Love That Works

Practical keys to unconditional love

One of the articles in Friends & Lovers (IC#10)
Originally published in Summer 1985 on page 10
Copyright (c)1985, 1997 by Context Institute

Frosty lives with her husband and children in Seattle. Her major focus these days is on achieving world peace through individual peace.

I TEACH A CLASS called "Relationships by the Bootstraps" which has ended up teaching me countless lessons about how we humans fumble the notion of unconditional love. We want it and we fear it. It’s the one thing that would make life most fulfilling and happy and yet we fear we will lose something. We sometimes hear that love is all around us, so how can so many people in the world be looking for it and not finding it?


There’s something I realized about love that may make you want to turn to the next article. It’s this: Love is not an emotion. Sound sacrilegious? Stay with me. Here are two reasons why I operate from this idea.

First, try this yourself. Take a piece of paper and draw a time line across it. Now think of any person in your life you care about. Beginning at the left side of your line, think of the first time you met and what you felt about that person. What was the next feeling you had? Then when he was so late . . . And the time she said she’d . . . Think of all the major occurrences that stand out in your memory of this relationship. Write the events or circumstances above the line and the feelings or emotions that went with them below the line. What have you got?

Okay, so which one of those feelings is love? Not just any one of them? All the good ones, then? Does that mean you love only when you’re feeling good? No. The love is under and around and in each one of those emotions, and it’s bigger than all of them put together. So, love is not an emotion. It includes emotions as part of the experience, that’s for sure – but it’s not very identifiable as one emotion itself.

Second, all love is spirit, and spirit is greater than emotion. Again, spirit includes emotions – but is not centered in them.

Spirit is timeless and changeless. That may sound static and boring. It isn’t. In fact, it provides the process through which change is created. It’s one of those paradoxes:

  • When you follow what changes (emotion, fashion, others’ approval) you don’t really change, and you become bored and dissatisfied or depressed.
  • When you follow what’s changeless (spirit) in you, it changes you, and you are full and active and content.

Love Is Yes to Life. The spirit of life is a big "YES!" and we keep inventing ways to say "No." Well, if you’re going to love, you’ve got to give that up. Because love hangs out with happiness and growing and giving and having – it’s a giant YES. And if it isn’t, if to you it’s only pain and sacrifice and loss, then the "No" has somehow been yours, because life will never tell you, "No, you can’t have love." Life is saying, "Yes. Have I got love for you! Deep friendships, happy times, wonderful family; even your relations with strangers are rewarding! I’ve got love for you, and you don’t even know where it comes from. The earth just gives it off and you seem to walk on it! Here have some more!"


Saying "YES!" to life’s YES! is a decision. John Powell said, "Love is a decision-commitment." Don’t talk of love as something that makes you fall, like a banana peel – something that renders you powerless. Love renders you powerful, or it’s counterfeit goods. You need to be powerful to say YES. You can’t make a real agreement if you have no say in the matter, can you? So here’s some "Yes" material:

"If . . . the ability . . . to love, appreciate, and celebrate one’s own goodness is the key factor in the health of human personality and the basic ingredient of human happiness, then the essential contribution of love is clear: my love must empower you to love yourself."

John Powell reasoned that out in his book Unconditional Love (Argus Communications, 1978). If I love you, then I want you to love yourself so you’ll be truly happy. I do what it takes to lead you to the conclusion that you are lovable. Then a weird thing happens: to the extent that I do that for you, and you take it in, I feel good about myself. I conclude that I am lovable, when I thought I was only working on you!

Powell writes that the greatest gift of love is a sense of personal worth, and he sees that growing in three stages between people who love:

Kindness. When I married Gary, it was a case of Hippie marries American Businessman. We’re different in our styles! Yet we learned early on that it was better to leave him as he was, to leave me as I was. Style aside, I care how his life is going. I fully support his unfolding into life, in suit-and-tie style, with joy and integrity. He makes it clear that I have value just because I am, and he enthusiastically supports my endeavors. Each is absolutely convinced of the other’s love. Let me tell you, it provides a strong context for the next step . . .

Encouragement means helping each acknowledge their own ability. What Gary and I sometimes want from each other are answers, escape from uncomfortable situations, decisions made (and don’t we love to give all this, and look good?). But what we need is to be warmly reminded of our own strengths and power. And we don’t feel rejected because in "kindness" we got convinced of the other’s caring.

Challenge is the third stage. Writes Powell: "After ‘I am for you!’ and . . . ‘You can do it!’, true love should then invite the beloved to stretch, to grow beyond old limitations . . . to break a self-destructive habit, to rise above a fear, to give up a grudge, to open a repressed feeling, to confront a difficult situation, to offer a painful apology . . . Try. Stretch. Do it. If you succeed, I will be in the front row clapping my hand off. If you fail, I will be sitting right at your side. You won’t be alone . . . Give it your best shot’."


Most of us have taken a fling at loving with no strings attached and then fallen flat. Let’s talk more about what we substitute for love. One of the most useful tools I’ve ever found for explaining how love becomes an impossible entanglement, tripping us up just when we’re sure we were doing it right, is the Karpman Triangle. In many of our dealings with people we operate from this triangle, relating (often unconsciously) as a victim, a rescuer, or a persecutor.

The fact is, each of these positions is some facet of being a "victim" in order to feel like you’re worthy of being loved – by others and by your own self.

