Daniel Catalaa

Love and Conditionality

(Authored by Daniel Catalaa on July 31st, 2009)
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If you look carefully, you will see that every person has a unique and special way to love others, and that is what I would like to address in this article. For this discussion, when I speak about love I equate it to growth, whether physical or spiritual. Love is any action we take intended to help ourselves or others to grow. So providing morphine to relieve a patient's pain is loving but providing it to an addict is unloving. As this example illustrates intent and evaluating outcomes are key in determining whether an action, and by extent a person, was loving or unloving. Furthermore, I think of love in broad terms and include any of its outlets such as affection, compassion, money, time, information, understanding, assistance, companionship, material resources, order and organization, or mentoring.

Types of love

Unconditional love is the type that depends on nothing, it is just given freely. For conditional love to be bestowed instead, it requires the recipient to meet criteria that the giver has set. I will make the case in this article for the many benefits that conditional love offers over unconditional love though it is not equally as prized.

For all the romantics out there, unconditional love does exists, but only as a theoretical concept in your mind. So long as it remains a non-actualized intention, it can preserve its independence from conditions. However, the moment it is acted upon and put into practice, the hidden or implicit conditions surface. Being aware of these unstated conditions, instead of assuming that they do not exist, will make you a better giver.

Admittedly, when comparing the two types of love, I can see the value and nobility of unconditional love, yet most if not all of the love that I have experienced has been conditional. Some of the conditions were very basic and easy to meet, but yet they were still there. For example, from the giver's perspective, these are common conditions set:

  • Safety/Survival: I will love you unconditionally if I feel safe while doing so (e.g. when receiver is prone to violence or unpredictable)
  • Capacity/Wellbeing: I will love you unconditionally if I can at the time (e.g. givers that have trouble meeting their own needs)
  • Dignity: I will love you unconditionally if I feel respected (e.g. aid recipients that manipulate via guilt or appeals to pity)
  • Reciprocity: I will love you unconditionally if you love me unconditionally (e.g. marriages and other types of normalized codependency)
  • Exclusivity: I will love you unconditionally if you love me and only me-me-me (e.g. Abrahimic gods and cell phone contracts :o) )
  • Appreciation/Recognition: I will love you unconditionally if you privately or publicly demonstrate gratitude (e.g. from a simple "thank you" to a charity and philanthropy gala)
  • Investment/Legacy: I will love you unconditionally if you use my love in constructive ways (e.g. food stamps)
  • Relativity of need: I will love you unconditionally if no one else needs it more than you (e.g. financial aid, emergency room services)

Most of love is conditional (and this is a good thing)

In our minds we can love unconditionally; for example, I love all the starving children of the world. But when it comes to the practical real-life decision of precisely who we will love, how we will love, and under what circumstances, that is when conditions are placed upon our love. So, we harbor a genuine unconditional desire to love everybody and always, but in the execution phase we love some people, some of the time, and with conditions. This means that the desire to love and be loved is innate, unconditional, and eternal, but the act of love requires intent, is conditional, and the effects are impermanent (we will always need a little more love).

A love that makes you grow

Unconditional love is a myth and when we attempt to love in this way it inhibits the growth of the people we are trying to help because there is no standard they need to meet. This is a reality that is hard to accept because it runs contrary to the romanticized notion of love that we see portrayed on television, in religious texts, and in fairy tales ("I will love you forever, no matter what, for better or worse, etc."). An example of the ineffectiveness of unconditional love is charity. With charity recipients are rewarded for remaining helpless and the recipients believe that they will be punished (i.e. aid will be diminished or eliminated) if they start fending for themselves.

Let's suppose that as you walked down the street you came across a homeless person. Would you put a coin in his cup? Maybe yes, maybe no. Now consider the same situation, except that this time the homeless person has a guitar strapped around their neck. In all likelihood you will only drop a coin if (a) he is playing and (b) you like his music. In this example the giver unwittingly rewards panhandlers into becoming better at begging or promotes them into becoming better musicians. The conditions you set for charity, a form of love, are extremely important. If you reward me for begging I will stop showering so that I look dirty, I will rehearse the pity woe-of-me look, and I will remove my prosthetic limb for greater effect. If you reward me for my music, I will buy new guitar strings and I will use my free time to compose new songs. Unconditional love would have you give to both the industrious and the self-defeating panhandler. Does this make sense? Is this the healthiest choice for all involved?

The stigma of conditional love

We may find it disturbing to acknowledge that most often where we find exchanges of love (people interacting basically) we find conditions or strings attached. The conditions may be minor, they may be implicit and not openly expressed, but they exist.

Sometimes, it is not until we cannot meet someone else's conditions or someone does not meet our own that we discover the existence of conditions. Somehow this love feels impure, distinctly more mundane than divine, yet it is the most widespread and commonly exchanged. If you want to ride the bus, you need to pay the fare. If you wanted your parent's approval you had to clean your room.

Unfortunately, conditional love is not held in as high esteem as unconditional love. However, it is more beneficial because it pushes us to grow beyond our boundaries. Think of all the things you did or became in order to receive the conditional approval, affection, and admiration of others. You did well in your classes, you got the job, you developed your talents, you lost some weight, you faced your fears, and you asked yourself “how can I become better?” And by “better” I mean, more worthy of conditional love.

