When our eldest daughter started preschool she loved it. Rather than having any issues with getting her to go to school, we had more of a challenge getting her to leave. She wanted to stay for the after-care program and not leave at the end of the regular school day. Sometimes Angus would have to carry her out holding her sideways like a log because he had her sister in tow. This didn’t go down very well at this very humanistic school that focused on child-directed activities. But adult schedules sometimes clashed with sitting and waiting for a three-year-old to decide she was ready to depart.
I can understand why she loved the program. It was a mostly outdoor program where learning emerged organically from the child’s interest. There was also a strong focus on emotional development and emotional intelligence where teachers would help children work on their friendship dynamics by facilitating and mediating conflict resolution. The teachers encouraged children to express their full range of thoughts and feelings in ways that were physically and emotionally safe. They believed that children develop self-regulation, responsibility, and empathy by experiencing the effects of their own words and actions on others and, in so doing, learning to respect the feelings and limits of others. This is very aligned with the Rewilder philosophy that trusts the innate intelligence with each one of us to be our guide and compass.
However, even though our daughter was in a safe, nurturing, caring environment where she could be all of herself and learn and grow without punishment, manipulation, or shame, she did not express her feelings of upset at school. She hated working out problems and would save her very big feelings of upset until she got home. No matter how much she loved school, how good the teachers were with her, she kept her emotional cards very close to her chest in that environment and preferred the safety and familiarity of her parents to express her vulnerable feelings of hurt and anger.
This isn’t unusual nor is it unhealthy. In a recent conversation with a client, the concept of masking our emotions was brought up. Wearing an emotional mask means we present to the world one way, but actually feel differently inside. We consciously or unconsciously decide what is safe and acceptable to share publicly and cover-up emotions that don’t feel acceptable to share with others. This is not pathological in that a certain amount of self-restraint demonstrates emotional maturity and supports social interactions, but when taken to extremes it prevents intimacy and connection. Without emotional depth and honesty, relationships can be superficial and be unfulfilling.
Like my daughter, as a child, I learned to present a smiling happy face to the world and keep my anger to myself. On a case-by-case basis, this wouldn’t be problematic, but as a general coping mechanism it did not serve me. Mainly, as I got older I would judge myself as weak for not speaking up and letting my fear run me.
Intimate relationships, however, were a different story. With safety and love my emotional mask would come off and the intensity of my emotional experience would be revealed to my partner. As a young woman, I couldn’t keep it all inside. I would boil over with anger and with tears.
It is not unusual for people to drop their masks with those they love and feel safe with. Angus often says those nearest and dearest to us often become the fall guy for our emotional upset. But this can make intimate relationships challenging. Social interactions that are more tame and civilized in a public environment take on the wildness of a raw emotional landscape. This can feel overwhelming to both us and our partner, and is often seen as the cause of difficulty in relationships. Often when passion or newness subsides, conflict increases in relationships as we see sides of ourselves and our partners we may not have seen before and often have a hard time liking.
With Angus, I dropped my guard pretty quickly and revealed to him my emotional instability of insecurity, jealousy, depression, and anger. I’m sure he didn’t like any of it, but fortunately, early on he had the capacity to keep his bearings in the face of my downs. And even though he judged me at times, he didn’t hold on to his judgments. He was resilient and able to see the good in me even when my emotional reactivity became intense. I wonder if it was because my emotional volatility was so extreme it helped him to see it was nothing to do with him and a reflection of my low state of mind so he didn’t take it personally and was able to feel compassion for my suffering?
However, when we moved to the U.S., he became less emotionally resilient. He found himself caught up in his own feelings of insecurity, and rather than revealing his experience of vulnerability, he had a tendency to become reactive and angry. At this point, there was a switch in our relationship where I became the relatively more stable and rational one and he became more prone to outbursts and moodiness. But I wasn’t really that stable or secure because I took his behavior very personally and did not have the same compassion for him that he had had for me when I was experiencing tumult.
These challenges in our relationship were definitely not seen as normal and healthy. We both pathologized them and didn’t see the value in our emotional masks coming off in relationships. However, with the privilege of perspective, I can see the gaps in my understanding that caused suffering. And this is what I would say to myself back then with the understanding I have now?
It is okay for relationships to feel difficult at times.
I had the expectation that a good relationship was an easy relationship so thought there was something wrong with our relationship when we experienced difficulties. Understanding that intimacy and living together is not always going to be fun and games and that often pain is a normal part of growth would have helped me to relax and take the pressure off myself and us. I would have felt less urgency to fix things if I understood that challenging emotions were a normal part of being human and relationship growing pains. I would have spent less time trying to fix myself and our relationship so we could have enjoyed the good time more and recognized that any pain we experienced was temporary and would also result in more clarity and understanding once it had moved through.
A partner’s upset is not personal.
If I had been able to see that Angus’s reactivity was a reflection of him feeling insecure and not about me, I would have been able to show him the compassion he was able to show me when I was losing my cool with him while I was in London. Understanding that everyone’s emotional experience is a reflection of the thoughts and feelings they are identifying with is not dismissive and doesn’t result in a lack of compassion and empathy. Seeing this and recognizing that someone’s suffering is a reflection of their state of mind helps to maintain perspective so we can have more clarity and maintain an open heart. This also helps us to see any transgressions on our part that might need to be apologized for and addressed rather than becoming defensive.
Self-care is one of the best ways to take care of your relationship.
In the past, I spent so much time working on myself rather than caring for myself. I didn’t trust that there was an innate loving intelligence unfolding within me that would allow me to grow and gain perspective. I thought it was on me to fix myself and make myself better. This resulted in me treating myself unkindly and critically. All of this internal pressure would only make me more sensitive and likely to be reactive in the relationship. The harder I worked on myself, the worse I felt and behaved. Now I can see the benefit of being kind to myself exactly where I am. I am always doing the best that I can and so is everyone else. And learning is a natural part of being human. Accepting myself and where I am at doesn’t slow the learning process down, it just makes it a more graceful and kind experience. This then helps us to show up more as our best selves in our relationships.
It is a good sign when there is enough trust and love in a relationship that the masks come off. Whether this is at the beginning of a relationship or the result of deepening intimacy in a long-term relationship. The opportunity to be open, honest, and authentic in relationships is infinite and when movement is made in this direction it can look like things are getting difficult rather than like progress. Seeing the health in authenticity and recognizing that our reaction to our partners' frailties and foibles is a reflection of our own state of mind helps us to maintain perspective and hopefully have compassion for them as well as ourselves. Relationships are delicious and juicy especially the deeper they get, and this can result in temporary messiness, but when there is room for this there is also so much enjoyment available. I don’t expect to enjoy my favorite fish tacos without needing a napkin. Don’t expect to enjoy your wonderful relationship without a side of understanding and a sprinkle of growing pains.
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 a private couples’ intensives retreat program that rewilds 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.