It’s been a confusing time lately – and that’s putting it lightly. I’ve fallen over (literally, and still have the bruises), I’ve fallen down (metaphorically, and am not entirely sure that I’m back upright yet), my very existence seems to have been causing a lot of pain and mayhem for the ones I love (we’ll return to that later), and I haven’t been at all confident that I have much sense, let alone good sense, guiding my actions and choices. Not the greatest place to be offering life advice perhaps, and yet I feel like I have something important to say.
Maybe it’s that by finally experiencing all elements of a recurring situation, it makes enough sense to me that I feel justified writing about it. Perhaps it’s the underlying belief that there is wisdom to be found in everything we go through, and that we’re only given the lessons we most need driving me to find meaning in the dismay I’ve been almost drowning in and turn it into something illuminating. Making sense of myself and my life is, after all, often why I write. It might even be as simple as that the medication I’m now taking is starting to positively impact the receptors in my brain, and the reduction of daily anxiety and crippling depression is helping me think straight again, so my mind is turning on concepts rather than focusing on my daily survival.
Whatever it is, there’s been this idea rattling around for quite some time, and at long last, it seems to be taking hold in a way that has my heart and psyche feeling the potential for expansion again.
At this point, I want to give you a content warning. In the context of conveying this revelatory process, I will be talking about mental illness, pregnancy, abortion and conflict. If any of these topics are triggers for you, please think carefully before reading on. If you’re one of my regular readers, you’re probably used to the way that I write – it’s brutally open, and you might expect that from me. You’d also know I’m writing purely from my own viewpoint, because that’s all I’m equipped to do. I have learned undeniably that writing this way is my gift, and I feel I have an obligation to continue to do so. I hope that the love I imbue my writing with will protect you as you read. But I should also tell you that you’re in for probably 30 – 60 minutes of quite intense information. If you choose to read on, which I sincerely hope you do, I recommend making yourself a nice cup of tea, or pouring a big glass of wine. We’re going on an epic journey together. I’m not sure that it’s a happy ending yet, although there’s a lot of good to come from it.
Now, usually when I write, I do so in a fairly linear way, often because for the most part I understand my content before it hits the page. This time round, something different has happened. The act of writing has released a more complex interaction of concepts than I first suspected. I was setting out with the intention of expanding upon an existing idea that has been both powerful and perplexing for me, the second of Don Miguel Ruiz‘s Four Agreements, Don’t Take Anything Personally. As I began to explain my evolution with it, I realised there were several other key resources creating an intertextual web, and without including them, I’d be at a loss to get my point across meaningfully. So as well as sharing my experience, I’ll be delving into some pretty emotionally complex ideas that have informed my experience.
If you’re already familiar with these writings (possibly because I’ve sent them to you in a moment of ‘helpfulness’), or if you’re happy to just go on the adventure with me, feel free to read on without any further engagement. But if you’re one of the readers who come here in search of a way to grow, as some of you tell me you do, then I highly recommend you take some time to read all of the pieces I’ll link to in this post. And if you’re someone who wants to be close to me, then I implore you to read them, because what I’ve realised through writing this post is that all these years I’ve been recommending articles to my loved ones when it seemed they could benefit from the content, I now see that what I’ve actually been doing is asking people to read them in order to reach a better understanding of me. I’m often at a loss as to how to convey the information without my loved ones absorbing it for themselves. It’s self-serving, I know, but I am finally willing to accept that it’s not just ok, but necessary, to serve myself lovingly and wholeheartedly in this way. I’ve been learning that this focus means a greater likelihood of serving my readers too, so I plan to continue in this vein. These are core values and practices I’ve incorporated into my daily life. They inform my choices and my behaviour, and without that prior knowledge, I’m now coming to see how hard my behaviour can be to accept.
Returning to the original inspiration for this post, Miguel Ruiz is a loving and compassionate author who penned a modern adaptation of the principles of ancient Mexican Toltec wisdom. The idea binding all four of the agreements is that we create our experience of life through our thoughts, which in turn inform our beliefs, and therefore our reality through our actions. It’s been a life changing tome for me, and because of its value, I routinely point people in its direction. Yes, I’ve also been asking people to read it to reach a better understanding of me, of some of the key values I’ve integrated into my daily approach. They seem straightforward to me, but are often the reason for great confusion in my relationships, so I share them in the hope that we can then be working from the same page. I believe these principles, whatever form you may come to understand them in, are fundamental to more constructive ways of loving each other.
The thing is, while the idea of not taking anything personally in itself is simple to the point of almost being able to gloss over as common knowledge, it’s so profoundly powerful that without reading the entire book several times, sitting with it, and practicing the agreement for some time, it’s very hard to come to a true understanding of it. And that’s coming from someone with a strong commitment to personal evolution, who resonated with the concept immediately. In my experience, even the people I know to be fans of The Four Agreements, rarely practice this particular one in the way that I’m starting to see that it can be.
