Meditations on Loving and Losing

The seasons of life are temperamental. Some seem to bring success beyond imagination while others harbor endless sorrow. In those times when loss floats (or bursts) to the surface, therapy can be a blessed space for comfort and compassion. But while helping people to start coping with loss is an accepted part of the work, our role in helping people to quit denying it is often overlooked. In what follows, I suggest that an increased awareness of loss — painful though it may be — is the key to unlocking depth and aliveness in our relationships.

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 whole thing 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.

“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 to simulate “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 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:

“Why not?”

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, a world that was unavailable to them in blind commitment. In speaking with the couple about life absent one another, 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.

“Honoring loss can transform our relationships, but it is more like a bitter pill than a magic bullet.”

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 caring and a reciprocal movement toward being cared for. Although it is a task we might rather avoid, learning to live “close in” to loss 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 samsara, the endless cycle of suffering.

In Western psychology, we might trace our understandings to Freud’s concept of  “death anxiety,” described as 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 exhibit during immediate threat. In the 150,000 years since awareness of mortality emerged, we have had plenty of time to devise ways of denying it!

“‘Thirdness’ quickly takes on a life of it’s own, and as such, it must suffer its own death.”

More recently, psychoanalysts have expanded their interests beyond the study of individual minds — and the deaths thereof — and entered the realm of intersubjectivity , or shared consciousness. This in-between or “potential” space, what Jessica Benjamin calls “Thirdness,” is co-created by two people. Thirdness quickly takes on a life of it’s own, and as such, it must suffer its own death. Much like its cousin existential anxiety, our efforts to deny this relational death 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, why are we so often blind to the sweetness when it is reciprocated? Most importantly, what lessons can those who suffer from a distance teach those who suffer from close by?

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 unfulfilled fantasy, frustrated infatuation, and endless yearning. The line between what we have and what we don’t is endlessly blurred.

Were we to remove the pain of despair and become fulfilled, logic would suggest that ecstatic 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. Their loyalty and dependability lull us into the illusion that they will always be there. They fade out of our immediate vision (figure) and become part of the (back)ground. We are reminded of their importance most acutely when we stand to lose them. Unrequited love, with its two-sided nature, has no such problem. It has loss built-in.

One way we can reclaim the fervent passion of one-sided love is to recognize that all of our relationships are tinged with loss. This is a task for which we are wholly unprepared, for it goes against our conditioning and our instinct. However, we cannot truly value our committed relationships without recognizing that they are suffused with impermanence.

From routine separations to ordinary disharmony to profound ruptures and disrepair.

From why-isn’t-he-answerings to where-is-she-nows to I’m-not-sure-we-can-make-its.

From business trips to deployments to sleeping on the couches.

From waning sex drives to infertility to impotence to miscarriages.

From accidents and illness to loss of function 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

“When we remember impermanence, we see that our relationships are fleeting and precious.”

Waking up to loss is no easy task. Our habit is to forget or deny the mortality that we all share, 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. 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.” Any couples therapist knows these remarks well. While we want to help our clients assert themselves, there is a real danger in narrowing our focus solely on a the next acquisition, the next need to be met. Relationship achievements, like achievements of any sort, must be pursued in their broader context of temporality.  We cannot skirt our mortal vulnerability through continuous forward progress, working on each other as though we were projects. At times, we must find ways to just be with. To, as Mary Oliver says, “love what is mortal.”

Loving what is mortal is perhaps our most difficult task. It challenges us each day to lay down our strategies of staying asleep in order to be right here, in this ephemeral moment, with an ephemeral other. When we remember impermanence — registered through our own mortality, that of our beloved’s, and that of our time together — we see that our relationships are fleeting and precious. We sense goodness and appreciation, and self-importance is transformed into gratitude.

Practicing Losing

I often recommend that my couples develop a relationship practice, a kind of mindful awareness aimed at deliberately cultivating the heartspace needed to sustain the relationship they want. Embedded in this practice, among other things, are cherishing, generosityacceptance, respect, and admiration. I describe it as a minute-to-minute monitoring of our internal space and the space in-between.

What if we were to include impermanence in this practice?

What if, while I am cherishing my partner, I also realize that our time together is limited? That she is mortal, and so am I? 

What if, when I’m struggling to be generous with my partner, I acknowledge the link between my fear of scarcity and my fear of death?

What if, when I feel I can’t accept my partner, I honor that in confronting her own mortality she does things I do not understand?

Anthony de Mello weighs in on the practice of losing:

“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 all 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 began their practice 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.

Unseparately yours,

Hayden

As always, narratives are drawn from compilations of cases and do not reflect any actual clients.

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