Ein alter Freund stellte mir diese Frage: Was haben Deine Kinder mit Dir gemacht? Wie haben sie Dein Leben verändert? ich dachte: endlich fragt mal einer! Und dann sprudelte es aus mir heraus.
„Sie haben mich nach innen geworfen. Sie haben mich Kraftquellen finden lassen, von denen ich noch nichts wusste. Sie haben mich unendlich verwundbar gemacht und sehr stark. Sie haben mir die Illusion geraubt, ich könnte niemals lieben. Nun muss ich lieben. ich darf lieben. Und gehe damit das volle Risiko ein. Jede Sekunde. Und mir schlottern vor Angst die Knie.
Ausserdem durfte ich mit ihnen heilen, lachen, mich wundern. Jeden Tag, seit fast siebzehn Jahren, essen sie, was ich koche, schlafen in Betten, die ich schüttle und wasche, trinken aus meinen Wasserhähnen und verlassen sich auf mein Herz. Manchmal ist das so viel, dass ich sehr müde bin. Und es ist so viel, dass ich vor Dankbarkeit platze. Und hier ist das Risiko der Arroganz am grössten: ich will, dass jeder kriegstreibende Despot Klos putzt, fiebrige Kinder hält, verkotzte Handtücher mit den fingern reinpult, bis sie in die Waschmachine gehen. Ich will, dass er da sitzt, mit zwei Leben auf den Knien, die so total auf seine Hände, seinen Verstand, sein Mitgefühl angewiesen sind, dass es kein Entrinnen gibt. Nachts nicht und tags nicht, um 2h nicht um 4h nicht um 18h nicht. Ich will, dass er einen Kindernacken in der Abendsonne sieht und ihm der Atem wegbleibt, weil dieser eine Blick alle Verletzlichkeit der Welt auf sich liegen hat, und einem die Brust zerdrückt wie ein ganzer Betonbunker, der mit einem mal darauf lastet. Ich will, dass er Atem holen muss, in diesem Moment. Wo die Liebe ihm das Herz aufschneidet, tiefer, als er es je für möglich gehalten hat. Vielleicht wäre dann mehr Frieden auf der Welt.“
„Do the work!“ … „You gotta do the work!“ … „Relationship is work!!“ – Do you ever get tired of hearing that? Reading that in so many social media posts? Do you ever ask yourself: What does that even mean?
I did. It irked me. It gave me only a pretty vague idea of what I have to do. I thought I was working pretty hard! It felt awful enough. And it was slow going… I wish I had had the overview I have today. Might have saved me some loops and saved my marriage some awful fights. For example I misused non-violent communication pretending non-violence with a closed-off heart (read more about that here). I also got high and mighty often enough. That was lonely and unhelpful. Ouch.
Gradually, though, I was catching on. Here is a very simple overview of how I see „doing the work“ on myself and my relationships today. Basically I see two main areas:
Both are in service of me and the relationship. And both are in service of me living my truth, and bringing myself fully to what I want to do with this precious life. And here is a list of things I do within these two areas. They are „the work“ for me, and life-changing. I am curious what is on your list – please share in the comments!
Relational self-awareness. I had to expand my self-awareness. Meditating alone was not enough. When the heat is on with my husband and the pain-level rises, practicing self-awareness is staying open, and in my embodied experience. How? Slowing down to simple feeling statements when I am „in it“ e.g. „I am scared.“ And: Asking trusted friends and my partner to practice this with me. Getting help from (couples) coaches.
Noticing when I exchange thought for embodied awareness. Analysing the problem at hand is good. Yet I learnt that sometimes not prudence, but fear evokes analysis. Then I get all in my head, shut down to my emotions and sensations. That way I miss a lot of essential data. My outer calm then is merely the tip of an iceberg, with an underwater volcano that others are keenly aware of. It is essential to catch myself pretending rationality. How: Little check in meditations that include awareness of bodily sensation frequently. Yoga. Dance. Body work (e.g. shiatsu). Somatic meditation. Having colleagues and friends who call me out. Therapy and coaching.
Expanding my capacity to be with strong emotions. As increased self-awareness opened a new landscape of emotions to me, I began training to be with stronger charges, for example feeling my fear without reacting when I perceive tension in others. I practice observing the course of my activation in my body and through time. How: I find inspiration in Bruce Tift’s „Already free“, enlist peers, close friends and my partners to help me regulate (co-regulation). Yoga. Mindfulness meditation. Bicycling and hiking mountains or long-distance.
