I had a visit from a friend a few days ago. He’d been in an argument with his wife that had escalated until he was … well, invited to leave. In the old days he would have gone to the bar (so would I), but these days he came over to talk about it over a warm herbal tea. Progress.
I don’t need to tell you the details of the argument because they don’t matter, we have all been there. A long day, crying children, a broken appliance, nothing going right and then, like that scene in The Exorcist when the little girl turns around with those red, beady devil eyes, we lock in on our spouses and … it all goes to hell. In just a few moments, a loving relationship burns to the ground until all that’s left are ashes where love once stood. And then you get asked to leave.
Why this happens is the subject of much therapy and self-help theory. My experience, and the teaching I received from Dr. Vera Dunn and Dr. Bruce Lipton, is that it’s the result of programming we carry with us from youth. Our strong desire to be good boys and girls turns into an even stronger need to be good moms and dads; when something goes wrong it triggers us, makes us feel like we’re bad, and then we look around for someone to push this horrible feeling to and we find each other. So we lash out, which in turn triggers our partners who have the same need to be good. There we stand, two adults, thinking we’re so right and righteous, when in reality we’re the little kid versions of ourselves desperately begging, “Please tell me I’m good. Please love me.” But we’re blinded by the emotion of the moment and go on fighting instead.
I could go on writing about why this happens for days, it’s such an interesting subject. But today I’d like to put aside why it happens and instead talk together about how we get back. How do we, as couples and friends, create a bridge back to love? Because the truth is we will get angry, we will lose our tempers, we will say things we later regret, AND we love each other; we’re husbands and wives and friends, and we need an easy way of pulling our feet out of our mouths and backsides to emerge from the doghouse and come back into each other’s hearts. What we need is a breadcrumb trail that we can use to find our way home to safety.
When I was a teenager and going to parties with my friends, my mom made a deal with me. She told me that if I promised never to drink and drive I could call her at any hour of the night and she would come pick me up, no questions asked. This was a great concept, but it wasn’t true. I knew if I called her, while she would pick me up, there were gonna be lots of questions, and tears, and fighting. So I never took her up on the bargain. It wasn’t safe.
This is the first breadcrumb on our way back — safety. We have to work together to create a safe place to share our feelings, a way to interact around the truth we’re experiencing in the moment that feels safe. Without safety, our relationships are like that bogus deal my mom offered. For my wife and me, this starts from the understanding that we each bring to our relationship a unique perspective based on our life experiences. While we have developed a common practice and lifestyle, the basis for that is often unique. My wife was raised on a Midwest farm by her mom and dad who just celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary; I was raised in the city by a single mom and no dad. Just this little difference creates a chasm in our beliefs around safety. While she believes relationships last over time, my first instinct is that fights cause people to leave. These varieties in our belief systems go wide and deep across so many areas of our lives. We have to talk about them, we have to take the time to honestly share and to really listen, and then create a realm of safety that works for both people. To address our different upbringings, my wife and I have a simple rule around our discussions: no one leaves the house. Knowing this brings me safety. Another example is that my wife likes communication around issues. She spent much of her life bottling up her emotions and feeling she was wrong if she spoke her mind. So when I, as do most men, clam up and pretend nothing’s wrong, she feels unsafe. The problem is that sometimes I don’t feel like talking. To deal with this we created a phrase that gives her safety and me space. If our feelings are ruffled and she wants to talk and I’m not ready, I say simply, “I love you. I’m working through this experience internally. I’ll talk to you as soon a I’ve processed my own feelings.” She feels safe, I get a little space, and, when things are a little easier, we talk after the emotion has simmered down a bit. Overall, open communication when things are going well and you’re experiencing ease helps you create simple rules that maintain safety when things get rough.
