If it's Conditional it's Not Love

IMG_2718We have a redundant phrase in our lexicon: Unconditional love. To say “unconditional” love indicates that real love can be anything other than unconditional. It’s like what I learned in high school English that it’s redundant to say “close proximity” because the very definition of proximity is to be close. But the truth is that if it’s conditional, it’s not love, and, sadly, much of what we call “love” isn’t love at all but approval. My clients often share the following examples:

“I know my parents loved me but they were disappointed if I came home with mediocre grades.”

This isn’t love.

“I know my mom loved me but when I behaved badly – like broke a dish accidentally – she would get so angry and then withdraw her warmth.”

This isn’t love. And breaking a dish isn’t behaving badly. It’s being a kid.

“I know my parents love me but they seems so much happier with me when I’m doing well in my job and dating someone they approve of.”

This isn’t love. It’s approval.

So what is love?

Love doesn’t have to be earned.

Love doesn’t have to be proven.

When someone truly loves you, they love you for who you are, not for what you do.

When a baby is born, the parents don’t look at that baby and say, “We’ll only love her if she gets straight As (preferably A pluses), is beautiful, dresses well, is tidy and polite, excels at sports, and attends an Ivy League kindergarten.” No, they love the baby because she exists, because she’s a miracle, because she’s here.

Love isn’t dependent on “good” behavior which, in our culture, is defined by sharing your toys, not making a mess, using an indoor voice when you’re indoors, saying please and thank you and excuse me, not screaming in public, not crying too much or at all, not bothering your parents as you’re trying to fall asleep or in the middle of the night. A parent might not like all of their child’s behavior, but they don’t punish their child for being a child and they don’t withdraw their love even when things are hard.

Love is consistent. That doesn’t mean that parents are never triggered (God knows we are), but that they take responsibility for their triggers and apologize when they’ve acted out. Underneath the trigger, the child can feel the river of love that never stops flowing.

Love is as love does. It’s not enough to say to your child “I love you” if it’s not followed by loving action. Love means you take good care of your child physically, emotionally, and spiritually, doing your own inner work so that you can attend to your child’s needs. Again, I don’t mean that parents need to be perfect in any of these areas or in the area of self-love, but that there’s a deep devotion to taking responsibility for your own healing so that you can provide a healthy role-model for your child for what it means to show up for oneself and others with love and compassion.

When we’ve been raised with conditional “love”, we often develop into perfectionists as adults. The underlying belief is, “If I figure out how to do it perfectly enough, I’ll be loved.” As a child’s deepest need is to be loved, it’s not hard to imagine that children will do anything to figure out how to access their parents’ coveted approval (which they’ve mistaken for love). Then they spend the rest of their lives trying to win the love/approval of everyone around them, including teachers, friends, lovers, and bosses. As Rachel Naomi Remen so brilliantly writes in her book, Kitchen Table Wisdom:

The pursuit of perfection has become a major addiction of our time. Fortunately, perfectionism is learned. No one is born a perfectionist, which is why it is possible to recover. I am a recovering perfectionist. Before I began recovering, I experienced that I and everyone else was always falling short, that who we were and what we did was never quite good enough. I sat in judgement on life itself. Perfectionism is the belief that life is broken.

Sometimes perfectionists have had a parent who is a perfectionist, someone who awarded approval on the basis of performance and achievement. Children can learn early that they are loved for what they do and not simply for who they are. To a perfectionistic parent, what you do never seems as good as what you might do if tried just a little harder. The life of such children can become a constant striving to earn love. Of course love is never earned. It is a grace we give one another. Anything we need to earn is only approval.

Love is a grace we give one another. 

Love is sometimes effortful, but it’s not based on someone else’s effort.

Love is what happens when we open our hearts and allow the love that naturally lives inside to flow forth.

Love, by its very definition, is unconditional.

Love is a gift.

Love is why we’re here.


Related articles:



25 comments to If it’s Conditional it’s Not Love

  • Tanya

    One of my favourite ever posts Sheryl, thank you so much. As a recovering perfectionist myself it’s so very true how addictive it is to have that never attainable approval – and wow how refreshing it is that love is grace! I just want to kiss my computer screen. Incidentally, I have learned a lot about my own propensity towards conditional love from one of my dogs who is very ‘high energy’ – hehe – but as you say ‘that’s just being a kid’ or a rescue dog in this case – that’s just his nature. Human beings tend to reward dogs (like kids) as good and punish bad behaviour, but my little doggie challenges me to see that just because he is alive is reason to love him. Though his nature is more wild no other dog can make me laugh like him. It’s a blessing to learn this. Thankyou again!

  • lalalove

    Wow, this post was perfect for today Sheryl! I was literally just talking about this in therapy. And…I love the picture that you posted with it for a million reasons 🙂 I love checking the blog every week to see if the new one is up yet!

  • Joshua

    Hey, I love this article. I have a question. What is your opinion on the phrases “my partner makes me happy” or “my partner doesnt make me happy.”. Is there any credence to that thought process or is it not up to the partner, but rather, the self, to provide and find happiness?

