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I was sitting in my apartment in my late 20s, reading a blog post written by Lissa Rankin.
At that time, I was lost as a person.
Or, more accurately, I had shut down my voice and feelings in an attempt to feel secure in a relationship.
Desperate was the best word to describe me then. Desperate for answers. Desperate for relief. Desperate for approval.
For someone, anyone, to just love me. I had not yet learned to love myself.
But the truth was slowly inching its way closer into my awareness. I started coming across wisdom teachers and written truths. The answers were there, just out of reach.
In her blog, Rankin shared that some relationships feel like sitting on a feather bed; they are warm, welcoming, soft. While other relationships feel more like a bed of sticks; they are pokey and uncomfortable.
I don’t remember her exact words, but I remember her message was to keep leaning into the uncomfortable relationships—don’t run when it hurts.
My romantic relationship was the first one that came to mind when I read her words about the “bed of sticks.” It felt insecure most days and downright terrifying others. According to Rankin, I needed to “lean in.”
I have heard a lot of discussion about not leaving a relationship when it gets hard. About putting in the time and work to confront and heal or own triggers, attachment wounds, and insecurities.
I’ve also heard that relationships can be our biggest teachers. I don’t disagree. I think we can pretend to ourselves all day about who we are. But people serve as excellent mirrors. They reflect back on what we are not able to see on our own.
At the same time, I believe there is a line between growing in our close relationships and then simply retraumatizing ourselves. How do we know the difference?
In my relationship, I didn’t have the skills at that point to “lean in.” My attachment style was too anxious for me to grow. Then that shifted. I learned about that place of strength we all have that never leaves.
I learned about and experienced that internal “self” that is always there, regardless if people abandon us or not—that was a game changer. A life changer. I could finally stand on my own two feet in the relationship. I could finally take care of my side of the street because I knew I had a side.
I wasn’t dependent on the other person to take care of or love me. I was learning how to do that for myself.
Doing so allowed me to open up and as Rankin described, “lean in.” I became more open and vulnerable. I was able to acknowledge when it was my stuff that was impacting our relationship and take accountability. I could finally see myself in the relationship rather than absorbing into the other person.
And I learned I wasn’t perfect.
There were days when I was angry at myself and the world and that impacted how I interacted with my partner. I learned that I was putting the responsibility on him to make me happy when that was really an inside job.
Apparently, I have a stubborn and prideful side that will stonewall until the cows come home. Sometimes, my emotions would sweep through the house like a tidal wave, which can be overwhelming for the other person. I was finally able to see “the stuff.” I was able to take a step back, say “I’m sorry,” and work toward doing things differently.
And I continued to grow. I shared things that I had long kept buried. I bore my heart and let myself be seen. I had the difficult conversations that started as a massive shame ball in my stomach and ended in relief.
And still, the relationship felt hard.
He would do things or act in ways that would rub against a pain point I had had for decades. He brought out all of my pain and made me see my weak points. Over and over and over again.
I would communicate my needs, wants, desires and they would go unaddressed. I would share my deepest fear, and he would tell me to “keep growing.”
And then, I knew—I knew I had come to a place of impasse.
I knew that I had done my work. On one hand, I was infinitely grateful to this person who showed up in my life. In all the ways that counted, he saved me from myself.
He came into my world and put a stop to the direction I was going. I wasn’t going in a good direction before I met him. It was a direction filled with addiction, greed, and repression. I was quickly becoming a shell of someone. He took away my crutches and made me stand on my own—that was a priceless gift.
But then, I was standing. And once I was standing on my own, I could see myself.
I could see where I came from, who I was, and what I wanted for my future. I could voice my needs, wants, and desires. I could take care of that little person inside. And that little person inside told me that she was tired.
She told me, through her pain and tears, that she wanted to feel safe again. She acknowledged how far we had come, but she made me see the things that she deeply desired for our future. And that included a loving, kind, safe, and giving relationship. We had done the work. We were deeply grateful. But we were tired.
And that was how I knew.
When I could stand on my own, hold my side of the street, communicate needs, wants, and desires and still be shoved back down. This was no longer about growing. This was simply retraumatizing. This was putting that little girl through hell again and again and again.
So yes, there is absolutely a time for “leaning in.” If I had skipped that stage, I would not have been able to grow the way I had from that relationship. I would have missed the lessons that were right in front of me. I would not have the awareness or strength that were gifts from those lessons.
And there is also a time for waving the white flag, packing our bags, and getting the hell out of the relationship that is made from a “bed of sticks.”
When that time comes is not a clear-cut answer. It is not an easy checklist we can tick. It may look like knowing, on a deep level, we gave everything we had.
Every little corner of our heart that was previously blocked off or protected now lays open. We know what was ours and what was the other person’s “stuff.”
We are able to willingly admit when it was our stuff and lean into the discomfort that comes from saying (and truly meaning) “I’m sorry, I will do better.”
We are able to work through our past conditioning in a safe and productive way.
When all of that is done and things are not getting easier, it may be time.
When we do the hard things and relief in the relationship doesn’t follow, that might be our line.