Sunday, July 31, 2022

A short exploration of "unconditional love"

Kharma Kelley, a romance author, has a few points to make about "unconditional romance" and I think it's a topic worth thinking about given that "unconditional romance" remains part of the RWA's extended definition of a romance novel:

Two basic elements comprise every romance novel: a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending. 
A Central Love Story: The main plot centers around individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work. A writer can include as many subplots as they want as long as the love story is the main focus of the novel.

An Emotionally Satisfying and Optimistic Ending: In a romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love
Here's what Kelley has to say:

If we're gonna talk about love in a mature and nuanced manner, let's start by realizing that "unconditional love" is a cruel and unrealistic idea that has shamed ppl into removing boundaries and standards required for a healthy relationship--platonic, familial, or romantic.

This idea of unconditional love can be toxic when it guilts ppl into staying with abusive partners, or forgiving family members who participated in abuse. It can shame parents into accepting the harmful and/or violent behavior of their children and vice versa.

Instead we need to empower everyone that it is OK for their love to have standards, boundaries and expectations. We are human and our loyalty, dedication and affections are GIFTS. We don't owe it to anyone unconditionally. That isn't fair, nor healthy.

Also, let's not conflate love with caretaking. Feeding, clothing and contributing to the survival of a person is not necessarily love. The will and desire to caretake can be deepened by love, but it isn't a requirement of caretaking.

I feel like what many of us are really asking for when we say 'unconditional love' is acceptance of who we are flaws and all. But even defining it as that is unrealistic. Some of our flaws will be unacceptable to some folks. And that's okay. Why?

Because I can choose to examine my flaw and if it's worth changing. Will I be better for it or nah? Notice how I didn't make it about them? Because it isn't. I always have the power to determine if a flaw is really a flaw to me.

I also have the power to determine if the relationship I may stand to create or strengthen is valuable enough to invest in by addressing this flaw. And for the record I define flaws as behaviorial. Behaviors can change. Identities and physical traits are NOT flaws.

When I wrote Faith, Love, Hope and Popular Romance Fiction (which can be read online or downloaded free from here) I decided to omit a discussion of "unconditional love" because I wasn't really sure to what extent all romance writers believed it was an essential part of romance or whether they'd have different understandings of what it meant. Instead, I decided to limit myself to arguing that, in romance novels, true love is depicted as both "good" and "durable." However, I do have an unpublished offcut which I saved and which shows me struggling to work out what "unconditional love" might mean in specific romance novels. I'll paste it in below.


One work of pastoral theology has stated that 

Unconditional love is the only real love. Conditional love is a counterfeit. It says in effect, "I will love you if - or I love you because." What it means is, "I will love you if you will fulfill my demands," or, "I love you because of what you mean to me or can do for me. (Hulme 92)

This particular definition of conditional and unconditional love comes from a chapter outlining “a theological approach to the parent-child relationship” (88); the heroine of Marin Thomas’s Daddy by Choice (2005) bears witness to the damage that can be done when parents fail to provide this kind of love:

Heart breaking, Josephine stared at her parents, yearning for the one thing they had withheld all her life. "Unconditional love [...] I'm not sure my parents know what unconditional love is." Josephine's voice cracked. "I believe my sister [...] chose to live her life away from the family because she realized she could never be what my parents expected her to be. [...] Until my sister's death, I hadn't known I had fallen victim to my parents' expectations. All my successes and accomplishments were to please them in the hope of earning their love. I didn't understand that no matter what I did, how successful I became, I would always fall short in their eyes." (222)

As Flynn, the hero of Dallas Schulze’s Tell Me a Story (1988), remarks, children need to be given "room to grow and you have to love them for what they are, not for what you want them to be” (465). Much later in the novel this brief definition of unconditional love is echoed when Ann realises that this is the kind of love Flynn himself requires: “unconditional love. Someone who accepted him with all his faults and all his good points. Someone who'd never compare him to another and find him wanting. Someone who'd love him just as he was” (621). In Courtni Wright's It Had to be You (1998), it is the heroine, Jenna, who is explicitly described as being a recipient of this kind of love. She initially believed that “her humble beginnings lay between” (17) her and Mike and “had decided that the chasm between them was too wide for him to cross” (36). Mike, however, persists in trying to bridge the gap and, by the end of the novel, she has “completed her crossing” (283) and knows Mike feels “unconditional love and acceptance. He did not care which side of the tracks had been her beginnings. He had never been embarrassed by her lack of knowledge about which fork or spoon to use with which food in a multicourse meal” (282).

Both Ann and Courtni’s respective recognition of the presence of unconditional love towards and from their heroes occurs as the novels draw to a conclusion; accepting that one is loved in this way can take time and moreover this type of love is certainly not always present immediately in the romantic relationships depicted in romances. Such a delay is, indeed, implied in the RWA definition of romance, in which unconditional love is said to be one of the rewards given to the protagonists after they have undergone “risk and struggle for each other”. Moreover, certain conditions may have to be met in romantic relationships in order for love to become unconditional and for each lover to be able to receive it. The heroine of Lidiya Foxglove’s The Mermaid Bride (2017), for example, recognises that “Being in love didn’t mean lying and hiding parts of yourself and trying to be someone you weren’t. We could only be in love if we accepted the truth of what we were, and how we felt about each other, and were willing to struggle through all the troubles” (Lidiya Foxglove, The Mermaid Bride, Chapter 21).


So, I think it might be useful to understand what different people mean by "unconditional love" as applied to relationships. It doesn't seem healthy to me to be in a relationship with someone who keeps making you jump through hoops to earn their approval, and where you're walking on eggshells thinking that if you do something wrong they'll no longer want to be with you but, on the other hand, it seems healthy to have standards regarding behaviour which will remain unacceptable, no matter how much you love someone or how much you've committed yourself to them.

In our chapter in The Routledge Research Companion to Popular Romance Fiction, Eric Selinger and I wrote that:

Research remains to be done on “unconditional love” in popular romance fiction. Does unconditionality work as a defining quality for love in purely secular romance contexts, or does it always bring with it a trace of religious reference and discourse? Has the feminist critique of unconditional love been incorporated into popular romance? If so, how is it addressed? Do romance novels ever extol the value of conditional love, which in Fromm is co-equal with unconditional love, since both are necessary elements in a “mature” version of the emotion? And although “unconditional love” is part of the RWA definition of the genre, is this a transnational ideal, or more specifically an American one? (499)

The pre-print version of that chapter's available for free to download here and it goes into a bit more depth about the religious roots of the concept of "unconditional love."

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