Relationships never lie.
As much as we might try to hide parts of ourselves in our relationships, it is very unlikely that we will be able to do so successfully. What happens more times than not is that our partner colludes with the hiding where an implicit agreement is made to ensure that neither pushes the other to be too exposed and vulnerable. What appears to be an emotionally safe relationship is actually emotionally stunted, lacking the security that comes with true intimacy in being known and loved.
The daily demands of life coupled with our childhood wounds usually leads to conflict in relationships. For a lot of people, conflict is understood as a threat to the relationship. Moreover, if there is no reason to believe that conflict can be resolved (because of a lack of trust in yourself and/or other people), then conflict must be avoided to preserve the relationship, however unsatisfying it might be.
Unfortunately, like a splinter, conflict doesn’t just go away. It usually becomes more and more inflamed, more sensitive to pain, and more toxic. What could have been manageable conflict develops into a colossal and disorganized chaos with confusing memories and pain.
Whether you’re in a relationship or single, avoidance reflects an insecurity of some kind rooted in a negative belief about yourself, others, and/or the world. For example, you might desperately long to be in a relationship, but every time you meet a realistic prospect you come up with reasons—even good reasons—why it won’t work. It’s not enough to say you’re afraid of getting hurt. Nobody wants to get hurt. But why is your fear of getting hurt resulting in avoidance? Perhaps you grew up with a mother who lacked companionship, so you believe being in a happy and intimate relationship is betrayal of your mother’s pain. That you don’t deserve to be happy—really happy—when she wasn’t. Perhaps, you saw your parents stressed and afraid, so you learned to be needless and wantless and never developed the skills to reach when you yourself are hurting and need some care.
Whatever the reason, understanding your story and your reasons for avoidance as they relate to relationships and life can be a powerful and transformative experience. Self-compassion means being with (not avoiding) your suffering. Our wounds are incredibly effective in making us believe that we are different from other people. While suffering is always personal and distinct, it does have a universal quality to it that we can embrace as consolation in our private distress and in our friendships with others.
Ultimately, a chronic habit of avoidance is self-abandonment and annihilation. When you abandon your wounds and the conflict they bring up in your relationships, you will experience profound isolation. Only by being with your suffering (self-compassion) can you be with other people’s sufferings and experience a secure connection.
This endeavor is, of course, always fragile. We cannot do it perfectly. In fact, the best way to engage our wounds is precisely with others. Bracketing toxic and manipulative behaviors, relationships are the best place for our wounds to be healed because it will be harder to avoid those parts of ourselves that we rather not address. Relationships are where we practice living our wounds heroically and humbly to experience intimacy in being known fully.
Henri Nouwen wrote, “When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand.”