I feel like I must have been around 12 years old. As with most childhood memories it is both cloudy in terms of its exact timing, yet profoundly clear in the details of what occurred. My dad and I were looking over some of my Opa’s poetry and he read the poem above to me. He always turned to goo when reading his father’s poetry. It was one of the only emotional touch points he had to an otherwise emotionally remote man. I could always feel my dad’s aching for him when we read his poems. This opened up one of those soft moments between a parent and child when the parent reveals their humanness and fallibility. After they’ve laid themselves bare, they often times drop truth on your ears and you never forget it.
That day the soft spot opened to the only conversation I remember my father and I ever having about his divorce from my mother. The divorce was brutal, soaked in my mother’s infidelity and the unspeakable pain we all carried from her final abandonment when she moved out of state. He, of course, was not blameless in their failed marriage. However, he was present and loving, and along with that, his narrative took on added resonance.
I don’t think my dad ever fully integrated the split. He always carried a torch for my mom even though he accepted that it would never warm her again. I asked him if he still loved her and he answered with an unequivocal yes and quickly followed with ‘I always will.’ He never spoke ill of my mother, but he did say this. As the big, icy-blue eyes he had inherited from his poet- father rose to meet mine he said, ‘I learned one thing from your mother and I don’t want you to ever forget it. No one can ever make you happy Katie. You are the only one who can do that. I couldn’t give your mother her own happiness and she never forgave me for it.’ I have to admit. I am just getting it almost 35 years later.
Of all myths that circle around marriage, this is one creates the most damage when it finally falls. It’s easy to see why considering the enormous weight it is to carry your own happiness. The amount of self awareness that is required to understand one’s own peaceful heart is a colossal undertaking of time, patience and compassion. I submit it is so huge it takes at least a lifetime. You have to constantly peel back the onion and end up crying a fair bit of the way through it.
When you fall in love you get to lay that weight down in the arms of another. It’s a free pass to happiness, at least for a while. You feel light, whole, energetic, optimistic, fearless and most importantly, that you belong. You are not alone anymore with your heavy onion. This is the essential prize of marriage. Happiness is not solely your responsibility anymore. Someone else will take on that responsibility with you, even for you. They vow to do so.
Almost as intoxicating is the ability to make someone else happy. It may be the most powerful experience next to birth to make someone smile, come, sleep peacefully, even heal or conversely wound. It brings a unique and profound purpose to life. It validates you and makes you special. We all happily agree to the dance, the rings, the sacrifice… to the happily ever after.
My dad, and billions of other people just like him, found out the hard way that this dance is fleeting and ultimately failing. No one can escape the responsibility of their own happiness. Indeed, to lose yourself in this moment is to lose yourself entirely. Once you turn exclusively to an external source for your happiness, the void that opens up is unending. You throw food, stuff, pills, alcohol, sex, adrenaline, screens, even other people in it to try and find what’s going to maintain your happiness, and yet you never quite get there. Then you turn to the one who promised to keep you happy and they can no longer either.
On the flip side, you’ve lost your power to make your person happy too. You do whatever you can to get the power back. You ‘work’ on the relationship, modify yourself, keep the wheels on the bus, walk on eggshells, go the extra mile, sacrifice, sacrifice, sacrifice. However, you become just another external source trying to fill a void that can only be filled from within.
This is the death spiral of every struggling relationship because when you lose the power to feed your own soul you are always hungry. When you abdicate that power to someone else, or their need for external source swallows you whole, you have no place from which to regenerate the energy to give back to your partner no matter how much you love them. You also lose touch with your sacred space, and with it the ability to accurately express to your partner how you’ve changed over time so that they have the opportunity to meet and love the evolving person you are. This is why you hear many divorced people speak of a “resurrection of themselves” in the years after a split. They are experiencing a shift back to internal source.
At the risk of adding to the overuse of this analogy, you must put your life mask on first. Cultivating the love of one’s authentic self, not just someone else’s, is THE eternal purpose of a person’s life. Love cannot flow out to others if it does not exist within one’s self. For me, successful, long-term relationships stand on this ground. They don’t require the sacrifice of self for another, they require that each partner make space for the other to cultivate love, especially love for and within one’s self. They mutually exercise their own muscles, so that the person they are with is strong, stable and vital by their own hand. They champion and celebrate their partner’s strength. They are not threatened by it. They see the inevitable growth and change in the other as the result of the love they were able to offer from their own source. You can’t have a strong ‘we’ if you don’t have two strong ‘me’s.’
As John Welwood, an American clinical psychologist known for integrating Eastern and Western psychology and spirituality, stated in his his book Love and Awakening:
If the bad news is that we can know another, and be known, only as deeply as we know ourselves — and coming to know ourselves can be a long and arduous journey — the good news is that love helps and inspires us to develop this deeper self-knowledge. . . . For this reason, relationships can help us face and understand ourselves more rapidly and profoundly than any other aspect of worldly life. Seen in this light, love becomes a path of awakening — rousing us from the sleep of old, unconscious patterns into the freshness and immediacy of living more fully in the present, in accord with who we really are. This is the source of a deeper kind of happiness, which goes far beyond pleasure and comfort, and the only real basis for healthy and satisfying relationships. 
What is required for this kind of relationship to exist is an embrace of the fear that comes with change and a commitment to unconditional love. Many of us confuse ‘happiness’ with stability and thus shun change. In the face of change we also abandon our commitment to love a person no matter what, especially if that ‘what’ is an admission of struggle or a desire to transition a relationship. Fear can wipe clean the most profound gift you can offer another person; the ability to be true to themselves.
So how far does your unconditionality go? A good place to initially pose that question is the mirror. First, do you unconditionally love yourself? Is the person you are at any given time worth being held in the light instead of hidden in the dark? Could you still love yourself if you went in a radically different direction than you envisioned for your life 20 years ago? If your steps forward brought sadness to your children? Can you hold space for your partner as they work through the journey to themselves even if that meant it went in a radically different direction from yours for a period of time or forever? What if they caused you pain? The answer to all these questions, and more, is ‘yes’ if you are the one carrying and peeling your big, fat onion; cultivating your own internal peace and security. Then the good person next to you is simply wiping away your tears (and you theirs) on occasion and holding their own onion with mighty arms.
My father ended up becoming the epitome of unconditional love at the end of his life. Despite the betrayal, the abandonment and the almost 20 years between them, my mother and father were reconciled and set to be remarried three weeks before he died. He went into the decision this time with eyes cleared by tears, a soul made wise and peaceful by experience, and a life long commitment that strengthen by his ability to unconditionally love himself and his beloved Yvonne.
 John Welwood, Love and Awakening: Discovering the Sacred Path of Intimate Relationship (HarperPerennial: 1996), xiii-xiv.
Kathryn Dickel is an Founder/CEO of MIDWESTIX. She writes about the reimagination of eternal relationships, entrepreneurial life and spirituality. Check out her publication New Vow on Medium.