On our way home from a lovely Christmas day with my family who lives about an hour away from us it started to snow. At first it was a wet sleet, but within a few minutes it thickened to a snow storm, and before we knew it we were driving through a white-out. The temperature dropped quickly, the slick roads turned icy, and everyone’s speed slowed to a crawl. We were driving in treacherous conditions.
I doubt anyone enjoys driving in those conditions, but being from California I seem to have a particularly strong aversion to driving in snow and ice. So I sat quietly next to my husband, who was intently focusing on the road, and sent out prayers for us and everyone around us: Please let us all arrive safely at our destinations. We’re driving in treacherous conditions. We passed a car turned upside down on the side of the road, then a policeman on his way. Treacherous conditions. Please let us get home safely. The phrase kept popping into my mind: Treacherous conditions.
And then I thought: Life is treacherous. Being a human being in a body is a risky endeavor. It’s treacherous primarily because of this thing called death, and because there is no way of possibly knowing when that thing will arrive. It’s treacherous because we experience death in many forms, one of which is the loss that accompanies loving. Life is a risk. Love is a risk. When we hand our hearts over to anyone – friend, partner, child – we do so knowing that our hearts could break. No, it’s more than that. We do so knowing that our hearts will break. We will eventually leave or be left by everyone we love, even if that parting is after a long life. It’s a searingly painful thought.
The more sensitive you are, the more aware you are of this inevitable and heartbreaking reality. And if you haven’t learned how to do otherwise, you will reflexively erect walls around your heart to protect against this truth. Sometimes the walls are more obvious and come in the form of creating emotional distance or leaving a relationship altogether. But sometimes – and often in the best of relationships where the risk is highest – the walls arrive through the back door with statements like, “I don’t love him enough” or “I don’t find her attractive” or “He’s not intellectual enough” or “We’re not on exactly the same page regarding religion.”
What’s essential to understand when you’re dealing with relationship anxiety is that these are all defense mechanisms, and that at the core of every single one of these intrusive thoughts is the fear of loss: of self, other, or control. The sentinel part of you – the hypervigilent scout who sets out in front of the tribe to scan the horizon for danger – is on high alert as soon as it realizes that your heart is vulnerable to being hurt. This may happen once the fear of “Does she really love me?” flips to “Do I really love her?” or it may happen randomly (or seemingly randomly). It doesn’t really matter how or when relationship anxiety begins. What matters is that you call the fear out on the mat as quickly as possible and name it for what it is so that “I’m terrified of getting hurt” doesn’t morph into “I don’t really love him or her.” It’s infinitely easier to deal with the core fear than it is to untangle its offshoots.
The sentinel is searching for the answer to the million dollar question: Is my anxiety/doubt a warning sign that something is wrong and I need to leave my relationship or is it a sign of something else? The million dollar answer is that it’s both. There is actual danger in your relationship because intimacy is inherently risky, so the warning system is accurate. Does it mean that you need to leave? No, not unless there are real red flag issues that are obvious in the here-and-now. And the anxiety/doubt is a sign that you’re ready to deal with the deeper layers of unshed grief from past hurts, unhealthy beliefs about love, romance, attraction, and marriage, and the fear of the unknown that intimate, committed relationships activate.
The drive home reminded me of what I struggled with after last year’s flood devastated our land: how I longed for certainty in the aftermath of the loss and destruction, and how my mind tried to convince me to move in order to find it. And then the deep-down body knowledge that there is no certainty; life is uncertain. We often hear these days that we’re living in uncertain times, but the truth is that every era in history has struggled with uncertainty because it’s simply the nature of life. And the only way to remain sane in the face of this somewhat insane arrangement is to learn to become more comfortable with uncertainty.
One way to do this is to learn to ride the waves of emotion that surge through you – to learn how to dive head first into the deep end of the heart. We find solace and comfort in learning to open to each new moment, including the feelings that it brings. The waves of the heart guide us toward accepting of uncertainty, if we learn to ride them. About a month after the flood I wrote in my journal:
How can I remain on land that has betrayed me? How can I ever feel safe again? But fear of the future is a mask against the grief that still floods up in every footstep, in every morning sight of our broken land. If I run I’m running from grief, from everything I’ve ever taught, from the woman who sits at the creek’s edge still and beckons me into her arms. Are we safe? I ask. There is no safety, she smiles, laughs, except the safety in your soul. Dwell there. Immerse yourself in the living waters of your grief – full body naked soul self – and you will know safety. I sit down at the edge, lay my body on the soft and muddy earth, and cry.
I share this with you now: immerse yourself in your hidden places, in whatever longs to be known that you’ve buried deep inside of you. Life is treacherous, indeed, and love even moreso. There is no certainty and there are no guarantees. The sentinel scans the horizon looking for danger and it finds it, and then believes it’s time to run. If things are pretty good, there’s no reason to run; running will change the location or the person but what’s being asked of you will find you wherever you are and no matter who you’re with. The safety is in accepting that what’s being asked is nothing less than a hero’s journey: to enter the dark forest of fear, swashbuckle your way through the vines and sit under the canopy of trees to release your unshed grief, examine your expectations and beliefs, dig deep and deeper still until the wellsprings of your core, shining self emerge and you realize that it was all worth it, this treacherous business of being human, because it’s how we learn how to surrender, how to have faith, how to connect to something deeper and wiser than the present moment, and ultimately, always, how to love.