Should Love Be Unconditional?
Love is unconditional when it endures despite unfavorable circumstances
Posted May 21, 2010
"Groundless hope, like unconditional love, is the only kind worth having." John Perry Barlow
"Love is supreme and unconditional; like is nice but limited." Duke Ellington
"Nothing can be unconditional; consequently nothing can be free." George Bernard Shaw
According to the Romantic Ideology, love is comprehensive (there are no boundaries to such love), uncompromising (nothing can dilute or impede such love), and unconditional (reality is almost irrelevant to love and has scant impact on it). I believe that although all these claims have some grain of truth to them, they by no means encapsulate the full truth. I will focus here on the proposed unconditional nature of love and will argue that it is better described as bounded (un)conditionality and it involves bounded (limited) romantic blindness.
Ideal love is unconditional in the sense that it is unaffected by the conditions of reality-reality cannot change it. Accordingly, it disregards reality and considers love to be beyond the reach of mundane altering events. It is also unconditional in the sense of willingness to give everything to the beloved. Flora, a married woman in her early forties who is involved in a long-term loving relationship with a married man said: "He magnetizes all my thoughts, all my feelings, and he does it all the time. Our love does not depend on any external circumstance, nor can it ever be threatened by them, which is the whole miracle of it. I love him so romantically and wildly, and I love him without limits, for everything he is and everything he does. All external circumstances are completely against it, but we can continue to develop our love, no matter how difficult the circumstances are. I am his, and his alone; now and forever" (In the Name of Love).
Lovers indeed describe their experience as boundless love which makes them fly while knowing they will never fall. Such an unconditional and uncompromising attitude is common, as it stems from the human wish to overcome our basic limitations. Compromises, moderation, and boundaries are possible, and even necessary, when it comes to the implementation of love. The Western self-help culture is obsessed with the idea that there is a difference between the myth of love and its reality and that the implementation of true love must involve compromise and moderation. It has become one of the most common clichés about love, shared by psychologists and ordinary people.
The unconditional nature of ideal love compels us to live in a certain illusion, which we might attempt to maintain regardless external circumstances. As Lisa, a married woman, describes her new lover, "everything is possible since I am in love with him; my immense love for him depends on nothing other than he himself." In such circumstances, reality is of no concern to her. The beloved becomes the whole world to the lover, and there is no room in such a world for anyone else but the beloved. Regardless of where she is and what she does, the beloved is on her mind.
Given that, on the one hand "reality can be cruel" (Bee Gees), and that, on the other hand, love is such a valuable experience, disregarding reality can be valuable in certain circumstances. In fact, the unconditional nature of romantic love can be a great motivator for generating and maintaining love. Sometimes disregarding reality can indeed be advantageous, as it increases our chances of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Just as saying to my beloved that my love for her will decrease as time goes by may diminish the likelihood of the relationship's survival, the promise of everlasting love has the function of encouraging lovers to believe in the feasibility of enduring love.
However, the unrealistic disregard of reality may also impede our ability to cope with real problems in intimate relationships. Although there may be some benefits in intentionally overlooking certain difficulties, turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to our environment and personal limitations can hardly be advantageous.
Accordingly, we should characterize unconditional love in more moderate terms, seeing it as referring to love that endures despite unfavorable circumstances. In characterizing it thus, we do not require such love to totally disregard external circumstance, but rather to involve awareness of unfavorable circumstances as well as a profound wish and intention to prolong this love-sometimes, without even fully implementing it. In this concept of love, the lover does not disregard reality, but merely regards it as an obstacle to overcome or to bypass, or even one on which a compromise must be found. There is no ignorance here, merely an evaluative faith and the hope of overcoming such obstacles.
In this characterization of unconditional love, the emphasis is upon the lover's attitude toward the beloved, rather than toward reality. Here lovers do not take impediments to their love for granted and continue loving their beloveds "against all odds." Such behavior may indeed be a self-fulfilling prophecy and in a sense it is the best way to cope with reality and have your wishes fulfilled. In light of unfavorable external circumstances, not everything the lover might wish to do can be done, but even those shortcomings cannot decrease his love.
