Conditional Love

Conditional love, On conditional love, Unconditional love meaning, Conditional love meaning, Conditional love vs unconditional, What is conditional love, Love without condition, Conditional love parents

Have you ever experienced the need to meet certain expectations in order to feel loved and appreciated? How often in your life have you heard phrases such as, “If you choose to become a lawyer, we’ll be so proud of you,” “I will stay in a relationship with you, but only if you promise to stop hanging out with your friends,” or “I’ll love you as long as you don’t gain weight and look as perfect as you do now?”

When unable to fulfill the demands or meet the requests of others, we might perceive ourselves as a failure. We might believe we are not good enough or constantly seek validation from others. If this relates to you, then you may have experienced conditional love.

What is conditional love?

on conditional love

unconditional love meaning

Conditional love meaning

Conditional love vs unconditional

Summary: Love comes in many forms, but healthy love shouldn’t come with strings attached. Here’s what conditional love looks like:

  • Love Based on Requirements: You have to meet certain expectations (grades, looks, behavior) to get love and approval.
  • Love Withdrawn as Punishment: If you mess up, their affection or care disappears.
  • Focus on Earning Love: The emphasis is on what you do, not who you are.

Impact: This can lead to low self-esteem, insecurity, and a constant need to please others.

But wait, is all conditional love bad? We will explore the nuances of love and relationships later in this blog.

People can connect, show affection, and express and receive love in various ways.

Conditional love expects us to fulfill certain conditions, provoking a sense of inadequacy and failure when these conditions are unmet. People who love conditionally tend to give or withdraw their affection and care depending on specific expectations, restrictions, or requirements. Conditional love has to be deserved. In order to earn love, you have to meet set expectations and requirements, whether it is behaving in a particular way, meeting certain standards, or achieving specific goals.

Conditional love, On conditional love, Unconditional love meaning, Conditional love meaning, Conditional love vs unconditional, What is conditional love, Love without condition, Conditional love parents

Conditional love can exist in any relationship. In family relationships, conditional love can, for example, be tied to parental expectations, where parents’ love and approval depend on the child’s academic performance, career choice, or sports success.

In romantic relationships, love may be conditioned on one partner’s ability to meet specific standards related to physical appearance, behavior, habits, etc.

Friendship can be conditional, too. For example, one person or a group of people can make their friendship dependent on how the other person looks or conforms to particular values and standards of behavior. In adolescent friendships, this kind of conditional love is common.

Nonetheless, when someone loves you conditionally, affection, appreciation, and care depend on meeting specific criteria. This can lead to stress, self-esteem issues, insecurity, and a lack of genuine emotional connection.

While conditional love typically has a negative connotation, it is critical to recognize that this topic is not black and white. Is conditional love necessarily bad? Are there circumstances where conditional love can be a good thing?

We will eventually get to that. However, it is critical to distinguish between unconditional and conditional love before we move ahead.

Conditional Love vs Unconditional Love

Conditional approval is often used pragmatically in childhood as a teaching tool to reinforce positive behaviors and morality. This can be appropriate scaffolding in a child’s development.


However, the risks emerge when conditional approval extends beyond judicious discipline into the core emotional bonds between caregiver and child. Withholding affection as punishment can inflict deep wounds on a child’s innate need to feel loved for who they are.

So while some conditionality may be inevitable in socializing a child, the ideal is to maintain unconditional love while providing lessons. The challenge is keeping disciplinary correction of behaviors separate from the unconditional bond.

Personal insecurities can stem from receiving merely conditional love in our upbringing. The absence of true unconditional acceptance could underpin our self-limiting beliefs. This speaks to how conditional love can feel manipulative and transactional, reducing our human worth to what we do rather than who we are.

Some conditionality is likely unavoidable in relationships. But preserving spaces for unconditional love to flourish—especially between parent/caregiver and child—seems crucial for healthy nurturing.

Love and Affection in Different Parenting Styles

Conditional love parents

Effects of conditional love from parents

People raised with an authoritarian parenting style, for instance, are typically obedient and good at following routines because they grew up following strict rules and high expectations set by their parents. Authoritarian parents frequently use punishment and shaming instead of positive reinforcement, producing perfectionists able to focus on challenging tasks until they finish them.

