Emotional Presence/Absence in Relationships


Emotional presence/absence in relationshipsHave you ever had an experience in a relationship with a friend or a family member that is hard to describe? One in which the relationship you used to have has somehow morphed into a completely different one? With these types of experiences, a sense of loss about the old relationship can ensue. This loss could resemble that of a death – perhaps a death of connection, an end to a particular time of life that you cherish. Can you relate?

Recently, I was looking at pictures of my grandfather and me when I was a young girl. I remember the fun times we had picking up shells on the beach, riding in golf carts, singing Christmas Carols. However, in reminiscing I noticed that these pictures produced a profound sense of sadness for me because when my grandfather was diagnosed with dementia, he became different. He no longer knew my name. He did not remember my grandmother’s birthday, let alone his own. He was a different person. For me, this experience left me feeling an intense feeling of loss. However, confusion came over me as I realized I had not lost him in the traditional sense. He was still alive. Typically, I associated loss with death – a time of mourning a life that had passed. This was not death. He was still physically there for me to see and sit beside, but he was mentally absent. It was not until I read about the concept of “ambiguous loss” that the feelings of confusion and disconnection about our relationship made sense.

Informed by attachment theory, Pauline Boss provides a language for this experience with her term “ambiguous loss.”  Embedded in the theory are two types of relational dynamics. One type, when someone is physically absent but psychologically present, could exist in the form of a loved one going to the military, or an abrupt break-up. Another type, when someone is physically present, but psychologically present makes sense in the context of my relationship with my grandfather. Ultimately, what connects both types is the sense of disconnection that occurs when an attachment relationship is disrupted or cut short, often leaving individuals in a state of emotional paralysis.

In her book entitled, Loss, Trauma, and Resilience: Therapeutic Work with Ambiguous Loss, Boss describes how loss may be associated with experiences and feeling states such as depression, grief, trauma, as well as resilience, and may manifest in a variety of ways depending on factors such as culture, religion, or racial identity (Boss, 2006). Lack of closure after a loss can create negative mental health effects posing risk to wellbeing and stalling the natural grieving process for many individuals.

In order to counteract these negative effects, we must first be able to label what we are experiencing. The term “ambiguous loss” provides that label. Then, being able to communicate it is key. For me, I had not shared how I felt about my grandfather because I thought I was missing something. I thought, “I guess I’m alone in my confusion.” I felt isolated and fell silent. Later, in talking about this dynamic with other family members, they validated my feeling as one that they had also shared, but never knew how to describe. When I learned about ambiguous loss, everything clicked.

Enlightening myself and those around me about the phenomenon of ambiguous loss has been transformative for me to observe.  Now, individuals are able to gain closure after a confusing break-up. They are able to make more sense of their feelings about a family member in jail. Or they are able to recognize the feeling of loss because of divorce. It has been truly wonderful to observe the realizations that individuals have discovered and the potential for relational repairs.

I would encourage you to think about a relational experience in which you felt left-hanging. One that may have never been resolved or closure gained. We all have them. What impact did that experience have on you? Would knowing the term have made you understand your experience differently? The theory posits that once someone recognizes their own ambiguous loss, creating meaning and discovering a new way of living with the reality of the loss is key to overcoming it. I challenge you to think about how this theory may apply to your life, what meaning you create from it, and whether you see an opportunity to make it a valuable life experience.

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