Blindspots. I found out they are called that for a reason… My challenge: to stay open to the pain caused by my blindspots, and to the hard-to-hear feedback from others. Pain and feedback show me the way to see myself more clearly. How: Asking my partner, friends and practice community for feedback. „What is it like to be with me? How do you experience me?“ Listening. Pulling myself up from shame and collapse when I am too hard on myself.
Sense of direction. My direction toward wholeness is often counterintuitive, toward intense discomfort. Yet I also need to listen to my intuition. Huh?! Exactly. It’s confusing. My work is doing baby-steps toward discomfort in service of my deepest truth. How: Using support and guidance to stay oriented. Self care: Making time to be with myself to hear where my heart longs to go. Asking myself: What would I show/request/say/do if I weren’t afraid?
Knowing what I need. One of the most helpful things I learnt at The Relationshop School® was about our core and fundamental needs (Core needs: 1. Attachment and 2. Self-expression; and Fundamental needs: the 4S+C – to be Safe, Seen, Soothed and Supported and Challenged). This structure helped me find the courage and clarity, as well as the language to advocate for my needs. How: Learn about needs. Taking time to explore my needs with my partner, friends, peers. Recognising pain as a signal to look at what I am lacking (pain = Pay Attention Inward Now). Therapy and coaching.
Tenacity. It is hard for me to not back down. Yet as I flip-flop between „I am a delight! It’s all on him!“ and „I am broken! I will never get this right!“ I stay as steady as I can and stay the course. Secure relating looks simple to me, yet I find it very difficult to do. I am taking years to learn! What keeps me going? Small steps in the right direction have had massive positive impacts, even when I did them messily. How: Getting help from accountability partners. Community and peers. Listing why I care about this work (e.g. my children, my purpose…). Coaching and Therapy.
Give understanding. I prided myself to be a good listener. But I really learned to listen much more deeply through a listening structure taught in The Relationship School®. Here is a mini-summary: Decide to really listen. Are you present? Do you feel curious? Then really listen (reflecting efficiently; being actively interrupting and asking questions in service of understanding). Check back with them often to see if you are getting them. Stay curious until their experience makes complete sense to you and seems relatable. Let them know how and why their experience makes sense to you (this is called „validation“ and calms people way down). I notice that few people know how to listen fully, all the way until someone feels understood. Yet when I feel understood I calm down, and new possibility arises. How: Get the structure and practice it with others! It’s like playing the guitar: thinking about it won’t do the trick. Use in daily life and notice the difference.
Have an infinite set of new eyes to see. One of my biggest challenges is „automating“ my partner and others: I see what I expect and am blind to the rest. Returning to fresh eyes over and over again is a challenge. How: As I walk toward the other person, I notice my expectations and set them down consciously (e.g. when my kids were younger I would walk upstairs to check out a loud commotion, using the staircase to let go of my assumptions and stay open with each step). Yoga. Meditation. I listen to my favorite music, dance. I sing. I move in nature. I pretend that my husband is a wondrous specimen I just found.
Know what they care about. I thought I knew what made my partner’s heart sing. Yet as I was able to work better with my charges, I listened more deeply, and found more ways to relate to it. I know what the three most important things are in his life, and stay curious as they change. This is key to my understanding, our collaboration and mutual empowerment. How: I observe how he spends his time and ask questions. I work with my judgements and hire a couples coach if my charge keeps me from accepting his desires.
Take responsibility. Over and over again I fall down, yet I keep practicing using I statements. No blame. At first I practiced this in half-day „blame fasts“. I rarely made it though the half-day… When I got better at noticing blame and asking myself „What do I need?“ when it arises, I had a big shift. Read more about that here. How: Learn about your needs, because being „starved“ makes you cranky. Practice self-care. Get a practice partner to help you stay true to this, and to unload and share the struggle.
Take ownership. This was a big step toward learning how to repair our connection for me: Owning my actions and my experience. And letting them have their experience. I try to not get tempted into a battle of right and wrong. Relating is all about understanding and each other’s subjective experiences. When my behaviour has caused upset I make an effort to acknowledge what I did/said/didn’t do and what I would rather have done/said instead. That works better than a quick „I am sorry“. How: Learn about using acknowledgement versus apology. Practice with friends. Hire a coach.
