Thursday, June 22, 2006

Relationships: A Grace Place

I've been thinking a lot about relationships lately. (And in response to the raised brows I hear sproinging around cyberspace, all I'm going to say is that, in the words of my late mother, if you keep doing that with your eyes, one day you're going to wake up and they'll be stuck that way. Of course, perhaps you want to look like Mr. Spock. But I'm just giving you fair warning.)

Specifically, I've been thinking about the difficulties faced by people who've grown up in families where there was not a lot of love and affection between parents, where there was ongoing unhappiness and anger and fighting and perhaps even outright abuse, when they in turn find themselves in a relationship.

I think perhaps the first barrier to cross is sheer disbelief. If you've grown up in a household devoid of parental love, it may be difficult to believe that anyone would in turn want to love you. Friendly overtures may be met with "Who -- me? You can't possibly mean me."

And with the disbelief may come a certain degree of distrust: What's the con? I remember, during my student days, sharing an apartment with two preppy sisters whose family was like a secularized version of The Simpsons' Flanders family. They were physically and verbally affectionate with one another; they were kind and considerate to one another; they were playful. They didn't bicker or yell; if there were problems, they worked them out in a calm and rational way. And my jaded first impression of them was, They put on a good show. Until I had the opportunity to see the family in action without their awareness of my presence, and I realized that this wasn't a con; that they actually were this way, whether someone was watching or not. And I recall feeling a pang of longing, and a stab of sadness.

If love does come to someone who's grown up in an angry, dysfunctional family, lack of context can also make navigating the normal differences and everyday frictions that occur between people difficult. I remember one epic fight during my childhood that began with my father's sarcastic comment about a cobweb in the corner of the ceiling -- a damned cobweb, fer chrissakes -- that wound up lasting for weeks, with much screaming and crying and divorce talk punctuated by terrifying silences. You just never knew what would set off my parents. And I find that even now part of me freezes whenever I'm around people disagreeing about anything, or when I find myself disagreeing with someone whom I care about: Cubbies versus White Sox, thermostat up versus thermostat down. I did not grow up in a home in which people could disagree about things, or offer constructive suggestions, without everything turning into A Thing. I might maintain a poker face and sound entirely calm and rational when I'm in these situations these days, but internally I'm frantically engaged in emergency cognitive self-therapy to keep my grip on a healthy perspective.

So what do you do if this is your personal history? One alternative is to simply repeat it -- to give into your childhood conditioning and become your parents. One alternative is to conclude that relationships are too much Sturm und Drang and opt out. And one alternative is to get honest about who you are and where you've been -- and garner the courage to take the leap anyway; to let yourself be transparent with and vulnerable to another human being; to be willing to mindfully live your way into the sort of relationship you wished your parents had had with one another, even though you know that it will take work, and more work for you than perhaps for other people with different family backgrounds.

The really interesting thing, though, is -- isn't this a reflection of our relationship with God? We're born into a dysfunctional, soul-killing world that turns us in on ourselves; creates barriers between ourselves and our relationship with God and with other people. Nevertheless, God loves us; comes down and claims us as God's own. Our natural inclination is to fear and distrust God; to resist God; to question God's love and motives, and maybe even God's existence. But God's love isn't daunted, and God continues to woo us into relationship. And even as we find ourselves moving in God's direction, find ourselves saying "Yes" to God, we still struggle with that disconnect between life as we have experienced it and the life we long to live into. But we find that the struggle is worth it; that it is a crucible in which our character is formed and transformed.

Just as God's grace touches and molds us, we have the opportunity to be agents of grace in others' lives. And, knowing what I know about the alternative...isn't that what I want to be? Even if it's difficult?

At my church, during our Prayers of the Day we include a prayer that our homes and relationships be places where God's love and grace are made real and immediate for us. And to that God's people say: Amen.


Mata H said...

Ah, dear heart. It would be easier if our lovers were God-like, but they too have had their own crucibles of dysfunction. So its gonna be some of yours and some of theirs.

I wish I had been good enough at relationships to have some fool-proof advice to offer, but I am more the fool than the proof. As I think a great deal about the same stuff, I remind myself (as you should as well) that the intervening years between childhood and now have been jam-packed with experiences and life-lessons all aimed at providing healing to the wounds of childhood. Take comfort in the fact that you know where those wounds are, that they are not as raw as when you first recieved them, and that you can tell someone that you love about them. I think that in relationship I am more aware of them, because I want them gone even more than when I am alone. I am most aware of my brokenness in relationships.

