Unconditional love is a popular ideal passed around social media these days, particularly in circles centering on spirituality, personal development, and relationship advice. A Google Image search for the term brings a selection of watercolor sunset memes written in fancy cursive. “Unconditional love is one of life’s most beautiful gifts.”

Proponents of this idea imply, subtly or directly, that placing conditions on a relationship is a sign of selfishness or manipulation. They consider it more enlightened to accept others and be accepted by them regardless of behavior or circumstance.

While this sentiment might make sense when it comes to, say, the bond between a parent and child, it sets an unhealthy standard in romance. This is especially dangerous in relationships involving BDSM, an exchange of power that relies on clear boundaries and an unfailing sense of devotion to them.

I’m here to talk about unconditional love, why it’s antithetical to BDSM, and how the concept sets us up for failure.

Where Did Unconditional Love Originate?

The desire to be loved regardless of what we do is inherently human. Historical works suggest we’ve been discussing it for thousands of years. It likely has its origins in a few key places.

Religion

Many forms of Christianity rely on the idea that God loves everyone despite their bad behavior, or at least always leaves the option for forgiveness following repentance.

Buddha was considered an embodiment of unconditional love who’s said to have loved all beings, regardless of whether they revered him. He taught that we should aspire to love everyone without conditions, like a mother loves her child.

In Islamic traditions, the unconditional love of God is expressed as mercy. Although God is occasionally wrathful, he is said to always show compassion toward his followers.

Psychology

Humanist psychologist Carl Rogers proposed the idea of unconditional positive regard. It was a technique he used in therapy with his patients. This involved showing complete support and acceptance of a person no matter what they said or did. Rogers believed therapists should show unconditional positive regard to their clients. He also suggested people who don't receive this type of acceptance from people in their lives come to hold negative beliefs about themselves.

Philosophy

Unconditional love was mentioned in the classical Greek texts of philosophers like Aristotle and Plato. They wrote about at least seven types of love, including storge, or familial love, and agape, which is described as universal love or altruism. (Romantic love, incidentally, was described as a form of madness.)

Fiction

We feed on stories about characters who remain interested in their partners despite their terrible or irrational behavior. After all, what’s an epic love tale without ludicrously high stakes? Now Hollywood’s got us walking around thinking this is what love looks like in real life.

Does Unconditional Love Actually Exist?

Science supports the theory that unconditional love is, indeed, real. According to one neuroimaging study, the emotion felt as unconditional love is mediated by its own distinct neural network and linked to the reward centers of our brains. This means that unconditional love is its own experience and differs from other types of love on a neurological level. The feeling brings us pleasure regardless of external reward.

Within this study, unconditional love was referred to as "maternal love," the bond that mothers and children share. What we feel as romantic love occurs in other areas of the brain, some of which overlap, though not entirely. And unlike unconditional love, romantic love is triggered and sustained by external reward. The warm fuzziness we feel with our lovers is inspired by how they behave and treat us.

Unconditional Love Sets a Toxic Precedent in Romance

It seems counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? Aren’t infinite patience, devotion and respect ideal qualities to strive for?

As someone who’s worked in marketing for many years, I can tell you the people painting these pretty pictures are coming at you with agendas. They want to convince you, and possibly themselves, that something as complicated as romantic love could be so flawlessly simple. They’re selling the same "happily ever after" Kool-Aid that Disney raised us on.

In gritty, real-ass, everyday life, we all have conditions. It's just how life occurs. We’re programmed to survive and thrive, whether that means finding food, shelter or partners who support our well-being.

Think your love isn’t affected by conditions? If you answered yes then you may be lying to yourself. How would your long-term feelings change if your partner cheated on you, violated your consent, refused to get a job, or developed an addiction problem and lacked the desire to get help?

Even if we know on a logical level that unconditional love in romance is unhealthy, there’s still likely a selfish part of us that seeks it for ourselves. “I want to be loved and accepted for who I am, no matter what I do. After all, I know I’m wonderful. Why wouldn’t my partner?”

I’m sure you are truly wonderful. But if your partner is also wonderful enough to have earned your love, wouldn’t you want them to feel safe in the knowledge that you’ll behave in ways that respect their boundaries?

By believing in the value of unconditional love, we convince ourselves that we don’t have a right to set hard boundaries or that our partners aren’t entitled to theirs. Consequently, we cop out of the uncomfortable, yet necessary, work required to define and refine limits within our partnerships. We also heap guilt upon ourselves for having unpleasant feelings about how our partners treat us, even in situations where we’d be crazy NOT to feel upset.

By believing in the value of unconditional love, we convince ourselves that we don’t have a right to set hard boundaries or that our partners aren’t entitled to theirs.