Know your judgments. I try not to kid myself that I am beyond judgement or irritation, always calm and loving. I know I will fool no one but myself… My work is owning my judgements, noticing them and doing the work to clear them, again and again and again. The more I do, the more I love – that is my biggest motivation. I cherish having opinions and preferences, and aim to hold them lightly. How: Learn how to clear resentments and bigger charges. Practice this with friends. Hire a coach.
Boundaries. I strive to be clear about what is ok with me. In finding my true, flexible boundaries, I often go through porosity or rigidity. It may take me a while to find the line, and the lines are changing, yet this got so much easier with practice. How: Be transparent with your inner circle about wanting to learn this better, so they understand and can be supportive. Get to know the signs that you failed to uphold a boundary (e.g. time starvation, irritation, feeling spent and defeated). Practice within a trusted community. Stay alive and playful – as Esther Perel points out at the end of this eclectic but very useful video. Otherwise it become all about borders and rules.
Speak with skill. I need to know myself and my partner to speak with skill. Why? Knowing what they love most in life, I can advocate for what I love by pointing to synergies. The more I know how getting my needs met serves them in practical real life terms, the more ease I experience in negotiations. How: Get the help of a friend to list how meeting YOUR needs would serve THEM. Get creative. Stuck? Get a (couples) coach.
Ok, what was meant to be a well-structured, short list turned into a bit of an ecosystem: diverse and complex. And not complete, of course. Let me know if my collection helps you! What is missing? What is your experience with „doing the work“ on your relationships?
Love has two faces: Dark and light. Yet what does that mean? And how do you work with it?
Popular culture says love is only light. That made sense to me and I tried hard to be only a (de)light when I first found spiritual practice. My goal was to be forever peaceful and loving. I thought if I meditated hard enough, my being would invite only light, and my relationships would be pure harmony.
Hm… that didn’t happen. Yes, I found useful insight and transformation through spiritual practice. And no, I wasn’t peaceful and loving all the time, much as I tried to fake it (more on that here). So I re-doubled my effort. Which led to a host of very valuable changes, yet I still struggled, particularly in relationship, and I still frequently got controlling, critical and angry. The same seemed to be true for my fellow practitioners and most of my spiritual teachers.
The missing place of practice that helped me make real progress here was… relationship! My meditation cushion and my yoga mat were helpful solitary places, yet finding the ability to work with myself in relationship was the springboard to find where I had wanted to be: On a path of learning to deepen intimacy and to be fulfilled. Making my relationships sources of energy, rather than energy drains.
Times of struggle in relationship are now a highly effective place of practice for me, and an opportunity for growth and healing. The often cited statement „relationship is work“ has come to life for me, and its meaning is no longer abstract, yet a reminder of a specific practice. Here is one huge building block of that specific practice.
Three steps of working with times of struggle that constitute one major route toward healing
The first step of the work is noticing the impulse to distract. Dark times are painful times. Times we do not enjoy. Scared times, sad times… Those are the times we want to distract. We seek comfort in our distractions. They can be little, such as zoning out, or eating a cookie, or bigger, such as talking about it, rather than staying in it, drinking alcohol, going outside of our relationship and having an affair.
Noticing the impulse to distract becomes far easier when you know your favorite distractions: coffee, sugar, drinking, social media, drama. What is your favorite way to get out of your experience?
My favorite distraction? Focusing on the other person instead of myself. I analyze them to figure them out, I crack a joke or care-take them to get out of my feelings, or I criticize. What they offer is not right, and therefore I am alone. Yadi-yadi-ya…
The more you know yourself here, the easier it becomes to use your distractions as reminders to pause and proceed to Step 2.
Step 2 is simply: Checking in. What am I feeling? Drop in to yourself and feel how you are doing. Take a deep breath. Too simple to work, right? Yes, I have to fight resistance in the form of this thought every time. I want to use only my brain instead. And: In my experience this step is simple, difficult to do, AND very effective.
So pause, breathe, and silently notice and name. If you are with someone, and need to pause, be transparent: „Hang on, I need to pause for a moment.“
Notice the uncomfortable emotion. Allow awareness of your experience. Yikes, who would want to do that? I think you probably are crazy enough to try, because you understand that hard paths lead to exciting places. So: What is your experience?
Perhaps you are feeling hopeless, angry, hurt or scared, or a wild mixture of all of that. Do you need some guidance on your primary emotions? I like the old graphic by Robert Plutchik that can be found in this article. Notice the emotion, and notice the sensations in your body that go with that. It will help a lot to find a routine way for this checking-in process, like Dan Siegel’s SIFT practice, or your own unique little version (my friend Jolandé uses STEN: sensation, thought, emotion, number on activation scale).
