helping people connect & discover true intimacy

Intimacy Blocker:
Coping Mechanisms and Conditions for Love

Adults have told me that they have no idea why they are behaving a certain way. As I worked with them, the answer became clear. In childhood, they created a way of being safe and secure. In order to control their world, they developed coping mechanisms.

No family is perfect, so, in a sense, all of us have developed mechanisms of protection. But there is a wide range of experiences that cause pain. Some are quite a bit more severe than others—emotional or physical abuse, divorce, death of a parent, or incest. The more extreme the betrayal, the stronger the coping mechanism. Some typical coping behaviors in children, depending on personality, are:

Acting Out - some children, previously easy-going, begin hitting others for seemingly no reason. Other children may get extremely nervous or upset in the presence of other children in a disagreement.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder - some children will begin to ritualistically repeat certain behaviors to ease compulsive thoughts.

Caretaking - some children will become master caretakers of others, trying to fix everything. Usually this behavior causes them to neglect their own needs.

Denial - in the face of pain, some children just decide not to think about it. Their reasoning is that if they don't deal with it, they won't remember it, so it won't hurt.

Withdrawal - some children become sullen and quiet, isolating themselves from friends and activities they used to enjoy.

For a child in pain, these coping mechanisms are necessary for his or her survival. They are essential for the child to control their world. They enable the child to function in life.

Then the child moves into adulthood. Guess what? They bring their coping mechanisms right along with them. While these defense mechanisms may seem to work for awhile, inevitably something happens and suddenly life doesn't work. They may be having trouble in their relationships, at work, or with their children. They are no longer able to cope.

The very mechanisms they used as children to help them endure are now the mechanisms that are keeping them from being intimate-free to be themselves. What once was a means to survival is now an element of destruction.

In adults, we typically see coping behaviors such as:

  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder - like children, some adults may ritualistically repeat certain behaviors to ease their obsessive thoughts.
  • Isolation - some adults may block themselves off from those closest to them. Workaholism is a classic isolating behavior.
  • Sex - some adults use sex, from abstinence to permissiveness, as a means to control.
  • Eating Disorders - some adults use food to change their emotional mood.
  • Caretaking - some adults, like children, busy themselves taking care of others while neglecting their own needs.
  • Escape - some adults can't face the truth and literally run away. Others may just escape in alcohol or drugs.
  • Denial - some adults deny that they've even been hurt. In order to do this they shut off part of themselves and may become hardened.

Putting "Un" in Conditional Love

All of us learn to love conditionally—others and ourselves. On top of that, we have set up conditions to receive love. It's the old if-then scenario. If this happens or if that doesn't happen, then it is perceived as love. Unfortunately, many of us have no idea of the conditions we place on giving and getting love. We just know we feel unloved when the conditions aren't met.

I haven't met a person who doesn't want to be loved for who they are, just they way they are. God is the only One who loves us in that way—that's unconditional love. Christians come to me all the time and say, "I know in my head that God loves me unconditionally. I can recite the verses I've memorized which say that. Then why don't I sense that love? Why don't I experience it?"

The conditions we've set up to get love and the mechanisms we use for protection actually block us from experiencing the unconditional love of God. The most difficult time to accept you are unconditionally loved is when the most conditions to love or be loved are present in your relationships. But it's not until we give up that which has become so familiar that we can receive His love and then love others in the way He loves us.

There will never be a time in our lives when we won't bump into these conditions—in ourselves and others—no matter how long we walk with the Lord. It's a fact of our flesh. Remember, the sanctification work God is doing in our lives takes a lifetime. God will continue to reveal those parts of ourselves that do not come in line with the image of how He made us. As we give those areas to Him, we will experience unconditional love and intimacy to degrees we could never have imagined. That is the Christian walk.

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