“Too much control thrives when family members cling to a myth that everything is perfect when it’s not.”
—Dan Neuharth, If You Had Controlling Parents
The following is an excerpt from Reverencing the Wombs That BROKE You by Umm Zakiyyah:
Perhaps it is through observing the enduring affection between mother and child that has most significantly inspired our concepts of unconditional love, a love so strong that it is altered by neither time nor circumstance. But is it real?
In speeches and in writing, unconditional love is praised so highly and spoken about so freely that it seems almost sacrilegious to pose a question that challenges its existence. However, when we are continuously faced with the reality of children neglected and abused by their very own parents—sometimes from birth, sometimes later in life—it behooves us to take a moment to consider what we mean by the term unconditional love. But perhaps more importantly, it is necessary to consider the effects that this definition, as well as its underlying assumptions, has on those who believe in it wholeheartedly, especially when their traumatic personal circumstances suggest otherwise.
When Melanie speaks about her mother loving her as best she can and vice versa, she is not speaking about a natural, effortless love that is unaltered by human choice or circumstance. She is speaking about a love based on conscious, continuous work, a love rooted in deliberate behavior and choice, even as this love is inevitably imperfect. She is not speaking of what many term “unconditional love.”
If we are to understand “unconditional love” according to the apparent meaning of the term, in my view, it is not a concept that exists amongst human beings. Moreover, even if it did exist, it is not a unique, praiseworthy or desirable type of love. My view is shaped not only by my faith tradition, but also by the obvious reality of the world in which we live. As I reflect in my personal journal:
Unconditional love does not exist, nor is it praiseworthy. All love comes with conditions, and should. God Himself has conditions on whom He loves: “But if they turn away [from obedience], then verily, God loves not those who disbelieve” (Qur’an, 3:32).
The Qur’an also specifies the conditions for gaining His love: “Say [O Muhammad], ‘If you love God, [then] follow me. God will love you and forgive you your sins. For God is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful’” (Qur’an, 3:31).
Not Even a Mother’s Love Is Unconditional
Regarding a mother’s natural love for her child, I reflect in my journal:
Natural or innate love, like that between a mother and child, is not the same as unconditional love. Natural love is like a seed lying in fertile ground with no prior effort on your part. However, for that seed to blossom into a fragrant flower or delectable fruit, it requires daily nurturing and care. Otherwise, it dies. Similarly, all love—whether innate or romantic—is conditional upon some level of effort and dedication if it is to remain alive.
Thus, those who say they believe in unconditional love are not really speaking of love that is unconditional per se. Rather they are speaking of deeply felt lasting love. They are speaking of a love that has endured despite the many storms of life that had threatened to weaken or uproot it. Nevertheless, in poetic matters of the heart, hyperbole is generally more palatable and preferable than technical truth. As such, the term unconditional love is favored more than the more accurate term conditional love. In this vein, the usage of the term unconditional love is akin to a term of endearment: Like calling a loved one my angel, baby, or honey, it is meant to be sentimental, not truthful.
Enduring Love, Not Unconditional Love
I propose that a better and more honest term than unconditional love is enduring love, a love that endures precisely because it meets the conditions necessary for that love to endure. In other words, when we are observing what we call “unconditional love,” we are really observing the positive side of conditional love, the only type of love that exists.
In this context, however, it is important to note that the term conditional love does not mean that humans are consciously or overtly demanding that loved ones fulfill certain conditions in order to earn or sustain their love. The term merely refers to the inherent nature of human love itself. Nevertheless, not all conditional love is equal, and perhaps the most obvious example is that of the oft-enduring bond between mother and child compared with the oft-disrupted bond between romantic partners.
While the compassionate bond between a mother and child is arguably the most powerful expression of love on earth, this fact alone does not make it unconditional. It simply makes it possibly the most enduring bond of love and the most difficult to disrupt. But that it can be (and often is) disrupted suggests that certain conditions (whether conscious or unconscious) were not met to ensure that it was sustained long-term.
Before I explain how this all connects to the story of Melanie and others suffering similar trauma, I believe it is important to note that my view of unconditional love is rooted in how I define love itself. To me, while love is definitely rooted in unseen feelings of the heart, love is not merely unseen feelings of the heart. Love, like faith, requires both internal and external manifestation before it can be rightly called love. In other words, love is an action word more than it is a feeling word, though some minimal level of feeling is necessary to make it complete. However, love does not exist simply because someone claims or believes that it does, even if they are speaking of their own heart.
The Myth of Unconditional Love
Naturally, because unconditional love itself is not rooted in human reality, those who claim to believe in it have varying and often contradictory assumptions regarding its existence. Ironically, those with the healthiest view of “unconditional love” define it as rooted in conditions, even as they do not consciously realize they are placing conditions on its definition. In other words, for all practical purposes, they define “unconditional love” as conditional love that has yielded positive, lasting results.
Put another way, their definition is really describing enduring love (or what can be viewed as healthily nourished natural or innate love), the positive side of conditional love. Because this use of the term unconditional love is not really in reference to love without conditions, its mythical aspects exist only in terminology, not in meaning. Thus, when one’s belief in unconditional love is rooted in hyperbolic terms of endearment, it poses very little danger—so long as it is continuously understood as enduring conditional love, as opposed to effortless unconditional love (which does not exist).
