The Single Piece of Advice I Want My Children to Understand about Relationships

“The quality of all of our relationships is a direct function of our relationship to ourselves… The best thing we can do for our relationships with others, and with the transcendent, then, is to render our relationship to ourselves more conscious.”

~ James Hollis, The Eden Project

When I look back on my life, I see myself at 26-years-old, and I want to go grab my trembling hand, look into her discouraged heart, and tell her, “It’s ok. You can leave him. You can do hard things. Being alone isn’t as scary as you think.”

I want to tell my kids the same – that they are capable of being alone.

However, being alone doesn’t mean we don’t need people. It doesn’t mean we are some independent, superior soul who can be alone well. We are human. We long and thrive on connection with others. Tony Robbins once spoke about how meditating monks who spend most of their time isolated in caves isn’t that exceptional. It’s actually more challenging doing the work of relating to one another that makes us more conscious. I’ve carried this idea with me for years.

So while I want to teach my children it is ok being single or coupled, the more important point to understand is when to leave – to recognize the distinction between being disappointed and being emotionally wounded by someone where the relationship needs to end. This requires a deep self-awareness we should want to cultivate in our children and in ourselves as we parent them.

In my first year of marriage, my ex did a military tour on an overseas aircraft carrier only to come back home asking for a divorce – he had fallen in love with someone else.

This was not simply a disappointment. He didn’t just forget to buy me Christmas present. This was an extreme emotional blow right to my heart that pierced me deeply, leaving me stunned and confused. This was, after all, our honeymoon stage, and the sweet, innocent love was gone the moment he told me.

Now, I understand two truths can co-exist: the story I tell and the story of another as well. What you think is wrong in the moment comes full circle and ultimately becomes right for you.

It took me a long while to untangle all the parts here. When it happened, I didn’t think I was strong enough to make it on my own. I came from divorced parents, watched my older sisters divorce, and longed to be with someone psychological, someone willing to look deeper at things, and someone who can see value in staying together through the challenges. I was scared to be financially on my own again. I didn’t feel confident to move forward. My logical side told me things like all couples go through this; that this is a common problem for military couples. I even went as far to think there was something wrong with me – maybe I wasn’t as fun enough or smart enough or hot enough. My attachment to him, to the relationship, and to my status as a wife, was stronger than my love for myself.

I look back to see that I didn’t know myself as well as I do now. I did the best with the information I had at the time.

But I would like to think we can teach our children better. We can help them develop their inner consciousness so they live an examined and empowered life. I would like to think my ex would want that as well.

I stayed with someone who emotionally wounded me. I had two children with someone I never loved the same. I lived in opposition to my values of loyalty and honesty. I couldn’t un-muddy my feelings during that time to leave. It has taken years for the clarity to arise.

So, when we talk about personal awareness, we must also talk about personal responsibility. I did nothing with the hurt but tried to forget it. I remember our best attempt was that we went to couple’s therapy for a couple of hours.

I did not know which of my needs were not getting met in the years that followed. I did not know what I needed to move on. I did not know that there was nothing we could do to salvage our marriage. I did not learn about my feelings or how to grieve these wounds. I did not explore my thoughts on how love should be versus what culture told me it should be. I did not look at why I wanted a certain type of partner and what that meant about the wounds I already carried. I did not examine my situation nor did I ask for help. I did not take any form of accountability to come to understand that I did not want to be married anymore. I did not search for my unique form of truth.

I am still learning what personal responsibility means. I think being a woman makes it harder to explicate simply because we have so many ways we are told what we should be instead of learning what we want ourselves. We are told our lives don’t really begin until we are tied to a man and that man is going to provide for us emotionally and materially and then we will be safe. It was striking for me, as someone who studied feminism in graduate school, to find that those cultural beliefs permeated my subconscious, even though I had fought hard to not let them. It was remarkable to uncover I needed to be with a man in order to feel protected and secure. Once I allowed these beliefs to surface, I did the deep work to examine the impact of those choices on me. Now, I look to align myself with people and values that make me feel good and whole.

And this, my friends, is what I wish I knew: my authentic self before I got married. And I wish I wouldn’t have left her behind to save a relationship that was broken beyond repair. I wish I knew I could be on my own. I wish I could have said no, that the hurt was too much to stay. I wish I could have searched for the “helpers” who would support me as I wobbled my way back home to my self. I wish I could have known I could indeed handle the pain of loss.

I’ve worked hard these past few years to heal myself – not through attaching myself to another person or alienating myself from connecting with people – but simply checking in with myself, refining my values, as I move through the world as a single person again, finding integrity again.

My children are watching. They are learning. I am constantly asking them how they feel, validating it, exploring it with them.

It is my hope that my children and I (and you) honor ourselves so well that it becomes our customary way of being and that not doing so feels utterly inadequate. The distinction matters. Our loving devotion to ourselves matters. It all begins and ends with you.

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