Seems like there’s two kinds of love. At least.
Unconditional love, with a strong emphasis on self-sacrifice. Jesus-stye love.
Expectational love in which mutuality, responsibility, respect, boundaries, and emotional heath and safety are all very important.
Unconditional love for the infinite.
Expectational love for the finite.
So what about infinite unconditional love? Should we finite beings love without expecting anything back? Is it really love if there are conditions? And what about the virtue of self-sacrifice?
As a spiritual humanist whose community and family are the Jesus-people and whose employment and colleagues are those in the counseling world, I find myself in an interesting position. I have access to a variety of different schools of thought with the opportunity to integrate them into a coherent balanced approach to life.
Love and relationships present a particularly interesting puzzle.
On the one hand, there is the idea of unconditional love. This is the love that is patient, kind, that lays down its life for another. Love that bears all, endures all, love that is committed and accepting and tolerant. This is the kind of love that is especially imperative for a child. If a child is ever to truly believe that God gives grace and accepts them no matter what, that love must first be modeled, to the best of their ability, by the parents.
But on the other hand, there is the notion of self-care and boundaries and mutuality within relationships. These are the ideas that you must be relatively healthy in order to effectively help/love someone else. That if you only ever give without expecting back, you don’t give the other person opportunity to grow in generosity, respect or sacrifice. Really, it’s the idea that as a finite being, you only have so much to give and you shouldn’t try to give more than that, especially not without receiving back, because that only builds resentment, which is not love.
At a first glance, these concepts seem to go opposite ways. Love and give whatever the other person needs, always, no matter what. Love as best you can, when you can and it’s fair and reasonable to expect the same in the other person.
These different types of love bring up questions.
If I’m going to love someone unconditionally, what if they don’t give anything back? What if they don’t respect me? What if they even abuse me?
If I’m going to love unconditionally, do I love everyone this way? Do I have enough hours of the day and energy to do this? Do I only give unconditional love to someone who is worthy? That can’t be right because considering worth brings up expectations which brings up conditions. Not the kind of love you want to give to a child in early development, but okay for a friendship
If I love unconditionally, is this really helpful for the other person? Or do they need to learn responsibility and limits and independence and other life skills?
If I’m going to love expectationally, what happens if the other person is in crisis? Even an ongoing crisis?
If I’m going to love expectationally, will I really be challenged in generosity and self-sacrifice?
If I never expect anything from the person I’m trying to love, how does that really show that I love and respect them? If I never expect anything from a child I’m trying to raise, how does that teach them responsibility? If I never expect anything from a friend or partner, how does that give them opportunity to be a loving and respectful person?
If I’m going to love unconditionally, does that mean I will tolerate and accept anything that the other person does?
If I’m going to have expectations of my people, do I run the risk of having unrealistic expectations?
If I want to love someone unconditionally, that must mean I want to love them really well. But how can I love a person really well if I’m not healthy, physically emotionally, spiritually fatigued? If I can’t even be responsible with myself, how can I be loving to another person?
Does unconditional love mean having no expectations?
If I’m going to love unconditionally, does that mean I can never ask for help?
If I do ask for help, does that mean I’m having expectations and have failed to love unconditionally? If so, well that’s just bad logic and won’t be sustainable as a philosophy at all…
If I love unconditionally, and am always the one giving, and never give anyone a chance to give back to me, will I ever learn to trust others?
Two types of love, pulling us in two directions, creating tension. But I believe that tension is the key.
Real love is found when you live in the tension.
For us finite Humans, neither unconditional nor expectational love work on their own. Further, no type of love works for an individual on their own. Loving unconditionally for finite beings only works if you’re in a trustworthy relationship where the other person loves you the same way. Otherwise, you’re being irresponsible, foolish, and opening yourself up to be burnt out by resentment. We can strive to love more and more like God every day, but we will never actually be God.
We like the idea of unconditional love. Especially Christians who have Jesus as our model. We in the church really like the values of dying to self and laying down your life for someone.
In actual functional practice though, we could literally lay down our lives…once. And only once. But our children, partners and friends would still be in the world needing love and care. So then actual death makes for a bad lifestyle. We could though continue striving for the ideal of sacrificial love, then we could always be in process, always moving in that direction.
Besides that, we wouldn’t lay down our lives for just anyone. Most likely it would be for someone we know and care about. Similarly, we can practice unconditional love for a select few. Children, partners, a few friends. With others, we set limits. This means we respect ourselves enough to practice self-care, and we respect the other enough to not give them shoddy love.
I suggest that sacrificial unconditional love, like everything else, should be practiced with wisdom and balance. We’re finite beings. Our love will be finite. But love is an infinite concept and relationships are remarkable. When you get two people together who are willing to give and give to each other, you have something sustainable and beautiful.