I’d been dreading this conversation for days. I stood on the front porch for a moment, feeling the knot in my stomach and racing pulse in my temples. My mind was gripped with pinballing thoughts, voices yelling at me to do this or say that – “Just stay calm,” said one. “Don’t let her push you around!” said another. I took a deep breath and knocked on the door and went inside, and felt my body actively preparing for battle.
Like many minefield-laden conversations, this one was about money. More specifically, a conversation with my ex-partner about how to divide up our family assets after we’d agreed to separate a few months prior. We greeted each other with a tense hello and sat on the couch. This used to be my home, our family home, where our youngest son was born, where memories from so many years and shared places together adorned shelves, walls, and mantels. And yet I felt like I was in enemy territory, and braced myself for whatever was coming.
I was scared, defensive, and ready for a fight even before a word was spoken. I wasn’t even sure what she said first, but I heard it as “I want more money!” and that was enough of a hazy interpretation for me to lose my shit. I caved to the swirling fear and anger inside and started yelling, something like “How could you do this to me? I supported you all these years, I said you could do anything you wanted, I shared everything with you, and now you’re screwing me for it! I’ll have to give up my work, my life, everything, just so you can keep living your fancy lifestyle!” Those weren’t the exact words but that was the energy. I do distinctly remember saying, word for word, “That is FUCKED UP!” And I remember her exact words right after, because I remember her posture, sitting over there on the other side of the couch, recoiled, grimacing, completely closed and guarded: “You are a nasty man.”
Up until that moment, I’d completely abandoned the very practice that I’d dedicated my life to teaching and sharing with others, the practice of authentic relating. If there’s a list somewhere of the Ten Cardinal Sins of authentic relating, I’m sure I’d broken all of them. I was in the grip of old unconscious stories bubbling to the surface, saturating my mind with the perception of threat, and I was doing everything I could to defend and counter-attack. I was blaming the shit out of her, making it all her fault, not even listening to her actual words, only to the distorted translation machine running in my head. “Fuck her for everything she did to me, all the ways she hurt me! Now it’s payback.” Even as I write this now, I cringe at the cold violence that manifested in those moments.
But something suddenly cracked in me when she said those last words. In that moment I was able to escape my compressed, constricted state and see myself from the outside, and see that wow, yeah, I was being a total asshole, consumed by the belief that a threat was imminent, reacting as if someone was lunging at me with a knife. The crack widened, and I brought my attention to my own experience, and met it for the first time since I first walked through the front door, and beyond the anger, rage, desire to attack, punish, defend, beyond the stories and beliefs, I met the scared me, the one who was afraid of failing my family, the one who felt purpose and use in being a provider and caretaker, the one who was watching it all slip away and just wanted to curl up in a ball and cry.
I slowed everything down. I closed my eyes and felt everything that was happening inside of me. I felt tears coming, my shoulders and belly relaxing, my pulse slowing. I said “I’m sorry, I’m just scared. I’m scared of not being able to provide for you all, scared of failing.” And everything in me softened and I let the emotions come.
Nearly instantly, my ex uncoiled herself and moved from the far end of the couch toward me, and I could feel her entire body and energy shifting, from tense and gripped to soft, open, and relaxed. Without a word she came next to me and put her arms around me and I let myself cry without constraint. We stayed like that for several minutes and I finally looked up and we made eye contact. She had tears in her eyes too, and in that moment I remembered our love, our connection, our shared lifetime journey of raising our kids together, and in that moment something healed, and while there have been ups and downs in our relationship, we’ve managed to stay in connection and ride the waves with grace ever since.
Of all the experiences and memories I’ve collected over the years of being a student and leader of authentic relating – and there have been so many precious moments – this one stands out for me as the best illustration of the transformational power of authentic relating in an applied setting. There is no way I could have accessed my authentic experience in that moment before taking on and embodying this practice – I would have remained firmly stuck in my perceptions, narratives, and beliefs, my ex and I would have remained disconnected and the divide between us would have likely grown and darkened, unquestionably affecting our kids, modeling for them a paradigm of relationship that they would probably channel later in life in their own relationships. My ex and I would have lived with bitterness and contempt for each other, using any stupid example to continue bolstering a righteous case against each other.
None of that happened, and in fact we’re as close now, and appreciate and love each other more now than perhaps ever before. I credit that entirely to the skills and tools of authentic relating, the application of which has left its imprint on all my relationships, including my relationship with self.
The practice of authentic relating is the best prescription I know of for needless suffering in relationships. And there is so much needless suffering, old pains and unhealed wounds being triggered, people missing each other, acting out defensive patterns that no longer serve, people left feeling isolated, disconnected, lonely.
Where there is shadow in all relationships, and where the entities that lurk in that shadow pull and bend and exert an influence on the whole being, authentic relating acts as a light source, illuminating all parts of ourselves with light that is clear and pure, so that we may see it all, own it all, and find true wholeness in accepting all parts of our beautiful, broken, alive and wounded selves. It is a never-ending, endlessly fascinating journey of discovery of self, other, and all, and one that only ever seems to be just beginning.