    • Sarah

      I know for me anyway, learning that I wasn’t responsible for my husband’s happiness (nor he for mine!) was really healthy. I sort of look at it like when I’m settled in myself happiness flows really easily…I’m able to appreciate little things about my relationship that I may otherwise miss, and it makes happiness sort of well up. Likewise, when my husband and I have a conflict, it’s really easy to go into either defense or attack mode and react to what he says (especially hard for me if he brings up feeling hurt in some way). But if I look at what’s under my upset it’s usually fear that I haven’t been “perfect” in some way, or sadness, or some other thing. The conflict just sort of stirs up things that are already there anyway.

      I do think there are probably instances where people say that, and the underlying reality is their partner has some red flag issues…but even there, I don’t think people create emotions for each other…more a case of being around them stirs up feelings of discontent, etc. That’s probably worth looking at deeper though and not dismissing as “they just don’t make me happy.”

  • Ali

    Dear Sheryl,

    Each of your blog posts is like a gift. Each causes us to think.

    Here is what today’s post has made me think:
    We are loved because we are loved, not because we are worthy of love, deserving of love, or have earnt the love. But parents who love imperfectly (the examples you quote) are (probably) still doing their best; they themselves were no doubt imperfectly loved. Lucky are we who have parents who love us simply because we exist. And I think we carry a burden to show others what love can look like.

    I learn much from you. (And from your other readers, particularly Tanya today with her “I just want to kiss my computer screen.”!!!!!)

    Best wishes from Switzerland

  • Sarah

    Joshua, that is a really interesting question! My heart sense of things is that the happiness comes from within.

    I’ll wake up some mornings feeling blissful and alive, and on these mornings, I find that loving feelings toward my partner come easily. Other mornings, I’ll wake up feeling sort of numb, and I’ll notice that I feel like my heart is blocked under a layer of cotton and that I don’t feel connected to my partner.

    I also notice that when I act in a loving way toward my partner or toward myself, I can get through the blockage. I feel the connection again, but I also just feel more in general. Rather than numbness, I feel this lovely sense of gratitude and sometimes a happy/sadness. This sadness is something that I can attend to, and the happiness seems to serve as a guide, as if coming from my core, and informing me that this is what lies underneath, and that the sadness can take the time it needs to pass.

    However, I must say that I struggle with your question in terms of my friends. It feels like we are growing in different directions, and while I know that sometimes you need to let this separation happen, I also don’t want to feel like I am abandoning them just because they are not making me happy. In other words, shouldn’t I be loving them unconditionally too, even when I want/expect/hope they will act differently?

    • Toni

      Hi sarah

      I couldn’t agree more with what you’ve said. I am suffering with depression at present so it’s hard for me to feel much at all, which for someone so used to giving and feeling love is extremely frustrating for me. However i have noticed that when i’m feeling better in myself i am able to give and feel love more freely, which results in me feeling more positive all together. These times aren’t often at present, but i’m hoping that if i keep pushing through and with the help of my therapist and medication i will eventually beat the depression and will once again be able to feel the happiness i felt before, and therefore be able to give love more openly to my partner. I am fortunate to have a partner who stands by me every day and i pray that we will get through this hard time and come out the other side happier and stronger together.


  • Me myself and I

    Sarah, I agree with you that letting go o friends who r no longer making u happy is hard to do. Are you unhappy with th because they aren’t meeting ur expectations? I’ve learned things with some friends r a lot better when u let go of expectations. I remind myself that this is the way so and so is and I choose to accept it and don’t end up getting as unhappy as I used to be. When I see them, it’s when i want to see them and I enjoy my time with them. I don’t count on th for emotional support the way I used to…more like social support. They’re still good people and worth having in my life socially! Hang in there!

  • Janelle

    Love this Sheryl! My husband and I both have the phrase “unconditional love” inscribed on our wedding rings!

  • Jenny

    its so true that love is an action and showing you care, its not what you say it is what you do, I love my partner in so many ways and I am attracted to him, what gets me is kind of like knowing your in the right relationship, that your happy, that your not just staying, that your not fooling yourself, i had a chat today with a load of friends about relationships granted they were younger, we started talking about our exs and i really and truly have no feeling for my ex but chatting about it made me feel uneasy, a friend commented that maybe he came onto my sister to make me jealous this is years ago but in my head i was like what if i missed something i know its ridiculous and i know he was definitely not the right man for me, im with the right man right now!!

    Still though i think its the anxiety of listening to them chatting about 6 relationships and they are 22-24 and im 30 and only really ever had one proper realtionship which is with my husband, to be honest i am really lucky i skipped all the crap and met someone i get on with and someone who loves me for me, and who i love but the thoughts are always there and then i need to seek reassurance its a pattern i am breaking, it just takes time and here is the only place i know i will be understood.

    I think i read here relationships can be very difficult for anxious people, for worried people we find it hard enough to cope ourselves and then on top of it is a relationship and its like having to deal with two people its difficult and sometimes it feels like it would be easier not to have to worry about anything, or the rightness of something but i know it will all be okay, when i do connect with myself on a deep level the truth and pain does surface and i know i will be okay.