The symbolic nature of the book means that concrete examples of how to best practice the agreement are somewhat lacking. Miguel Ruiz sums it up by focusing on realising that nothing anybody says or does is about anyone besides themselves, and teaches that coming to terms with this leads to greater personal freedom – if we’re not the reason for people’s responses, then we don’t need to take them on. He cites examples such as someone insulting a stranger on the street being about their own low self-worth or bad mood, or someone shouting at their loved one because they’ve had a hard day. He talks about how the root cause of such behaviour occurs because we’re driven to release the tension of emotional ‘poison’ we all carry inside ourselves, and if you think about someone honking their horn during standstill traffic, or slamming a door after a fight, it makes a lot of sense. The pressure builds, it becomes visceral, it needs to be let out, and we often unleash ourselves on the nearest person – even someone we care deeply about. I know I’ve been guilty of doing so more than once.
While the concept he presents is a powerful one, there isn’t much practical advice on how to achieve it. And though his examples make a lot of sense, they’re quite trivial and don’t necessarily convey the depth to which one can abdicate their autonomy of feeling as a result. Or the potentially disastrous consequences of doing so. As I’ve been sitting with these thoughts and going through the dramas I’ll soon share, it occurred to me that the real power lies in drawing the connection between taking things personally and making things personal, and that’s where my great, painful revelations of late come into play.
Like any personal evolution, now that I’m closer to understanding it, I’m likely to be challenged on it before it really becomes second nature. (note: In the days since writing that sentence, I can attest that I have been!). Given that this issue has already been at the heart of so much personal conflict, especially at this moment in time, I have to admit that it’s a little confronting to tackle it head on like this. But even though I’ve understood the concept of not taking things personally – and believed I’ve been applying it – for years, it’s only now that the full extent of its relevance is starting to become clear. Which means it’s also incredibly exciting. If I can really get the hang of this, it’s possible that I may be able to let go of some behaviours that haven’t served me well for a long time, and get a lot closer to relating to people in a way that I feel proud of; a way that truly serves our connection.
The tricky part is that I suspect unless a lot of people around me also see the value of the approach, then I’m going to be walking a pretty lonely road, because damn if it doesn’t seem to piss just about everybody of importance off when I try to apply it in isolation! So I guess I’m writing about it, as I sometimes do, with the ulterior motive of hoping to show some merit in the topic. If I can receive the benefit of others who have been inspired to try applying it to their own lives, then we all win. That’s partly why this post seems so important to me – I’m not sure how much longer I can continue to do it by myself.
It’s probably going to make the most sense if we start with a brief rundown of recent events. Ironically, perhaps, I find that personal examples tend to have the best impact when trying to make sense of human behaviours, and it really helps me process my experience to share it in this way. Besides – what kind of confession would this be without going right into the heart of things?
I must ask something of you though. The events I’m about to describe are deeply personal, not only for me. There are other people involved, and you might even know them. I’m revealing details they might not choose to share themselves, which is a risky thing to do. For me, it’s a calculated risk, with a potential for great value, so it’s a risk I’m willing to take. I’m hoping that I can ask for forgiveness rather than permission, if it ever turns out to be necessary. These stories are told from my perspective, and although I believe I’m more practiced at regarding situations wholistically than the average human, there is no way I can ever know what was going on for anyone else involved. So I ask you to withhold judgment. If you have questions, come to me directly rather than in a public forum. If you feel worried about the others involved, show them your love and support. I ask you to try and put yourself in both sets of shoes, and have compassion. Everyone was doing their best at the time – this is the final of the four agreements – and Ruiz reminds us that our best will change from moment to moment. Our best hasn’t been great during the events that I’ll describe. That makes us no less worthy of forgiveness.
Most of this happened in the few months that I was writing my last post, wherein life took some pretty quick and unexpected turns. Of course. The rest transpired in the last few weeks – and even the last few days – as I’ve been getting my head around this new knowledge.
Ok. So here we go. For the brave hearted among you who made it through Sitting on the Fence, you might have worked out that last year, I had the experience of being pregnant for the first time, in particularly complicated circumstances. Coming to terms with having created, and subsequently ending, the spark of life is an act few people would traverse easily, and I offer my empathy to anyone who has walked the path before me. It’s hard. It brings up complicated feelings. The entire chemistry of your body changes, as your values are called into question. You go through physical pain, and you experience painful feelings. When you add the sudden and shocking end of the relationship that created that life just a few weeks later, and emotionally and psychologically abusive work and home environments to the mix, the trauma is amplified. When this happened to me, there wasn’t a safe space within which to fully process my feelings, and they lay in wait without me even being aware, to resurface again when my guard was down.
Heartbreak, like a hangover, can have the effect of swearing us off the root cause for life; we all know this, and we know just as surely that it is likely to pass once the pain has faded. In this particular case of heartbreak, so close to my first termination, the circumstances were so specific, the culmination of so many life lessons and ‘mistakes’, that I was confident at that point – and for some time after – that longterm romantic partnerships were off the cards for me. There was too much damage done, and more to the point, this Infinite Lover truly believed every possible option had been tried, twice or three times in some cases, and none of them were sustainable. At that point, it was a fight for my life, and it was seeming like a losing battle. I guess a tiny speck of hope existed, but it wasn’t something I could invest in when my daily life needed such an overhaul.
Just as my living situation was becoming untenable, I was lucky enough to find a new home, with a philosophical friend whose views and demeanour made it feel safe to experience my pain, and slowly move through it. He also introduced into my world a sweet, attentive man whose respectful and private nature gave me an opportunity to learn how to open up again. That tiny spark of hope lit up.