However, these people show lower levels of enjoyment, self-esteem, and social competence. Later in life, they tend to be inflexible and lack resilience, so they may struggle to adapt to changes and swiftly recover after adversity.

Unconditional love, on the other hand, can seem too permissive. It is love that is given without any expectations, rules, or conditions. Unconditional love entails providing constant acceptance and support without barriers or limits. When we love someone unconditionally, our love and affection are not tied to their achievements or behaviors. We love them all the time, regardless of what they do or fail to accomplish. This type of love is often associated with the love between parents and their children.

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Unconditional love can easily be mistaken for indulgent or permissive parenting, where parents are warm, understanding, and focused on their children’s kids. They go to great lengths to ensure their children are happy and attempt to prevent conflicts. They set some standards and guidelines for their children to follow, but they are never clear-cut or consistent.

However, being permissive does not equal unconditional love. Unconditional love can absolutely involve involve setting rules and guidelines for children to follow and allowing them to learn from mistakes and make positive choices.

We can unconditionally accept the inherent worth of each person while conditionally responding to harmful actions. The key rests on judging acts while still seeing the human behind them.

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Unconditional Love for a Person vs. Conditional Love for Behaviors

Having unconditional love for a person but conditional love for their behaviors is the healthy foundation of secure affection and meaningful interpersonal relationships. When we love a person unconditionally and yet express conditional love for their behaviors, this, in essence, translates to establishing boundaries.

Establishing personal boundaries is about communicating our needs, values, and limits in a healthy and positive way.

Unconditional love is rooted in the belief that every human deserves love, understanding, and empathy. It is about loving a person for who they are at their core. Unconditional love is, therefore, about profound acceptance and a commitment to love the person through their imperfections and flaws, relationship challenges, and adversity.

This, however, does not mean the absence of rules, guidelines, or expectations. Unconditional love for a person is, for instance, evident when a parent responds to their child’s challenging behavior with calm discipline, trying to understand the reasons behind their misbehavior instead of scolding them.

On conditional love

Unconditional love meaning

Conditional love meaning

Conditional love vs unconditional

Conditional love for one’s behavior is granted based on whether the person meets specific behaviors regarding respecting boundaries, following the rules, or displaying positive behaviors. It can manifest as a rewards and punishment system, and it is linked to extrinsic motivation.

Conditional love, when channeled through positive reinforcement, involves emphasizing appropriate behavior and rewarding a person for it to enforce and encourage that positive behavior.

In psychology, this type of learning is called operant or instrumental conditioning. Operant conditioning is a type of learning that is based on external rewards or motivation. It involves modifying the behavior by using reinforcement or punishment to increase or decrease the likelihood that a specific behavior will happen again.

In plainer terms, external factors have an impact on this kind of motivation. External incentives can manifest in various ways. For instance, in sports, individuals may receive a trophy as a form of recognition. Verbal praise and affectionate gestures, like hugs, are common ways of showing approval. These external motivations serve to acknowledge and reward individuals when they show desirable behaviors.

On the other hand, if they fail to meet these conditions, the praise is either withdrawn or they receive punishment. However, when using rewards and punishments as a way to modify behaviors, it is imperative to attain a balance between the use of positive reinforcement and disciplinary measures.

Can Conditional Love Be a Good Thing?

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Conditional love can be a good thing when we use it as a form of self-care or when it serves the purpose of protecting ourselves.

In our inherent quest for meaningful connections with others, it is essential to acknowledge that we are not obligated to provide unconditional love to those who mistreat us, whether they are our parents, partners, family members, or friends. In other words, love can be conditional to a degree. You love someone on the assumption that they would treat you with respect, love, understanding, and honesty.

We all enter our relationships with certain expectations. So, wanting to be treated with love, care, honesty, and compassion is still a condition you set. If your partner violates these expectations and conditions, you should not love them unconditionally. And this is as reasonable as it can be.

By setting rules and conditions, we protect ourselves from toxic relationships, mistreatment, and abuse. Therefore, conditional love can be a good thing when it helps communicate your needs, expectations, and limits in interpersonal interactions and protects your well-being.

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5 Signs of Unhealthy Conditional Love

Unhealthy conditional love is a hallmark of toxic relationships in which one party uses coercion, conditions, and rules to ensure the other person complies with their demands, all to preserve their dominance and control.

