In an ideal world, of course, relationships would be easy. You’d find someone, fall in love with each other, and POW! – the “happily ever after” of fairytales comes true.
(The clue why they don’t is in the word “fairytales”, FYI…)
It’s possible that some of us find long-term relationships easier to find and keep than others. Since the late 1980s the effects of parent-child attachment have been studied in romantic attachment between adults, with revealing results. I don’t think I’ve recommended Rachel Heller and Amir Levine’s book Attached to anyone without them having an “Oh my God!” moment, as they see themselves in black and white. I know it had a big impact on me.
For while approximately 55% of the population are what’s known as securely attached, 45% are a variety of insecure; be that anxiously preoccupied, avoidant and dismissive, or anxious and fearful.
Does it make a difference? Well, it’s like the old joke about asking a farmer for directions; he sucks on his pipe, has a long think, then replies: if I had the choice, I wouldn’t start from here if I were you.
Securely attached people tend to agree with the statements, “It is relatively easy for me to become emotionally close to others. I am comfortable depending on others and having others depend on me. I don’t worry about being alone or others not accepting me.”
That’s a pretty good place to start from. There’s a palpable sense of self-acceptance and a pair of feet set squarely on the ground.
Especially when compared to someone who’s anxious and preoccupied, for example; “I want to be completely emotionally intimate with others, but I often find that others are reluctant to get as close as I would like” and “I am uncomfortable being without close relationships, but I sometimes worry that others don’t value me as much as I value them.”
It’s hard to stand securely if we’re leaning towards others for approval. But we can all become “hooked” by what Buddhist nun and author Pema Chodron calls shenpa;
“You’re trying to make a point with a coworker or your partner. At one moment her face is open and she’s listening, and at the next, her eyes cloud over or her jaw tenses. What is it that you’re seeing?
Someone criticizes you. They criticize your work or your appearance or your child. At moments like that, what is it you feel? It has a familiar taste in your mouth, it has a familiar smell. Once you begin to notice it, you feel like this experience has been happening forever.
It’s an everyday experience,“that sticky feeling.” .. at the subtlest level, we feel a tightening, a tensing, a sense of closing down. Then we feel a sense of withdrawing, not wanting to be where we are.
That’s the hooked quality. That tight feeling has the power to hook us into self-denigration, blame, anger, jealousy and other emotions which lead to words and actions that end up poisoning us.”
Knowing about this ‘hooked’ quality, having a word for it and learning how to overcome it can have a powerful effect on our lives and how we respond to others. I highly recommend reading her whole article, “How we get hooked and how we get unhooked”, whether you’re a buddhist or not.
Because with mindful awareness and support we can change (or at least mitigate and communicate) our insecure attachment styles and the moments when we’re in “that sticky feeling”. Open communication can have a hugely positive impact on our relationships.
But regardless of where we start from, relationships can still be challenging. And that’s normal.
A couple of years ago I listened to a seminar given by Buddhist meditation teacher and author of The Wisdom of a Broken Heart, Susan Piver.
She was talking about love, and she shared four points which have given me tremendous comfort every time I remember them;
1. Relationships are uncomfortable, and that’s OK
People delight and disappoint us. They need things we don’t have, give us things we don’t want and, given half a chance, steal all of the god-damn duvet.
We can never truly see the world through another person’s eyes, and no-one will ever see the world in exactly the same way we do. Hell, we don’t even know that we see the same shade of blue as each other.
No wonder relationships are uncomfortable. It’s a relief to know that that’s normal.
2. Thinking they SHOULD be comfortable, makes them uncomfortable
If we think things should be easy and they’re not, we generally think one of three things: one, we’ve failed (and our self-esteem takes a hit), two, it’s failed (and we decide to quit), or three, it’s a failure of the other person (time to pin the blame tail on your donkey, people).
Between a) holding onto what we think we should have and b) not accepting what we actually get, is the gap where our suffering springs from. And while pain is inevitable, suffering (through non-acceptance of what is and an attachment to a desired outcome) is optional (go ask a Buddhist).
Today’s expectations are invariably tomorrow’s resentments.
3. Meeting the discomfort together IS love
Not turning away. Not stonewalling. Not acting with criticism or contempt, or any other combination of the four horsemen of the marital apocalypse John Gottman’s identified in failed relationships. But actually seeing that love is collaboration.
4. There is a way to work with it all
To work with our intrinsic needs for both security AND freedom. To be dependent on others and have others depend on us, but hold the locus of our self-esteem within us.
We are all complex, paradoxical creatures, the meeting point of the infinite and the finite given form: spiritual beings having a human experience.
Knowing that it’s normal for it to be uncomfortable, that it’s our expectations making it so, rising to the challenge of meeting that discomfort together and knowing that we can hold space for all of it; to me, that’s life as art.
Making our way through the bad times, whether they take place inside or outside of a relationship, takes a quality many of us may overlook; self-compassion.
I’m a huge fan of author and researcher Kristen Neff’s work, and have serendipitously just read this very passage in her book, Self Compassion;
“Self-compassion doesn’t just amount to letting ourselves off the hook. Rather, by softening the blow of self-judgment and recognising our imperfect humanity, we can see ourselves with much greater honesty and clarity.
Maybe we do tend to overreact, to be irresponsible, to be passive, to be controlling, and so on.
In order to work on these patterns and help ourselves (and others) suffer less because of them, we need to acknowledge our shortcomings. We need to recognise how we have harmed others in order to heal the wounds we have caused.
By self-compassionately accepting the fact that all people make mistakes and act in ways they regret, we can more easily admit our wrongdoings and try to make things right again.
If we’re consumed with feelings of shame and inadequacy because of what we’ve done, we are actually being self-absorbed. We aren’t focusing our attention and concern where it’s most needed – on the person we’ve hurt.
Self-compassion provides the emotional safety needed to take responsibility for our actions, consider the impact on others, and sincerely apologise for our behaviour.”
Being compassionate with others truly starts with being compassionate to ourselves.
Finally, I leave you with some words which made me well-up in a public place.
I’m a sucker for second-hand books. A couple of years ago I was browsing the shelves of my local Oxfam Bookshop when I alighted on a slim volume by buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, called Peace is Every Step.
I flicked the pages, and it automatically opened on this passage. Cue tears;
We really have to understand the person we want to love. If our love is only a will to possess, it is not love. If we only think of ourselves, if we know only our own needs and ignore the needs of the other person, we cannot love.
We must look deeply in order to see and understand the needs, aspirations, and suffering of the person we love, This is the ground of real love. You cannot resist loving another person when you truly understand him or her.
From time to time, sit close to the one you love, hold his or her hand, and ask, “Darling, do I understand you enough? Or am I making you suffer? Please tell me so that I can learn to love you properly. I don’t want to make you suffer, and if I do so because of my ignorance, please tell me so that I can love you better, so that you can be happy.”
If you say this in a voice that communicates your real openness to understand, the other person may cry. That is a good sign, because it means the door of understanding is opening and everything will be possible again.
Maybe a father does not have the time or is not brave enough to ask his son such a question. Then the love between them will not be as full as it could be. We need courage to ask these questions, but if we don’t ask, the more we love, the more we may destroy the people we are trying to love.
True love needs understanding. With understanding, the one we love will certainly flower.”
And I think we all want those we love to flower and blossom.
If things are difficult right now, I know how much that sucks. I’ve been there. Several times. You’re not alone.
So I wish you the deep understanding your heart craves, and that you can find a way to offer it to the one you love. May you collaborate on a work of art that makes both of your hearts sing and your lives bloom.