Now, when we met, we were in similar situations of heartbreak, both rebuilding our devastated worlds from a place wherein our health and safety had to come first. He was about 18 months further down the road than I was, and had created a life he felt comfortable with. Although it had been a fairly isolated one, he had come to a place of peace and stability with it. I was still struggling to make that happen for myself. Over the coming months, things like being given a new job opportunity, and deciding to move back with my family, were big steps in the right direction, but unlike him, I tend to be able to do that best with the mirror of human companionship to help me gain insight into myself. So, while I was in a place of unprecedented caution around who I was letting close to me, I was grappling with striking a balance between emotional safety, a definite lack of ‘spoons‘, and a desire for affection and interaction. The web of connections I described in What’s (Infinite) Love Got to Do With It had dwindled almost to nonexistence, and I was asking myself a lot of questions in regards to how I deemed my loves worthy of my attention and energy. I was also feeling pretty unworthy myself, and in great need of the reflection of human connection, kindness even more so.
We slowly became friends, mostly in an online form; long chats that would last until the early hours, after which I would find myself feeling heard, feeling cared for. It was like a balm for my emotional wounds, and I started to feel like I could be interesting and worthwhile to someone again. It was nice. It was simple. It was a playful, but authentic connection, and over time, we both decided we felt safe to start hanging out face to face. The first night we did, something shifted in me.
As an Infinite Lover who falls on the relationship anarchy/egalitarian poly spectrum, I’ve grown very accustomed to accepting unique relationships wherein our needs, compatibilities and availability determine the nature of our interaction. This is a positive thing generally speaking, and I appreciate the freedom and authenticity that transpires as a result. However, when coupled with a lack of assertiveness, and an ability to accommodate others that can sometimes be at odds with my own best interests, it meant that I had become adept at fitting into the sometimes rather too small spaces left for me. Over the course of one long chat that first night we hung out, much of that approach was turned on its head.
‘It has to go both ways,’ is something I would come to hear time and time again from him, until I was able to apply that maxim to my connections in a way that meant some of them had to be acknowledged as counterproductive, even damaging. That first night, I walked away feeling like I had been appreciated – truly valued – for the first time in way too long. I had been the sole recipient of someone’s undivided attention, and it felt really good. It got me thinking about what my criteria for selecting lovers and partners were. Pretty big thoughts to be having at that time, I must admit.
Eventually, as we spent more time together, my openness and his curiosity converged, and a self-defined conventional man, who’d never heard of polyamory; and an at times voracious infinite lover who prizes connection above just about all else, decided to start dating. Cue 5 months of exclusivity in ways I never imagined possible (and hold that thought, because it will be important later on).
Different native tongues, sometimes incompatible communication styles, individual tendencies towards codependency (I refer specifically to an unhealthy avoidance of conflict out of fear of a partner’s response, as described so brilliantly by Charlie Glickman in his article The Difference Between Compassion and Codependency) aside, we were doing a pretty good job, especially given our wounds and vastly different views on romantic relationships. I’d never had this model of relationship before – certainly not with someone who was so present and available to me – so it felt worth the increasingly common occasions that we would find ourselves butting heads. I felt like we were close to breaking through to a new way of understanding ourselves individually, and as a couple. It was a fine line; part of me had given up I have to admit. But a bigger part of me felt sure it could work, and that part was holding on tight.
And then something really, really shitty happened.
I fell pregnant again. Conceived exactly 9 months to the day of my last pregnancy.
Fuck. My. Life.
How could I have been so stupid? How could I have let my partner, who already had wounds of his own around the complications sex can create in relationships, trust my information that we were being safe when obviously we weren’t? How could I put my body and soul through that trauma again? These were just some of the wonderful thoughts that came rushing into my mind the day I found out.
I have to tell you that even saying these things out loud brings up incredible amounts of shame. Admitting my shame compounds it – how dare I feel justified having such feelings in the face of having accidentally, irresponsibly created life a second time in the space of less than a year? When so many of my friends were doing everything in their power to conceive? When I had every option available to me to not fall pregnant in the first place, let alone a second time?
I was so ashamed that I did something I rarely do. I kept it, for the most part, to myself. Given I’ve been sharing a fairly small space with my family, and I’m the kind of person who needs to talk a lot to make sense of things, it was pretty tricky. I’m not looking for sympathy here – I’ve mostly come to terms with it now, and I’ve been a lot kinder to myself since – but this detail is important in how I’ve come to understand the events that eventually unfolded.
With so much added trauma around my first termination, I was also scared. I was scared of what my body would go through. The depletion. The pain. The months of my body feeling like an alien thing, both while it nurtured an unwanted life, and while it dealt with the fallout of that life leaving. I was scared of the person I knew I was likely to become during that time. I was scared of what it would do to our relationship, which was already showing signs of wear and tear.
