At the end of one of the interviews in the E-Course, when I asked the interviewee what she would like to say to those who are still in the trenches of relationship anxiety, she responded quite simply with, “Hang on. Hang on. Hang on.” Those words have offered a lifeline to countless people who have gone through the course and wondered, ruminated, and obsessed about whether to stay or go.
We live in a culture that encourages people to jump ship if they’re not “happy.” We’re conditioned to chase after happiness like the gold-rushers chased after gold. We’re sold the bill of goods that there is a pot of endless bliss at end of the relationship rainbow, and that you’ll know that you find it when you feel unequivocally happy, certain, and in love.
Neither relationships nor life work that way. The barometer for whether or not you’re living an awake and fulfilled life is not happiness but contentment, and contentment can only arise when we’re not afraid to face our fear, grief, and pain in all forms. In our quick-fix, microwave-and-pornography addicted culture where we expect heat and arousal at the click of a button, we’re simply not trained to hang on when the going gets rough. “If you’re not happy, walk away,” the culture chirps. “If you’re not certain, it’s not the right relationship,” friends and family concur. Nothing could be further from the truth.
I can hear the anxious choir singing:
“But what if I’m only staying because I’m scared to leave – scared of hurting my partner or scared of being alone?”
“What if [the classic beginning to a fear-based thought] I’ve never felt right about the relationship and have had doubt from day one?”
“It seems like your work tries to convince people to stay in a good relationship even if it’s not the best relationship for them. What if there’s a better match out there for me?”
I can certainly respond to each of these queries, but it’s more effective to respond to the fearful undercurrent that causes the questions to spin around in an untrained mind. When fear is at the helm, we can’t see clearly. My work isn’t about convincing people to stay in their relationships. My work is about offering accurate information and effective tools so that people can find their still point of clarity. From that place of self-trust, anchored in the seat of their own wisdom, they can make a clear and loving choice for themselves.
That said, the vast majority of people who take my course on relationship anxiety choose to stay in their relationship. The key word is that sentence is choice. They choose to stay because they know that the anxiety lives inside of them and would appear with any loving, available partner (and many, other not all, have a had a lifetime of struggling with anxiety, worry and/or intrusive thoughts). They choose to stay because they don’t want to walk away. They choose to stay because they recognize that leaving would bolster their fear and, even if they experienced temporary relief, they would eventually find themselves face-to-face with the darker demons of self that appear when we run from emotional challenges.
Yes, relationships can be very challenging. Many wise people would say that relationships are designed to challenge us at our deepest level of pain for the purpose of healing. We can certainly be asked to grow in many other ways, but there’s nothing like standing face-to-face, heart-to-heart, and body-to-body with another human being to activate our deepest fears around attachment, abandonment, rejection, and what it means to love and be loved. Even when relationship anxiety is mostly handled, we’re then left with the challenge of being in the relationship itself without the anxiety in the way. Buying a house, having children together, sharing money, dealing with in-laws and friends, and job stress can all add additional challenges along the way. It doesn’t surprise me in the least that the divorce rate of couples with young children is higher than during other stages of marriage; it’s harder than I can put into words to stay connected to each other when the needs and demands of young children are constantly underfoot. But is the answer to walk away? No. Not in my book.
The answer is to hunker down together under the same umbrella and watch the rain until it passes. The answer is to find the one warm spot under the winter blanket and gather there until spring. The answer is to seek help when help is needed and to keep reaching for each other with vulnerability and honesty even when every part of you wants to hide behind the familiar defenses of blame and withdrawal. The answer is to know that we need each other, that our one special other is one of the greatest safeguards against depression and anxiety that we have, and provides the springboard from which we can launch into life with more confidence. As Sue Johnson writes in Hold Me Tight:
“Learning how to nurture the bonds of love is an urgent task. Loving connection provides a dependable web of intimacy that allows us to cope with life and to live life well. And that is what gives life its meaning. For most of us, on our deathbeds, it is the quality of our connection with our precious ones that will matter most.” (p. 252)
“Even our identity is a kind of duet with those closest to us. A loving relationship expands our sense of who we are and our confidence in ourselves. You wouldn’t be reading this book had I not found a way to plug into my husband’s belief that I could write it, and my ability to hold on to his reassuring words kept me writing rather than walking away. Our loved ones do indeed come into our hearts and minds, and when they do, they transform us.” (pp. 253-4)
While we may feel this loving bond early in the relationship (a sense of safety and support, like your partner has your back), it can take years to learn how to nurture and rely it, to learn how to express our needs in a way that encourages our partners to respond. The truth is that we don’t know each other at all when we marry. You’re virtually strangers for the first five years, it takes at least ten years to know your partner deeply, and it takes about fifteen years to find your stride. And not only do you not know each other, you don’t know yourself in relationship to your partner. We learn about ourselves through an intimate relationship, and through the knowing and learning and growing and falling and getting back up both separately and together we create a symbiotic circuit of shared nervous system and heart system.
So if you’re with a loving partner and underneath the anxiety you know that the relationship basically works, if there’s a foundation of friendship and shared values and something deep inside of you does not want to walk away, then hang on. Hang on, my friends. To stand under an apple tree in full bloom after a hard, cold winter is the fruit we reap when we stay in a relationship year after year, decade after decade. To watch the children you’ve raised together running and laughing on the grass, to gaze into their clear, open faces and know that they’ve been nourished in the ground of your love, is one of the greatest blessings we, as humans, can experience. And we can’t get there without going through the muck of anxiety and the difficulties that can arise in the early years of marriage (and by early years I mean the first fifteen). Hang on. Go for the big picture. Therein lies the true gold.