In unhealthy relationship dynamics, the following are some signs of unhealthy conditional love:


Conditional love may be a means of manipulation that toxic people use in their relationships to maintain control and power and have their needs met. Manipulation in abusive relationships can take many forms. A toxic person may gaslight, guilt-trip, threaten, hoover, use isolation, triangulation, or other manipulation strategies to make you conform to their expectations and rules.

Emotional Control

A sign of toxic conditional love is when an individual stonewalls you by becoming emotionally distant and cold and withholding their love and affection as a consequence of not meeting their expectations or conditions.

Love and affection seems to “switch on and off” based on your behavior. Affection is actively withheld through disapproval, withdrawal, shaming when conditions aren’t met. You feel a constant pressure to meet standards to maintain love/approval.


There is a distinction between boundaries and ultimatums. Setting boundaries requires expressing to people what we find acceptable or comfortable and what we do not, whereas ultimatums are about using threats and demands to press others into compliance with our expectations, desires, and demands. Relying on ultimatums in our relationships can create dynamics based on resentment and fear.

Power Imbalance

The person extending conditional love feels entitled to dictate terms and wield power. There is a lack of empathy or willingness to understand the recipient’s position. Rules are rigidly enforced without meaningful reciprocity or negotiation.

Suppressed Identity

You feel like you must hide parts of yourself or pretend to be someone else. Conditional approval extends to core elements like your sexual orientation, interests or personality. There is lack of genuine intimacy and vulnerability due to lack of safety.

7 Signs of Healthy Conditional Love

Open Communication:

They openly discuss conditions and expectations instead of implying them. You feel free to respectfully negotiate rules with them, and you both give candid feedback with care and understanding. Your communication remains open even during conflict.

Setting Healthy Boundaries

Healthy conditional love involves setting and respecting boundaries. You understand that boundaries are necessary for the well-being of both individuals, and you work together to establish and maintain them. This allows for a balanced and harmonious relationship.

Security in the Relationship

Your core bond remains steady, with affection only lessening temporarily during disputes.  Their care for you as a person persists, even when they disapprove of a behavior. You feel safe being your authentic self without fear of losing their love.

Reciprocal Respect

You mutually agree upon standards that each person needs. Both of you accept influence from the other, with no one’s conditions taking primacy. Your conditional love for each other reflects reciprocal honor and care.

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Minimum Control

The conditions set aim to gently guide behaviors, not exert control. There is no manipulation, shaming or emotional blackmail. They encourage your independence and differences, avoiding power plays.

Independence and Interdependence

Healthy conditional love allows you to maintain your individuality while also cherishing your interdependence. You support each other in your personal endeavors, but you also find strength and happiness in your togetherness.

Mutual Growth and Support

You both encourage each other’s personal growth and support each other’s aspirations and goals. Your love is conditional on the willingness to grow and evolve together, and you actively provide emotional and practical support to help each other achieve your dreams.

The Significance of Unconditional Love, Affection, and Disciplined Parenting in Childhood

Healthy parenting involves a combination of unconditional love and care and the implementation of appropriate discipline by caregivers. This concept is most effectively demonstrated through an authoritative parenting style that sets reasonable rules and natural consequences while validating and acknowledging the child’s personality.

It is essential to separate behaviors from the child, as their behaviors are not a reflection of who they are at their core. The key is to set clear expectations and boundaries. Striking a balance between unconditionally loving a child and setting conditions for behavior involves acknowledging and rewarding positive behaviors, treating the child with compassion and understanding, yet setting clear limits.

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It is crucial to stay patient, caring, and calm when they make a mistake. Instead of simply punishing the child, the caregiver should try to understand the reasons for such behavior so they can provide guidance and support.

Most importantly, when evaluating and disciplining the behavior, it’s helpful to focus on the behavior rather than the child’s character.

The foundation of unconditional love for a person, as opposed to conditional love for behaviors, is recognizing and correcting unacceptable behavior while also showing affection and providing an explanation of the mistake and its cause.

So, it seems that there is a middle ground, after all. If we want to have lasting connections while maintaining our well-being, we can strive for a balance of unconditional love for a person and conditional love for their behavior in all interpersonal interactions.


Priscilla is a therapist, psychoanalyst, and the practice owner of Imagine Emotional Wellness, a culturally responsive online therapy practice in New York, New Jersey, and Washington DC. 

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