Category Archives: marriage

how to write a love letter, by Johnny Cash

In the course of my life, I have been the privileged recipient of many love letters.  Some so tender they are heart-breaking, others so sweet they made me tingle, and still others so suggestive, I involuntarily blushed while reading them.  But the best — always and without exception — were the ones that were short and simple and devastating in their sincerity.

This morning, I was rendered dumbstruck — truly, mouth gaping, breath holding, eyes wide — when I read two love letters written by Johnny Cash for his wife, June Carter Cash.  They were published by Letters of Note, a blog that is something of an altar to the written word, in all of its power and beauty.

You might remember John and June’s love story as portrayed in the film, “Walk the Line,” and you probably assumed that the love story was embellished for Hollywood’s sake, but you’d be mostly wrong.  June Carter blew him away from the beginning and Johnny Cash didn’t stand a chance of getting over her.  Despite being married, despite being a screw-up and an addict, when love hit Johnny Cash over the head, he knew it and he was utterly powerless in its wake.  For a certified bad-ass, it’s especially touching how vulnerable he was to his feelings for this woman.

I think that John’s letter to June on her 65th birthday in June 1994 is so perfect that I hesitate to dissect it too much, lest I disturb its beauty.  I think I would love it no matter what, but I am fiercely attached to it because John composed it as an ode, not to a young woman, unblemished by time or nature, but to an older woman whose spirit and soul continued to shine and entrance him.

Letter courtesy of House of Cash, from Letters of Note.

Letter courtesy of House of Cash, as posted by Letters of Note.

Sigh.

The second letter is bittersweet, having been written just a couple of months after June’s death in 2003.  Its simplicity conveys so much —  grief, and loss, and yearning.

June's an angel

Letter courtesy of House of Cash, as posted by Letters of Note.

John died two months after writing this note, four short months after June.  Their children expressed surprise that he lasted that long without her.

Do you suppose that June Carter Cash knew what she had?  Do you suppose that by the time they got together (he’d been married once and she multiple times), she understood how rare and priceless a connection such as theirs is? Do you suppose that she loved him back just as much?

Looking at this photo, I’d say the answer to all is a definite “yes.”

John and June

Photo courtesy of via.

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the best relationship advice to men I’ve ever read… continued!

Last week, I blogged about a post that I thought was pretty amazing, entitled “The 16 Ways I Blew My Marriage” by Dan Peace.  Well, apparently, I wasn’t the only one who thought so, because the post went viral.  In response, Dan has treated us to the other 15 ways he’d left off his first list, for fear of going on too long and/or looking like a relationship flunkie. The items on this list are just as good as the first list, and I think equally applicable in a gender-neutral fashion.  Seriously, I think his list is my new relationship bible.

Read on and consider for yourself….

The OTHER 15 Ways I Blew My Marriage.

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the best relationship advice to men I’ve ever read

As most of my favorite bloggers have not been writing lately, I have been stretching beyond my usual reading circle, and today I was introduced to the blog single dad laughing.  I fell in love with this blog instantly, and the post that brought me to his blog is likely to be a long-term favorite.  I have already bookmarked it.

Yes, it’s that good.

Read it.  Now.  I’ll wait.

16 Ways I Blew My Marriage

There are so many things I love about this post — its gentle witticism, its self-deprecating humor, its brutal honesty.  But it also made me sadder than anything I’ve read in a long time, because it resonated with me so very strongly.  As Dan, the blogger, writes, he could have gone on for much longer, and I almost wish he had.  His 16 points go far to summarizing the best of every relationship book and article I’ve ever read, and I would strongly argue that most of his points could be applied to both men and women in relationships.  With that in mind, his post played through my head all day yesterday and I came up with my own ideas of what I might add to his list.  So, here are some of my proposed additions to make an even 20, necessarily from the viewpoint of a woman (since I still don’t have a penis):

17.) Tell him that you admire him and why — and do it often.

Since my divorce, I have realized how important it is to men to feel admired and respected by the woman in their life.  I think this is akin to how women want to feel cherished and adored.  We want to feel admired and respected, too, of course, but with men, it seems to take on a different texture…  You can attach whatever judgment you want to the sex roles biology has shouldered us with, but I think most men really need validation that they are strong and able protectors and providers for their family.  I now realize how important it is to frequently — and sincerely — tell my man how much I admire how hard he works and the sacrifices he makes and how proud I am of him.  I definitely didn’t understand this before.

18.)  Make a mutually-fulfilling sex life a priority.

