Everyone I've been in contact with recently seems to be in the midst of a significant transition, riding the back and forth into the unknown. Several friends are ending aspects of relationships and reimagining their futures. Teachers in the middle school I've been working in are collectively describing huge shifts with their students who are now unwilling to play the game of productivity and school like they did in the past. Writing in planners, using check lists, and doing things in a more linear fashion used to be the norm. But now, it doesn't work. And well-respected teachers I've known for years describe their work with kids feeling like they're a first year teacher all over again. In transitions we cannot go back to what we did before. But the way forward isn't yet clear.
This feels very true for my own life as well. I'm feeling these growth pains with my own students at the university. They no longer love the linear learning progression I've used for years (though never loved because it is so linear). And they are much more connected with their own well-being, what feels good, and what they want than in the past, wanting to do almost everything themselves without expectations or structure provided by me until they get stressed. Then they demand and cling to structure. This is how my life experience has been feeling too: Caught in the back and forth eddies of the unknown around my own relationship with my sweetie and partner of many years who I love dearly.
Earlier this year I sold my portion of the house we co-owned to him. This step had been a year or two in the making as I'd become clearer and clearer that I'd love to be able to live on Lopez Island one day yet couldn't do that with all of my financial resources tied up in our house. Nothing about this decision was easy, but we worked through it one baby step at a time. But like any change, the moment we signed the paperwork and transferred the money, signifying the end of our co-ownership of the home we'd created together for 7+ years, that's where the real re-birth began.
I always think it's suprising that transitions begin with an ENDING. With letting something go or losing something: A tree falling in the forest because of a wind event. A global pandemic that stops almost everything about how we used to function for a couple of years. But I needed to be reminded of this again a couple of weeks ago when I went looking for William Bridges' work on transitions. Why? Because unlike external change (e.g. signing the papers and transferring the money for the house sale) which tends to happen quickly, transitions take significant time and are incredibly hard internal work They come with lots of emotion so it can be helpful to have some sense of what to expect during these internal processes of letting go, wandering around in the dark and eventually becoming new. I went looking for Bridges' work because I needed some tools for navigating these uncertain waters many of us are treading in.
The first thing I remembered when reading a synopsis of Bridges' work on transitions was that the ending is just the beginning of a transition. Next comes the neutral zone: the place between what we knew before and something new. Usually, we have to hang out in the neutral zone for much longer than we'd like as something new begins to form. And in this in between zone we don't really know where we're headed. (This uncertainty is one of my brain's least favorite places to hang out. So while I can sometimes ride waves of not knowing with grace and an open mind at other times I just feel lost, overwhelmed, exhausted, unmotivated and like I want to force an answer or conclusion immediately just to be done with not knowing. These impulses feel like they come in waves: back and forth, being ok with not knowing then desperately wanting to cling to something, anything, especially what's familiar. And though I haven't had a baby, I feel like these waves are a lot like labor pains and birthing a little one.)
In the case of my relationship with my sweet partner, the vacillating back and forth flung me between 2 extremes: crying loads of tears because of the loss that was a necessary part of my partner buying me out of the house AND loving being alone in the cabin I'm renting on Lopez Island this winter. But a lot isn't really clear about these two extremes: Is our relationship ending or just changing form? What do I want from a relationship longer term? Do I really want to live on Lopez Island and go back and forth between two places as I maintain my work at WWU? Would it be financially possible to live on Lopez Island full time somehow and would I enjoy that? Or would it make more sense to try living in my own space in Bellingham, creating more independence and space in our relationship but not being so far away most of the time? None of these questions are ready to be answered yet. I need more information. Which means I have to have more experiences, paying attetion to how they feel and learning from them. But what I do know is this: what was happening before is not what we will be doing moving forward. Every time I return to what used to be my house in Bellingham to stay with my partner, I feel that that chapter of my life has ended.
A couple of weeks ago, the emotional intensity of not knowing the answers to all these questions came to a head. Which is when I went looking for some support in this groundless place. My brain needed something to hang onto even if it was temporary.
I stumbled across these 2 resources on transitions: 1. Check out the two charts under Managing Change: New Beginning Phase and 2. Figure 2 on Productivity and Emotions of change. It was helpful to realize the emotions I was encountering were a normal part of this process: anger, apathy, overwhelm, frustration, confusion, listlessness. As was the low productivity and exhaustion I'd been feeling. But most helpful was a simple exercise outlined in one of these articles: Make a list of what you're letting go of so you know what's ending. Then, give yourself some solid sense of direction that, even if temporary, you can hang onto in the unknown of the neutral zone.
I knew this would be helpful, so my partner and I made some space to write these two things down for ourselves later that evening. Then we shared them. This was incredibly clarifying. All those tears I'd been crying every time I thought about our relationship and not knowing whether it was ending or not now had some boundaries around them. Instead of knowing something was ending but not really knowing what that was, meaning my brain went to the worst possible case scenario, now we had some temporary definition around the loss.
Here's what I decided I wanted to let go of:
*Sense of "couples" obligation when making decisions about whether or not to do activities together
*Belief that my partner won't be ok without me
*Belief that my partner isn't ok with our relationship being nontraditional
*Assuming that living in the same house is key to a successful relationship (I have relatives in my family who bought 2 condos side by side and lived separtely next door to one another because that worked well for them).
*Belief that being independent and loving time alone will ruin our relationship and is wrong of me.
*Belief that we know what to do and how to be with each other and moving towards curiosity and consent
*"Security" of doing our relationship in ways others expect
My partner made his own list. Then, we talked these lists through. It felt important to remember that we were choosing what to let go of. We didn't necessarily have to let go of what we didn't want to lose.
After this, we each wrote down for ourselves what we were moving towards: What was our solid sense of direction (even if temporary) in this in between zone of reimagining and redefining our relationship? This felt easy to answer for me: Continued love, trust, respect, emotional honesty, and appreciation. Greater freedom and independence and space with the goal of creating a form of connecting both of us really love! My partner wrote something similar: "Looking forward to the next time we see each other and wanting to spend time together."
Do we know we'll be able to move in this direction or that these will be the outcomes of this transition? Nope! But it sure helps to have these to hold onto amidst imperfectly finding our way forward in new and undefined territory. It helps us know what to focus on and try out as we gather more information through our senses.
Since doing this simple exercise, the intense back and forth quality of transitioning through the unknown has lessened a fair bit. I'm not crying every time I see my partner because I can tell we are no longer what we were. Now, I have something to move towards. I'm not just staring down ill-defined loss. And I'm not jumping ship and thinking my time on Lopez is the answer that I need to make happen immediately. Instead, I'm able to hold all those questions above with more curiosity, more willingness to experiment. Identifying what we're letting go of and what we're moving towards has made it easier for my brain to tolerate the not knowing.
So, to all of you who feel yourselves going through it at the moment, please know this: you are not alone, many of us are birthing new worlds after the disruption of the pandemic and all that has grown out of it, and together we are experimenting our way into more of what we want (even if just in the short term). If you'd appreciate coaching support during these uncertain times, please reach out. I'm finding the work that most fulfills me at this moment is being present with others on their change journeys: holding space for them to find their way forward into more of what they love and learning powerful practices for working through the fear and resistance that surface as we do this.