If you were able to become aware of your distractive behavior and are now checking in with your felt experience, that is a big win!! Take a celebratory breath. You have used struggle as an opportunity to „do the work“ and that is a major achievement.
Now you can choose to do something new. You know that new choices bring new results. So, choose to not distract, but instead go do step 3.
Step 3 is choosing to stay connected. Connected to what? First and foremost, to yourself. This is another fundamental element of what „doing the work“ means: Hold yourself in warm regard and stay with your felt, embodied experience for a while. Yes, like you would hold a toddler with a scraped knee.
Take your experience seriously, because if you don’t, no-one else will. This is no easy feat, because most of us got the message that what we are feeling is wrong, unimportant or dangerous to notice. Perhaps not-feeling was a matter of survival for you when you were young.
For my elders it was in fact a matter of survival to not feel, as they managed to survive World War II under horrific circumstances. Also, they didn’t know what we know today: Our emotions can and will transform, if we take care of them. If we do not, they lead to unwelcome „complications“, like withdrawal, loneliness, discontent, restlessness, overeating, rage, depression etc. Holding down your emotions will deplete you and suck the life out of your relationships slowly, or explode those connections over and over again.
So, keep practicing step 3: Stay connected. To yourself, and hold yourself in warm regard. Allow your emotional experience to be essential information, just like other essential pieces of information you check in with all the time, such as your thoughts, your bodily sensations or what your ears are hearing.
If you are practicing the three steps while you are with your partner or a friend, you can choose to stay connected to them, too. A start for that would be to share your experience. „Right now I feel…“ And all sorts of interesting things can happen from there.
So, here is the work
- Step 1: Notice the impulse to distract.
- Step 2: Check in with yourself.
- Step 3: Choose to stay connected.
Choosing to stay with your experience and to stay connected to another person is the work that invites healing. It will transform your life. As you train up your ability to notice, be with and share your experience skillfully, your relationship will deepen, and become an incredibly effective place of healing. It will also become more and more fulfilled.
Healing is coming to terms with what is (Jon Kabat-Zinn). That includes noticing and staying with yourself, as these three steps guide you to do. As such this work is one main portal for healing.
Practice brings progress – so the three steps are best practiced with likeminded and skillful friends (like my friend and Relationship Coach Jennifer Morrison from The Relationship School® in the picture above: white hat is Jennifer, black hat is me). Their presence can help you stay with yourself, and learning to be present will expand your relational capacity further.
You can also find likeminded practitioners in our Relationship Training Community. This group comes with guidance from two experienced Relationship Coaches and teachers: Myself and Jolandé Heppell. Here we meet regularly to practice the art and work of relationship.
Practice right now and share one favorite way you distract in the comments below. I am curious!
How I Watered Down My Marriage With Non-Violent Communication
“No, not like that! That’s not how it works!” were two of the many sentences I used to speak frequently to my husband. I was raised in a direct culture, in which criticism and anger is openly spoken and shown. This comes with benefits and drawbacks.
At first I clung to the value of my direct expression and aggression. I defended myself. I praised the virtue of my “honesty” and ridiculed my softer-spoken husband for not standing in his power. It does not feel great to write this. And yes, I did do that. No wonder this led to his withdrawal. I faced the growing pain of disconnection. Instead of passionate love, I found more and more distance in my marriage.
It was deeply painful. And it was a deeply inspired mechanism: This pain eventually had me take the next step.
I became willing to look at myself. To see my contribution. This is how I found meditation. I began listening better, and discovered the heat of my partner’s pain when I spoke in certain ways. Ouch. I did not want to be the person to inflict that kind of pain.
I felt the shame I held around my own speech. I started seeing how my “honesty” included little mean stabs at my husband. How my “truth” often was an attempt to ease my own pain by inflicting pain on him. I really did not want to see that. Yet once I had the first glimpse, I started recognising more and more of the violence in my speech. So I went on a mission: Learning “non-violent communication.”
This was an approach that quickly had me enthralled. I read feverishly, practiced, observed and reflected on my changes in a journal. I bumped my nose pretty hard many times, learning to “clean up my speech.” And I had a steep learning curve. Things improved for a while. Then something else happened.
It was very painful, and it took me a long while to find it and name it.