Women can bitch about it all they want, but we have thousands (if not millions) of years of biology working against us:  men need sex in different ways and for different reasons than we do.  Yes, there are more similarities in how and why men and women need sex, but it is the differences that cause the problems, and so it’s useful to acknowledge those outright.  Men communicate through sex the way most women communicate through words — it’s how they connect with us, show us how they love us, and feel close to us.  Talking all night feels good to them, but not as good as a sexual connection.  The sooner we realize and accept that and work with it, the more likely we are to get the relationship we want.

I think the male need for sex to get close to a woman is a lot like a woman’s need for a man to be supportive in order for her to feel close to him.  Hands down the biggest turn-on I hear my friends talk about is a guy who helps with the kids and around the house.  That makes her feel close to him and appreciated by him and loving toward him.  I think sex is like that for men.  Just as we get the warm fuzzies when they tell us to take the afternoon and get a massage while they tangle with the little monsters, so do they get the warm fuzzies when we spend a long evening making love to them.

And I think the “mutually-fullfilling” part is important, because I think most men — nearly all men, in fact — really want to be good lovers to their partners.  They want to know what works for us and what doesn’t and how they can rock our world.  They want to hear it, and it’s our job to tell them.  How is that not a win-win?

19.)  Step lightly around his ego.

I know, I know, I know.  The male ego can make even the most poised woman crazy trying to manage.  It’s more tender and delicate than a newborn baby, and, when injured, takes a helluva lot longer to mend.  But unless you’re willing to go to bat for the other team on a permanent basis, you have to make your peace with the male ego.  It’s fragile.  It needs reassurance.  If you demean it or emasculate it, it may not recover.  So be careful what you say or do.  Putting your man down will never work out in your favor.  Ever.

20.)  Give him time to be him.

The men in my life have always given me high scores on this one, but my male friends have almost uniformly complained that they felt like they weren’t allowed to have individual hobbies or interests outside the relationship without feeling guilty.  I think most grown-ups know in our heads that it’s important for us to have some “me time” — to work out, to hang with friends, to participate in hobbies, or to just escape the duties and obligations of our parenting and professional lives.  Some of us need more of this time, and others less, but it’s important to figure out what his needs are in this area and try to support those.  And we don’t need to understand it (I, for one, would rather watch paint dry than a golf tournament, but, hey, that’s just me), we just need to support what’s important to them and makes them happier.  We expect no less from them, right? And happier partners makes for a happier relationship, for sure.

I’m not pretending that I have all the answers, obviously.  But I do think that my dating research has brought me lots of data to chew on and digest for your benefit.  I’ve listened to men and I’ve listened to women and I think the roadmaps to better relationships really are out there.  We just have to see them and use them, and that’s the hard part.  It’s so much easy to keep doing things in much the same way as we always have, under the guise that we are good enough and anyone who loves us will surely put up with our crappy parts.  While that may be true, I think the greater the number of crappy parts we’re asking potential partners to bear, the smaller the pool of potential candidates.  Weed out the psychos, the predators, and the garden variety creeps and you’ve got an even smaller number.  So maybe taking a look at how we can be better partners is kind of like amending the soil before planting a garden?

Yesterday, on the sidelines of Bryn’s soccer game, I had another surreal conversation with Bryce; this time about his perspective on my dating life . It was fascinating to hear him weigh in, given how well he knows me in some regards.  Toward the end of the conversation, I told him about single dad laughing’s blog post and asked if I could send it to him, as I thought he’d be interested.  “Sure,” he said, “always good to figure out how to do better.”

Indeed.

Photo courtesy of Dan Peace. single dad laughing.

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mommy martyrdom

I like that this blogger offers an alternative concept of what it means to be a “good mother.” As a woman who was, for too many years, sequestered in her roles of wife and mother, this really resonates with me. My post divorce life is full of meaningful friendships that I make a genuine priority in my life, and what a difference they make to my soul. I am definitely a better mother, daughter, employee, and partner when I have the warmth of girl time in my life.

