What's Wrong with
Unconditional Love?
(Part 1)

by Willard F. Harley, Jr.

Click here for
What's Wrong with Unconditional Love?
(Part 2)


The Today Show on NBC has been airing a wedding feature lately where a couple has all of their wedding expenses covered -- if they're willing to let all of the wedding preparations, and the wedding itself, be televised. I happened to watch one of the weddings yesterday, and I noticed something that I've seen in most weddings: The bride and groom promised to love each other unconditionally.

Before I launch into an analysis of this common promise, and highly promoted goal for marriage, let me take you back to the wedding vows that my wife, Joyce, and I were to recite to each other: "I promise to love you in joy and in sorrow, plenty and want, sickness and health, as long as we both shall live." I remembered it correctly when it was my turn. But Joyce didn"t. Instead, she said, "I promise to love you in joy and in plenty, in health and in wealth as long as we both shall live." She claimed that it was an honest mistake, but it sure has kept me on my toes. Any downturn in fortune, and I'm not sure what she'll do.

But the vows that I made to Joyce were not for unconditional love. My vows were that I would care for her regardless of conditions beyond our control. For example, I didn't promise to love and care for her if she divorced me. And that would have been only one of a host of decisions by her that would have ended my commitment, as it should be.

So let me explain to you what unconditional love in marriage is, and then we'll see whether or not it makes any sense to promise such a thing at a wedding. Let's begin by taking the phrase apart, looking at each word critically.

"Unconditional" means that there are no prerequisites or contingencies to the promise. The promise of love is to be made regardless of all circumstances, including what the other person chooses to do. There should be no confusion regarding its meaning.

"Love," however, is a different matter, and I've seen many different ways to define it. I define love as applied to marriage in two ways: (1) romantic love which is the feeling of incredible attraction to someone and (2) caring love which is meeting someone's needs. When you're in love, you feel something, and when you care, you do something.

I have specifically eliminated a third definition of love that is widely expressed: Wishing someone the best in life. When someone says "I love everyone," that's usually what they mean. And that kind of love can reasonably be given unconditionally. Personally, I want everyone to be happy, and no one to suffer regardless of what they've done to me or others. If that's what's meant by unconditional love at a wedding, I have no problem with it.

But in that context, the wedding vow could be offered to the audience as well as the bride and groom. Using this meaning of love at a wedding, doesn't make much sense because it doesn't offer a unique promise.

My definitions of love makes the spouse very unique, but the promise itself very conditional. If I promise to be incredibly attracted to Joyce, and to meet her emotional needs for the rest of our lives together, it doesn't make sense if there are no conditions attached.

Romantic love, my first definition of love, is created when someone makes massive Love Bank deposits by meeting important emotional needs. When an account is high enough to breach the romantic love threshold, a feeling of incredible attraction is reached. If those deposits continue, and withdrawals don't threaten to reduce the balance significantly, romantic love is experienced indefinitely. I've been in love with Joyce for the entire 46 years that we've been married because she's kept her account in the stratosphere.

If I had promised to be in love with Joyce unconditionally, I would have failed to understand how romantic love is created and destroyed. It's not what I do that causes me to be in love with Joyce--it's what she does. So I can only promise to be in love with her if she meets my important emotional needs, and avoids hurting me. I have nothing to do with it, except to give her an opportunity to make those deposits.

My second definition of love, caring love, makes unconditional love seem possible. Technically, I could try to meet my wife's emotional needs without condition. But could I do it indefinitely, and would it be a good idea?

Let's take a few examples. Suppose a wife were to have an affair, divorce her husband, and marry her lover. Should her ex-husband continue supporting her financially if they had no children together? Should he provide the same support that he would if they were married? Should he be there to help her through life's struggles? Some who believe in unconditional love feel that he should.

Or, suppose a husband sexually molested their children and ended up in prison. Should his wife continue to meet his emotional needs during conjugal visits? Some who believe in unconditional love think that she should.

What if a husband were to beat his wife senseless in a fit of drunken rage? Should she continue to meet his emotional needs? I once counseled a couple where the husband tried to kill his wife three times. After his last effort he buried her in a shallow grave because he thought she was dead. But she managed to recover, dig herself free, and crawl for help. Should she give him another chance? Should she meet his emotional needs for the rest of his life? The elders of her church thought she should because they believed in unconditional love. After I encouraged her to divorce her husband, they never referred anyone to me again.

I believe that a couple in a marital relationship should meet each other's important emotional needs, and avoid hurting each other. That should be their promise to each other on the day of their wedding. If they keep their promise, they'll be in love with each other throughout their marriage, just like Joyce and me. But if one violates that commitment, should the other be held to it?

I've heard almost every argument in favor of unconditional love, and I've found that the argument that is the most difficult for me to refute is religious. While this argument has been made by advocates of many different religions, I'll focus on the Christian argument because that's the faith that I endorse.

The argument goes something like this: We should love our spouses unconditionally because Jesus Christ loves us unconditionally. Even if it's not safe or practical to do so (as with infidelity, physical abuse, or divorce) we should love unconditionally out of obedience to God. While I certainly encourage being in obedience to God, I can't find any text from the Christian Bible that suggests that conclusion.

The phrase, "unconditional love" is found nowhere in Scripture. We read "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16). Those who encourage us to love unconditionally take this to mean that God loves us all unconditionally. But if that's true, it must be my third meaning of the word, love--he wishes us the best in life. That's because the verse goes on to explain that we must do something to save ourselves. According to this verse, we must meet his conditions to be saved. Specifically, we must believe in Jesus Christ. Since the vast majority of the human race does not believe in Jesus, we must assume from this verse and others that while God may love the world and would like them to be saved, most of humanity will not meet the conditions. A faith in Jesus Christ is required.

The concept of salvation itself is expressed in many different ways in various texts, but it always comes with a condition. It's never suggested that salvation comes with no strings attached. As one example, "If you confess with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved" (Romans 10:9). And making Christ lord of your life is not a trivial condition.

Just as our relationship with God is bilateral, where we must both fulfill our commitment for the relationship to function, our marital relationship is also bilateral. A successful marriage is one where both husband and wife care for each other by meeting each other's important emotional needs, and avoid hurting each other.

So if there's no religious reason to give or receive unconditional love in marriage, we're left with practical reasons. And I know of none. If Joyce were to tell me that she loves me unconditionally, and were to mean by that that she'll meet my emotional needs regardless of how I treat her, I wouldn't be very motivated to treat her with utmost care. I could get away with anything, knowing that she'd be there to pick up the pieces. There are many that I counsel that expect to be cared for unconditionally after an affair, abuse, and even attempted murder. After all, it was promised at the time of their wedding.

My job as a marriage counselor is to encourage both spouses to meet each other's emotional needs, and avoid hurting each other. When they follow my advice, they fall in love and stay in love. But one spouse can't do the job alone. They must work together to build a successful marriage. Neither should promise unconditional love because a great marriage is a joint effort that requires many conditions.

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