(Be sure to read Part One first)
We live in an age of unprecedented choice. More than in perhaps any other time and place, we 21st century Westerners can choose our path in life, and then if it doesn’t suit us we can change our minds with limited consequences. We also live in an age of reason. A common definition of irrationality is performing the same action over and over again, expecting a different result. And we live in a generation that has absorbed the admonition to “follow your bliss”, and all too often interpreted that to mean whatever makes you happy right now. In this age of choice and reason (two ideals I advocate vociferously), it is irresponsible to advise someone you care about to to keep working at something that is obviously making them miserable. And if you do, you had better have a good reason to back it up. Some persuasive reason why things will be different this time, that the unhappy partner can cling to.
I came from a religious background that does not honor choice and reason so highly. The fundamentalist ethic is: God says you must stay together, and so you must. Period. No, you don’t get a reason. No, you don’t even get a promise that things will turn out all right if you do what he says. He didn’t say to do it so that such-and-so will happen; he just said do it. And that’s all there is to it.
I’m starting to think there’s some real wisdom in the latter position. Bear with me.
A few months ago I and a team of doctors and nurses held my stepson down, confused, screaming and writhing in pain as a doctor drove a large needle into the back of his spine. I could have explained to him that this was in his long-term best interest, that what we were doing could very well be saving his life from a fast-moving brain infection. It would not have done him any good. He was way past the place where reason would give him something to cling to. The best I could do was to reassure him as best I could and tell him that it just had to be done, that he had to trust me and do his best to cooperate just because. No message more complicated than that could have gotten through.
Here’s the problem with the reason-based approach: from inside the the turmoil of a failing relationship, there may be no rational argument strong enough to give you the strength to carry on. Convincing or not, reasonable or not, it doesn’t matter. Rationality is a lousy life preserver in those black seas.
Sometimes, it’s far easier to cling to “just because” than to reasonable arguments. You can rationalize away any reason-based argument. You can’t rationalize away “just because”.
Ah, but that spinal tap really was in my stepson’s best interest. How could I possibly know that things are going to turn out all right in the long run in any given relationship?
Well, I don’t. But here’s the thing that almost all reason-based approaches fail to take into account, even the ones that take a relatively long view: sometimes the pain itself is the reason.
When you go to a friend for advice about your unhappy relationship, you can expect that they will try in some way to mitigate the pain you feel. Either by offering strategies to try and fix it, or by counseling you to leave the relationship – one way or another, they are trying to reduce the pain you are feeling. Because they love you, and they don’t like to see you hurt.
Back to me. When I emerged from those seven lean years, it wasn’t because Stacey suddenly changed completely (although she had been slowly changing all along, as people will over time). It wasn’t because I got a great new therapist. It wasn’t because I figured a new approach out, or made an ultimatum. In fact, it wasn’t anything I did at all.
During those years that I chose to exist within the uncertainty and volatility of a rocky relationship, slow processes were moving in my unconscious mind, beneath the level of observation. In that hot crucible where I chose to wrestle with my unresolved desires and unmet needs instead of walking away, an alchemical change was taking place. One day the gears of my internal clockwork clicked one last time, and I realized only then that a subtle but revolutionary change had taken place. Examining myself in the aftermath with what intuition I can muster, I am almost certain that that change would not have come about if it were not for the catalyzing effect of conflict. Certainly it would not have happened nearly as soon.
And that’s the factor that is left out in most people’s calculations about relationships: the value of the conflict itself. And no wonder – who wants to think that pain and heartache might be necessary?
But am I going to explain all this to the next friend who comes to me in turmoil about his or her relationship? No, probably not. Explanations are cheap and unconvincing in the midst if distress.
No, chances are I’m just going to say Stick it out. Because I said so. Trust me. Cry on my shoulder all you like, but stick it out.
What if I’m wrong? It could happen. But I can be pretty certain he or she will be getting plenty of the opposite advice from other people, so it’s not like my advice will go unbalanced.
And the rewards, if I’m right, will be worth it. Because the strength and vitality of a relationship that has been stubbornly through the fire and come out the other side is awe-inspiring.
Trust me on that one.