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Walking Through Shadow

I wrote a while back about how our partners can support us when we’re having our ‘darker’ emotions. I argued, in that post, that a lot of those emotions aren’t dark at all, they’re just the balancing act of how life and being human work. Sometimes, it isn’t a fairytale. Or rather, it is - but the Hans Christen Andersen original where the little mermaid endures the pain of knives in her feet at every step on land in addition to being mute, and still doesn’t marry the prince at the end, not the Walt Disney version. We go through pain, trauma, and transitions to get places in life, and partners meet us where we are in processing those, even though most often the answer is partway through, or the new damage happens as we’re walking down paths next to each other in life.

Our partners are adults with us. Their emotions are as complicated as ours, as ‘dark’ as ours some or all days. In low moments we all think we’re the only one who can be this bad, this complicated, this much effort to handle. None of it is true. Yes, we should all work to be vulnerable with our partners so they can actually help, so they know what’s happening - because as much as personal responsibility means that everyone walks alone, the entire point of relationships is being able to reach out a hand for comfort, for help, for these moments.

Trauma work is incredibly difficult. There’s a reason I don’t think I’ve yet managed to have an episode of the podcast where we avoid saying “and see a therapist when you can!” It sounds like a classist mantra in the USA, where we barely give people access to physical healthcare, and only at wild costs, so mental healthcare is too overpriced for many people - but it really does help with things like realizing that anger and snippiness is a symptom of depression and treating it can improve your relationships with partners, family, and friends, with identifying old traumas you’d just tucked away as “well that doesn’t bother me anymore” even though you get avoidant or controlling any time something related happens to you or a family member or even just to someone near you. A partner noticing a pattern and kindly, calmly, without accusation, asking if maybe you’d consider seeing someone with them or by yourself can alert you to a pattern of your behavior before you notice it. By partnering closely, we walk together, and that gives perspective.

In some kinds of spiritual practice, focusing on negative feelings, on trauma, and on how they affect our lives to work through them and find the strength that can come out of them once we do is called shadow work. To be mildly blasphemous, our partners can walk with us through the valley of the shadow if we ask them, but only if we ask them and let them know what we’re working on and why. The work is ours, but to help us build space to do it, whether logistically, emotionally in other aspects of our lives, or otherwise, is an important gift they can give us and us, them.

We don’t live in a “everyone lives happily ever after” fairytale. We see our partners, warts and all, and love them. We don’t mind that our loves stay frogs because we’re frogs too.The core element of emotional intelligence that we all develop is that skill of understanding that we are by no means the only ones. That means we’re not the only ones with big feelings, no matter who expresses them how; we’re not the only ones with big mistakes, whoever’s made one today; we’re not the only ones who are capable of being mentally ill, even if we’re the ones in a flare-up of anxiety or depression or with a triggered trauma right this minute. Our partners, hopefully, have learned this too. If they haven’t, they have some relationship lessons to learn about what kind of fairytale life really is, or we have some lessons to learn about who we choose to let walk through shadows with us.

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