The partners we choose and the people we opt out of choosing as partners reflect the recesses of our inner world.
These words evaded my lips when I heard a friend of over ten years utter that she’s failed in romantic relationships. There was something about this language that struck me immediately. To say “I’ve failed in romantic relationships” is to flatten our field of sight. It’s to negate that whom we date is a direct manifestation of what we believe to be true about ourselves. Simplifying patterns of unhealthy coupling as “failed” makes it easier to maintain unhealthy bonds because severing that relationship inevitably signals personal lack, failure. When, truthfully, understanding when it may be necessary to sever, to cut off, to restrict from penetrating only becomes optional through an ongoing commitment to honor our most authentic selves in thought and action. This inner digging, unearthing, confronting, and ultimately transforming what we’ve dug up into maneuvering differently prepares us for what Sunni Patterson refers to as “extended sight.”
Sunni describes extended sight as the ability to expand our vision “so that you see more than what you are going through.” She probes: “What seeds have we allowed to be planted that we can weed out? What can we get out of here, (pointing to her head) that really is not serving us?” This line of inquiry becomes possible when we realize we are living out implanted ideas in everything we do. From dating to art to our sense of justice to how we conceptualize labor to family to community, to loving, there is a set of beliefs, of irrigated ideas, that govern our every move. Some of these ideas embedded in the recesses of our mind must be pulled out in order to see anew. Sunni continues:
“We [have] to constantly ask…who am I? Who am I? Who am I? See when you’re grounded in this who am I, you’re moving from a different kind of space…We are bombarded and hit with trauma after trauma after trauma after trauma every day, but one thing for certain—I know who I am. So see when I know who I am, I’m in a less-compromising position. There are things that I will not compromise when I know who I am. It’s only when I don’t know who I am when I don’t have faith in who I am…when I deem myself unworthy that I will gravel.”
If we are operating out of self-belief that some aspect of our being has failed, we are choosing a language of lack. Deeming ourselves failed—that is, damaged—simultaneously makes it harder to imagine ourselves whole and prevents us from asking the type of questions that may actually lead to inner and outer disruptions: What aspects of myself do I compromise, do I negotiate in order to stay in relationships and situations that I admit are unfulfilling? Am I worthy of a partnership, of conscious coupling, that is fundamentally rooted in respect, compassion, kindness, and trust? Do I make exceptions for what respect, compassion, kindness, and trust look like based on ways of understanding I witnessed in childhood but haven’t divested from as an adult? How did I come to understand love? How has what I was taught about love served me and worked against me in adulthood? What concessions have I made that were detrimental to my personal wellbeing? What bruised parts of my inner world allowed me to make those concessions? What messages am I subconsciously sending myself about what I deserve when I accept anything that is thrown my way? What language do I use to speak to myself? What allowances have I made that are misaligned with the values I claim to hold? What am I willing to abandon to open myself up to the type of world I’ve never even imagined? This type of critical interrogation is key if we wish to unlock and overcome our complicity in toxic relationships.
In our society, toxic relationships are romanticized. If you’re in a romantic relationship and your partner attempts to control your movements, they are often described or interpreted as expressing their love for you. And of course, this way of thinking seems legitimate because, well, we learned this in childhood. Many of us were raised in environments where we couldn’t even control what time we went to sleep or how short our hair could be. If you were raised in a strict household where everything you did was heavily monitored and you rarely, if ever, had opportunities to make informed decisions for yourself, you were socialized to normalize symptoms of domination. So moving from a controlling household to a controlling partner doesn’t seem that abnormal. Reflecting on the sometimes tumultuous and remarkably painful moments in childhood can lead to new routes that circumvent the allure of toxic relationships. Without deep and honest reflection, however, we are prone to overlook childhood connections that may have trapped us in a cycle of psychological servitude.
While the glorification of toxic relationships are rampant onscreen, in families, and friendships, there is also an overarching sense of urgency fueling unconscious coupling. And the pressure to partner up regardless of signs of toxicity can be debilitating. To measure what is deemed valuable in any society, you can begin by dissecting frequently asked questions. As a woman, I am often asked the same two questions. Whether it’s from a family member or a stranger, I can be sure to hear: Have you found someone yet? When are you having a baby? These questions, while well meaning at best and presumptuous at worst, reveal a larger phenomenon. Both questions indicate assumed interest. According to these two questions, I should be interested in pursuing a romantic relationship and motherhood. It presupposes that my number one priority is in finding someone, and if my response is that I am not in a romantic relationship, I receive reactions of pity: “Oh you’ll find him soon. I know he’s out there.” Which illuminates other presuppositions because I’m sexually fluid and I am highly attracted to one’s personality regardless of genitalia and gender identity. More fitting questions we might consider exploring frequently include: How is your inner landscape? What’s the energy of your inner circle like these days? By ritualizing questions and thought processes that provide space to contemplate and assess our individual selves, we reprioritize self-reflection.
Too many of us are seeking peace and comfort in dysfunctional romantic relationships at the expense of our inner landscape. When I speak of inner landscape, I am speaking of the interconnected aspects of our psychosocial, sociopolitical, emotional, intellectual, relational, collective, imaginative selves. Who are we when we are sitting alone with our individual vulnerabilities? Who are we when we are in the company of selected comrades? What are we craving when we select our comrades and lovers? Who are we in relation to the broader communities in which we belong? How do we grapple with the larger context of our peculiar social conditions? How do we extend our sight and imagine that which seems improbable? To determine if you are compromising your inner landscape to date, I implore you to wrestle with these questions in the most radically honest way.
So to my dear friend of over ten years, I’d like to say explicitly that you have not failed at relationships. You have, however, compromised your inner landscape to date, and I can only hope that one day you ask the type of questions and move in such a way that announces instantly to any prospective partner, “I am worthy of and will accept nothing less than radical love!”