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Is Love Unconditional? New Book Defends Compassionate, Unromantic Love

02/12/2015 08:21 am ET | Updated Feb 12, 2015
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The following is an excerpt from On Romantic Love: Simple Truths About a Complex Emotion by Berit Brogaard. The text proposes that love can be rational and controllable, in spite of popular conceptions.

Is love unconditional?

If you love a person romantically because of the way she walks or the way she talks, it may seem that romantic love is always conditional. After all, your beloved might lose the attributes that made you love her in the first place. Romantic love then would seem very different from other forms of love. You don’t stop loving your kid when the dimples in his cheeks fade away and he starts to smell like teen spirit.

A common belief, though, is that your beloved will stand by your side in sickness and in health. Popular movies like The Notebook portray heroic old people who continue to love their spouses, in spite of enormous hardship. They love them in spite of the fact that an important part of the beloved’s brain has become beset with plaques and tangles, in spite of the fact that the beloved thinks the spouse is the pool guy, in spite of the fact that they are incessantly ransacking the fridge for something edible because they don’t remember that they just ate a three-course dinner. But we don’t need movies to teach us about eternal love. We learned it at the first wedding ceremony we attended as little munchkins. “I, Rose, take you, Tiger, for my lawful husband, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.” This is the love we cherish, indelible love, the love that outlasts permanent changes in personality and bodily function. And there is indeed something sickening and calculated about certain kinds of conditional love. If you stop loving your spouse because he loses his hair, gains five pounds, and develops crows’ feet beside his eyes, you are vain.

But you can be vain without loving only conditionally. If something is conditional, it comes along with a condition. If you were to tell your beloved “I will love you for as long as you have all your hair, your ripped abs, and your smooth baby bottom skin,” your love would be conditional. You have promised to love for as long as the condition obtains and no longer. When the ripped abs turn into a beer belly, your affection for him becomes a figment of his imagination.

But you are probably not that vain. You are not putting a phony condition on your love. You love your beau without a condition and hence (in some sense) unconditionally. To love unconditionally is not the same as loving your companion no matter what. If you love unconditionally, you are not specifying, and could not specify, up front under what conditions your adoration will pass. But there may nonetheless still be circumstances that could put an end to it. If your sweetheart starts beating you with a stick, your affection for him might quickly come to a close.

Quite naturally, you may have become accustomed to equating “to love no matter what” with “to love unconditionally.” If, however, “love” here is meant to refer to romantic love, then I profess that I know few instances of the former. Spouses stay together in sickness and in health but staying together doesn’t entail loving one another romantically. Afraid of entering the love-starved singles market, couples stay together long after their infatuation has faded, which doesn’t take much more than a year’s time. As author and humorist Fran Lebowitz is quoted as saying in Tom Steele’s The Book of Classic Insults, “if you can stay in love for more than a year, you’re on something.”

Compassionate love is more likely to survive obstacles than its romantic counterpart. Few parents stop loving their child even in the grimmest of circumstances. Their love persists even when the misanthropic monster is found guilty of three counts of first-degree murder. They love their child for the reason that he is their child, their bloodline, their creation. The explanation for this unbending steel bond may be biological, or it may be cultivated by our family-obsessed society. But the fact that parental love in many circumstances can survive almost anything doesn’t make all instances of this type of love rational. There can be circumstances in which loving one’s child is no longer justified. For example, in a New Yorker interview the father of Adam Lanza, the Newtown, Connecticut, school shooter, says that he wishes his son had never been born.

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