For sure my marriage was more peaceful. For sure I was pretty happy with the way I spoke now, most of the time. I even got better at „subtleties“ like tone, facial expression and body language.
But what was happening deep down in myself? What was that unfamiliar gnaw? Why did my tears flow suddenly, when I remembered myself kayaking through the rain, on a vast lake, as fast as I could, violently happy? Feeling as alive as an Arctic Tern? My husband paddling by my side, with long, confident strides, and joy on his face?
There was something very essential missing. What was that blanket, that seemed to cover my heart? Where was my vitality? Gone. That word dropped into me one morning, heavy as lead: Gone. Why was it gone? Where did it go?
In a familiar way, I first blamed him. It was because of the way he met me! The way he spoke to me! The way he looked at me! He did not evoke that passionate part in me! „So there!“ I thought angrily… Yet I knew I was kidding myself even as I revelled in blame and inner ranting for a while.
He did not truly have the power to snuff out my vitality. Only I could do that. So what happened? And how did I manage to turn my life into damp toast?
Here I was, remarkably more soft-spoken. Yet I felt twisted inside, muffled. My new vocabulary was painfully limited in expressing my stronger emotions. Even my strengths. The strength with which I drew my paddle through that rain-swept lake with joy…
In fact, I had come to believe that those strong emotions were somehow wrong. My “violent” emotions held too much energy. Instead of taking care of these emotions, and acting and speaking in truth to them, I had taken a fateful short-cut: I had watered down my voice using what I thought was “non-violent communication.”
“I feel so frickin’ angry!!” had become “I am a little frustrated.” “I feel so desperately alone and unmet, I just want to crawl under my desk and hide like a little girl!“ had become silence. It was deeply painful. And again this pain led to the next stage of my journey.
How could I be true to my passionate emotions and yet speak skilfully? For sure I couldn’t use non-violent communication as a patch covering up what I really felt any longer. I had probably misunderstood what the inventors of that approach had meant all along. And, looking around me, it seems I wasn’t the only one. How often did I hear soft and polite words, seething with violence? Between parents and their child? “Honey, will you PLEASE stop that banging!!!?! Grrr!” Between partners: “Excuse me…!!!?!?” these two polite words can be said in so many ways.
I still hold the intention to not unnecessarily hurt my partner. But now I also hold another intention: To not unnecessarily hurt myself by betraying, and stuffing my deeply felt and passionate emotions. For me, the way to do that has two main steps.
First, increased awareness and acceptance of my emotional life.
And second: A striving for skilful yet authentic non-violent expression of my truth.
How does that play out in my life?
You can find me sitting or walking with my strong emotions before I take them to my husband. And you can find me speaking with passion, more forgiving of my own lapses, more quickly acknowledging my judgments and “stabs”, followed by a fierce dedication to repair. Life has returned to our home. Life is delicious and messy. And I’m feasting on it.
What about you?
A friend of mine once told me a joke: He had told a fellow American that he was marrying a German woman (I happen to be a German woman, too). The guy said: “Oh excellent! At least when you make a mistake you will always know right away!”
My friend has a huge sense of humor, and he tells this anecdote with a loving twinkle in his eye, remembering his wife, who has sadly since deceased. Like her, I am quick to point out what is “wrong” and what my American husband “should do”.
Strangely I could never get my husband to appreciate the advantages of my communication style… In fact, instead of inviting him in to meet me and discuss with me, it had the effect of alienating him, and often even shutting him down.
I decided that this was just one more cultural difference, and that we needed to accept and live with. I wasn’t about to give up my love for honesty and directness. He wasn’t about to thank me and feel loved in the face of my next “You should…”.
Until I looked more closely at where that “you should” came from. I was in the middle of my school year in the The Relationship School®, learning about “I statements” and “needs”. And suddenly it hit me that saying “you should” wasn’t direct at all.
There were two words that were much more direct. And far more difficult and rewarding to say.
At the heart of each “you should” was really something I wanted, something I needed. At first I didn’t quite want to believe that, but over time it dawned on me. Each “you should” was related to a need, and I had lots of needs!
It was unsettling.
Then a few months more into my school year, Jayson Gaddis had us speak a sticky sentence: “I am needy”. That sentence tasted unfamiliar. I tried it on a few more times. Embarrassing at first perhaps, and yet, possibly liberating…
And this was the beginning of me using these two new words:
Owning my needs? That’s right.
