Lost, but Not for Words
Marcus and Maria, like many embattled couples, arrive in my office and head for opposite ends of the couch. Their simultaneous plop-down strikes me as the most coordinated effort they’ve mustered in months. In unison, each hugs the armrest as though they might be able to stretch the underlying structure just a little farther in either direction. For two people who claim to be so disjointed, they posses an odd symmetry.
Outwardly, they appear quite distant, but as our sessions wear on, it becomes clear that they are very much connected — if not at all close. This quiet entrenchment is a prelude to battle, the unsettled calm before the storm of insults, grievances, defensiveness, and criticisms. Caught in an endless tug-of-war, they feign pulling toward one another when they are really pulling on one another. They communicate through vibrations, the invisible tether of bitterness and control that binds them to one another. Miserably — but seemingly forever.
“We decided long ago that divorce just isn’t an option,” Marcus tells me one day. He seems proud of the commitment he’s made to mediocrity, almost as if it will impress me. Maria nods, pledging her collaboration in this bad deal which has been twisted into “unconditional love.” I am suddenly aware of how much my head has cocked to the side.
I ask a lot of questions in therapy. Some are designed to gather information. Some are to invite reflection. And some, to be quite frank, result when my professional filter temporarily fails. Strangely, those are often the most productive. What I said next was one of those questions:
For a moment, the three of us stare at each other in silence. I am unsure if they are about to throw something at me or walk out. Marcus looks at Maria and then clears his throat. “Wh-what do you mean,” he stammers.
The initial impulse has given way to genuine curiosity. Couples stay together for any number of reasons — morality, finances, family pressure, religion, or pure convenience. Knowing their reason will provide valuable clinical information.
Plus, I’m in too deep to back down.
“What makes you so committed to something that’s causing you both so much suffering? What if you were to call it quits? What would your lives be like?”
As I speak, I notice Marcus and Maria reaching for one another, grabbing hands for the first time since seeing me. Each begins to tear up, then openly weep. I feel my own heart break, or perhaps open. Quietly, I sit with them, and we all allow ourselves to feel the painful, bristled brush of impermanence.
Close(d) to Our Hearts
I’d like to say that this was the moment when the facade of untruth came crashing down and the couple was able to make immediate and lasting change. The reality was much less dramatic. The next session was business-as-usual with the previous week’s report of conflicts, letdowns, and failed bids at connection.
What I can say is that this was the first opening into the world of loss. In speaking with the couple about what life would be like without one another, through death or divorce, bitterness melted into a profound longing. It was in this heartspace of impermanence, where words dissolve, that these partners were able to truly meet for the first time in years. This formless lovingpresence is all of ours to discover.
I don’t want to romanticize loss. To acknowledge its hovering presence in our lives is to invite profound discomfort, dread, and unresolved hurt. And yet, our efforts to ignore it produce a different kind of suffering. Loss is at once close to our hearts and closed to our hearts. Honoring it can transform our relationships, but it is more like a bitter pill than a magic bullet.
You might pause, in this moment, and let yourself feel a fraction of the raw vulnerability of mortality. But how often do you invite this awareness into your life? What is your relationship with impermanence? How often do you let yourself become aware that, by one means or another, your most important relationship will end?
Every day we are pushed out of this awareness. We distract ourselves with busy-ness and planning. We guard ourselves with contempt and judgment. The mere thought of loss and death goes against our very nervous systems (fight or flight, anyone?).
Yet, the truth is that our relationship with impermanence directly shapes our capacity to love fully. Whether we seek to embrace or avoid the inevitability of loss determines how we approach ourselves and others. If we allow ourselves to brush up against our own vulnerability, there is a natural response toward inward and outward caring, and, importantly, to being cared for. Although it is a task we might rather avoid, learning to live “close in” to birth and death can be our entry into what is most real and alive in our relationships.
A Losing Record
Our complicated relationship with loss is not a new idea by any means — it has been a part of Eastern teachings for millennia. Annica, literally “non-permanence,” is one of the three “marks of existence” in Buddhism. The other two, not that you asked, are unsatisfactoriness and non-self. Traditionally, ignorance of these three marks is regarded as the foundation of the samsara, the endless cycle of suffering.
In Western psychology, we might trace our understandings to Freud’s concept of the “death anxiety,” described as a the “feeling of dread experienced when one thinks of ceasing to be.” Psychiatrist Robert Langs elaborated on Freud’s concept, describing existential death anxiety as “the general awareness that all human life must end.” This distinguished our human fear of annihilation — which we are free to experience in the safety of our homes! — with the more primitive drive towards self-preservation other organisms experience during immediate threat. And in the 150,000 years since awareness of mortality emerged, we have had plenty of time to devise ways of denying it!
