One of the most poignant and powerful illustrations of the rhythm of significant relationships is the stages of separation that John Bowlby observed in young children experiencing separation from parents. While they are more obvious in children who generally have little difficulty expressing their emotional and physical reactions to things they don't like, the same stages are evident in older children and adults. When people we love do things that threaten us we express our displeasure (protest), if the threatening behavior continues, we become sad and experience a sense of loss (despair), and finally if the sense of separation (you are not there for me) continues long enough we emotionally disconnect (detach) in order to protect ourselves from further emotional pain. We conclude that it is better to be alone than to be rejected.
This rhythm of attachment tells us a great deal about who we are. It is a running commentary of how well we love. Do we listen, hear and respond to the protests of our loved ones? Are we sensitive to their displeasure and their pain? Do we adjust our behavior to reassure them or do we just keep on doing our thing? How well do we know what they need and what is important to them or is it just what is important or significant to us that matters? And perhaps most importantly, are we able to suffer through their insensitivity and even rejection of us while still being open to receive them?
An important quality of how well we love may be seen in our capacity to suffer. Growing in love, becoming more loving, is growing in our willingness to give of ourselves. Many pastors and teachers of religious faith frequently talk about this. Most often, it is expressed in behavioral terms of serving by doing more for someone else and doing less for you. So they focus on our behavior, what we do. Do we go on a mission trip or a golf trip? Do we perform a service project for somebody else or focus on our own projects? Unless we look in our hearts and examine our motives for giving of ourselves we might not really be growing in loving others.
I think we need to consider what suffering consists of to help us know what love is. What does it look like to suffer and what does suffering do in us? How does our capacity to suffer for another develop? What affects it? Who are the most loving people you know? Reflect on what they are like. How do you feel around them? What is it about them that tell you they love? Is it what they do or who they are? Do you know about their life or just their behavior? I would suggest that you know someone loves not just by how they behave but by experiencing a presence that welcomes and invites connection.
Henri Nouwen says we are to become like the father of the prodigal son (a metaphor of God's love) who was shaped by waiting for his sons to deal with their stuff. Nouwen says: "A large part of the father's life has been waiting. He could not force his younger son to come home or his older son to let go of his resentments. Only they themselves could take the initiative to return. During these long years of waiting the father cried many tears and died many deaths. He was emptied out by suffering. But that emptiness had created a place of welcome for his sons when the time of their return came. We are called to become like that father."
I love this statement "emptied out by suffering" that creates "a place of welcome", a place of love and joyful connection. Suffering creates a space in us to love each other, and it involves the helplessness of waiting.
The next time your relationship is threatened, and you notice the rhythm of attachment that tells your loved one you're feeling threatened, consider working on learning how to wait and suffer in order to create a space of connection. You will feel the distress of separation but resist expecting a change in their behavior. Empty yourself by letting go of your demands. Create a safe space for them to come home.