    • Brianna

      I love this post! You have thought everything that runs through my mind. The only problem is that I think those thoughts a lot because of this emptiness feeling that I have. This post did reassure me that things will be ok. Thanks Jenny!

      • Jenny

        I am glad it helped you Brianna, I see your posts on here you remind me of me alot, the emptiness doesnt have anything to do with your partner though you would have that with anyone, it is within you.I hope your feeling better.

        • Brianna

          Thanks Jenny. I know it has nothing to do with him, even though it scared me so much because it makes me question how I feel. I keep trying to tell myself that I don’t have to feel love all the time. God knows I don’t feel it with my family. I just feel like with my boyfriend it should be how it was before the anxiety. I hate seeing things so different and sometimes feeling worse than ever. But he can always put a smile on my face 🙂 and I refuse to lose him because this anxiety was over te thought of us ever ending.

  • Chloe

    Hi, this is a great article that I identify with on many levels. However I find it unclear what you mean by loving a person for “who they are”. For parents I can understand that they love their children just because they are their children, in a way it is an instinctual thing. But for partners and friends, when they were first strangers, isn’t the connection partly based on what they do? And who we perceive and know them to be is because of what they do again and again. If love were truly unconditional in the purest sense of the word we would be loving everyone equally but that isn’t the case. Then it would also be helpful to strike a difference between loving universally as an action and “privately” based on the connection we feel with the person? For example, if the partner we love because we know him to be a great person based on the kindness he shows repeatedly, acts like a jerk or becomes abusive then is he still the same person we knew (loving someone for who they are). Keeping in mind that people are also constantly changing and nothing is permanent.

  • Tessa

    thank you for writing this, reading it was a much needed breath of fresh air!

  • Tom Rhodes

    Question #1 True or False (circle one)
    Love is conditional?
    Answer: True
    Why True is the answer: Love has boundaries. Can you see a therapist advising a battered wife to stick with narcissistic abusing husband? I believe not! The questions that remain; do we have ego boundaries and where do we choose to draw them?
    I am not alone here read:
    The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm

  • happilyeverafter

    i was wondering if anyone could help me.
    I’ll keep this short and sweet, I’ve suffered from ROCD and HOCD for about 2 and a half years and I’m generally a very sensitive person and a jealous type in relationship.
    I’ve recently found some stuff on my boyfriend’s computer, which has been a total of 4 times i’ve found stuff and the 3 times before that he said he wouldn’t do it again and felt really bad he actually cried. The stuff I found on his history were pictures of half naked random girls and celebrities. This has made me feel very insecure and jealous more then I usually am. Since all of this my ROCD has kicked back into gear, and i just need advice. I lost trust for my boyfriend, and in the midst of this my rocd is telling me i dont love him and all of that. He has been super faithful to me, and is actually an amazing boyfriend. But these incidents have drawn a set back for me.
    Is it normal for me to feel this way towards my boyfriend looking up other girls?(my feelings toward it are that i feel not good enough and that hes not satisfied with me so he has to look at other girls. By the way we live together)
    Is it normal for him to look at these things online?

    Please any advice would help,
    thank you!

  • Toni

    Sheryl have you ever written a blog post specifically about that worry many of us have, over seeing your partner more like a best friend? I just wonder what is normal in relationships as I’ve only had really had relationships with in trustworthy partners, now I’m with the most amazing man who I can trust with my life, he is my best friend, but after 3 years I worry that I see him more like a best friend than a lover, but all my friends tell me this is normal in long term relationships, is this true?
    Many thanks in advance!

  • Kiara

    I must admit that for once I do not fully agree with what you have written. As a mother of 2 young kids, I do want the best for my kids. Yes, I do show my disappointment when they score low in their school exams – but this is because I want them to put in more sincere effort the next time. Yes, I do shout at them when they accidentally break dishes – but this is because I want them to be careful the next time lest they end up hurting themselves. And Yes, once they are young adults, I will be happy if I approve of the person whom they are dating – because I do not want them to get into relationships with the wrong persons and end up broken hearted later. Does this mean my love is conditional? Definitely not. I just want the best of them which is why I express my disappointment, unhappiness and disapproval to them. I love them and will love them even if they fare poorly at school, even if they accidentally break all my dishes and even I do not approve of their partners. I love them simply because… (I cant fill this out – a parent really does not need a reason to love his/her child).

  • Adelina

    Robin Grille’s is a true eye-opener. As someone who grew up chasing the carrot, I can wholeheartedly say it hasn’t done me much favour. While my parents have done a great job as much as they could and helped me achieved a lot, I find myself seeking approval a lot, neurotic about what others might think and more often than not, I question my decisions.

  • Chelsea

    Sheryl, i was wondering about the e course, is it designed to remove all doubt an fear or just give you the tools to help cope with an deal with the anxiety an doubts. Thanks an god bless.

Leave a Reply