However, the dangers of believing in unconditional love become most obvious when we explore the arguably more popular and widespread understanding of it: love that endures forever and remains unaltered simply because the one deserving of it exists. (Here, I’ll admit a caveat to my earlier reflection that unconditional love does not exist nor is it praiseworthy. In this context, I am speaking only of love amongst human beings. I am not speaking of the love humans should have for their Creator and what and whom He loves. Theoretically, it can be argued that in the case of humans loving God, unconditional love is indeed praiseworthy, and I would agree. However, even in this case, humans are incapable of showing this form of unconditional love toward God in the way that He deserves. As such, our human faults and failings render even this praiseworthy theoretical example as proof that unconditional love does not exist).
Dangers of the “Unconditional Love” Myth
When unconditional love is understood according to its more popular usage—effortless love that endures irrespective of time or circumstance—the dangers of believing in it become more obvious. While cases of abuse and neglect are often cited as exceptions to the existence of unconditional love, it is often the belief in unconditional love that not only fuels the abuse, but also allows it to last for so long unabated.
When parents assume that all of their actions are motivated by unconditional love, they can become blind to when they are not behaving lovingly. Moreover, they are even less likely to recognize when their actions are motivated by the opposite of love, be it resentment, envy, or even hatred. In many homes, the term “tough love” (which refers to healthy though unpleasant, necessary disciplinary measures inspired by genuine concern for the child’s well-being) is used as a euphemism for abuse and mistreatment, which is often rooted in the parents’ own unaddressed emotional trauma.
In more extreme cases, it is the parents’ belief in unconditional love that actually inspires deliberate mistreatment of their children. In other words, some parents define “unconditional love” as the license to, quite literally, do whatever they want with or to their children. In this erroneous belief system, parents view anything and everything they do as an act of love. Consequently, when a child’s emotional, psychological, or physical wellbeing is viciously assaulted, a parent will claim that he or she is doing it “for their own good.”
Due to their view that parental love has no conditions or limits (i.e. it is “unconditional”), these parents ascribe to the pathology of complete and literal ownership of their children’s minds, bodies, and souls. “I brought you into this world, and I can take you out!” is a common proclamation made by these parents. Because they view the harm they inflict on their children as a manifestation of “unconditional love,” they genuinely believe their children should love and appreciate them no matter what. Often these abusive parents cite the very acts that traumatize and harm their children as proof of their unconditional parental love.
Love As a Weapon in Abusive Families
In the case of Melanie’s mother, we can see a distinct difference between how Melanie is treated and how her younger sisters are treated. This is an obvious example of how even parental love is conditional. In Melanie’s case, the level of love she was shown was in direct relation to the circumstances surrounding her mother’s pregnancy [i.e. Melanie was born from her mother being raped, while her sisters were born from her mother getting married].
Though Melanie’s situation is arguably an extreme example, it is well-known that even in families that are considered healthy, normal, and functional, obvious favoritism exists in the parents’ interactions with their children. In fact, emotional trauma is not uncommon in even these “good families.” As such, there are often many parallels between the emotional struggles of children who have suffered obvious abuse and those who have suffered subtler forms of trauma at the hands of their parents.
Regarding the psychological harms of believing that love is unconditional, especially in families, consider this excerpt from the blog “Myth of Unconditional Love” by Jennifer Stuck:
I’ve been bombarded with the idea of unconditional love for as long as I can remember. Everywhere from home, to church, to Valentine’s Day commercials, people have pushed the concept that I should show love with no strings attached and expect nothing in return…But what does this type of thinking do to my personal boundaries? And more importantly, why SHOULDN’T my love have conditions?
I’ve recently become aware that the belief in unconditional love has interfered with my healing from childhood sexual abuse. In the past, I found it difficult to express anger towards the people who hurt me. My abusers weren’t my family and I never loved them, but I did care deeply about the people in my family who failed to protect me. The positive feelings I felt for my family coupled with the anger I felt about them neglecting me was confusing.
I was always taught that I should love no matter what, forgive all mistakes, and never question their place in my life. They were my family after all. But my anger went against the definition of unconditional love I was always taught…I was already harboring guilt after being sexually abused, and the idea of unconditional love just piled on more.
On top of adding to my guilt, being told I should love someone even when they have hurt or neglected me was like being told to ignore my personal boundaries. Years of childhood sexual abuse had already taught me to ignore my feelings and put everyone else’s needs first. The belief in unconditional love just reinforced that. According to everyone else, my feelings didn’t matter and I had no choice in who or when I loved. I wasn’t allowed to place conditions on my love. I was supposed to love them no matter what they did. But that was in their best interest, not mine.
