Activist, author, and preacher James Baldwin famously wrote, “Love does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does. Love is a battle, love is a war; love is a growing up.”
So many couples who we work with say things like…
- I love my husband but I’m not in love with him anymore.
- I do I love my wife! But I get so angry and I know that I can blame and ridicule her. But I do love her.
- I just don’t know if this is worth fighting for anymore.
- Relationships really shouldn’t be this hard.
- If it was *meant to be* it would be easier!
Many of my clients and colleagues know that one of the reasons that I feel so passionately about working with couples is that I intimately get how hard it can be. Marriage (going on 18 years next month) has been the hardest, most humble experience of my life — and I do this for a living! I have been a therapist for almost the entirety of my marriage so you would think that I would have a leg up in this whole thing! But in fact, and this is the humbling part…I do actually *know* how I should respond, behave, forgive, and act…but sometimes that choice feels excruciating because what seems to be so much easier is to blame, reject, defend, and argue.
Yes, I am human too.
I can honestly say, however, that now, after all of the years of marriage, all of the self-help books, all of the journaling, meditating and navel-gazing, all of the individual therapy and couples retreats — I FINALLY feel like I am ready, really ready, to be a good partner to my husband! It has taken almost 2 decades to learn just this:
I need to *grow up*.
Growing up is not for everyone, and believe me, I get it! I completely understand the sweet satisfaction of being right…of being righteous…of creating blissful distance so that there is no real possibility of closeness and vulnerability. I know I know…you might be saying:
“But Jenny! I *want* to be close! I want to be vulnerable but I can’t because she/he is______[fill in the blank with your complaint]”.
Right. I know.
This is where it gets tough…so just hang in there with me for a minute.
There are really just two options:
- You have actually chosen someone who is truly NOT available for closeness while you are TOTALLY open, relaxed, and ready for deep intimacy. In which case, maybe you DO need to find someone else or simply decide to be single. That may mean that you need to set a boundary and split. (Note: this is also love, so you know, because if love is “growing up” then you need to grow up enough to say, “this relationship is complete and has run its course....and rather than letting it drag on and on so that I eventually hate you and leave in a fit of anger, I am going to decide in a period of calm peace that this relationship is not a good fit for me anymore.”)
- While maybe your partner is NOT the most open and available person to you, you are likely not a peach either. You can get defensive, be guarded, push her/him away, be critical, or have some contempt as well. This then would be your work. How do you show up with some softness (read: vulnerability) when your beloved is being a jerk? How do you set a kind boundary without being an a**hole?
If you are crystal clear that you are actually “with the wrong person” [and I might recommend that you read this brilliant article by Alain de Botton about how you probably are with the wrong person] and want to leave, then grow up and do that.
If you are seeing the places where you have some of your own work to do, bravo! Own that work. Love yourself enough to grow these parts of you up which means getting outside of your comfort zone.
- kindness instead of criticism
- leaning in instead of leaning out
- relaxation instead of defensiveness
- willingness to try something new instead of doing what you know will create distance
- compassion for your partner’s hurt and pain rather than exasperation that they aren’t over it yet
Most of us were not taught how to grow up in our relationships. But to love our partner (and to love ourselves) means that we need to do the strenuous work of growing up.
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