“Have you learned lessons only of those who admired you, and were tender with you, and stood aside for you? Have you not learned great lessons from those who reject you, and brace themselves against you, or treat you with contempt, or dispute the passage with you?” ~ Walt Whitman
Courage is not a word that comes to mind for most people when they think about relationships. Love, compassion, devotion, affection, support are more likely to be the words which people associate with great partnerships. There is no doubt that these qualities are essential to any good relationship, but courage is no less important than any other qualities that contribute to fulfilling relationships.
The idea that relationships should require courage may seem strange. But as anyone who has ever gotten beyond the initial stages of infatuation knows, opening your heart when there is a risk of rejection, judgment, criticism, or anger isn’t exactly easy for most of us. Stephen Levine, author of Embracing the Beloved, has referred to relationships as “the ultimate danger sport.” While it require a different kind of courage than it does to scale Mount Everest or step into the ring with a heavyweight boxer, there’s not denying that here are serious risks involved for those who tred in the territory of the heart. As a friend of ours has said from his own experiences on that terrain, “relationships aren’t for sissies.”
In our workshops, we’ve encountered people who are veterans of combat, professional motorcycle riders, ex-gang members, and law enforcement officers who could look straight into a gun barrel without blinking but we’re reduced to quivering masses of flesh in the face of an angry spouse. It’s not that these people aren’t courageous, they are. But there are different types of courage, just as there are different types of risks. While many people, particularly men are conditioned by society and it’s institutions to endure physical pain, the capacity to tolerate emotional pain, either their own or another’s without withdrawing, reacting, or shutting down, presents a nearly impossible challenge. Yet just as it is courage that enables a person to take risks involving exposure to physical dangers, it is courage that makes it possible to maintain an open heart in the face of emotional dangers.
Many of us are confused about the meaning of courage and think that it has something to do with the absence of fear. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s because of the presence of fear that we need courage, in order to act on behalf of a commitment that is stronger than the desire to avoid risk or pain. Courage has to do with the willingness to honor an intention that overrides our instinct to protect ourselves in the face of risk or harm. The root of the word comes from the word “Coeur” which is French for “heart.” So courage means to act on behalf of our heart’s truth, our deepest values, rather than to act from an intention to protect ourselves.
Life in general and relationships in particular offer a wide variety of such forms which invite the expression of courage when we have the willingness to:
- feel and investigate old emotional wounds that get activated by our partner, that may have been denied or buried for years or even decades
- stand up for what you believe in even when facing rejection, condemnation, or punishment
- resist the temptation to withdraw or counter-attack
- the willingness to speak our truth even when to do so subjects us to shame or humiliation
- keep our mouths shut even when the impulse to argue or become defensive is strong, the willingness to listen deeply and non-reactively even when we strongly disagree with what is being said
- bring up difficult or painful “incompletions” when others or we ourselves would rather keep them under the rug;
- disarm ourselves of our aggressive or manipulative strategies even when we find ourselves in an adversarial situation.
Courage requires an act of will to overcome our conditioned patterns of defensiveness and control. It is a purely voluntary choice that cannot be coerced or demanded. In the domain of relationships, honoring a commitment to conceal and protect will lead to a very different outcome than a commitment to reveal and connect. While many of us understand this concept on an intellectual level, putting it into practice is another thing altogether.
We are not born courageous; we all have the same self-protective instincts. The decision to face one’s fears and lean into the risk rather than withdraw from it is not a one-time decision, but rather it is choice that is presented to us throughout our lives. The formula for cultivating courage means stepping into the fear rather than withdrawing from it. The former strengthens courage regardless of the outcome. The latter diminishes it, regardless of the outcome.
Not all risks are worth taking, and the ability to make an accurate assessment in a threatening situation is a vitally important skill to possess. Shakespeare knew this when he put the words “discretion is the better part of valor” in the words of Falstaff in his play Henry IV. It’s still true. The object for those who wish to become more courageous is not to accept every challenge that presents itself and take every risk that comes their way, but rather to discern the risks that are worth taking from those that are not, and to bring our whole heart into our actions. This is what characterizes those who are Warriors of the Heart.