Is Unconditional Love Real — Or Just A Romantic Illusion?

Having a healthy relationship requires managing expectations.

couple holding hands in front of a car Getty

When people talk about unconditional love in the context of romantic relationships, they're generally thinking of the kind of love that's easy; no decision-making or responsibility required.

We believe that when love is unconditional, nothing can tear it asunder. The two of you as one are infallible, ageless, timeless, and forever.

What is unconditional love really? Does it exist, and if so, is it healthy?

Here's the truth: unconditional love is a romantic illusion, and one that reflects a type of love that is immature.


New lovers are intoxicated by their overwhelming emotions for each other and by the potent chemical cocktail percolating in their brains. They feel as though their partner can do nothing wrong, and that even if they did, all would — or should — be forgiven.

This kind of love is still ignorant of the stages of life, the reality of marriage, and the important of individual development.

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Unconditional love is naïve and unaware that strong relationships are the result of two strong individuals who combine their life knowledge and wisdom to build lasting bonds and establish trust.

Your love for your partner is not without conditions. Neither is your parents' love, platonic love with friends, or other family members, or their love for you.

Mature love recognizes that healthy boundaries build romantic relationships and healthy connections. And this feels good!

Unconditional love has no boundaries. But the real world is conditional.

Positive and negative actions come with subsequent positive and negative reactions — as well as potential consequences.


If we're honest with ourselves, each of us has at least one condition in mind in regard to what we will and will not accept in a relationship, such as fidelity, honesty, loyalty, and respect. And even when partners agree on the conditions set for their own relationship, they must also agree on how what those conditions should look like in practice.

What does it mean to love someone unconditionally?

Loving someone unconditionally means you love them truly, without expecting anything in return or without wanting to change them, and caring about their happiness before your own.

Unconditional love means loving without requiring acts or services in exchange. It means you can feel safe in knowing that you're not going to "lose" someone's affection for minor setbacks and mistakes.

It doesn't mean you'll never argue or fight; what it does mean is that you can place the boundary of "If we get to the point in an argument where we're screaming, we need to take a break to cool down." It doesn't mean you accept your partner back after cheating on you without reestablishing trust and boundaries to help heal the relationship.


Unconditional love does not mean accepting abuse.

Unconditional love understands that people have boundaries, and that those boundaries must be respected in order to keep a harmonious relationship.

Unconditional love doesn't mean you accept less than you need for your happiness or theirs. It simply means you acknowledge what you both need and agree to love each other without forcing compliance or enacting a "debt" in order to keep receiving that love.

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What is an example of unconditional love?

An example of unconditional love in the familial sense is a parent putting their child's needs ahead of their own. For instance, if a child wakes up in the middle of the night after having a nightmare, unconditional love is a parent waking up themselves and comforting their child until they fall back asleep.


In a romantic relationship, another example of unconditional love is when couples offer emotional support to one another, without having conditions or expecting anything in return. They simply want their partner to feel better, and don't judge them for needing help.

So, how do you love someone unconditionally?

Loving someone unconditionally means taking the time to openly communicate, both about your needs and theirs. It means being considerate about their feelings while being comfortable expressing your own.

Think about how it is you came to believe what you do about unconditional love. Talk with each other thoroughly and often about what that concept means to each of you, carving nothing in stone.

As you move through time evolving as individuals and changing with circumstances, most of which will be unpredictable, chances are good that each of you will awaken to new thoughts, feelings, expectations, and assumptions about your relationship that make things seem different, perhaps even unworkable at times.


You're likely to have moments, some lasting longer than others, when you each feel misunderstood, confused, or unheard.

Who you were then, won't be who you are now. At times, you may not recognize each other, or even yourselves.

This is why it's crucial to build a solid foundation for your relationship from the beginning.

It's just not true that all you need is love.

The Bottom Line

Success demands we know what we're doing; proficiency comes with practice. You didn't become proficient at your job without learning and continuing to upgrade your skills. Having and using skills means the toolbox is there when something breaks.

Prepare yourself and your relationship for inevitable uncertainty, change and growth by commiting together to continue honing your communication skills and adding tools to your proverbial relationship toolbox as a united team.


How we adjust to change isn't always smooth or easy. Love-blinded couples are unprepared, surprised even, when life happens in the form of difficulties such as illness, joblessness, or family of origin demands.

Realignment takes communication and work. Waiting for things to break before that work begins is never a wise choice.

Be sure to manage your expectations along the way.

There is no such thing as "the one," but when relationship ups and downs happen, many of us get nervous and believe we've made the wrong choice.

But what did you expect? Partners can best manage uncomfortable moments of change by looking inward before blaming outward.

Because no, love by itself does not conquer all.


Personal boundaries create healthy togetherness. You're you. That's what made you attractive to your partner in the first place, just your partner being who they are is what attracted you to them.

We tend to think that true love means losing ourselves in the other, but all that earns is eventual resentment and lots of identity problems.

In truth, healthy partners provide the pillars that make a relationship strong by standing on their own as individuals.

True love requires both partners to take responsibility for themselves and for the relationship.

Your new love may feel unconditional, but when the rubber meets the road, love in and of itself is never enough — and it always comes with some form of conditions.


Being successful at marriage, relationships, or anything at all, requires skill supported by commitment and practice.

The idea of unconditional love is beautiful, but as we know, real relationships and real love require work, boundaries, and yes, conditions.

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Kathe Skinner, LMFT, MA, is a marriage and family therapist based in Colorado Springs, CO, who specializes in communication issues, life transitions, self-esteem, and couple's counseling.