I am sitting in the same seat on the same porch at about the same time of day as I was last fall when I decided to move to Kansas City. I was journaling at the time and I wrote about the sunlight (which is shining today), the chickens wandering around my feet (they’ve since been eaten by a neighborhood dog), and, most importantly, reflecting on the relationships I have here in KC (which, like the sun, are still here and, unlike the chickens, were not eaten by a dog). That moment was the crystallization of an important thought: the community and the relationships here feed my soul. So why not make the move?

Relationships were on my mind a lot then as they are still today. While I was conscious of relationships during my married years, the end of my partnership obviously stirred up a lot more thoughts and emotions on the matter. As I was sitting on the porch here in KC thinking about the relationships around me I was also thinking about the lessons gleaned from my marriage and subsequent divorce. In other words, I was thinking about relationships of the romantic, platonic, friendship, professional, tangental, etc. variety.

I now offer up, for your consideration, those thoughts… which, admittedly, are largely in the context of romantic love though the lessons are applicable to all relationships.

Growing as a person to be a better partner

One of the most dangerous fallacies of any relationship is that you need to “try and be a better partner”. If you attempt to grow as a partner in order to be a better person, you will ultimately feel trapped and therefore likely fail… or at least become very unhappy. However, if you grow as an individual in order to bring a more dynamic self to a relationship in the form of a better partner, I think the sky’s the limit. This is a key distinction to consider.

I like the analogy of the equilateral triangle with each bottom angle representing a partner and the top angle representing, in this case, the relationship. If you grow as your own separate angle while all the while keeping an eye on that top angle, you will grow together. If one angle grows faster or slower than the other, you have disharmony.

New Love and the Higher Self

I attended a class on Dr. Gary Chapman’s “Five Love Languages” and came away with a very interesting perspective on new love. The questions were, “Why do we feel so giddy and excited in a new relationship? What happens to that feeling over time?” The answer provided by the moderator is that we show up constantly in a new relationship as our “Higher Self”. That is to say, we are on our best behavior and we are projecting the best self that we can project. Over time, due largely to the necessity of living life and dealing with situations that challenge our Higher Selves, we can lose the ability (or even the desire) to continue showing up in this higher state. The question then becomes, “I liked this person’s Higher Self but do I like the many other sides of them enough to make a go of this?” Another question is, “How can I create an environment where I am eager to show up as my Higher Self as often as possible while also encouraging my partner to do the same?” If asked, I think this latter question bodes very well for a relationship.

Growing

I think that we tend to grow more when we are not in a relationship than we do in relationships. This has to do with the simple notion of comfort (or, to be harsher, laziness) that relationships engender along with the aforementioned issue of viewing yourself (and therefore your growth as a person) through the lens of your relationship. When we are alone, we are focused on ourselves, or “stuff”, and our personal journey. That clarity naturally offers a better opportunity to grow, should we choose to take it.

Clearly this also relates to my first point: the goal of growing as a person and striving to live your life in a holistic way naturally has an effect on relationships. Relationships can be enablers of detrimental, stunting activity and this, sadly, is I think the norm rather than the exception. Imagine a relationship where growth, positive change, and “working on your stuff” is the norm and settling into a torpor is the exception. Imagine a relationship where you are inspired by your partner’s words or deeds and you realize as a result that you are settling (aka not “working on your stuff”). Then, rather than take it personally, this inspires you to continue to grow.

But, if it is ultimately true that you grow more alone than in the comfort of a relationship, where then is the balance? I was speaking with Fred, my very wise new friend, about this and he gave two very sage pieces of perspective:

1) The ideal relationship is one where each person can come together and then comfortably pull apart rather than push up against one another constantly. He made hand gestures that flowed back and forth like waves while making his first point. Then, to make his second point, he pressed his fingers together. I immediately thought of old gnarled, twisted hands… the kind of hands that have been pushing against something for too long to the point of being misshapen.

2) True love for another is the feeling that it is a privilege to care so deeply for someone else and to allow that love to open up yourself more fully to yourself and to the world*. It is the constant desire to see your partner come to their fullest realization, their highest self and to not want to change someone but rather to watch and support the beautiful change as it unfolds… even if “going away” is part of the unfolding. This kind of relationship exists between parents and their children; you want to see the beautiful person you brought into the world become more beautiful and it is an absolute privilege to be a part of your child’s journey.

