Relationships and Radical Uncertainty

Several years ago, I ran into a particularly rough time in my marriage. I’m not talking about the kind where you have a fight, storm off, and then make up. No, this was the kind of rough time that seemed to have no particular cause. Though there was nothing to fight about, we fought about everything. Nothing was bothersome, but everything one of us did bothered the other. We had no particular problems, but everything we tried to do—eat a meal, make the bed, decide what to watch on television—somehow became a huge problem, impossible to navigate without truly pissing each other off. In short: we could not get along. This went on, not for days, not for weeks, but for months. We began to dread seeing each other. Distance was kept. Eggshells were trod upon. Eyes rolled. Fake niceties were extended.

One day, I was sitting at my desk crying. Maybe it’s over, I thought. How did this happen?

The fact is, solid ground is elusive. Even long-term, happy relationships can suddenly change, seemingly beneath our feet. The emotional exchange between two people shifts like grains of sand in the desert: some days you can see forever and some days you have to take cover because something kicks up out of nowhere and you can’t see two feet in front of you. On still other occasions, imperceptible winds cause little piles to slowly accumulate until, one day, a familiar path is altogether blocked. You just can’t tell what’s going to happen.

Have you ever had a rapturous moment with a beloved, arms wrapped around each other, blissful, and thought: I never want this moment to end? Well, too bad. It will. Why? Because you’re both alive. The moment is alive. The air is alive, as is the ground you stand on, the flesh on your bones, the looks you exchange. Everything that is alive also dissolves, whether in a nanosecond or an eon. It really helps — and disorients, shocks, empowers — to recognize this. As the writer Saul Bellow said about death, “(it) is the black backing on the mirror that allows us to see anything at all.”

Of course, there are qualities that are essential to creating a sustainable relationship. It begins by creating a strong foundation through honesty and good manners. It continues through the willingness to assign equal value (at least) to your partner within the relationship.

But no matter how much you cultivate these qualities, change is still going to happen. Impermanence is real.

Although this can be terrifying, it can also be liberating. We imagine that we would feel fine if only we could find the “right” person and live happily ever after. But that’s a myth, one that sacrifices vitality, genuineness, chaos, depth, sorrow, joy, and meaning. What would it be like if, instead of wishing for comfort, we wished for depth? What if the first thing we brought to our disconnects was curiosity, rather than judgment?

Precisely the inability to create safety actually plots the path to love. It’s strange but true. When you work with all this chaos (and joy and sweetness and rage and so on), love becomes more than romance. It turns into something way better: intimacy. Romance has got to end, that’s just how it goes. But intimacy? It has no end. You can’t be, “oh, intimacy, we’ve done that.” It can always go deeper.

A great partner is not one who expresses undying romantic love for you at every turn, whether you are in your most radiant or most bedraggled state. (That would be weird.) A great partner is one who, rather than facing off to determine who will win each battle, turns to stand shoulder to shoulder with you to watch the battle rage.

That kind of intimacy is worth committing to for a lifetime and, as much as possible (barring abuses and addictions), using whatever transpires between you and this precious other human as the possible means for deepening, not love, not dreams, not romance…but intimacy, the deep, mysterious, soulful, surprising, confounding connection that is possible when you let go of what you think should happen to embrace what is.

At the root of discomfort is the wish for comfort. Meeting the discomfort together is love.

I wish I could tell you that these realizations immediately neutralized the problems between my husband and I and made us all lovey-dovey. They did not. However, when he came home that night, something had shifted. He saw that I was sad and brought me a cup of tea. I felt his fatigue after a long day at work and offered to cook dinner. There was no big conversation, just a sense that, somehow, my enemy was once again my friend.


What is real love, without the trappings? In this reflection, Sharon Salzberg will teach you how to tap into feelings of love while maintaining clarity. 

Susan Piver