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The Myth of Unconditional Love

If you do not accept everything someone thinks, says or does, then you cannot claim to love them, the notion goes. But that’s never been true of any human relationship. Who accepts everything about another human being? What mother wants nothing to change about her son? What wife wants nothing to change about her husband? What teacher seeks to maintain his student’s status quo?

Indeed, true love drives continual growth and improvement. True love responds to values sought and attained, to principles manifest in action.

I love my wife for who she is, not for whatever she happens to be, but for what she believes and how she lives her life. Her values align with my own. I could not love her otherwise. If I claimed to, it would be a lie.

When we consider the relationship between parent and child, the notion of unconditional love may seem to apply. Surely, we love our children in spite of their mistakes, disrespect, and bad behavior. But our love does not move us to accept those qualities. On the contrary, our love motivates discipline with the intent to guide them toward an adulthood marked by autonomy, responsibility, and honor. We don’t want them to merely be accepted. We want them to be respectable. We want their life to meet conditions which warrant rational approval from others.

Of course, there are deviants. There are mothers who “love” their sons and think that means overlooking bad behavior. The same happens between spouses. But these are not healthy relationships. The mother who coddles her wayward son is not doing her job. She is not loving him in a meaningful way, to good effect. The wife who puts up with her husband’s infidelity and abuse is not loving him by doing so. A teacher who dishes out unearned grades cannot be said to care for their student.

Love requires judgment. Love upholds standards. Love sets conditions. When our loved ones fall short, we correct them in love. If we didn’t care, we wouldn’t bother. In that sense, what the "unconditional love" peddlers sell is not actually love, but a miserable and toxic indifference.