top of page

Learning to Center Healthy Love, Not Unconditional Love

For years, many have claimed that the best form of love is unconditional love. Healthline says that unconditional love is love that is offered to others with no ask of them in return. Often, the example given is the love from a parent to a child.

We humans certainly can love without conditions or asks, but often it appears very one sided. Even the most common example of that love between a parent and child is flawed - because not all parents provide that to their children and because some who do cross over the fine line between loving unconditionally and excusing all personal and moral responsibility.

Love takes acceptance and forgiveness of the flaws we all carry, but too often unconditional love becomes an abusive system for one person in the relationship to deny their own flaws while forcing the other person to accept all responsibility for the things wrong in their relationship. The on loving unconditionally are expected to forgive all actions and behaviors of the other person even as they continue to experience harm.

As author Deb Calleti notes, “Unconditional love is like a country of two with no laws and no government. Which is all fine if everyone is peaceful and law abiding. In the wrong hands, though, you got looting and crime sprees, and let me tell you, the people who demand unconditional love are usually the ones who will rob and pillage and then blame you because you left your door unlocked.”

Years ago, there was a movie called “Before and After,” starring Liam Neeson and Meryl Streep. It told of two parents and their responses after their son is accused of murdering his girlfriend, the child of family friends. As the evidence against the son mounted, the mother wanted to guide their son to accept responsibility for his actions, but the father did all he could to cover up the crime and the evidence. He claimed that saving his son from prison was unconditional love.

It is time to set aside unconditional love as the aspiration and instead focus on healthy love. Both ask for acceptance and forgiveness, but healthy love is the pathway to individual and relationship wholeness. Healthy love asks each of us to accept responsibility for our own actions, to seek forgiveness, and to make amends. We no longer live in the world where Tammy Wynette claimed that standing by your man, no matter what, was love. That world also disavowed many relationships as illegitimate (same-gender-loving, interracial, etc.) and it was a world where women could not rent an apartment, open a checking or savings account, nor obtain a credit card without permission from a male relative or spouse until the 1970's.

Unconditional love requires vulnerability, and vulnerability is not safe for all people or in all relationships (or in all communities in a nation still inflicting racial trauma and harm). In her writing about surviving incest in her family, Christina Enevoldsen notes, “In a healthy relationship, vulnerability is wonderful. It leads to increased intimacy and closer bonds. When a healthy person realizes that he or she hurt you, they feel remorse and they make amends. It’s safe to be honest. In an abusive system, vulnerability is dangerous. It’s considered a weakness, which acts as an invitation for more mistreatment.”

People living with addiction can sometimes become adept at playing off the unconditional love of others. One of the hardest things in these situations is stepping back from the relationship. You can still love someone, even as you decide to step out of the unhealthy relationship. There may come a time in the future when the relationship can be rebuilt, but it requires the person perpetuating the harm to seek amends. You can commit to helping them do whatever it takes to fight their addiction or disease but establishing boundaries will often make an addict claim those boundaries as a sign that you do not love them. This cycle of abuse perpetuates until the person learns to accept the consequences of their own actions and decisions.

Healthy love does not demand that we stand by and watch someone we love self-destruct, nor does it ask us to let that self-destructiveness destroy us or our families. We can embrace the addict; we can love the addict; but if they choose to continue their implosive path, healthy love is knowing when to take cover. There is a difference between sobriety and recovery. Many people walk the world, not using their addiction of choice, but also not taking the steps toward healing the wounds that caused them to use. Like a wounded animal caught in a metal trap, they often strike out at those around them trying to help, seeking to make others hurt because they hurt. True recovery requires loving yourself to love others, and those who are only sober or newly sober have not reached a place where the addiction does not speak for them and act for them. Just remember, that relapse is a normal part of recovery, and if the person is moving forward toward that goal – be there to love and support them.

To love others, we must first love ourselves. When we have existed in a cycle that perpetuates trauma or inequality, centering our own wellness and health and loving ourselves can sometimes feel like a betrayal to those seeking to perpetuate the system. Unconditional love can make us ignore our own needs for acceptance, kindness, consideration, and intimacy. When that happens, relationships often become harsh or cruel. This is one way generational trauma can be handed down.

For those who grew up in family systems without a good role model of healthy love, it can be difficult to break those patterns. Too often, people without those role models step out of one unhealthy family system into another.

There are four important things to know if you are a person trying to become healthy and create healthier relationships.

  1. You may lose people along the way. Some people will blame you, shame you, or attempt to silence you. They will claim that your journey of wellness, back toward health and wholeness, is selfish. As hard as it might be, you need to stop pursuing these people. That doesn’t mean you cannot keep loving them and hoping they realize their own need to change, but no one is required to be a doormat to salvage a relationship.

  2. This type of transformation is hard. As you transform, you will doubt yourself. You will backslide. You will mess up. Just remember that perfection is not the goal, but a change that makes you into someone who seeks to get better, day-after-day, year-after-year. This type of transformation is a lifelong goal – not a New Year’s resolution. As Victoria Erickson note, “Transformation isn’t sweet and bright. It’s a dark and murky, painful pushing. An unraveling of the untruths you’ve carried in your body. A practice in facing your own c