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What Is Conditional Love? (12 Signs + Is It A Bad Thing?)

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We often hear about unconditional love and how wonderful it is, but far less attention is placed on what it means to love conditionally.

Does it mean that the love is somehow less valid, or solely transactional?

Or that someone is an awful person for loving conditionally?

In this article, we’re going to examine how loving with conditions can manifest, and whether it’s always a bad thing.

By the time you’ve finished reading it, you’ll have a solid idea of what conditional love looks like so you can identify it if you experience it, or if you’re the one who’s loving others conditionally.

Speak to a certified relationship counselor about this issue. Why? Because they have the training and experience to help you to understand the conditions that are being placed on love in your relationship and whether they are healthy. You may want to try speaking to someone via for practical advice that is tailored to your exact circumstances.

What is conditional love?

Conditional love is a state in which a person only expresses their love for another in particular circumstances. Outside of those circumstances, the love is not visible for the recipient or others to see or feel.

Conditional love isn’t an absence of love, it is the withholding of that love as an overt token or symbol—over a protracted period of time—based on, you guessed it, conditions that have been set.

Conditional love vs. unconditional love

Love is just love. So, what you have to remember throughout this article is that whether you love someone or they love you, conditionally or unconditionally, the love still exists.

The difference between conditional love and unconditional love is that the recipient of unconditional love never has reason to doubt that they are loved. That love is expressed in one of many different ways on a regular basis.

The recipient of conditional love, on the other hand, might experience such irregular expressions of love over a long period of time that they begin to doubt whether they are loved at all.

Conditional love often occurs when one person feels upset or angry at their partner. They may deny their partner expressions of love as a means of punishment or as evidence of their hurt feelings (i.e. to make it clear that they are upset or angry, in case there was any doubt).

A relationship may experience periods of conditional love and unconditional love. Healthier and happier relationships tend to experience unconditional love much of the time, but even these will see their fair share of conditional love too.

But the more frequently conditional love occurs, and the longer it persists, the higher the chance of the relationship breaking down.

Conditional love vs. conditional relationships

Many people mistake the concept of conditional love with that of a conditional relationship, but they are two very different things.

While conditional love is based on the way a person may not express their underlying love for their partner, a conditional relationship is more about the practicalities of the union and what might lead to it breaking.

You can love someone but not wish to be in a relationship with them. You can love someone from afar, make it known that you love them, but choose to distance yourself from them.

Perhaps your or your partner’s fundamental wishes have changed since you first got together. For example, once upon a time, you may have both stated a wish to have children. But if they have since changed that view, the relationship becomes nigh-on impossible to maintain in the long run. Your condition for the continuation of that relationship may be the agreement to try to have children one day. If that condition can no longer be met, it is reasonable—recommended even—to end the relationship.

Another example of where love may not be enough to keep two people together is a situation in which one person is self-destructing and the other protects themselves by leaving the relationship. In a situation like this, it’s not that the person’s love is conditional—because they may still have a great deal of love for their partner—but that the relationship ceases to be viable.

Of course, sometimes conditional love and conditional relationships intersect.

For example, if your partner cheats on you, you may decide not to express your love for them AND you may decide to end the relationship. You can still love someone who hurts you, but make that love conditional in its expression and end the relationship based on the condition of fidelity that you had previously set.

Similarly, you can love without attachment to the person or the relationship. In other words, you can love your partner without wanting to be their partner anymore.

Is conditional love bad?

Good and bad are generally matters of personal perspective. Almost all of us love conditionally to some extent, and it’s likely that conditional love is more common than it is unusual.

After all, just about everyone has a list of “dealbreaker” traits or behaviors that they wouldn’t tolerate in any kind of relationship—be that with a friend, romantic partner, or even a family member. These can range across the board from the understandable to the reprehensible, depending on what they are.

For example, knowing that you wouldn’t be able to continue loving someone who crossed your very firm boundaries during sex is understandable, and even healthy as far as self-preservation goes. The same goes for no longer being able to love a parent who abused you horribly in the past and continues to mistreat you now.

In contrast, stating that you could only keep loving someone if they never lost their hair or had any kind of physical disability isn’t just unhealthy, it’s unreasonable due to the natural human aging process.

12 Signs Of Conditional Love

Below are some of the most common examples of conditional love. You may not experience all these firsthand, but if you’ve been on the receiving end of some (or most) of them, that’s a pretty strong sign that the love you’re experiencing—whether by giving or receiving it—is far from unconditional.