But even given that, I do treasure this description of love : It is the triumph of hope over experience.

LutheranChik said...

One of the best sermons I've ever heard was at the wedding of a good friend of mine from way back -- my buddy/surrogate brother the Zen Congregationalist ex-Marine I've written about before. He was a confirmed bachelor who'd been badly burned in a disastrous early marriage, and who had been commitment-phobic for many years thereafter. Then he got together with a woman from his church -- someone who'd also been the wounded party in a bad marriage and awful, contentious divorce. Anyway, at his wedding the pastor noted that some of her favorite wedding ceremonies were between older adults who had gone through various kinds of heartaches in their lives but who nonetheless were willing to embark upon a life journey together -- no starry-eyed post-teens with romantic film fantasies in their heads, but scarred veterans of lives fully, if not always easily or happily, lived; adults who knew what they were getting into and were going to say "Yes" to the challenge anyway. (This was actually the sweetest and most sane wedding, all around, that I have ever attended in my entire life.)

Tom in Ontario said...

I know a woman who, as a teenager, would physically place herself between her parents when they were fighting to keep them from coming to blows. She's now in a loving marriage and was determined not to repeat the kind of things her parents did. Her whole family were/are church goers but I'd guess that she's the only one with real faith. That may have something to do with her being able to not perpetuate the kind of relationship that her parents had.

I'm 'doing' a wedding this Saturday and my wedding sermons almost always follow the pattern of the statement found in the LBW marriage service, a pattern of Joy, Sin, Joy Restored. The words in LBW go like this:

"The Lord God in his goodness created us male and female, and by the gift of marriage founded human community in a joy that begins now and is brought to perfection in the life to come.

"Because of sin, our age-old rebellion, the gladness of marriage can be overcast and the gift of the family can become a burden.

"But because God, who established marriage, continues still to bless it with his abundant and ever-present support, we can be sustained in our weariness and have our joy restored."

P.S. (an after-thought) said...

All families are somewhere on the dysfunctional spectrum. Perhaps "functional" is only obtainable in heaven and should be banished from the earthly vocabulary of psychology. My DD came home from college after freshman psychology with proclamatins about how we are a dysfunctional family. You think so? Duh?

Your posting brought back some memories, unfortunately. But at least YOU and I are more self aware than the families that went before us. Praise God for this.

Anwen said...

I think this is a great article, all other comments seem to be left by adults whereas I'm a 17 yr old girl who you may argue doesnt know much of life and serious committed relationships. However I know what it is to be hurt and it hurts worse when the person invloved is also a christian because it can put a strain on your faith and relationship with God in so many ways. I am not one of those teenagers who believes that marriage will be perfect and a walk in the park. I was always very cynical about love and only recently allowed myself to love someone who said that he felt the same, as it was he didnt and things ended badly leaving me angry and struggling with God, but I worked through it, I was ready to make a serious commitment to this person and had worked hard to keep the relationship going and help him through his issues with his ex-girlfriend, his insecurities and fears and distrust. I see so many girls my age living in fantasies that make them believe that moving from guy to guy is ok, casually sleeping with guys is ok, or they want committed relationships but they are going to be easy and argument free, this simply isnt realistic, but with God it is made easier. But if we never struggled or had trials how would we learn??? I feel that there are few people my age who understand the God impact on relationships and what it means to rely on him within one. If you could find my blogsite and give me some feedback I would greatly appreciate it! Anwen

Songbird said...

Mata is so right. Two sets of wounds and history and incorrect assumptions and head-hanging guilts come together and try, if the parties are as utterly unconscious as most of us tend to be, to pull one another into the patterns that are most familiar and comfortable, even if those patterns are painful.
A Jungian analyst wrote a book called "Marriage: Dead or Alive" in which he defined marriage as bumping up against each other and essentially becoming our authentic selves through that painful and wonderful process. I love that notion, but I don't always enjoy being engaged in it!!

LutheranChik said...

Anwen: With all due respect -- and I'm going to get all Auntie LutheranChik wih you here because I have a little more water under the bridge than you do -- that a 17-year-old with an entire life and career (you do have a real plan for crafting a career path and becoming financially self-sufficient, no?)ahead of you, who has the potential to become pregnant/get someone else pregnant, has a far different set of ethical/theological/logistical concerns than a middle-aged broad who can support herself and doesn't have to worry about the pregnancy thing. Which is my frowny-faced way of saying that I really hope that your life isn't revolving around the boyfriend; that your priorities right now are getting an excellent academic education and learning about the world (apart from the romantic one) and having some fun in it, and planning how to support yourself on this journey. Trust me on this one.