I would like to acknowledge that we do have a fundamental value as human beings that is independent of our choices and performance. The recognition of this inherit value is what brings us to feed prisoners despite their deeds, to slow down for distracted pedestrians, and to flush the toilet before we leave. But this baseline of default unconditional love is minimal and, though we could attempt to live off of it, it is not enough to flourish.

The opportunity cost

It is a disservice to society to love unconditionally somebody that will waste that love instead of loving somebody conditionally who will use, augment, and spread the love invested in them. For example, I am glad that financial aid for college is dependent on a student's minimum GPA requirement and that Medicare pays out based on a doctor's performance. These conditions ensure that these public resources are invested in those who are more likely to grow and then in turn benefit others.

When love is framed around a win-lose paradigm, the giver will give less often and to a lesser extent. The receiver must wait around until the giver becomes motivated, inspired, or emotionally moved to assist. Instead conditional love is always available and in abundance because it is a win-win proposition. Since I do not need to place somebody else's wellbeing above my own (unsustainable) I can place both my wellbeing and that of the receiver as a joint priority (sustainable).

Merits of unconditional love

There is one aspect of conditional love that may cause anxiety in the recipient. We may live in constant fear that they will one day not meet the giver's conditions and will lose the love. In light of this downside, I do consider that there are judicious uses of unconditional love. Unconditional love has the power to turn around jaded and cynical individuals into believing again in the basic goodness of humankind. Unconditional love is so selfless and puzzling from a logical stance that it compels those who have been disappointed to believe again in their fellow Man and by extension in themselves. Some examples include the pacifism embodies and lived out by Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi in the face of threats and violence.

The conditions of conditional love

When we love conditionally there may be an implicit assumption that we will know what are the best conditions to set before we love ourselves or others. What if we are wrong or sub-optimal in our choice of conditions? What if I encourage my child to become an architect when the best career for them would have been to be a musician?

We shy away from setting conditions to our love, perhaps because we believe that this responsibility can be avoided or delegated. It is my contention that thoughtful conditional love is better for the recipient than thoughtless unconditional love. If I give a compulsive gambler money for his next bet, is that love? No, it is a waste of resources and it's a type of codependency: The giver avoids coming across as a heartless bad guy, and the addict gets his high. It would actually be much better to invest the money through a microloan on a farmer getting ready to plant her next crop. Let's contrast these two manifestations of love. A loan has conditions, it needs to be paid back and it needs to be used for the intended purpose. A handout has no strings attached, but is ultimately not beneficial because it lacks growth accountability. Charity only offers short term relief and is undermined by a latent potential for co-dependency between donor and recipient. Investment, instead, leads to long term growth for the donor who needs to generate enough reserves of love, patience, or wealth before giving, and it benefits the recipient who becomes responsible for the quality and direction of their life.

The best way to love

By now you may be asking yourself what is the best way to love. Since most of the love we create is naturally delivered conditionally, instead of artificially avoiding conditions (e.g. by promising “I will always love you”), we should practice and feel increasingly comfortable setting conditions and make them the best conditions possible. The litmus test on the wisdom of our choice will be whether all involved will experience growth. For example our romantic vows could become “Provided we experience greater wellbeing together than apart, let’s be together”. At this point you have built in wellbeing as a standing ever-present condition to your relationship, so that you will experience wellness together, or you will be on your own and enjoying your peace and solitude. But you will not have to become a martyr that stagnates in an unhealthy relationship out of a sense of unconditional duty. By setting conditions that use love as a reward, we can shape the behavior of others to better work with us and to help them grow personally. Conversely, others can offer us their love if we grow enough to reach for it, by maturing or leaving our comfort zone for example.

On the other hand, there is certain nobility associated with unconditional love, and to the extent that we can love unconditionally, we will know how far we have grown spiritually. A word of caution however, be careful how you define love. Sometimes loving someone means to do nothing, to let go, to close a door, to discipline, or to tell an upsetting truth. That is why our love for a well adjusted adult, a manipulative parent, a generous coworker, an insecure child, a hyperactive dog, or a good boss manifests and feels so different. If we interpret unconditional love to always do what the recipient desires and asks for, we will destroy them and their opportunity to grow. This is a good thing to remember when we are not receiving the type of “love” we hope for from others and we are wondering why.

Conclusion

All love is conditional, albeit to different degrees. Hence, at the receiving end, you will only experience love for which healthy or unhealthy conditions have been set. On the giving side, we cannot evade our responsibility to chose carefully the conditions for love because they are likely to have a significant impact on others.

A good rule of thumb is to love conditionally under normal circumstances and more unconditionally in cases of emergencies. For example, when we are dealing with someone that has broken our trust, that does not understand us, that is offending us, that we do not agree with, and that we perceive as a threat, that is the time to love unconditionally and to confer upon them the minimum baseline of love, respect, and dignity, that we reserve for all human beings specially under adverse circumstances. But outside of these unusual circumstances, revert to well thought-out conditional love. In closing, my contention is that conditional love is often the most beneficial type of love when the recipient and their situation can be studied carefully.

Now get out there and do some loving!