“Shinnying up the mast of our selves in order to escape from the pain all around us, we succeed only in reinforcing our not-so-secret feeling of dread. Alone at the top of the mast, we remain tangled in our tangles” (Epstein, 2013).
Just to be clear: all people hurt. It’s what makes humans human. Therefore, to a greater or lesser extent, both people suffer when things go pear-shaped in a relationship. The Buddha said that the first step in understanding ourselves is to understand that suffering exists. You suffer and I suffer.
The degree of discontent will vary from person to person, and it’s not always easy to align our values, hopes and dreams with those of our partners. Importantly, it’s not really about whose pain is more ‘valid’; the simple truth is that suffering is an interdependent and interpersonal experience. If one of you is in pain and hurting, so is the other.
‘Oh no,’ you say, ‘she’s not suffering like I am!’ Maybe no or maybe yes. It is true that people have amazing techniques and strategies to hide and conceal their pain. Some avoid conflict at all costs, choosing to exist in a false sense of positivity, some retreat to the television or another distraction. Some drink or take drugs (or both). Some devote themselves to their children or work; and some rage, their fury all too evident, anything to avoid the inevitability of self.
For example, let’s say one partner suffers from a sense of abandonment. Because of this, they worry that at any given moment, their partner might up and leave them. They can find no sure footing, their relationship is no anchor, more akin to a ship on a tumultuous sea. Every conflict triggers an overwhelming and frightening feeling. In therapeutic terms, we call this a ‘crossover’ (Leavitt, 2010) issue and while it does not arise directly because of the relationship, it is very much a part of it.
As mentioned above, we all feel disconnect and ennui from time to time. Because of this, it’s sometimes useful to reframe those thoughts and feelings. A bit like noticing that your stereo has been playing on repeat… It’s time to change the music!
- Step one involves acknowledging the main issues and difficulties facing your relationship. Maybe write them down. Be patient and earnest.
- Step two requires you to be honest about the pain you are feeling. This is a hard thing to do. Be gentle with yourself as you do this encounter work.
- Step three is facing up to the fact that many of your dreams for your relationship have been unrealized, many of your expectations unmet, many of your illusions about your partner shattered. Of course you are in pain.
And the last step, step four, is the hardest. You need to see the truth of your partner’s pain. Most of us hate the thought of our partner being in physical pain – we shudder at the thought of a serious accident or a terrible disease. Yet we will blindly ignore the psychological and emotional pain that is crushing them from the inside.
Can you be open and honest with yourself and acknowledge that your partner is also hurting? And does that make it a little easier to feel like you want to do something about it? (Harris, 2009)
Recognising and accepting your mutual suffering is the cornerstone of being able to rebuild your relationship and move from rupture to repair. It is hard and delicate work, but it creates a new lens through which to see the experience of being up close and intimate with another human being, one who is as complex, as beautiful and as terrible as you.
Please don’t hesitate to get in touch if the above post resonates for you. I work extensively with gay, lesbian and heterosexual couples; indeed, love does not discriminate.
“Transform your thoughts but remain as you are”, Tenzin Gyatso