Working as I have for decades on learning how to sustain and nourish lasting relationships has brought me continuously back to the same question of how to learn to stay both in my own relationships as well as in many others that I have counseled. Usually the question is a reflection of the viability of the relationship itself. We look at our partner and ask if they can change or whether the relationship will improve. Generally the question is provoked when we are in the midst of painful times. We don’t wonder about staying when things are easy and predictable. It is when things fall apart that we doubt whether the work that our relationship or other life commitments is demanding is worth it.
I have crossed this bridge in my thoughts thousands of times as I have worked through the hard places in my marriage, with my children and in my business. Many times, the voice of reason, or at least the loudest voice I could hear, had sound justifications for leaving, for separating myself from people in my life, or for quitting my work. I could not see how the relationship could become workable for me. The pain I felt was too acute, the discomfort and anxiety were lasting too long, the instability and my own insecurity were etched too deeply in my psyche to listen for anything else. I couldn’t bear the idea of holding the space for another minute, let alone another day. I wanted to escape.
I am not alone in this desire to escape. We live in a society of escape. Our culture is replete with easy outs for our discomfort and endless media schemes to support these choices. Staying with our internal discomfort and relational conflict, both of which are requisite growing pains of maturity is not a shared cultural value. Many of us never get the message that facing and working through painful passages as we reach towards our aspirations and hold fast to our promises is how life teaches us and shapes us into the best form of ourselves.
Developing the skill to stay is an inside job. It begins with reframing the question of whether to stay, to examining how to stay. Just by looking for the how, you take your foot out of the door and show up inside your relationship with new eyes. The other magical thing that happens when you switch your focus to looking for how to stay is that your awareness of the relationship issues get larger. Instead of going over the same old story lines in your head, engaging in a process of how to deal with an issue often will loosen the grip that fear and anxiety have held over you and your relationship.
It is in these small moments of recognizing our problems as opportunities to discover our own courage, creativity and love that we get the real gifts of learning to stay. Ultimately, it is our own ability to think that is transformed in the work of learning to stay. Little by little, the thoughts that have trapped us in our relationships have less sticking power. We start to grasp how much more space we hold in our mind and in our hearts. This is why I think I have always come back to staying with my relationships and my work, because in the process of learning how to stay, I have found over and over that the real gift of life is that it is almost always workable.
It might not work exactly as I would have it, and I don’t always remember this truth when I am swimming neck deep in my own fears, but increasingly and with deeper recognition, learning to stay has helped me learn to trust life and my ability to love as the only real anchors I need. I often repeat this quote by Calvin Coolidge when I am finding my way back to staying: “Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan “press on” has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”