Anyone else troubled by “unconditional” love?

In a recent interview for the poetry journal Rattle, Troy Jollimore put his finger on exactly what has always bothered me about the language of “unconditional love.” And–seeing as how he’s a highly credentialed philosopher and poet–he nailed it pretty darn well, so I’ma just step back now and let him speak (though any emphasis you see is added by yours truly):

“The reaction I find myself having when I really think about genuinely unconditional love is that I wouldn’t want to be loved unconditionally, because it would almost have nothing to do with me. I think what we really want is strong love that it would take a whole lot to threaten.

Like if somebody said to me, “I love you but if you change your hairstyle I won’t love you anymore,” that’s no good. That’s not nearly stable enough. So I want somebody who’s going to stay by me and continue to love me even through some pretty radical changes that I might undergo.

But if somebody said to me, and really meant it, “I would love you no matter what. I would love you if you became a Nazi, if you became a child murderer and just went around killing children randomly—I would still love you,” I would think, “Well, that’s terrifying.” I don’t want to be loved that way.

It’s unconditional but I don’t want to be loved unconditionally, partly because—Freud said this, actually, that part of why being loved is valuable is because you feel like you’re being seen as worthy of it; this person admires you, they see these positive things about you.

If someone said, “I would love you no matter how awful you became,” then suddenly the love is worth less. You’d say, “Wait a minute, no, I want you to love me because I’m wonderful, and I want you to keep loving me even if some pretty bad things happen, but I don’t want you to love me no matter what I am.”

I mean, what good is your love if it’s just sort of a brute attachment?”

yes YES exactly

I love this discussion. It’s got Nazis, Freud, and “love me despite this terrible poodle perm!”–all rolled into one glorious tribute to the goal of a strong love that can endure, yet remain human.

6 thoughts on “Anyone else troubled by “unconditional” love?

  1. Allow me to express a contrarian’s view. Unconditional love means I won’t stop loving you, no matter what. It doesn’t mean that I won’t express distaste, disapproval or downright anger at what you’ve done or become. Sometimes unconditional love takes the ultimate and painful form of stepping away from and out of the life of the one loved while still loving. Unconditional love also contains the power of transformation. I know that, not so much as because I’ve loved unconditionally but because I’ve been loved and am loved in that manner. And, yes, unconditional human love can falter and fail, but that’s the challenge of being human. Perhaps another issue is “what in the world do we mean by ‘love’?”

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    1. Haha! By all means, please be contrarian! I in no way expect to have either the final or the definitive word on this. 🙂

      “What in the world do we mean by ‘love’?” is absolutely a key issue. Both semantically and in practice, being the recipient of “unconditional love” easily encompasses two opposed positions: subject (as in “You are someone for whom my love is unconditional”–which is, I think, what you are talking about) and also object (“I am someone whose love for you is unconditional”). The former may help me feel larger, stronger, safer; the latter often makes me feel smaller, constricted, irrelevant. Even perhaps trapped.

      (In related news, ‘love’ remains most def on my list of Hot Words: http://wp.me/p3cZVe-4R)

      best!

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  2. I remember telling someone something like, “I love you for who you are and I don’t expect you to change.” I have learned that that was false, I did want and expect change and that love I promised, unconditionally, has withered. I question that without the challenge of condition we have nothing to strive for, no reason to be better…although this idea could simply be another in a long line of fucked up assumptions about love and life and marriage and happiness.

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