Thursday, August 15
Unconditional Love: A 2019 Literature Review
*a Topline Summary can be found at the end - read the whole thing when you can, you lazy/busy bastards
It fucks up our childhoods. It tortures our adolescence. We die seeking it, paying through the nose to explore the unending realms of unconditional love. When we have it in front of us, most collapse into the abyss and fail to do the necessary work to maintain the trust, empathy, time, and support we have promised to another, let alone ourselves. Unconditional love is arguably the most fleeting, potentially non-existent human concept since the Vine video.
Life is a rhythm of trial and error when it comes to finding an enduring love. Whether you’re swiping on a screen or sitting at a bar alone, a majority of us wish we had someone to share the experience with. Of that majority, myself included, we think we already know our soulmates, and so envision them sitting in the neighboring barstool, pain streaking through our veins when we turn and realize we’re actually alone.
Some of us experience that decaying sense of self when we’re sat around a family dinner table, or holding hands with the person we’ve ended up committing our time and energy to. We may not like each other all the time, but humans are inherently social animals, and just like every other addiction, love is the one that fucks us up when we play with it the wrong way. As a result, modern scientists are turning to furthering our understanding of emotional states in order to mitigate this ever-expanding normalization of loneliness and misguided human relationships.
Writing over a decade ago, Beauregard et al., (2009) found that romantic and maternal love overlap within some regions of the brain’s reward system, suggesting that this may be why many people feel such an epic sense of purpose in starting a family. Though the authors furthered that nothing was known at the time about the neural underpinnings of unconditional love, with great explorers like Elon Musk at the helm with companies like Neuralink, this long hypothesized paradigm of the human condition might soon be a scientific fact. It is not totally irrational to consider that we are a few tech-clicks away from scientifically determining whether someone has the capacity to love as a parent or partner should, or if two people are fundamentally compatible as a couple, and even whether addicts are just deeply in love with their addiction, and so much more. These evolutions in understanding love are allowing researchers and writers, like me, help my friends, readers and strangers make better choices for themselves when introducing unconditional love into their day-to-day lives.
However, there is cause for concern in the scientific focus on exploring emotions as a physical function of the human brain, given the lack of understanding as to what unconditional love truly is. It is currently unknown as to whether unconditional love is just a myth invented to make us feel lonely and commodify love to the extent that we will never be fully satiated. The very concept of unconditional love can be so easily weaponized as a result of our natural tendency to seek it within every action we take. Establishing this understanding is key to moving forward with actions taken in the name of unconditional love.
On a daily basis, we kill, pillage, murder, and destroy with the backing of unconditional love from unconfirmed sources. A paradigm of these sources is religion. Though unconditional love for Gods does not define any common sense or empathetic human’s version of unconditional love, it has resulted in more mass murder and genocide, domestic violence and sexual abuse than any other source of reasoning.
A key example of how religion weaponizes the notion of unconditional love can be viewed by all on ABC. Hannah Brown’s season of The Bachelorette has triggered a nation-wide conversation on unconditional love, and how women are fucking sick of living under a male standard for relationships. For those of you who have not seen the show, I apologise for bringing it up as a case study example - in order to facilitate your understanding, take the time to watch the show.
Reality TV does a better job of researching love than most academics because it removes any other factor from the equation only asks: do you love this person, and do you want to work with them to be in love forever? In the case of Luke and Hannah, Luke loved himself and the God who terrifies him more than he could love anyone who fell outside of his realm of control. The Bachelorette showed that just because two people have the commonality of a shared religion, if they approach and define love, and all of the actions that have to be taken to enact their definition of love in opposing ways, no amount of shared interest can unite them.
The problem with unconditional love is that when it fails, it causes an agony like no other sensation purposefully possible. Though the feeling is a varied experience for all, it would certainly be a great genocide if billions fell victim to the symptoms of a life without unconditional love, which range from suicide and drug abuse, to mass shootings and actual genocide. Who of you can’t say that you spend huge swathes of your day thinking about the concept of love and partnership, even if it’s in the vein of pornography or casual sex? It is one of the most all-encompassing normalized states of being human, and yet our scientists and analysts use love as an excuse for other behaviors, rather than discerning what it really is.
As a result, modern scholarly articles on unconditional love fall far from what one might think scientists should explore. Love is used as a theoretical framework for establishing an understanding of why we do other things with our time, and not as the essential survival tool for our mental health. In layman’s terms, we’ve skipped over researching love, decided we know exactly what it is, and use it to try and understand everything else. We don’t know what love is, and therefore any research using “love” as a metric or reason is basic bullshit.
