I have a close friend I walk with every week. We have been doing it regularly for about three years now. The walking and the friendship are mutually reinforcing, and as far as I am concerned, this practice could continue indefinitely.
So I was shocked when, one evening a few months ago, I got an email letting me know that my friend would be taking a break from walking with me, at least for a while, starting the next day. My friend, let’s call her Nancy, asked to know my response to her message, affirmed her sense of connection with me, explained what the reason for the break was (she needed her energy for some major projects in her life, which made total sense to me), and proposed other ways of staying in touch.
As I sat down to write an email response to Nancy, I connected to a deep well of sadness. I knew that the “right” answer was to express my understanding and acceptance and to let it go. Instead, I chose to express the full truth – without holding back, without losing care for Nancy. In the depth of sadness and loss that I was at, this was no small task. I was particularly upset about the unilateral decision she made instead of bringing the issues to joint holding, so we could figure out something together.
This started a couple of rounds of emails, followed by a one-time walk we scheduled to have an in-person conversation about it, which spilled into a second walk, and resulted in a reaffirmation of our shared commitment to the walks. They have since become even more satisfying for both of us.
This seeming miracle resulted from bringing to the light of day everything that had not been said before. Nancy, it turns out, had been trained, like so many of us, to withhold anything that might be unpleasant or charged for the other person to hear. Although her love for me and appreciation for our friendship and time together were absolutely deep and genuine, there were things she didn’t feel able to tell me about ways of acting on my part that were mildly distressing for her. Mild enough in the moment so as to be able to tell herself that she could let go. And yet, over time, bothersome enough that interacting with me required some slight ongoing effort, and made our walks, despite how nourishing they were, feel like “work.” On top of that, she was raised with a strong sense of responsibility, and didn’t feel at ease about canceling if and when she didn’t have the energy for a walk. She pushed herself so hard inside, that she finally lost her ability to hold me with care, and thus came the abrupt unilateral decision.
At different times in our conversation one or the other of us cried as we reached for deeper places in our hearts. Nancy finally got to a place of feeling freer than ever, because she was able to tell me everything, and because we came to an agreement that gave her explicit room to cancel on any given week. I, on the other hand, was finally given priceless feedback I am always so hungry for. I was able to learn something about how my challenge around humility affected both Nancy and some other people I came in contact with through her. It’s no secret to me that some of my ways of being are challenging for others, and I can’t think of a better way of learning than through the experience of someone I care about and trust as much as I trust Nancy.
On another occasion, with another friend, whom I will call Lorraine, I learned that when she is not doing well she is likely to choose to withdraw rather than ask for support. As we talked about what leads her to this choice, we discovered together that in some fashion she has a habit of acting within her relationships as if the well-being of the other person is more important than her own, which takes some effort. When she is not doing well, she simply doesn’t have the energy to expend on that effort. The result, a somewhat one-sided friendship, doesn’t actually work for me, because I want a friendship that nourishes both of us. To put it somewhat bluntly: a friendship that’s designed to work only for me doesn’t really work for me. While we didn’t come to some epiphany or clear resolution, the mere talking about this dilemma, and the holding of it together, brought us to a place of more appreciation for what we bring to each other, and a clearer sense of intimacy.
I see a striking similarity between these two unrelated situations, and a lot to learn about what makes relationships thrive. However scary it can sometimes be, telling the truth creates more intimacy. Instead of believing that we have to sort things out on our own, we can bring our incomplete process to each other and be together in the uncertainty of life.
Navigating what comes up may take some skill and a willingness to experience discomfort and step into unknown territory. This is probably why so many of us avoid it so much of the time. We tell ourselves we can let go, and yet we build resentment. We stretch to hold the other person with care, and don’t notice that we are giving up on ourselves in some subtle way. We prioritize harmony, and we lose depth and authenticity. Ultimately the source of the difficulty is about seeing honesty and care as mutually exclusive instead of recognizing the extraordinary possibilities that arise when we bring our dilemmas, our sorrows and doubts, and our less-then-together selves to each other at the same time as our love, empathy, and understanding. The result is nothing short of resilient and graceful intimacy, the kind we all desire.
These principles apply in all relationships, and most especially in intimate partnerships. If you would like to know more about telling truth to create intimacy, and other ways to make your relationships work, I would like to invite you to a workshop I am facilitating called “Peace Starts at Home“. It’s primarily designed for couples, and is open to anyone who wants to explore dialogue as a way of life.