Loving Others Opens Us Up to Pain

imageLove is indeed a two-edged sword. Love requires us to engage in the life of others in such a way that part of who we are becomes part of who they are and likewise, part of them becomes part of us. It’s an exchange of persons and in that exchange elements of what makes us who we are get given to each other as a gift. This type of existence is indeed essential to who we are. As creatures created to give and receive love, we cannot truly love unless we’re willing to be received by others and to receive them. Our need to give and receive love comes directly from the fact we’re created in the image and likeness of God. For the Christian, God is understood to be a communion of love. That communion of love is an explosive existence in which love so permeates who God is that it pours itself out as a gift in the creation of the world. Human beings, part of that creation, have the opportunity to mirror the communion of love in our relationships with one another. One example of how this looks can be found in the gift of Christian marriage. Christian marriage demonstrates that in the act of a man offering himself to a woman and the woman receiving the man on all levels of existence, the two become one entirely, yet distinctly remain their own persons. Let me clarify how this human act is a direct reflection of the inner life of God.

God within himself is a communion of love. There are three distinct persons within the Trinity. The Godhead consists of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Each of these are distinct persons, they are not one person wearing three separate masks, but rather each is a divine person of his own. However, Christianity does not see three Gods, rather it understands that these three divine persons, consisting of the same divine nature pour themselves into such a relationship of love toward one another that the three are one. We do not have three Gods, we have one God. Likewise, a married man and woman become one in their entirety in their mutual exchange of marital love. A man leaves his family and clings to his wife. In marriage that clinging is more than just a physical act, it involves giving his whole self to his wife. That’s what makes marriage unique, anything else is just sex. For a person to give themselves holistically to another means they give their body, mind, emotions, relationships, and spiritual selves to the other. We are more than a body and mind, we are wondrously created as incarnational creatures made to transcend the physical world while still being a part of it. This is what a man offers his wife when he clings to her ( Genesis 2:24). He tells her, “My body is yours, my thoughts are with you, my relationships with others are formed and directed toward your well being and mine, my emotional life is connected to yours, and ultimately my spiritual life and yours are now one.” This gift of self is received by the wife and in a like way she repeats back to him those same words. In this way, the two become one flesh and from that union, humanity participates in the creative acts of God by having children and being leaven and light to a dark world transforming it to be an act of praise and worship to God.

For this to happen love must bind people together. Marriage is not the only institute in which human beings are drawn together. By our very nature as Christians, we recognize we are a community of love when we gather together. We are told we are the body of Christ, a mystically united group of people that become the very presence of Christ (1st Corinthians 12:12-14, Romans 12:4-5, Ephesians 3:6, Colossians 1:18, etc.). Love is the blood that flows through this body and the Christian community gathered together is again an incarnational expression of the triune God present in the world. Love pulls people together.

Because we are innately created to give ourselves to others we must be vulnerable to them. Love requires us to give ourselves over to another human being with some level of abandonment. In love, we communicate to another soul that we are theirs, that they have access to our emotions, and that we are in some way united with them. Loving someone is giving them access to the most profound parts of who you are. It’s intimacy at a deep level. Research on love has shown there are 12 core characteristics constituting love (Fehr, 1988). All these characteristics are factors leading to the experience of intimacy. These core attributes are trust, caring, honesty, friendship, respect, concern for the well-being of others, loyalty, commitment, acceptance of the other person, supportiveness, a desire to be with the person, and a real interest in one another’s lives. When we love someone we’re saying to them I trust you; I allow you to care for me and I believe you to be honest with me. We are saying to them I know you’re a friend who cares and respects me and someone who is interested in my well being. We are telling them they’re someone we long to be with and are inviting them into a deeper level of intimacy with us. Intimacy is believed to have four key features (Hook et al, 2003). These key features are affection for the other, personal validation, trust, and self-disclosure. Intimacy is the way we go deeper and deeper into one another’s soul. This level of depth and this level of openness is summed up in one word. That one word is “Vulnerability.” To love another person is to make ourselves vulnerable and give them access to the very core of who we are. Being vulnerable means being open to the potential that this relationship can cause us pain.

I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts and the topic being discussed was human emotions. One of the people they interviewed was an anthropologist who lived with and documented the Igorot people of the Philippines. The podcast was mostly about how this anthropologist captured the essence of the various emotional experiences of the community. What captured my attention was his description of the Igorot word for love. The word they use actually translates into something like “I hurt for you.” That definition struck me because of how it uniquely captures the many dimensions of love in such a concise way (The podcast is “Invisibilia” produced by NPR).

