Does Your Relationship Feel Like a Curse or Curriculum?
Are the difficulties in your relationship a bane or blessing?
Posted June 21, 2011
What's the purpose of your relationship?
What's the purpose of your relationship?For some people, a partner relationship is to share financial burden; for some, it's to raise children; for some, it's to please their parents; for some, a source of dependable sex. And, of course, there are as many purposes as there are pairs.
What's the purpose of your relationship?
But there are others who choose as their relationship's purpose to help themselves expand in wisdom and deep personal power. For these brave souls, the purpose of relationship is to grow themselves up, to wake themselves up, as fully as possible.
For these courageous ones, the aim is to use the difficulties of relationship -and every relationship has difficulties- to become more fully themselves. Then the inevitable interpersonal difficulties turn from curse to curriculum.
While some other couples focus on how to get better and better at proving themselves right and their partners wrong, these plucky evolving people know that the everyday annoyances - not acted upon - become a way to practice personal pride and the awesome power of non-reactivity.
This is a two part article about developing patience. In this first part, I talk about what patience is, and why we need it. In the next part, I give some ways to grow your patience power.
The Hidden Problem with Impatience
So let's call a spade a spade: Impatience is anger. Expressing the energy of anger can be addictive. Why? Well, for one thing, there is an immediate, though short-term relief of the distress underlying the anger. This is the same reason drinking when one is scared, or eating when one is lonely works- for a few minutes- if that. It's the old short-term gain, long-term pain principle.
Another reason that anger can be addictive is that the more often we let ourselves imbibe the hot fluid of impatience, the "habit" becomes more entrenched. Tolerance for the feeling of rage increases. And when triggered, we can mindlessly, automatically, escalate from minor irritability to full fledged fury with our loved ones. And we are usually in denial about the effects of our anger on others-as well as on ourselves. This rising tolerance for anger expression explains the fact that domestic violence may start with contemptuous remarks, and over time escalate to more and more dangerous physical attacks.
The Vulnerable Underbelly of Anger
Early in my career as a therapist I worked for a foster care agency. One day I had to-literally-take an infant from his mother and drive him to the agency. There was no proper infant seat for my car in this emergency situation and I was terrified for the safety of the child. As I was driving to the agency, I saw a white car almost sideswipe us. In those moments I felt my whole body clench to the hardness of steel. It was a cold hard rage that clicked in, in order to counteract my fear. I saw directly in those moments the relationship between fear and anger.
Our everyday irritations, judgments and make-wrongs that we experience in relationships may be subtle. We may not even quite recognize that we are being impatient. But those lesser irritations can be so destructive to maintaining the "safe harbor" we all want in our most intimate relationships.
When everything is going along hunky-dory in our relationships, no problem. But then somebody makes us wait when we are ready to leave, or gives us "the look," or makes a snide remark, or talks over us, or criticizes our parents, or calls us stupid and we're off to the "nobody's going to treat me like that" races.
And so the cycle goes, first peace, then somebody does -or doesn't do- something, the other one feels insulted, judgmental, or scared. Then comes withholding or attack. And then distance, till the internal pressure builds up. Then the inevitable emotional volcano erupts, leaving even more hurts in it's smoke. There may be anther brief period of peace and then the cycle starts again. How exhausting.
Well, if you want to escape the endless cycles of barbs and balms, and grow your character at the same time, there is a way out. It's working at developing that old fashioned virtue of patience.
When Do We Need Patience?
The need for patience occurs when we are challenged in one of two ways. We either 1) get something we do not want/like and/or 2) we don't get something we want/like. In those instances we have a sense that things are not going our way." That's when our egos kick in. With impatience, there is irritation at something that seems to delay us, at things moving at a slower pace than we want, and at "incompetence."
These challenges have us feeling more vulnerable, possibly afraid, and we have a knee-jerk response to protect ourselves, our values and anything else that's "ours." That's when we feel the energy charge behind our likes and dislikes. Buddhist's call that charge Shenpa- the heat behind likes, dislikes, opinions, and values. You know it. It's the urgency, the pressure to make it go our way.
What Patience Is
First, let's look at what patience is and is not. It is not watching the other person and railing inwardly, while trying to maintain an appearance of dignity by "grinning and bearing it" And "holding your tongue."
Here are two dictionary definitions:
Patience is the state of endurance under difficult circumstances, which can mean persevering in the face of delay or provocation without acting on annoyance/anger in a negative way. --Wikipedia
Turning Inward with High Interest
Patience is the process of turning inward and getting in touch with that heated charge directly, and with the softness that is there. It is sitting still with the vulnerable feelings and the restlessness of that energy rather than doing anything or feeding the story line. Not escalating it or elaborating on how bad "they" are. Just being with the uncomfortable feeling. It takes courage. And it takes real mind training to weaken the habits of aggressive striking out or withdrawing.
What patience is then, is getting in touch with the emotional urge to DO something in reaction to what has triggered us. The urge might be to criticize, to defend ones self, to overeat, to use a substance or activity to get away from the uncomfortable energy of the anger- yes anger underneath the urge to act.
It is not an easy character trait to develop. So why bother to develop patience?
1. Just feeling the anger is a cause of pain
One of the reasons to work on the anger of impatience is that the habit of anger becomes more and more entrenched over time. Think of how an alcoholic develops a tolerance for alcohol. The same with anger; the more we let ourselves stay there, the more the neuronal pathways deepen. And as we age the irritability just increases. Becoming grumpy old men and women can be the result.
2. Aggression separates us from others and blocks our access to our inner wisdom. As we run our seemingly endless loop of "story" we are no longer present to ourselves or others. "I can't believe she did that again! After I told her it bothered me. How does she get along in the world acting that way? Maybe I'll just never agree to meet with her again . . .yada, yada, yada." Who could notice a rainbow or hear the voice of wisdom within while preoccupied spinning the tales of woe and wrongdoing.
3. When we can trust ourselves to be patient our self respect and sense of inner strength soar. Pema Chodron, acclaimed Buddhist teacher and writer says in "Don't Bite The Hook" that the real heroes are those who wiling to go through "the pain of detox" of not strengthening the "I don't want/I don't like/and it is wrong/ it is bad" storylines in our heads.
4. Many actually use the practice of patience as a spiritual tool for growing compassion and getting karma points. Ultimately, our relationship with patience depends upon what we think we are here on earth for, and what we chose as the purpose for our relationships.
Next post, I'll describe some ways to practice patience.