What is unconditional love? Does it mean we love another, no matter what, without strings, boundaries or expectations?
Is it even possible for us humans to love unconditionally?
Ron Hicks – Kisses and Coffee Gandalf’s Gallery. Flickr.
“Unconditional love is an illogical notion, but such a great and powerful one.”
Generally, people can recognise that unconditional love may, hopefully, exist between mother and child.
For some, it might be harder to imagine such love between adults.
Renoir 1886 Mother and Child. Wikimedia Commons.
Below are five quotes, plus a few more, that offer different explanations of this important concept.
Breakfast in Bed (1897) by Mary Cassatt. Wikimedia Commons.
“The ultimate lesson all of us have to learn is unconditional love, which includes not only others but ourselves as well.”
If we do not love ourselves, we cannot give love to others.
Showing compassion to ourselves is important. Inside us all, is an inner voice which reflects our attitude to ourselves and the world.
We talk to ourselves inwardly much of the time.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.Self-Portrait in Front of a Mirror. 1882. Wikimedia Commons.
Ways of thinking about ourselves and the world developed in childhood, and it is important to examine these.
Then we can be surer that we treat ourselves in a way that recognises and meets our inner needs.
This involves self awareness, understanding unconscious processes, forgiving our own mistakes and having a voice inside us that is loving and gentle, not harsh.
We all talk inwardly to ourselves and we need to be aware of the tone and content of this ‘talk.’
Allowing ourselves the space and freedom to have relaxation, time to think and reflect, to exercise, walk in the woods, have good food and perhaps some pampering – these are all ways of loving the self.
Resting Woman. 1939. James H. P Neal Wikioo.
Man In Love– Oil On Paper by Kinga Ogieglo. 2015. Wikimedia Commons.
“No, I do not want to be loved unconditionally. I want to be shown when I am treating you less than you deserve. I want you to leave if I ever start making you promises I do not see through. Love me for my flaws, yes, but don’t you dare ever allow them to hurt you.”
What do you think about this quote? Perhaps you see truths in it…..Can we really love a partner or spouse unconditionally?
After all, they are adults, not children. Maybe we cannot love someone, nor should we, if, for example, they continually abuse or hurt us.
The person in this quotation is firmly instructing the other not to stay if they are hurtful. They are setting firm boundaries for their own behaviour.
Munch. Separation (4). Wikimedia Commons.
If boundaries are broken and things go awry, we may need therapeutic help to look at the whole picture of the relationship and our part in the interaction with another, whilst ensuring that we do not continue to be hurt, either mentally or physically.
The quotation below also makes a similar point, in that we need to protect ourselves, as well as love others.
“Loving yourself and others unconditionally is a balance between protecting yourself and giving to others”
Two Women and Self-Portrait. Rafael Zabaleta Fuentes. Wikioo
Self-Portrait With Mirror. Léon Spilliaert (1908)Wikimedia Commons.
“Until we have seen someone’s darkness we don’t really know who they are. Until we have forgiven someone’s darkness, we don’t really know what love is.”
This quote is stating that, in order to love, we need to see the other, ‘warts and all’… to witness their darker aspects, which are in us all; and then we need to forgive them.
There is much to discuss here. Firstly, what does the reference to ‘darkness’ mean?
There is a ‘monstrous’ aspect, or a ‘shadow side’ (Jung) to us all and we will, inevitably, find that this part of us comes to the fore at some points in any close relationship.
Sadko the Green Monster – Leon Bakst. Wikioo
Trying to ‘love’ this part of ourselves is hard enough, let alone expecting others to do so.
It is, however important that we learn to accept all the hidden aspects of our psyche, the parts we tend not to like in ourselves and others.
Can we make a mental inventory of them, as if we were writing a job reference for ourselves, describing both the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ points?
Embracing all parts of ourselves, including our shadow side, whilst difficult to achieve, means that we will come to accept the fact that, for example, we might at times become angry or impatient.
Are we able to forgive another for revealing ‘unlikeable’ aspects of their personality?
I guess the answer will be dependent both on the individual and the circumstances. Perhaps there is only so much most of us can forgive.
If people are able to work on themselves, to accept and control the ‘shadow’ aspects of the self, then this is more acceptable – and more forgivable- than continually acting out unworked through and unprocessed feelings.
“Unconditional positive regard… means caring for the client, but not in a possessive way or in such a way as simply to satisfy the therapist’s own needs.”
A kind of unconditional love is highly relevant to counselling and therapy.
This also gives us some good guidelines as to how we might love someone in life outside therapy.
Rogers’ quote, on unconditional positive regard, talks of a ‘love’ that is not at all about the therapist’s needs, but it represents a state of totally ‘being there’ for the client, present and congruent.
“Love cures people – both the ones who give it and the ones who receive it.”
Karl A. Menninger
Freud also said in a discussion with Jung that psychoanalysis was a cure through love.
Love can be healing and highly rewarding, yet there are clear boundaries and rules in therapy, as there surely need to be in all relationships.
Having these rules does not make love conditional; it is, actually a way of loving someone more.
The therapist sets boundaries for the patient in a way that will model and demonstrate to them how to be in relationships.
In life outside the therapy room, it is also containing and strengthening to communicate boundaries to the other.
Love Among The Ruins – Edward Coley Burne-Jones. Wikioo.
“If someone is facing a difficult time, one of the kindest things you can do for him or her is to say, ‘I’m going to love you through this.'”
A love that survives everything, especially the bad times, is rare and valuable.
Many relationships flounder when bad things happen, because some problems or disasters can put too much strain on them and be too hard to bear.
For a relationship to survive the tough times, there needs to be a degree of resilience and staying power on both sides.
Resilience is the capacity to withstand trouble and trauma, misfortune and crisis, and to be able to endure and recover from these with fortitude and courage.
Being resilient is having the toughness to bounce back after difficult experiences, perhaps gaining more wisdom and strength as a result of surviving all the pain and distress.
If there is enough genuine love, and an ability to refrain from blaming the other, then the chances are that the relationship will survive the storm.
The courage to continue caring for others is crucial, even in troubled times……especially in troubled times. It takes courage to turn one’s attention outwards, away from one’s own issues, and to empathise with others.
“Long before morning I knew that what I was seeking to discover was a thing I’d always known. That all courage was a form of constancy. That it is always himself that the coward abandoned first. After this all other betrayals come easily.”
Steadfastness- to oneself and to one’s partner- is crucial, especially during times of trouble.
“The art of love is largely the art of persistence.”
A Love Lyric – William Shackleton. Wikioo.
“Think of love as a state of grace: not the means to anything but the alpha and omega, an end in itself.”
Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera© Linda Berman.