My husband and I sitting on the bench at the creek that he made for me many years ago for Mother’s Day. I’m feeling tired, and I lay my head in his lap. Spring has finally arrived in Colorado, and the sun is dancing on the water, kissing our skin, holding us in golden light. We look at the creek and notice two ducks, the same pair who come to this patch of creek every year. We feel honored that they’re here.
“They mate for life,” I remind him. “Just like us.”
We kiss and snuggle and hold each other close. We talk about work and kids and nothing and everything. It’s blissful. Like a first date but a million times better because it’s supported by decades of living life together, working through the protective layers, clashing against each other’s defenses and shame and trauma, raising children, moving, job changes, loss, celebrations, joy, more medicinal laughter than I can quantify (he’s the funniest person I know and yet, as mind-blowing as it is to me now, there was a time when my defense didn’t let me see his humor), and always, always reaching for each other through the storms and landing on soft sandy beaches… together. And these days it’s more sandy beaches than storms.
Later I reflect, as I often do, on how we landed here. I think about the tsunami of relationship anxiety that claimed me a few months into our relationship, how I tried not to date him and even broke up with him for a day but how something kept pulling me back. Our love story didn’t look like any love story I had ever seen and yet, despite the anxiety and what felt like flames of hell at times, I knew that there was something profoundly beautiful between us: real love, true love, the love that Hollywood tries to emulate but can only hint it, so superficial is the telling of the glossy Disney love stories.
The fire analogy is not accidental for something had to be sacrificed in the flames in order for us to move the relationship forward. As the hosts of the podcast “This Jungian Life” share in episode 158 called The Phoenix: Life’s Transformative Fires, we must sacrifice something of ourselves if we’re going to step into the next stage of life, especially when it comes to intimate relationships:
“It’s in the fire of relationships, in the fire of love, that we are shaped and reshaped, that the parts we could not imagine submitting to change become something that we gladly submit to a suffering when it is sanctified by that deep, caring love for another person. And if we are unattached… or refuse to attach deeply enough, we are not called, and perhaps not even supported adequately to be able to tolerate the fires of change.
“In fact, I wonder sometimes for people who cannot seemingly get into a significant bonded relationship, if there is an avoidance of the Phoenix stage because they sense on some level that if they surrender to truly loving and truly bonding, they will not be able to escape a change process that will take something that they currently think is precious away from them.”
“It’s what love asks of all of us. True, deep love. And we may shy away from giving that.”
Relationship anxiety is the “shying away” from submitting to true, deep love. It’s the protective barrier that says, “My partner isn’t _______ enough and therefore I need to leave or keep myself separate in some way”, and it’s this protection that prevents us from laying parts of ourselves into the sacrificial fire, the crucible, the alchemical vessel of a relationship that has true love at its core.
When relationship anxiety shows up and bangs loudly at the doors of psyche we can ask, “What am I afraid to surrender? What am I being asked to let go of, to give up, to die to in order to show up fully for this relationship?”
It could be so many things.
It could be our fear of losing ourselves, losing our separateness, which often stems from growing up with an enmeshed relationship with a parent.
It could be our fear of losing the chance at the perfect fantasy partner who will validate our worthiness or lift us about the pain of life or make us feel alive, and what is being asked is that we name the fantasy and toss it into sacrificial fire.
It could be the single life, the single identity, and the illusory fantasies that accompany it (which our culture loves to glorify – ie Eat, Pray, Love syndrome).
It could be our hidden shame, that lining that lives inside most of us, that says, “I’m not enough. I was never enough. I didn’t fit in. I didn’t belong” that then becomes projected onto our partner in the form of relationship anxiety and can often be whittled down to the three-word sentence, “You’re not enough.” See this post for more on the word “enough.”
It could be our lifelong focus on caring what other people think and feeling afraid that others won’t approve of our choice of partner. This points to lack of self-trust, and it’s this self-doubt that needs to be tossed into the sacrificial fires.
It could be so many things. But, you see, none of them corroborate with the relationship anxiety voice that says, “The problem is my partner.” As long as you’re in a healthy, loving relationship, t’s not the relationship that needs to be thrown into the fire but the early pain around enmeshment and self-doubt and shame and expectations of perfection and unrealistic fantasies. And this isn’t a one-time ritual sacrifice but a process that takes place over many years, decades even, as we spiral more deeply into our pain and shame layers and learn how to reach for our partner as we help each other heal.
Relationship anxiety is the invitation and the portal that leads us into healing. It can be a harrowing journey at times, but also one of the most rewarding, for when you pull back the projection that says that the problem is your partner you have an opportunity to see your own old pain in high relief. And this is when true healing begins.
I’ve been working in the realm of relationship anxiety for twenty years, and have guided thousands of people through its rocky terrain through my Break Free From Relationship Anxiety course. I now lead this course live once a year, which includes titrating the dense material over eight weeks as I guide you via email and six group coaching calls where we’ll have a chance to connect voice-to-voice in real time and hear from others who are struggling in the same ways you’re struggling. There are few experiences more healing than gathering in safe, like-minded groups with an experienced guide facilitating the circle.
I want you to have what I have. I want you to be like two ducks on the creek. When I ask people who are struggling with relationship anxiety to share their vision of the future with their partner, it’s always some version of: “I want us to grow old together. I want to be sitting on a porch with my partner, watching our grandchildren play, holding hands, loving each other.” I want you to be able to make the necessary sacrifices that will allow you to snuggle into real love and grow the healthy, lifelong relationship that is your birthright. As the alchemists knew, we can take the lead of our experience – the weighty, scary, shadowy parts of ourselves – and, when worked with properly, transform it into gold.
A healthy, solid relationship is gold. The next round of the course begins this Saturday May 8th, 2021, spots are filling fast, and I look forward to guiding you there.
Here are the times for the six group coaching calls (subject to change).If you can’t make the live call you can listen to the recording immediately afterward:
Call 1: Tuesday May 11 at 11am ET
Call 2: Monday May 17th at 6:15pm ET
Call 3: Tuesday May 25th at 11am ET
Call 4: Monday May 31st at 6:15pm ET
Call 5: Tuesday June 8th at 11am ET
Call 6: Monday June 14th 6:15pm ET