When you think of your ideal relationship, unconditional might very well be the epitome of #goals. “I love you when…” “I love you if…” “I love you, but…” What do all of these statements have in common? They’re conditional — and as the very term suggests, you can’t achieve unconditional love with “ifs” and “buts.” But what’s the psychology behind unconditional love? Is it even possible? How does it grow? And are there ways to nurture it?
If you love someone unconditionally, it means that love is unwavering. So, when your boo makes a mistake or disappoints you, you still love them. Think about it: How many times have you judged a partner for screwing up, or withheld forgiveness and held a grudge, or given them a gift with the expectation of receiving a certain kind of response in return? All of those are examples of conditional love. Unconditional love does not depend on your partner acting a certain way, saying certain things, or doing certain things for you.
And as it turns out, this particular kind of love doesn’t just set in as soon as you lay eyes on someone, or have your first flirty exchange. Because in order to get to a place where you can accept a person’s flaws and love them all the same — well, that’s complex business.
Although unconditional love definitely applies to our romantic relationships, it’s a term that’s often used to describe a parent’s relationship with their child. After all, a parent is expected to continue loving their child no matter what — even when they break curfew, talk back, get caught drinking, or otherwise let them down. It’s part of a parent’s job to show their child that it’s possible to be disappointed, upset, or even angry with them, and still love them deeply. According to a 2013 study conducted at UCLA, unconditional love from a parent can make children not only emotionally happier but also less anxious. Conversely, children who received the least amount of unconditional love and affection showed higher measures across a number of health risks, including stress, cholesterol, and blood pressure. Scientists concluded that parental warmth and affection can actually protect children against some of the harmful effects of childhood stress.
So, it should come as no surprise that another 2009 study published in the journal Psychiatry Research revealed that the parts of the brain that light up in response to unconditional love are similar to those that are activated by maternal love. To reach this conclusion, the Montreal University researchers rounded up participants who look after people with learning difficulties. While they showed those participants photographs of the people they cared for, they performed MRI brain scans on them to analyze their responses. What they found is that unconditional love involves a staggering seven areas of the brain — only three of which are linked to romantic love.
Not only that, but these researchers also discovered that these same areas are associated with the brain’s reward system, which suggests that the person who’s experiencing it gets that rewarding dopamine hit even when they’re not receiving anything back. You know that feeling you get when you help out bae during a stressful work week? That’s unconditional love — but only if you get satisfaction from doing it without needing them to say “thank you” or doing a favor for you in return.
“Unconditional love, extended to others without exception, is considered to be one of the highest expressions of spirituality,” wrote Montreal University Professor Mario Beauregard, who led the study. “The rewarding nature of unconditional love facilitates the creation of strong emotional links. Such robust bonds may critically contribute to the survival of the human species.”
It might go without saying that compassion is a key component of unconditional love. That’s because unconditional love requires deeply caring for the other person’s well-being, and being empathetic to their circumstances and their struggles. When your boo is snippy with you at dinner, but you know they’re dealing with the loss of a family member — you love them unconditionally if you can continue loving them anyway because you’ve put yourself in their shoes and feel compassion for their situation. Fortunately, studies show that compassion is like a muscle that you can strengthen with the right practices — specifically, loving-kindness meditation (LKM).
In 2008, researchers at James Cook University compared the brain scans of people who had just started meditation to those who had practiced LKM for 10,000 hours or more. The latter group showed more brain activity in the temporal parietal juncture and the insula — both of which are parts of the brain that are involved in one’s ability to empathize with others. In other words, this type of meditation breeds empathy — which, in turn, can strengthen your capacity for unconditional love.
Certainly, we’ve just scratched the surface when it comes to understanding unconditional love. Are there certain habits or actions that can encourage it, or conversely, cause it to diminish? Why can some people seem to develop this kind of love more easily than others? These are just some of the questions that researchers still have yet to answer. And let’s be clear about one thing: Unconditional love does not mean staying with someone who harms your physical, mental, or emotional well-being whatsoever — remember: you can empathize with, love, and even forgive someone, but that doesn’t mean you should ever subject yourself to any kind of harm.
Chilean writer Isabel Allende once noted that unconditional love means accepting someone the way you accept a tree — with gratitude.
“You don’t expect trees to change, you love them as they are,” she wrote.
Clearly, finding and nurturing that kind of love isn’t exactly an easy feat. But the journey is well worth it — because once you’ve got it, you can finally feel free to be your most authentic self, with no fear that doing so may risk losing your partner’s devotion. Whether or not you’ve found “The One,” at the very least, you will have found someone who loves you with no limits — warts and all.