In fact, here’s a new practice I invite you to try:
Each time I want to say “You should…” I try to stop myself and look a little deeper. Then I say instead: “I need…”
“You should not take me for granted!”…becomes… “I need to know that I matter to you.”
“You should show me more gratitude” …becomes… “I need to feel appreciated.”
“You should learn how to listen better” …becomes… “I need you to listen to me until I feel understood.”
“You should ask me more questions” …becomes… “I need to feel seen and known.”
“You should slow down and relax.” …becomes… “I need to take some space from you right now and be in my own pace.”
“You should be more present when you’re with us” …becomes… “I need to feel you here with me and the kids.”
Saying “I need” has turned my world around. And, little did I know how much my husband enjoys being needed! How much more at home he is in his own house when I relax into what I need instead of trying to control what he does.
And there is more. It works wonders for me, too. Exchanging “I should” with “I need” gives me freedom of choice. It also motivates me by connecting my actions to my goals:
“I should stop eating chocolate.” …becomes… “I need to stop eating this chocolate if I want to sleep well tonight.”
“I should have better time management.” … becomes… “I need to find a way to manage my time better so I can fit in playing table tennis with my son.”
If you try this yourself, you might notice that some of your “I shoulds” dissolve altogether!
Some “I shoulds” are not directly connected to my own needs at all. Instead, I have introjected them from somewhere else.
For example: I should go running three times a week. When I look closely this is what I have ingested from others, and what really feels good for me is bicycling and yoga. If I push myself to run, this works for a few weeks, and then I fail and stop being active, start being frustrated, and make running wrong, or find excuses and ultimately collapse into shame.
The difference is staying true to me, versus twisting my arm and later making my lack of discipline about something or someone else.
Knowing this difference, I am able to drop the “I should” and instead do what is aligned with me. I can choose to do what I want to do, or what I need to do to reach what I want. It is very liberating!
Now when the words “You should” or “I should” come up in my mind, I see it is an opportunity. Each time they emerge, I have a choice to „drop in“ with myself and get to know myself more. Finding the “I need” means reaching for who I am and who I want to become.
Bottom line? My needs light the path to my true self. What about you?
Have you ever been haunted by the question „Should I stay or should I go?“ Plagued by it, back and forth, not finding the answer, not settling into any kind of certainty of your path?
This question used to haunt me. There it was, lurking in corners like a pesky varmint, scaring me, bugging me, staring into my face.
I tried my best to answer it until the confusion became unbearable, and I would numb out.
After all, numbing out was more comfortable than facing this bloody question with no hope of finding an answer.
I was stuck in indecision. And I was slowly losing my ompf.
Indecision was like a slow inner bleed. It robbed me of my powers. It was the reason I reached for the next cookie, stuck on the couch. It was the slow inner drip that made me sleepy, lured me into hope for magical solutions.
If I could just be better, if I could show up more feminine, more attractive. Then… If he would just wake up and change, if he would just find a friend to help him improve this or that. Then…
For me, the pain only grew. Half-awake I saw myself slipping away into the grey.
I would catch my reflection accidentally. The tired sadness in my face startled me.
Until I found the guts to look myself straight in the eye:
How are you, self?
And I kept answering myself:
I am confused. I don’t know what I should do. I feel such a longing for this relationship to blossom into full potential. I feel weak and exhausted. I judge myself for not getting it right. I am ashamed to fail yet again. I am afraid to hurt him. I am afraid to damage our kids. I am afraid to make the wrong decision.
It was like riding a great big powerful beast. A dragon. A dragon with a bleeding wound. Only for my dragon, this wound was not hidden or internal. She was writhing, fighting, in full knowledge of her bonds and pain.
Instead of running away, I began visiting the dragon. I found community to help me sit with her and bring her my full presence. I learned that my dragon was powerful. I began to see that, ungoverned, all she knew was fight, flight, or freeze. I saw how she breathed fire when scared, and that her fire had an enormous heat. Enough to kill a man. I learned that she was innocent, for she had no reason. Swimming in her thick skull was a reptilian brain.
I found guides who taught me how to keep steady and be with her, when she was sad and scared. I learned how to give her space to writhe and thrash when she was mad, and slowly I trained my ability to contain her to keep her from hurting others or herself.
Over time, we forged a relationship, my inner beast and me.
If you watched Avatar – it was like I had connected my braid to her. The power and agony in her that once had scared me, had tried to throw me off, was now the power in me.
She trusted me. She was ready to hear my command. She and I were one.
