Intimate relationships include pain, at least every intimate relationship I have ever been in or witnessed. And most, if we’re lucky, include pleasure too. We cannot change the fact that pain is included in intimacy, but how much pain we endure is, in part, up to us. As a therapist and a wife, I think a lot about how we can decrease the pain that we experience in relationship and increase the amount of joy and gratitude that we feel.
Once we’ve been in a relationship for some time, most of us have written a plethora of stories about our partners: We have volumes of ideas about what they do that we don’t like, what their problems are, why they are the way they are, how and why they hurt us, and on it goes. Basically, we have figured out what’s wrong with them. Some of our story lines we share with our partners, and some we don’t. We could fill volumes with the convictions we have compiled on our partners, most if not all of which we believe to be the truth. Our story lines have a lot to do with what increases our pain in relationships.
When difficulty arises with our partner, we might feel hurt, angry, frustrated or perhaps a cocktail of all three and more. We might feel intense pain for some time. But then, oddly, we do something that intensifies and extends that pain. You could say we throw gasoline on the fire of pain. The incident or fight is over, in real time, but not for us, not a chance. We’ve still got a long way to go with the story of it. The hurt might have passed, its shelf life in our body over, but we opt to spend days, weeks, sometimes even lifetimes rehashing it in our minds, crafting new stories filled with our partner’s crimes and our grievances, breathing new life into what is in fact ready to pass. If our pain were a child, we would be nursing it long into its adulthood.
The shelf life of most intense feelings is quite short. A strong feeling, which is not fed by our thoughts about it, can pass through us in a rather short time. It is our mind that, counter-intuitively, does not want us to let go of our pain. The mind desperately wants us to pay attention to our pain, and to how any new hurt fits into the larger script that we have written on our partner and the relationship. Perhaps it is the mind’s effort to figure out the pain, to make sense of what seems nonsensical, not understandable. Or maybe the mind believes that if we allow the pain to pass when it has come to its natural end, it is not enough somehow, that we haven’t done the pain justice if we do not extend it by way of our own continued attention. Perhaps the mind believes that we further punish our partner by holding onto and ruminating on the pain they have caused us. Or, maybe the mind wants us to keep chewing on the pain simply because the mind loves a problem; a problem for the mind is like an extravaganza with which to entertain itself. In truth, spending more time re-thinking and rehashing our pain does not serve our pain, or us.
When we start paying attention to our mind, we see that it is always beckoning us to reenter the story of our pain. Something amazing happens however when we make the choice to refrain from taking the mind’s bait, resist engaging with such thoughts. Our relationship gets a whole lot better, and feels, suddenly, like it’s happening in the present tense, like we’re meeting our partner freshly. I am absolutely not suggesting that we deny pain when it is felt intensely and directly, in the body, but rather that we choose not to extend, intensify and freeze it, keeping it alive in our mind when it (possibly) might not need to be there. Pain is a truth, but if we don’t feed it, it has a natural life span. It is we who (often) make pain immortal.
To this end, it is important that we notice when we are actually feeling okay, not in pain, not resentful, not hurt, and we still choose to jump on board a thought train to pain. It is important that we become conscious of this habit to get back in the saddle of hurt. It is an odd choice really, but one that we all make, until we don’t anymore, until we become aware that we are choosing it.
The next time you catch your mind inviting you to dive into the negative story line of your relationship and your partner, to again crack open the great tome on their failings, politely decline the mind’s invitation. Return to where you are and the breath about to happen. By simply decreasing the amount of time we spend telling ourself the story of what’s wrong, we can profoundly improve the experience we have in our relationships. The more we can refrain from stoking the fire of how we have been hurt, the more room there is to discover how we actually appreciate our partners, and to see them in the moments when all is well. The less we obscure our present moment with the history of our scars, the more possibility there is for new relationship skin to grow.
We need to pay attention to what is actually true for us; to meet ourself and our partner, as freshly as we can in each new moment. We need not go looking for past pain, need not dive into every pain story the mind presents. Simply by choosing to decline the invitation to engage with old pain, we end up feeling a whole lot lighter, happier, more present, and available for (and to) love.