Unconditional love, simply put, is love without strings attached. It’s love you offer freely.
You don’t base it on what someone does for you in return. You simply love them and want nothing more than their happiness.
This type of love, sometimes called compassionate or agape love, might sound somewhat familiar. Maybe it brings to mind the love your parents have for you or the love you have for your own child.
While people often associate unconditional love with familial love, many look for this love in romantic relationships, too.
Wanting someone to love you for yourself — no matter what — is an understandable desire. Yet this type of love might still seem like the stuff of fairy tales and movies, not something most people encounter in real life.
Is this love as elusive as it sounds? Can it even happen in romantic relationships?
Read on for a deeper understanding of what unconditional love is (and isn’t) and some strategies for cultivating it.
What it is
Unconditional love is a selfless act. You’re not in it for yourself.
Though it may overlap with other types of love in some ways, other elements set it apart.
You can recognize it by these key characteristics.
It can benefit emotional health
A small 2009 study explored the brain regions activated by feelings of unconditional love. The results of the study suggest that unconditional love activates some of the same areas of the brain’s reward system that romantic love does.
In other words, the simple act of loving someone unconditionally may produce positive feelings.
Receiving unconditional love can also make a difference in emotional well-being. According to research from 2010, children who receive higher levels of affection from their parents or caregivers tend to have greater resilience in adulthood. They also tend to experience fewer mental health symptoms.
Results from a 2013 study support the idea that loving children unconditionally improves their lifelong health and wellness. This suggests parental unconditional love could offer some protection against the harmful, often lingering effects of childhood trauma or abuse.
It feels secure
Unconditional love can provide a sense of security in both childhood and adulthood.
Feeling confident in someone’s love and knowing it won’t go away can help create secure attachments and foster autonomy, independence, and self-worth.
If you know your parents or caregivers will continue to love you even after you make mistakes or do things they don’t approve of — from failing a class to having a drink at a party when you’re underage — you’ll feel more comfortable making your own choices and learning from them as you go.
In the context of friendship, unconditional love might weather tests like conflict, falling out of touch, or differing life goals.
When it comes to romantic relationships, unconditional love could mean that love doesn’t go away, despite challenges like life-altering health conditions or changes in appearance or personality.
Altruism refers to helpful actions taken to support and benefit others, often at your own expense.
In terms of unconditional love, altruism means you don’t consider any potential benefits of loving someone. You offer your love for their support and benefit.
Love, many say, is its own reward, but you typically don’t get anything out of altruistic acts. This is one point of contention in discussions of unconditional love in romantic situations.
Because healthy relationships, by definition, are mutually beneficial, this would seem to suggest that romantic love — at least within the boundaries of a relationship — can’t be truly unconditional.
It involves acceptance and forgiveness
People aren’t perfect, and nearly everyone makes a few choices they regret. Unconditional love, however, requires unconditional acceptance.
So, you forgive mistakes and continue to offer love and acceptance, even — and this is important — if their choices distress you or cause harm.
You can’t love someone unconditionally unless your love remains unchanged despite their actions. You can, however, love someone unconditionally without having a relationship with them.
Acceptance sometimes involves recognizing when it’s unlikely someone will change and taking steps to protect your own well-being.