*Carl Jung believed that it is the interplay of the masculine and feminine energies (which by no means implies a heterosexual relationship as I think that both genders exhibit both energies in varying intensities at different times and often in direct contrast to a partner’s energy) as well as the act of moving the shadow self (that part that we all have come out when the Higher Self recedes) into the light that helps us to explore our unconscious. And the more we are in touch with the unconscious, the more we are in touch with ourself.

Unconditional Love

A few days ago, the words “unconditional love” came up three times. My dear friend Lily taught me to pay attention to anything that appears three or more times. The question I asked myself was: “What do I need to learn about unconditional love?” The answer, as it turns out, is that I need to learn about unconditional love… for myself. Now raise your hand if you unconditionally love yourself. While I can’t obviously see you, I would guess that most (if not all of you) kept your hand down.

Just as I feel it take whole people to create a world that is whole (we do, after all, have centuries of evidence of what fractured people do to the world), I think that it takes an unconditional self-lover* to truly be an unconditional lover of others. Parents know what it feels like to unconditionally love their children; as a teacher I know how it feels to unconditionally love students. Does anyone know what it feels like to unconditionally love your friends? To unconditionally love your pet? To unconditionally love a lover, however, takes showing up as unconditional love… for yourself first.

*”Unconditional Self-Lover” would make a great t-shirt of bumper sticker.

If most (or all) of us do not unconditionally love ourselves, how do we get to that point? I think that this work can be done in a relationship–nay, should be done in a healthy relationship–if each partner is comfortable with letting one another come together, pull apart, and come back together again. Why the need for separation and renewal? Loving partners, as I said above, are best able to show up in a role of support and genuine interest in seeing their lover achieve their highest state of possibility and it is very often that partner’s perspective which pulls us away from the shadows of self-doubt and self-hatred and back to the light of our Higher Self. To borrow again from Jung, when we delve into the unconscious through the interplay of masculine/feminine/shadow/light in a relationship, we come together. If we stay apart–or out of a relationship–too long, we are not necessarily encouraged to do the unconscious work. Like everything else I’m saying, this is obviously not universally true. Plenty of people do a lot of work on their own and plenty of people do no work in a relationship. I am simply pointing out that the dynamic of intense, focused interaction with others bodes well for self-development.

I also want to note for those of you with a spiritual perspective that the universe is full of unconditional love… no matter what you choose to call that Oneness, that Spirit, that bearded Dude sitting on a cloud (no, not Jeff Bridges… or is it?). Duane Elgin says: “To experience the subtle and refined resonance of the Mother Universe is to experience unconditional love.” So, a question for anyone on a spiritual path is: are you aligning with unconditional love and listening to a universe that actively wants you to be whole, thereby being a part of the whole? I hope your answer is yes.

It’s not you, it’s me

How often do we bring the baggage of our old relationships–the reactions, expectations, fears, doubts, disappointments–into a new relationship? As the giddy-new-love-Higher-Self self dissolves into the real-world-testing-me-have-you-met-my-shadow-self self, we tend to start to react with our old patterns. This inability to change our reactions and behaviors in light of a new situation is something that as been on my mind a lot… and I think it is applicable to a range of emotional states in our life.

One of the beauties of our modern age is the exponential growth of neuroscience. As we watch the brain’s reactions, we see the telltale burst of neurological energy. Put simply, our brain is hardwired to follow certain neurological roadmaps in response to stimuli. Over the years, we’ve created these synaptic connections (usually unconsciously) and it is these well-trodden paths that our brains take us down when we react to anything. Someone calls you fat, you react on a deep level the same way you did in junior high. Someone disappoints you or doesn’t call when they say they will; you react emotionally to past experiences irrespective of your current reality. The challenge of learning new reactions to old behavioral stimuli then is twofold:

First, we need to consciously note when we’re reacting from old behavioral patterns. This means that we know that even though our new partner is kinder and more open than our old partner, we react the same when they say or do something that takes us back to an emotional time that was unhealthy. We know this, acknowledge this, and learn from it. The next time that emotion rears its ugly head, we’ve created one new divergence to the old path… a divergence that takes us to a healthier place.