It’s at this point that the next reference that I must acknowledge comes into play. Lissa Rankin‘s brilliant blog post, Do You Expect People to Read Your Mind is yet another piece that I thought I was sending people to for their own good, when it turns out it was just as much as my own cry for understanding. As someone who has struggled with assertiveness – i.e. communicating my needs clearly, especially when faced with the conflicting needs of another – Lissa’s straightforward manner of breaking down the myth that identifying and taking responsibility for communicating our own needs is selfish, and rather one of the greatest acts of love we can practice, was a real wake up call for me. She helped me solidify my ‘Oxygen Mask Theory of Self Care’ – because while we all know why we must put on our own mask before helping others, it’s not so simple to take a night to oneself if one’s best friend is feeling desperately down and wants our company, or to ask for support when the ones we rely on have their own issues to contend with. Or to expect an already stressed partner still in the relatively new stages of a relationship to support you through a pregnancy and abortion when you know you’re going to be hard to be around.
But after many years of reflection, practice, frustration, harsh lessons and renewed commitment to myself, expressing my needs clearly is something that has finally become non-negotiable for me. I firmly believe it’s my responsibility to do so. No one else can possibly know what I need, and expecting them to is setting us both up for failure, sometimes catastrophically so. I’m also incredibly quick to process new information if it is relevant to my wellbeing. Between hormones, emotions, and the harsh practicalities of the situation, there was no way I saw myself being capable of maintaining the level of givingness he’d become accustomed to from me, or the level of presence and care I expected from myself as a partner, while I was navigating so many personal challenges. I’d been both energetically depleted and quick to anger in the weeks leading up to the discovery, which had created rifts that still had some quite rough edges. After my previous experience of being broken up with two weeks after my termination, I was still very nervous about the same thing happening again, even though it was an unfortunate coincidence the first time around. I wasn’t confident that we would make it through an unwanted pregnancy as a couple, but I knew I had no choice but to tell him.
Wonderfully, in the moment of telling him, his response was so overwhelmingly supportive and reassuring that my fears instantly drained away. The recent fights lost their relevance, and it seemed that the best option was to accept his help, and do everything I could to prepare us both for the oncoming onslaught by putting out a great big disclaimer. So on that very first day of discovering I was pregnant, I did something that I thought would serve us both very well. I admitted, upfront, that I was going to be pretty hard to be around for the next few months, and asked if he thought he could be okay with that.
I told him I was going to be horrible. He said he would support me through it. As far as I was concerned, I had taken responsibility for expressing my need to be given leeway while potentially being an awful person. In the confusing scheme of things, doing that helped me feel like I was a capable human after all. He even congratulated me on how well I was handling the situation.
There’s one big problem that I didn’t see at the time though. I didn’t even really have this key piece of information when I started writing this post.
It was a very short time between confirming the pregnancy and taking the steps to end it. In less than a week, I was at a doctor’s office talking through the process of a medical termination. A process during which any moment from within hours of taking the first of two medications, which I did then and there, to up to four weeks after taking the second one a few days later, I would experience a miscarriage. I somehow thought that would be less traumatic than having a surgical procedure. I was wrong. It raised an entirely separate set of challenges, including instant and massive hormone fluctuations, coupled with the anxious anticipation around the eventual event. I’m guessing I don’t really have to tell you what a hotbed for tension and pressure this created.
This is the part where I really need you to suspend your judgment, because while it was a shitty thing to experience, he was doing his best at the time. Like a lot of people, he hasn’t done any work on not taking things personally – he did’t even know he had to. So he felt attacked and unappreciated by what came next. He felt defensive as a result. His behaviour felt awful at the time, and had some serious consequences, but I can see that there were many contributing factors, and it’s not useful to ignore them, even if I want to.
The day after my first appointment, I had an irrational moment. In the scheme of things, it was nothing to worry about. A highly preoccupied woman whose morning routine had been disrupted forgot her phone, and in the process of trying to work out – with a very confused mind – what to do about it, she raised her voice a bit while her boyfriend was driving her to the station. Given I’d put the big disclaimer out about being awful to be around just a few days before, and received unanimous support, I felt safe to be losing it. I was pregnant. Soon not to be pregnant. Scared about both things. If that wasn’t an appropriate time to be less polite than normal, I don’t know what is!
It all happened very quickly, but the next thing I knew, I could tell that my tense mood and raised voice had triggered something in my partner. First he started speaking coldly, then he lost his cool. Not monumentally, but more than enough for a highly sensitive empath who knows his responses inside out to feel that he was pissed. He was pissed that I was raising my voice! And then he told me off for it. Not in a major way. Not in a threatening or aggressive way. But in a way that made me feel totally unsafe, and like I had to get as far away from him as possible, instantly. I flipped. I made him stop the car. I yelled at him that I couldn’t trust him, and then I stormed home, a maelstrom of emotion, fear and hormones. When I eventually heard from him, 3 hours later, we ended up fighting most of the day. It was horrible. For us both.
Although she hates being thanked, because she believes thanks are unnecessary when someone is doing what is required of them as a good human, I have to acknowledge my beautiful coworker/friend/guardian angel and partner in misadventure for providing me with the final missing link. How I wish I’d gotten to this understanding even a week earlier! If that were the case, the man that I want as a longterm partner might not be on the other side of an invisible wall right now. Our hearts might be talking. We might be in the same room, loving each other, rather than in horrible silence. But at least I’ve worked it out, and if my painful lesson prevents someone else’s downfall, then I can rest a little easier.