Unconditional Love May Morph into Abuse in BDSM

Sexual abuse tends to pop up in environments involving an imbalance of power. The spiritual community is one. I experienced this personally during my time as a yoga teacher. My first and only Reiki treatment involved a popular local instructor cupping his hand over my crotch at one point. I froze, thinking there must have been some misunderstanding. Uhhh, this seems pretty fucked up. Is this how Reiki’s supposed to work?

The BDSM community is no different and, unfortunately, may attract some people with warped or unrealistic demands. Browse a few dating sites in search of compatible kinky partners and you’ll notice an ongoing theme among faux doms.

“I’m seeking a TRUE SUBMISSIVE who will cater to all my desires.”

This "true submissive" crap needs to die in a fire. It should be a big red flag for anyone desiring kink in their life. Tops who claim “a true submissive would do this for me,” are using the label of BDSM to mask selfish behavior.

We even fetishize this arrogance in fiction. The "Story of O," long hailed within the BDSM community as a classic erotic masterpiece, includes multiple instances of the main character being bullied or pressured into activities that aren’t just unpleasant in sexy kinky ways, but ones that make her legitimately unhappy.

Non-consensual fantasies can be arousing and are exceedingly common. Non-consensual behavior, however, has no place in BDSM in real life. Good doms know how to keep their dynamic sustainable, which will never be possible if their subs aren’t enjoying themselves.

We all have conditions, whether we’re conscious of them yet or not. Whether you prefer topping or bottoming, it’s your responsibility to define, communicate, and enforce your boundaries for the protection of yourself and your partner(s). Not doing so is incredibly dangerous.

Conditions Are Your Friend, Not Your Enemy

One of the best aspects of the kink community is our focus on consent and communication. It’s one reason many of us quit the vanilla dating scene, which assumes the unspoken, pop-culture-approved, one-size-fits-all social structure guiding sexuality and intimacy should work for everyone.

I’m assuming this system has failed you at some point and that you have your own unique ideas about what you want in your relationships. After all, no one else in existence can be or understand you fully. Your desires, experiences, beliefs and limits have contributed to your specific expectations, and that’s A-OK.

If you have as much difficulty navigating this issue as I used to, I recommend the following steps:

  1. Start by defining your boundaries in your own mind. Get clear about what type of behavior you will and won’t accept from your partner(s). For example, “I can’t be happy with a partner who screams at me when they’re angry,” or “I don’t want a relationship with someone who drinks all the time.”

  2. Clearly communicate your boundaries to your partner(s) if and when a situation calls for it. We kinksters learn to do this during negotiation, but it can extend to everyday issues as well. Be respectful, but don’t apologize or make excuses for your boundaries. At the same time, try not to make assumptions or become defensive because this hinders effective communication. If you’re feeling upset, consider holding off until you calm down. You have every right to say to your partner, “I’m feeling emotional and think it’d be better to take some time out before talking about this.” We’re at our best when we feel calm.

  3. Stick to the conditions you’ve set. If your partner knowingly crosses a line, you may or may not decide to respond with a warning before leaving the relationship or enforcing some other consequence. The point is that your conditions won’t mean anything if your partner finds out they can get away with whatever they want. Instead, many people will push until you snap.

Don't Feel Guilty About Having Conditions

A lot of us, especially subs and service tops, have a hard time learning to say "no" in ways that feel comfortable. We love pleasing our partners and feel like we’ve let them down when we refuse to satisfy their desires.

If this is you, be mindful of your thought patterns so you can catch yourself in the moment and start reprogramming your brain toward a place of greater self-love. “I’m just as important as anyone else and so are my needs.” Make this your mantra.

Don’t worry about upsetting your partner while laying out boundaries. They’re an adult. They can decide for themselves whether they find your conditions acceptable. If you’re truly compatible, their conditions and expectations will either align with yours or they’ll be willing to compromise in a way that respects both of your needs.

Great BDSM partners are eager to learn the boundaries of those they play with. Avoiding unpleasant or non-consensual territory allows us to delve more deeply into the activities we do enjoy in sustainable ways.

If Unconditional Love Is Causing You Grief, Drop It Like a Bad Habit

Throw that unrealistic, guilt-trippy, brainwashy bullshit right out the window and smash it. Conditional love is where it’s at. The fact that you and your partner care enough to honor each other’s boundaries is testament to the functionality and health of your connection. That is intimacy and, frankly, it’s fucking hot.

Your approach to love and the conditions you put on it send a message to your partner(s) about what kind of treatment you'll accept. Lay out your conditions with pride and don’t let anyone shame you for them. They’re an important face of the unique, wonderful, colorful Rubix cube that comprises you.