What does it mean to heal relationships if broken was our starting point?
I wanted to share this very short chapter I wrote for a new anthology book for Kitty Stryker about consent and healing. I talked about my own struggles to become a better listener and partner in my own relationship, and tied it to the brokeness that is foundational to the kabbalistic view of humanity.
Making the case for consent is easy. I could quote the growing body of literature, cite from presentations and workshops, even provide a few choice personal examples I am proud of. But this negates one uncomfortable reality: men are bad at consent, and that means all of us. Male sociability is grounded in breaking through the barriers that consent creates because, only then, can we remain competitive in a world designed for conquest rather than collaboration and kindness. I first took a consent workshop at 27 years old, two decades past when I should have. It would be a farce to present myself as anything other than a person struggling with how to consent better each day.
“Asking means preparing yourself for no,” is something I’ve heard my wife say a lot over our near decade together. The withholding of consent depends on a certain covenant that should occur between two people. One person says what they want, and the other person has to listen to know. This caused some of the most profound breaks in my own relationship, ones that, as time has gone on, I feel like I have only gotten a handle of more recently.
Part of the challenges I have had with my spouse is in being able to really hear what she is asking of me instead of just projecting my own feelings onto her. When she first used the term gaslighting I didn’t know what it meant (I thought it meant throwing gas on the fire, like making someone intentionally angry), but even after I had read two dozen articles and had even more conversations about the subject, I still couldn’t locate it. When accused of it, I ducked out, thinking my own feelings of hurt someone inoculated me from my ability to be abusive.
There is a difference between what happens in a person’s interior life and what goes on outside them. It may seem obvious, but it is hardly subjectively so, and this created a fog that escalated conflicts as I deflected, diverted, and refused responsibility, even when it was glaringly obvious. In one particular argument she put blankly what something hurtful I had said, and she asked why. “That’s not what I meant. You said something really similar. Why is that what you focus on rather than all the wonderful things I’ve done?” It was only when I finally froze, listened, and refused to simply “react” I realized that what I had done was still there, no amount of negotiating had changed it.
The steps necessary to make this change seem mundane and obvious, but they were like a sea change. This began with committing to simply believe what I am being told, that someone’s hurt is their own and honestly shared, and that what was being requested was intentional. There is a brokenness that pushes people to assume bad faith attacks even at the most crucial points of vulnerability, so when someone expresses their hurt to you, your belief in them mirrors that vulnerability. The next step was to listen and act based on what I am being told, not simply as the result of stories I have written and replayed about what happened. To repair and grow you have to have internalized what changes are necessary, the first step to building a plan for those shifts. This required a great deal of faith, mostly in my own ability to do what felt like moving mountains, to unlearn responses that failed to serve me or anyone in my life.
In a brusk conversation one day my wife, after a breathy pause, told me that my dismissive tone hurt her, and made her feel small. When someone confronts you with your behavior it can be jarring since, presumably, you did not actively intend to make them feel this way. I stopped, listened, and immediately validated the experience, saying that I would learn from this situation so that I can try to approach with more intentional care. These are the kind of conversations that are now common, where both of us intervene if someone felt off, and we expect the other to listen and, primarily, to believe.
This is no magic realization, it is just one of many that, hopefully, makes up the growth I’m trying to make. But it necessarily means that I have to, essentially, sit with my brokenness. To hear someone else means a willingness to change, and that means the ability to expose and clean your wounds. To make hearing successful you have to be willing to shed the trumped up image of who you want to be and learn to sit with who you actually are. But what does it mean to be accountable to that? Are we open about our failures?
Early hasidic leader Rabbi Mechem Mendel of Kotzk wrote "there is nothing so whole as a broken heart." Rabbi Mendel, who would spark a dynastic movement still around today, echoed the creation story found in Kabbalah of Isacc Luria, which is a form of Jewish mysticism that set the stage for most later movements looking to understand the nature of G-d in Judaism. Luria had to reconcile something: G-d’s oneness with our profound brokenness. He did this by explaining that G-d shattered themself when making the universe, scattering the broken pieces. Brokenness is where we started. There was nothing before.
There is something freeing about acknowledging we were broken from the start. Luria’s answer to brokenness was not despair, but to gush with love. By engaging in the ritual work of Tikkun Olam, the healing of the world, we bring those pieces back together, we build something a little less imperfect than what we started with. Judaism has its own unique relationship to the balance of perfection and imperfection. The pagans saw the world as inherently sacred, while the Christians saw it as base and profane (so we must escape). Jews had a different intervention: it was profane, to be made holy. Each day we look at how to intervene in the mundanity and build the sacred. The spark only exists in our choices, the Kavvanah (inner intentions), and the real world actions we take. Our hearts aren’t enough. Our actions matter.
To do this is to treat each moment as the first. The ability for us to make a change, to see our failures and to learn to really see another person, is one we have at each instant. This is where the real danger lies, in risking the safety of the “craven images” we have about ourselves, the stories we tell to absolve our responsibility. There is a victory in acknowledging that we aren’t who we want to be because that’s the only way becoming something else is possible.
For consent to be a standard, we have to engage in healing. Not the commercial type of self-care, full of affirmations and euphoric delusions. The kind of healing that hurts, that requires something of us, that has weight and consequences and the risk of loss. But when you open yourself up to really hearing another person, you find out that you share a broken heart, and that vulnerability is a new kind of world.