Views from the Couch

Some friends and I were chatting and the the above meme card came up, which has been posted around Facebook, and we discovered that we were unanimously annoyed with the implied sentiment. Listen up ladies, this isn’t the 1950’s! Your goal in life no longer has to be landing a husband so you can spend the rest of your life finding shoes to compliment your newest apron or dedicate yourself solely to dispensing little humans out of your vagina like Pez. Supposedly, the sky is the limit–okay, well the glass ceiling is the limit (wink, wink). You can go to college, and not just for your M.R.S. degree. You can have a career. You can have an active social life and go out with friends. The world is your oyster! That is, until you have a child. At that point, you are only supposed to concern yourself with all things…

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heart of stones

Earlier this year, a young mother drove her small Subaru from the larger city down below, through the canyon and up the mountain to the little town where I work.  She parked her car in a dirt lot and climbed out into a night that was cold and dark.  The spring thaw had come astoundingly early, sending the snow from the mountainsides melting into the creeks and lakes, swelling them to unusually high levels, but the nights were still freezing.  The mother sat at edge of the creek for some time.  Then she filled her pockets with the heavy river rocks that line the creek bed and banks, and waded into the icy water.  Fed by the melting glaciers of the Continental Divide and rushing toward the reservoir 100 yards downstream, the creek water was cold enough to induce hypothermia in a submerged body within a minute.  The rocks did their job, and the young woman was dragged down, but not before she’d had a change of heart.  Clawing desperately at the steep embankment, she struggled to pull herself from the rushing water.  But ultimately she succumbed.  And in the early light of dawn, her body was discovered nearby, facedown in the water, by hikers who alerted town officials.

When the police chief informed my office later that morning, we all stood and stared at each other.  We are a very small group, working in a very small town, and no tragedy passes unnoticed.  This was particularly painful to absorb:  a young mother in her twenties, going through a divorce, leaving two small children behind in her death, so desperately sad that she chose a terrifying and permanent solution to her pain.

Perhaps the next day, perhaps the day after, a young man appeared at the site along the creek where the mother’s body had been recovered.  He sat on the shore, in the bitter cold, and cried.  Then he came back the next day, and the next, and the next after that.  Until we all in town came to expect his daily vigil.  Sometimes he was alone, other times he was with his parents or just his father.  Occasionally a friend accompanied him. His grief was public and overwhelming.  Residents reported that he often seemed to sit there all day long, crying.  The police were dispatched to help.  They determined that the young man was her estranged husband, father to her children, grieving a loss he could neither understand nor accept.

As the days passed, the young man continued his vigil, but also brought with him his wading boots.  Despite the chill, he waded into the creek and created a large heart — approximately 5′ tall x 4′ wide — in the creekbed where his wife’s body had last rested, using the same kind of stones that had sealed her fate.  He stacked the stones five or six high in order that they be seen above the top of the water.   The task and its completion seemed to offer him some solace, and his grief resolved itself into a quiet sadness.  But still he came.

In the weeks that followed, a small makeshift memorial grew on the edge of the creek, with a cross, laminated letters, photos, and personal touches.  Some locals added to it, others merely stopped by to offer a prayer or meditation in front of the heart of stones memorial.  A few residents complained to me that the memorial was “in poor taste” or “unseemly” or that it “made people uncomfortable.”  I listened to their complaints, then told the police chief and town manager that I did not plan to remove the memorial.  Death makes people uncomfortable, for sure, but I’m not sure how making that discomfort go away is my responsibility.

So, on my order, the memorial stands.  I have proposed a memorial policy that will allow the family to install a commemorative bench on the site.  I visited it today, for the first time, to document in photographs its existence for town records.  We are now in the waning days of summer in the mountains, with sunny, warm days surrendering to chilly nights.  The creek is at nearly its lowest ebb, and the heart of stones stands in strong relief to the shallow waters around it.

While I was standing there, a young man turned the corner from the parking lot and approached me, smiling tentatively.  I could tell by his attire that he had come a long ways to reach this spot.  I stepped aside and he walked to the edge of the creek, where he squatted.  His lips moved silently, as if in prayer, as he gazed at the heart of stones.  I turned away, offering him some privacy.  Then he stood, and I turned around.  He smiled at me, and his somber eyes said thank you.  He walked away and I was left alone again.

I did not know this woman, nor did I know anyone who knew her.  I don’t think I ever saw her husband or his family or their friends.  But her death affected me this spring.  It reminded me how much each life — and sometimes its end — touches so many people.  How can we possibly fully appreciate the ripple effect of our choices?  How do those choices permanently alter the direction of someone else’s life?  It’s impossible to know, isn’t it?

Everytime this spring that someone came into town hall to tell me that the man and his family were still there, I wondered about him.  Why did he keep coming?  Had he still loved her so much?  Was his grief based on regret… remorse… guilt?  What story had they shared?  What will he tell his two small daughters?

And what of that young mother, who made a choice she could not repeal — From wherever she was, could she see the pain her death had caused?  Was her soul at peace or was it anguished?  Had she had any idea how many people loved her — those ones who traveled so far to create a personal monument on a creekbed in a strange town?  What does she think of the beautifully poetic memorial crafted in her honor on the site of her last breath?  And what will become of her memory when, next year at the thaw, the force of the creek scatters her stone heart?

