On a recent trip to our old stomping grounds in Illinois, my sons begged me to see some of their friends for a playdate. Now that we live in Michigan, my sons profoundly miss their “Illinois friends.” I was able to arrange a time for them to see their friends for some play and needless to say, they were excited! When I confirmed the morning of the gathering that several of their best buds were going to meet up with us, they started dancing around the living room and shouting with glee. It was like Christmas morning all over again.
Later that day we met up, and they enthusiastically played with their friends. As our time drew to a close, I gave them the “5-minute warning” to prepare them for our imminent departure. As the 5 minutes passed, I called them over to say goodbye (or “see you soon”) to their friends. My youngest son, Andrew, compliantly bid a farewell to his buddies while my oldest, Matthew, resisted saying goodbye. Instead, he continued playing. After unsuccessfully trying to get his attention, I had to send his friends to retrieve him because he kept escaping back to play rather than come to me. After the fourth time of sending his friends to get him, he finally came, and I made it clear he was not to run off again. After a round of hugs, we loaded into the car.
Once in the car, I started a bit of lecture to Matthew reminding him that when it is time to go, we need to leave and not run off and continue playing. My son burst into tears and declared he “missed his friends so much he couldn’t stand it!” I quickly shifted out of lecture mode and into tenderness and connection mode and affirmed how hard it is to live far away from his buddies and how much he misses them. I then realized my son was feeling deep attachment pain.
What surprised me about his outburst was the intensity of his feelings. He really missed these friends. I knew he loved his friends from Illinois, but I also knew he has made many good friends in his new school. He enjoys spending time with his new friends, but it was clear to me that despite this, he was sorely missing his “old” friends, his “old” house, and his “old” community.
The intense reaction was telling both of us a story, and the story revolves around one thing— attachment!
Attachment is one of the most studied topics in brain science because it is one of the strongest forces for our brain. Our brains are wired for and we are designed to create close bonds for life, and when these bonds are not nurtured or maintained, we can feel pain. Here is why death, divorce, broken and ruptured relationships—and moving away from friends—is so hard. These losses create “attachment pain,” which is the pain of lost attachments when the one we are bonded to and want to be with is not available. We are not built to “recover” from this kind of pain, which is why we hear so many popular songs lamenting the end of relationships. This pain of loss is a pain in its own category; it’s profound and personal.
When it comes to attachment, there are no substitutes! When a baby wants his mother, only his mother will do. When Chris is traveling and I miss him, no substitute will do. And when Matthew is missing his buddies from Illinois, new friends from Michigan are not a replacement. Our greatest joys come from meaningful connections, while our greatest pain and dysfunctions arise from lost connections.
Even though there is no quick “recovering” from attachment pain, the best response is to validate the feelings and offer comfort. (Learn more about teaching “Validation and Comfort” here.) Validating and comforting can help quiet these feelings, as we learn how to stay our relational selves while big feelings come and go. We will need to grieve, and in more intense situations, we will need to interact with Immanuel and receive God’s peace in the midst of the pain. This is no small task and requires joyful relationships to increase our emotional capacity to process pain.
After some validation and comfort, Matthew was able to recover. We talked about when we would see his friends again and what steps we could take to stay in touch. This helped ease some of his pain. In truth, I should not have been surprised by his attachment pain, especially as I have also been in my own attachment pain with my friends in Illinois.
Is there a place in your life where you are experiencing attachment pain? Is there someone you know who is experiencing attachment pain? In these moments tenderness is needed. Thankfully with Matthew, I was able to shift out of teaching mode into connection mode and offer tenderness. How can you validate, comfort and offer tenderness today?
Dealing with attachment pain is the deep end of the pool, so swimming in these waters requires support, endurance and lots of Immanuel’s guidance. I encourage you to increase your emotional capacity to deal with this kind of pain by practicing relational skills in your small group or community. Relational Skills in the Bible: A Bible Study Focused on Relationships is the newest resource to practice relational skills and build some joy.