Imagine a continuum of emotions from regard to attachment to enmeshment to obliteration-by-fusion. That’s the topic here.
When I was little, my family would visit close friends (our grannies homesteaded near each other) the “mother” of whom made stuffed dolls, little fellows with knots of yellow yarn hair and authentic-looking bib overalls. I would play with them and then I longed to take them home with me -- I’d become attached. They wouldn’t let me and I grieved. I still have their sense memories in my arms where I rocked them. They were meant for this, but they weren’t mine.
When my brother was little, we camped for a few days along a lake full of mud puppies, salamanders. He played with them and became attached and longed to take them home with him. Told that it would kill the little creatures to take them out of their lake, he protested that he would “keep them in my pocket where they’ll be safe.” Some people would have let him find out for himself what would happen to them in his pocket. I’m glad none of them were there. Salamanders were not meant for pockets.
I had a major emotional attachment in my twenties. Everyone is bored with hearing about it. I came rushing right up through attachment to enmeshment, then close to fusion/obliteration and balked. Any more and I would have lost my identity. I didn’t particularly value my identity in a conscious way, but without meaning to, maybe subconsciously, I began to start fights with my significant other. It was a way of keeping myself separated. I only wanted a little more distance but the force took on a life of its own and we exploded apart. It’s hard to negotiate the proper place on the continuum.
Some people maintain contact by fighting. Some people take refuge in a side-by-side uncaring relationship, a sort of business arrangement. Other people never dare to come close to any other person to whom they might become attached. The Internet is a great way to become intimate and even attached, while blocking the actual fact of problematic contact -- like if you’re contagious. Or ugly. Or old. Some have a taste for passionate “hot” encounters. Others would like it cool and measured. Still others yearn for intelligence.
Complex as all these free-choice, individual-based forces might be, they are greatly amplified by the confronting, subverting, compromising arrangements of our changing economies and various ethnic contexts. We have very little guidance about how to thread our way through this thicket and many become impaled. Our relatives, our lawyers and doctors, our social workers and landlords mess us up right and left. Economic necessity locks people into bad marriages -- or maybe religious laws about divorce. Some people are true captives with scars on wrists and ankles, quite literally attached. Others are freed against their will by the death of the person they love.
A Sonoma county story tells about a couple who had lived together happily and securely for twenty years. One was a little older than the other. They had all the legal papers for “marriage” and money arrangements. One fell on the steps and that simple accident led to them being separated, thrown into separate nursing homes, losing their home, their possessions sold to pay bills -- stripped. They were both men. When one was dying, the other was denied the chance to attend him. This also happens to male/female couples. And it happens to young couples. And conventionally married couples. We cannot seem to keep our legal and economic arrangements lined up with ordinary standards of compassion based on recognizing the emotional enmeshment called love.
To youngsters, it is this enmeshment that seems to them more important than anything else in life. It’s not based on the birth and raising of children, but on the identity stability of the persons in question. They yearn for deep contact, emotional and physical at once. If they are separated (like Romeo and Juliet) their desire to be together may carry them into the tragedy of mutual annihilation. How do we think about this? Can it even BE thought about? Can it be understood, dissected, controlled, prevented? I wonder how.
Erich Fromm wrote a book in those watershed years when we were trying to understand arts and humanities issues instead of money and technology. It was about love, which he analyzed in part by showing four circles: side-by-side, overlapping, a big circle that included a small circle, and circles exactly congruent. I think overlapping was supposed to be best -- each person having a separate part and a shared part. My paternal grandparents were nearly congruent. When grandpa died, grandma didn’t last much longer and those few years were spent as a ghost.
I remarked to my past Sig Other that his attitude seemed to be that if he died, I should commit suttee, the practice in India of widows throwing themselves on the funeral fire. He said, “I should think that if you really loved me, you’d want to.” Strange kind of love. He was twenty-five years older than me. He’d already consumed the idea of my human individuation. Both his children died before he did. He did not throw himself on their funeral pyres.
I am not bitter. I am wondering. Where does all this come from? What strange mix of culture and personhood presents these situations? I witness. Can I interpret? Just that mine was not true enmeshment, which is about MUTUAL love, love between equals. This was unrequited love. Useful but different. He knew about it from the other side. I mean he yearned for those he could not have. He didn’t think a person who would have him was worthy of him.
One of the big theological issues is whether, if God were entirely removed, anything would remain. If God is only a great big person, there would be a LOT that remained! But God, by definition, has no partner. S/he’s just a great big ultimate circle with everything inside.
We’re talking about relationship. Maybe the goal here is to become enmeshed intimately with another person without losing one’s self. Then the second goal is how to legally protect that, as much as possible, how to find a religious context that respects it, and a community that will work to preserve both of those. It means loving equals who will return love without bondage and accept love when it is freely given.
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