In October, I went to my favorite place in the world, Rancho La Puerta in Tecate, Mexico, for two weeks. Besides being available in my role as an “inner fitness coach” for people who want to talk, I teach five classes on various aspects of the seasons of love, such as falling in love with our perfect soulmate, the inevitable trouble, and how to love better and suffer less in this complex, often painful, and even bewildering journey we take with another person. The real news in a relationship, as I explain, is not about two perfect people going off into the sunset together. It is about the deep growth and soul-making process that begins with disillusionment and proceeds to what we do next.
Last month, I talked about the “red zone” where we are frightened, hurt, or angry. Our brain switches chemical messages in our bodies, and we move from reasonable, rational, and generous to fight, flight, freeze, or fold. In relationship practice, the black belt is being able to stay regulated emotionally (instead of flipping into reactivity), remaining kind and generous, and using the skills, even when under stress. This is why it is called a PRACTICE.
This month I will describe the challenge of healthy differentiation. Or, in a more practical way: “you are not me, and I am not you.”
During my stay in paradise, I met two fabulous presenters: Marshall Chapman, a Nashville musician with a riveting story and dazzling talent, and Emily Morse, whose podcast “Sex with Emily” has skyrocketed. Beautiful, young, and smart, she is being hailed as “the new Dr. Ruth.”
The three of us fell into a playful and joyful friendship, and soon we were weaving together our work. Emily joined me for a talk on love cycles, adding “sex cycles,” and Marshall enriched my classes with music. Country music certainly has its own kind of mastery of “the merge” and “disillusionment,” and Marshall is a master. The two weeks were full of wondrous connections and new friendships. The days were sunny, the food near perfection, and I felt on top of the world.
Back in Corvallis, my partner was dealing with a much different reality. Bewildering computer troubles, massive problems to sort out with his watercolor shows. Friends missing lunch dates and nasty rain interfering with his long daily walks with our dogs, which are his deepest centering practice. As I raved on about my perfect life, his felt fragile and like the overcast fall weather.
I remembered a time a few years before when he was having the best time of his life during a New Zealand summer. Each day was more spectacular than the last. He was surrounded by adventure, family, and community, while I was in a cold house in Oregon during the winter, with a broken wrist, a new puppy needing to go outside day and night, and book deadlines. I was glad he was having such a great time, but I struggled to hear about it without feeling sorry for myself.
This brings us to another essential skill in our relationships: the art of differentiation. We are not the same, and seldom do we experience life in a similar way. Holding a space where our partner can have a great time when we are miserable—or having the sensitivity to not “overshare” the wonders happening in our life when our partner is struggling—takes a long time to develop and practice. These skills are way beyond communication skills. They are the real essence of daily devotions and mindfulness training, moving the practices from the meditation mat to real life.
It wasn’t perfect. Of all the unskilled moves, there was one very serious one: arguing by text at 6 a.m. about whose reality should get the attention and time. But we each quickly pulled back from going down that lost highway. He said how glad he was I was having such a great time but wasn’t able to fully appreciate it with me, and I realized how insensitive I had been about his few weeks of things not working as I waxed on about my perfect life. We even laughed at ourselves and vowed to never text “Big Feelings” at 6 a.m. again.
It was also a reminder that while we may never reach a perfect and trouble-free relationship, quick repair is the secret of restoring connectedness.
I leave you with these words from an Instagram post by @femislay:
My favorite ways to hear I love you:
- Go to sleep, I’ll take care of it.
- What do you need help with?
- I’m not going to abandon you.
- Not everything you think is true.
- I’m sorry I said that. I’m listening now.
- You are so loved.
- My life is better with you in it.