Being as open as I am, and as receptive as she is, my coworker is one of the few people who had been aware of every single detail of my situation, and was an amazing support throughout. Some mornings, I would come into our office, heart heavy with shame over losing my temper. That morning in particular, I was punishing myself quite harshly when she snapped me out of it by again telling me that I did not need to apologise.
The idea confused me at first, I have to admit. I believe in being accountable for my actions. If I’ve upset someone I love, then I must make amends. Yet she assured me over and over that I shouldn’t be saying sorry, and that day what she had been trying to tell me finally sank in.
In order to truly excel at not taking or making things personal, I have to be ok with upsetting you, and you have to be ok with upsetting me.
It’s so important, I decided it needed to stand out. Go on, read it again.
In order to truly excel at not taking or making things personal, I have to be ok with upsetting you, and you have to be ok with upsetting me.
Let that sink in for a moment. What comes up for you when you read that last paragraph? Do you feel defensive? Confused? Worried that you’re actually responsible for every reaction every person you’ve ever cared about has had, and the above statements cannot possibly be true? Or do you feel like your loved ones ‘make’ you feel things that can’t possibly be your fault? Let me tell you, I’ve run the gamut of all of these emotions at one point or another, especially in the past 2 months, and I understand. I do.
And I want to tell you it’s time to stop.
Because the awful truth is, if I’m taking what you’re saying or doing personally, then I’m also making you responsible for my feelings and decisions, and vice versa. I stop taking responsibility for having my needs met. I start expecting you to be responsible for my happiness and wellbeing. And chances are, if we’re both taking things personally, we’re also probably making assumptions rather than clarifying and communicating clearly. We’re most likely feeling hurt for the wrong reasons, or no reason at all. And that shit ain’t good for anyone. Ever.
With the level of stress I was already under, there was no way I could stay calm that day. None. I was waiting, tensely, for something truly awful to happen. The fact that I didn’t even question going to work shows how flawed my thinking was. My mind was already so full that there was nothing left for me to have higher cognitive functions with. I was totally terrified, stress hormones were flooding my body, and I was panicking. I needed to be calmed down, not chastised. I needed to be reassured that when the worst part came, he would be able to keep his cool, no matter what I said or did. And none of that requires an apology.
When we eventually saw each other much later that night, by which point the miscarriage had started in earnest, what I should have done was focus on getting the care I needed. Instead, because I hadn’t really learnt the lesson yet, I apologised. A lot. Which meant that I made my pain personal. If I needed his forgiveness, I also needed his approval. And in that moment, we took another very wrong turn, because by apologising for losing my temper, I rendered my earlier actions invalid. I negated them, instead of having them recognised as appropriate. I denied the possibility of true understanding and healing to occur, and set a horrible precedent of having to fearfully avoid doing the one thing I’d asked in advance to be forgiven for on day one. I can now see how avoiding things out of fear of hurting him created a breeding ground for later misunderstanding, but I certainly didn’t that night. Instead, I felt disproportionately grateful for being shown some tenderness, and guilty for having fought for that right.
Don’t mistake what I’m saying as an assertion that consideration of others should be thrown to the wayside – that’s not what I’m suggesting at all. ‘Is it kind, is it true, is it necessary’, the three gates of speech variously attributed to everyone from Socrates to Sai Baba, are a fantastic guideline for communication, as is simply thinking about how our words and actions might impact the ones we love. However, if we start to let our worries, fears, assumptions and misgivings be our guide, then we will never truly transcend them. We’ll be stuck acting small for the rest of our days, stuck feeling hurt for the wrong reasons, and be likely to feel guilty until the day we die. We’ll continue to breed resentment instead of achieving understanding. No. No! That’s not the way of love.
And this is why not apologising was the missing piece that makes it all fit together. Because if I am not comfortable with you being upset with me, then I am also not going to be willing to have my needs met.
To quote the final mentor in this revelation, Rick Hanson’s Being at Peace With the Pain of Others puts it this way:
You’ve probably had the experience of talking with someone about something painful to you, but this person was so rattled by your pain that he or she couldn’t just listen…when others are not at peace with our pain, they have a hard time being open, compassionate, supportive, and helpful with it. And the reverse is true when we are not at peace ourselves with the pain of others.
If I am not comfortable with your pain, I will try to make it go away. I am denying your experience. I am taking your pain personally. I am making your pain my own pain, rather than providing you a safe space to move through it. Talk to my best friend, and she is likely to tell you that was very much her experience with me for several months, and we’re both still trying to work out how to heal it.
If we feel responsible for the pain of others, it’s next to impossible to be rational or kind in the face of that pain. Similarly, the more we seek to justify ourselves in the face of conflict, the more stuck the conflict will become. If only I’d realised this sooner…
Over the coming days and weeks, misplaced resentment over the need I felt to justify and apologise for my behaviour mixed with the hurt we both felt at the hands of the other. I felt he should have let me raise my voice without reacting. He felt he should be given leeway for not keeping his cool in a stressful situation, given how supportive he is otherwise. Both of us felt uncomfortable with the other’s pain. I doubted the validity of my feelings. He felt unfairly judged. In short, we made things personal as well as taking things personally, which meant our feelings exploded again and again, which triggered the entire cycle many more times.
