people. Or that we should put up with unhealthy stuff because we love people. The idea that unconditional love means that we can’t say no? No, no no. Unconditional love translating into giving people whatever they want? huh? These things are not at all associated in my brain.
    The idea of unconditional love is that I will love you even when I am saying no or when you are saying no. Because the love is not dependent on the yes or the no or the good or the bad. It simply exists. And by the very nature of its unconditionality(?), it means that you (the loved one) CAN say no and I will still love you. You can disagree with me and I will still love you. If you think I’m being an ass, you can tell me so and I will still love you.
    I am re-reading your post. Maybe the reason I’m confused is because I guess you are knocking down a connection that never occurred to me to exist. Unconditional love does not mean being a doormat. It never has. It just means loving someone no matter what – not because of who they are or what they do, but JUST BECAUSE WE DO. If who they are and what they do is really terrible/problematic, well we have to protect ourselves from being doormats. But if that person is our kid or our parent, we probably will still love them, even as we protect ourselves.
    I apologize for the babbling nature of this comment. I don’t even remember how I ended up on your page, and I have been through a major trauma recently, so this subject is close to my heart….. I hope I’m not offending or sounding too insane.


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