Playing it Safe with My Wife

2 Apr

I had begun rock climbing some time in the past year. I’d done a number of top-rope climbs in Southeastern Missouri and Southern Illinois and I was eager to progress to my first multi-pitch climbs. Along the way, separate from my climbing circle, I’d met my wife-to-be.

I lived in St. Louis and Bonnie lived in Washington, DC, so I could easily pursue my new passion out of sight. It might have been out of her sight but it was not out of her mind. Bonnie was not very keen on my climbing. It seemed dangerous to her and, as she explained, she wanted to keep me around; she kind of liked me.

Bonnie moved from Washington to St. Louis so we could pursue our relationship in a new way. I climbed only once or twice more once she moved. I talked about wanting to climb again but my time was spent with her. We got married. I hung onto my climbing gear and still talked about getting back into it. We had our first child. I still had my climbing gear.

Sometime during Robert’s first year, we had a rummage sale. As we set stuff on the tables in front of our house, I went into the house, gathered up my climbing gear, and arranged it on one of the tables. Bonnie came out, saw it and expressed her surprise. She asked me if I was sure and I told her I was; I loved her and Robert and they were my top priority. I didn’t want to risk myself or have her worry. Boy did I earn major brownie points!

I realized only years and years later how much this climbing matter had nothing to do with my safety. It was about Bonnie’s safety.

Bonnie’s safety?

It wasn’t my physical safety per se that was the issue. It was Bonnie’s psychological safety. I was, thankfully, able to sense  it was the right thing to do, to respect and respond to her psychological safety need, in order to build a stronger long-term relationship.

I could have justified continuing to climb with a number of arguments. We practiced safe climbing. It was good physical activity and an enriching challenge. It was legal. I had very experienced mentors. Bonnie’s concern was overblown. Heck, I had the right to climb! We’re all independent beings making our own choices!

All true. Yet, Bonnie would remain unsafe.

At some point in a relationship — personal, family, work — if we come put primary value on the comfort and participation of others, then we begin to pay attention to their safety needs. When we do that, we respect and honor their preferences. If something makes them feel unsafe — if something causes them to shut down in some way, to not participate at their best, to hold back, to withdraw, to be aloof — we can find out what is causing that lack of safety and fix it. We become willing to change our behavior or to alter the environment to honor the needs of others. We give up our ego and adapt to meet their needs. As we do this more often, we starting making life about others, not us. I’ve come to realize the magic in that.

Oh, using that language in meetings shuts you down? OK, I won’t use it anymore. Certain kinds of humor causes you to withdraw? OK, I won’t use that kind of humor anymore. People being late gets you off-kilter for the rest of the hour? OK, we’ll work on being more timely.

It’s not giving in. It’s choosing to respect others. The thing is, it can, and should, become mutual. It sets the foundation for a relationship where we can honestly share how we feel and then each respond to that in order to honor the other. The amazing thing is that it fosters an environment where each of us, everyone, begins to fully and openly participate because we are all holding back less; we are willing and excited to offer what we have, to step in, to really participate and engage. Yes, we’ve all given something up, so to speak (EGO! EGO! ME! ME!). Exactly: we’ve all become willing to let go of stuff, to offer it up, and in doing that we allow everyone to offer more of themselves. It turns out to be a massive net gain, with everyone putting out so much more than ever would have happened otherwise.

My giving up rock climbing was not necessarily the beginning of big, new relationship dynamics between Bonnie and me. For many of the years of our marriage I exercised my right to this and that, sometimes being intimidating, more often playing a victim. I’m far from perfect now, but I’ve come along way.

Recently I’ve been in discussion with a Taekwondo grand master about testing for promotion to sixth degree black belt. In our discussion of testing criteria, he mentioned the requirement of sparring demonstration as part of the test. I was somewhat taken aback by that as someone who would be 58 years old by the time of the test. Still, I saw it as something potentially workable and said nothing, knowing there would be more discussion yet to come.

When I bought up the subject of testing to Bonnie, and mentioned the requirements, she reminded me of a commitment I’d made to her a decade ago: I would no long consider sparring of any sort. To be honest, I’d forgotten I’d made that commitment. Obviously, she did not.

I’d made that commitment because, for one, I’m blind in one eye, which reduces my field of vision, so that increases risk. Because I’m blind in one eye, a freak occurrence affecting my good eye — a wayward thumb, an unexpected impact — could result in injury that would further impair my vision, which is already quite poor in that eye. Additionally, at 58, a slip and fall resulting in a head impact poses greater risk than even at 48 years old.

Are those things likely to occur? Not necessarily. Still, I made the commitment to Bonnie a decade ago because I wanted to assure her that as we go forward in our relationship in our older years, I would do my best to remain physically whole by reducing unnecessary risk. Sparring fit into that category. As small a risk as it might be, ensuring no brain injury or vision impairment via sparring was something I could do.

As far as Bonnie is concerned, I could explain, debate, berate, coerce, or ignore. I could pull a little victim drama, or maybe toss out some subtle shame and blame. I could declare my independent rights and choices. Afterwards, we would still be married, we would move on, and we’d get back to full happiness and respect. Or would we? How long would it take to get there? I think getting back to safety and respect, getting back to openness and participation, often takes far longer than our ego is willing to admit. I would most likely be perfectly safe (physically). She wouldn’t be safe. Not in the months leading up to my test, not during my test, and not for a while afterwards. I want a full relationship, not one wherein she is shut down in some way for an indefinite period of time. Not for something so optional. It is a choice I can make that’s important to the safety of someone I care about and a relationship I value.

It’s not about me, it’s about her, and I’m OK with that. I choose to honor and respect her safety needs, and I’ll be just fine. In fact, the two of us will be more than fine because we’ll step forward together, each willing to participate even more fully, openly, honestly, and earnestly. That’s even more energy for loving, caring, creating and serving, each other and others. It’s energy that will be available to open up and move forward, rather than defend and hold fast. That’s a pretty powerful transformation of energy.


One Response to “Playing it Safe with My Wife”

  1. Chad Spillers April 3, 2018 at 17:00 #

    Very nice. Honor!

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