In a somewhat similar manner to the way we can analyze the lover's perception of the beloved, we can speak about bounded (or limited) knowledge, rather than an unconditional disregard of reality.
In their post, "Love is blind," Charles and Elizabeth Charles and Elizabeth Schmitz indicate that in their interviews with thousands of couples who have maintained their love for a long time, they found that their love was unconditional in the sense of being blind to negative aspects of the beloved. Their love was based on trust and feelings of the heart rather than on factual information.
Those lovers were not unconditionally blind to their beloved's faults, but rather to some negative information about them. Love directs our attention and colors our environment, but this is not unconditional disregard of flaws but rather bounded (limited) blindness. And since in any case we cannot see everything, some kind of limitation is inevitable.
Herbert Simon's notion of ‘bounded rationality' refers to the claim that most people are rational only in certain aspects of their lives, while in other aspects their behavior is irrational (which in his view is emotional). In a similar vein, I propose the term "bounded love," which acknowledges some dependency between love and external circumstances. Love can determine people's action up to a point, and love can ignore external circumstances up to a point. Similarly, love can be blind up to a point but in most cases it cannot completely ignore reality (see here). Love can see reality in brighter colors but typically love cannot completely change the way we see reality.
Love is essentially bounded by aspects related to the environment in which we live, such as moral norms, scarce resources, and the amount of effort involved; and to our own psychological structure, such as the partiality of emotions, the role of change in emotions, the search for happiness, the fear of loss, and the comfort of convenience. But love has its own vitality, enabling it to be flexible in coping with such aspects. In this sense, love is bounded and flexible-conditional and unconditional. It fluctuates within a bounded framework. Bounded love is contrary to both the unconditional nature of love and to the notion of totally fluid love, both of which overlook (from different perspectives) the crucial role of our limitations in love.
One way of understanding the unconditional and bounded nature of love is to distinguish between overall global evaluations and more specific ones.
Lisa Neff and Benjamin Karney proposed a model of global adoration and specific accuracy in love, whereby spouses demonstrate a positive bias in global perception of their partners, such as being "wonderful," and in this sense their love is unconditional; but within this positive evaluative framework, they are able to display greater accuracy in their perception of their partners' specific attributes, such as being punctual, and in this sense, their loving perception is not unconditional. The beloved is indeed wonderful in an unconditional manner and therefore the lover wishes to pursue her love despite her awareness of some of his flaws. Being wonderful does not mean being flawless, it merely means that such possible flaws are so insignificant in the eyes of the lover that they seem easy to ignore or bypass and do not reduce the lover's love toward the beloved.
Neff and Karney argue elsewhere that "Although providing a partner with unconditional positive regard may be effective in creating a safe, loving environment for spouses to express their needs, positive regard alone may not be enough to provide spouses with the information needed to achieve their goals successfully. Rather, understanding of a spouse's specific traits and abilities is also needed to provide partners with more accurate insight into when their spouse needs support as well as what support would best help them accomplish their goals." A relative measure of unconditional love, rather than a total unconditional blindness, is what successful loving relationships need.
Love may be conceived as a hierarchically organized experience giving different relative weight to the global characteristic in comparison with the specific ones. Spouses appear to rate their positive perceptions as more important for the relationship than their negative perceptions. In this manner, an accurate perception of a partner's specific traits and abilities would not interfere with the global belief that one's partner is a wonderful person.
The significant increase in modern society of romantic opportunities has not abolished the obstacles in obtaining and keeping the one you love and hence the need to take account of reality remains intact. However, such an account should not eliminate the great impact that love has upon our positive perception of reality, which enables the lover to see the best in the beloved. This does not necessarily entail a distortion of reality, but merely focuses upon its more positive aspects.
Genuine love is not totally unconditional and not totally blind; but it has elements that enable it to pursue love regardless of many unfavorable external circumstances.
The above considerations can be encapsulated in the following statement that a lover might express: "Darling, my beloved beautiful partner, you are so precious to me and I easily see how wonderful you are; the small aspects in which you do not excel (to say the least) are so insignificant that there is no sense in dwelling upon them."