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Why should I be doing all the work in my relationship?
It sounds like you take on all responsibility for everything that happens. What about your husband? Does he have no responsibility in your relationship?
Why should I learn how to love my husband instead of finding someone who’s easy to love?
~ from conversations with women
Thirty-two years into my marriage, I am learning to love my husband.
It sounds like a paradox and feels counter-intuitive. As I document my process of learning to love, I sometimes get confused and exasperated comments from my readers: Are we really supposed to do all the work, again?
It’s a good question. I usually answer it with other questions: For whom are you doing this? Whose life are you living? What is important to you? What are you prepared to do for it to work?
I spent many years projecting, blaming, nagging, complaining, and needing my husband to change for me to be happy. The more I needed him to change so I could feel better, the more he refused. I felt stuck and miserable.
I am now learning to show up for my life and my relationships from the place of radical responsibility. Which means I take my well-being seriously and give myself everything I need. Disrupting the patterns that do not serve me, I now try to focus on all the ways my husband’s presence in my life has been an asset and a blessing.
It’s unexpectedly hard. It takes a concerted effort to focus on all the ways that he’s been by my side through the ups and downs of life in the three decades we’ve been together.
It’s much easier to get lost in the noise of daily transactions, the million little annoyances, the many ways I wish he were different than who he is. It’s familiar to get hijacked by my irritations. It’s easy to take him for granted, or to imagine that there’s another person who will be easier to love, with whom I could be happier.
After years of indulging the delicious thought “I’ll be happy when…,” I finally saw it as a fantasy—and the trap that it is.
To live with the belief that there is a perfect partner who’ll make loving them easy means everyone will come up short. And if a new partner does feel like “The One” for a moment, it is only because we’ve projected our fantasy on top of them. At some point, the reality invariably catches up to the fantasy, leaving us in shock and disbelief, and blaming the object of our desire for breaking our illusions.
I know, because it happened to me.
I adored my husband. He was my knight in shining armor: the one who protected and spoiled me the way my father never did. I hoisted him onto a pedestal, ignoring his human qualities on full display. Until life, through a series of unexpected events, revealed my husband as a traumatized messy human, just like me. As my husband was toppling from the pedestal, what I thought was my love for him evaporated. It took me years to make sense of the feeling of betrayal I experienced when reality caught up to my fantasy.
When we connect with someone, we tend to project on them our dreams and wishes, objectifying them as deliverers of our bliss, essentially stuffing them into a box of our own idea of “happily ever after.”
I was shocked when my husband broke out of the box into which I’ve reduced him. Today, I reframe the whole experience as a gift. It is precisely my husband’s human limitation, which felt so frightening at first, that forced me to grow up and take radical responsibility for my own well-being and life path.
Upgrading the fantasy of my husband to reality is still going on, 10 years later. There are many layers to the process and it is humbling. Although I know now that I am the only one responsible for my physical, emotional, and mental well-being, I sometimes fall into old patterns of expecting something from my husband that could change the way I feel about myself or the way I experience my life. The fact is, if I do not take measures to “make myself happy,” no one can.
By outsourcing our happiness to some projected event in the future, we essentially get stuck in our own disempowerment. It is a form of escape from the present moment. And we can only create change from the preset moment, because in reality that’s all we have.
Many of us, however, do not relate to people as they are in the present moment. We relate to people as they “should” be, from the story we’ve concocted about them. And our stories about people and relationships perpetuate dysfunction and trauma we’ve inherited from our own childhood experiences, our family relating patterns, and cultural gender prescriptions. We think we know our partners, whereas what feels familiar is the re-enactment of our childhood attachment wounds.
As we relate to our partners from our story about them, they then unconsciously respond to that story. As an example, when I related to my husband as my knight and protector, he showed up in a way that proved my assumptions. When I started perceiving him as “less than,” he again gave me plenty of evidence to confirm my projections.
I got trapped in my own spin.
The way out of any stuck place is through disrupting the habitual patterns and allowing a different narrative.
I admit, it is hard to change our stories in long-term relationships. It requires releasing ourselves from the boxes of our own tightly controlled identities and freeing our partners from our stories about them. It’s challenging to reinvent ourselves when everyone around us bases their sense of security on our remaining the same, known and predictable.
To me, it comes down to self-responsibility and respect for our individual journeys. Just as I am the main character in my own life’s story, so is my partner in his. When we release the rigidity of “this is who I am” and “I know you too well,” we allow space for a deeper exploration of our essence and creative self-expression for our tastes, proclivities, and gifts.
Getting out of our escapist future projections, dropping the script, and putting down the baggage we bring into our relationships allows us back into the present moment. That is where true relating happens: in the present moment, with the person as they are now, while we show up fully without holding any parts back.
Looking at others with the “not knowing” mind is sobering. Because we are finally relating to the person in front of us. Can we live with this person if they never change and remain who they are? I wasn’t always sure if I could. At some point, I had to give myself permission to choose day by day.
To remain disempowered is a choice. To change is also a choice. It requires daring. It demands enormous focus of energy and commitment to wanting to feel better. It takes a dedication to self-responsibility and the belief that there’s more to life than misery, an inner knowing that we are born for more than mundane meaningless existence, and that we deserve to thrive.
So to answer a question from some of my readers, when I say I take radical responsibility for my life, I mean I no longer outsource my happiness or well-being to others.
It does not mean my husband has no responsibilities in our relationship, though, because it takes two for all relationships to work. It simply means I no longer wait for him to change so that I can be happy. Nor do I hold him responsible for taking care of my wounded inner child. That is my job.
Allowing spaciousness for self- redefinition and deeper self-exploration required me to take my focus off of my husband and onto myself. I had to update my self-concept and ask myself questions I never did when I was newly married:
Who do I want to be in this relationship?
How do I want to show up in my marriage?
How do I want to treat the person with whom I share my life?
Learning to love my husband requires learning to love myself. I’m learning to focus on all the ways I’m already enough, rather than nit-picking the ways where I’m not. As I learn to love and appreciate my imperfect self, I learn to honor and respect my imperfect human life partner.
I believe it is in self-responsibility that freedom lies.
Radical self-responsibility for my life means I’m fully committed to my thriving. I take my power back, giving myself permission to self-care and pursue my interests. Not surprisingly, the more I expand my self-concept, the more I feel seen and respected by my husband. The less I nag him and tell him what to do, the more he has an opportunity to show up for himself and me in a way that feels good to us both.
I invite you to test it out for yourself.
But you have to go first!
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