• Unconditional love might seem romantic, but could it lead to harmful relationship dynamics?

  • Dr Micaela Vidal-Taylor gives her take on why conditional love may be more healthy and fulfilling

We so often hear about people loving their partners unconditionally; and we learn this is the way it should be from a very young age (take pretty much any Disney leading female character from the 90’s and before – for example Belle, who loves the Beast despite his mistreatment towards her and whose love becomes transformative for the Beast). However, we seldom hear about people loving their partners conditionally. In fact, this is even viewed as something negative. 

But before we get started, I want to make clear that I am not advocating for weaponizing conditional love and saying things like ‘I will only love you if or when…’. Instead, I am proposing a healthy, safe kind of loving: one in which we hold each other accountable, needs are met and agreements are respected.

Neither unconditional or conditional love are right or wrong, per se. Both types of love can be healthy. But unconditional love is more likely to become unhelpful as the boundary between unconditional love and allowing or facilitating abusive behaviours from our partners can become blurred. This can, in turn, translate into unsafe behaviours and toxic cycles. 

Domestic abuse is a gendered issue; the large majority of defendants in domestic abuse-related prosecution in the year ending March 2020 in England and Wales were recorded as male (92%), and the majority of victims recorded as female (77% female vs 16% male). It follows that unconditional love can be the gateway for getting to unsafe spaces for women.

Unconditional love can feel like a waterfall – vast, never-ending, inexorable and even dangerous. But it is also mesmerising, tantalising and striking. As long as things are calm, unconditional love – just as standing in from of a waterfall – can feel blissful. But what happens when there’s a sudden change in the weather and a storm muddies the waters? We feel compelled to stay. Because this is the cultural meaning of ‘unconditional love’: I will love you no matter what and my love for you will be transformative – like Belle and the Beast. 

But what if the storm threatens to pull us under the waterfall? What if we could drown for staying by the waterfall during the storm? Unconditional love can dampen our ability to recognise warning signs and make the right decisions – this dynamic often lends itself to justifying choosing the other person’s well-being over one’s own I order to preserve the relationship or to avoid stormy waters. This is when unconditional love becomes unhealthy.

This is a dynamic I often see in my private practice. How do we avoid it? Firstly, good decision making and confidently choosing ourselves – even if we truly love our partners. In my book, It’s Time To Buy Your Own Flowers, we discuss at length how women have got to this space – in which we are expected to love unconditionally, have a great career, be a perfect mother, look amazing at all times, amongst many other expectations that society sets for us. It’s about the history and sociological aspects that led to this role that we find ourselves in as women. It’s about love, relationships, power, female neuroscience – it’s about everything you need to know to make informed decisions that set you free.

Secondly, this is where healthy conditional love comes into play. This involves setting and respecting boundaries as these are necessary for the wellbeing of both individuals – then both partners are expected to work together to maintain them, fostering a balanced and harmonious relationship. Partners will openly discuss conditions and expectations rathe than implying them; rules are respectfully negotiated, reviewed with care and understanding and respected. In this relational interaction style, both partners will mutually agree upon standards that each person needs – both accepting and compromising without any one partner’s conditions taking primacy. Conditional love for each other should reflect reciprocity, honour and care.

Healthy conditional love can create safe relationships that allow both partners to maintain their individuality while also cherishing their interdependence. This is particularly important for women, as culturally we tend to be more vulnerable to tolerating unhealthy behaviours in the name of love. The aim is that both partners support each other in their personal undertakings, but also find strength and happiness in their togetherness. Mutual encouragement for each other’s personal growth should be at the heart of the relationship: love being conditional on the willingness to grow and evolve together, and actively providing emotional and practical support to help each other achieve their dreams.

Dr Mica Vidal-Taylor is a verified Welldoing therapist and the author of It’s Time To Buy Your Own Flowers

Further reading

Why do I catch feelings so fast?

Setting boundaries will set you free: Beating codependency

How to mend negative communication cycles in relationships

Toxic relationship warning signs to look out for

What is healthy love?


  1. Office for National Statistics (ONS). (2020A). Domestic abuse victim characteristics, England and Wales: year ending March 2020. Published online: ONS

  2. Walby, S. and Towers, J. (2018) ‘Untangling the concept of coercive control: Theorizing domestic violent crime’, Criminology & Criminal Justice, Vol 18, Issue 1, pp 7-28