Our interpersonal relationships are a huge component of our well-being. Mental-health professionals say that fringe friends, or those who we’d describe as the “supporting cast” in our life, can boost our social health. Additionally, the close friendships we keep offer us practical and emotional support, which let us reap mental-health benefits like increased happiness and connectedness. And, of course, if you’re someone who likes to be in romantic relationships, those connections also have mental-health implications depending on how serious you are about the relationship and how much time you’re spending together. But there’s a trait that some people value in love connections that isn’t exactly the best marker of a healthy, romantic relationship: unconditional love, or the belief that you should love someone—and that they should love you—no matter what. All of that said, it’s crucial to understand why that’s the case.
Couples therapist Larry Letich, LCSW says that getting caught up in the concept of romantic, unconditional love can lead you or your partner(s) to overlook destructive, selfish, or abusive behaviors. “If your partner is treating you in a blatantly unloving, uncaring, or hurtful way, unconditionally loving them is not being loving to yourself,” Letich says.
“Unconditional love is a distortion of acceptance.” —Jess Carbino, PhD
In order to have the healthiest relationships possible, we need to know and abide by not just others’ boundaries, but also our own. “If someone experiences this idea of unconditional love with their romantic partner, they may not be able to establish appropriate boundaries,” says relationship and dating expert Jess Carbino, PhD, former sociologist for the dating apps Tinder and Bumble. “It can [also] lead individuals to not…have appropriate mechanisms by which to establish themselves as an individual in the relationship, [or] to be able to have mechanisms by which to assert their own needs.”
So where did this idea that unconditional love is good for a relationship come from? Dr. Carbino traces it to the relationships we hold with our parents and ourselves, because those are two relationships that do require unconditional love. A romantic relationship, however, is fundamentally different from its platonic counterparts, she adds.
One of the ways that they’re different, Dr. Carbino says, is that unconditional love is critical to a parent-child relationship on a developmental level. Loving yourself unconditionally is also an important component of your relationship with yourself because that’s the one relationship that can’t grow to be estranged. So while it’s reasonable to expect unconditional love from yourself and your parents, expecting this in a romantic relationship is a whole other ball game.
Simply put, it isn’t a concept applicable to romantic relationships, says Dr. Carbino, because “the norms regarding romantic relationships are different.” Additionally, the needs from your parents can vary greatly from those that you have from your romantic partners.
A better indicator that your romantic relationship is healthy would be asking whether or not your partner accepts you, says Dr. Carbino: “People fundamentally seek acceptance from their romantic partner—and they should have acceptance from their romantic partners—that is fundamental, [but] unconditional love is a distortion of acceptance.”
Letich adds that when unlearning to require unconditional love, an introspective alternative is powerful: Ask yourself if you like who you are when you’re with your romantic partner. “If the answer is yes, that means this person brings out the best in you,” says Letich. “That’s a good foundation for long-term happiness.”
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