On Conditional Love

Holiday woes conspiring to leave me particularly depressed this year, I ran a few phrases relating to love through Google to see what would turn up and found the following article:


A fair warning: if you can’t see from the url, it’s an objectivist piece, consciously modeled on the philosophy of Ayn Rand. I personally consider Rand’s literature extremely awful, and the financial policies it was used to prop up were disastrous; but there are aspects of objectivism that I do find very interesting. This is one of them.

The article helped crystallize in my mind a perception that has been forming for a long time: that the popular concept of unconditional love is terribly, fundamentally flawed. My experiences with pets, for example, have been very disquieting.

Dogs are often held up as examples of unconditional love, but I now believe that the love of pets is in fact the most explicitly conditional relationship a person is likely to have. If I give a pet a treat, it appreciates it. If I don’t, it will be uninterested in me. What I think is in fact going on is that the animal is merely willing to sell a great deal of love very cheaply. I don’t think this means the love from the pet is necessarily not genuine, or that the love I feel for it is necessarily exploitative. But I don’t feel good about it. As usual the highly vague definition of the word “love” in the English language is a problem.

Looking at human relationships now, I see them in the same terms, and generally I don’t like what I’m seeing. However, I also think this is an incomplete picture, and that it’s where the objectivist article fails to properly address its subject, largely because it turns to Rand’s own writings to demonstrate the concept, and her writing is, again, extremely awful. I am still hopeful that healthy, meaningful, explicitly conditional relationships can and do exist between human beings. What I can’t do is imagine them; I’ve got too many bad examples in my head for my scenarios to keep from devolving into something wrong.

Can someone point me to a description of what healthy conditional love is actually like?

As a starting point . . . forget the kind of love a pet feels; instead think of the kind of love you feel toward a pet.

This is not at all my experience with dogs. Sure, dogs will bounce around if someone shows up who is a treat-giver. But dogs seem to be very much like people: They like who they like. It isn’t about the best treats or the best belly scritches, though treats and scritches certainly don’t hurt.

Dogs really like me and I rarely give treats. Dogs LOVE one of my coworkers and he never gives treats. Tone of voice, body language, probably chemicals. Those are my guesses.

I do agree that healthy love is conditional. It’s just that the conditions should be grave, not petty. Someone I love punches me in the face or becomes an ax murderer? My love probably can’t survive that. But it can survive someone using the wrong fork at dinner.

Ok, look. Rand’s (and other Objectivists’) writings about love are only applicable to humans, not to dogs. And besides, Rand was a cat person.

I would be hard pressed to think of any love that is not conditional. Those conditions may seem arbitrary, but everyone has limits to their love. Those who are honest about those conditions and have reasonable expectations of their relationships likely have more healthy relationships than those who profess unconditional love and then find at a later date that they didn’t think that phrase all the way through.

The notion of unconditional love is usually invoked to reinforce the idea that loving someone who is bad to you or bad in general is a moral virtue. My father would always tell me that I should love my grandmother “for who she is” even though she has been repeatedly disrespectful to me. She has also been repeatedly disrespectful to him, but he loves her anyway.

I would have a hard time saying that I love my paternal grandmother. I see no evidence that she cares for me in any non-superficial manner. She is totally self-absorbed. She doesn’t deserve my love. I remember her almost ruining my last trip to visit her because she repeatedly laid guilt trips on me and blamed me for things that were not my fault. I was thirteen.

An ex-girlfriend once asked me if I would still love her if she cheated on me. I didn’t know what to say then; it seemed clear to me that she was asking if she could cheat on me. Now, I have a better answer: “no”. No, my love is conditional. Love requires reciprocity. I think love should mount slowly, with the degree to which one cares about the other person growing in proportion to which the feeling is returned.

Okay, these are some good responses. I was afraid my OP was too garbled to get a good response, but after struggling with it for over an hour I just went with what I had.

I readily admit I oversimplified the situation with pets, but after living with something like eight dogs, five cats, two rabbits and who knows how many fish over the course of my life I am pretty sure I’ve got it right. The dog that I knew the longest died after fourteen years in my family at the end of the summer, and she has been on my mind a lot. I felt very guilty that neither I nor anyone else in the family was able to provide better for her in her last years, and I became very upset by her total emotional dependence on my mother. The dog died lonely and depressed.

But I really didn’t start this thread to talk about animals. It’s just that they make such straightforward examples, and I was hoping to keep personal details to a minimum because I think it keeps the discussion more focused.

My father is Israeli. He came to this country by marrying my mother; they met when she went overseas. They had a horrible marriage and divorced when I was nine or so; he elected to stay here. Going among the company my father keeps, I meet people from all parts of the world, with very different cultures. This has helped me develop a high tolerance for weird stuff, but that doesn’t mean I like it.

I haven’t been in a relationship for a long time, and a few months ago my father started pressuring me to get married by bringing a woman from another country who wanted to come to America. I HATE this idea. There are so many things wrong with it that I can’t hope to list them all. But he won’t stop bringing it up, or trying to give me email addresses of lonely Russian girls just looking to talk and it’s starting to get to me.

It’s not that I’m tempted to go through with it. I’m not. Thanks to my dad’s social circle I have enough first-hand experience with the practice that every cell of my body screams that it would rapidly collapse into a space-time distorting fuster cluck. But, see, I don’t know one person my age in a relationship that doesn’t frighten me. And my dad keeps making it sound so easy. “Just write them and say “hi”. Talk about something, maybe you will like each other.”

There are many other things that have contributed to me reaching this state, but this a big one. Telling dad no over and over is getting exhausting and it frustrates me that I don’t know how to articulate my objections. “So-and-so did it and it was a disaster” just isn’t good enough.