The answers to those questions don’t really matter, but they are the things I pondered occasionally as the winter gave way to spring and then spring to summer here in the Rocky Mountains.   I hope that her family finds peace soon, and that her soul does likewise.  I will not likely forget her anytime soon, this young woman I never met.  I wish so much that she had made different choices that cold March night, but I understand the world is unfolding around me just as it should, and that my lack of understanding does not make that any less true.

And I hope that someday, when I die in my comfy bed of natural causes as a very elderly woman, someone who loves me builds me a heart of stones in a beautiful creek somewhere.

Don’t you?

The Heart of Stones Memorial

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Filed under divorce, healing, love, marriage, relationships, sadness

“every day is a celebration”

One morning last week, as I was thumbing through my paper and munching my English muffin, I came across an article that stuck with me.  Various parts of it have been playing through my mind ever since.  It is about a local couple who are celebrating their 70th wedding anniversary.  Yes, you read that right — 70 years of marriage to the same person.  That alone is mind-boggling in this day and age, but it is other aspects of the article that I find more poignant….  and perhaps those other aspects are the explanation to the time-honored question of “What’s their secret?!”

Before I go any further, I’d suggest you read the article, here.   It’s short and it will open in another tab, so you won’t lose me!  I’ll wait.

[Cue the on-hold Muzak version of The Captain and Tenille’s “Muskrat Love”…]

Okay, now that you’re back, let’s continue…

The first time I read the article, something tugged at me, but I turned the page and put it down to sentimentalism, plain and simple.  But it was more than that, and when I returned to the article later that night, I saw clearly and with amazement the pieces that are profound and precious to me in this article.

1.  Don carries a scrapbook in his briefcase of memories of their life together.

Sure, this is a little cutesy for most people, and most guys wouldn’t be comfortable putting together a scrapbook, let alone carrying it around for years.  But the point here is that it embodies his priorities.  Just from that one fact, do you have any doubts of where his personal priorities lie?  Do you suppose his children ever wondered if their parents loved each other?

2.  Don remembers particulars about Dorothy.

Most of us sketch our distant memories in broad strokes.  It is only the truly important moments that we lock away with all of our senses intact.  I, for instance, remember exactly how Sabrina felt and smelled when they first placed her in my arms — the weight of her, the color of her hair, the pain my body was still accommodating to from my emergency c-section, the tears in my husband’s eyes, the stuffiness of the room — all of it frozen in my memory.  But Don, it seems, has many, many memories of Dorthy that are like that.  I love that he remembered “how the humidity melted her hair” when she stepped off the plane.   I am lost in imagining him watching her, absorbing her, after missing her for a while.  Sigh.

3.  Don is proud of Dorothy’s accomplishments.

Before any of you start shaking your head and saying, “Well, of course he should be!” let me point out two very important things:  FIRST, let’s remember that they were married in 1942.  They are almost two generations removed from most of us.  Feminism was not even a word then, and women’s rights still referred to the suffragette’s successful battle to obtain the vote.  This was an era and a generation when most women did precisely and only what their husbands allowed them to do.   No kidding.  And look what Don allowed Dorothy to do — to live up to her potential as a human being.  She did amazing things, in an age when only men did such things.  And she did it with a husband.  Seriously wow.

SECOND, let’s to be truthful here:  this is still rare.  I hear story after story after sad story about women who bind their lives to men who are threatened by their potential or desire to be more than a wife and mother.  Being a good wife and a good mother are both laudable goals, to be sure, but for most of us, they are not the end of our aspirations.  When I was married, had I suggested that I was going to attend a civil rights march, my husband would have looked at me like I was crazy.  It was all fine and well for me to pursue my personal interests and causes, as long as it didn’t inconvenience him too much.  And I’m not alone in having lived that at the turn of the 20th Century.

So kudos to Don, for selecting an amazing woman and then supporting her dreams.  Nicely done.

4.  When Don describes Dorothy’s attributes, he lists aspects of who she is, not what she does for him or anyone else.

This is the part that makes the romantic in me want to cry.  Don says this about Dorothy:

“She’s a caring, kind, empathetic and a super good listener.  She says very little but she’s extremely effective. She charms people and gets groups together and makes things happen.”

