Inspired by a friend who has been struggling within a very difficult relationship, I decided to write about the process that I’ve always followed when it comes to building harmony with the people in my life. For me, happiness in every form of relationship that I’ve experienced has been the result of hard work and absolute vigilance, and the starting point is always with myself.
I’ve lived through a wonderful marriage that has lasted almost 30 years, and one that withstood the massive upheaval of losing our 21-year old son. I also enjoyed a good relationship with both my children; today, my remaining child Annabel and I are close friends who love each other’s company. Over the years, many friends and students that I’ve taught have told me how lucky I was to have found the right man, and how fortunate I was to have children who actually liked me. To these aching souls who could not get along with their children, were suffering the pain of a loveless marriage, separation, divorce, or who simply could not find the right partner, my situation looked as if it were blessed by the Gods. In both my teaching career, and in my conversations with friends, I have been forced to put the record straight; to allow people to realize that my happiness in relationships was, and still is, earned, and that I did not start out as the easy-going person that people experience today.
Emerging from a completely dysfunctional family, I was guarded, suspicious, defensive and completely self-centred. A survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I didn’t trust men, and believed that the only person I could rely on was myself. I learned from an early age to protect my secrets, and to close my heart to anyone who wanted to enter. In my parents, I watched a father who spent his weekends drinking, womanising, sexually abusing me and scaring everyone in the house. My mother knew what my father was doing to me but turned a blind eye, and she never had the courage to take us away from the dreadful situation. I learned early on not to listen to my own voice, because my mother was a poor role model who didn’t use hers. My father would also make the rules of the house without our input; he told us what to study, what professions we would go into, and who we could associate with. As we grew up, our world views were my father’s world views. If we had anything different to say, a war would start.
As one can imagine with a background like mine, I was not good relationship material. Although I displayed a happy exterior, I also was moody and distrustful. To some it seemed that I had a split personality; my emotions were a rollercoaster fuelled by the idea that I was not good enough to be loved. Hugely insecure, I was inclined to run from relationships in which I suspected possible infidelity. I believed it was dangerous to express how I felt and so would withdraw. I made assumptions about people’s motives, and found myself thinking and behaving in ways that were far from loving. I hated myself in those days, and when I got married and had my first child, I acted on an intense need to do something about the way that I felt.
My first promise to myself was that no matter what it took, I would give my husband and children the best love imaginable. In terms of kindness, love and acceptance I would force myself to learn what that meant in the way that I needed to behave. My most memorable moment came when I realized that in order to get peace, love and happiness, I had to be all of that.
I read every self-help book that I could find and delved deep into my past to root out all the reasons for my negative responses to certain situations and people. I figured that until I learned who I was as this personality, I would never understand anything else about the world. I began to realise that the cosmos emerges out of the soul and personality of human beings, and both the cruelty and the love that exists all around us is our personal responsibility. When we deal with our own personal demons, we contribute something profoundly beautiful to the world.
I had been a hugely judgmental person, and always needed to be right in any dispute, large or small. In those days, I believed that if everybody else changed, I would be a happier person. In realizing that it was actually me that needed to shift perspective, I made long lists of what I wanted from others. In preparing those lists, I got a clear picture of what I needed to be myself if I wanted happiness and harmony. Once that was done, I recorded exactly what actions I would need to take to make the changes within myself. A lot of the behaviours that were required of me were unfamiliar, and felt strange when doing them. For example, in the past, when my husband admired beautiful women, I would feel hugely threatened and would respond with coolness and withdrawal. The story that ran through my mind had him cheating on me and eventually leaving me alone and desolate. With my new approach, I began to accept his love of anything beautiful, be it a woman, a painting or a piece of music. I recognized that the story that was in my head was not necessarily in his. It was strange at first, and I felt vulnerable without my guard up, but over time, I got used to the peace that it brought me. I was also nit-picky when it came to keeping things tidy around the house. If people left the dishes in the sink, or the mud on the carpet I assumed they were doing it to get at me. Now, I would stop and question my assumptions. My family were just messy, happy people. That’s all. If I stopped nagging, and stopped being moody because I was always so hurt by the things they did or didn’t do, I figured they’d be even happier. What I found in fact, was that I gained so much from it, because I as my family blossomed in the sunshine of my love, I grew to love who I had come to be.
Changing all my insecure behaviours was scary. Altering our habits is not an easy thing, and my challenge was to become a completely different person. I realized that I would have to follow the principle of ‘fake it till you make it’, and I found that it worked. The rewards that I got were so amazing, I would be truly grateful to myself that I had made the decision to make these changes. I watched my husband relax around me and trust that I would be the soft place to fall in his life. He could talk to me about anything; he was even able to constructively criticize me without me becoming aloof and disparaging. In loving him and taking care of him, I discovered a man who would bend over backwards to make sure I was happy. My children came home to a mother whose only care was that they had a happy childhood. They knew that I had learned to listen to their needs and do my best to meet them. They trusted me because I had found my voice and explained my childhood pain. I told them that I was flawed, and that I wanted to do my best by them, and when I forgot and behaved selfishly, it was okay for them to pull me up gently. I made their home into an oasis from the world, and they were grateful for it. This journey had so many gifts for me personally. I learned to see that other people that their own views, and that it was okay if I had a different one. I learned to feel safe around others, and open my heart to them. In the course of time, I changed so much that I now hardly recognise the person that I was 30 years ago.
Change isn’t easy, but for people with similar backgrounds to myself, it is overwhelmingly worth it. We can’t know God when we are filled with self-loathing, and transformation like this propels us to move forever forward in our journey. I sometimes slide back into old insecurities; there are sometimes events that seem to conspire to trigger ancient responses, but with vigilance, I am usually able to pull myself back from the brink of emotional mayhem. And the learning is never over; we are always change in progress. We just keep going, knowing that the journey is one that will result in us re-discovering the ultimate love of all.