It’s been a challenging week over here on the good ship Fainleog. I’m not complaining at all because it’s almost all self-inflicted. Consider it the shadow side of growing as a person. I don’t know if it’s the same for everyone, but I’ve never known anything of real substance that I didn’t arrive at except through pain and sacrifice. This is perhaps why feel good self improvement guides may be limited; you cannot grow except through hard work and dealing with a lot of difficult stuff. The fact that it is by choice doesn’t make it any the less real. Or easier. But you have to take faith that the sun rises again – until it doesn’t, at which point it doesn’t matter.
My son Stuart and I had a very tough time together sailing this fall. I will keep saying ‘till I’m blue in the face that sailing brings out what is real. We really got on each other’s nerves and many bad feelings came up, old hard stuff from his adolescence. He still carried the rage he felt towards me for controlling and bossing and judging, and still carried my grief and pain at having the child that I so dearly loved turn against me and make me his enemy.
At my suggestion we saw a counsellor and worked out a lot of old pain. The greatest relief for me was when he told me that although he hated me back then, now he is so glad that I rode him because it’s helped him know what to do and how to make a go of it as a man. When I heard him say that, I broke into tears. All those years of being the asshole, the tough one, the one the kids couldn’t stand because I demanded things of them, was finally acknowledged as being worthwhile. It was so hard for me and so painful, but I knew it was the right thing to do, and I pushed my way through years of being triangled and alienated by those I loved the most. Unfortunately, Tracy usually indulged the kids so it was left to me to set limits and expect things from them. That made it three to one, and I wasn’t popular. But I was in the right. And I would do it again in a heartbeat.
Since the counselling, I feel much closer to my son. And I feel a lot of old baggage has been left in my past. It feels good to let that go, but it’s change and a transformation that takes energy. There was years of hurt and resentment packed away, suddenly cast off. I mentioned last week about how my relationship with Tracy is changing, how we are individuating and our roles are transforming. It’s a good thing, but again, change takes energy. At a physical level, this kind of change means actually rewiring your brain – changing neural networks. Like running a marathon with your mind.
Transforming my relationship with my wife and son is a lot of emotional work in itself, and takes a lot of energy. But on an even larger scale, my relationship with myself is changing in very profound ways. It’s what I’ve wanted for a long time, but by god it’s tough.
It’s an old truism among counsellors that when one person changes, it changes everyone who that person is in relationship with. Tracy is bringing about change by taking us off our boat. I’m responding to the (immanent) change by changing myself. I’m not sure exactly how they are related but I can see the results. It’s like another adolescence in a way.
This change is forcing me to look closely at my beliefs, values and assumptions about my world. I suspect it’s the last step in the unwinding of my old family life. I went almost straight from my parent’s home to a family with Tracy. We met at a young age, and my individuation was incomplete; I went from a partial me, to a me as a couple, to a me as father in a family of four and then five. Three and a half years ago, I left the family of five to go back to a couple.
And now I’m looking at me as an individual again. Not that Tracy and I are going our separate ways physically, but in some ways, the liveaboard thing was a reaction to the many constrictions of a long domestic life. I don’t need to react to that anymore so I’m willing to let it go. The family is gone. And unlike when I was that very incomplete young man who bonded with Tracy as a teen, I’m much more aware of who I am, as an individual. My roles as determined by others, by relationships, are over. Now what?
I find myself scanning my very young past for clues as to who I was. What did I love, what motivated me? Although I’m a far more complex creature then I was as a boy, the essence is exactly the same, and that period gives me clues as to the nature of my heart. After 30 years of being defined at least partially through relationships, the nature of self becomes rather cluttered if not actually obscured. The challenge for people our age is to figure out who and what we are outside of relationships.
I think that a lot I’ve pursued in the past was a reaction to both the demands and constrictions of my relationships and so has limited utility in decided what to do now. As a boy I was always wandering and exploring. I was insatiably curious about my world. I loved to create and analyse and know. I loved writing. To some extent I was a loner. I hated restrictions of any kind, and would often skip school. I was also shy and quiet. If that’s a rough base of my identity, how do I manifest those characteristics as an adult man?
I’ve seen a close friend of mine go through much the same process. He too married young and inexperienced, and a few years ago separated from his wife. It was a real struggle for him, especially trying to figure out who he was and what he needed as a separate individual. He’s come a long way since that time, and now fiercely defends his new-found independence, which creates it’s own difficulties as he is reluctant to test the strength of his identity in a new relationship. His concern is understandable as it can be difficult to maintain one’s “self” in a dyad, and the consequence of failure is a diminishment of identity. We all want to be in a relationship and know love, but not at the cost of who we are. How to navigate that remains a crucial challenge to all of us.