My question was not „should I stay or should I go“ anymore.
Right then I knew both paths – staying and going – to be painful and exhilarating.
The fantasy of the right decision – it fell away. The dream of finding my soulmate in a new person I was yet to meet – I dropped it. The goal I had for my marriage changed from „I want happy“ to a bigger vision (you can read Jayson Gaddis‘ take on the main goal of a high functioning marriage here). Knowing myself better, I learned to differentiate the impulses of my dragon from the wiser council of my mind and heart. I saw how I had still a lot of work to do before I could fight well when my husband and I were in conflict. As long as our inner dragons were colliding, our hearts would not be open to each other.
Turning my attention directly onto myself had proved to be the liberating move. Where the agony was, there lay my power to turn things around.
It was not important if I stayed or went. It was important to know that whatever choice I made was my own, active choice.
The right path was the path I chose.
It was the direction I set my eyes on. The call of my dragon-heart that led the way:
I chose to stay in my marriage. Since then my marriage is the path I choose every single day when I wake up in the morning.
From that place, I have a bigger view. I see that I have not yet given it my all. And I am always free to revisit my question.
Today I am in my marriage with all my heart. For my dragon and me, there is room for a lot of things. But not for falling asleep again for any length of time.
I have work to do.
I have love to live.
Years ago, I found myself caught between two very strong forces: The pull towards The Relationship School® in Boulder, CO and the passion for our family life in my Swiss village. I was stressed and confused. These forces were tucking at me strongly, persistently.
Should I really go? Was it just midlife-crisis that had me jump into this adventure, or was there any wisdom in leaving my family for a week and flying over the Atlantic?
I did go. And I found a path that I have been following ever since with all my heart. Here is how one boy I never met gave me the courage to go:
Swiss mountains around me, packing list in my hand. My head insists I am going in the wrong direction: to the US. I have been looking forward to The Relationship School® in Boulder for months. Now my body stalls.
Just now my village home is paradise.
Only yesterday my kids had formed a circus with their friends. The arena was under Miriam’s linden tree, by the pony barn. The afternoon sun was shining through the branches. The children jumped and danced on a board balanced over an old tin bucket. My heart burst with gratitude and joy – the last thing I wanted to do was leave my little girl to go to the US.
There she was, swinging dangerously, smiling and throwing the first dried leaves into the air from her pocket. All-natural confetti.
It was only because I created my own hell in the midst of this paradise that I was now getting ready to leave for a seven-day-trip. As it turned out for me, awakening to this hell, led to finding Jayson Gaddis and his Smart Couple Podcast. Which was the beginning of a fundamental re-gardening process: very slowly I was turning the destitute industrial area of our marriage to match our idyllic surroundings of lush greenery, spaces maintained with love and abundant signs of community.
I dropped the packing list and used the last hour before my children would walk down from the village school to ride down to the lake, getting our groceries from the organic co-op.
As I was pedalling up the hill again I remembered an email from a German friend. He was housing a refugee boy from Syria: Maher. Maher’s mother was killed on their flight from war, and his father and siblings were scattered over Europe. My friend was asking for help to reunite Maher with his family. All it would take was some luck and a few thousand Euros to cover plane fares. This was my chance to bribe the universe and to quiet my fears about travelling without my family. I put my bike away and went straight to my laptop to make a donation.
Helping out this boy gave me the courage to face my own fears. It also helped me connect my travels with one of my highest values: Being of service. Learning about relationship would serve world peace -– it may sound far fetched, but it seemed clear as rain to me: I was travelling for myself, for my family, and for Maher.
Then I finally packed. One day and a 15+ hour plane journey later I joined just over 50 people at Boulder’s Integral Center for the first ever Relationship School Live Weekend. For about half of us this was also the kick-off to a nine-month journey, studying the Deep Psychology of Intimate Relationships in order to become well-practiced “love warriors”.
Jayson and his wife Ellen Boeder fed us neurophysiological knowledge and role-played common situations in the “full catastrophe” of family life. They modelled the attitude, timing and language that can turn a relational challenge into love. We repeated the moves in real-time exchanges and learnt how this felt in our own bodies. Over time, I could practically feel my relational muscles become stronger!
I was in a jet lag haze that seemed supportive of opening my heart through sheer exhaustion. Practicing with the other students meant checking in with myself, opening my heart and entering an intimate exchange.
