Over the last few months, I’ve received a number of questions about relationships, all of which shared a common theme: one person appears to be 100% invested, while the other is not. I’ve heard from a number of women who are upset and confused, because while their partner is professing his love, he is also questioning the relationship. I’ve heard, “he needs to treat me better” and “we love each other, but we’ve started to fight about the smallest of things” and “he says we lost that spark.” Finally, I’ve been asked what it actually means to be IN a relationship, that is, what makes it a true relationship, versus just “being involved.” So I decided to write a column on relationships: how do you know when you’re in one, what does it take to sustain one, and why practicing love is what it’s all about.
The Importance of Relating
There is nothing more supportive of our overall well-being than being in a loving relationship. It’s in our nature to be intimate and to love, yet despite that nature, true intimacy is scarce in the lives of many, including married and otherwise committed folks. This is because intimate relationships require the emotional availability of both, and many, often through no fault of their own, are not capable of that. If we want to create happy, healthy relationships, we need to first assess our own ability to be in one.
What is a Relationship?
In a healthy and loving relationship, you will find the following is true of both people:
- The desire to be close is greater than the fear of vulnerability.
- The desire to be happy is greater than the need to avoid one’s own issues.
- The desire to see your partner happy is greater than your desire to continue doing things the way you’ve always done them.
- The desire for long lasting commitment is greater than the occasional/recurrent pull to get distracted, have it easy, or justify deceptions, both small and large.
In the Beginning
It’s relatively easy to get into a relationship—attraction happens despite us. When we are attracted to someone, and become emotionally/sexually involved, it can feel like love. In fact, that falling-in-love feeling pretty much hijacks the first six or so months of a relationship—nature’s way of getting us in the game. But as the magic settles a bit, the very ordinary person on the other side of the passion makes appearances, and this is usually when the first real relationship challenges present themselves.
The challenges can be significant—you realize your partner has been dishonest, unfaithful, has a serious character flaw, or has substance abuse issues. These discoveries usually do, and arguably should, mark the end of the relationship. As a rule, folks tend to bring their very best to the table in the early months, so if there are serious issues in that early stage, that does not forebode well for the long term. Take care that at this point you don’t find yourself caring more about his or her healing/maturation than s/he does, as that is often a recipe for a dysfunctional relationship.
Presuming there are no significant issues between you, when relationship tensions arise, you have arrived at the inevitable “relationship-fork-in-the-road”. It is the moment that two people decide whether they’re really in, or maybe not so much. It’s when we either lean into the discomfort with an open mind and a receptive heart, or we let defensiveness close us off.
There’s a little mystery in these moments, but it seems that when it’s love, we find a reason to stay, hopeful we can navigate the challenges ahead. Perhaps it’s an intuitive thing—a soul thing—there’s a mutual trust in the love you’ve been nurturing—trust that what is being created between the two of you is bigger than the discomfort interrupting it. Despite the nagging of the rational mind, you both lean in. It is at this moment that it’s safe to say you are in a relationship.
However, there is another path one can take at that relationship-fork-in-the-road moment, and no matter how invested one person is, if the other is pulling back, one of three things is going on:
- S/he is not that into you/not in love with you.
- S/he lacks the emotional maturity to engage in genuine intimacy.
- Both of the above.
A relationship is only as good as the two people in it, and it only takes one person to break a relationship. If someone is willing to let you go, in all likelihood, it’s already over.
What Is Emotional Maturity?
In order to love someone (not just feel love, but to act on that feeling) we need to forget ourselves a bit. We need to be aware of what our partner needs, of what makes our partner feel loved, and we need to genuinely care about their happiness a bit more than we care about our own wants. Presuming both are bringing this level of presence and care to the other, both will feel loved, and the relationship will deepen.
But emotionally immature people struggle with forgetting themselves, not because they’re “bad” people, but usually because they’re stuck in the pain of their past, and they have a blind spot to that pain. They may be able to intellectually discuss their pain, but they remain unaware of just how much their pain interferes with their ability to be present and emotionally available to another.
Children banish whatever pain is too great to bear. But banishing pain is to simultaneously disconnect from our ability to organically feel. It might appear counter-intuitive, but when we banish our pain, we’re actually holding on to it tightly, and in this way, our pain is never, ever, separate from us. This is an unnatural state, and so in order to cope, we develop secondary conditions, like depression, addiction, even “ordinary” selfishness that can rise to the level of narcissism, and none of these conditions bode well for love.
Folks who are unconsciously pre-occupied with their own pain make for poor partners, because their preoccupation with their pain is a preoccupation with their own self. Becoming aware of our pain and our pre-occupation with it is the first step in the direction of restoring ourselves to our authentic, emotionally available, and loving Self.
