Many of you found your way to my work through the portal of relationship anxiety, and because you were able to work through enough of your anxiety to say yes to your partner, you’re now 5 or 10 or 20 years into your marriage. Some of you have children. Others have moved or walked through the loss of a parent together or faced a medical diagnosis.
The sheen of the honeymoon, if there ever was one, wore off a long time ago, and you’re plunged into the middle of life’s ever-changing currents. There have been profound joys, I’m sure, and also profound challenges. You’ve seen the worst of your partner and they’ve seen the worst of you. And you may have wondered from time to time if you should leave.
On our way home from our vacation over winter break I was listening to Pema Chodron’s audio series through Sounds True called Getting Unstuck . As always, Pema is funny, grounded, humble and deeply wise in her teachings, but one point stood out for me in particular when she says,
“It’s a kind of ordinary situation that sentient beings have almost in the DNA this habituation to moving way from the present moment. Probably the most basic level is we think about things all the time and it takes us away. We spend a lifetime strengthening the habit of distraction and leaving. We get a lot of comfort from leaving: lost in thoughts; fantasies; plans. It gives us a lot of security and ground… we’re often running with our thoughts, our speech, and our action. We leave. This habit to be elsewhere is addressed by learning to stay.”
She’s talking about the myriad ways that we flee from the discomfort of the present moment: ruminating, reaching for food or another substance, fantasizing about a better situation. I’m applying this to relationships and condensing my teaching today into one word:
Stay, as in: Don’t leave. Don’t walk out the door. Regard escape-hatch fantasies as simply that: a fantasy.
Stay, as in: Become curious about the hard emotional triggers that will inevitably show up in long-term relationships.
Stay, as in: Do whatever it takes to bring your relationship to the next level of closeness and commitment, including seeking individual or couple therapy when necessary (often both).
Why am I such a big fan of staying? Because leaving has become too popular. Too many people are shattering the sacred container of monogamy or buying into the seductive cultural message that says, “Don’t settle. You can have it all!”
To settle is to settle in. It’s to say, “I am here. Here I am. I’m not going anywhere even when it gets hard.”
To settle is to say YES to the imperfection of relationships and the incompleteness of life. As I said to a client the other day (and we both had a good laugh), “It’s a real bummer that life is incredibly imperfect!” Not only are our relationships imperfect, but so are our children, families, careers, city, and everything else that comprises this life.
To settle is to stay. Stay here, in this one moment with all of its pain or loneliness or joy or frustration and understand that committed relationships are one of our most potent vessels for working through our wounds and growing our capacity to love and be loved.
Is marriage always easy? No. No way. If you’re in it with your whole heart it will tumble you like rocks in a raucous river. But when you stay for the long haul, the jagged places of your heart become smooth, just like the river rocks. Irritation softens as compassion grows. The gaps between you shorten as intimacy widens.
There is hardly anything more beautiful than two people staying and committing to their own inner work and the work of the marriage. Flowers bloom in the shared garden. Gratitude weaves throughout the day. Connection and safety, the offshoots of healthy attachment, become our steady foundational stones in the ever-changing tides of this life. What a gift this is, and how easily and too often people throw it away.
What have you learned by staying? Share below.
Note: As always, my work with relationships hinges on the assumption that you’re in a healthy relationship with shared core values, no red flags, and you both have a willingness to learn and grow. If you’re unsure about what I mean by red flags, you can learn more here and in my relationship anxiety course.