The whole merry-go-round is based on fear. What makes it a merry-go-round is that today’s victim is tomorrow’s persecutor. For example, my sons: When Tim (Persecutor) snatches Chris’s (Victim) toy, I send him to a timeout and give the toy back (Rescuer). But then Chris (Rescuer) goes over to comfort Tim (Victim), and I (Persecutor) am left looking mean. Even nations relate in these ways.

You cannot come from any of these three positions and expect to love or be loved unconditionally. No deep sense of personal worth can be conveyed; you won’t give it, and you won’t receive it.

But, you might ask along with my class participants, what else is there?

You can get off the merry-go-round and stand on solid ground where all persons have value and power:

  • Instead of being a Victim with no responsibility, you can say . . . "I’ve contributed to this by how I think and feel about myself and about you. Since I contributed to creating the problem, I can now contribute to solving it. And I will not accept destructive behavior from you. I don’t deserve it. I can give you what you need, but not always what you want."
  • Instead of being Persecutor ("It’s you or me"), say . . . "I don’t have to hurt to grow. You don’t have to lose for me to win."
  • Instead of being Rescuer ("I’m only lovable if I save you"), say . . . "I’ll be here, and here are resources to help, but you can do it."

This triangle is rooted in the concept that it’s possible to be powerless. Love is rooted in the truth that you always have power in some way. You can use it to manipulate, and you can use it to cooperate. And the more of your power you exercise, the more of it you develop.


Many of you have thought that loving someone means liking them, and that if you like someone unconditionally you have to like them even if they walk all over you. And of course, that isn’t so. When you made that time line, you saw that unconditional like isn’t possible.

As teenagers, we talked about there being different kinds of love. There aren’t. Love is all one thing, but the relationships you make from it are another. You don’t love because people deserve it, because of anything they are or do. (Those would be conditions again!) You love because you need to love, like you need to breathe. But loving someone doesn’t mean staying in a way of relating that isn’t right for both of you.

If someone is so locked into fear that the only way he or she is willing to relate to you is through struggling to control your love and your time, then you don’t need to withdraw your love – (1) knowing that love isn’t a feeling by itself and trusting that inner spirit that knows what it’s doing, (2) knowing that love’s basic gift is to affirm a sense of personal worth, (3) acting from kindness, encouragement or challenge, and (4) remembering that unconditional love isn’t unconditional like – but you may want to reassess the relationship you’ve created with it. You might say that love is unconditional, but relationships are not.

But this doesn’t mean that you can just walk out on someone who is a pain in the butt. In some way you’ve contributed to the other person’s struggle to control you, and you’ve got to take responsibility for your part in the tangle in order to gain the power to heal it. Otherwise you’ll just walk into another version of it someplace else.

Gibran says, "Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping, for only the hand of life can contain your hearts." Make your commitment to Love itself. Then you’ll see what commitment is appropriate to make to your partner.


For a long time we’ve missed the meaning of Jesus’ two greatest commandments: to love God, and to love your neighbor as yourself. We’ve been dense enough to think that loving God meant effacing yourself, and that loving your neighbor meant always putting others first – and feeling guilty if you got anything you wanted. Recently we’ve begun to get it through our thick heads that Jesus wasn’t talking about two loves, but three: loving ourselves is part of the balance. Love has nothing to do with martyrdom and nincompoopery.

Practice recognizing your personal worth. Be kind to, encourage, and challenge yourself. Without that, loving others and receiving their love will just dry up.

As long as you think of love as a human emotion, you’ll never learn to trust it. Human and emotion are both words that denote constant variety and unexpected change. Think of the things you were afraid would happen if you loved unconditionally. Notice that each one of those fears grows out of (1) confusing unconditional "love" with unconditional "like", (2) not including yourself in your love, and (3) handing your power over to someone else.

Love is a place you live from, a pool you swim around in, a fragrance you breathe in and out. The more you’re willing to love this way, the more of yourself you discover and come to love, the more likely you make it for a loved one to discover themselves. Then, you’ve got a relationship of unconditional love!


by John Boyd

Unconditionality is the key to fully experiencing and manifesting our innate love. Most of what passes as love in our lives has conditions on it. Conditional love is NOT love. Most often, it is a vehicle for a hidden need to be loved, or to ease the pain of suspecting that one is neither loved nor loving. Such contaminated (by conditions) love is frequently used as a means of controlling other persons or situations in the hidden pursuit of self interest and as a palliative for personal insecurity.

The most distinctive quality of all genuine expression of love is the absence of separation and an attendant sense of deep security. Guided by unconditional love, we never have to prove our value, our worth; we have absolutely no need of any external verification. This is not to be confused with the reality of personal differences, but rather with an acceptance of the inner person so complete that it transcends the power that we naturally bestow upon external differences. In the presence of love, differences are seen as complements or enrichment.

Unconditional love never asks for any return whatsoever. It completely frees us from imposing any condition or expectation upon another, and it embodies the complete acceptance of another without any bounds or limits.

Love empowers our ability to say both Yes and No with equal clarity and freedom of choice – and it frees us from seeking reciprocity. A person who truly lives "in love" has no particular need or desire for any "extras" in life. It is unconditionality that empowers love to reveal compassion and forgiveness, love’s indicators and active qualities.

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