My relationship began in a zen center, but was it always perfect? Absolutely not.
The year was 2005 and I was cooking and farming at the San Francisco zen center. My now-wife was there and our relationship blossomed right there in the idyllic setting of trees, plants and communal existence.
I discovered, as you may be discovering now, that shifting gears from “me” to “we” is much easier said than done. Partnership challenges our beliefs, our judgements and our communication. But while anyone can succeed at the “me”- that is, an existence of living through one’s own self-interest and the act of being self-sufficient – it is much harder to accept another in all that they are and support them.
Truth be told, it was my philosophy at the time that it is one’s own responsibility to take care of their own reactivity. And in comes my wife- she is someone who wears her heart on her sleeve and has little self-censorship or constraint on her emotional expression. She is a reactor, an expressor. Immediately she challenged me.
I know what you’re thinking: “Maybe you should have just gotten a mail order bride then”.
I know this sounds terrible, but during the first chapter of our relationship I perceived these traits to be her character flaws – things she needed to work on. I expressed my disappointment with her degree of emotionality (extreme sadness, anger, and her highly empathetic nature) and the demand that it put upon me.
In the intentional community we ended up co-founding, I often played the role of peacemaker and felt that it was her responsibility to take care of herself. I used distance and thinly veiled criticism in an attempt to mold her into someone she was not. Unsurprisingly, that didn’t work…because I was judging her harshly, and no one likes to be judged.
I had created emotional distance between us. It was a ticking time bomb. She wasn’t getting any sort of empathy or validation from me for being herself.
I remember one day, several years into our relationship, sitting in the straw bale cottage we built together on our beautiful land in Southern Oregon. She was expressing how difficult it was to continually field aggressive emails and comments from another community member. Feeling burdened by her emotionality around the situation, I defended the person sending her the emails. Now anyone who is in a successful partnership will know that this is not a smart move! But I was still in the “me”. I couldn’t handle her emotions, I wasn’t truly listening to her, and I wasn’t able to sit in discomfort for a few moments to give her the chance to get it all out.
When I was coming to the defense of this other person, I guess I had this hope that maybe she would just say, “You’re right. I should see this person’s perspective and simply just turn the valve off on all these hurtful, threatened feelings that are flooding into me in the moment! Thank you for waking me up to logical thinking!” But that is not what happened…at all.
Instead, she felt dismissed and sided against. I had also made her feel- as she had felt many times before- that her way of seeing things was just wrong and she should get with the program. I left her feeling utterly unseen, invalidated and alone. But she was the one with the intense emotion and the instability, so clearly she was the one with the real problem, right? It couldn’t have been me: calm, centered, peacemaker ME. No way!
A partner, by definition is: “a pair of people engaged together in the same activity”. Yet I was personally avoiding being in an INTERDEPENDENT partnership because I was fearful that it would take away my autonomy. My ‘stuff’: My private time, my agendas, my personal activities, my peace would no longer exist. My philosophies would be challenged. My opinions would be questioned. And I would have to change. I was living in a fantasy of what a relationship should be: Easy, never burdensome. Something that is always there and can be “checked out of” for the weekend. When my wife would touch upon her unresolved pain I would usually feel this instantaneous wall come up that said, “That’s your shit, deal with it.”
But doing the same thing over and over again gets old. One day, something awoke in me that said “I’m tired of this! I’m not going to shut down when she’s sharing something painful with me”. I’ll never forget looking at her, taking a deep breath and saying, “When you go there, It scares me. I don’t know how to help you right now and I’m scared your pain is going to take us both down”.
It was like a spell had been lifted. She stopped seeing me as someone who invalidated her. I shared my time with her without casting judgement, and she felt more herself. It became our pain to hold and be with. Which, of course, is tremendously healing.That moment is still the template for our relationship to this day.
Deeply inspired, I found myself looking for some teaching that could help me understand better what we were discovering in our interactions. I felt that I had hit the jackpot. I asked for some recommendations and a grad school professor suggested Wired for Love by Stan Tatkin. I vividly remember forging through it, lying on my couch and thinking to myself, “WHERE THE FUCK HAS THIS BEEN?!” My next thought was, “Will she ever forgive me for scapegoating her all this time?” It felt like the Tatkin was gently calling me out by describing what he calls an “Island” attachment style. He explained how an Island will avoid genuine intimacy and the work of relationship because their deepest fear is being dependent upon another and opening to the intense vulnerability that comes with realizing that they are in need of others. It hit me in my guts. While the relationship itself was laying untended and orphaned by our shared lack of clarity about what a relationship is for, Stan laid it out so clearly: In a functional relationship, partners become experts on each other; They are asking themselves the question: “How can I tend to his/her distress?”
Though I’d done hundreds of hours of psychotherapeutic training, no one ever came close to putting forth such a clear and coherent framework. I was able to see a difference in my own relationship within days of reading his book. Instead of going into my typical judgemental place when she was experiencing distress, I rerouted my energies towards her. I would massage her arm, listen and ask her what I could do to support her.
Through Stan’s book, I saw how much I wanted a family and a partner, yet I had not wanted to do the actual cultivation and work. I was being asked to hone the art of “we”. The relationship needed to be put first which sometimes meant foregoing certain activities so that we had quality time together. I needed to prioritize the dance of partnership. I became more of an expert at what she needed in times of distress: It came down to less talk and more soothing physical touch and affirmation that I’m not going anywhere and there’s nothing wrong with how she is feeling.
As I did that, even more was revealed to me about the power of partnership. I saw that I wasn’t leaning deeper into the relationship in order to avoid my own distress. I wasn’t running towards my relationship in order to escape my own issues – a more balanced partnership made me a healthier person with pursuits of my own. I was seeking meditation, food, intellectual pursuits or work to cope with my underlying attachments and stress. Through her example, I was able to finally get in touch with my own need for support AND the ability to actually ask for it. Stan’s work gave me permission to see what a relationship truly is. It isn’t just emotional bare bones and physical acts. It is two individuals that are there for each other during whatever storm arises. It is unconditional.
There were frequent moments where I felt the desire to give up, thinking that relationships should not have to be this hard. Yet, I was able to catch myself. This powerful framework helped me understand that it is hard, but it gets even harder when there are not mutual agreements. It isn’t her job to be an ideal parent and make up for all my unhealed wounds. Nor can I be that for her. We end up becoming something much greater by being emotionally-developed adults with the ability to liberate both ourselves and each other. My sights are set less on short-term gratifications and more focused on the long-term: A relationship that is a dynamic blend of sovereignty, sacrifice, sexiness, and refuge.