1. Specific expectations that need to be met, or else.

Has your partner tried to change you into a version of you that they like better? Or does your partner get frustrated if you do or say something that they dislike?

There may not be aggression with requested (or demanded) changes, but instead subtle hints are made—including using the phrase that one is “just trying to help.”

Meanwhile, nobody is actually helping anyone, but rather helping themselves like their lover better by trying to alter or reprogram them. These “helpful suggestions” may become more overt and forceful if they aren’t put into action in what’s considered to be a reasonable amount of time.

Few things can damage one’s self-esteem like feeling that you aren’t loved for who you are as a person, but are rather seen as a malleable doll whose appearance or behavior can be adjusted to suit someone else’s wants.

If this seems to be a recurring situation, it’s important for the one asking for change if they truly love the other person, or whether they only love the idea of who they could be with “ a few minor tweaks” to better suit your whims.

If it’s the latter, a decision will have to be made as to whether both parties can accept each other as they are, or if you’d be better off finding more compatible companions.

2. Unrealistic expectations.

Many people seem to want a perfect version of a relationship in which there’s no stress or drama of any kind. Their partner will be agreeable instead of argumentative, healthy and able-bodied, and never make any kind of demands on them.

But that ideal partnership simply doesn’t exist, and it’s unreasonable and cruel to withhold or terminate love when these expectations aren’t met.

Furthermore, many people hold double standards in terms of their behavior. For example, they may get upset at having to deal with issues in their partner that they find frustrating or annoying, but they want—or expect—their partner to embrace all of their challenges with never-ending patience and understanding.

They feel fully justified in their own love being conditional, but still feel that they deserve to receive unconditional love in return.

Hypocrisy and double standards are massive red flags to look out for, so be aware.

3. Invalidated emotions.

Few things are as disheartening as being told that what you think and feel is either wrong or doesn’t matter.

In many relationships, people who love conditionally often respond to their partners’ emotional expression with belittling or dismissive comments—usually when and if they feel things or behave emotionally in a manner that the partner doesn’t like.

For example, your partner might tell you to stop feeling a particular way because they don’t want to deal with you when you’re in that state, or to come back after you’ve had your “tantrum” and can speak to them in the manner they prefer. If at all.

Alternatively, you may have left the house for a while so your partner could “reset” back to your preferred state, or—if their emotions have irritated you over a significant period of time—you may have even threatened to leave them if they don’t get over themselves and act normal again.

It’s difficult to believe that conditional love is real love when the only way you “earn” it is by repressing your true nature.

Furthermore, people who are on the receiving end of emotional invalidation and demanded repression may come to believe that true love doesn’t exist at all, and that they’ll have to maintain a facade for someone else’s benefit or risk being alone for the rest of their lives.

4. Love and affection shown only when one achieves things that are deemed important by the other.

One way in which conditional love in a relationship can manifest is if a person only shows care and affection to their partner or child if they achieve what the other considers to be worthy or important.

For example, someone who values athletic ability may be completely unsupportive if and when their partner achieves high accolades in their career or earns an honors degree at school, but will lavish them with praise and physical affection if they complete a 5k run in under 30 minutes.

Similarly, parents who expect their children to excel in school may be very affectionate and encouraging when the little ones get high grades, but then freeze the kids out emotionally if their grades slip. They may even get insulting, implying that the kid is a worthless disappointment. Only when grades rise again will the child “earn” their love once again.

This is a perfect example of transactional love, and it can be extremely damaging over time.

Those children may grow into adults with anxiety and low self-esteem, whose worth is dependent on achievement and external validation. They may also end up people-pleasing and sacrificing their own well-being so as not to be abandoned by those who may only love them conditionally.

5. Refusing to be a doormat or punching bag.

Although a lot of folks will imply that loving conditionally is somehow selfish or insincere, it may also be the best gift a person can give themselves.

Far too many people go above and beyond to be loving and supportive toward their partners, but receive little to nothing from them in turn.

This is often seen in relationships between narcissists and empaths, for example, as one is continually feeding off the other’s actions as though they’re expected while offering little other than further demands or criticism in return.

“Loving with conditions” isn’t a concept that deserves condemnation. In fact, withholding or ending love toward another person if their actions toward you cause far more harm than good can be one of the greatest acts of self-love you can partake in.

