Whenever a theme arises in my weekly work with clients I know it’s important to write about it here. Last week the theme was: “I married the wrong person” or “It would have been easier with someone else.”
One of the most important tasks for those on the road to awakening is to notice all of the ways that we try to avoid pain. For those of us on the sensitive-anxious spectrum, the primary escape-hatch from emotional pain is to climb up into the safe chamber of the mind where a virtual orchestra of intrusive thoughts catches us by the heels and twirls us around on the merry-go-around of mental torture. The thoughts change in what I call the “anxiety whack-a-mole phenomenon“, which is why it’s essential to become keen to the tricky ways that our minds think of increasingly more convincing thoughts as a way to avoid the pain of the present moment and learn to address the thoughts from the root.
The essential piece to understand about intrusive thoughts is that they always feel real. They grab you where you’re vulnerable and try to convince that the life you’re living is, in some fundamental way, the wrong life – the wrong partner, the wrong house, the wrong job – and if you only got it “right” you wouldn’t be struggling so much. With this particular thought, the mind bombards you with a barrage of convincing arguments like, “Look how much you’re struggling. You wouldn’t be struggling with these issues if you had married [the one who got away].” And the tricky part of intrusive thoughts is that they often (although not always) contain an element of truth. Is it true that you wouldn’t have these exact challenges with someone else? Yes! Is it also true that you would have different challenges with someone else? Absolutely. The mind lures you in with it’s first-line hook and if you’re not wise to its ways you forget how easy it is to poke holes in its argument.
As always with intrusive thoughts, the first step is to name it for what it is and normalize, which will sound something like, “This is an intrusive thought and it’s a normal thought that everyone has in relationships at some point.” As Charlie and Linda Bloom write about in 101 Things I Wish I Knew When I Got Married in a chapter called “Even people with great marriage sometimes wonder whether they might have married the wrong person”:
“In a moment of anger or disappointment, disturbing thoughts can pop into anyone’s head. The thoughts “This is not what I had in mind,” “I made a mistake,” or “I married too early” are based on the usually mistaken notion that somewhere there is a special someone with whom we would never argue, struggle, or feel disappointed, a soulmate with whom we would be spared all pain, suffering and stress. Sadly, such dreams are the stuff of fantasy and rarely materialize in the lives of real people.” p. 81
Once we name and normalize, the next step is to recognize that the thought “I married the wrong person” is simply another way to try to avoid pain. The conversation with my clients goes like this:
“I’m not happy right now,” a client shares. “My partner and I are disconnected, we’ve argued again, this isn’t what I thought marriage was going to be like. Maybe if I had married that sexy girl that I was dating before I met my wife I wouldn’t be so miserable right now.”
“So you believe that if you married someone else you wouldn’t be feeling so badly right now?”
“Yes. Maybe someone less emotional or more stable, someone who shares more similar interests. I don’t know…”
“And if you were with this person, what pain would you be avoiding right now? In other words, what is it that you don’t want to feel?”
“I feel sad and lonely. I feel confused. This is much more difficult than I expected it to me. I mean, I know cognitively that marriage is challenging but I guess I didn’t know it would be this hard at times.”
“So I want to encourage you to come into your breath and your heart right now. Send your breath into your heart and see if you can stay with those painful feelings for a few minutes.”
“It’s hard. I want to leave the pain.”
“Yes. I know. But let’s try it together. Close your eyes and breathe right into the center of your hurting heart. You might want to put a hand on your heart to let yourself know that your loving inner parent is here. Imagine that your breath is love: warm, kind, and nurturing. And remind yourself that you can handle whatever feelings arise.”
We look for every way possible to avoid the pain of life, both present and past. Not only are we wired to avoid pain but also we’re conditioned to believe that we can’t handle it. And it’s unlikely that seeing pain attended to in a loving way was ever modeled for you growing up, so how could you possibly know how to do it? It’s a muscle we learn to meet and strengthen over time, and it begins with becoming very familiar with our escape-hatch thoughts so that we can name them quickly, diffuse their power, and ask ourselves the cut-through question for all intrusive thoughts, “What is this thought protecting me from feeling?” Once we travel back down from head to heart, we find the treasure troves that come from living an embodied, awake, and emotionally alive life. And, amazingly, we also connect back into the magic of gratitude for our partners that becomes so easily hidden inside the sticky web of intrusive thoughts that try to take us away from the messy, beautiful reality of this moment with the messy, beautiful person with whom we chosen to share our life.