Christie said...

I could use some advice too, Auntie LutheranChik, but from a different direction! My 28 year old son has fallen in love - and plans to marry- a woman from a dysfunctional family. Our family is far from perfect, but there is love and caring and commitment abounding. The concern I have is that daughter-in-law-to-be cannot believe we are fact has had a big argument with our son because he could not point to any serious dysfuntion in our family! She seems stiff and uncomfortable around us.
She and my son are coming to visit for a few days next week. How do I help her know that we love her, sincerely? Or is this one of those things where I have to love and take time and be patient? Ohhh - i'm not very good at that patience thing!

Evelyn said...

Thank you for these words, Lutheranchik!

Right now I'm in the midst of a bout of PTSD, rooted in childhood abuse. Your words have brought some healing to the old wounds that feel so fresh right now.

A. Lin said...

My husband comes from a family that has never shown much affection--but they are Asian, and I think it is the norm not to show affection in that culture.

I am very affectionate with my sons, so I wonder how they will be with their own families some day.

Weekend Fisher said...

I'm from one of those dysfunctional families too. It's nice to meet fellow-travelers up from there.

Take care & God bless

Mata H said...

I was just reminded of an old Ziggy cartoon in which he is seated, all alone, in a HUGE auditorium full of empty seats. There is a banner on the wall that says "Welcome to the Annual Meeting of Children from Functional Families".

Verdugo said...

One book that was enormously helpful to me when I-- with much fear and trembling-- took the leap into matrimony again after a disastrous first attempt-- was the book Finding the Love you Want by Harville Hendriks. Hendriks has a theory that is rather counter to most-- he observes that we do tend to seek out partners who are like our parents, including flawed in the same ways in our parents-- because we're looking to them to heal the broken places in us. Yet, unlike most, Hendriks does not see that as necessarily bad, if there is both mutual love and insight. He notes that the broken places in us that we're looking for our partner to fill correspond to broken places in them-- for example, a person with a cold, withholding father may subconsciously seek out a cold, withholding spouse-- and yet want desperately for warmth and affection. But at the same time, there is something broken in the spouse that makes it so hard for him/her to be warm and affectionate. By recognizing this, accepting it, yet also striving, as a gift of love, to give our partner what they need to feel loved, we not only show enormous love, we also heal the broken places in our own lives. Of course, getting there is the hard part.

Rainbow Pastor said...


Moving on, thank you so much for your post. I saw a book once with the title, "Everybody's normal until you get to know them." I never read the book, but I;ve never forgotten the title--because it is so true.

Having been in a relationship where I perpetuated the mistakes of my parents, I am sincerely fighting against doing that again in my current relationship. It is work, sometimes it hurts, and it can be frustrating. But I can also say that DP and I are closer and more honest with each other than I have been with anyone else in my life--and that in itself is an accomplishment.

Hang in, hang on...


averagedrinker said...

i honestly cannot see myself growing up without love.though my family is not the perfect brady bunch family, we loved each other very much. i'm very grateful because my boyfriend loves me tenderly.even with my sister who chats on webdatedotcom found a great love in his guy. maybe it's really innate in the way we were raised. i hope you can have some sort of change when you build your own family..=)

Kirstin said...

Wow. I needed to read this. Thank you.

J.C. Fisher said...

Chiming in 10 days late:

I was struck w/ painful irony, that you were posting this (wonderful) entry, LC, on the day that I was getting dumped. :-(

[As I write this, I am waiting to learn whether or not there may be---after 10 days of agony, at least on my end---some kind of reconciliation between us. Probably not. Pray for me? And for *******?]

Trying to have a Christian understanding of intimate relationships (and maybe the non-intimate ones, as well), regardless of sexual orientation, is one of the most CONFUSING things in the Christian life (IMO).

What do we owe each other, as Christians? What is a combination of fate, dumb luck---or perhaps God saying "No, not her---I have someone else for you in mind, later"?

When do difficulties in relationships, represent challenges (crosses?) to be overcome, and when are they (in the sense of that awful eHarmony homophobic %$#@%!!) a sign of basic "incompatibility"?

When should you "pack it in" and when should you "go the extra mile"?

And if one is a "Fool in Love", are you being a Holy Fool . . . or just a hormonal idiot???

Questions, questions...

[Auntie LC, help! ;-/]