Photo / Ian Scheider
The color of my partner’s eyes is somewhere between amber and obsidian. While I try to keep myself present, while I ponder the question, to pretend or not to pretend, I focus on the ashy lightning of his gaze. If I was a tree in the desert, I’d surely be struck down.
He has a tendency to stare at me with no time limit and no agenda other than truth. It’s overwhelming to be held accountable for my own wholeness. Being whole requires courage. It requires transparency. It requires trust.
I don’t want to answer the question he’s posed, so I grin a toothy grin and blink.
“I don’t know,” I say. And then I laugh a little to emphasize how light and unencumbered I am by the heavy vulnerability of humanness.
His dimples rise to the surface of his skin. His eyebrow arcs. “I know that grin,” he states. “It’s your fake smile. Don’t bullshit me.”
The question posed was, “What are you afraid of?”
The context is, my partner and I are wildly, soul shakingly in love and I left a happy marriage to a wonderful human to be with him. The context is, my partner has been in the middle of his own divorce proceedings since before he met me and it’s more complicated than mine because he has two children. The context is, many people I care about have grown silent since I committed the taboo act of ending things with someone truly awesome. The context is, everything about all of this is complex and challenging except the truth at the center:
We love each other wholly and intensely. Our relationship inspires our personal growth daily. There’s nothing we don’t want to witness in each other and although I thought I’d be partnered for life when I married my former husband, things changed. Change happens. The heart can love deeply and profoundly and yet sometimes the soul will still need to open her palm and let it go.
I’m shattering a cultural myth I’ve unconsciously subscribed to for years. I call it thehappily ever after story. It tells us that the ultimate goal is to partner in a for-life kind of way, so that the ‘work’ will finally end. Happily will become the status quo. The pain and loneliness of searching will cease. We will be complete and we can finally chill out. The quest can end.
The revelation I’m having, as I sit with the phrase, what are you afraid of, is that the work of embodying our humanness is never over. Intimacy, whether romantic or other, invites us to look at all our fears and our projections. It invites us to own the truth if we want to deepen the connection. It invites us to figure out what the hell the truth is in the first place. It invites us to be shamelessly imperfect.
No. easy. Feat.
My partner interrupts my silence when he says, “Jocelyn, if I wasn’t down for all of you, if I couldn’t hold space for all of your emotions, then you should seriously be questioning if you want to be with me.”
I feel shaky. I feel the resonance of a fear that rubs up against the prospect of acceptance and it goes something like this: Maybe he thinks he means that, but just wait. Just wait until he sees a part of me he doesn’t like and bails.
In other relationships this fear has played out. We human creatures are not always capable of holding space for each other. I’ve been on various sides of the equation. I’ve been unable to witness my partner’s vulnerability because it brought my own issues to light and I’ve had partners who were unable to witness my vulnerability because it highlighted theirs. I’ve damaged relationships by expecting a partner take responsibility for my own co-dependent or wound-driven needs and I’ve taken on a partner’s issue as my own, until it suffocated me with resentment.
So how do we feel the fear and do it anyway? How do we stick with this brave thing called intimacy? I left a very actualized man who was absolutely down to do the work with me. Intimacy is not a simple noun. It’s complex to say the least. Love is the electric code of nature destroying and creating itself and the older I get the more awe I feel. Love is not some perfect happiness. It is a continuous dance with birth and death. The width and the depth of connection calls on the width and the depth within us and it can be tempting to shut down. It’s easier to repeat known patterns than to create new ones. But it’s the new patterns that lead to evolution and I believe evolution is the point.
I am lucky to have a very wise model of a man in my father. My father has always said that growth is about inclusion, not amputation. I reflect on his words before I take a breath. Before I dissolve my fake smile like butter inside a frying pan. Before I let my face melt into sadness. And then I bare everything. The entire messy wholeness.
“I’m afraid that I’ll never, ever get over the grief of leaving my best friend to be with you.
I’m afraid that your divorce will take years and you and I will live a half life together in a hellish limbo.
I’m afraid that after months of being with me and noticing that I am a human inclined toward emotional highs and lows, you will throw your hands up and say, Enough!
I’m afraid you won’t be attracted to me if I stop waxing my upper lip.
I’m afraid we will forever be excluded from social circles we used to frequent because our partnership is so triggering for others.
I’m afraid my ex-husband will read my writing and question the truly profound depth of love I’ve felt for him since the beginning and feel for him, still.
I’m afraid of moving too fast and too slow.
I’m afraid of running into my former sister-in-law at a coffee shop and getting a latte thrown in my face.
I’m afraid of not showing you that I love you enough.
I’m afraid of showing you that I love you too much.
I’m afraid. I’m afraid. I’m afraid.”
He is silent. My words hang in the thick evening heat and I shudder in the wake of their emergence. Then he offers me the kind of smile you offer a baby who has yet to do anything the world considers wrong.
And he says,
“I’m afraid you’ll abandon me if the legal process of my divorce takes too long.
I’m afraid you’ll resent me for the pain you feel about leaving your ex-husband.
I’m afraid you’ll think I’m weak for staying in my marriage for so many years when my marriage wasn’t working.
I’m afraid that someday, when we have a baby, you won’t be attracted to me because I’ll no longer be of use to you.
I’m afraid I tell you I love you too much and it annoys you.
I’m afraid I lose my wallet and my keys too much and it annoys you.
I’m afraid of fucking up.
I’m afraid. I’m afraid. I’m afraid.”
I will now echo this refrain - it is easier to repeat known patterns than to create new ones, but it’s the new patterns that lead to evolution. Truth telling is the first step toward creating new patterns. With every revolution around the sun, I come to the startling conclusion that I know much less than I imagined I did when I was fifteen. However, in the presence of our naked confessions, I know this:
Transparency is where intimacy dances.
To voice our fears with vulnerability rather than disguise them with defense, is how we grow love.
Being met with compassion, curiosity and grace is always, always what we deserve.
Meeting others with compassion, curiosity and grace is always, always worth the effort.
And all the unknown - the fucking mystery of loving - it is a primal, sacred storm.
So I say, let me be a tree in that holy desert.
I am rooted, I am ready.
Teach me how to be tender and how to be bold.
Conduct your prayerful power through me.
Let my love strike truth with the blazing grace of lightning.