The difference between unconditional love and unconditional relationships.

By Jeremy Nicholson M.S.W., Ph.D.
Courtesy of Psychology Today

Do you believe in unconditional love?

I am asked this question frequently in discussions… When I respond with a “yes”, my questioners are usually puzzled. They wonder how I can believe in unconditional love, yet discuss very “conditional” dating and relating techniques such as reciprocal gift-giving, withholding forgiveness, rewarding a partner, etc. After all, they assume, if you love someone unconditionally and truly bond with them, then you don’t ever try to influence, limit, persuade, or set boundaries with them…right?

Their confusion over my beliefs and relationship advice is the result of their missing an important distinction. I’m going to share that distinction with you all now. It will help you to both truly enjoy unconditional love and develop healthy relationships.

Unconditional Love and Unconditional Relationships

Love is very important. When you find someone through dating and relating who loves you for “who you are”, it is an amazing experience. Similarly, it is rewarding to love someone else “as they are” (or “warts and all” as my grandmother would say). I believe that such a bond is priceless and should be nurtured with great affection. Love is part of our emotions, attachment chemicals in the brain (for those inclined), and spirit (for those inclined).

Relationships, however, are an entirely different thing. Relationships are working partnerships. They involve thoughts, reasons, and decisions. They require two (or more) individuals in communication, commitment, and cooperative exchange.

As a result, love (feelings) and relationships (decisions) can have separate rules and expectations. Love, because it is a feeling, can be unconditional. Sometimes, no matter what a partner does, feelings toward them do not change. Relationships, however, are working partnerships. As such, they require conditions, boundaries, limits, and directions to run smoothly.

Therefore, a distinction must be made between “unconditional love”…and “unconditional relationships”.

But, Isn’t Love Enough?

Now that we have made the distinction between “unconditional love” and “unconditional relationships”, it is possible to love someone without limit, yet still have contingencies placed upon continuing a relationship with them. In other words, while you may continue to love a partner “no matter what”, you may not choose to be in a relationship with them under all conditions. This distinction is important to understand. But, it doesn’t hold for everyone…

There are some individuals that say, “no, love is enough”. These individuals decide, as long as they have love, nothing else is necessary. As a result, their relationships become “unconditional” as well. They do not set firm boundaries, contingencies, or limits with their “partner”. They make “relationship” decisions based on their feelings of love alone. Sometimes this works out… Other times, however, because no one is actively creating a working “partnership”, disaster can strike. Furthermore, because there is an expectation to “accept the partner for who he/she is” at all times, relationships may perpetuate under the worst of conditions.

On the other hand, the distinction between love and relationships is upheld with individuals that say “healthy relationships are necessary too”. These individuals love their partners unconditionally, but also set rules that maintain a relationship with them. They use influence, limits, and contingencies to ensure a balanced, equitable exchange in their romantic partnerships. Furthermore, while they may continue to “feel” love unconditionally, they also chose to end unhealthy partnerships when the conditions for them are no longer feasible.

What This Means For Your Love Life

The dating task is very different for those who say “yes” or “no” to the question…”is unconditional love enough”?

For those who say “love is all I need” – Your task in dating is to select the “right” person…because that may be the only time you have influence over the health of the impending relationship. Once you choose and fall in love, you will then make keeping that love the highest priority. As a result, your relationship will most likely become “unconditional” – and your partner will ultimately be free to behave as he/she chooses without repercussion. So, pick wisely. Find someone who will “do right by you” for all time. Make sure they are upstanding, conscientious, and love you very deeply in return (see here). Otherwise, you may find yourself in a very unhealthy relationship, with little recourse to fix it.

For those who say “working partnerships are important too” – Your task in dating is to learn to set boundaries, limits, and contingencies to maintain a healthy relationship. Your task is to also use your influence in a caring and disciplined manner to create a balanced exchange with your dating partner. Such skills are not exercised to “control” or “manipulate” for selfish gain, but rather to maintain a mutually-beneficial and satisfying partnership (see here, here, and here). However, because your relationships will be more “conditional”, personality differences can continue to be worked through after you pick a partner and fall in love. Unhealthy relationships can be remedied (or, in unfortunate situations dissolved), rather than simply endured. Nevertheless, there are few things more painful in life than choosing to leave an unhealthy relationship with someone you unconditionally love. So, picking someone you can “work with” is still an important idea.


Today we have made an important dating distinction between “unconditional love” and “unconditional relationships”…

For those who place love above all, there is little distinction between those two concepts. Both their love and their relationships are ultimately unconditional. This merger makes identification and selection of a conscientious partner of the utmost importance.

However, for those who equally value working partnerships with love, there is a wide distinction between the two concepts. Love can be felt unconditionally, while still maintaining conditional requirements for the partnership. This separation allows for more flexibility to both experience love and use influence to create healthy exchanges. For these individuals, a disciplined knowledge of negotiation, boundary-setting, influence, and persuasion can be invaluable.

I hope this clears up the confusion. I also hope you choose whichever path is right for you. I will continue to provide advice and assistance to both groups as time goes on. Stay tuned!