A few weeks ago my family and I spent five days up in the mountains. Overall, it was a lovely vacation, with much laughter, hiking, game-playing, and boating. But for some reason my husband and I were in one those spells when we bumped heads at some point each day. Perhaps it was hormones or lack of sleep; whatever the cause we weren’t in our best flow. On our last day we had a horrible fight in the middle of Garden of the Gods (oh, the irony of having a blow-up at Garden of the Gods!), in front of our kids, then drove back in silence until we arrived at our cabin and each retreated to our separate corners to continue to fester in our own dark projections. We finally, miraculously, found our way back to sanity, and after consciously choosing to express accountability in front of and to our kids, we re-entered the ease that normally flows through our marriage.
As I took a hike by myself later in the day, I marveled at the fact that, well into our second decade together, we’re still learning. We’re still growing. We’re still diving into deeper and deeper layers of our self-knowledge and knowledge of each other. Some part of me thought that we would have nailed this marriage thing by now. But when I step back and think of our marriage as a teenager, it makes sense that we fumble at times. As adults we don’t typically find our stride until our mid-thirties and even forties. Perhaps it’s the same with a marriage.
Yes, we’re still learning. My guess is that we’ll be learning for the rest of our lives. My hope is that, at some point on this marriage journey, we’ll each find enough internal equanimity that we can hold space for the others’ moods. We can do it now much more than we could years ago, but perhaps it will happen with more frequency when our kids are a bit older and the external space opens up.
I felt terrible that we fought in front of the kids until I reminded myself that it’s not necessarily the arguing that’s traumatic for kids as the lack of repair. I have clients who grew to adulthood believing that, because they never saw or heard their parents arguing, marriage didn’t include arguing. Every time they argue with their spouse now they believe that something is wrong. Or the more common scenario where parents fought a lot but never showed repair. As I shared with my son later that day, “I’m so sorry we argued and I’m sure that felt scary. I want you to know that it’s normal to fight when you’re married, and that Daddy and I try to learn from our fights so that we’re always growing. One day you might fight with your wife and that’s okay as long as you’re both accountable and learn from it.”
I’m sharing all of this because it’s of utmost important to me to dispell the illusion that, even when we’re on a path of deep personal and spiritual growth, there’s a “there.” We live under a massive cultural illusion that life is a mountain you climb and when you’ve done enough inner work, you will reach the top where no winds or storms of human folly will affect you. My soul-sister and colleague, Carrie, and I share the philosophy that it’s especially important to shatter the myth that therapists have somehow evolved their way above the tempests of psyche that emerge from the underground realms and seize you in a paroxysm of projection.
We are not immune. I am not immune. I don’t have all the answers. In fact, I don’t have any answers because I don’t believe single answers exist. I’m highly suspicious of “experts” who write books espousing their simple, three-step approach to a conflict-free marriage. It’s not that I don’t believe that there are tools and practices that can greatly aid in developing healthier ways of communicating. But anyone who says that it’s possible to have a conflict-free relationship, well, I just don’t buy it. And I believe that setting up that expectation is part of what entrenches the conflicts further, for as soon as you hook into the belief of, “This shouldn’t be happening,” it’s a quick downward spiral to shame.
If you’re in an intimate relationship with anyone – friend, child, parents, partner – you will butt heads. It’s helpful to learn skills, like walking away as soon as someone is triggered, but that’s not always possible. Sometimes you’re in the car or on vacation, and you’re forced to stay in proximity when one or both of you has been overtaken by the dark side. So you do your best to plod through it. You remind yourself that, as horribly awful as it is to be in conflict with someone you love, it’s also a sign that you’re in relationship with someone you love – which means that you have love in your life. And with love comes tension. With love comes extremely high levels of discomfort. With love comes projection, which can lead to a feeling of hate. And with love comes, if you take it as such, the opportunity to deepen your awareness of yourself and others, to learn how to give and receive love more deeply. It’s a rough path at times, for sure. I’m not sure why, but this seems to be the way that we grow best. When the storm passes, there your beloved sits, face clear and heart open, and you revel in gratitude for this path of love and learning and growing that you’re on together.