This is who Dorothy is as a person; he sees her fully — her abilities and personality as they stand on their own, not simply in reference to him.  There is no mention of how good a cook she is or how she starched his shirts for 70 years or how she played with the kids when they were toddlers.  But this is how we usually reference our  love for our partners — based on what they do for us, not on who they are independent of us.  Listen closely the next time someone describes their husband or wife — “He’s a good provider.”  “She’s a good mom.”  “He mows the lawn every Saturday.” “She makes a great pot roast, and that’s my favorite.”  and so on and so forth.  At first glance, this sounds sweet — don’t we all hope that the people we care for and nurture will notice and appreciate that? — but it’s actually a failure to fully see each other.  Appreciation is important, but if you look at the kinds of things I just listed, you’ll see that those are appreciation for roles we fill in our partnerships and lives, they are jobs we do, and an acknowledgment that we do them well.  Those compliments are not an acknowledgment of who we fundamentally are inside — the special parts of us that we bring to the people whose lives we touch everyday.

Now look again at Don’s list.  See the difference?  Hear the respect and admiration?  He sees her.  Fully.  And admires her.  Not for the roles she fills, but because she is those things, and she brings those things to everything she does and every role she fills because they are who she is.  It is possible that Dorothy was a terrible cook, and maybe Don would have liked a good pot roast once in a while, but how many of us want someone to choose us for our culinary skills?  Or for any particular role, in fact?  In all likelihood, she wasn’t a perfect mother (still looking for that animal…), but if she was “kind, caring, empathetic, and a good listener,” how bad a mom could she have been? Don’s description speaks of who Dorothy is in every role she fills, because it is simply who she is, period.

The difference is subtle, but very, very important, I think.  Because as we move through a lifetime together, roles may change.  Skills may be gained and even lost.  But I think what most of us want is to be loved for who we simply are, when the roles and academic degrees and accumulated professional accomplishments are stripped away.  We want to be loved for our sense of humor, our way with words, the gentleness of our caress.  Filling particular roles well can be rewarding and appreciation is always good, but to be appreciated without being fully seen is hollow at best and soul-crushing at worst.

Now, I will admit that Don is probably a bit of a romantic sentimentalist.  But the man is 90-years-old, so I am going to grant him the right to be gushy and mushy and over-the-top about the accomplishment of notching a 70-year marriage.  But really, how many of us are in a position to criticize his approach or his feelings?

Certainly not I.

So instead, I wish the Stonebrakers a very happy anniversary and many more scrapbook pages to come.

Not the Stonebrakers — but I looooove this photo! 🙂

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the deal.

My friend Annie got back from a short vacation last night, and before we even put our children into their respective beds, I had unloaded on her the detritus of a stressful week.  The expense and hassle of purchasing three new appliances, one of which has flooded my laundry room (twice!).  The predictable but still painful family arguments around the disposition of my aunt’s belongings.  A disagreement with James.  Essentially the stuff that is life, but a heavier burden when carried alone.

I remember once when I was a small child and my widowed mother had very little money, our dishwasher flooded the kitchen for the second or third time in as many weeks.  My mom sat on the kitchen floor, amidst the soapy mess, and sobbed.  Overwhelmed and lonely, she couldn’t move until there weren’t any tears left.  Then she fetched some towels and began the frustrating process of sopping up all that water, as I perched on the stairs and watched.

I have thought a lot about that day this week, as I’ve mopped up my own soapy messes.  Twice.

Nearly every marriage has some big parts that really work.  For me and Bryce, it was the rough times.  Unlike some couples, we were at our best when facing a challenge together, shoulder-to-shoulder.  Whether it was Sabrina’s serious health concerns or Bryce’s dual lay-offs in one year, we just braced ourselves and carried on, in sync.

One of the shames of divorce is that you have to divorce the whole person.   You don’t get to pick and choose which pieces of them you’d like to never see again.  The baby goes out with the bathwater, so to speak.

Since I left Bryce, I have not had another relationship that felt as reliable or solid as that one.  I miss that in my life.  I really do.  But in the absence of that particular kind of comfort, I have discovered a nearly-as-good substitute in my friends.

Sometime early in our friendship — before I’d even left Bryce — Annie and I fell into a certain unspoken deal with each other:  if one of us needs someone, no matter the time or inconvenience, the other is there.  We have each had moments in which we’ve dropped everything at work, or plopped our children in front of a movie, or told a date that it would “just be a minute” so that we could attend to whatever small or large crisis had exploded in the other’s world.  Sometimes there have been tears, sometimes curse words, sometimes desperation, and sometimes anguish.  Sometimes we have come through for each other better than at other times, but we have always been there.

