Unconditional love, simply put, is love without strings attached. It’s love you offer freely.
You don’t base it on what someone does for you in return. You simply love them and want nothing more than their happiness.
This type of love, sometimes called compassionate or agape love, might sound somewhat familiar. Maybe it brings to mind the love your parents have for you or the love you have for your own child.
While people often associate unconditional love with familial love, many look for this love in romantic relationships, too.
Wanting someone to love you for yourself — no matter what — is an understandable desire. Yet this type of love might still seem like the stuff of fairy tales and movies, not something most people encounter in real life.
Is this love as elusive as it sounds? Can it even happen in romantic relationships?
Read on for a deeper understanding of what unconditional love is (and isn’t) and some strategies for cultivating it.
What it is
Unconditional love is a selfless act. You’re not in it for yourself.
Though it may overlap with other types of love in some ways, other elements set it apart.
You can recognize it by these key characteristics.
It can benefit emotional health
A small 2009 study explored the brain regions activated by feelings of unconditional love. The results of the study suggest that unconditional love activates some of the same areas of the brain’s reward system that romantic love does.
In other words, the simple act of loving someone unconditionally may produce positive feelings.
Receiving unconditional love can also make a difference in emotional well-being. According to research from 2010, children who receive higher levels of affection from their parents or caregivers tend to have greater resilience in adulthood. They also tend to experience fewer mental health symptoms.
Results from a 2013 study support the idea that loving children unconditionally improves their lifelong health and wellness. This suggests parental unconditional love could offer some protection against the harmful, often lingering effects of childhood trauma or abuse.
It feels secure
Unconditional love can provide a sense of security in both childhood and adulthood.
Feeling confident in someone’s love and knowing it won’t go away can help create secure attachments and foster autonomy, independence, and self-worth.
If you know your parents or caregivers will continue to love you even after you make mistakes or do things they don’t approve of — from failing a class to having a drink at a party when you’re underage — you’ll feel more comfortable making your own choices and learning from them as you go.
In the context of friendship, unconditional love might weather tests like conflict, falling out of touch, or differing life goals.
When it comes to romantic relationships, unconditional love could mean that love doesn’t go away, despite challenges like life-altering health conditions or changes in appearance or personality.
Altruism refers to helpful actions taken to support and benefit others, often at your own expense.
In terms of unconditional love, altruism means you don’t consider any potential benefits of loving someone. You offer your love for their support and benefit.
Love, many say, is its own reward, but you typically don’t get anything out of altruistic acts. This is one point of contention in discussions of unconditional love in romantic situations.
Because healthy relationships, by definition, are mutually beneficial, this would seem to suggest that romantic love — at least within the boundaries of a relationship — can’t be truly unconditional.
It involves acceptance and forgiveness
People aren’t perfect, and nearly everyone makes a few choices they regret. Unconditional love, however, requires unconditional acceptance.
So, you forgive mistakes and continue to offer love and acceptance, even — and this is important — if their choices distress you or cause harm.
You can’t love someone unconditionally unless your love remains unchanged despite their actions. You can, however, love someone unconditionally without having a relationship with them.
Acceptance sometimes involves recognizing when it’s unlikely someone will change and taking steps to protect your own well-being.
What it isn’t
Confusion and misconceptions about the true nature of unconditional love can seem to suggest this type of love reflects unhealthy or toxic relationship dynamics.
There’s an important distinction between offering love and forgiveness and continuing to accept harmful actions. It’s also important to understand you can love someone unconditionally without staying with them unconditionally.
To clear things up a bit more, here’s what unconditional love does not mean.
Ignoring relationship issues
Conflict is normal (and healthy) in relationships. Unconditional love doesn’t mean you avoid this conflict or look away from problematic behavior.
Say your partner spends your joint savings on an expensive exercise bike — a choice you completely disagree with — when you’d agreed to save up for a house. You might not stop loving them, but neither do you ignore the breach of trust.
Depending on the circumstances, you might agree to work together on rebuilding trust (and your savings), but you might also see no future in the relationship. You can walk away still holding forgiveness and love in your heart.
Neglecting your own needs
It’s true that unconditional love can involve some sacrifice, but these sacrifices shouldn’t require you to give up everything you need and want for yourself.
