When Love Hurts

“Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.” 1 Peter 4:8 NIV

Have you ever loved someone who recoiled with your every attempt to care? Have you worked hard at building a relationship of trust with a wounded person, only to have them disappear emotionally or physically? Sometimes fear prevents wounded people from being able to experience intimacy. Sometimes they are so broken, they can neither receive nor reciprocate. Loving is not enabling. It cannot be forced upon someone or used to manipulate them into doing what we want. Loving is allowing God to flow through us to reach another human heart.

I‘d like to thank Mike Johnson, Special Projects Director at Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission, for the following guest post. He gives us a glimpse of what it’s like to invest in people, only have them disappear.

We had a great time at the movie, and not because the movie itself was so great. The fun came from having a big group at a big opener. We came early, and so we played games and talked to pass the time before the midnight opening show.Pregnant Shelby

The next day, our program lost one of those very people. “Julie” had been making noise about leaving, but couldn’t explain why she felt that need, especially at seven months pregnant. By the way, this residential recovery program client was 17 years old.

Julie had a loving and supportive place to live, a gracious and well-designed program to help her process the difficulties of her life, and deeply caring staff. It was all just too much for her. She could not allow herself to love and be loved. The pot of that poker hand was simply “too rich” for her, so Julie folded.

Addiction recovery is a young field of work. Among the learning fronts is how attachment functions intersect with recovery work. We know from the National Recovery Initiative that one of the top 3 predictors of positive outcomes is the quality of a client’s relational connection to staff. So why, then, did a high quality relationship drive this pregnant teen away?

Julie had learned to avoid attachment. Deep in her brain, the abandonment and abuse of her childhood wired up her attachment functions to have a big, big alarm on them. “Look out! This hurts!” her brain said to her– every time she felt love.

A 1997 study by the National Institutes for Mental Health (NIMH) found that people who grew up under abuse and neglect combined were 36 times more likely to have an adult experience of homelessness! Julie literally couldn’t let herself participate in a loving community. She felt an overwhelming psychological need to separate from connection for her own safety.

So what is a good program to do when loving people will drive some away? Stop loving? Months later, we were able to ask Julie about her experience. She said it felt good to be pursued, and that she couldn’t think of a single thing we could have done differently. Her path is simply going to be a lot more winding. But, said Julie, the love did impact her, even if she couldn’t remain in it.

We may be hurt when all our best attempts at love seem unvalued. Jen actually received those attempts, and liked them. She stayed as long as she could. Maybe next time she’ll stay longer.

Mike Johnson is the Special Projects Director at Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission.bio pic He is a former Army Ranger with 7 children and 23 years of marriage to Dena.

*This article was first published in the May/June issue of Rescue Magazine.
Used with permission.