My husband and I have been married for 21 years. Our relationship began with a love at first sight moment with all of the fireworks and giddiness that go along with that experience. I have heard one of my mentors, Ron Hulnick, say many times, when that happens, run in the opposite direction. However, having the optimism and insight of a 24-year-old, I ran straight into the flame.
The laws of gravity seem to apply to relationships as well. What goes up must come down. My husband and I have experienced tremendous highs and lows in our relationship. There aren’t many challenges we haven’t faced. We have navigated lack of money, infidelity, serious physical illness, depression, moving across continents, separation, and the normal trials and tribulations of raising a family. The external challenges didn’t always coincide with the lows in our relationship. Sometimes it was during the hardest times that we were at our best. I remember one Christmas buying ornaments from the dollar store so the tree was not bare. That Christmas was filled with love and joy. The spirit of the season was not impacted by the lack of funds in our bank account. We still keep a blue fairy from the dollar store at the top of our tree as a reminder that Christmas is about celebrating the qualities that cannot be bought.
Notwithstanding the ups and downs, the intensity and richness of our relationship has been a tremendous catalyst for our personal growth, then and now. The excitement and tumult of the early days may have mellowed into a deeper emotional connection as we experience more peace and calm, but even with an overall greater level of stability, it doesn’t mean we don’t still have our moments.
Just the other day we had the kind of fight we hadn’t had in a long time, perhaps 10 years. We were so upset that we went and sat in the car so the kids wouldn’t hear us. What was interesting to me about this fight was that even though we were both furious, it was over very quickly, and there were no residual after effects. This was very different than 10 years ago.
In this fight, in the heat of the moment, we stabilized very quickly. We were able to see we were both in low moods and behaving badly. We apologized to each other for the mean things we said. We acknowledged we were both tired and stressed, and that was it. I didn’t feel devastated. I just bounced back to my normal self and moved on.
When this kind of fight happened at the beginning of our marriage, I would have been upset for days. I would have revisited all of the mean things my husband said and conveniently forgotten all of the hurtful words I used. I would have judged him as not good enough for his behavior. I would have nursed the hurt, thinking it was coming from what he did. I would not have recognized that my pain was self-generated — a result of all of the judgments and misinterpretations I was focusing on. I not only would have been judging my husband as bad and wrong for his behavior, but I also would have been judging myself as alone, unworthy, and unlovable. This is where my suffering came from. Not from what he said or did, but from the misinterpretations I made about what his behavior meant.
In my lack of emotional maturity, I was not able to see that when my husband was angry he was not himself. I took his behavior personally. I didn’t give him room to be human and fallible. I expected him to always be kind and nice to me, and when he wasn’t, it felt like a rug was being pulled out from underneath me. I would forget about all of his wonderful qualities and the great times we had. It was as if they disappeared, and all I could see was the bad.
I now see how I had unrealistic expectations for our relationship. I thought it was reasonable for me to expect unconditional love from my husband. When he fell short of that I got angry with him, and blamed myself for not being good enough to have someone love me unconditionally. It is probably common sense for most people to see these expectations are off base, but it took me awhile to catch on. I had a tendency to take any angry comment from my husband personally and to turn innocuous statements into an attack when I was in a low mood.
Fortunately, both my husband and I have got much better at not taking the bait and reacting to each other when we are not our best. What helped me to do this was to have an experiential understanding that the love I want to experience does not come from outside of me. When I am experiencing warm, loving feelings toward my husband, those feelings are not coming from him. They are coming from me being connected with my open heartedness. The feelings reflect the quality of my thinking in the moment. Just like when I am angry with him, and I am feeling ill will. Those feelings reflect me being temporarily disconnected from the loving in my heart, and the only way this can happen is when I believe my own limited thoughts. My feelings of upset are reflection of my own internal disturbance not my husband’s or anyone else’s behavior. I only ever feel my thinking not outside circumstances.
This can be a hard concept for the couples that my husband and I coach to grasp. They often come to us entrenched in their belief that if their partner would just change and behave differently then everything would be okay. There is such an intense focus on the shortcomings of the other person, that there is no time spent reflecting on where the real suffering is coming from.
The real suffering comes from being disconnected from our well being due to being consumed with our own negative thoughts. Through our four day intensives we help the couple to slow down and relax so they can reconnect with their innate peace and happiness. From this state of mind, the frailties in their partner are no longer perceived as personal threats. They are seen for what they are — idiosyncrasies. When the couple sees each other from a centered state, they are able to see the whole person, not just the flaws. They reconnect with themselves and the love they have for each other. When they feel centered, it is easier to see how to navigate the logistics of their partner’s idiosyncrasies. What looks like a personal attack that is an irreconcilable deal breaker in a low mood is seen as nothing more than a logistical issue that needs a practical solution in a good mood.
When my husband can see that I have a tendency to be uptight and stern when I am feeling overwhelmed or stressed, and that has nothing to do with him, he will be better able to maintain his equanimity in the face of my imbalance. He may even be able to feel some compassion toward me, rather than interpret my behavior as a personal criticism aimed at him. And even when neither one of us is able to maintain our perspective, it is nice to know that when our swords cross it is not a big deal. We can bounce back quickly once we wake up from the mire of our negative thoughts.
This current fight with my husband demonstrated a real shift in me. Rather than trying to stabilize myself by dwelling and ruminating on the details or trying to hold on to and justify my position after the fight, when the argument was done, it was really done. I didn’t take what my husband had said when he was angry personally. I can’t even remember what his comments were now. His words didn’t impact me because I could see that what he said had nothing to do with me. What he said was simply a reflection of his state of mind in that moment. Just as what I said to him was a reflection of my own low state of mind in the moment. Not taking his comments personally felt magical to me. I am not known for having a thick skin in our relationship.
I am grateful that we had the fight so I can experience the resilience available to me. As Nassim Taleb would say, I am anti-fragile. I actually felt stronger as a result of our conflict, not torn down by it. I am not going to seek out conflict in order to experience my resilience, but it is good to know that I can handle it. It is reassuring to recognize that I don’t have to be devastated and tear myself down from the inside-out through dwelling and ruminating on the details.
Having an anti-fragile relationship feels very comforting. It takes the pressure off and makes room for both of us to be ourselves with room for all of who we are — warts and all. There are no inhumane demands on each other. Fallibility is commonplace, and we can handle that. Our relationship has the capacity to maintain and to grow not just from the good, but from the bad as well. In our experience, making room for the bad and accepting it as part of life, doesn’t draw out bad behavior from each other. Rather it seems to bring out the best of ourselves. As my husband shared in a recent interview, “at the end of the day, we don’t need to worry because the natural state of our relationship is loving.”
Rohini Ross is co-founder of “The Rewilders.” Listen to her podcast, with her partner Angus Ross, Rewilding Love. They believe too many good relationships fall apart because couples give up thinking their relationship problems can’t be solved. In this season of the Rewilding Love Podcast, Rohini and Angus help a couple on the brink of divorce due to conflict. Angus and Rohini also co-facilitate private couples' intensives that rewild relationships back to their natural state of love. Rohini is also the author of the ebook Marriage, and she and Angus are co-founders of The 29-Day Rewilding Experience and The Rewilding Community. You can follow Rohini on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. To learn more about her work and subscribe to her blog visit: TheRewilders.org.