As you read this article, I hope that you gain an understanding of the value of authentic relational care and how lethal emotional isolation is. You will read a perspective on emotional aloneness, the obstacles to experiencing care, and some thoughts on courageously receiving compassionate care. This is the first article in a series that addresses our need for relational intimacy, being known, and knowing others so that we can imperfectly care for one another. My desire is that you ultimately value relational intimacy as you value air, food, and water.
The Curse of Relational IsolationAs I have worked in the counseling field, it has become increasingly clear to me how isolated people are. I encounter people longing for authentic care who invariably seek ways to fill their empty hearts. They may do this by working excessive hours in order to be distracted from going home to painful aloneness in their marriage or to avoid the pain of not knowing what to do as a dad or a mom. Millions misuse sex through pornography in order to satisfy a deep longing for connection or to live out a distorted fantasy of what sexuality is. There are those who are personally invested in being at every event and/or program offered by their church in order to feel a sense of belonging. And the list goes on. Whatever the symptomatic behavior, whatever problems are presented, they are directly correlated to feeling relationally alone. Where relational aloneness thrives, people invariably don’t believe that they are known and they don’t believe that they truly know others. Relational aloneness hurts me and others close to me and it may certainly impact my generational legacy. Some may ask, “What’s the big deal?” With the help of Dr. David Ferguson (greatcommandmentministries.org), this article unpacks the things that perpetuate relational isolation and what Jesus has to say about it.
Almost two decades ago, my wife Paulette and I were seriously struggling in our own hearts and in our marriage. We both felt so alone in our relationship, and at one point we didn’t have confidence that we were going to make it. Because of our respective families of origin, and our subsequent beliefs and behaviors, we were afraid to know one another. We hid from one another emotionally, avoided conflict, and kept our noses to the grindstone. Sound familiar? As I disclosed some of my complaints to a friend, he recommended that we attend a Marriage Intensive. At the time I was in denial due to the log in my own eye (Matthew 7:1-4), and thought that he wanted to invest in me as a counselor. The relational aloneness I experienced caused me to be blind – to the point that selfish pride and arrogance ruled me. Enter Dr. Ferguson and Intimate Encounter Ministries. The Holy Spirit very quickly moved in my heart as I carefully listened to Dr. Ferguson’s teaching about obstacles to giving and receiving relational care in the form of intimacy needs.
Obstacles to Relational Intimacy
In the rest of this article, I explore the specific obstacles of self-reliance, selfishness, and self-condemnation that hinder relational care. I hope that you will consider these concepts and their impact in the context of your lifestyle, your role in your marriage, and your behavior as it is applied to others who are near to you.
Self-Reliance Makes us Deny Our Own Needs
Self-reliance says, “I have no needs, but if I did, I’d take care of them myself.” We deny our neediness. The lethality of this principle leads us to be blind to our own needs for relational intimacy through a determination to care for ourselves. To do otherwise would be considered weak, fragile, and perhaps even untrustworthy. What is especially lethal relationally is the notion that, because I don’t need people and am fine in my self-reliance, I also expect this of others. In fact, I become blind to the needs of others and project my own concerns of being perceived as weak or fragile onto others. In other words, I expect others to care for themselves and consider them to be broken if they don’t. They certainly cannot count on me for comfort or care.
Jesus says that we are in denial about our true need for relational intimacy. The arrogance and selfish pride that fuels self-reliance is in direct opposition to His call for us to be humble, and to acknowledge our need for Him and for others. We are called to experience the Great Commandment (Matthew 22:34-40) as a lifestyle, and to love God and one another. In Revelation 3:17, Jesus says, “You say, ‘I am rich, I have everything I want. I don’t need a thing! And you don’t realize that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked.” As I work with marriages, I see how emotional self-reliance and the consequences of relational blindness manifest themselves in unhealthy anger and a resistance to listening to others. Proverbs 18:1 says, “A man who isolates himself seeks his own desire; He rages against all wise counsel.”
Self-Centeredness and the Consequences of Living for Myself
Self-centeredness says that if we live in relational isolation, we will have a tendency to exalt our neediness. We walk through life feeling the emptiness that I discussed earlier. The negative consequences of living for myself are no secret. We may not express this out loud, but we may say internally, “I have needs and I’m going to ‘take’ to have my needs met.” We will be blind to the needs of others. In fact, we will fight and quarrel to get or take what we want. James 4:1-2 says, “What is causing the quarrels and fights among you? Don’t they come from the evil desires at war within you? You want what you don’t have, so you scheme and kill to get it. You are jealous of what others have, but you can’t get it, so you fight and wage war to ‘take’ it away from them.” The painful truth is that we project this notion onto others. Considering what James says may seem extreme as it applies to marriages and other relationships. However, I challenge us all to observe our families, churches, and communities. Our fears, shame, bitterness, guilt, unhealed hurt, and even self-condemnation are dismantling our families, and their impact on our family legacies is lethal.
