You can't always fix things.
For the last few years I’ve struggled to cultivate a healthy relationship with someone close to me.
“You have the right to work, but for the work’s sake only. You have no right to the fruits of work.” - Bhagavad Gita
For the last few years I’ve struggled to cultivate a healthy relationship with someone close to me, her name is Anne.
When I was 21, I became seriously ill with viral meningitis and was taken to hospital in an ambulance. Unable to maintain consciousness and unable to stop vomiting, I was terrified I was going to die.
I was admitted to Accident and Emergency and the hospital staff asked me who they should call. I gave them Anne’s number.
Around two hours later, wired up to a drip with machines beeping around me, two familiar faces appeared at my bedside, but neither of them were Anne’s.
I needed so badly to be comforted - to be able to fall apart and cry and talk about how afraid I felt. I needed Anne.
But the hospital had called her, and she’d decided, for reasons known only to herself, not to come. She had, instead, sent two relatives in front of whom I had to wear my very best brave face.
When I saw their faces, and not Anne’s, my heart sank. Even through profuse vomiting and barely holding onto consciousness, my guts twisted into knots in an emotion I now know to be shame. Her absence told me I was unworthy of love. In my greatest hour of need, someone who claimed to love me did not come to comfort me.
At this moment, I sadly realized that my relationship with Anne was not what I thought it was.
It was one of the worst moments of my life. The searing white-hot pain of shame and abandonment far outweighed the throbbing pressure in my skull.
For many years, I swept this profound betrayal under the rug and continued a relationship with Anne as if nothing had happened. I was well-trained to believe that it’s ‘spiritual’ to forgive, and forgiveness meant not holding people accountable, so I never brought up how much her absence had hurt me.
But something changed when I hit my 30s. I woke up one day, and all at once, I could not help but see my past through a lens that I can only describe as That Was Not OK. Thousands of memory-dominoes crashed into each other inside my mind, tinting everything in their path with That Was Not OK, and there was nothing I could do to stop it.
A sudden tsunami of trauma washed over my memories, and my current existence, extinguishing all trust and hopes for the future as it passed. It had been held back by a dangerously thin dam of naivete.
Anne’s past behaviours were central to this rearrangement. My mind was so filled with what I perceived to be instances of emotional neglect, abandonment, and unkindness that I became instantly unable to carry on as normal, sweeping things under the rug as I had once done.
I wanted to be wrong that I was worthy of neglect. I needed an alternative explanation. I wanted Anne to explain to me what was going on in her mind and in her life at times when she was unable to be there for me. I wanted to understand. And I wanted her to understand, from my point-of-view, what had been said and done that violated my self-respect and harmed my self-esteem. I wanted to set healthy boundaries and move forward in our relationship together.
At first, I tried to speak with her on my own. I set up a call with the intention of explaining that I wanted a better relationship, one based on love, trust and mutual respect. I tried to get across that it didn’t need to be perfect, but there had to be a mutual agreement to take responsibility and a willingness to do better. When I gave her two examples of what I meant, she became angry and blamed her behaviour on me.
I was shocked and deeply hurt. I needed a two-year break from contact with her just to get back to resembling anything like myself. Her disregard for my feelings and concerns took me right back to that hospital bed when I was 21.
I got into therapy on my own. My therapist and I teased out my hurts, my expectations, and my limits. We talked about how far I was willing to go, and what I was willing to overlook for the sake of having a relationship with Anne. I saw clearly that I needed to feel heard. I needed to be able to explain why I was hurt without being dismissed, ridiculed, and blamed - for things that happened in the past, and for things that may happen in the future. I needed to feel reassured that Anne was getting the support she needed to reach for better solutions in times of crisis and conflict. And I felt willing and able to do the same for any hurts or transgressions I may have caused. We also discussed, at length, what would need to happen for my sanity, if Anne was unwilling or unable to meet those conditions.
After two years, I suggested that Anne and I try to resolve things by speaking to a therapist together.
We had two sessions with a very competent therapist, and it was ineffective. There was a lack of willingness, or ability, to engage with the process.
I recognized, in that moment, that there is a huge difference between lack of willingness, and lack of ability. Up until this point, I had believed there was a lack of willingness - that Anne could do better but was choosing not to. This belief was the source of my hurt. When I entertained the possibility that Anne was not able to do differently, I was able to reach for empathy, and finally let things be as they are. It is cruel to coax and cajole someone who does not have the ability to do differently. And I am not cruel.
This realization marked the end of what I was capable of doing to cultivate a healthy relationship with Anne.
In that hospital bed, when I was 21, the feeling of abandonment was rapidly followed by a solemn vow to myself that I would never make my loved ones feel as alone and unworthy as I felt that day. I swore that I would be attentive, present and persistent with my love. I have not always succeeded, but I have always been aware of when I am not succeeding.
Ironically, this promise is what took me as far as I got with trying to ‘fix’ my relationship with the person who hurt me in the first place.
Her perception, now, is that I hate her. And that she is the bigger person for forgiving me despite everything I’ve put her through these last few years. But the truth is, I love her. I love her deeply. I always have and always will. Only love for someone, and faith in their better self, could’ve carried me this far.
But faith in a ‘better self’ was also my undoing. You can’t always fix things. People in your life will die with matters unresolved with you. You yourself will one day die, possibly with matters unresolved with others. Some relationships will become (or were always) oil and water.
For me, it mattered deeply that Anne and I resolved things and moved forward with a healthier relationship. The only thing that mattered more is that I could sleep at night knowing that I did everything I could - that I was the kind of person who really tried. The kind of person who did not abandon.
And even though it’s sad that we were not able to see eye to eye on what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour in a relationship, I am grateful for what I learned. I learned what is acceptable and unacceptable in a relationship for me.
You cannot control how things turn out. When you insist on seeing something through to completion long after others would’ve given up, recognize that you’re doing it for the work and not the end result. You’re doing it because it matters to you to be the kind of person who tried.
Now, I’d love to hear from you. I’ve opened up the comments to everyone this time. Have you ever had to release your desire for a specific outcome? One that meant a lot to you? What did you learn along the way?
Also, what did you think of this kind of post - one with a more personal story? How does it compare to the more factual / how-to style articles, for you?
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