Listen to the lyrics on the radio, tune into the latest season of The Bachelor, or swipe through the countless prospects on your dating apps, and you’ll come to one glaring conclusion: Our society is obsessed with finding love. We listen to songs about it, we read books about it, we watch rom-coms about it, and we eagerly chat with our squad about it. And while you may think that love is love, there are actually multiple kinds: true love (romantic love) and unconditional love. The difference between true love and unconditional love may not be obvious — after all, they share many of the same qualities. But still, there are some important distinctions to know that can help you to assess the strength — and lasting power — of your love.
While we have just one word to express the feeling of love, the Ancient Greeks had eight, which they devised based on philosophical readings from Aristotle and Pluto. These included philia, or affectionate love (the platonic kind you feel for your besties); storge, or familial love (typically between parents and children); ludus, or playful love typically found in the early stages of infatuation (think flirting and teasing); mania, or obsessive love that can drive jealousy and possessiveness; pragma, or enduring and practical love (like an old married couple has); and philautia, or self-love.
But the two types that will likely sound most familiar are eros, which most closely resembles our notion of romantic love, and is associated with primal passion and sexual desire; as well as agape, which is essentially unconditional love. The Greeks regarded agape as the highest and purest form of love because it is unbound by selfish desires — it is accepting, forgiving, and endures regardless of your loved one’s flaws.
While our society may not have names for all of those different kinds of love, on the whole, many of us do accept that there are different forms — and some are built to last more than others. True love and unconditional love are both incredibly powerful experiences, but they do have some crucial differences. According to Dr. Gary Brown, a prominent couple’s therapist in Los Angeles, one factor that separates the two is how they develop. Romantic love sets in when you first start falling for someone — and it can be euphoric, but it doesn’t last forever.
“Those feelings are wonderful,” says Dr. Brown. “We all enjoy them, but at some point, they are going to naturally diminish and after we come down from that initial high, the reality of being in a relationship and everything that comes with it begins to emerge — including the good and the bad. Whether or not the ‘falling in love’ stage leads to something more is another story.”
Unconditional love, meanwhile, can sometimes be expressed early on in a relationship as well, but typically takes time to set in.
“Unconditional love says, (aside from abuse), ‘No matter what, I am devoted to you in good times in bad, in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer,’” Dr. Brown tells Elite Daily. “A wedding vow reflects unconditional love.”
The best way to sum up the difference between the two is this: True love is a (sometimes fleeting) feeling, whereas unconditional love is an active choice to continue loving with no expectations or rewards.
Here’s an example that further clarifies the distinction. Imagine you reveal to your partner of six months that you’ve racked up a lot of student loan debt, and you’re stressed AF about it (side note: #ItMe).
“You share this with your new love, and while they feel romantic love for you, they are not sufficiently invested in their relationship to continue because of the debt you are in,” explains Dr. Brown. “They can't get past it, even though you would be a great match for them.”
Now, imagine you and your partner of five years are going through difficult financial times — one of you lost a job, and the other one can only work part-time because you’re in grad school.
“Unconditional love means that, despite these difficulties, you are sufficiently devoted to one another and are committed to working this out as a team,” says Dr. Brown.
Beyond how they develop, what further sets true love and unconditional love apart is their resilience.
“You can fall out of true love at any time during a relationship,” Dr. Brown explains. “You can also love someone for who they are as a person, but realize that as much as you may love them, that it may not be a good fit. Unconditional love tends to be much stronger and more enduring than romantic love. You can certainly have both, but it is the unconditional love that endures.”
Board-certified psychiatrist Dr. Susan Edelman notes that it’s imperative to set boundaries and prioritize self-love to ensure that the relationship remains healthy for both partners. Otherwise, if your SO was treating you poorly — say, by perpetually cheating or lying — you might feel obligated to stay with them due to your unconditional love. So, to be clear, unconditional love only means continuing a relationship regardless of your partner's shortcomings if those shortcomings aren't threatening your well-being. In other words, it's important to love yourself unconditionally first.
“If you love them unconditionally, they don't have much motivation to change their behavior to salvage your relationship,” she adds. “The closest you can come to healthy unconditional love is to try to understand and love your partner for who they are while making sure you set healthy limits on what they do.”
So, there you have it. Both true love and unconditional love are wonderful in their own right — and come with a flood of incredibly rewarding feelings. And certainly, true love can transform into unconditional love over time. But at the end of the day, it’s unconditional love that’s capable of withstanding all the hardship and disappointment that relationships often need to weather. Put simply, unconditional love cannot be swayed — and as such, it’s built to last a lifetime.