The whole concept of unconditional love has been used by abusers and the people who protect them for generations to keep victims silent. When you think about it, who else would require love without conditions? (Stuck, 2011)
What’s Wrong with Unconditional Love in Marriage
Regarding believing in unconditional love in a marriage, Willard F. Harley, Jr. (a professed Christian) writes in part one of “What’s Wrong with Unconditional Love?”:
But the [marriage] vows that I made…were not for unconditional love. My vows were that I would care for [my wife] regardless of conditions beyond our control…
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…
“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…
My definitions of love makes [sic] the spouse very unique, but the promise itself very conditional. If I promise to be incredibly attracted to [my wife] 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…
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…(Harley, n.d.).
Regarding religion being used to support the concept of unconditional love, Harley says further:
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…
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)…
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 (Harley, n.d.).
Moral and Spiritual Harms of “Unconditional Love”
Though the depths of the additional danger of believing in the myth of unconditional love are beyond the scope of this book, I think it is beneficial here to mention briefly the intellectual, moral, and spiritual harms this belief entails. In an article entitled “The Myth of Unconditional Love,” writer Walter Hudson references Amazon’s critically acclaimed Transparent series to illustrate his point:
While watching the…trailer for Amazon’s Transparent, I was struck by the tagline, “Love is unconditional.” In the context of a show about a transgender father who comes out to his grown children, the idea seems clear. If his children love him, they won’t care that he thinks he’s a woman.
Is that true though? Do I need to accept anything my loved ones say, think, or do for them to remain loved ones? Does love require universal acceptance?
The popular notion of “unconditional love” emerges from post-modern moral relativism. It is an interpersonal application of the idea that everything is equally valid and equally true. In that context, judgment has become hate…One cannot disagree with the gay orthodoxy without being labeled a hater…
We’re dealing with a particularly insidious lie that cheapens love by transmuting it from a value-based emotional response to an autonomic pleasantry. Put another way, unconditional love is nothing special. If love is unconditional, then anyone deserves it. If anyone deserves it, then the particulars of an individual’s behaviors, beliefs, and values do not matter…
Ironically, the unconditional love crowd typically punctuate their rhetoric with the sentiment “love people for who they are.” But that doesn’t make the least bit of sense. You can’t both love someone for who they are and love them unconditionally. Their identity is a condition. They are not someone else. From this we quickly realize that the real exhortation of “unconditional love” is to accept whatever taboo, be it homosexuality, transgenderism, or any of a hundred other things…
Indeed, true love drives continual growth and improvement. True love responds to values sought and attained, to principles manifest in action.
I love my wife for who she is, not for whatever she happens to be, but for what she believes and how she lives her life. Her values align with my own. I could not love her otherwise. If I claimed to, it would be a lie…
Love requires judgment. Love upholds standards. Love sets conditions. When our loved ones fall short, we correct them in love. If we didn’t care, we wouldn’t bother. In that sense, what the “unconditional love” peddlers sell is not actually love, but a miserable and toxic indifference (Hudson, 2015).
Healing Through Letting Go of “Unconditional Love”
I spent a considerable amount of time explaining the myth of unconditional love because I believe that understanding this myth is crucial for many survivors [of abuse]. Even for those of us who have not suffered emotional trauma or abuse in our lives, navigating life with a healthy, realistic view of love can improve our relationships with friends, family, and loved ones.
Understanding both the limits and potential endurance of love can inspire us to be more mindful of our own behavior and intentions, and it can free us from self-blame when someone we imagine loves us behaves in a harmful or abusive manner. Many children of abuse who believe their parents love them unconditionally often look for faults within themselves to explain the hurtful treatment they consistently suffer at the hands of their mother or father.
Logically, if a parent loves a child unconditionally, any negative treatment is rooted in a problem within the child, not in the limits of the parent’s own ability or willingness to love. Likewise, the concept of unconditional love implies that any unjust behavior toward one child and preferential treatment toward another must be understood as the child’s fault.
However, if a child understands that parents are merely human beings with very real limits to their ability and willingness to love, then he or she can move beyond self-blame to self-healing—guilt-free. This healthy psychology and outlook on life allow adult children of abuse to engage in necessary self-care without viewing their healing journey as “selfishness” simply because their parents are angry or resentful of this newfound independence.
Umm Zakiyyah is the internationally acclaimed author of twenty books, including the If I Should Speak trilogy, Muslim Girl, and His Other Wife. Join UZ University to learn how you too can find your writing voice and share inspirational stories with the world: UZuniversity.com
Copyright © 2016, 2018 by Al-Walaa Publications. All Rights Reserved.
Harley, W. (n.d). What’s Wrong with Unconditional Love? MarriageBuilders.com. Retrieved September 11, 2016 from http://www.marriagebuilders.com/graphic/mbi8110_ul.html
Hudson, W. (2015, August 7) The Myth of Unconditional Love. Pjmedia.com. Retrieved September 11, 2016 from https://pjmedia.com/lifestyle/2015/8/7/the-myth-of-unconditional-love/ and https://pjmedia.com/lifestyle/2015/8/7/the-myth-of-unconditional-love/2/
Stuck, J. (2011, April 11). The Myth of Unconditional Love. OvercomingSexualAbuse.com. Retrieved September 11, 2016 from http://overcomingsexualabuse.com/2011/04/11/the-myth-of-unconditional-love/