A few years ago, I couldn’t have appreciated this in the same way, and I didn’t ask it of my friends then, either.  But when, after many, many years, you suddenly find yourself without someone solid to lean on in the dark or difficult times, friendships take on a different quality.

When I was in my 20’s and still believed that I was Superwoman, I had a therapist ask me where I unpacked my load.  I had no earthly idea what she meant, but it sounded vaguely sexual to me and I was embarrassed by the question.  What she meant, of course, was simply where was I safe enough to let it all out?  To allow all my deepest fears and hopes and dreams to get some air.  At that time, I had no answer for her.   Her question has stayed with me for all these years.

I realized this week that it is still a question I struggle with, but the closest I come to that safety is with my female friends.  With a few of them — like Annie — I don’t have to be always smart or always accomplished or always fun.  Sometimes I’m not any of those things.  Sometimes I’m frustrated and overwhelmed and sad.  And I thank God that I have people in my life who can handle me that way.

I am constantly amazed at how much better I feel after talking to a friend and unpacking my heavy load.  It’s enough to give me the strength to re-pack it and carry it for another day.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go meet the washing machine repairman.  Again.

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is your relationship worth fighting for?

I was talking to a friend the other night about his relationship.  Three months in and he and his new girlfriend have passed through the initial Honeymoon Phase.  You remember the Honeymoon Phase.  It’s the time when everything is perfect and easy and it’s hard to imagine what mythical troubles could ever possibly emerge over the horizon to muddy the shiny new relationship.

But, at some point, life with all its messy, complicated, annoying little realities eventually bursts the perfect little bubble and then the real work of building and maintaining a relationship begins.  And that’s if you’re lucky.

We all know that relationships aren’t supposed to be easy necessarily.  That some degree of effort is required to nurture them and protect them and fashion them into what works and fits for us as a couple.  But for the most part, we ignore what we know and hope that it will always be easy.

One of the common harbingers of the end of the Honeymoon Phase is the First Big Fight.  The First Big Fight can be pretty scary.  Your perfect relationship has been cracked open by a chasm so alarming and unexpected that it threatens the very existence of your status as a couple.  Yikes!  Sometimes this experience is, indeed, over something important and concerning and (when viewed from hindsight much later) an ultimate dealbreaker for the relationship.  But more often than not, it’s just a bump, a hurdle, a necessary correction to the direction of the relationship.

There’s plenty of research to demonstrate that productive arguments are actually good for a relationship.  As I was listening to my friend, I was reminded of a study I’d read about shortly after my separation.  I wish I’d saved it or bookmarked it, because it was really intriguing, but I didn’t and it’s gone now.  The nutshell version was the idea that researchers had finally drawn a link to a lack of arguing and subsequent divorce.  This was of special interest to me because my marriage’s placid surface was one of the primary indicators of health to our friends who thought we had such a strong marriage.  We just seemed to always get along.  And we did… while being miserable inside.  I realized from personal experience that a placid marriage makes other people comfortable — it reinforces their beliefs that a happy, healthy relationship is mostly free of conflict — but to the people in the relationship, that placid surface can conceal deep and troubling waters.

I remember the research specifically noting that those couples who argued most strenuously during the first two years of their relationship were found to have the strongest relationships years later, whereas those who did not particularly argue during the first two years were over or on wobbly ground many years later (I can’t remember how many years later… 10?  15?).  Of course, the group in question consisted of couples who had all survived many years together, so we’re not talking about couples who fight like cats and dogs for the first two years and then break up; these are couples who had enough substance to their relationships to keep working at it for some longer period of time.  The researchers had a very interesting — and sensible, I thought — hypothesis for the research results.  As I remember it, they explained it this way:  A relationship is about how two people fit –or don’t fit — together.  Each of them is bringing their personalities, their pasts, their interests, their obligations to the relationship and at some point, in order for the relationship to survive and thrive, they are going to need to reconcile all their individual “stuff” into a new organization.  They’re going to have develop new systems and some mutual (rather than purely individual) habits.   The longer a couple puts off negotiating those details within their relationship, the harder it is to effectively address them later because other, less productive patterns and habits have taken hold.  And, the researchers noted, the older we are when we couple, the more “stuff” we bring that needs reconciling and re-organizing (hopefully, we also bring better communication skills and maturity, too).   The researchers posited that couples could put it off, but eventually all of this would need to be hashed out, and since we’re humans, that hashing usually involves arguing.  They further noted earlier research that pointed to the fact that we tend to argue productively when we feel most secure in a relationship, which is why the First Big Fight usually doesn’t happen until everyone’s been feeling hunky dorey for a while.

