Is Love Unconditional or Must it be Earned

Copyright © 2011 Edwin A. Locke and Ellen Kenner

We’ve all heard that true love is “unconditional.” You should love someone just the way they are. But is that true? Let’s take a closer look at this advice by peering into the lives of two different couples:

Marcy seemed sweet and caring when she and Joe dated. But after he proposed, he caught her in several lies to her co-workers. He discovered that she’d taken large sums of money from his wallet without asking. And he learned that she had cheated on her last boyfriend. Joe has tried to excuse her behavior by convincing himself that “everyone has flaws” and that he needs to learn to accept her shortcomings; love should be unconditional. But his feelings of admiration and love have vanished, replaced by a growing contempt for her. Is he wrong to feel contempt? Should he love her unconditionally?

Nina was exhilarated on her wedding day. She never imagined finding anyone as handsome and loving as Kevin. That was then. Now she’s afraid of him. It seemed to start slowly, with his telling her that she needed to spend all his time with him rather than with her friends or her family. He took away her cell phone. He started calling her names when she didn’t obey him. And then the hitting started. She knew he drank too much. Now Nina feels trapped--and guilty. Love should be unconditional, she tries to convince herself. Is there something wrong with her for loathing Kevin now?

What guidance might you offer Joe or Nina? Should they grant their partners unconditional love? Or should Joe cut off his engagement to Marcy, and Nina seek professional help to leave her abusing husband?

Neither Joe nor Nina can force themselves to feel admiration for their partners. Love is not an unconditional gift you bestow upon a partner, but an emotion coming from profound admiration of your partner’s moral character. Love has to be earned. As author Ayn Rand has pointed out: ”Love is the expression of one’s values, the greatest reward you can earn for the moral qualities you have achieved in your character and person.”

Of course there are many other factors involved in love (sharing similar interests and your own unique preferences), but without good character, you will end up with a relationship based on pity, or contempt, or the pretense of love.

How do you make yourself into a person you admire and earn another’s love? You do so by building good character. And to do that, you need a consistent, rational moral code that will help you make good choices. What are some rational core virtues? They include honesty, integrity, being just, thinking for yourself, and being productive. These are character traits that you can build into yourself. Having a good character is the foundation of love.

Making yourself into a better person improves your self-esteem, your chances for happiness--and your romantic life.

And it is crucial that you accurately evaluate the character of a potential partner, or an existing one. No one gets a free moral pass. Joe should not feel guilty for feeling contempt towards Marcy. He should have no qualms about calling off the engagement. And Nina can learn how to safely leave Kevin. Both need to discover that love is not a causeless gift. And then both will be free to search for a loveable partner.

No one should feel trapped for life in a relationship with a partner who has bad moral character. “Unconditional love” in romance is a scam. Love has to be earned and building good character is the means by which you earn it.

Copyright © 2011 Edwin A. Locke and Ellen Kenner