We’re tested in many ways in this life. At each transition, each tenuous juncture where the familiar lifestyle, identity, thought processes or feelings fall away, we’re offered an opportunity to face our small mind – our ego, programmed, fear-based self – and learn ways to bring compassion and curiosity to our inner world. In indigenous cultures, the male adolescent members are often initiated into manhood by venturing into the forest and facing their physical and mental fears in solitude. Women are tested through the initiation of pregnancy, childbirth, and new motherhood. Marriages are tested when the build-up of unmet needs, fears or expectations – realistic or otherwise – reach a breaking point.
But it seems that the most common way that the modern mind is tested is through the onslaught of anxiety and panic. We can cruise through our lives for years, comfortably stuffing anything into the shadow spaces of our souls, but eventually the soul reaches capacity and the anxiety spills up and out into consciousness. This is when people find me, and it’s most often around the excruciating initiation of relationship anxiety.
Relationship anxiety generally manifests in two ways, either of which can occur at any point in the relationship, from early on or years into marriage. The first brand of relationship anxiety occurs in a defining moment when the thought “Do I love my partner enough or at all” enters the person’s mind. Prior to this thought, the person describes their relationship as “wonderful, loving, everything I’ve ever wanted, amazing love between us, and pretty much perfect.” They often had a long honeymoon period and a very healthy relationship. The early stages of this type of relationship anxiety are characterized by the desperate need to “get back the feelings,” as the loss of the in-loveness feels like their heart has been cut out of their chest.
The second type of relationship anxiety occurs more gradually and may have even been present in the very early stages of the relationship. This type of anxiety is characterized by a pervasive feelings of doubt, lack of attraction, the sense that you’re really “just friends” and you’re only staying in the relationship because you’re too scared to be alone. This can be particularly disconcerting because, in a culture that exalts the in-love feelings as the sole indicator that you’re with the “right” partner, the lack of those feelings in the beginning stages can easily spell doubt and doom (until you learn better). I often receive emails from people asking me if my work and e-courses apply even if they had doubt from the beginning. The answer is obviously yes. Anxiety is anxiety; it doesn’t matter when or where it hits or even how it began. What matters is how you address it once it’s here.
In either case (and if your anxiety falls somewhere between these two examples this applies to you as well; the Wounded Self is perpetually attempting to convince you that you’re an exception : )), living with anxiety often plummets people into what is referred to “dark night of the soul.” This is when everything familiar falls away and you’re invited (or dragged) to let go aspects of yourself that aren’t serving you, die several deaths, and eventually emerge into a new, more compassionate, wiser version of yourself. You can resist the call. You can numb the pain. Or you can walk through the center of the fear-storm and surrender to the most transformational ride of your life. As Elizabeth Lesser writes about dark night of the soul in “Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow” (and I strongly advise you NOT to read this book if you’re struggling with relationship anxiety):
Our lives ask us to die and to be reborn every time we confront change – change within ourselves and change in the world. When we descend all the way down to the bottom of a loss, and dwell patiently, with an open heart, in the darkness and pain, we can bring back up with us the sweetness of life and the exhilaration of inner growth. When there is nothing left to lose, we find the true self – the self that is whole, the self that is enough, the self that no longer looks to others for definition, or completion, or anything but companionship on the journey.
The key defining factor between those who “pass” the test of relationship anxiety and move on to experience real love and sustaining joy in their relationships and those that don’t is the deep desire to learn about and address the fear. There are those who remain committed to the belief that they wouldn’t be struggling so much with someone else, which is really another way of abdicating responsibility for their fear-based and wounded self. There are those who desperately want someone to fix it for them, some perfect therapist, psychic or healer who will give them the answers and left them out of their suffering. Again, this is another way that the person remains a victim to their fear and refuses the call to become a fear-warrior.
And then there are those who take on the challenge. There are hundreds of fear-warriors on my e-course forum, women and men who are ready to attend to their inner world with complete responsibility and, in some cases, even a sense of adventure. Here’s a recent post from an E-Course member who is meeting the call (quoted with permission):
I was doing what my therapist told me not to do (good thing I never listen) and googling all sorts of crap ‘what is love’, ‘I dont love my fiance’ ‘falling out of love’ etc, and stumbled upon one of Sheryl’s blogs. I am, and always will be, grateful. I prayed the other night and thanked god for not granting me the wish ‘Please take it away’. What I got instead was the means to take it away myself, meaning that I’ll never be at sea again. I am my own saviour (with a little help from Sheryl) and that is the greatest gift I could receive. I saw a friend last night, a fellow ‘crazy loon’ as we call ourselves. She was amazed at the difference in me. I seemed calmer, in control, happier, more sure. Not sure of how much I love him, not sure that Im making the right choice, even. But sure that this is the loving choice. More sure that I know what love is. More sure that I have it within my power to change, and not be buffered by the winds of emotion. I’ve still got a looooong way to go, but I know that I can get there. I no longer dread my wedding day, or my honeymoon. I accept the challenge – bring it on!
This is what it takes: the recognition that you, and you alone, can attend to your suffering, be your own savior and the commitment to show up every day, several times a day, listening to what you’re telling yourself, tuning in to how it makes you feel, and making a choice to ride compassion into the truth of loving thoughts. When we’re earning how to replace the constant running commentary of self-judgement with self-love, sometimes we have to dialogue every hour to attend to the fear-based thoughts, stand up to them, make room for them, and replace them with the truth. If this isn’t our modern day initiation process, I don’t know what is. It’s hard, yes. It’s supposed to be hard. That’s the definition of initiation.
Like all initiations, when we’re in the thick swamp of fear and anxiety we have many, many moments where we feel like we can’t go on. This is normal and the time to take a deep breath, sound the alarm to your circle of support (for many people on my e-course the forum is the only place they feel safe enough to talk about the depth of their anxiety surrounding their relationship and, as such, becomes their lifeline in the early stages), and then find the courage and strength to keep going. Often it’s knowing that others have made it through and are now happily committed to their partners that provides this courage and strength. When we’re enduring dark night of the soul, we need to know two things: that we’re not alone and that there will be a light once we emerge through the dark forest.
The wounded self will, of course, try everything in its power to convince you to leave. The entire function of the wounded self/ego/small mind is to avoid emotional risk at all cost and to protect you from the possibility of pain. There is nothing in our lives that creates more risk of emotional pain than intimate relationships with other human beings, and it’s for this reason that the wounded self makes such a valiant effort to convince you to run. Just when your fear-warrior makes the commitment to face this battle, you’ll often hear statements like, “You’re only staying because you’re too scared to be alone” or “You’re not leaving because you’re too scared to hurt him” or, if the wedding plans are in motion, “You’re staying because it’s too hard to disappoint too many people.” And if you Google about your thoughts (which I HIGHLY recommend you DO NOT), you’ll find plenty of support on the side of the wounded self. Our culture generally doesn’t understand relationship anxiety and adheres staunchly to the “doubt means don’t” philosophy.
Are you ready to learn and grow? Are you ready to rise to the immense challenge of learning effective ways of addressing your thoughts and meeting your fear with compassion? Are you ready to become a fear-warrior? If you’re here, it’s likely because you’ve received the calling. When you recognize that this calling is an invitation that will help you grow, you’ll see it as the blessing that it is and find the courage to dive in, sit in the darkness, and eventually emerge as a closer version of the person you’re meant to be.