More recently, psychoanalysts have expanded their interests beyond the study of individual minds — and the deaths thereof — and entered the realm of intersubjectivity. Intersubjectivity can be described as the shared consciousness between two (or more) people. This in-between space, what Jessica Benjamin refers to “Thirdness,” can take on a life of its own. As such, it must suffer its own death. We might add a kind of “relational death anxiety” to this list. Much like its cousin existential anxiety, our efforts to deny it might actually do more harm than good.
The Dull Security of Requited Love
“If only the strength of the love that people feel when it is reciprocated could be as intense and obsessive as the love we feel when it is not, then marriages would be truly made in heaven.” -Ben Elton
I often work with individuals suffering through unrequited love. Even as I type “suffering,” I am struck that in most cases there is an odd sense of pleasure. I once saw a young man who had been pining for a friend for three years before entering my office. About a month into therapy, he excitedly revealed that he and his perennial love interest had begun dating. I was genuinely happy for him, and the focus of our sessions shifted. Another month later, we were processing the break-up.
It’s so common as to be cliche. In fact, it is a cliche: We tend to want what we can’t have. But why are we so loathe to relinquish the bittersweetness of unrequited love? Conversely, we are we so often blind to the sweetness when it is reciprocated? Most importantly, what lessons can we learn from those who suffer from a distance to help those who suffer from nearby?
The enchantment and exhilaration of one-sided love collides frequently with the pain of isolation and rejection. In the language of Gestalt psychology, we might say that it is at once “figure and ground.” The boundless love that seems to dangle in front of us is kept alive by fantasy, infatuation, and occasional glimmers of hope.
Were we to remove the isolation and rejection, logic would suggest that positive feelings would overwhelm. And they often do — for a time. But once our partners become stable fixtures in our lives, we are liable to take them for granted. They often fade out of our immediate vision (figure) and become part of the (back)ground. We are reminded of their presence most acutely when we stand to lose it. Unrequited love, with its two-sided nature, has no such problem. It has loss built-in.
One way we might reclaim the fervent passion of one-sided love and bring it into our committed partnerships is to recognize that all of our relationships are tinged with loss.
From routine separations to ordinary disharmony to profound ruptures and disrepair.
From illness and accidents to why-isn’t-he-answerings to I’m-not-sure-we-can-make-its.
From loss of function to decreased sex drive, from infertility to impotence.
From business trips to deployments to dementia.
And, ultimately, death.
When asked if there is life after death, Jesuit priest Anthony de Mello mused back: “Is there life before?” Elsewhere, he warns that most of us “never understand the beauty of existence because we are asleep.” While death is often thought of as “eternal slumber,” one of its many paradoxes is that by confronting it we are able to wake up.
Breaking the Trance of Separation
Waking up to loss is no easy task. Our habit is to forget or deny mortality, creating what Tara Brach calls “the trance of separation.” This dream-state is where we avoid the rawness of impermanence and the vulnerability of loss — for awhile, anyway, until we get blindsided. Most principally, we do this through acquisition and aggression. The main effect of the trance of separation is self-importance, an illusion that keeps us from truly loving.
Brach goes on to say that trance of separation is characterized by “narratives of who I am and what I need, and what’s wrong with me and what’s wrong with you.” Anyone even remotely familiar with couples therapy knows that these lines of inquiry are part and parcel. Certainly there is value in traditional methods, but there is a real danger in losing ourselves to projects, always grabbing the next pleasure, narrowing on a new acquisition, and avoiding the vulnerability through continuous forward progress.
We are challenged to lay down our strategies of staying asleep in order to be right here. When we remember impermanence — registered through our own mortality, that of another’s, and that of our “Thirdness” — we see that our relationships are fleeting and precious. We sense goodness and appreciation, and self-importance is transformed into gratitude.
I often recommend to my couples that they develop a relationship practice, a kind of mindful awareness aimed at deliberately cultivating the relationship they want. Embedded in this practice, among others, is cherishing, generosity, and admiration. What if we were to include impermanence? What if, while I am cherishing my partner, I also realize that our time together is limited? How might our relationships look if we followed Anthony de Mello’s recommendation:
“Any time you are with anyone or think of anyone you must say to yourself: I am dying and this person too is dying, attempting the while to experience the truth of the words you are saying. If every one of you agrees to practice this, bitterness will die out, harmony will arise.”
Marcus and Maria caught a glimpse of the power of these words that afternoon in my office. They looked at each other and saw the opaque, permanent fixtures they’d each vilified begin to fade away. In the vanishing, they became transparent to each other.
And their hearts could finally see.
Much gratitude for our time together,