Self-Condemnation Leads to Self-Absorption
Self-Condemnation encourages us to denounce our own neediness. In other words, it makes us think, “I do have relational needs, but I feel bad that I do.” I suggest that such thinking is driven by a fear that lives deep within our souls. Self-condemnation appears to be a key factor for people who struggle with co-dependency or enabling behavior. The bible says “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.” As the other two obstacles indicate, self-condemnation may cause us to become so self-absorbed that we actually miss authentically caring for others or seeing others accurately.
Clinical Findings on the Consequences of Isolation
I encourage you to consider these obstacles to relational intimacy as they apply to how you experience life with those near to you. I also hope that you will seek to understand what others actually observe of the relational fruit in your life. For those who have difficulty seeing the legitimacy of the aloneness concept (emotional isolation in which one is not truly known or knows), I would point you to several studies conducted throughout the country (listed at the end of this article). Over the years, several studies have investigated the impact of isolation, or what is called “chronic loneliness.”
In his book Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, John Cacioppo states:
Isolation disrupts not only will power and perseverance, but also key cellular processes deep within the human body. Chronic loneliness belongs among health risk factors such as smoking, obesity, or lack of exercise. Loneliness not only alters behavior, but is related to greater resistance to blood flow through the cardiovascular system. It leads to poorer immune function, higher blood pressure, and increased levels of depression. It is related to difficulty getting a deep sleep and a faster progression of Alzheimer’s disease.
Other studies at the University of Chicago indicate increased stress levels, decreased memory and learning, antisocial behavior, chemical dependency, and poor decision making.
Hope for Overcoming Emotional Isolation
In my personal and professional experience, healing from emotional aloneness depends on receiving genuine care from safe people in our lives. If you are married, I hope that your wife or husband is your primary source of care. If not, I hope that you have mentors and/or a trusted counselor with whom you can confidentially share.
I am very grateful for David and Teresa Ferguson and the Great Commandment team (in Cedar Park, Texas) and for Bruce and Joyce Walker and the Center for Relational Care team (in Austin, Texas). As I said earlier, my wife and I attended a Marriage Intensive seventeen years ago during a very dark time in our lives. We believe that God worked directly through the team to teach and counsel us about relational care. The emotional intimacy we experienced through authentic care taught us to learn to care for one another, and we were able to face how deeply alone we were in our marriage.
Most importantly, we learned how our Father in heaven loves us. We discovered that He is not an inspecting, demanding, distant Father. He is close to us, and actually lives inside of us. We found that He uses people to give care in the way in which He has always intended. His Word became real to us, and not simply a theory. He promised us that our faith would grow as we learned to trust Him. We experienced His care directly, and also through people who helped us through our struggles in life. We came to understand that He has plans for us, plans to prosper us emotionally, plans for a hope and a future.
Questions for Reflection
Do you remember a time in your life when you really felt cared for? What was the experience like, and how did you feel?
Do you remember a time in your life when you felt alone and uncared for? What was the experience like, and how did you feel?
Do you have a journey mate to walk with you through life, and to help remove the aloneness?
Christian Counseling to Overcome Emotional Isolation
As a Christian counselor, I hope that this brief discussion evokes in you an awareness of your need to honestly assess your relationships. I pray that you will look through the lens of Matthew 7:1-4. Although this is a difficult and somber topic to tackle, it is crucial to accurately assess one’s own heart in order to learn to give and receive authentic care. I hope you will consider receiving care and intentionally address your concerns. More importantly, I hope that you will see how our Father loves you, both directly and through relational compassion.
* The Nature of Loneliness. Gibson, Lydialyle. Nov. – Dec. 2010. Univ. of Chicago Magazine.
* Loneliness Triggers Cellular Changes that can Cause Illness. Allen, Susie. Nov. 23, 2011. Univ. Chicago News.
* Why Loneliness Can Be Deadly. Gammon, Katherine. Mar. 2, 2012. Live Science
* Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection. Cacioppo, John. 2009.
* Loneliness Matters: A Theoretical and Empirical Review of Consequences and Mechanisms. Hawkly, Louise and Cacioppo, John: Annals of Behavioral Medicine.
* Conflicting modification on November 19, 2016 at 10:12:27 PM:
Article for Seattle Christian Counseling ( Nov 18, 2016 )
“Isolation,” courtesy of skeezepixabay.com, CC0 Public Domain License; “Let’s Do Coffee,” courtesy of spekyy, pixabay.com, CC0 Public Domain License; “Romance,” courtesy of sasint, pixabay.com, CC0 Public Domain License; “Let’s Talk,” courtesy of Korney Violin, unsplash.com, CC0 Public Domain License