Unconditional/Conditional Love: Making Promises We Can’t Keep

Love comes in many forms and involves a varying degree of commitment. Probably, the most unequivocal love is that which a mother feels for a newborn child. Nothing special is required from the baby to justify the parent’s attention and concern. That feeling is a biological imperative. Mothers do not simply walk away from their children. In fact, there are laws commanding a mother to take care of her child. But even that love has limits. So it seems. In ancient times, in certain cultures, a child who was born deformed was left out in the wilderness to die. It is thought that in prehistoric times a child who was born in the midst of a famine to a family that already had too many mouths to feed would also be condemned to death. But no one knows for sure. Sometimes, even in this day and age, a severely mentally retarded child will be sent to an institution rather than kept at home. Sometimes there is no alternative.

The unconditional love referred to above extends into the child’s adolescence more or less unchanged. It is easy to imagine parents risking their lives to extract their children from a burning building or from a flooded river. Parents often work at jobs that threaten their health and well-being so that their child may thrive. In later adolescence, however, children reach a level of autonomy where sometimes, rarely, a young boy or girl behaves so badly, so destructively to other members of the family, that the family is driven to expelling him or her. An example of this sort of behavior is the young man who steals from parents to obtain drugs, or who is violent to a sibling or even to a parent. Invariably, in those unhappy circumstances parents engage in increasingly desperate attempts to save that adolescent from himself. All sorts of treatment have been contrived to deal with recalcitrant youths. These include psychotherapy, and ultimately jail. If nothing works, the family in final desperation will make him leave. Some parents despair quicker than others, but there is a point beyond which even the most committed parent cannot go. Parents have a responsibility to other children and to themselves. No such parent commands his or her child to leave the home, though, without feeling guilty.

When a child reaches the age when he or she might be expected to leave home to go to college or to work, parents are usually still willing to help, but that help may be conditional. The young person is expected to conform to certain standards of behavior in order for the parent to offer financial or emotional support. Living at home is dependent on a willingness to go to school or to work.  Different parents feel a varying degree of responsibility for their sons and daughters at this point. Some parents will refuse to pay for college or graduate school no matter how serious their children are. On the other hand, some parents are prepared to help their children no matter how old they get. Even then, certain unspoken—or spoken—conditions may have to be met. The grown child is expected to work and to take care of himself/herself as much as possible. Relationships with a grown child have a much more tentative quality; and it is not rare to see parents and children alienated from each other.

The phrase unconditional love is usually mentioned in other contexts where love is never unconditional.

 Romantic Love and Marriage

The sense of commitment a couple may have for each other will follow an arc. When they first meet, no such commitment is felt. Many things can interfere with their relationship. Each will continue to be with the other only if a number of conditions are met. These include: fidelity, respect, a pleasant demeanor and, after a while, a certain level of sexual competence. But at this early stage, very many deficiencies seem sufficient to stop them seeing each other. Tardiness, for instance, may seem too much to put up with. The unspoken rule at this stage is that each person is expected to engage in a continuing attempt to please the other person. Otherwise, the neglected man or woman will find someone else. If there is love, it is definitely conditional upon each person following that rule.

But there comes a time when a proposal of marriage is made and accepted. And then the commitment becomes more serious. Promises are made at the wedding. For example, the bride vows to “love, cherish, and obey,” her husband, who, in turn, promises to remain with her—and she with him– “for better or worse, for richer and poorer, through sickness and health…” Their relationship then is solemnized and their love unconditional.” Or, so it is supposed to be.

I think everyone knows that these promises, also, are conditional. No matter how congenial and deferential the wife is inclined to be, her promise to “obey” her husband has definite limits. There are too many disputes to list here in which the wife is not likely to accede graciously to her husband’s demands. They range from how often the couple will engage in sexual relations to who picks out the drapes. In fact, most couples who marry understand that obedience is interpreted to mean a reasonable concern for what the other thinks. If one or the other becomes autocratic, that marriage is likely to end. It is, perhaps, in recognition of these discrepancies, that some religious denominations have removed the word “obey” altogether from the wedding ceremony.

Similarly, these other vows do not mean to the couple—or to anyone else—exactly what they say:

A well-meaning couple will understand “for better or worse,” to mean that they each expect the other to be around even if one of them loses his job or loses his temper from time to time. Spending too much time out of the house may well be very annoying, but will not by itself lead to the dissolution of the marriage. Each will be more inclined to indulge the weaknesses of the other than he or she would have been when they were first dating. “Worse” is expectable and tolerable. “Much worse” is not. A familiar story is of a divorce which follows mental and physical abuse, or repeated infidelities, or willful and persistent absence from the home. The rules governing a loving relationship may be a few, but the ways a marriage can be violated are very many. A casual reading of divorce proceedings will give a better idea of exactly what is tolerable and what is not.

“…for richer and poorer” is usually accepted at the time of the wedding to mean just what it says. But extreme poverty that happens unpredictably can cause severe strain to the marriage which may bring in its wake arguments and other strains which drive the couple apart. Two people, both working two jobs, grow to be unaccepting of each other and intolerant. “…much poorer” may be considered intolerable.

“…in sickness and in health” means something different depending on how long the loving relationship has lasted. During a courtship period a couple may break apart because one of them has spent time in a mental hospital, or, for that matter, any sort of hospital. I know of a couple that broke apart after the young man suffered a brain injury and developed a severe form of Parkinsonism. The woman felt guilty, but was unwilling to sign on to a lifetime of nursing her husband. Once a marriage has taken place, a greater tolerance is expected by a husband or wife to the other becoming seriously ill. But even then, there seem to be limits. The marriages of bipolar patients end in divorce about 95% of the time. Living with a manic spouse means dealing with constant conflict. Other severe illnesses may cause other devastating problems.  I knew a woman who left her husband when he developed a form of muscular dystrophy. She attributed her leaving him to problems predating his illness, but the prospect of his slowly becoming invalided and dying within a few years complicated everything and seemed too much to bear.

Once the marriage has lasted for years, it is rare, I think, for illness to lead to the dissolution of the marriage. Elderly couples expect to have to deal with their spouse becoming someday hopelessly ill. I can remember a rare exception when a woman left her husband because he developed Alzheimer’s disease. For some such men and women, a more or less conditional love is very conditional. Even between the most loving couples, though, it becomes necessary sometimes to put a violent and demented spouse into a nursing home or into some other institution.

The truth is, I think, that no love is entirely unconditional. Infants are shaken to death sometimes because a parent cannot put up with its crying. Couples who could not have imagined breaking apart find that dealing with a disabled child puts a tremendous and unexpected strain on their relationship; and often that marriage will not survive. Very few people enter into a marriage expecting to be unfaithful, but such things happen; and repeated infidelities usually drive away the most committed spouse. I think all of this goes without saying. There are certain deficiencies that are intolerable. There are limits. It is unromantic to say so out loud, but that is the way it is. Some who enter into a marriage thinking that they are not capable of being disloyal, of giving up in the face of trouble and disharmony, find to their surprise that they may arrive at a point where there is no alternative to separating. Somehow, I think it is better for such a person to have recognized all long that there are limitations to what people can endure. There are few saints. Being realistic has some advantages. It allows someone to recognize trouble before it has become unfixable and unendurable. And to prepare for it. And, in the event an unconditional love is seen to be conditional after all, the individual who walks away will feel less guilty and less of a failure.   (c) Fredric Neuman