Secondly, we need to allow ourselves to fail because the remapping of behaviors takes time. One of the banes of our existence is our inability to forgive ourselves for “failing”. We fall off the diet/exercise/journalling/meditating/yoga/quit-smoking wagon once and we stop. We react with unwarranted anger to our partner because their actions have sparked a dormant hurt and then we beat ourselves up. If remapping habits, emotional reactions, and behaviors takes time–and failure–why can’t we accept that an go a bit easier on ourselves?

The Only Commonality in All Your Failed Relationships is… You

So what happens when you fundamentally realize that the partnership you are in is not right for you? This whole supportive come together, go away, rinse, repeat model sure does sound nice but the reality is that 99% of us have more failed relationships in the past that we do success stories. What the hell happened? And how can we learn to love/trust/open up/try again?

The winter after my divorce, I heard from Traci, my college girlfriend, for the first time since she unceremoniously dumped me during the middle of my student teaching in my senior year of college. I don’t use the word “hate” unless I really mean it and I can truly say that I hated her for many years afterward. I used to create feelings of anxiety in my heart and head just imagining accidentally running into her in a store, coffee shop, or restaurant. She was the first to truly teach me about heartbreak. The chief reason for this is the simple fact that I loved her more than I knew I could love at the time and she still left. For my part, all those whom I’ve loved deeply, truly, and (almost) unconditionally have all broken up with me. Every one. Does that make me reluctant to play the game again? Yes. Do I feel deeply disheartening? Yes and no. Do I wonder why that keeps happening and plan to work on it? Absolutely.

When Traci contacted me, I was finally in a place where I didn’t hate her anymore. It took another heartbreak–that of my divorce–to give me the perspective I needed to be able to communicate again with Traci. In fact, had she contacted me even a month or two before she did, I would have said something to the effect of, “Nice to hear that you are alive and well. Please do not ever contact me again.” But I was ready and she either sensed that or got a message from the universe… which could be the same thing.

The beauty of this reconnection is that Traci gave me a piece of perspective that brought my love life into crystal clarity. She quoted a colleague who said (and I am paraphrasing liberally here):

When you realize that your dharma* and your partner’s dharma are no longer in alignment, the challenge is to extract your dharmas in the least painful way possible.

*Dharma, in my interpretation here, means the higher path we’re called to walk, the divine purpose we were incarnated to fulfill or, in non-spiritual mumbo jumbo talk, the course in life that will make us happiest and most complete.

This is the harsh truth of human growth: sometimes we grow apart as our journeys continue and there ain’t a damn thing to do about it. And then there is the pain, loss, hurt. My aforementioned wise friend Fred says (paraphrasing again):

We project ourselves in a relationship and that is pretty easy to do. In fact, we project ourselves into the world all the time. However, when a relationship ends, he have to go about collecting all those projections of ourself and then sit with them. That is hard, painful work.

Sometimes we sit with those projections and say, “This is a great part of me! Why could they appreciate that?!?” or “This was a crappy part of me; a projection of my shadow side that was unfair to place on them.” We are naturally drawn to look at these projections and judge their effectiveness in the relationship. As a result, we are judging ourselves and we often don’t like all that we see. This theory lends credence to the notion I mentioned earlier that we grow more alone that we do together: post relationship, we have only ourselves–and our recollected relationship projections–to sit with and ruminate. If we view it all correctly, this becomes a place for growth and not a place for self-loathing. While we need the shadow side (the doubt and dislike and disappointment in ourselves), we need to spend more time taking that shadow self into the light. Unconditional love for ourselves doesn’t mean that we are perfect; rather, it is that tension between the light and the dark, that acceptance of our strengths and weaknesses, that form the basis of unconditional love.

None of these truths makes licking the wounds of a breakup any easier; I know that truth more clearly than I know pretty much anything else… and I feel like I keep getting reminded of it. But, I also know that the beauty of a relationship, the interplay of energy, the work we need to do on our shadow selves, and the deep honor of being able to love someone deeply and unconditionally (starting, of course, with ourselves) is not something to miss out on in life. Sure, it is worth foregoing at times, especially if the dharmas no longer line up. But, because it is in many ways easier to be alone that to work on yourself through a relationship, it is easier at times to take this path of least resistance. Yet, quoting the late, great Utah Phillips here, “the path of least resistance is what makes the river croaked”*. Therefore, for my part, a relationship is where I want to return to every time.

* My friend Amy pointed me to the source of this quote:  “It is the path of least resistance that makes rivers and men crooked.” ~B.J. Palmer (Thanks Amy!)