“Extravagant affection” is one of the recommended practices in the Rite of Christian Relationships, the first of three rites that makes up the Liturgy of Domestic Church Life. The practice of “extravagant affection” in the Rite of Christian Relationship isn’t just something that’s good to do for your kids. It’s a way to reclaim the natural inheritance of love that sin tries to steal from us.
The fact is, we were all created to be affectionate and enjoy receiving affection. Biologically speaking, affection is an even more basic need than the need for food. It isn’t that some of us are born with a greater or lesser need for affection. We all need it. The absence of affection tends to trigger our inflammatory response (causing aches and pains and diseases related to inflammation) and causes problems with our immune response (making us both more susceptible to infection and more reactive to normally harmless input–i.e., food sensitivities and allergies. Note. I am not saying these disorders are caused by a lack of affection. I am saying that the lack of affection stresses the systems of our body that normally protect us from these problems making us more susceptible to them). In the extreme, people can die from a lack of affection. Babies, in particular, are susceptible to the condition known as “Failure to Thrive” which is the refusal of even food for want of affection.
Theologically speaking, in Heaven, we will spend eternity dwelling in God’s loving embrace. We are literally destined to spend eternity being held in God’s arms. Sin (not necessarily personal sin, but certainly cultural, familial, and institutional sin) wants to take the joy of this reality away from us.
The theology of the body reminds us that biology is theology. We can understand God’s plan for creating abundant lives and relationships by reflecting on how he designed out bodies to function. Because we know–biologically speaking–that we need affection to thrive on every level, we can say that recovering the ability to be affectionate is something that God wants facilitate in his children. As physical beings, we need affection to feel his love through the bodies he gave us and that are an intimate part of us.
In short, we should never make the mistake of thinking that being unaffectionate is just the way we are. In fact, it represents the way we were hurt. We were born–as all babies are–to revel in affection. Under normal circumstances, the enjoyment of affection is a lifelong, universal, human pleasure. If we don’t enjoy affection as adults, it means someone took that joy away from us along the way. They may have done so by hurting us, or neglecting us, or shaming us, or lying to us, or abandoning us, or letting us down. But they took it away nevertheless. God wants to give us back this inheritance. Through the Rite of Christian Relationship, the Liturgy of Domestic Church Life seeks to heal this wound (what psychologists call an “attachment wound”) so that we can fully experience and share in human and divine love–in this life and the next.
So how to do we heal the attachment wound that makes it hard to fully enjoy giving and receiving affection? One step at a time. Here are a few suggestions to get started.
1.Realize this is a Physical Process--The reason affection feels uncomfortable for some people is that their social brain is literally overloaded by it. Like an extension cord running too much power through a thin gauge electrical wire, if the desire for affection is not fed in our families-of-origin, the neurons that make up the social brain get shorted out by “too much” affection. The good news? Just like exercise can grow new blood vessels and muscle tissue, actively working to become more affectionate can “beef up” the neural connections in the social brain, enabling you to process more affectionate input and find it pleasurable rather than painful (or at least uncomfortable). That said, like exercise, you can only do so much at one go before you wear out. But like exercise, if you keep it up, the more your body becomes accommodated to it and more you will benefit from it. Be patient with yourself but keep it up. It takes time and effort to grow new neural connections in your social brain but it will happen with consistent effort.
2.Start with your Baseline--Identify how much affection comes naturally to you. Make a point of doing at least that much PLUS a little more every day. Do you normally hug for a second? Hold the hug for 3. Do you normally give 1 or two hugs a day? Give 3 or 4. Build from there. A little more every day. Be patient with yourself. You are working to make physical changes in your social brain. Like any other exercise designed to create bodily change you have to start with where you’re at, and then just do a little bit more every day until it comes more naturally to you. Then repeat.
3. Remember Why–Unaffectionate people literally don’t know what they’re missing. They will tell themselves that they feel perfectly happy not being affectionate. They really don’t understand what the big deal is. At best, they mostly try to force themselves to be more affectionate for the benefit of others or because someone told them they have to try. This just breeds resentment. If you find yourself in this place, it’s important that you remind yourself that you are not doing this for anyone else–even when it feels like you are. Remind yourself that God wants to give you a new and wonderful gift so that you can be happier and healthier and help the people around you be healthier and happier too. Challenge the tendency to give in to self-talk that breeds resentment and undermines your efforts to heal the damage that the Enemy wants to do to you and your relationships by preventing you from feeling God’s love in your body and communicating that love to others through your body.
4. Don’t Go It Alone–Openly share your struggle to be more affectionate with someone you love and trust. Ask them to gently help you to stay on course. If you need more support than this, seek professional help from a counselor trained in attachment theory. By doing the hard work necessary to stimulate the growth of the affection network in your social brain, you can develop what psychologists call “earned secure attachment.” Get the help and support you need to experience both God and other’s love for you fully and share that love with others in kind.
Dr. Greg Popcak is the director of CatholicCounselors.com a Catholic Tele-Counseling practice that provides faith-filled solutions to tough marriage, family and personal problems.