John Welwood, a writer and psychologist I’d never heard of until reading his article, “Intimate Relationship as a Spiritual Crucible” (in this month’s Lion’s Roar), just became my new spiritual hero. My Kindle is charging right now so I can buy one of his books, because I feel like I just found the answer to my relationship troubles, which is this: at their worst, relationships can bring out the deepest, most painful feelings of being unloved, but when we can face those feelings, accept that they’re there, accept who we are and who our partner is, we can grow spiritually. We must have the breakdown to get to the breakthrough. The key is “not losing our twoness in the oneness, while not losing our oneness in the twoness.”
This is always the problem I run into. In the beginning, my partner is my world, which means that after some time, my world becomes small. Instead of having my own friends, my time alone, my hobbies, I spend all my free time with the guy. With my ex-husband, I eventually did my own thing all the time, without spending much time with him, and he did his own thing. It was like living with a roommate instead of a partner. Each of us swam in our own fishbowl. Then I became intertwined with Steven, and none of my free time was spent on self-care, unless it was during a period of him shutting me out during his depressive episodes, and those times for me were spent feeling abandoned and hurt while trying to ignore that I felt that way, trying to spiritually bypass those feelings, which is one of the ways Welwood says we try to avoid the pain of being in a relationship. The other way is to leave altogether, which is ultimately what happens in my relationships, hence two divorces and my current singlehood at 41 years of age.
Another Buddhist whose name I can’t remember once said something that struck me, which was that when you become committed to a relationship, what you must know is that you’re going to have times in which you feel lonely. Being married does not change that. I know this from experience, and I’d say it’s more painful than being single and feeling lonely. When the other person switches from being the one who saved me from myself (which by the way is not the role a partner can realistically/healthily play) to the one who destroyed me, or worse, ignored or did not acknowledge me, or abandoned me—it opens up deep-rooted childhood wounds of not feeling accepted, unloved, unloveable. According to Welwood, everyone has these feelings at some point because everyone has had some kind of disappointment that probably started in childhood, because that’s just life. If you want your relationship to work, you must be willing to get down to the nitty gritty reality and ride the waves when tough times come.
One important point I want to raise here is that one could use this argument as a basis to accept abuse, and that’s one situation that I can’t condone. Also, I feel that both partners must be willing to commit—this can’t be the kind of situation in which your partner constantly breaks it off while you wait around and take them back when they decide they want to return to you.
My first thought as I was reading this was to send it to my ex and tell him that the ugliness that revealed itself in the end was what happens in a relationship, no one’s perfect, I said something hurtful to him that opened a deep wound within him that could not be healed or forgiven or forgotten, and that was this: I felt that you hugged your daughter too much, and it seemed inappropriate because she’s 13 now and getting too old for that.
No matter that I prefaced it with how it was my own issue, that I felt jealous, and no matter that I explained that I have my own childhood issues. No matter that I apologized, multiple times, that I admitted I was wrong, there’s no age limit on hugging one’s child, that I emphasized that never once did I think he was a child molester or that he’d ever even thought of molesting his child. How can a person recover from that? In my case, it wasn’t possible. What I’d thought was that maybe a man should keep more physical distance from his daughter as she grows older, but that because he’d never been a father to a teenage girl before he didn’t know about that “rule,” this rule I’d created, or grown up with, because my family hugs each other but we’re not as affectionate as some families. That’s just it. Some families are more affectionate than others. What I’d wanted was for him to show his kids that I was part of the family too, that I was his partner, but instead I felt like an extra wheel to their trio of unconditional love that happens between parent and child.
My therapist suggested that maybe I purposely and subconsciously sabotaged the relationship because I began to feel it wasn’t working. He’d placed unrealistic expectations on me to skip out on visiting my sister and stepfather for Thanksgiving (right after my mom died) and visit his father in the nursing home, his father who’d abused him and who hadn’t seen in five years, who’d been living in Ohio in a nursing home for the past three years. And he’d wanted me to have telepathy, to just know that’s what he wanted me to do, so he told me it didn’t matter if I went or not, then became angry and hurt when I expressed my choice to visit my family. I changed my mind when I saw how much it meant to him that I be there for him, but the truth was that I just could not be there for him during that time. Resentment grew because I felt that he was putting a time limit on my grief over my mom’s death.
The only thing worse than being hurt by someone else, for me, is knowing you hurt someone else and destroyed the very relationship you cherished above all else.