The obvious unconscious bias of the researcher, which breaches all attempts to use love as a guiding tool in scientific exploration, makes a large portion of the literature on the topic of unconditional love largely useless for the purposes of this paper. We do not know what love is as an intrinsic set of emotions and actions, so we cannot use it as a guiding tool for scientific exploration: love is a relative term, and therefore unconditional love is a far more complex notion. The problem we need to address is that we are all crying out for unconditional love, but none of us seems to be very good at creating and sustaining it with a partner, our parents, or our children. We are all yearning for this thing, but can any of us really define what we need for love to be unconditional both in giving and receiving?
The unconscious biases of this author are rife throughout the content of this paper, and therefore it is advised that anyone reading this on a subscription plan use the accompanying reference list to build out further research and understanding. Unconditional love is an imperative behavior right now, so it is suggested that every reader take the time to explore this topic on a personal level. Start identifying what unconditional love means to you by learning what others do and say on the topic, and how they create it. Those of us who choose to learn from the knowledge of others are more likely to embody that knowledge into their actions (ie: if you know what love means to you, you’re more likely to find it, dumbass).
It is hoped that a majority of people would die for unconditional love, but would never kill for it. The reality is something quite different. However, this particular literature review has a specific purpose, and it is not to shed light on the abuse that can occur under the false narrative of a badly doctored definition of unconditional love. We know what those problems are; we’re looking for a baseline understanding, and hopeful for a solution. For the purposes of this paper, we seek to establish whether there is enough knowledge in the world of science and experience to move forward as a species with a process for creating individual definitions of unconditional love and sustaining the sensation on a macro-social level.
It should be furthered here that sources of unconditional love do not only come in romantic and familial form. One particular fucking legend of a research team, Meehan, Massavelli, and Pachana (2017) took a sharp look at the new trend of emotional support animals. Quite rightly so, the team argued that companion animals are increasingly being recognized by society as beneficial to our health. They furthered that many pet-owners now consider their animals as authentic, affectionate members of the family.
Creature and Pippin, my cats, agree with Meehan et al., (2017), as do Leslie and Clive, the Siamese fighting fish. The conclusions of the study are hilarious, as they found that the participants rated pets are more important than siblings. Sure, parents and partners and close friends beat out pets in the love hierarchy, but apparently those of you with brothers and sisters are not better off than those us raised alone.
What can be argued as a sweeping, universal result of this one study, is that all of us should adopt an animal as an additional family member, and take the time to get to know them on an emotional level. My two mouthy, needy, monstrous cats are not emotional support pets technically, but they are. There is little comparable to the feeling of a creature, your creature, who loves you simply because you feed it and talk to it sometimes. When you are contemplating suicide and who you are going to hurt as a result of your death, a pet should be the thing you think of first, because if you are not around to love and feed it, they won’t understand your pain, and take it as abandonment. Worse still, they might actually have to watch you die. As they can’t tell us otherwise, it can be assumed that as a result of your suicide, you will put your pet in the same emotional state you were in that pushed you to that point. How fucking dark is that? It’s a reality though, and you should know it.
On the other hand, many people choose to argue that we basically do the same thing to ourselves in getting a pet. Very few domesticated animals live as long as humans, and eventually we will watch our pets die. I’ve started to notice Pippin eating less and less wet food; it’s the littlest things we know we’ll miss the most when our pets pass on, and many people use the eventual loss as an excuse to be lonely, and never get a pet in the first place. We say that we cannot bear to watch something we love die.
Contrary to this behavior with pets, Stramondo (2019) noted that many parents choose love as a reason to forego technologies of prenatal selection in order to avoid having disabled children, who may have shorter lifespans than any parent should have to experience. Herein lies the conundrum of unconditional love: does our application of unconditional love have conditional bounds?
If you have ever dated, your answer should be yes. All of us have a “type” or aspire to date a particular calibre of person. Many of us, particularly girls in Los Angeles, will use metrics such as wealth, looks, career placement, associated perks, and Instagram followers as secure reasoning to forecast positive futures with an investment of unconditional love in a partner. The women of Los Angeles, and the rest of the world, have long-since given up on there being any form of financial or material wealth that can replace the sensation of unconditional love, and being fully yourself in the consistent company of another. Again, this sheds light on the core of our problem: there is no universal definition of unconditional love that each of us aspires to give or receive, and therefore it becomes one of the loneliest learning processes we go through.
Maybe I’m wrong, and the feeling those girls get from a man who buys them shiny things is actually the same feeling I get when a man tries to learn about my stressors, rather than fix them. I know that for some, unconditional love is not a feeling. Unconditional love can be defined by action. It is always showing up with kindness. It is listening. It is appreciation for the unsaid things. It is knowing that you’re having a problem with your cable box, and fixing it without having to ask. However, before finding the right person for us, we have the arduous journey of discovering ourselves. Only in knowing our true nature can we find our true companions to share in our idea of unconditional love....
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