Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Unconditional Respect?

So apparently there's a bit of, um, "wisdom" running around in some Christian Marriage Help circles which says that, basically, women need unconditional love, and men need unconditional respect.

Now, I have some problems with the idea of unconditional love. First of all, I don't think love is ever truly unconditional; and second of all, no matter how much we laud it as a goal or ideal, I'm not at all convinced that unconditional love is actually a good thing. At least, not when it comes to human beings.[1] To pick an obvious example, if I love someone who keeps hurting me and and taking advantage of me, pretty soon I'm not going to love them quite so much (and soon after that, I'm not going to love them at all). This is not a failing on my part; it's a good and sensible reaction to unacceptable behavior.

So, no: I don't think that unconditional love (for either the husband or the wife) is a necessary ingredient for a successful marriage.

But the other half of this equation isn't just misguided; it's nonsensical. Unconditional love may be a bad idea, but unconditional respect is essentially a contradiction in terms. Respect is, by its very nature, something that must be earned. If it isn't earned, it isn't respect. It might be courtesy, or perhaps deference, but it can't be respect.

So, you know, at best this advice is misleading. At worst, it's deliberately designed to set up a situation where no matter how egregious the husband's behavior might be, the wife isn't supposed (read: allowed) to call him out for it. I'd like to think that that's a flaw, but I suspect for a lot of people it's a feature.

Generalized relationship advice is always suspect, but this seems pretty horrible even by those standards.

[1] I am aware of the theological assertion that God's love is unconditional. However, unconditional love is a very different proposition for an all-knowing, all-powerful being. Such a being is, by definition, simply not vulnerable. There is nothing limited creatures could do to harm it - ever. I'm not entirely sure that an all-knowing being could even be disappointed in any meaningful way. So God, if He exists, can afford to love unconditionally; for Him, there's no real risk or cost in doing so.


  1. At think that, at best, unconditional love is something only a few of us ever experience, and even then, we experience it sporadically and fleetingly. Because it is, at best, sporadic and fleeting, it is very difficult to study.

  2. Yeah, I tried that whole "Unconditional respect" thing with my ex. It didn't take. Hard to respect someone who keeps messing up in exponentially awful ways.

  3. I agree with Amanda. And you. Making unconditional that which should be earned only leads to a person feeling a sense of entitlement. No one is owed respect or love. If you want to have those then be someone who is loveable and respectable. Barring that, f'get about it.

    That and, well, the God depicted in the Bible doesn't exactly exhibit unconditional love either. So, while a god might be able to do it, as long as humans keep trying to suss out his/her character, y'know since one hasn't exactly shown itself, the gods I'm aware(and I'm completely unaware of many) of don't love unconditionally either.

  4. Nicely put. :) Thanks for posting!

  5. I think unconditional love is important in a parent child relationship, especially when the children are young. In a marriage relationship, not so much. I want my partner to love me despite my smaller failings, but I would not want them to stay with me if I were abusive or even if they would be happier with someone other than me. I love my partner, and the most important thing to me is their happiness, and if someday their happiness requires us to no longer be together, I'll be sad of course, but I wouldn't want them to love me to their detriment.

    As a small child, I needed to be loved even when I misbehaved. I needed parents who could love me even when they were utterly disappointed and exasperated, even when I was kicking and screaming "I hate you I hate you I want ice cream". (I didn't need the ice cream, but I did need parents who would never decide enough was enough and leave me at the curb for the garbage man.) As an adult, I want someone to love me even though I have a body that has to use the toilet sometimes and other times gets sick and all of that, and I want someone to love me when I'm just being myself and am not trying to impress anyone, but I don't want someone to love me when I hurt them.


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