Being big on evolutionary psychology, you have to ask what is love designed to do? It is designed to take individuals and organize them into a ‘superself’ with the same agenda and goals. But much of it is limited to your genetic relatives and members of your social unit. For the most part, we love people who are related to us or useful to us (by doing nice things for us and/or being a constructive part of a social unit we are dependent on). We are indifferent to everyone else and we actively hate those who are threats to us.

If Steve has brotherly love for Michael, a superself of Steve-Michael is created. Michael’s pain becomes Steve’s pain (and Steve looks for ways to relieve the pain). Michael’s joy become’s Steve’s joy. The barriers of individuality and independence are broken down and superselfs (I made up the term superself, yeah I’m awesome like that) are created. Pain and Joy mesh. I felt pain on 9/11 because I am an American and member of the human race. I was happy when the monks marched on Myanmar and the green revolution voters marched in Iran. I have friends who I have seen their faces light up when I gave them good news about my life. The pain and pleasure I feel is felt by others, and their pain/pleasure is felt by me. And people celebrate together and help each other out.

Erich Fromm wrote a book called ‘the art of loving’ that is really good. He talks about how mature responsible love requires 4 factors.

Understanding - Knowing the other person’s feelings, needs, goals and motivations
Care - Caring about their feelings & goals.
Responsibility - Feeling obliged to help when they are down, and celebrate when they are up
Respect - Realizing they are their own individual, and not a tool for you to use to fulfill your own desires

He claims mature love is designed to help us fight the isolation that comes from being a solitary individual in a world that is dangerous and unpredictable.

However according to Fromm, you have to be whole and complete in yourself before you can have mature love. Anyone who approaches love with the assumption that they are missing something, and that someone else has the power to give it to them is bound to run into problems. So you really can’t (in my view) offer love to others that you have trouble giving to yourself. And I think you have trouble accepting love from others that you will not give to yourself.

I tend to think of unconditional love more as a form of love where your biggest concern is the psychological well being of another person. ie, if they lose status or become a nuisance, you may not like them as much but your big concern relative to them is their happiness and peace of mind (this ties into Fromm’s concept of respect). Another person is not a hot piece of ass or an individual with high social status if you have mature love for them. They are a person with feelings and needs. If you embarrass yourself and you have 2 friends, one may respond by caring that you feel ashamed and isolated. Another may lose interest since you’ve lost social status. Things like that are what I think of as unconditional love, just an awareness that another person has their own mind and feelings (respect and understanding), caring about those feelings (care), and feeling obliged to stick by them and help them out (responsibility).

If you take Fromm’s 4 factors, and subtract one but keep the others you have problems. I tend to think there are more factors than Fromm’s 4 (I think competence should be a factor. Love is virtually meaningless if you can’t find a constructive outlet for it).

Buddhists tend to prefer the term ‘compassion’ over ‘love’ since love has mostly evolved to describe co-dependent romantic relationships whereas from the perspective of Buddhists (I’m assuming) true love is a compassionate awareness directed at self and others. And Buddhists tend to think that having compassion for yourself is where you need to start. In fact I’ve heard more than 1 Buddhist thinker say the best way to be a positive influence in the world isn’t to go out and solve all the worlds problems, it is to have as much compassion for yourself as possible and focus on your own quality of life. Doing so subtly shifts how you relate to the world which has endless benefits to other people which may not be noticeable at first, but over time do add up. You naturally lift other people up more and tear them down less if you have compassion and love for yourself.

Oddly, that does sound somewhat similar to Objectivism (focus on your own wholeness, completeness and quality of life, and your personality will shift and make other people’s lives easier too).

This is more delving into personal philosophy than actual evidence based debate. But assume you have a person who is tortured in a political prison in a nation like Myanmar. The person is going to have tons of emotional and physical problems for life.

Working backwards, I guess you can find tons of examples where mature love would’ve prevented or helped rectify the situation after the fact.

If the individual has a high degree of self compassion, maybe he will seek out support and help after being tortured rather than suffering in silence. This will lessen his emotional pain. Other people who have high compassion could offer that understanding and acceptance to lessen his pain.

The individual can also use his pain as a motivator to protect other people from torture. Some people who devote themselves fully to fighting a problem do so because they’ve seen the pain firsthand of that problem. His concern for other people could make him an activist after the fact, trying to stop others from being tortured.

The torturer, if he had more compassion, would’ve refused to torture in the first place. Or he would’ve tortured more lightly.

The generals in charge of the military would’ve been more likely to refuse to obey orders to violate human rights.

The politicians would’ve been more likely to refuse to pass laws violating human rights had they had more compassion.

The international community would be more likely to refuse to sit by and allow human rights to be violated. They would use diplomatic and economic pressure to force more concern for human rights.

The torture victim’s personal community (friends, family, neighbors, etc) would’ve done more to protect him from the government had they had more compassion. They would also be more likely to openly press for better treatment from the government.
So there are endless ways that higher degrees of mature love, in a situation involving the torture of a political prisoner, either would’ve prevented the incident before it occurred or helped the victim after the fact.
But its not a cure all. As Milgram’s experiments show, even if people do have love and compassion the desire to obey orders (especially indirect orders) to hurt others takes precedence over compassion for a victim of those orders. However even that can be affected by mature love. Mature love would result in generals and politicians refusing to give orders to violate human rights, and it would result in domestic and international pressure to improve human rights.

So that is an example of mature love doing something constructive. And an example of how the Buddhist concept of having compassion and love for yourself (and having it change how you relate to the world) would make the world a better place. Which is somewhat similar to the philosophy of Objectivism.