The experience I’ve just described was horrible enough as it was. To rehash it again almost daily was excruciating. So much so that the depression I’d mostly managed to handle up until last year became too much. I decided it was time to investigate pharmaceutical options, and I am very glad I did. I don’t know if I would have coped over the last month if I didn’t have this extra level of support. But there’s an adjustment period. And as it turns out since I might be dealing with Bipolar Disorder, or agitated depression, that means anger, irritability and suicidal thoughts are increased for the first month or two. So now we have a grieving woman, who is deeply doubting herself and finding herself in regular conflict with the person she seeks to be closest to, experiencing some relief finally, but also dealing with a mind that changes from calm to angry, from fiercely energised and positive to hopeless, sometimes within an instant. And her partner is taking it personally, although he doesn’t see it that way.
Something I haven’t had a chance to mention yet is that while we were shakily navigating the pregnancy and my transition to medication, I heard from him several times that I had to be clearer with my needs. I thought I had been, but was also aware that my mental clarity wasn’t at a high point, so I started being as straightforward as I could in response. Please open your arms to me when we meet so I can feel loved. Please make me a cup of tea without being asked. Please make us food to eat so I can take a break from looking after myself and us. When I started to feel punished for losing my temper, I realised I needed to be even clearer. Again, I asked for wiggle room, but this time with the condition that if it wasn’t possible, I would need to take a break from the relationship as the pressure to ‘behave’ was becoming too great.
I made the same request at home, and despite being given verbal agreement, my experience was that any time I’d let my stress show in my voice, I’d be punished in some way for ‘taking my feelings out’ on people. This came to a head one night with my mother, and ended up in a full blown screaming match that again, I felt compelled to apologise for. But with my coworker’s advice whispering in the back of my mind, I found a different response starting to arise. The good news is that not apologising in the case of my mother lead to a really frank conversation that finally got me the support I’d been literally screaming for. I acknowledged that I would have much preferred not to have shouted, but that it felt like the only option available at such a high stakes time, and she got it. We’re both being a lot gentler with each other as a result, and both our needs are being met, which is a big part of how I know I’m on to something important.
If this approach has the potential to reshape a 36 year long relationship for the better, think of what it can do if applied from day one? Or in a rocky relationship that both partners are still committed to making work, with a lot of love in their hearts?
I wish I could say that the events I’ve already described were the worst of it, but I think you might have already suspected they weren’t. Remember back towards the start, when I said that for 5 months, he and I had shared an exclusivity the likes of which I’d never imagined possible? And that just being myself seemed to be causing my loved ones pain? Well, guess what? It turns out that that kind of exclusivity hadn’t been possible before in large part because I’d never been inclined to deny myself in such a fashion. It had been many years since I’ve felt so scared of being open about the way I love. But I was so hellbent on making this relationship work that I began to bury parts of myself again. And this is where codependency rears its ugly head.
Denial was a huge part of my world pre-coming to terms with my identity and coming out. I’d connect with people in whatever ways felt right and authentic for me, but I was so convinced that I had to fit into the existing monogamous paradigm that I denied my behaviour meant I was different in any way. The thing that had to happen for me to truly understand the intersection of all these concepts was like a bad memory of my years before becomingly openly non-monogamous. I had to become too scared to talk about my feelings and connections out of fear of how my partner might respond, and eventually end up feeling like I had ‘cheated’ on him, even though I know I absolutely did no such thing. I had to feel really, really bad about myself – and then realise that I hadn’t done anything wrong, even though he was hurt. I had to realise I had nothing to apologise for.
In the lead up to and at the same time as the pregnancy was going on, I realised that I was missing my other connections, one in particular. It took me quite a while to discover this, because between moving home, the events of the last year, and my low mood, I wasn’t in any space to be an active lover. I was surprised that I was even open to it with Mr Kind and Attentive when it happened. Alongside that, he wasn’t so great at holding space for me to share that part of my life with him. My early attempts to use analogy to help him understand it in recognisable terms left him feeling patronised, and me feeling weary and misunderstood. I decided to focus on getting us grounded first, and then come back to it once trust had been established. I was also feeling so safe and loved, and enjoying a much more secluded, singularly focused life, elements of which I was discovering I really liked, that I didn’t see the warning signs. So it really did take time for me to see how far off course I’d come, because part of me was on a different course that felt really good. And unfortunately, it coincided with the fallout of the pregnancy, when intimacy had become negatively charged, and I had expressed feeling isolated and uncared for.
Again, this is a time to take off the judgment hat, because while on the one hand, I am still so very angry and hurt about all of this, I see why it happened, and the role I had to play in it.
I was so uncomfortable with his pain that I stopped being my full self. I was so worried about losing what I had that I stopped advocating for what I wanted and needed. I allowed myself to become a less vibrant and beautiful version of myself to help someone else feel more comfortable with me, and therefore they formed an inaccurate picture of me. When I eventually broke out of the shell I’d created, it was an unpleasant shock. I have promised myself I will do my best to never let that happen again.
