Success in Relationships is not Longevity. Learning is.
On April 1 last year, my former partner drove me to YVR where I would board the first of three flights to Iquitos, Peru. It was the final step in what ended up being a multi-month breakup. We finally faced that our partnership was irreconcilably complete in late January of 2016. Our ending was the last piece that needed to fall apart (into place?) for me to finally take the leap my life was pushing me toward. My job would be ending March 31, and given that we were living together, my living situation would need to change with the change in relationship status. In response, I booked a one-way ticket to South America.
Given it would only be nine weeks between our decision to separate and my departure, we agreed not to rush the process and stay in the house together until I left. Aside from the additionally overwhelming prospect of trying to find temporary housing in Vancouver’s horrendous rental market, my motivation in not wanting to rush is that I believe in slow breakups. There is, according to my ever-evolving philosophy on life and love, no richer learning than that which comes through intimate partnership. The dissolution of a partnership might be the most fertile of this ground for growth.
I also think the social model we’ve been given for how to breakup — harsh endings with a lot of hate and blame going down in a self-righteous blaze of intoxication and potentially unhealthy choices — not only can block that learning but makes little sense (with cases of harm, abuse and cheating being a whole other topic).
What if we could honour what we shared together by loving each other out of the union, just as we grew our love going into it?
This is a question I’ve sat with since my last big separation and my first experience with slow breakups. Maybe we can add it to the list of things in the Slow movement…Slow Food. Slow Money. Slow Breakups. Why not? What’s the rush?
I shared this perspective with my partner as we discussed how we would handle our separation. I’m still not sure all of the reasons why he agreed, but he did. He cautioned me often though that the learning I was advocating for each of us to attain could take years. But, he was game to try.
I have to give us both a whole lot of credit for going through with that decision. It was far from easy. There were some beautiful moments I will long cherish. There were even more that deepened our pain. And, as is the way of most things, in the end we were both right.
I was right in that I learned a shocking amount about myself by spending an additional nine weeks in those six hundred square feet as we attempted to unravel from each other while still in close physical and emotional proximity. He was right in that the lessons, another nine weeks after my departure, are still distilling. I imagine they will be for quite a while longer.
My daily journaling practice has become one of the primary ways I’ve been sorting it all out. One of the insights that came through strongly a few weeks ago was that despite my advocacy and aforementioned beliefs, I still had a great deal of shame lurking in my depths about yet another relationship ending. I felt like I had failed. Again.
In the last ten years I’ve had four significant partnerships and in between enjoyed dating. Each of these partnerships has never lasted more than 12 consecutive months. A few of these men have occupied two or three years of heart time in that we never really made a clean break. We’d weave in and out of each other’s lives and hearts long after the initial separation, sometimes in what would prove to be unhealthy ways (these were not examples of what I mean by Slow Breakups, by the way). This pattern was attached to a deeply wounded place in me and a really dangerous story I didn’t realize was alive: there is something fundamentally wrong with me. I have a love expiration date.
What is so fucking wrong with me that I can’t make a relationship work?
An immeasurable volume of my tears have been spilled over these beliefs.
The journaling practice that helped me find the beating heart of this story is one that trains you to find and write from your Wiser Self. When she found this lurking in the shadows, she gave me a talking to. Here’s what she told me:
Jenn! For fuck’s sake! We have got to transform this story you have that success in love is longevity. It is not even yours! You internalized it somewhere along the way, but it is not yours. Your brain has moved past it, but your heart is still catching up. Do you know why you’ve not had one single Happily Ever After relationship? Because that shit was made up by Disney. Because its not what you needed. Because you are a tenacious learner! Because you prioritize your growth over all else, even when it means the lessons are painful. You needed each of those partners and the lessons they brought at those specific times in your life. Relationships are vehicles for growth. Period. You are not failing, you are growing. What brings you learning will not be the same as anyone else so stop comparing yourself. Enough with the secret belief that you are failing. Enough already with the shame and guilt. You are not failing. You are succeeding beyond expectation.
When I stepped back from writing to read this, I actually laughed out loud. True e-fucking-nough, Wiser Jenn. Time to put on my big girl pants and align my head and heart.