The Two Roadblocks to Practicing Love: Pain and Fear
At our core, we are all loving people. But it is impossible to love when we have been taken hostage by our own pain. If we’re a hostage of our pain, we suffer. In time, if we are so fortunate, those closest to us will signal to us the issues our suffering is creating. If we are willing to listen, and to honestly explore our relationship patterns and intimacy patterns, we will undoubtedly discover the issues in our own life that need tending to.
But awareness is not enough. If we don’t act upon what is brought to us, then we are unconsciously cooperating with the hostage taker—we are surrendering our power to EGO, rather than taking back our power with our spiritual strength.
Restoring ourselves is a decision, a commitment, all our own—no one has the power, nor does anyone have the authority, to fix anyone else. We may be encouraged and supported, but the work of taking our power back is a personal trek.
There is no person who has not had pain in their life, no person who is a stranger to suffering. But pain and suffering are two very different things. Pain is organic, it is meant to be in the moment, it is meant to rise up, to be felt, to be grappled with, to be observed, and to be released. Suffering, however, is pain that gets knotted up in the cells of our body, and is a symptom of being stuck.
Suffering is sustained by chronically revisiting the beliefs and expectations generated by the thoughts created by the various painful situations in our past. This is not a conscious event until it becomes one. Suffering persists when we allow the past to inform our reaction to the present. Suffering happens when we are in the pain of yesterday (a thought remembered) or in the fear of tomorrow (a thought projected). If we are in yesterday or tomorrow, we are disconnected from our ability to be truly present to another.
The way out of suffering is to quiet our EGO. The more we reside in our Spirit’s consciousness, the quieter EGO becomes, and the less we suffer. The less we suffer, the more we love.
It’s a day to day practice.
Where there is fear, there cannot be love. Fear is like a well-constructed, impenetrable wall. It guards against any experience that might brush against those banished feelings, thus it controls our choices and behaviors. Fear functions to keep hidden our shame and to make certain we avoid being humiliated. Fear makes us feel powerless over depression and substance abuse, and it fine tunes our defensiveness. Fear is snide, it is sarcastic, it is arrogant, and will often prod us to demean/dismiss rather than experience being wrong.
Fear will do anything EGO wants it to do in order to make sure you stay stuck.
Grace Dissolves Pain and Fear
Paradoxically, while fear keeps us from love, it is only love that can give us the courage to lean into the fear. And so we need Grace. Grace is the endless reserve of unconditional love that is within all of us—it is spiritual in nature—the “I” that we all are. Someone can take our hand and lead us there, but it is Grace that comforts us as we grieve all we have lost, all we have endured, and it is Grace that dissolves our shame. It is Grace that diminishes the fear of humiliation, because humiliation has its conception in shame. With Grace, we are set free. Then we can love.
Can My Current Relationship Be Saved; Can Passion And Connection Be Re-Kindled?
It depends. There are times when a partner has been so negligent, so reckless, and their promise to love has been abandoned. Chronic betrayal of the commitment to love erodes the foundation of the relationship and is incredibly difficult to come back from. Betraying commitment repeatedly is virtually the same as breaking-up or un-marrying—it’s not a relationship any longer if someone has checked out, even if they remain in your orbit.
But yes, in an otherwise good relationship, connection can most certainly be re-kindled, passion can rise up again, and the relationship can be sustained.
Good relationships can feel flat at times. Good relationships get off kilter sometimes. Folks in good relationships fight, and soul partners can sometimes question the very relationship that they cherish. We are always alone, even with someone by our side. Life can press upon any person, and thus even the closest of couples. This is why commitment is so important: because you stay put. And when you overcome a difficult passage in the relationship, you rediscover that the love and passion is very much still there. It is brave and mature to choose commitment.
More often than not, when a relationship is really stuck, it is due to laziness on the part of one or both. Good, loving, people can get lazy, but lazy is not good for love. Comfortable, at ease, predictable…sure. But lazy-in-love is really a version of self-centeredness, and when one or both in the relationship has been lazy for a stretch of time, the strain on the relationship will be felt.
And then it’s back to that relationship-fork-in–the-road: we can own the patterns our laziness revealed and address them, or we can ignore them. To own them means to make a commitment to addressing them. When we ignore our own negative patterns and issues, we are betraying our commitment to love, and that road leads to break-ups/divorce or unhappiness.
The choice to practice love is made much easier when you feel passion for each other, but passion can only be maintained with genuine love. Without the mutual effort to practice love, the relationship is either opportunistic, addictive, or at best, mediocre.
Is It Time To Call It Quits?
If you want to end a relationship, you can always find a reason. But when its love, when you want to practice love because you feel love, you will always find a reason to invest in the relationship more deeply. There is a mystery to falling in love, but not nearly as much mystery to creating a good relationship once you fall in love. It takes desire followed by investment—not always easy, but not a mystery. You are in the most meaningful of relationships when there is the mutual commitment to stay in the relationship and practice love day in and day out.