Resilience has to do with the capacity to recover, learn, and grow from the experience of adversity. Resilience isn’t acquired or inherited, but is developed in the process of surviving life’s inevitable and often unanticipated difficulties and coming through these experiences with greater wisdom, compassion, understanding, and maturity. There doesn’t seem to be any way of cultivating these qualities that doesn’t involve at least some degree of stress and difficulty. It’s actually the ordeal itself that calls forth the necessary but often hidden strengths and resources that are needed to meet the challenge of the crisis we are facing. Relationships provide an abundance of opportunities to cultivate resilience in that they illuminate the places in which we hold invisible attachments, expectations, wounds, fears, unmet needs, and unfulfilled longings.
When any of these are activated or brought into conscious awareness, often through a loss or an actual or perceived emotional injury, the immediate tendency is usually to re-establish the equilibrium that had been present in the relationship prior to the breakdown. When this effort fails, the breakdown becomes a crisis. It’s one thing to believe a crisis to be an opportunity and it’s quite another to actually experience it that way. Life challenges are not inherently growth-producing. What determines whether or not they are, is the attitude and inner resources with which we meet those challenges. All crises are potentially transformative in that they contain the seeds of new growth. Yet simply seeing new possibilities is not sufficient to mobilize movement toward their realization.
Without motivation, there is no movement. Pain, or the desire to be free of pain, often serves as a great motivator, but not always. Unless there is an ability to be present with the pain, and be informed and opened by it, the healing potential of emotional trauma will be lost in a relentless desire to escape suffering. When we can meet pain with compassion, curiosity, openness, and an intention to learn in a context of genuine support, meaningless suffering can be transformed into a meaningful experience. It must be stressed, however, that meaningful suffering is still suffering, and even in the best of cases, pain is an unavoidable aspect of any process that involves an unwanted experience of loss of any type. It is the ability to move into and through pain with awareness that can make this process redemptive.
Tricia had been married for almost 21 years when her husband announced quite unexpectedly that he was ending their marriage. “Martin just told me on a Sunday morning that he was leaving and that was it. I was devastated. I never saw it coming. He told me that he had fallen in love with another woman and was moving in with her. I had known that he was unhappy professionally but I had no idea that he was that unhappy in the marriage. When Martin and I got married it was already obvious to me that he didn’t have a very solid sense of himself, but in my naivite, I thought that because I could see his inner beauty that I could somehow get him to see himself through my eyes and that would change his self-perception. Boy was I wrong! I think we both underestimated how much it would take for Martin to recover from the abuse and neglect that he experienced as a child, and although he did get into therapy and he did a number of personal growth workshops, he never stopped viewing his problems as originating outside of himself. Other people were letting him down, or not appreciating him. His job was beneath him, the world was too screwed up.
To Martin, nothing was ever his fault. Consequently he never practiced anything that he learned in therapy and he never applied anything that he read in books to himself. It was my denial and my need to prove that I was a powerful and loving person that kept me trying to save him despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. After our separation my normally sunny disposition shattered and I found myself possessed by something that I had never known was in me. I hadn’t ever felt murderous rage before, but that is exactly what I was experiencing. I literally wanted Martin dead. I didn’t actually want to kill him myself but I fantasized about hiring a professional killer and taking out a contract on him. I realize now that much of the rage that I had at Martin was really displaced anger at myself for being so foolish as to allow someone to betray and disrespect me for so long. I had given him everything I had in the hope that at some point it would fill his emptiness and he would finally begin to reciprocate and give something back. God knows when or even if I would have stopped if he hadn’t ended our marriage. I was withering on the vine and completely unaware that the source of my unhappiness had more to do with me than it did with him. It took a while for me to come to terms with my rage and to use the tools of forgiveness towards myself, as well as Martin.
In the process, I became aware that because of Martin’s dependence upon outside validation, I had been using an enormous amount of my time and energy propping up his ego, trying to push him up the hill. When I finally stopped doing that, I felt like an enormous weight had been lifted off of me. I felt freer and lighter than I had in years. I was finally able to focus my attention on my own desires and needs. I had unknowingly been holding myself back so as not to threaten Martin or cause him to feel uncomfortable, and unconsciously resenting him for it. Now at last I was able to go full tilt and in giving myself permission to do so. I actually came to feel genuine gratitude towards Martin for finally setting me free. I know now that the breakup of our marriage was the best thing that ever happened to me. I’m currently in the most stimulating growth period that I’ve ever experienced in my life. New opportunities show up for me, literally every single week. I know that I could not be this confident in my ability to handle challenges had I not gone through times that brought me to my knees like this one did.” Dealing with loss, even those that open up new doors of possibility for us, is rarely easy.
Recognizing and letting go of relationships that have proven to be unfulfilling, can however, be an expression of self-love, not self-centeredness. While many people leave relationships before giving it their best shot, some stay beyond the point where their sense of self-respect and personal well-being have become compromised. Sometimes temporary pain is the price that we need in order to pay to open our lives to new possibilities and free ourselves from an unworkable impasse. Every situation is different and must be handled in accordance with its unique circumstances. Although it may sound like a cliché, there is truth to the saying that pain is sometimes the price that we must be willing to pay for growth. Tricia would say that it was worth it. What do you think?