The second important breadcrumb is the understanding that I’m always right. HAHA, just wanted to make sure you were paying attention. Seriously, though, I am. Not really but I think I am, we all do. We’re built to be right. Why? Because when our ancestors were cavemen or hunters and gatherers, a wrong decision meant death. Picking the wrong berry that turned out to be poisonous, or inhabiting the wrong cave that was also inhabited by a hungry animal, or throwing a spear and missing the target, all resulted in a high probability of something bad happening. Ingrained deep in our DNA is the need, the very real, genetic necessity, to be right. So when you feel like an argument about which way to turn on the freeway is a matter of life and death, it really is for some distant genetic part of you. This knowledge, this understanding of our need to be right, is a tool. It’s information we can use to keep our perspective when we feel the “I’m right, damn it!” sensation rising up. Because as real as the need to be right was for our ancestors, we’re (probably) not really in danger. In most cases being right or wrong about everyday issues isn’t a matter of life and death. If we keep that in mind, if we use it like the hot water gauge in our car, we know when we’re overheating. For me, the moment I feel that “fight for my life” feeling, I know it’s time for me to take a break from the discussion, collect myself, get back to present day, and leave my caveman ancestors in the past.
Our next breadcrumb on the way back is our toolbox — the tools we practice on a daily basis to keep ourselves centered and to regain balance. These are things like meditation, yoga, a mantra, deep breathing, or prayer. Life’s rough moments are exactly the reason we need a daily practice. The spiritual master Yogi Bhajan once said, “Meditation is not about perfecting my life. When I meditate the difficult becomes doable, the impossible becomes possible, and the good turns into gratitude." So often we look at the purpose of practice as a way to float through life like an angel. That’s not real. The true value of our practice is that when things are going to shit around us, we have a way to regain balance. My teacher, Guru Singh, taught me to “bolt my butt to the ground,” to sit in my harshest feelings and find the lesson for myself before I lash out, send a text, or pick up the phone. I wish I had learned this lesson earlier in life, but I use it now. When I find myself looking for a fight I sit down, go inside, and listen to myself until I understand what’s really going on. This process avoids so many unnecessary fights. So often the issue was my own feelings, and after a short meditation I’m able to say, “I was scared or felt abandoned or was tired” instead of “You did XYZ to me.”
The fourth step on the breadcrumb trail is respect. We cannot expect to live in love if we turn our home into a place of disrespect. I’m speaking from experience when I say it’s very hard to make it back from words like “bitch, asshole, wimp, ugly, loser, the c-word” (will never understand why that one is so much worse than all the rest, but it is; if you don’t know what the c-word is, consider yourself lucky), and all the other insults we hurl when we’re mad. These words and the feelings associated with them eat away at our spiritual home the way termites destroy the wood of our physical houses. Insults must be removed from the vocabulary of a loving relationship. And again, like a gauge, the mere feeling that you want to say something so hurtful to your loved one is a sign that you need a break from the situation. This is easy to say, but the fact is many of us grew up in homes where we were disciplined with insults. We were told we were dumb when the report card came home. We were labeled weak when we failed to make the football team. We were called ugly or fat when we didn’t get a date to the prom. We can deeply feel the pain of those words in our lives, in our bodies, and in our souls. We must draw a line in the sand, whether on our own or through therapy, and leave those destructive practices in the past. Our home, our relationship, our love must be a place of respect.
The final breadcrumb on our way back is expressing LOVE. Most situations should be able to find resolution with a hug, a kiss, or a tender “I love you.” What stands in the way is fear — of being walked over, not heard, or disrespected. There are some deal-breakers in relationships, of course, everyone has different values. But in most cases, we can set up an understanding that LOVE is a safe way to return from a misstep. In my house it’s the phrase, “I hear you. I’m sorry you feel that way. I love you.” This simple phrase can solve so much. It encompasses so much of what we desire in life — to be heard, to have our feelings validated through empathy, and to be loved. Make this a safe phrase in your life, a way that all the minor squabbles can end, by one person saying to the other, “I hear you. I’m sorry you feel that way. I love you.”
“I hear you. I’m sorry you feel that way. I love you.”
Tonight, read this post together with the people in your life who matter most. Apply these steps, or develop others that are a fit for you. Make your home a safe haven. Make your relationship a vehicle of respect. Experience the love we all so desire by holding your heart and your loved ones in that safe place deep inside where only love lives. When all else fails, bolt your butt to the ground, zip your lips, and slowly, breath by deep breath, open your heart to love.
Big hugs of love,