In the midst of really difficult relationship troubles, a friend handed me a book she thought would really help me. I never opened that book. I didn’t have to. The title of the book alone was enough to save me. I grew up greatly influenced by the ideals of our good old-fashioned fairy tales. I really thought I’d find a guy who was going to rescue me. He’d ‘complete me’, make me happy and whole, and of course, we’d live happily ever after.
In fact, I was banking on it. I was so sure marriage was going to bring me my happily ever after and I was equally as sure that my Prince Charming was not only going to make my world okay, but make me okay. Being someone who had spent most of her life wrestling with self-worth, I really thought true love would be the magic fairy dust that would put an end to this never-ending feeling of not being good enough. It turns out, though, that being a young, dedicated romantic who valued the ideals of love and respect wasn’t enough. Without believing I was deserving of love and respect, I certainly wasn’t in a position to attract a partner who thought I was deserving of it either.
So, when I met my husband-to-be, I quickly dismissed the many red flags that were showing up, in exchange for my hopes and dreams of being loved and finally feeling worthy and whole. Instead of my happily ever after, though, I ended up in a very unhealthy, unhappy marriage, and whatever fragile sense of worth I had going into the marriage was slowly stripped away as our relationship steadily disintegrated into a toxic pool of dysfunction. I was incredibly unhappy and had no idea what was wrong, or how to begin to change it. All I knew was it wasn’t the fairytale marriage I had hoped it would be.
So, I tried harder. I tried harder to be a better wife, a better mother, better housekeeper, better cook, better friend, a better listener, funnier, smarter, prettier. I went to therapy and read every self-help book I could get my hands on. And I learned to hope. Hope had become a great comforter. Hope had become a way of not having to face the ugly truths of my marriage. We are taught to hope. That hoping is a virtue, and that it overcomes despair and frustrations. Being hopeful feels good. It feels like the right thing to do – the right thing to always be. It feels purposeful. Hope doesn’t give up. Hope doesn’t quit. Hope believes in the impossible and instills faith.And that’s what I did really well. I hoped.
I hoped my marriage would get better. I hoped we could fix it. I hoped he would be less critical. I hoped he wouldn’t be so angry. I hoped he’d change. I hoped we’d be happy. I hoped he would keep loving me. I hoped that it would become the fairy tale marriage I had always hoped for. And after our marriage ended, I still kept hoping. Hoping he’d pick me. Hoping he’d want to fix things. Hoping we might still be able to work things out. Hoping. Hoping. Hoping. I speak with women all the time who are caught in this very trap of hoping. It feels safer to ignore our unhappiness than it does to face the truth of it.
In that very moment of recognizing unhappiness, there are two things working hand in hand that stop you from truly acknowledging it: Denial and hope. There is a subtle dance that goes on between denial and hope – the dismissal of our own truth (denial) and the belief that what we want can be had (hope). They require each other to work effectively. To be able to keep hoping things can change, despite nothing ever changing, we have to continually deny the truth of our experience. The problem is that while hoping momentarily feels better, endless hoping is not serving us in the long term. For me, hope had become a dangerous thing. Hope had kept me accepting the unacceptable and tolerating the intolerable.
Hope kept me blind to the truth of what was. Remember the book I mentioned? The title was “When Hope Can Kill”. It stopped me dead in my tracks. It was all I needed to know. I instantly had a shift, and at that very moment, I knew what hoping for all those years was doing: it was slowly killing me. I was ‘hoping’ myself to death. I hoped as hope drained the life out of me. I hoped as hope deceived me. I hoped as hope blinded me. I hoped because I was afraid to stop – the alternative felt too scary.
But the truth is we can’t change what we don’t acknowledge. Hope keeps you focused on what is wanted and keeps you disconnected from the truth of what is. As long as I was invested in the hope and dream of what my marriage could be, I was completely disconnected from the truth of what it actually was – from the very truth that would set me free. We can only make changes from the truth of what is – not from the hope of what it could be. So, to be able to see the truth of my marriage and acknowledge it, I needed to first give myself permission to see and explore my own unhappiness without taking any action.
If I believed that by acknowledging my unhappiness, I’d have to take some kind of action I wasn’t ready to take (i.e. leave my marriage), I wouldn’t have been able to stay present with the truth of my experience. To leave would have been too big of a leap, and hope and denial would have kicked back into action. We are powerless from the position of hope. Hope doesn’t change things – the truth does.
If you are caught in the cycle of hope and denial, whenever you find yourself hoping that something will be different than it is, come back to the truth of the situation and allow yourself to be present with it just as it really is. When you stay present with the truth of what is, and not the dream of what you hope it will be, the awareness of your truth alone begins to transform you. You don’t have to make any big decisions or any big changes – just stay connected to your truth. Staying connected to how you feel, to what you want and need, is all you need to do to begin to create change.
Then whatever action you decide to take – when you are ready – will not be from a place of denial and false hope but from a place of deep truth and clarity.