What Is Conditional Love?

Conditional love can cause feelings of needing to be perfect at everything.
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Your boyfriend says you look beautiful, but you better not gain any weight. Your parents praise your good grades, but withdraw if your marks start to slip. Your best friend cheers on the team if you win, but disappears if you lose. Conditional love is dependent on what you do rather than who you are -- and is easily withdrawn if you don't measure up. Being able to recognize conditional love will allow you to break free from an incessant scramble to live up to other people's expectations.

1 Loved for What You Do

Genuine love is given consistently regardless of what you do. Conditional love, on the other hand, comes with a set of "rules" that determine whether you are worthy of receiving it, as discussed by University of Nottingham psychology professor Stephen Joseph in the Psychology Today article "Recognize Your Conditions of Worth." Often these conditions of worth can be so subtle that you don't even realize they exist -- and they might guide your life in a quiet way. For example, if you often think "I must always please others" or "I always need to be the best," you might be thinking in terms of conditional worth. Get in the habit of questioning those thoughts, and replacing them with more rational ways of thinking, such as "Even if I am not good at something, that doesn't mean I don't have value as a person."

2 Controlling Behavior

Conditional love is a form of controlling behavior, say licensed clinical social workers John and Elaine Leadem in the Psych Central article "What is Love?" People who love you conditionally try to get you to do what they want. For example, your parents might withdraw their affection if you get bad grades in an attempt to get you to improve. Your girlfriend might give you a nasty look if you order a double fudge sundae, to try and stop you from overeating. Conditional love keeps you jumping through hoops to try to please the other person -- and ends up reducing your self-worth. The key to breaking free from this controlling behavior is to set boundaries and know your own value. When your self-worth is not dependent on what other people think of you, but rather your own standards, it will become impossible for others to control what you do.

3 Perfectionism

Conditional love is a trigger for perfectionism. While this perfectionism might propel you to achieve success as a student, athlete or community leader, you might also have trouble following your own interests if they clash with what others expect from you, says Paul. For example, if your talents lie in the arts but your parents don't value artistic pursuits, you might be discouraged from following your heart. Conditional love is about what other people want you to do -- and doesn't allow your individual spirit to shine through. Break free by letting go of perfectionism and finding others who appreciate your unique talents. For example, tell yourself "I don't have to be the star quarterback in order to deserve love." Sign up for that art class and share your success with new friends.

4 Self-Protective Conditional Love

While most everyone seeks unconditional love as the ideal, there are certain situations in which conditional love may feel more sensible. When you are first getting to know someone, you might wait to learn more about them before deciding to extend unconditional love. If you are in a long-term dating relationship, your love might have certain basic conditions, such as the expectation that you will be treated with respect and kindness. It is possible, and sometimes prudent, to withdraw love if someone is treating you badly. This is more a reflection of your own self-worth and boundaries than a problem with your ability to love unconditionally.

Arlin Cuncic has been writing about mental health since 2007, specializing in social anxiety disorder and depression topics. She served as the managing editor of the "Journal of Attention Disorders" and has worked in a variety of research settings. Cuncic holds an M.A. in clinical psychology.