A couple of caveats to understanding this are useful here, I believe.  First, it was clear to me at the time that the study wasn’t talking about arguments that are emotionally, physically, or sexually abusive.  It also wasn’t championing drama that is repetitive or attention-seeking.  The emphasis was on the productive nature of the arguments — did they resolve something or further a relationship goal?  So many of us are conflict averse when it comes to arguing with a loved one that we have difficulty discerning the difference — all arguments feel unhealthy.  But they simply aren’t.  Getting over that hump and accepting — or even embracing — arguing as a healthy component to a relationship can be difficult for a lot of people.

I used to be one of those people.  I grew up watching my mom throw verbally violent tantrums that left me emotionally wrought and exhausted for days afterward, even though she would be fine within hours of having exorcised her anger.  When she married my dad, I saw their dynamic — she would blow up, he would become stony and retreat, silence would ensue until — eventually — normalcy was restored.  Productive, it wasn’t.  And when I wasn’t at my house, I was usually at my friend Katrina’s, where her mom would get angry with her and deliver a silent treatment that sometimes lasted weeks, conveying messages to Katrina through her sister or father or even me, if no one else was around.  Again, not productive.  Learning that every argument does not have to result in a gaping hole in my chest has been a long and difficult struggle.  No wonder I ended up in a marriage with minimal conflict.

Which leads to another facet of this issue: Different couples are going to argue differently, based on their past experiences, their personalities, and their general tolerance for conflict.  Two emotional people are probably going to argue more frequently and with more fervor than two passive people. Both couples might resolve issues in their relationships (or not), but they’re going to do it differently.  Neither is necessarily better, because — as the study emphasized — the point is whether the arguing is productive for the couple, not whether it’s loud or not.

In the three years since my separation, I have rather reluctantly accepted the fact that I will probably argue quite a bit in my future relationships.  I am a passionate person and so are the men to whom I’m genuinely attracted.  I have met some very nice, passive men who couldn’t hold my interest, and I know that part of the reason is that I don’t actually want a man who will bend to my every whim.  And learning that about myself is just part of the journey.  What works for someone else doesn’t necessarily work for me, and vice versa.  How someone argues, I have found, is an important piece of the attraction and intimacy puzzle.  As with the other pieces, without the right fit, the relationship won’t be whole or healthy.

So, back to my friend.  His girlfriend seems to be worrying that they’ve hit a rough patch and this portends bad things for them and their relationship.  I can totally appreciate and relate to her feelings.  For all I’ve written above, most of us just want things to be perpetually smooth and happy.  We want it to feel good every day, all the time.  But, apparently, if what we truly want is a healthy, stable, forever relationship, we’d do better to hash it all out early on and get it over with.  It seems that there isn’t a shortcut through the messy stuff.  A good, clean fight is the only way through it.

And if you need further incentive to confront those issues that are quietly simmering in your relationship, just remember:  a good, clean fight is often followed by good,  dirty make-up sex.  Nothing unproductive about that…

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always was

One cold January day in 2009, I sat in my therapist’s office and numbly contemplated the options before me.  I could leave my then-husband and break up my family.  I could stay and we could attempt couples’ counseling.  Or I could stay, not do couples counseling, and agree with my husband that it was all just a mid-life crisis that we could simply put behind us and resume life as (mostly) normal.  “Given our specific problems and their origins and duration,” I asked my therapist, “approximately how long will we have to do couples therapy before there would likely be any significant changes to our dynamic?”

She paused, obviously choosing her words carefully.  “Weekly intensive therapy with a real desire on both your parts’ to make progress… approximately 2 years… give or take.”

I think I just stared calmly at her at first.  My ears were ringing, my heart was pounding, and there was voice in my head screaming at the top of her lungs: “NOOOOO!!!  No way can I do this for 2 more years!  No way.  No how.  I won’t make it.  I swear I can’t do!”

Ultimately, I shook my head determinedly.  “No,” I said firmly.  “I don’t have enough left.  I just can’t do it anymore.”

The trouble with difficult relationship dynamics is that what we fear most is that things will be how they always were.  He will be who he always was.  I will be who I always was.  Nothing will change. What always was, will always be.

Always was is a powerful idea.

As a college advertising student, I was fascinated by the piles of psychological and sociological studies that confirmed, over and over again, in study after study after study, that past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior.  This applies as much to the way that we handle communication in a relationship as to the kind of toothpaste we buy.  We humans are amazingly predictable; at least from a scientific standpoint.  We are animals who fall into comfortable patterns that we cling to, even if those patterns no longer serve us.  Unlike other animals, who mostly have no psychological attachment to their pattern, we cling to ours, pulling in denial, projection, and blame to defend them.

