I feel like I’m settling.
This doesn’t feel right.
I often feel irritated with my partner. Doesn’t that mean I’m with the wrong person?
When I think about leaving, I don’t feel anything at all.
They’re all normal questions that barrel through the brain of someone who lands on the anxious-sensitive spectrum. For you, doubt is an inevitable aspect of any decision, big or small. The problem isn’t the questions or the doubt. The problem is how you respond to your mind.
If we lived in a culture that honored your sensitivity and taught you how to navigate through life with sensitivity at the helm of your ship, you would expect yourself to react this way in an intimate relationship and it wouldn’t rattle you. If we lived in a culture that taught you that it’s okay to doubt, that love includes fear, and that certainty is an illusion, you would learn to hear these questions and be able to respond to them from a clear and centered place inside of you.
But we don’t live in that culture. We live in a culture that catapults films like The Notebook to the top of the blockbuster list, and, thus, to the top of the mainstream mindset. We expect to know when we meet our partner. We expect certainty. We expect butterflies, if not throughout a long-term relationship, at least in the beginning. When these elements are lacking, there’s no place for the sensitive heart and mind to go but to anxiety.
When people find my work, one of the first questions they ask is, “Why doesn’t everyone talk about the reality of love?” The truth is that anyone steeped in the realm of the inner world – therapists, religious clergy, spiritual leaders, and some novelists who are tapped into the archetypal elements of life instead of only the surface-image-Hollywood layer – will tell the truth about love. My clients often say things to me like, “You know, we just had our pre-marital counseling session with our priest and he talked about love and relationships in the same way that you do!” Anyone not brainwashed by the Romantic Ideal that our culture espouses, anyone on the front lines of real relationships in real life, will tell the truth.
So when I find a passage that dares to admit that it’s okay not to know, I rejoice. And then I share it here. This is from a beautiful book called Seven Blessings by Ruchama King, where the author describes an engaged woman’s anxiety a few days before her wedding as she talks to the older and wiser town matchmaker:
A contentment settled upon Beth as she sat with Tsippi around the lamp, poking among the grains. Here it was rich, like butternut squash. She almost forgot the panic attack she ’d had that morning as she lay in bed, going over all the little things that irritated her about Akiva. His beard needed better grooming. When he ate, he held his fork crudely, like a drumstick in his fist. He sang off-key. He began many sentences with “By the same token. ” Of course she could live with these pesky annoyances, but at the heart of these observations was a question: Was he the one God had planned for her for eternity?
Beth adjusted the light so it shone more directly on the rice platter. She said, “Tsippi, could you tell me something? How did you know your husband was the right one for you? Your besherte and all that?”
I had a certain feeling,” she began. She told Beth about her rescue efforts when she was a young woman in the camps, about going into the barracks late at night, searching for a pulse among all the bodies, reviving them if she could, and in the end reviving the body of the man, who, after the war, became her husband. When she saw him again she recognized the little mushroom birthmark on his neck.
And after all that, can I still say I knew?” Again, Tsippi poured some rice onto the platter and shook it gently from side to side until the grains evened out. “I didn‘t. ” Beth sucked in her breath, and Tsippi looked at her. “Well, if he’s not for you? Believe me, you know right away. And if he is for you? You can marry him, you can have children with him, you can spend your life with him, and still, you never know.
They continued checking among the grains. Beth smiled. She liked the thought – this not knowing.” (pp. 236-37)
A significant spoke on the wheel of relationship anxiety and intrusive thoughts is the need for certainty. When we’re tumbling through life, and especially through a difficult time when the ground feels particularly shaky beneath our feet, the ego naturally latches onto a tangible question as a way to try to gain a measure of control. If I can just answer this one question, it believes, I will find serenity and peace. It doesn’t work that way.
The questions the ego sinks its teeth into are unanswerable, and ultimately the work is about learning to breathe into the moments of feeling out of the control, the feelings of vulnerability, the grief, the fear, and the uncertainty that define relationship anxiety, and, in essence, define being human. The healing path, over and over and over again, is to unhook from the tentacles and thought-vines that dangle seductively down to the vulnerable heart and amorphous soul and instead ask, “What are these thoughts protecting me from feeling?” When we can, like Beth, settle into the “not knowing,” or, like Rilke, understand that the answers are in the questions themselves, we find a moment of breath, an exhale, a return to an anchor point inside that knows that even in the not knowing, it’s all okay.
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given to you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then, gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” – Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet