For most of my adult life I experienced a lot of relationship turbulence. And I don’t mean just internal churn, though there was plenty of that. I’m talking drama: arguing and fighting (punctuated by shoving, throwing stuff and occasionally destroying property), yelling (name calling), tears, snot and piles of wadded up toilet paper, closed doors, sleeping apart, silences that lasted for days and nights. My twenties were the worst. (Attention, young people—it does eventually get easier—and believe it or not, the sex might even get better.)
It hasn’t been until very recently, meaning this current decade, that my relationship life has “settled.” Not in the sense of settling for, but for its noticeable lack of upheaval. Either I finally found a partner who is suited to my temperament, my dreaming process, meaning said partner provides just the right measure of leaving me alone, servicing my basic needs and being immeasurably kind, smart, inspiring and stand-up, while miraculously feeling served and supported in return, or I simply burned out on fighting. I’m incredulous this has happened to me. I bow down every day.
I admit it. In the past I expected my partners to make me happy. This was their job. They were meant to fill in the blanks—my blanks—of which there were plenty. I won’t go into the gory details, but imagine a fearful, sensitive, seriously near-sighted toddler hanging onto the hemline of a young mother forced into the role by society rather than by her natural desire to nurture, strutting briskly down a city street with needy child in tow. Suffice it to say, I didn’t choose partners that morphed easily into the nurturer role. It wasn’t until a horrific relationship in my late forties ended with my self-esteem torn to shreds (he killed himself several years later, so how he treated me must have paled in comparison to the violence of his inner life) that I figured something out.
Oh wait. Did I figure something out? Do we really figure these things out, or do we just keep working at it, growing our awareness and then let nature do the rest?
I think it’s the latter.
Why share this? Is it at all appropriate from me—a relationship coach, a specialist in conflict facilitation, a so-called expert in the field? Why be this transparent about my long years of relationship Mishegas (Yiddish for craziness)?
Because it’s a new year and in the midst of all the turmoil in the world, one of the things I am most grateful for is that after decades of struggle, I am, in the moment, content in relationship.
Or is it that I’m happy in myself?
This privilege is rarely discussed. Despite the media’s glorification of attractive, affluent, usually white couples, the real, measurable social privilege of being in relationship is rarely talked about. Social psychologist Bella DePaulo (2011) has coined the term singlism to refer to the stereotyping, stigmatizing and discrimination against people who are single—in religion, in the marketplace, in the workplace, in advertising and in every day life—regardless of whether or not one’s single status is by choice.
Yes, some people do prefer to be alone—another little understood phenomena. To demonstrate just how dumb most of us are about singlehood, recall Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s beautiful and stirring speech supporting same-sex marriage. Amidst his touching words, he unwittingly insulted unmarried and single folks (about 44% of all American adults) who he said were “condemned to live in loneliness.”
As if singles own lonely.
During my three decades of tumultuous relationships, I was lonely often, whether in or out of relationship. Whenever I found myself single—yet again—I absorbed a hidden message from the world: Not only was I lonely, I was less than.
Which brings me to my second reason to share* The shame and self-loathing connected with being a) in an overtly abusive relationship, b) in an ordinarily miserable one or c) unhappily single, tends to be exceedingly private. And that’s fine. Except that from that private hell everyone else appears happy—or happier. Which sometimes makes it worse.
It did for me.
So I want to say this: If you’re struggling, you aren’t alone.
*In the spirit of bringing relationship difficulties into the open, I am offering, for the second time, my Couples in Community clinic at the Process Work Institute. The clinic offers couple’s the opportunity to work on their issues in front of a group and to receive Processwork coaching (from me) and community support (from class participants). The clinic provides an inclusive space for all: single, coupled, straight, queer, (LGBTQIA), polyamorous, monogamous and those who do not identify with a label.