And what I learned.
This article is cross-posted from my weekly newsletter, The Sunday Soother, a newsletter about modern spirituality and useful tips for creating more meaning in your life that goes out every Sunday morning. To get more content about how to infuse your life with thoughtfulness, reflection, and meaning, subscribe here. I am also a personal development strategist and coach. You can learn more about working with me here.
Happy Sunday, friends. Recently I’ve been tearing through the archives of the Cruel Summer Book Club newsletter (if you like the Soother, I can guarantee you’ll like that newsletter) and was stopped in my tracks by an essay from the newsletter author’s friend who had recently called off her wedding. Maybe something in my body remembered in particular, because it was nearly eight years to the day I read that issue that I should have been having my own wedding. I was set to get married in October of 2011, when I was 31 — but it never happened.
Much like every wedding, or marriage, or relationship, each engagement that ends is unique in its own way. Samantha, the author of that essay, chronicles a slowly-crumbling relationship where she had perhaps never truly been happy.
That wasn’t the case in my relationship. It was our initial delirious happiness and overly optimistic naivete that rocketed us to a spontaneous engagement just eight months after we’d started dating. It was the reality of what we’d signed up for, and our evolving awareness that we were in no way ready for it, that led to the end.
I can’t fault my optimism at the start. So much of media and culture and society says, you’re in love — you oughta get married! I can’t fault my ex for his spontaneous proposal one afternoon and no more can I fault myself for my stunned but thrilled acceptance.
Within six months of that afternoon, it became eminently clear that neither of us were actually ready to get married — to anybody, let alone each other. The details of how and why that happened are private (she says in her extremely public newsletter, lol) but what I do want to share is the absolute and total fear of feeling trapped; of paralysis; of terror in the face of perceived failure; of the belief that nobody would be there to catch me in my fall.
These were the dark forces that kept me trying in that relationship. I was operating out of fear, not what I knew my heart was saying.
And fear is an EXTREMELY good motivator, turns out.
I remember so distinctly having a fight with my ex and crying for hours the morning before I was to go wedding dress shopping with my family and friends. As I got in the car to go to the mall, I shoved a pair of sunglasses on to hide my red eyes, and, zombie-like, tried on each dress with a sense of mounting despair and numb unenthusiasm.
Pro tip: If you’re weeping before you go try on wedding dresses… you might not be happy that you’re getting married.
And yet. I couldn’t tune into the fact that I was actually desperately unhappy and wanted out. I just assumed the tears and anxiety were a natural by-process of such a momentous life event. I had signed up for the storyline of the happy bride, marrying the beloved, handsome boyfriend — and for some reason, I couldn’t see any way out.
I didn’t talk to my friends about my doubts and fear. I didn’t talk to my family. I certainly didn’t talk to my fiance. The only person I ever talked to was my therapist, and it wasn’t even about that I was unsure about getting married. I just talked about how anxious I was all the time, how sad, how we were teetering between our old happiness once in a while but mostly a tense uncertainty. There were a lot of eggshells in our house.
One day, my therapist calmly suggested, “Why don’t you just not get married?”
Do you know that gif of that weird, jerky, broken orangutan robot? It is my absolute favorite gif of all time, and is also exactly what I looked like in the face of that placid suggestion from my therapist.
I couldn’t fathom breaking the engagement as a possibility and mounted a million refutations of her idea that day.
But she had shown me a sliver of a possibility.
I wouldn’t choose to walk down that path of ending the engagement for another few months, but she had taken out the map, pointed to the spot and said, “This is where this is. And you can go there.”
I look back at that young, scared, rigid woman, so afraid of taking a wrong step, so afraid of disappointing others, so afraid of her own fear, and so certain nobody would be kind or understanding, and I want to give her the biggest hug.
And mostly, I want to give her permission.
If you’re reading this newsletter right now and stuck in something you fear you can’t leave or change, whether it’s a work situation or a relationship, a pattern of being or a place, take this as a sign. Take this as your permission.
On the other side of that leap of faith is a land of compassion, of generosity, of more people understanding your situation than you would ever believe. On the other side is a place of grace, for you, for the rest of the way your life can be, a place of grace for so many possibilities that you can’t quite see right now.
Here is the map. Here is the spot. This is where this is. And you can go there.