Attempting to meet all your partner’s needs can seem like one way of expressing unconditional love, but this can actually create an unhealthy dynamic in your relationship. No one person can provide another person with everything they need.
You should feel comfortable setting boundaries around things you don’t want to do. What’s more, they should respect your limits and consider any requests you make.
When they can’t provide the support you need, they might offer a potential compromise or help you think of some other solution.
Even when your love doesn’t depend on their ability to meet your needs, you still have those needs — everyone does.
Unconditional love can’t fuel a healthy relationship on its own. It’s essential to take care of your own needs, too, or you won’t be in any position to support someone else.
A sense of safety is a basic human need.
Perhaps your partner says unkind things after drinking. You might tell yourself, “They wouldn’t shout at me if they weren’t drunk.” You might accept that this is who they are and make the choice to forgive their words and continue loving them.
But unconditional love doesn’t mean staying in an unhealthy situation when you’re better off letting go.
You want them to be happy, but what if quitting drinking and dealing with the issues that trigger the urge to drink would improve their health and help them find greater happiness?
Again, you can offer forgiveness and love even after safely leaving the relationship.
Blanket tolerance for harmful behavior can prevent them from making needed changes. Though remember that this absolutely doesn’t mean you’re to blame. The responsibility for their actions rests entirely in their hands.
Is it even possible?
If you’re starting to think unconditional love sounds a lot more complicated than you’d imagined, you’ve pretty much hit the mark.
As one philosophy professor pointed out, even the love between a parent and a child falls short of unconditional. A parent might love their child no matter what they do, but this love still has a condition: They love their child because their child is theirs.
In a similar vein, consider the love you have for your partner or anyone else. What triggered it originally? Perhaps you felt attracted to certain specific characteristics: sense of humor, a kind heart, intelligence.
If they no longer had those characteristics, would your love continue, unaltered? From a philosophical perspective, if conditions never change, you might never know whether your love truly is unconditional.
In reality, love grows and shifts over time. It can also fade, through no fault of anyone involved. Love changes, in part, because people change. You, or your partner, may not be the same person years down the line.
Instead of seeking out an idealized, potentially unattainable type of love, try for a better, more realistic, goal: mature love founded on compassion and respect.
Fostering it in your relationship
While a parent may love their child from the moment of birth, romantic love can take a little more time and effort.
These strategies can help you nurture and sustain deep, lasting love.
Offer respect, even when you disagree
You and your partner are two different people, so it makes sense you’ll have a difference of opinion at some point.
Many people think of conflict as something negative, but it isn’t always bad. It can even improve the health of your relationship when handled in a productive way.
When navigating conflict, it’s important to accept any differences with respect. You want to send a message that says, “I disagree with you, but I still respect your opinion.”
Once you both express your opinions, you can begin working toward resolution. This might involve collaboration or compromise. Without respect, though, it’ll be tough.
Practice open communication
Good communication should be clear, honest, and timely. All the honest, open sharing in the world may not make much difference if it comes too late.
By communicating with your partner, you show your respect and commitment to working through challenges and finding ways to meet conflicting goals.
For better communication:
Bring up issues as they arise instead of letting your irritation simmer and gather heat.
Share your thoughts honestly, but also listen empathically to what your partner has to say.
Make sure to clarify when you don’t understand something to better prevent conflict in the future.
If you’re not used to communicating in this way (plenty of us aren’t), be patient. Things will get easier with practice.
Support each other
Most relationships that thrive involve plenty of mutual support.
When your partner struggles, you listen with empathy or offer a helping hand, and they do the same for you. You stay mindful of their needs as well as your own, and they know you have their back when they’re up against something they can’t handle alone.
A time may come when you find yourself sacrificing something for their benefit, but sacrifice and support should go both ways. A healthy relationship involves not just take, but also some give — so they’ll likely make sacrifices for your benefit, too.
The bottom line
Unconditional love might sound like a dream come true. But while love is one thing, a relationship is quite another.
A healthy relationship does have conditions, of a sort: your boundaries. If your partner doesn’t respect your boundaries, the relationship isn’t healthy, no matter how deeply you love them.
Moving on from it, then, could be an act of unconditional self-love.