I want to believe we could’ve gotten through both of those situations, and maybe we could have. But the next hurdle to overcome would be that I need my space and time away from him, and he was not into “sharing” me with other people. I chose to spend my time with him—it was what I wanted, too. But now that I’ve had time away from him, have made my own friends, have my own haven, I don’t want to go back to that. At the time my sponsor told me that reconciliation was possible but it would have to be a different relationship.
The good part that came from all this pain is that I grew spiritually. Oh my God. Tenfold. Especially because my mother had died suddenly a few months prior to this. I’d believed he was my savior, that if I couldn’t have my mom anymore then at least I had a partner to take care of me. But the truth is, no one’s going to save me or take care of me except for me, with the help of a higher power that I call God.
Now I have a better idea of what I want from a relationship. I know–intellectually, let’s be real here–that finding a partner will not fix me. Practicing it is another thing, but I have the knowledge. I’ve spent many months beating myself up over saying those words to my ex, and I still regret it and feel ashamed for having expressed that, telling myself that no matter what I do in my next relationship, don’t ever express jealousy on that level. Writing this here and posting this is not easy for me, because I’m afraid you’ll all judge me, and I’ve wrestled with it for some time, but here it is. The ugly truth.
When I was a kid there was a song that used to come on the radio by Dave Mason called “We Just Disagree,” and in it he sings, “There ain’t no good guys / There ain’t no bad guys / There’s only you and me and we just disagree.” We are each human, trying to make our way. Sometimes we eff up. It’s what happens after that, how we handle it, that matters, where the spiritual growth comes.
I want to give this article to whoever I get into a serious relationship with next time, to say, Look here, buddy. Shit’s gonna happen. Do you want to be in this together or not? And if dude cannot handle conflict—if we cannot handle conflict together—then it’s just not going to work.
So there you go. For anyone out there who’s been following my blog for these past several months, wondering what in the world I could’ve said that was so bad, there you have it.
Now I’d rather feel the occasional loneliness that inevitably happens at some point during a relationship than be single. It’s not that I feel lonely all the time as a single person—I enjoy my solitude. The prospect of being in another relationship feels scary because I don’t want to lose the time I’ve gained building friendships and focusing on my own growth. At the same time, I want to be able to do that while in a relationship. That would be the ultimate growth, or so it seems to me.
I’m on eHarmony because the guys there want to be in a relationship, and because we each get to be honest and open about who we are and what we want, up front. Not that I put on my profile page that I’m a sober alcoholic, but I did write that I don’t smoke, drink, or do drugs, ever, and am looking for someone who’s the same. A light or occasional drinker is okay but if there’s someone out there who loves to learn about craft beers or visit wineries, they can move right along and that will be fine with me. it’s not a secret that I’m a sober alcoholic but the guy can meet me first and then decide if he thinks I’m a train wreck he can’t deal with, because I know I’m not. Guys with small children or even teenagers are a no-go for me at this point. Honestly, there are a lot of no-gos for me at this point. The most important part is that the guy not be a commitment-phobe. Don’t drag me into something that you hope will develop into something more only to realize that not only can I not fix you but I have the power to destroy you—or rather, you may feel destroyed, but you’re not. I sure as hell felt destroyed in the end, but that’s just the point at which I hit bottom, which was the necessary place to go before I could emerge a stronger, more resilient person, capable of loving and being loved. Maybe one day he and I can forgive each other, and I must say there’s no way in hell I’ll ever tell another guy he hugs his kid too much or that it’s inappropriate, but I’ll probably say or do something else that cuts his heart, just as he’ll do for me, but I believe that it’s when you can grow together through the painful times that a deeper love can develop.
So maybe I’m codependent but I am determined to learn how to be in a healthy relationship, which is why I go to Codependents Anonymous. AA saved my life—faith in God saved my life—and I’m grateful to have found a new way of life compared to the hellhole I used to live in. Maybe online dating is a distraction for me to feel better about myself by looking outside of me when the solution lies within. And I am looking within, too. After having been rejected a second time, after the ex, by a guy who uses spirituality as a means of emotional detachment, I’ve decided to give eHarmony a shot. I don’t seem to have a good “picker,” as they say in the rooms, so I’m letting an online dating algorithm do it for me. Because my picker lately seems to choose men who do not want to commit, after having chosen men who put me on a pedestal, who I wasn’t that into but knew would never leave me. It’s time to find someone in between those extremes.
Today is a good day. I’m off to Zumba here in a few, and later I’ll get to hear Sharon Salzberg speak for Tara Brach. Salzberg has written a lot of beautiful, powerful words about loving-kindness, compassion, and living life on a spiritual basis, and I feel honored to get to see her in person tonight.