Being with a person who simply takes from you all the time will leave you a withered husk of your former self. Furthermore, once you reach that state and have nothing left for them to feed off, they’ll simply walk away and find someone else to lavish them with love and attention.

6. A set list of behaviors that will cause love to be withheld.

Depending on what’s on the list, this isn’t necessarily a red flag.

For example, if someone has had their heart broken by infidelity in the past, it’s not unreasonable for them to stop demonstrating love for their new partner if they cheat on them as well.

Similarly, if someone establishes very clear, firm boundaries about an issue and their partner intentionally oversteps them, then it’s only natural—and even fair—that the one who’s been disrespected may withdraw emotionally and act coolly toward them until the wound heals.

This is very different from a situation in which a person presents their partner with a laundry list of expectations and acceptable behaviors, along with a warning as to what kind of punishment may ensue if they fall short of the mark.

Romantic relationships aren’t like Subway sandwich orders where people get to choose exactly what they want and then get someone fired if they screw up.

Behavior like this is often the foundation for unhealthy power dynamics inasmuch as the one making the demands seems to need to control the other, as though they’re actors in their personal play rather than autonomous, sovereign individuals.

7. Love that changes depending on circumstance.

It’s important to remember that just because love may change form over time, or due to a change of circumstance, that doesn’t mean that it’s somehow lesser.

When people try to figure out what conditional love looks like, they often only consider one facet of how love may manifest. The love that a parent has for a child isn’t the same they have for their best friend, spouse, or animal companion.

Furthermore, simply because someone may be frustrated or disappointed with how life with another person unfolds doesn’t mean that they don’t love them anymore—just that the love has changed form.

The bright flare of love that someone feels toward their partner will change when dealing with dementia, for example.

Alternatively, let’s say two people love each other deeply, but one comes out as gay or trans and the other doesn’t feel comfortable continuing a romantic relationship. The love they share may remain as strong as ever, but it may now be platonic or sibling-like.

8. Judgment and criticism if unwanted changes occur.

Some people insist that their partners have to meet—and maintain—certain standards of appearance or behavior in order to be worthy or deserving of love.

A perfect example of this is when one partner demands that the other maintains a particular aesthetic over the entire course of their relationship, regardless of their own leanings. They may insist that their partner maintains a certain weight forever or only wears a particular clothing style, or that they’re always willing and eager to go out socializing every Saturday night.

If and when changes occur, they may withhold affection or become insulting until the partner changes things back to their preferred parameters.

This is a form of emotional abuse, as one partner is seeking to control the other’s appearance or actions in order to meet what are likely impossible standards to maintain.

Everyone changes over time, and it’s unreasonable and possibly even harmful to attempt to keep things the way they are.

In many situations, the relationship may be terminated if the status quo isn’t maintained. Once things have ended, said partner will likely be replaced by someone whose appearance meets their ex’s preferences instead.

9. Lack of trust.

Most of us feel that real, true love is unconditional: that we will continue to love people who hurt or betray us because we can see beyond the action to the fallible human being behind it.

That said, if your partner betrayed your trust by cheating on you, lying to you, or taking some action without your input that ended up damaging your life, it’s almost impossible to keep carrying on as if nothing had happened.

When examining conditional love vs unconditional love, the former involves people adhering to a certain set of expectations or boundaries in order to be shown that they are loved. In contrast, the latter implies that love with be expressed regardless of what they say or do—that they can behave in a reprehensible manner and still be loved.

You may still deeply care for your partner after they slept with your best friend, but you may not be able to be physically affectionate toward them without feeling echoes of hurt or revulsion.

Relationship breakdown in situations like this is imminent—not because love is gone, but because the circumstances surrounding it are no longer bearable.

10. Emotional withdrawal when things get annoying or difficult.

All healthy relationships fluctuate when it comes to emotional connection. There will be periods when both parties are incredibly close and affectionate, and times in which either one or both would prefer to be in their own heads, avoiding too much physical contact.

Life’s demands and stresses take their toll on everyone, and periods of withdrawal are normal—especially when one is feeling overstimulated and simply needs alone time to recuperate.

That’s all well and good provided that these periods of withdrawal eventually come to an end and don’t involve intentionally withholding emotions when aspects of their relationships frustrate or annoy them, especially if those aspects are trivial.

