This past Saturday Mike and I were married. Our wedding was beautiful and felt blessed. We were surrounded by love and support. We shared our inner feelings about each other in a visible ceremony of commitment. A wedding is such a powerful ritual because it symbolizes family, commitment, love, and connection. It symbolizes a new beginning and beginnings always speak to hope and possibility.
It was the second marriage for each of us, and each of us had sworn we would never get married again – as we both were reminded during the toasts. We both had a fear of being trapped while also longing for a safe connection with another. It took a while, and a number of snafus before we each gained the trust that we had the ability to work out the hard stuff. We needed to know that we could be ourselves while also being in a relationship. We needed to know that we were responsive to each other and that we weren’t acting out of an old script, but that each of us was influence-able and responsive to the needs of the other.
A relationship is a living and breathing entity that grows, moves and changes. It is alive. It can move in either of two directions – the direction of openness and responsiveness or the direction of stasis or stuck-ness with the repetition of old patterns of behavior, stories, and feelings that no longer work. Relationships and families are complex. They trigger deep attachment needs – the need to be valued, to be safe, to be loved. They bring up our jealousies, our envy, our rage, our resentment, our disappointment, our kindness, our love, our loyalty, our admiration. Navigating through these deep feelings is no easy task. The consequences of the aspects of us that get stuck are devastating to relationships. They leave us feeling unloved and confused. They leave us hanging onto the image or idea of a good relationship or family – of what we think should be while inside the boundary of that relationship, an entirely different experience is occurring for the members of that family.
One wedding guest told me about her struggles with her family As she talked about the pull of her family, I had the image of a rip tide that grabbed her and pulled her out into a turbulent sea and pushed her down below the surface into cold dark water. She had herself pushed so many parts of herself away growing up – down in the basement of herself because these parts of herself had not been accepted or supported by her family. In order to survive, her authentic self had gone into hiding. This person was recovering from the impact of the negative aspects of her family – the dynamics of judgment, abuse, sacrifice and blame. She was dealing with the impact of anger that hadn’t been allowed to be expressed, and the feelings that had never been affirmed or processed. Huge emotions were now coming up with a fury and vengeance that were overwhelming to her. These denied parts of herself were demanding to come out of darkness of exile and be warmed by the light of the day. They needed her support to mature so that she could allow them to take their rightful place as part of who she is.
Our relationships are a cauldron of everything human. They may teach us to love ourselves or hate ourselves, to accept ourselves or deny ourselves. They activate aspects of ourselves and allow us to grow. They act as mirrors for ourselves for without them, we would not be able to see ourselves. If we are willing to look, they show us our needs. They show us our disappointments and anger. They show us how we hurt others in our own self-protective reactions. They push us to confront, to open our hearts, to tackle our fears and restrictions, to change and to grow.
Getting married adds a new layer to our relationship. I already felt like we belonged together, but now there is a larger sense of family occurring. I am now part of Mike’s family and Mike is now part of my family. There is the recognition of the larger configuration of our families. There will be new relationships to build and adjust to for each of us and new areas where we will each have to define ourselves.
Getting married means that I am part of something in a deeper and less peripheral way. It highlights looking at my actions from the context of honoring our ‘we’ as well as seeing and understanding each other person in this new and larger family. It implies more cooperation and interdependence and less self-centered behavior – because a family that works considers the higher and non-superficial needs of each member. The ‘I’ while important, becomes more of a note in a symphony, rather than attempting to be the entire song.
Family is one of the most important things there is – at least for a mammal or a human. Initially family was about survival. A lone caveman doesn’t have much of a chance of survival – nor does a lone infant. But family and relationship allows us to feel connected and to know we belong. What is nicer than the luscious feeling of being able to snuggle with someone on a cold night, or for me, reading on the couch with my partner and two dogs? As a child, it is the safety of our family that allows us to step out into the world and become independent. It is only because of support that we truly gain freedom. If we only have support, without freedom, we will be trapped. If we have freedom without support we will not be truly grounded or feel fully safe.
Who is my family now? Traditionally family is seen as those who share the same DNA. But family is actually about love. There was a lot of love at our wedding. Both between us as well as the support that was enveloping us from our family and friends. They came to offer their support and love. People traveled significant distances to ‘witness’ our union. Others who could not come sent their good wishes. Still others helped us significantly with their time, energy and talents. Can I see not only those I am related to but also all people I have contact with as part of my family, and that my family includes my dogs and people who I am not related to by blood or marriage? After all, aren’t we all filled with the same dreams: to be loved, to be fulfilled, and to have a sense of autonomy, to be safe? Don’t we all want to be supported and helped and believed in? Isn’t that the purpose of a family? For me family is a feeling of being cared for and being accepted.
Being in a relationship with a responsive other has been huge for me. It has changed how I experience my life. I have become stronger and more solid. I am more able to be me. I am able to move in and out of connection in a more fluid way. I am able to show more of myself. I know more clearly what to ask for and what to let go of.
As I step deeper into this relationship, into this new family, I also am stepping deeper into myself. As I step deeper into myself, I am stepping deeper into relationship and family. The two have somehow become connected and have melded together. Gone are the years of finding myself by being disconnected from others. Instead, I am more able to be me because I know myself better and have the support of others. I am able to honor others more because I can more allow them to be who they are. I no longer have to take their disappointment, hurt, anger or resentment personally. I no longer have to accept behavior that feels diminishing to me. I have a right to be me. I have a right to speak my truth. I have a right to have my own perspective while also having empathy for and honoring who they each are.
One of my ongoing challenges is to look at and alter my reactions. When we are reacting, we are almost never being supportive or accepting of the other person – because we don’t feel loved or supported or accepted ourselves. Or perhaps that person is playing a new role in our lives, creating a new challenge, and offering us a new learning.
I didn’t have a perfect family growing up and don’t have a perfect family now – nobody does. It isn’t about that. It is about the journey of becoming wise, loving and mature. It is about learning to create love, learning to create what we need, what others need. Its about understanding that relationship is a living and dynamic process. Learning to be responsive to our own needs and the needs of others rather than reactive allows our relationships to become the tender places of connection that we all need.