The Space Between Us by Leslie Cude, LICSW, PIP, CCTP II
The Space Between Us
“Happy Families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” In this slightly humorous opening line of the famous novel Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy declares that there is a myriad of ways that people in close relationships can be unhappy. Often one can observe this unhappiness most keenly within a marriage, but it can occur in any type of close relationship, familial or otherwise.
Dr. Sue Johnson, a Canadian Psychologist who has studied relationships for over 30 years, says, “To be human is to need others, and this is no flaw or weakness.” Indeed, God created us to live in relationships with others with a desire to be fully known and deeply loved. Love of others is one way God’s love is communicated to a world in desperate need of love, a love that’s both divine and deep. I John 4:19 says, “We love because He first loved us.” So if we are commanded to love others and be in a relationship with them, why can relationships sometimes seem like terribly lonely places filled with pain, heartache, and unmet needs?
Because of humanity’s fallen nature, every relationship has moments of disconnection. Healthy relationships can repair and reconnect, while distressed ones cannot do so, and the spaces between the partners grow ever wider. These poetic lines from Dave Matthews offer a moving picture of the longing for connection and the fear of rejection that we all feel:
We’re strange allies
With warring hearts
What a wild-eyed beast you be
The space between
The tears we cry
Is the laughter that keeps us coming back for more
The space between
The wicked lies we tell and hope to keep safe from the pain
But will I hold you again?
People deal with these moments of disconnection in different ways. Some are anxious and fearful about losing their partner or the relationship, and some pursue connection through criticizing, blaming, or anger. In response, the other person may seek to protect themselves by shutting down or taking some space to manage their emotions, even if they aren’t sure exactly what they are feeling. With one person anxiously pursuing and the other withdrawing, it’s easy to see how they may miss each other and get caught up in the dance of misattunement. They are dancing to the music of their own painful emotions, which overwhelm them on that frightening dance floor of disconnection, causing them to make assumptions about the other’s intent and be unable to give the other person the benefit of the doubt.
And on it goes.
If this describes disconnection, what does emotional connection look like, and how do people achieve it in their close relationships? An emotionally connected relationship provides a safe haven and a secure base from which we can confidently engage the world around us. Author David Brennen explains, “For love to transform us, not only must we meet in vulnerability, but we must also linger long enough for it to penetrate our woundedness.” Connected relationships are safe, open, attuned, and responsive. They answer “yes” to these critical questions, “Can I reach for you? Can I depend on you to respond to me emotionally? Do I matter to you?”
When I was very young and newly married, I needed my husband to take me to the ER for being dehydrated from a stomach bug. He was a new husband with a new job and didn’t feel like he could miss work, so he drove me to the hospital and told me to call my mom to come to be with me, and he left to go to work (we won’t mention that his office was literally across the street). I was devastated and felt abandoned. I told myself that I could never count on him to take care of me again. This disconnection lasted for quite some time, as these two young adults had no idea how to repair it and reconnect. It was only until sharing our story with friends that we both softened enough to understand the other’s point of view. I realized he never intended me to feel abandoned, and he realized I needed to know how he would be there for me.
Attuned relationships can approach the other person with curiosity, giving them the benefit of the doubt. They can share their own need for connection and respond to the other person’s vulnerability with empathy because they feel safe, loved, and accepted. This connection is not always easy to achieve, especially in highly conflictual relationships. Still, help is available to close the spaces between us when the relationship distress becomes too overwhelming for people to handle on their own.
While happiness is not necessarily the highest goal of relationships or the Christian life, nearness to God is. Nevertheless, God does call us to pursue healthy relationships, both vertically and horizontally, built on the foundation of His love for us. Ephesians 4:32- 5:2 says, “Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. Therefore be imitators of God as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us…...”
*If there is abuse, neglect, addiction, or abandonment within the relationship, physical separation and outside help may be necessary to ensure safety. God does not call us to stay in dangerous relationships.
Resource: Created for Connection by Sue Johnson and Kenny Sanderfer
Leslie Cude, LICSW, PIP, CCTP II