As a long distance runner, I spend many hours criss-crossing the streets of Toronto. Every morning on my way back to our house in Toronto’s Beaches neighbourhood, I cross a majestic steel bridge with the following inscription on the upper trusses: “The river I step in is not the same river I stand in.” This is such a magical concept because it reminds me not to become attached to possessions and situations because like the river, they will flow to and from me continuously.
I’ve been married for almost 27 years, and I’m often asked what the secret is to our enduring relationship. The only thing I’m certain of is that my wife and I are not the same people we married all those years ago. Every relationship waxes and wanes, and learning to embrace that constant flux, instead of resisting it, is a cornerstone of any fulfilling relationship. Those of you who regularly follow my posts, are well aware that the past six months has been a tumultuous time in my life, so it’s inevitable that there have been significant reverberations in my relationship with my wife.
I've witnessed a monumental evolution in our marriage during this period, and recently I’ve spent a lot of time trying to define what “love” means to me. For years, I equated love with a feeling of euphoria, happiness, and general harmony of emotions, but today, I no longer define it in this way. For me, love means “space”—and I don’t mean what many people refer to as “needing space to figure things out alone.” It’s easier to go through life trying to create certainty whenever possible. When it comes to my understanding of my spouse, I’m conscious of allowing her the “space” to change, grow, and self-reflect. This is by no means an easy thing to do. It takes an incredible amount of faith in my bond with my wife to feel safe in the uncertainty of her constant evolution.
In order to be comfortable with my partner having this “space” to grow, I need to first cultivate this freedom of space in my own life. Being able to “sit with” this uncertainty in our relationship can only happen if I nurture a strong sense of compassion because this is manifest in understanding. Any time there is tension in our relationship, it originates out of misconception and poor communication. By learning to live with compassion in my heart, I feel less suffering in my own life because I become open to recognizing the pain and discomfort that others around me feel. I’m actively trying to be present in the moment when I’m with my partner because viewing every situation through the lens of compassion permits me the “space” to see what lies beneath, or behind, the strong emotions in our interactions. When we communicate authentically like this, we are no longer reacting, but interacting.
Another revelation in our relationship over the past six months, has been a tacit recognition of the distinction between “being there with our partner”, compared to “being there for our partner.” This is another example of why I now believe “love equals space.” When we care for someone deeply, our natural inclination is to try to fix his/her problems or to in someway change the person. As I have been wading through the complex emotions arising from my disclosure of the childhood sexual abuse I experienced, my wife has been by my side in the most meaningful way possible. We’ve been witnessing how simply “being with our partner” is not only supportive but transformational. In other words, it’s an example of “when doing nothing” is actually “doing everything.’
The spiritual leader Eckhart Tolle believes that all of us have something inside us called the “pain body”—It’s the residue of human emotion inside of us that metastasizes all of the pain, trauma, and discomfort we have experienced throughout our life. When we acknowledge this pain body in ourselves, it allows us to witness it in those we love as well. I believe that living a wholehearted life does not involve getting rid of this pain body, or even denying its presence. I think freedom comes from harnessing this pain energy and redirecting it as a spark for interpersonal growth and personal transformation. By releasing this feeling of “stuckness” and by no longer being controlled by our pain body, we open the door to more joy and calm entering our life. So again, it’s another another illustration of how permitting room for this “space” is in essence, nurturing love.