When we think about romantic love we think about an all-consuming passion for the other individual. That passion causes us to “hurt” for the other person because we just can’t be with them enough. Yes, this feeling will dissipate over time but it’s a very real feeling for those initially in love with one another. This hurt is part of the romantic experience but if the relationship matures, that hurt transforms into something other than unbridled passion. The hurt doesn’t go away, rather it becomes a different kind of pain we experience for the other person. It becomes empathy and compassion. While we may not feel the hurt of longing associated with the absence of our romantic lover, we certainly hurt for them when we see them struggle in life, suffer from an illness, or experience disappointments. We hurt for them because we love them and this love causes us to be uniquely connected. Painful longing for one another, birthed from romantic passion now becomes compassionate sorrow, a pain experienced by two souls that have somehow become entwined with one another. As the relationship continues the hurt for one another does as well. This love that hurts for the other continues to be a part of our experience when the ones we care for pass away. This isn’t the pain of romantic passion that can’t be quenched nor is it the pain we feel as compassionate and empathetic partners journeying through life together. This is the pain of emptiness one feels because the person they loved is no longer with them. The Igorot people have beautifully captured the holistic experience of love by associating that word with the definition “I hurt for you.”

It would be easy to twist this idea into something ugly. Someone might argue this association of hurt and love perverts the idea of love into this concept that to truly love someone is to cause them pain. However, if you look closely at the way the definition is stated that’s not what’s being said. The phrase is not “I make you hurt” but rather “I hurt for you.” It’s pain I feel because of an empathic sense of love I have for you. It’s a sense of empathy and compassion I have for your situation because we are connected together in love. In the end, it’s the sense that because you’re gone I’m no longer with you and I miss you. Passionate Love is the connecting force drawing human souls together. It matures into companionate love that intimately connects people with one another allowing them to share one another’s pain. And in the end this love leaves us with hurt, reminding us when the one we love leaves us, we’ve lost the presence of a good friend. Love truly is complex and requires us to be vulnerable to one another. Vulnerability sometimes means we hurt for those we love.

A researcher I enjoy reading who studies human love is Helen Fisher. Helen Fisher is an anthropologist who has done extensive work in understanding romantic love, the many psychological, sociological, and biological features of it, and how it grows into other forms of love and impacts our lives. She and her fellow researchers have found romantic love is very similar to being addicted to drugs such as cocaine and other opioids. In fact, they note that many of the same brain systems (Ventral tegmental area, caudate nucleus, insula, prefrontal cortex activity, nucleus accumbens, etc.) activated through the addiction process are activated when someone falls in love. This also means when we lose someone we love the pain is much like the pain an addict feels when they’re denied the drug they crave. When someone does not reciprocate the romantic feelings we share for them, and particularly when they once did share them with us and no longer do, we go through “love withdrawal.” In fact, the brain once again reacts in ways associated with severe painful experiences. To quote Dr. Fisher:

Brain activations coupled with romantic rejection occurred in several regions of the brain’s reward system. Included were: the ventral tegmental area (VTA) associated with feelings of intense romantic love; the ventral pallidum associated with feelings of attachment; the insular cortex and the anterior cingulate associated with physical pain, anxiety and the distress associated with physical pain; and the nucleus accumbens and orbitofrontal/prefrontal cortex associated with assessing one’s gains and losses, as well as craving and addiction.
She later notes several of these regions are correlated with cravings in cocaine addicts and those who abuse other types of drugs. Romantic love means making oneself vulnerable to what could become an addictive habit with negative consequences. However, it can also mean becoming vulnerable to one of the most profound experiences of love a human being can have. When love goes well, Romantic love presses itself into the same brain systems that create attachment love. Attachment love creates that deep emotional connection we have with other human beings, the very thing we were created for! What Dr. Fisher has discovered is how deeply the need to connect with others resides in our very body and how vulnerable we make ourselves to others when we fall in love with them. This connection is not just limited to romantic love. We will see throughout this book attachments are an essential part of numerous types of relationships.

Love comes at a cost. We must give ourselves away to someone else and become vulnerable to their human frailties if we are to really fall in love. At times that means being hurt by them and sharing their pain. It also means when they leave us, whether it’s because they’ve died or they wanted to leave the relationship, we suffer. Yet to suffer for love is worth the cost. I’ve never met someone who spent decades in a loving marriage say they wish they never met their spouse while grieving for them after they’ve died. I’ve never met an adult child mourning their deceased parent wish they never had their mother or father (At least not one who shared a loving relationship with their parent) in their life. I’ve never had a parent tell me they wish the child they lost in an accident or from a terminal disease was never born. Of course, these thoughts reflect the feelings of people who lived in a loving relationship, but even those who had poor relationships with a parent, child, brother, or sister deep down mourn for those connected to them, even if that mourning is for what the relationship could have been. Sometimes the mourning starts years before the physical death when the relationship fell apart, but it’s a still a type of mourning. We mourn the loss of others because we were created for relationships and that’s something we need to discuss further to answer the question of why we suffer.


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