Over and over I failed or succeeded to stay connected to myself, keep my heart open and stay in intimacy. This was taking it much further than countless hours spent on the meditation cushion, as essential as they are to me.
Whatever sense of awakened love I was feeling was directly put to the test of actual relating.
The day after the Live Weekend I found myself sitting in Trident Café, Boulder, with a massive soul hangover, clear mind and expansive heart, my relational muscles slightly sore.
Just as working out makes my body feel confident and alive, I was filled with new confidence to bring home to my family, my entire relational life. If this were to wear off, I was still left with a down-to-earth set of practical tools, a map and a compass.
I was intent on expanding paradise by tending to my marriage: To me it’s the most important thing in my small privileged life, and the best contribution I can think of to create a global garden in which my family and Maher can heal and thrive.
Packing that morning for my trip home, I checked email one last time. My German friend had sent a note: In the few days since my donation, the fund to bring Maher’s family together had grown to over 3500 Euros. People had teamed up to organize flea markets, offer legal council and sent money to make a difference for this boy. My heart softened as I realized how eager people are to do something practical to help relieve suffering in the world.
With the Rocky Mountains at my back and a thick Relationship School® manual in my bag, there was no doubt I was going in the right direction, my direction.
I was bringing back home a keen determination to live in integrity beyond my meditation cushion, a set of tools for everyday, heart-swelling memories and a small to medium sized “cowboy hat” for my kids to parade around our Swiss village.
And most importantly I was bringing myself back home.
(Note: Originally I wrote this blog in 2016, after taking my first long-term relationship training course.)
I remember the last time I felt completely misunderstood and unseen. Feels really bad, right?
And even worse, it was my husband of 13 years who did not seem to understand me. At all. Until recently, I would have let it go, silently brooded and put my indignation on a growing pile of resentments.
I would have remembered a lover from years ago. The one who really understood me. The one who read poetry, like I do. I would have silently longed for a ghost from the past and endured my “fate”. I would have been thinking about how I would die, and my husband would discover my diaries. All my incredible thoughts would open his eyes and heart, and he would be filled with regret and longing. But then it would be too late…
Remembering this I feel pathetic. But, if I am honest, I did sometimes have such romantic thoughts.
But not this time. Not after 9 months of training as a “love warrior” with The Relationship School®. By now I had some arrows in my quiver. And not only did I know they were there, but the reflex to use them was in my bones (what a good feeling).
“Right now I feel really unseen and misunderstood.” I said.
My husband was getting used to this also. Instead of getting stressed out, and offering his usual “Oh I am sorry,” while quickly putting as much space as possible between us, he slowed down and turned to me, looking me fully in the eye.
“Oh.” he said.
I breathed. God, I felt like shit. I was filled with a mixture of anger, despair and exacerbation. I could feel my heart pounding. It took a lot of effort to return his gaze. My mouth turned dry. How I longed to hit and run! All I could think of was to continue breathing. Part of my mind offered angry retorts: Oh – is that all you have to say?!! I am fucking alone over here!! Another part answered: I hear you, yes, this feels like shit, just breathe. Breathe. This is energy, a wave, let it move through. The previous part offered more profanities. I breathed.
“Hearing you responding nothing but “oh” I feel even more alone. I feel insignificant and uncared for.”
“Oh.” he says again, looking like he is thinking very hard, stressed.
I snort a bitter laugh. I breathe. I can barely contain myself from shaming him, but I know better now.
He gulps. Then he seems to summon all he has: “I do want to understand you. I really do. I feel lost. Where do I start? What could I say, so you would believe me?”
I release a big exhale. My face softens. I can access my heart slowly… “Well, what did you hear thus far…?”
And so we continue talking. My husband staying with me, returning my gaze, leaning in. He has become a love warrior. When my voice gets snide he does not flinch. Or maybe a little. He continues to lean in. He even reflects back what I am saying. He continues to look at me. I talk and talk. He is still not getting it. And he is still here, trying to get my world. My eyes fill with tears and my heart opens wide in one swift unexpected movement.
From bitter to sweet in just a few breaths.
So, here is the one thing that makes or breaks my world in a fight:
Willingness. My husband trying to understand me with all of his heart.
My nervous system is calming down, I feel my brain getting less foggy. My vibe shifts in a way that seems less threatening to my husband. He regains more of his ability to listen and stay with me.
Finally we are moving in a cycle toward connection -– this time our direction is “virtuous” instead on “vicious”: A love cycle instead of a fear cycle.