Relationship change and acceptance

CakeMon 22nd January 2018

Everything is always changing so nothing can be yours – Shunryu Suzuki

I love the sense of calm that this line induces in me but I would be lying if I said I had always had an easy relationship with change.

When our belief systems are challenged by our feelings or by events, we can experience a degree of discomfort that is like physical pain and sometimes even (I can say, from personal experience) feels a lot like dying. For it is, in a way, a death: it is the death of an idea of who you are, of how the world should be as opposed to how it is.

In the absence of physical or emotional harm being inflicted, we tend to see relationship change (other than the socially endorsed escalator of engagement, marriage and starting a family) as a negative thing. As if the relationship changing means that it is now, somehow, less than it was before.  I think this is a combination of the ego’s desire for stability (liking things to stay the same even if they are not helpful for your growth or congruent with your values) as well as a learned response to change as a problem. The degree to which you (or those around you) have dealt well with, or initiated, change in the past will also play a part in how you navigate change, as and when (please note that I said when, not if) it happens to you.

Even when we know that certain habits and relationships need to change, we often allow the anticipated (for anticipated also read imagined) pain of the change and the unknown to stop us from fully moving towards what we want. The ego, the lower self, the ‘small mind’ – whatever you want to call it – automatically and always exaggerates the degree of pain that you will experience; it magnifies difficulties and highlights problems. It wants you to stay the same even if you are miserable, because even being really, really miserable is preferable (to the small mind) to change. Most people therefore only make deliberate changes once a situation they are in becomes completely intolerable. It happens with alcohol, diet, drug abuse and relationships. How many of us know someone who had to have an accident or be told they were killing themselves before they could make the changes they needed to.

Because change happens to us all. And, yes, it can be scary. Really scary. And, yes, it can be difficult. Really, really difficult. But, ultimately, it is just change. And, while most people (including me) would not advocate rushing through life changing things just for the hell of it, I do believe there should be more awareness that change and growth can be both difficult and for the best at the same time. A deep unconscious understanding of this is the reason why the opening line of Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities resonates so much.

There are two types of change. There is conscious and expected change, where you are aware that your thoughts, feelings and ideas are shifting or when you know that an event will occur, like the end of a terminal illness or starting at a new school. And then there is unexpected change: someone getting ill or moving away; someone saying, out of the blue, that they want to leave. I will deal with the latter first.

So many of us live our lives on such a degree of autopilot that change can take us completely by surprise. We think that things will always be as they are. This can be experienced positively or negatively depending on the circumstance and the person. What we seem to forget, as we go about our day-to-day lives, is that all things change, whether we are expecting them to or not. And, in forgetting that things change, we tend to take them (people, relationships, our lives) very much for granted. Unexpected change can be a painful wake up call to those of us who have forgotten to parctcie appreciation for the gifts in our lives. Remembering, or meditating upon, the fact that all things change can be a gentle reminder to be grateful and appreciative of what we have.

Then there is conscious or known/expected change – change whereby you deliberately pursue a different set of behaviours and actions. But, in truth, even planned change is often experienced differently in reality, and can also be uncomfortable. The problem comes when we try to manage the anticipated experience (a child leaving home or changing schools, a family member dying after a long illness) or when we have set expectations abou it. We tell ourslevs that we are in control and attempt to make the change fit our expectations rather than opening our hearts and minds to how it actually is. This is totally natural but can add to the distress caused when the changes look and feel different to our expectations.

Conscious change can also create very unexpected results. Accepting this is part of becoming not just resilient to change, but welcoming of it. ‘Anti-fragility’, a neologism coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book of the same name, is a type of response to the unexpected which means that change actually makes you stronger. That, in response to change, you, like the Hydra, grow two heads back when one is cut off. And that, knowing it will strengthen you, you welcome it. It is something we should all be aspiring to.

In a very Zen way, the only way to do change is to just do it… One can start small, but you need to actually make changes, to push that comfort zone when it comes to change and begin to make the doing of it part of your everyday life. As William James suggests: Do something every day that you do not want to; this is the golden rule for acquiring the habit of doing your duty without pain.

The spirit with which change is undertaken can make all the difference. If we act with curiosity, an open mind and heart and a lot of compassion and kindness for ourselves as well as the other involved, then no change can ever be a bad thing.

It is increasing clear to me, on a deep, emotional level, that change, consciously chosen or not, is the only constant and, in working on this piece it has struck me how much art is an attempt to make sense of, and manage, change. With that in mind, I will leave you to reflect on your own relationship with change as well as some words from one of my favourite contemporary thinkers: Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it – Eckhart Tolle 


Personal reflections

In 2015, after a year or so of ups and downs in our relationship, my husband and I read about, talked about and then chose to explore non-monogamy. We did not choose for him to find that it does not meet his needs. I chose to explore different physical and emotional experiences. I did not choose for these to completely transform my understanding of my sexual needs. These were the unintended and unexpected consequences of the conscious choices we made, and we are now, a year after our separation, working hard to support each other as we deal with those. 

As things continue to change here, one thing that has not changed is how much I care for Marc and how much I want the best for him and our family. Just because some aspects of your shared life changes, that does not mean that you cannot care about, spend time with, and be connected emotionally to that other person. 

This change we have gone through has, if nothing else, taught us to communicate better, appreciate more, and to truly see each other for the glorious, evolving individuals that we are.

The only thing that is certain is change and, as 2018 gets underway, I feel ready and able to revel in that uncertainty rather than fear it.