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Relationships are hard work sometimes. It can take a lot of time and effort to keep a relationship healthy and well, especially when life delivers an unexpected turn. Make this unexpected turn a spiritual-based event, and watch the fur fly.
In her book, “Near Death Experiences, The Rest of the Story,” P.M.H. Atwater states “the majority of near-death experiencers come back as positive “can-do-ers,” ready to transform themselves, their families, their careers, their religion, their politics and their pocketbook. Almost immediately worlds collide. The world they glimpsed during their episode is another reality and a grander truth that does not match the one they left.” She goes on to add, “Incredible joy for what you gained mixes with incredible sadness for what you lost.”
Feeling stuck between two worlds is one of the down-sides, if you will, to having any kind of “spiritual awakening”. I’ve lived it and it’s still hard for me to watch clients go through it. And while we are using Atwater’s book as an introduction, you don’t have to have a near-death experience to find yourself “awakened”. Any accident, traumatic experience or healing process that shakes your core will do.
Did you know that many people unexpectedly find themselves facing the end of relationships, changes in financial status or career after these types of experiences? An even harder truth is that some people have a difficult enough time after the event they contemplate suicide.
And what if you are in a relationship with someone who has had this kind of life-changing experience? What do you do when your partner seems like a completely different person? Over the past year, I’ve seen more couples go through this difficult experience. And so this blog post goes out to the experiencers and the observers. The experiencers who are struggling to find their purpose and their place in their “old life”. The observers who feel lost in relating to the person they love. My desire is to give a voice to this situation so neither one of you feels alone.
Let’s start from the observer’s position. What do you do if your partner’s “gone spiritual”?
Don’t panic. Okay, panic, and then relax. Take a moment to assess the situation. Has their behavior been shifting throughout your relationship? Chances are, they were already on the path to self growth and you were by their side. You supported their level of curiosity, their willingness to take feedback and change – and you probably admired their courage. In my coaching work with couples, I find that typically one partner has taken “ownership” of the difficulties in the relationship and has dived head first into an amazing level of self growth work.
But what happens when self growth goes too far and the person finds themselves awakened unexpectedly? Well, just as Atwater states, there is usually some difficulty integrating the new knowledge into daily life. And, unfortunately, this is the “dark side” of chasing the light.
? Welcome to the experiencer’s point of view.
Imagine this. You are moving through your life happy and content (or not so) when, BAM!, you have an experience that opens you up to a whole other level of being. It literally rocks the core of who you are and no matter how hard you try, you simply can’t “unknow” what you know. It takes just a moment to alter your life experience and here’s why: this type of change goes deep. It moves through some (or all) of your neurological levels and now you’ve got a lot of integrating to do.
So if you are the observer, exercise compassion. It can be hard to witness this drastic change, but I guarantee you, it’s more difficult as the experiencer. You see, there is a deep ache within them to change and/or want to be of service, (usually both). And no matter how loudly you yell at them, or how frequently you fuss at their strange language, they simply won’t stop reading, exploring and asking for the meaning of life. They can become insatiable about all things “spiritual” and may even forget to feed the cat.
Sigh. So there you are, observing the madness and wishing your partner would come home (to you). Why did they change? You didn’t ask them to change so much. You didn’t ask them to “go spiritual”. And you certainly didn’t ask them to help you change your life! What gives?
The experiencer loves you. Because your partner, “has seen the light” and most likely felt the love, AND they love you so much, they want you to have what they have experienced. And that is where most of the trouble begins. The experiencer, (they can’t help themselves!), wants you to know how beautiful it all is and can’t understand why you don’t want to hear about it. It is hard for them. They have seen the other side and they want you to have what they have, too, because they love you. “Can’t you see I love you?”, you hear them say.
And this is where it gets really hard. Just as Atwater says, “Two worlds collide.” You, as the observer, are just as happy or content as you were with your life before your partner started acting like they joined a cult. Meanwhile, the experiencer is working overtime to “make sense” of what this shift really means for them and needs you to join their efforts now more than ever. After all, they love and trust you, but now it seems like you are rejecting them. They feel misunderstood and unloved…and alone. No one seems to understand them. It can become too painful, and somedays, they think it just might be easier to go back to the experience, or worse, go “home” for good.
I wish I could say this type of shift in a relationship works out most of the time, but my guess is that it works out for less than 20 percent of couples (if that), though I have no scientific data to prove it. Atwater’s near death-experience research yielded 75-78 percent of experiencers’ marriages ending in divorce.
So what can you do? While I don’t have the solution, I do know thoughtful communication is key. Below are some tips and resources I’ve shared with clients to keep communication moving between them safely.
For the Observer
- Suspend the old “map” you have of your partner. This is hard, but if you can listen to your partner as if you were meeting them for the first time (again), you can diffuse a lot of arguments. Curiosity about their experience can make them feel cared for and heard.
- Remember positive qualities. Most likely you love your partner for their courage and willingness to change. Find ways to “see” those positive qualities in how and what they are sharing with you.
- Get help. Even the best practitioners can have a hard time navigating through big changes. If you can’t seem to stop fighting with your partner, find someone who can help facilitate you through these tough conversations. I find the Imago dialog can work wonders for couples in this situation.
For the Experiencer
1. Slow Down. Give yourself time, especially downtime, to integrate the changes. Even if you feel an urgency to “do all the things”, honor the fact that your physical and emotional bodies can only handle so much. Fight the urge to cram all sorts of experiences and information into your mental space.
2. Find a safe place to share. Find someone who is willing to listen but not give advice. Again, you are integrating information and only YOU can integrate the knowledge for yourself. Adding too many opinions to the mix, can create more confusion and may unintentionally distance you more from your daily life. Look for a coach who can help you navigate through your landscape for yourself.
3. Trust Yourself. Trust that you are supported and, most importantly, trust inklings you get. The trick here is that you have to be performing step numbers 1 and 2 in order to hear your inklings clearly. Remember, only you know what is right for you.
P.M.H. Atwater’s Near-Death Experience Research: www.near-death.com/science/experts/pmh-atwater.html
Imago Couples Therapy: www.imagorelationships.org
It is with a deep sense of compassion I share this information with you and I hope it helps you feel empowered after a spiritual experience. Gis!