I don’t want to go into too much detail. Suffice to say I did sleep with one of my casual but very dear lovers, and I had good reason to think that it was ok to do so. In a previous moment of bravery about expressing my needs, I had asked direct questions about it, and believed the answers I had received were positive and clear. So while being nervous about my partner’s potential response, I felt happy about the decision itself, like it was a return to a lost part of myself. It balanced me out, because it was a moment wherein I admitted that I’d been denying parts of myself out of fear of damaging my partner. I knew it was no threat to my relationship – not that any connection ever is for me – because this person comes in and out of my life infrequently, and because I know how my heart works. I trust him, and he’s wedged firmly in my heart, but he is an irregular figure in my world. There’s no way he compares to a connection the likes of which I was growing with my partner, and it felt like a safe and sensible way to explore my growing sense of certainty in the importance of having my needs met.
Given that we’d never talked about how he would want to find out, just that I must tell him, I told my partner in a way that I hoped would be the easiest for him. Given his previous reticence to hear about my connections, you might not be surprised to discover it did not go well.
Believe it or not, I was. I thought that I had been accepted. I thought I had autonomy. I had heard time and time again that I must do what felt right for me, and I finally decided to take that chance. Suddenly, I was confronted with a totally different person. A person who would lash out with childish comments that reduced my experience to the pain he was feeling, and could only see my actions as a deliberate act to hurt him. I was in shock. I really didn’t see it coming.
Three days later, he broke up with me.
Not before saying some things that cut me to the core, and left me feeling seriously awful about myself.
But something magical happened. I discovered I had finally stopped feeling the need to apologise. I could see what was really going down. This was about needs not being expressed, and therefore not being able to be met. This was about the fear of hurting someone leading me to doubt the validity of myself in the face of his pain. In trying to stop his pain, I had lead him to believe that I understood his needs, when I really didn’t. Surely once I explained that, he would see it too, and we could move forward.
So I acknowledged his pain, and my sincere sadness that my actions lead to those feelings for him, and I meant it at the same time as being okay with having done what I had. As he said ‘I hope it was worth it,’ instead of jumping to defend myself, I was able to see the pain motivating those words, and explain to him that hurting him was never my intention, without feeling the need to undo my choices. And I was able to understand that, despite his pain, my actions were no less valid or appropriate. For the first time in any of our conflicts, I didn’t bite back. I didn’t justify myself. I let him express his pain, held space for it, and loved him through it. It felt powerful and positive. I felt changed.
In our last week of interaction, when these ideas started really gelling, and based on some things he expressed in a letter he wrote to break up with me, I started finding clarity. Despite his pain, we’d been able to maintain a certain level of closeness that made me see severing things in the way his letter suggested might not be what he really wanted. It certainly wasn’t what I wanted. Instead, I offered him a different way forward that meant some very clearly expressed boundaries around sex. In short, I proposed that I stop talking about my sex life with him, because I realised it wasn’t something I should be apologising for, or putting myself at risk of being negatively judged for. I set up a vision that totally fit my infinite heart, and seemed to meet the needs he’d outlined in his letter. A vision of creating a life together that fit us, rather than our assumptions.
I have never been so proud of anything as the offer that I made him, and I think he was seriously considering it. Tragically, I’ll never know. And the reason for that is that before he had the chance to come back to me about it, once again, it got personal. Individual needs weren’t taken responsibility for. Actions were reduced to the pain of their consequences.
Once I realised that my love of others was a serious threat and pain to him (and please keep in mind, I really didn’t know it was until the eleventh hour), I gave him what I thought was a loving option for us both. I told him that if he needed us to be exclusive while he worked things out, I would do that. For him. If he asked me for it. If he expressed it as a need, rather than making an assumption about it. His response, given how much I’d been advised to be clearer in my needs, is something I still can’t make sense of. He refused to ask, at the same time telling me that he couldn’t be comfortable to be close to me knowing I was having sex with anyone else, and that that knowledge should be enough of a reason for me not to do so. He told me he felt it was unfair of him to ask me not to do something for him. I told him I felt is was unfair not to ask. He told me that I needed to make the decision myself, knowing that being with someone else would hurt him. But that’s exactly what I was trying to do – make a conscious decision to meet his need! This seemed suspiciously like emotional blackmail to me, and didn’t feel good at all. Coming from the man who wouldn’t turn up with a bottle of wine for us without being explicitly asked to do so, I was genuinely flummoxed as to how the double standard wasn’t as obvious to him as it was to me.
That moment there, that futile moment wherein I was willing to meet his need, lovingly, of my own volition, and he refused to ask me to do so, is the sole reason I think we reached the point of no return. I know he sees it differently, even though we haven’t talked about it since. But for me, that’s the moment where we stopped being able to be loved by each other. It’s the moment wherein the woman I am was reduced to the pain he felt, and I was no longer willing to be held to that vision.
We are on such different pages about expressing our needs that there seems to be no way forward for us. It was when I realised that we were breaking up over ideas and misaligned perspectives that I became both very sad, and driven to write this post. Now perhaps you understand my sense of urgency.
Ultimately, it hasn’t helped us. I came to the knowledge too late, and I wasn’t able to explain it to him in any meaningful way. Not before losing my temper over it one final time, hammering in the last nail of his certainty that I am a source of pain, and someone he can no longer safely love. Leaving me on the side of the road again, this time at 1am in the morning, drunk, medicated, and feeling like I should check myself into a psych ward. I am equally thankful for the friend who talked me down, and for the certainty that has since come that I still don’t need to apologise for who I am, or for how I respond when pushed to the edges of my tolerance.
