Is Love Conditional?

We were watching telly the other day and someone on the show said that love was unconditional. My teenage son scoffed and said that all love was conditional.

“Would you still love me if I became a genocidal dictator like Hitler?”

At first this question surprised me, and I spoke about the chances of that happening. A small percentage of the population are, imo, born with psychopathic tendencies. Their environment as a child is the difference between whether they become business leaders, serial killers, or political dictators who do genocide.

But this wasn’t the question that was being asked – he didn’t ask it because he was worried about becoming evil – his question was an extreme way to ask about whether love is conditional.

On the face of it, the answer seems obvious. No. How could a parent love a child who does something like that? They couldn’t. Surely? The obvious answer is: In that case, love is conditional and would cease to exist.

Of course, reality is much more complicated.

Movies and documentaries like to show Hitler at the end of his life, when it’s unravelling. He’s losing the war, people are noticing how bad things are, and he’s lost control. My theory is that people fixate on this portion of his life because it makes them feel like they would’ve been able to tell that he is a bad guy. It’s easy to pick him out as the villain at this point – therefore by extension, the viewer begins to believe that they would’ve been the ones to see him as a villain earlier. The viewer starts to lie to themselves, believing they are special; that they wouldn’t have been charmed, they wouldn’t have been conned, they would have noticed the early red flags that pointed to Hitler’s potential harm.

And – importantly – they would be the hero who stopped it from happening.

Unfortunately, it’s a lie that actually allows people like Hitler to thrive. The reality of people in power is that they need support to gain power. If you look at the footage of Hitler early in his political career, it’s obvious that he’s charming and knows how to get people to like him. He commands a room, drawing people’s attention and adoration. People were charmed by him. He gained power through manipulating people with charm; slowly over a long period of time. He was appointed leader of the Nazi party in 1921, and in 1923 his first attempt at power failed to the extent where he was jailed (serving one year of a five year term). It’s where he wrote Mein Kampf (My Struggle). From 1924 to 1932 (eight years), he worked on gaining popular support. This was a long game, and one that showed he learned from the 1923 experience, taking more time to get the pieces in place before having another crack at ultimate power. In 1933, he convinced the parliament to appoint him Chancellor, and only then (twelve years from his first taste as leader of his party) did he begin the process of becoming a dictator, which he achieved in 1934. For six years, he focused on economic recovery (and popularity with the people), not beginning WWII until 1939.

His abuses of power started out small, testing the waters to see what people would stomach and backtracking, or slowing down, until people were comfortable again.

In the case of my son’s theoretical question; it is easy to love a charmer. On of lesser scale than Hitler, people are charmed all the time into things they are unsure about. It’s how a good con-man operates; charm and making someone feel special. Coincidentally, I’ve been reading about this in a book called ‘The Confidence Game’ because I have a fascination with gamblers and betting scams in my day job. For the same reason that movies prefer to show Hitler’s downfall—because it lets everyone lie to themselves that they would’ve noticed, and they could’ve stopped him—confidence tricksters and scammers use that same self-lie as the baseline to trick people. They tell people what they want to hear, that they are special.

Would a parent love someone like Hitler? Absolutely yes. And for a long time, even with plenty of evidence that he was doing evil things. If you start from a place of love and add in a large dose of charm – of course you are going to love that person. Even the people who weren’t his parents ignored plenty of horrible things; believing that sending people to camps was for their own good, and not believing the people who said ‘bad things happen at those camps’, ‘people are disappearing’. Why would you believe the very people that Hitler told you not to believe?

This is a denial phase. My child, who I love, couldn’t possibly do that. This person who is always very charming to me (especially when I agree with them) couldn’t possibly do that.

It’s only after it all unravels and the evidence is irrefutable that the charm fades. And then there’s a process of anger, followed by grief, and yes, that’s when the love goes from unconditional to conditional to – eventually – disappearing and being replaced with other emotions. Hurt, anger, grief.

An interesting extreme question – because teenagers love a good extreme – and one with a complicated answer. It’s no; any rational parent couldn’t love their child if they became a genocidal villain. But getting there would be a very complicated journey that would include many phases of denial, and in some cases, the love and belief in the charm would override all evidence. People are not rational, they often believe illogical things even when faced with evidence.

I don’t believe my son would become the next Hitler and I don’t think the question is a red flag. It’s more likely that he’s worried about love towards him being conditional, and has invented an extreme question to use as a discussion point around the thing he’s actually worried about.

Parental love for a child should be unconditional – especially when the children are children. I certainly love my children unconditionally and this means I forgive them more often than some people say I should. I take their side in arguments and I stick up for them. I support them. I’m always there for them (often at the cost of my own needs).

Unfortunately for a lot of children, this isn’t the case. Many people have children for reasons that aren’t ‘I love them’. They have them for status, or to pass on their “obviously superior genetics”, or because society tells them they should, or simply by accident. There are many reasons why people become parents; likely as many different reasons as there are different people in the world. And not all of those reasons start with unconditional love. The statistics around abused children (as another extreme example) tell a story of power and control, and not one of love. And for parents who begin with love and maintain that love throughout the child’s entire childhood; yes, even this love is conditional once the child is an adult.

Because love between adults (regardless of how the relationship started) is conditional. Always. It’s conditional on both parties treating the other with love and respect. A child eventually becomes an adult and the unconditional love becomes conditional as the relationship moves from parent/child to adult/adult.

Perhaps the question shouldn’t be: Can a parent stop loving a child once they are grown and the child does something awful?

Perhaps the question is: Can a child, once grown into an adult, continue to love their parent now they see them from an adult’s point of view? Should a child feel like they ‘have’ to keep loving a parent once the child is also an adult and can see the parent’s actions with an adult’s understanding?

And shouldn’t parents love their children and treat them in such a way that once the child is an adult, the child’s love for the parent continues to be treated with respect. Children are born loving their parents unconditionally (and parents should love their children unconditionally). Is the parent a decent enough person to value that unconditional love and continue to be worthy of it once the child is an adult? That’s the real question.

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