Adapted from a recent online discussion.
DEAR CAROLYN: I was interested in the question (http://wapo.st/1inBaQq) from the woman whose boyfriend started smoking and said, “This is me, deal with it.” I have been mulling over the concept of unconditional love. Where does unconditional love fit into this sort of situation? Or is unconditional love only applicable between parents and children?
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DEAR ANONYMOUS: I’m not sure even parents and children have unconditional love. There are betrayals deep enough to destroy what are arguably humanity’s closest bonds.
To me, barring such extreme betrayals, unconditional love in a practical sense is that your love is for whom you know a person to be — sense of humor, intellect, way of looking at the world, history with you, talents, strengths, expressions, stories — that aren’t affected by this or that belief or action or outcome.
I suppose an outcome can reveal that what you thought you knew about a person was wrong, and so there’s always a condition somewhere, but I still think people have a baseline self, and loving that is as close to unconditional as we can get.
However: Your willingness to live with that person, or condone that person’s actions, or even visit that person, can be independent of that baseline love.
I don’t think the love in the smoking question rose to the level of “unconditional,” but let’s say it had, in the sense that the letter-writer loved the resumed-smoker for reasons not subject to change. In that case, the letter-writer could still end the relationship over the behavior — it would just be a matter of “I love you completely but there’s no amount of love that will keep me in a home with a smoker.”
Which does happen, of course. One can have “unconditional” love (as pragmatically defined) both for a partner and for oneself, right? And in that case, when the two are at odds, you have to choose one.
For unconditional love that doesn’t have any strings or disclaimers, we have dogs.
RE: UNCONDITIONAL LOVE: I knew you wouldn’t complete that answer without mentioning dogs. Not that I disagree.
— Anonymous 2
DEAR ANONYMOUS 2: Couldn’t, I think, is the word.
RE: UNCONDITIONAL LOVE: Dogs have taught me about unconditional love, but what I’ve learned from cats over the years is that it’s important too, if you can, to give the kind of love someone wants and is able to accept. Too often we want to give the kind of love we want to give or the kind that makes us feel good. Cats in particular seem hard-wired to only be able to receive the kind of love they want, regardless of whether or not you want to be all snugly and kissy-face with them.
— Anonymous 3
DEAR ANONYMOUS 3: It just kills me that you have a point. Thanks.
RE: UNCONDITIONAL LOVE: Questions like this make me think that the asker is too wedded to abstract principles. And there are some pernicious ones out there, like “The One” and “soul mate” and “we were meant to be together.”
DEAR HEADDESK: True. Labels seem to distort more than they ever enlighten.