Ebb and Flow in Life and Love
Beautiful gold and blue sunrise with Wise Mind Wise Life logo floating over it
Written by Scott Spradlin, LPC, LMAC

“When you love someone, you do not love them all the time, in exactly the same way, from moment to moment. It is an impossibility. It is even a lie to pretend to. And yet this is exactly what most of us demand. We have so little faith in the ebb and flow of life, of love, of relationships. We leap at the flow of the tide and resist in terror its ebb. We are afraid it will never return. We insist on permanency, on duration, on continuity; when the only continuity possible, in life as in love, is in growth, in fluidity – in freedom, in the sense that the dancers are free, barely touching as they pass, but partners in the same pattern.”

Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Gifts from the Sea

Wise Love, Wise Life

With the aid of the famous aviator, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, we continue exploring the dynamic of living intervals and proximity in our relationships that are natural. The difficulties any of us have in navigating our relationships range from the general human tendency to expect the unsustainable to be sustainable, to familial histories of trauma, chaos, or neglect. Whatever the conditions of our own emergent expectations, we know that holding rigidly to these expectations gives rise to emotional and relational suffering.

These expectations are what many spiritual traditions call attachment. Not to be confused with the Western scientific notion of attachment as pertains to healthy relational connections that nourish our well-being, rather it is a mental act of lashing our expectations to our ideas about how things should, how our relationships should work, and how we should be able to sustain an evenly unyielding intensity of commitment and affection for friends, spouses, or children. And as we invariably violate our expectations for ourselves, we encounter relational anxiety and self-criticism. We feel that we are not “loving enough.” In such cases, we feel defective as our limits teach us there is no happily ever after.

Flipping perspectives, we may fall into the nasty habit of being chronically disgruntled with our friends, spouses, and children, as they, like us, are unable to sustain the fictional unyielding intensity of commitment and affection. We feel the disappointment of our emotional bids for connection falling into voids of distraction. We bear the brunt of their intermittent bouts of irritation and bad moods. Children don’t heed. Spouses forget. Friends often seem turned away with their respective lives. Affection goes unnoticed. These are natural, inevitable. These don’t cause our emotional suffering, it’s our inner inflexibility that transmutes ordinary pain into emotional suffering. The more tenacious our attachments, the greater the intensity of our suffering.

Living into Wise Love

Once more, let’s turn toward the wise words of Lindbergh: “The only real security is not in owning or possessing, not in demanding or expecting, not in hoping, even. Security in a relationship lies neither in looking back to what was in nostalgia, nor forward to what it might be in dread or anticipation, but living in the present relationship and accepting it as it is now. Relationships must be like islands, one must accept them for what they are here and now, within their limits – islands, surrounded and interrupted by the sea, and continually visited and abandoned by the tides.”

Such a lovely identification of the power of appreciation over appropriation. We find relational freedom, joy, and real love in letting go of our demands and expectations, of ourselves and those whom we love. When a marriage briefly runs flat we don’t have to assume the marriage is dead. When our children turn away from us in distraction, or even against us as they grow into new horizons for independence, there’s no need to judge ourselves as failures nor brand them as bad seeds. You get the idea.

Lindbergh’s words are a kind of call to willingness which is an attitude of letting be, with which we can meet our relationships as they are in the present where we live within them. We can call this relationship acceptance. Of course, we move around in our minds with memories and wonder about the futures that we hope to shape. In fact, as John and Julie Gottman at the Gottman Institute discovered, couples that build and collect memories are building intimacy. We can revel in recollection with our spouses about our first meeting, courtship, trips, concerts, arguments, and shared triumphs. These memories weave us together in a shared narrative. But we don’t live in the past.

We live here, in the present. We also benefit from the past, learning from the consequences of our choices. For example, we notice that speaking harshly to our kids causes them to shut down and withdraw from us, and so we cultivate gentler ways to communicate and connect with them. In this case, our pasts can make us wiser, as we find what leads to our diminishment and suffering or what leads to love, meaning, and connection.

Relationship Mindfulness

Lindbergh helps us remember that relationships are neither static nor a matter of ownership. Human relations thrive in reciprocal appreciation, they choke in the clutch of appropriation. Harkening to her words we can keep in mind that our own moods, emotions, and daily situations are ever-changing. So, one day we are delightfully affectionate to our loved ones, and the next day we are a source of their irritation, and they, ours. One day we feel boundless compassion, and the next, we are plaintive that our needs aren’t being met. And rather than camp on any of these states and risk misery, we let them breathe and we breathe with them, and we move with an agility born from acceptance.

Our habits are to latch onto, to fixate. This feels good, so we hold it tightly. That feels bad, so we avoid it at all costs. Only in our imaginations can we bring reality into stasis. As we endeavor for stasis, we oppress ourselves and our loved ones with shoulds. Shoulds lead to shenpa (emotional suffering), and we will talk about that in another entry. In the meantime, let’s remember to find our security in stepping away from urges to control those we love, and in stepping away from demanding of ourselves that we relentlessly manufacture unwavering affection for those we love. Rather than remaining confined in old habits of our shoulds and desire to control or to avoid, we come to appreciate our irritations, our fatigue, and our missteps. We become skillful in dancing with the tensions of proximity and interval, efficiency and love, and acceptance and change.

One practice to start with is to notice our expectations and judgments of ourselves and others, letting them come and go like clouds in the sky. We can appreciate these as real but not true, and often full of fictions that are ultimately self-defeating. Especially if we let ourselves get stuck in our heads overthinking everything. Being stuck in our skulls keeps us from living into our lives. We cannot think our life into the contours we desire, but thought wed to a mindful willingness and embodied action will help us cultivate our relationships wisely.

In this way we can move with the ebb and the flow, with the warp and the woof; We participate with the way things work. The practice of participation from DBT core mindfulness skills helps us to existentially manifest wise love in doing what is needed in a given situation, no more and no less. We don’t get caught up in wishing for different mates or different children or different selves, we deepen our love for all of these by staying put with our relationships, grounded by commitment; flexible in practice.

Mindfulness practices help us to appreciate the fluctuating nuances of our relationships. We learn to appreciate that our emotions, energy, and skills are ever-changing, as we slowly and fallibly increase our general skillfulness with regulating our attention, emotions and behaviors, as we continue living into love, meaning, and connection.

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