One of my dearest friends who has seen me through the dissolution of all four partnerships and knows all about my attempts to unravel these stories, just this morning sent me an article called On “Failed” Relationships. It was written by one of her Process Work teachers, Jan Dworkin. Reading it made me want to jump up and down like a lunatic pumping my fists in celebration. It was the catalyst for this writing. Jan expresses my beliefs more eloquently than I seem to be able to this morning. It deserves to be quoted at length:
In the creative fields and in entrepreneurship, it is vogue to fail and iterate. Design thinking luminaries like IDEO founders Tom and David Kelly urge us to embrace our failures, to own them and to use the learning on our path to doing great and original things. But failing in relationship is not generally held in quite so high esteem; rather the contrary, even today in the US where divorce rates hover somewhere between 40– 50%, people who have more than two or three long term relationships or marriages under their belts by mid life are looked at sideways. We cluck our tongues, call them unlucky in love; we label their deeply personal experiences failed relationships.
Where did we get the idea that people should be able to get relationship right the first or second or even third time around? Where did we get the idea that a relationship should be judged for its durability rather than rated for awareness gained or growth achieved? Or the crazy expectation that this very modern idea of marrying for love (even finding one’s soul mate) could be at all straightforward? It would be like expecting someone to hit a hole in one on their first day playing golf.
…in the context of relationship “failure” is a misnomer. My past has given me the opportunity to open my heart multiple times and cook (and burn) in the fire of experience. I had to go through many iterations of relationship in order to discover what I needed, what I wanted and what I was doing to insure that I would get neither. I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t (couldn’t) show up in my current relationship, without having learned from my past. Including the scorched parts and gristle.
Relationship is not for the faint of heart. We hone our skills and self-awareness in duress — under the mind-bending influences of our personal histories, collective traumas or the conventions of culture. We have to learn about our powers and how to use them well, both on our own behalf and for the other, in peaceful times and during conflict. It takes concerted effort to practice when we are triggered and where it hurts or humbles us the most. It helps to have a coach/counselor who can offer direct, constructive and sometimes painful feedback. And it takes inner work, meaning we have to learn to self-coach.
…Anticipating they will not be celebrated for yet another unsuccessful relationship, many otherwise confidant people hide what is happening at home. I did. How could someone as trained as I am, find herself in such an emotionally compromised, unsafe and painful situation? Again! What’s wrong with me? If you have asked yourself this, you are not alone. And beware: you bear the brunt and burden of a collective projection — a collective fear of old and aloneness. There but by the grace of god…
Social media does not help. Stunningly curated lives reveal next to nothing about what goes on at the kitchen table or behind bedroom doors. People who are bickering, sex-starved, lonely, critical or criticized, cheated on or cheaters, and those who are miserable, hysterical and lost…. yet again, rarely #bless us with their status updates. There is too much shame, fear and self-loathing — too much loud or silent judgment from the world. It’s especially true for victims of emotional or physical abuse and for those who either live with or suffer from mental illness or serious addiction…Don’t allow your shame to make you stingy. Share what you learned — the world needs your wisdom. It definitely makes others feel #blessed when they know they aren’t alone.
There is a Buddhist teacher I admire greatly named Tara Brach who I’ve been listening to frequently while I’ve been away. Just this week I listened to her talk, Releasing Self-Blame — Pathways to a Forgiving Heart. In it, she recounts the Buddha’s teaching about the Second Arrow. She summarizes the teaching succinctly on her blog like this:
I often use the metaphor of the second arrow because I find it just so helpful. The Buddha told a parable and the teaching was:
“If you get struck by an arrow, do you then shoot another arrow into yourself?”
If we look at the way we move through the day, when something happens, when we have pain in our body, when somebody treats us in a way that feels disrespectful, when something goes wrong for someone we love, that’s the first arrow. Our mind and body go into a reactivity that does not help to bring healing. We blame others, we blame ourselves. That’s the second arrow.
My story — our collective story — that longevity is success in relationships and therefore I am failing at them, is my second arrow of self-blame. It’s amplifying my pain and keeping me small. And, it’s some serious bullshit. This writing is me pulling that arrow out, giving it a long hard look, loading it in my bow* and slaying a big ol’ dragon with it. This is me letting myself and you, Dear Reader, know that we are not alone. That we are “…on the path to doing great and original things.” And, we are doing a fucking marvelous job in learning and loving along the way.
(*PS: you’ve been a brilliant teacher in life, love and archery, Kai Nagata. Thank you for putting a bow in my hands exactly when I needed it most.)
Originally published June 8 2016 at www.facebook.com.