As an optimist, I see life filled with much beauty and wonder. The joys to behold are endless in both the profound and the simplistic. As a realist, I see the complexities of this journey and how life hurts us in ways that range from mere annoyances to profoundly traumatic.
I often say that no one escapes life unscarred. We are all wounded in multiple ways. It is simply the human condition. Disguised as curses, these experiences are our greatest blessings from which purpose, meaning and growth are sourced; a perspective only attainable once we have made it through the darkness of mental and emotional turmoil.
“Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know,” asserts Pema Chodron. The wounds of the past often revisit us. Reactivated by a present event, we often find ourselves in the throes of psychological upheaval. The more extreme the reaction, the more unresolved the issue (and quite often, the more unconscious we are about it).
Nothing quite arouses old wounds like our romantic relationships. Our partners often become our enemies, paying for their sins and the sins of others from a near or distant past as they innocently and unknowingly trigger our unresolved issues.
A therapist that an ex-girlfriend and I once visited recommended we read The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. She directed us specifically to the second agreement:
Don’t Take Anything Personally – Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.
Holding space is about providing a space for your partner to process through the thoughts and feelings that arise when old wounds resurface. Of critical importance is the capacity to detach from your partner’s experience, realizing it is about them, NOT YOU!
During the course of a relationship, people screw up. We, and our partners, have a right to our thoughts and feelings about those experiences. If we are truly committed to making the connection more important than the conflict, we will own our mistakes, make our amends and allow space for our partner to work through what comes up for them.
I am not saying this is easy, especially when your partner is legitimately upset with you. It is far easier to hold space when someone or something else has triggered your partner. I am saying that the ability to be there, in this way, for your partner creates safety, minimizes unnecessary conflict and strengthens the bond between the two of you.
Despite implied action in the term holding space, it is not particularly a doing function. Being with and being a presence for your partner is the only necessity. There is something very powerful and healing in simply being witnessed by another as we process through old wounds.
The capacity to be in the presence of someone working through an issue can be challenging. The classic example of the wife who only wishes to be heard and the husband who offers solutions come to mind. Sometimes people just need patience and a space to be held while they talk through an issue and arrive at their own resolution.
Thus far much emphasis has been placed on the partner dealing with a triggered mate. I would assert that the person triggered – the one who requires space to be held – has responsibility in this matter as well.
Inner strength, maturity and commitment to a harmonious relationship are required to be that presence for a partner. The same is true of us when we are triggered. It is essential we contain destructive verbal and behavioral impulses. After all, the most patient among us can only take being attacked for so long.
Where the present opens the door to what is unresolved from the past, the inner journey begins. An opportunity for healing is presented that will be lost if attention is directed externally. When triggered, a simple acknowledgment and ownership of that reality is sufficient. “You may have done _____________ but I’m having feelings about it and need to take a look at what that’s about.”
When partners understand the concept of holding space, agreements can made about how this technique can be utilized for the benefit of each partner as well as the relationship. Knowing that I am triggered, I can simply make the request, “can you hold space for me while I talk though my thoughts and feelings?”
It is important to understand there will be instances where your partner is unable to be that presence for you…and that is ok. This can be challenging for a partner for a number of reasons – work stress, fatigue or a 25 item to-do list. Perhaps they are in a vulnerable state themselves or cannot adequately detach from your reaction to be a loving, patient witness to your process.
It is ok to respectfully say to your partner that right now is not a good time. Acknowledge your partner’s struggle and let him/her know that you are not mentally or emotionally capable of giving him/her what they need, right now, and make an offer for the near future.
No one escapes the challenges of life unscarred. The unhealed wounds of the past linger in the psyche of each of us, waiting for the right provocation. The behavior of our partners, innocent and unintended as it may be, is often the key that unlocks the door of the past compelling us to look within.
An empathic partner able and willing to hold space is something we need, whether dealing with the past or a current challenge. Sometimes life is just hard and we need from our partners an ear to listen, a shoulder to cry on, and/or their loving arms to fall into – a safe, sacred space to be held during our moments of vulnerability.