And perhaps most challenging of all, love is not unconditional. It doesn’t emerge no matter what, regardless of conditions.
-Barbara Fredrickson, Love 2.0
I just realized the second sentence has some ambiguity. I sincerely hope that this sentence does not mean that love is impossible.
Many people toss the term “unconditional love” when describing their partner or children. Unconditional love for parents, children, spouses, God, and others find discourse inroads from time to time.
But what is unconditional love? For that matter, what is love? Baby don’t hurt me?
People may debate the meaning of love until the Sun swallows the Earth like an aspirin. Most abstract nouns are difficult to define. Metaphors, similes, examples, and adjectives are all we have
“Love is a red rose.”
“Love is patient and kind.”
“Love is like…”
However, Dr. Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina considers love differently. In her book Love 2.0, Fredrickson describes love as a fleeting emotion arising when two people share a moment of positive connection and synchrony.
This definition is beautiful because it encompasses a broad array of interactions. One need not be in a romantic relationship to experience love. One need not have children. Short shared moments of genuine laughter and joy can produce love. We can experience micro-moments of love with a spouse, girlfriend, boyfriend, child, parent, co-worker, or grocery store cashier. All we need for love is an open mind and kind spirit.
In Fredrickson’s definition, unconditional love is nonsense. The emotion of love wells up within us only when certain conditions are met (two or more people, shared joy, mutual synchrony, etc.)
Should we accept this definition? Can love truly be unconditional?
Between spouses, love appears conditional. Sure, couples promise to love each other “for better or worse” for “as long as they both shall live.” But even the most loyal partners breaking points. One can only handle so many adulterous affairs, abuse, or irreconcilable differences before love expires.
Some may argue that love is “wanting the best for someone no matter what.” Perhaps someone can still feel love following a divorce and beyond. But without mutual affection and reciprocated feelings, how does one distinguish love with infatuation? Can we love a celebrity we’ve never met? Maybe. But it’s a hard sell.
What about parents and children? Surely this bond of causal existence warrants unconditional love. Many would argue this to be the case. One challenge is that counterfactual examples easily tread into triggering territory (such as child abuse). I don’t have the requisite experience or second-hand knowledge to confirm or deny if children love abusive parents.
I am currently reading We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver. This novel follows the mother of a school shooter. Her reflections on motherhood and her relationship with her son Kevin push “unconditional love for a child” to the breaking point – especially when she tells her incarcerated son,
“You know what, Kevin? Sometimes I hate you too.”
To be fair, this is a work of fiction, not a memoir. But it makes one scrutinize the unquestioned cultural belief that parents should have unconditional love for their children.
The relationship between parents and children represent a moral dilemma. On one hand, if a child believes a parent’s love is conditional (contingent upon particular behaviors or achievements), the child could deteriorate into perfectionistic terror.
On the other hand, one must wonder if there is a theoretical limit to how much adversity love can bear. Or is there? What if the child shoots up a school? What if the child kills one parent with malice aforethought. It stands to reason that a demented mind can conjure a scenario grisly enough to extinguish a parent’s love.
This is one reason I appreciate Fredrickson’s definition of love. I like its ease of access and its present-tense quality. Anyone can experience love in our out of relationships, marriage, or parenthood. We can experience love with friends on a Friday night or sharing a joke with a taxi driver.
But I also appreciate its denial of unconditional love. It makes room for the fact that we do not have to love the people in our lives at all times. Sometimes people drive us crazy. Maybe parents briefly entertain heretical ideas of how their lives would be better without children. In Fredrickson’s definition, this is okay. You do not have to regard your loved ones warmly at all times. According to Fredrickson and psychologist John Gottman, positive feelings simply need to outnumber negative feelings by a ratio of 5 to 1.
Rather than professing unconditional love, we may benefit from simply savoring positive moments with our loved ones. Every relationship ends at some point whether by divorce, distance, or death. Sooner or later, every relationship expires. All we can do is appreciate joyful moments in the time that we do have.