It’s a beautiful, hot Queensland summer day at the beach; the water is clear, see-through green. Calm. I look down at my toes, digging into yellow sand. My friend and I are bobbing around in the soft waves; hats perched on our heads, sunglasses shielding our eyes from the glare of the mid-morning sun.
We talk about work, children, food, Chinese New Year and the year of the Rooster, then the mood shifts and my friend asks, ‘Have you two always been good together?’ She looks towards the beach umbrella where my husband is laying back in a chair reading his Christmas book.
‘What do you mean?’
‘You speak so kindly to each other.’
I could say, ‘Years of practice, we have our moments, the journey was long and hard, it’s not always like this.’ And all of this is true, but instead I find myself saying, ‘For us it’s what we do most of the time that counts. We’re human and we can trigger each other in a heartbeat. But we’re in this together and have talked a lot about intimacy, so we have a commitment to nurture it with tenderness, vulnerability and kindness.’
‘Yeah, let’s say we are in the middle of a robust conversation and something he says triggers a reaction in me, feelings of anger, or shame, or hurt, or rejection or disappointment. Or vice-versa, something I say triggers him. For many years we would escalate these feelings, firmly telling each other what we thought we heard and arge-bargy back and forth. Neither giving way to the other and nothing making any sense until one of us walks away defeated; the pain still trapped inside.’
‘Ironically, deeply embedded in us, the emotions felt are usually from past situations that are triggered by something the other person has said. Taking one or both of us back to being a six-year-old in a sand-pit, rejected, hurt and vulnerable.’
My friend turns to me, ‘I’m not comfortable feeling vulnerable.’
‘Me too at first, but being able to stop in the middle of the hurt and say, “Something you said just triggered something in me and my reaction has clearly triggered you. Let’s stop here and take some time out,” is very healing. Dredging up more evidence in order to make either of us right or wrong is painful.’
‘But that’s hard to do when all I want to do is throttle him,’ my friend confesses.
‘It’s a work in progress. Sometimes we just don’t listen to each other, the old pattern kicks in and the pain escalates.’
‘I get triggered when I don’t feel heard,’ she says.
‘So as soon as you notice this happening, could you stop the conversation and sit with that feeling. Honour it, not be afraid of it, to reach some sort of peace with it?’
‘I was taught to block my emotions,’ my friend says.
‘I know,’ I agree. ‘When I first sat peacefully with my emotions it felt counter-intuitive.’
‘…To not rock the boat,’ she continues.
‘Me too. Walking away and being still with an emotion is not what human beings usually do. Mostly we fight, shame, blame or freeze out the other person and ourselves. When I shame and blame, things become hurtful and any trust between us is diminished. Trust is nurtured with kindness and tenderness. Empathy and compassion kill shame. By taking the choice to sit with my emotions, my heart can become very tender.’
‘Was it always like this?’
‘Hell no…when we first got together it could take hours, sometimes days to sort out our differences. Now because we are both willing and have the tools and commitment, it’s getting easier. But it’s a life-long project.’
‘Sounds hard,’ my friend laments, discouragement in her voice.
‘Look. I’ve seen you two together, you love each other and it’s clear you have a strong commitment. If you can work out some strategies together…anything’s possible.’
‘You reckon?’ She laughs as we swim to shore.
‘Why not?’ I encourage.
‘…So not so much the year of the Rooster, as the year for tenderness.’ She smiles as she flicks the sand from her towel.