Among the many questions that plague those suffering from relationship anxiety, the question “Is my partner right for me?” tops the list of last-night ruminations.
As with so many intrusive thoughts, we must first recognize that the question is coming from the ego, the part of ourselves that demands certainty and operates under a black-and-white mindset. Right implies wrong, which plays directly into the ego’s need for certainty and, thus, the illusion of safety. The ego believes if we can answer these unanswerable questions, we can avoid the “fundamental ambiguity of being human”, a phrase that Pema Chodron uses to so aptly describe the discomfort that is an intrinsic and unavoidable part of the human experience.
However, much to the dismay of the ego, life doesn’t come in neat packages that can be divided into black-and-white answers. One of the ego’s sole missions is to try to control outcomes, so it thinks that if it can just answer this one question, it will successfully avoid a failure, which ego interprets as a mistake. And because ego doesn’t hold the mindset that failures and mistakes are how we learn but instead believes that they’re measures of our self-worth, it has no tolerance for mistakes.
Once we can name it as an ego-question, we can create a bit of room between the mind and the need for an answer. It’s this tiny gap that forges the road to freedom. Let me explain: If the question arises and we immediately launch into the search for an answer – googling, seeking reassurance, journaling about the question itself, and all of the other ways we feed the demon of the intrusive thoughts – we find ourselves quickly slipping down the rabbit hole of anxiety. But if we can create a small gap between the thought-question and the urge to answer it, we can make a conscious choice for how we want to respond. Do we want to feed the thought or do we want to shift the needle in the compass of our mind and turn our focus in another direction?
Sometimes shifting the needle means asking a slightly, yet altogether different, question. In this case, a question that can satisfy our need to do due diligence regarding moving forward in an intimate relationship can be addressed by asking a question that comes not from the ego but from a higher and more loving part of ourselves. The higher question may be: Do we work together? or Do we do life well together? or Is my partner a loving choice for me, someone with whom I can learn about what it means to give and receive love? When a relationship anxiety sufferer asks these questions, the answer is almost always yes.
Still, even if you can answer one higher question and put the original question to rest, if we don’t attend to what’s underneath the ego will find another question to perseverate on. So we must gently excavate what lives underneath the need for certainty, brushing aside the dirt of the intrusive thought and asking, with curiosity, what wound or need the thought is pointing to. Often, then, we will arrive at the very common fear of making a mistake. As I probe the anxious mind further and ask, “Are you perservating on the question of the right partner because you’re trying to avoid making a mistake?” Yes. “And does this fear of making a mistake extend beyond your relationship?” Yes. “What is the belief?” I ask. “The belief is that if I’m perfect now I will gain approval of others. Or, on the other side, if I’m not perfect I might end up miserable and alone.”
So the need for to know if you’re with the “right” partner is about the need for certainty, which is linked to the fear of making a mistake, which is then connected to a belief about being rewarded or punished for successful or failed outcomes. This bottom-feeder belief is a product of our achievement-oriented culture that links worth to outcomes, but often arises most strongly for those who were raised in a religion that promotes the message that if you mess up, you will end up in eternal hell. While I’m a strong supporter of the sense of community and spiritual connection that religion can offer, I consider the dissemination of this message a form of spiritual abuse. I’ve encountered countless clients and people, my own husband among them, who suffered from terrible nightmares as children that they were being eaten up by the flames of hell for doing something “wrong.” This is a horrifying message to deliver to a child, and of course sets into a motion a deeply embedded fear of making a mistake and, conversely, the pressure to behave perfectly.
When we absorb a message like this early in life, it etches a deep groove into our belief system and it can be difficult to extricate. But with time and a concerted effort to replace the fear-based (or terror-based, in this case) belief with a loving and compassionate worldview, we can slowly let it go and come back to ourselves, our home base, the place inside that knows we are intrinsically good, wise, and loving and that we are living in a compassionate and forgiving universe.
Ultimately, the work is about cultivating our home base, the place where our inner wise one dwells, so that we can meet our fear, grief, and loneliness with compassion, learn to hold ourselves through the storms of the mind, and access a reliable source of truth and wisdom. This inner work is multi-layered and not for the feint of heart. It’s the work of love-warriors, those who have been able to remove the projection that the problem lies in their choice of partner and devote themselves to learning about what it means to meet their own raw and tender spots, rub a salve of compassion and curiosity over them, then orient their compass toward filling up their own well so that they can live from trust and faith instead of from the ego-directed platform of trying to get it right.