What do we mean when we say we love someone unconditionally? Most people think they know what unconditional love means, but then when asked to describe it, they end up giving you an answer that is anything but unconditional love.
People will often say, “It’s when you love someone no matter what.”
No. That’s not unconditional love, that’s martyrdom bordering on abuse. That’s a loss of self respect. That’s neediness. That’s unhealthy obsession. None of those things make up unconditional love.
I think this is where the mistake is made: many people assume that “unconditional” means that anything goes, and that you’re bound to that person, through thick and thin, no matter how they treat you, or how they treat others.
That it means you’re so in love with them, you’re willing to turn a blind eye to their faults.
It’s none of those things.
That’s the Hollywood, romanticized version of unconditional love. It gives us a skewed perspective and warps our ideas of how to love unconditionally. Life isn’t a romantic comedy, and our problems aren’t going to be resolved neatly in 90 minutes.
So, if Hollywood got it wrong, what is unconditional love then?
Unconditional love is love given free from obligation or expectation. It is love given without wanting, or expecting anything in return.
Loving unconditionally is not allowing yourself to be abused or mistreated, or becoming obsessed with someone in the name of ‘love.’ That’s actually selfish. But wait…how can being selfless be selfish, you ask?!
In the moment when you give up your autonomy, your wellbeing, and your identity, it’s no longer about them, about love without expectation or obligation, it’s about you. It’s becomes you trying to save someone, or conversely, you punishing yourself by staying with someone who mistreats you.
“Saving someone” often garners sympathy and attention from others, but after a while, you begin to resent that person; you feel owed for all the good deeds you’ve done.
You’re also not free from attachment in these situations because that would render you free from obligation; and expectation and obligation are the foundations of these toxic relationships.
You’d lose your ability to claim the upper hand and wield guilt as a weapon. This is not unconditional love; this is a martyr complex that benefits you in the end (even if it is difficult while you’re in it) because you’re using that person to make yourself look good, or as a form of self flagellation.
Repeat after me: You can remove yourself from a toxic situation and still love someone unconditionally. That’s truly loving someone unconditionally and free from attachment. It’s the healthiest, and purest form of love.
We are so conditioned to give and take in every part of our lives. We are hard wired to expect people to do something in return, else we feel cheated and a sense of being ‘one-upped,’ or wronged. From a young age, we are taught that we must reciprocate every action so that we don’t come across looking bad or having poor manners.
We are also taught that nothing in life comes for free. Everything has a price, including love. It’s no small wonder then, that the majority of people have no idea what it looks like to love unconditionally without attachment.
Unconditional love without attachment looks more like this:
1. Loving Honestly
I see you fully. I see you as a complete, present, separate, individual. You do not complete me, we two are whole and have come together in mutual respect and love. I see the good in you, but I also see your flaws and rough edges with eyes wide open, and accept them without judgment or censure. I realize that, like me, you are human and bound to make mistakes, and I accept that as part of who you are.
Unconditional love is honest. It doesn’t mean you accept everything they do, or is done to you. It means you have frank and open conversations, and boundaries, while continuing to love them for who they are. If their behavior is harmful to you, you can remove yourself and continue to love and support them when you are in a safe space to do so.
Unconditional love is not love without boundaries – unconditional love respects and honors boundaries and allows each person to be themselves fully.
If you are in a relationship, and the above statements make you feel icky, or want to run out of the room screaming, you need to re-evaluate that relationship. If you are only with a person because they do X, Y, and Z for you, you are not loving them unconditionally and free from attachment.
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2. Loving Yourself
Notice that nowhere in that definition of unconditional love does it say to stay with an abusive partner, or accept horrific treatment and pretend it’s not happening, because a person who loves unconditionally, also loves themselves unconditionally.
They are not lost, and don’t require another person to “complete them” (another Hollywood trope that gets copied and pasted into real life relationships with disastrous results).
When you’re depleted, how can you offer someone what you can’t even give yourself? People who love unconditionally come into every relationship with the understanding that they are dealing with imperfect beings, like themselves, and go from there.
They love themselves in spite of their lumps and bumps, and personal traumas, and they respect themselves. Since they love and respect themselves, they have the capacity to offer love without expectation or obligation from others, because they don’t need someone to make them feel whole.
3. Being Vulnerable
We are not invincible, mythical beings with no emotions. We are human, and part of our humanity comes with vulnerability. Real intimacy and unconditional love can only be achieved with honesty and vulnerability. Loving unconditionally and free from attachment allows us to take off the mask that society forces us to wear every single day.
We are taught that we must present ourselves differently and only allow ourselves to be real behind the safety of closed doors. When someone loves us unconditionally, they free us from wearing that mask and allow us to be the true version of ourselves.
When you love unconditionally and free from attachment, you are yourself, completely. You don’t offer a filtered version of yourself to appease anyone. You allow them to see you as you are, and allow them to see your vulnerabilities.
4. Sharing Love
Loving unconditionally and free from attachment also frees us and our loved ones from the fear of being alone. We are allowed to have time to ourselves, and share our time and energy with others. We don’t feel the need to control someone’s every waking move to assuage our insecurities and anxiety.
Fear is not love. Fear is the opposite of love. It masquerades as love, but it destroys it with jealousies, and pettiness. “If you don’t stay home tonight, and you see your friends, you don’t really love me,” is manipulation, not love. Controlling someone to alleviate your feelings of inadequacy, or boredom is never unconditional love, because it creates guilt, obligation, and eventually, resentment.
Loving someone unconditionally and free from attachment means that you allow them to have a life outside of yours, to express other parts of themselves, not just to you, but to others. When we love unconditionally, we are secure in their love for us, and our love for them. These four aspects are the foundations of loving in a healthy, positive and mindful way.