Do you give your partner the silent treatment if they cook a meal that you don’t particularly like? Or does your partner walk off and ignore you if you’re contending with feelings that they don’t want to deal with?

Analyze the behavior shown by both parties and determine whether either of you would appreciate this type of conditional affection and support if you were on the receiving end of it.

11. Tolerating poor behavior (and pretending it doesn’t matter).

A lot of people focus on the damage of conditional love in a relationship, but attempting to love unconditionally when one’s partner continually behaves in a disrespectful or abusive manner is even more unhealthy.

A relationship based on lies and make-believe isn’t one that’s going to last. Or if it does, it’ll cause a lot of damage before it finally deteriorates.

Pretending that you aren’t bothered by your partner’s indiscretions or your parent’s perpetual criticism is a sign of their conditional love for you because you are choosing NOT to say something because you fear that if you do, you will not be shown love.

If you found out that your partner was lying to you, would you call them out on it or pretend it wasn’t happening so as not to make a scene?

Similarly, if you’re neglecting a friend or family member in favor of an amusing pastime or hanging out with someone else, would they encourage it and act like it doesn’t bother them out of a fear of abandonment or conflict?

Denial and repression only work for so long, and often manifest in passive-aggressive behavior or full-on breakdowns.

This is why it’s so important to be able to communicate openly and honestly with those you love, rather than living in misery so as not to cause waves.

12. Manipulation in order to achieve one’s own wants.

Manipulative behavior can manifest in a variety of different ways, but one of the most common ones is manipulating others to get what they want.

This can take the form of coercion, bribery, blackmail, guilt-tripping, or even trickery. The last item on that list is one of the most reprehensible, as it inevitably ends up destroying trust in the relationship.

An example of this could be if the partner who loves conditionally wants to go to the beach on a Saturday, while the other one wants to go shopping.

If initial coercion or threats of potential backlash don’t change the other’s mind, the conditional partner may pretend to acquiesce and let them have their way, all the while giving the silent treatment and behaving in a passive-aggressive, injured manner.

Then, when Saturday comes along, they’ll offer to drive to the mall… but oops, they ended up at the beach instead, haha! Getting their own desires fulfilled doesn’t just take priority: it’s the only thing that matters.

Only once they’re at the beach, satisfied and smirking that they got their own way, will they possibly be affectionate or playful to the one they “defeated,” though they’ll get upset and petulant if that affection isn’t returned.

Final thoughts on the conditionality of love.

Loving unconditionally is very rare and generally only embodied by those who are almost saintly in demeanor and behavior. Venerable monks and nuns may be able to do so, as well as elderly grandparents who have been through immensely difficult times, but generally, humans love conditionally to varying degrees.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: in fact, having certain conditions on your love or affection can actually be quite healthy. Furthermore, just because love may not last forever doesn’t mean that it isn’t (or wasn’t) “real.” It simply ran its course or changed form.

You may feel that love with conditions isn’t true love, but the vast majority of us will either stop loving someone if they betray our trust or severely overstep a firm boundary we’ve established.

And that’s absolutely okay.

If and when these situations manifest in your own relationship, ask yourself whether you want to risk investing time in a person who will hold you to standards they’d never attain themselves, or love someone whose care and affection depend solely on you being their dream vision of you, rather than the authentic version of who you are.

If the answer is “no,” then the solution will present itself to you accordingly.

Still not sure whether the conditional love in your relationship is healthy or unhealthy?

Speak to an experienced relationship expert about it. Why? Because they are trained to help people in situations like yours. They can listen to you and help you to work through your thoughts and feelings about your relationship.

Relationship Hero is a website where you can connect with a certified relationship counselor via phone, video, or instant message.

Too many people try to muddle through in relationships that have an unhealthy level of conditional love. If it’s at all possible in your circumstances, speaking to a relationship expert is 100% the best way forward.

Here’s that link again if you’d like to learn more about the service Relationship Hero provide and the process of getting started.

About The Author

Catherine Winter is an herbalist, INTJ empath, narcissistic abuse survivor, and PTSD warrior currently based in Quebec's Laurentian mountains. In an informal role as confidant and guide, Catherine has helped countless people work through difficult times in their lives and relationships, including divorce, ageing and death journeys, grief, abuse, and trauma recovery, as they navigate their individual paths towards healing and personal peace.