We are both so hurt and so confused, I don’t know if we’ll ever get past it. While I am willing, and armed with new knowledge, he doesn’t want to talk to me anymore. I can see why, to be honest. The conflict and fighting that has been so helpful for me is only traumatic and damaging to him. I suspect he feels horribly low, and like talking to me can only make that worse. He says he doesn’t understand me, and feels that his best wasn’t good enough. I know how he feels. I’m pretty sure, based on some things he said in our last week of communication, that he feels I was trying to hurt him by holding space for my other connections, for myself. I heard that he felt replaced, and in competition with the others I hold dear. It’s a standard monogamous reaction, and it seems like there’s no way to get past it without the approach I’ve spent all this time describing coming into play.
But I’m still hoping. And I’m writing about it. I’m understanding what my way forward is, and committing to it. That’s all I can do.
When I first started applying Ruiz’s Second Agreement, I was so proud of myself. I started seeing beyond the harshness or insensitivity of things my loved ones might say to me to the reasons they might be inspired to say them, and I could sure as hell ignore the rudeness or agro of relative strangers. Compassion and understanding became easier, reactiveness decreased. And yet…and yet I still seemed to be getting stuck in heated misunderstandings when it came to the really important things, and especially so when trying to explain myself in high stakes situations. While I welcome the insight that conflict brings, when I’ve been so busy trying to fix the pain of others, I’ve realised I’ve been a pretty shitty communicator during conflict, as I found time and time again with my partner during our 5 months together.
Now, to return to the title of this post – Why did you do that (to me?). This here is the simplest way I have to sum it all up: what happens when we delete those last two words from the question?
‘Why did you do that?’ invites discussion. It seeks understanding. It assumes that there were good reasons for whatever happened, and in doing so, means we are not taking someone’s actions personally – we are seeing them as a full, autonomous, complex human. Add the ‘to me’ at the end, and suddenly all chance of understanding is destroyed. Our actions are reduced to their consequences, just like his and mine were consistently for the past few months.
Our actions – all of them – have consequences, and we have to learn to be at peace with that when making our decisions, rather than seeking to avoid them. No matter how much we shy away from or try to deny consequences, the smallest choice can be monumental in the way it impacts our own circumstances, affects the mood of a loved one, acts as a trigger for pain, and so on. Humans, for the most part, hate pain. It’s hardwired into our brains to avoid it at all costs, and perceiving ourselves to be the cause of it in others, especially those we care about, can be too much to bear. What I’ve come to realise is that in the face of someone being upset with us, at least for me, and certainly for my partner, is that our natural response is usually to both defend ourselves, and/or try to make that person’s pain go away. In doing so, we are agreeing that our actions are only the sum of their consequences. We’re denying our truth, and ignoring the bigger, much more beautiful picture. That’s certainly been my experience in this relationship, and I think that’s why my eventual ‘infidelity’, as I think he sees it, is too painful for him to move past, because it was such a shock for him, and left something I can’t undo in his heart.
But here’s the really tricky part. It has to go both ways. The actions of others also have consequences. This is what I’d been missing all these years. I was so busy trying to take responsibility for the fallout of other people’s actions that I totally undermined the validity of my own feelings, and denied the credibility of my responses. The resulting drive to apologise for and even defend my actions, especially when mirrored by the other person, meant that conflict was the only possible outcome. When defense is our sole and immediate response, we’re allowing pain, and our fear of it, to take control. We end up hiding ourselves as a result. We end up breeding resentment.
I am not, of course, suggesting that being hurtful is acceptable. I’m a deep believer in the importance of consideration. It’s the much subtler idea that sometimes, who we are, what we want, what we need, what we say, or what we do, whether we want it to be the case or not, will hurt someone else, and that for truly honest, loving and straightforward communication and interaction to be able to occur, we need to become comfortable with that. The slightest doubt in the validity of our actions will result in our denial of the other person’s response, and lead to an excruciating cycle of guilt that is likely to cause further wounds through the eventual defense or cleanup mode we fall into.
On some level, I hope this is actually news to you, because if it’s not – if you know this already, and we’re still all in this same mess of pain and confusion and missed moments of truth – then we should just give up now and go sit on a mountainside somewhere, because there’s no possibility for treating each other better.
In my case, the sad outcome is that the consequences of my actions have lead to the loss of someone I love. Eventually being myself, when he believed me to be someone else, tore him apart. What I’m coming to accept, slowly, is that it really does go both ways. My actions were the consequence of his actions too. I can’t take care of it on my own. We both have to be willing to see things differently. If we’re not, I have to move on and hope that I learn how do this myself in such a way that it becomes standard practice in my relationships.
I’m not exactly sure what comes next. I’m still adjusting to the massive download of information, I’m still in shock about the loss of my beautiful partner. But I can’t help starting to imagine what might be possible if we stop apologising for the wrong things. If we start becoming comfortable with the pain of others, and holding space for it rather than trying to make it go away because we feel bad about it. If we become confident at expressing our needs, and better at not taking it personally when our loved ones can’t meet us there. If we stand in a place of confidence and self-love, and encourage our nearest and dearest to do the same.
I hope that sounds like freedom to you too. I hope it sounds worth the effort.