Later, as a law student, I spent lots of time contemplating the various rules of evidence barring admission of most previous crimes and behaviors, unless they have a direct and immediate baring on the case at hand.  I sympathized with juries infuriated to learn, after issuing a Not Guilty verdict, that the defendant had been charged or convicted multiple times for similar or identical offenses.  Even some of our most poorly educated citizens know that “if he’s done it before, he’s more likely to do it again.”

But, of course, it’s not always true.  What always was does not have to always be.

I wrote a whole post not too long entitled “can people change?” and I am a firm believer in our human ability to arrest a behavior or pattern that we no longer like about ourselves and change it.  People overcome horrible childhoods, abusive relationship choices, and personal addictions everyday.  But the real tough part about change is when the pattern involves not just our own behavior, but our partner’s, as well.  That partner — and his behavior — is the uncontrolled variable in the equation.  As every successful rehab program knows, changing the addicted individual only gets you so far, if the people and influences around her remain toxic or undermine her attempts toward positive growth, she is most likely to fail in her attempts to affect real and substantial and lasting change.

Likewise, if the individual simply changes her surroundings, but not herself, the likelihood of repeating previous patterns is also high.  I think a good example of this is the woman who moves from abusive relationship to abusive relationship, always thinking that the next guy will be “different,” without ever examining her own role in those choices or that abusive dynamic.  The next guy might indeed be “different,” but if she is the same, the outcome might be eerily similar if not downright identical.

For most of us, these triggers and patterns are more nuanced than an addiction or an abusive relationship.  They manifest as small patterns in our relationships… the way we retreat or attack when hurt… how we approach conflict… what we expect in terms of attention or affection or affirmation…  how controlling or passive we are… the list goes on and on.

I recently had reason to consider my fear of what always was in the context of remarrying.  Since my divorce, I have sworn, without reservation, that I will not remarry.  Not because I am opposed to marriage as an institution, or because I don’t believe in commitment, or because of some feminist ideal, but because I came to fundamentally dislike who I was when I was married.  I see clearly the things I did wrong in my marriage, my contributions to its failing, and the woman I became during that time.  By the time I left my marriage, I didn’t really like her anymore.  She was scared and closed off and depressed and impatient and fatalistic about things.  She had sacrificed the best parts of herself to the altar of his criticisms and was left empty because of it, moving through a life that felt lonely and meaningless.  I don’t ever, ever, ever want to be that woman again.  But, I am afraid that what I always was then, is what I would always be the next time.

I watch with some degree of envy as other women assume that by trading out a mate, they are assured of creating a different outcome for their marital happiness.  I am not convinced that it is so easy.  True, the men I’ve dated since my divorce are almost complete opposites from my ex-husband in every way that matters, but that only accounts for half the equation, right?  What about me?  Have I changed enough to avoid all those old patterns?  Have I figured out alternative responses and behaviors for the triggers that made me so unhappy in my marriage?  Certainly a different partner will create a different environment and bring different trials and treasures to the table, but if I have not addressed my own dysfunctions, how will what always was no longer be?

And here’s what I realized:  I have done a ton of work on myself since my marriage ended.  I have no idea whether I would be the same person I used to be if I remarried, but if I’m really being honest with myself, I strongly doubt it. Not because of any particular partner I might someday share my life with, but because of me.  I have changed.  I’m no longer that woman I was and I can’t imagine letting her back in. Sure, I could hold onto that fear of what always was, and allow it choke away possibilities for my future, but that’s actually something that the old me would have done.  So freeing myself of that “always was” fear is yet another way to liberate myself from her influence. I have no idea if I’ll every marry again, but I guess it’s time to let go of that particular fear and acknowledge some of the progress I’ve made.  None of us gets any guarantees.  We can only do our best and keep trying to do better.

As for my ex-husband, we have now been separated for just over 3 years and he has been doing his own therapeutic work during that time.  He is also a different person than when we were married.  Could we be happily married to each other now, having both worked so hard on ourselves as individuals?  I don’t think so.  The fundamental differences in our personalities are still there and they grate in ways that are still so confounding and discouraging sometimes.  But we’re able to be pretty good friends to each other now, which might be all we ever should have been in the first place.  A few years ago, it was a friendship I might have wished for, but never really expected.

Yet another example that what always was doesn’t have to always be.

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a valentine’s day fairytale

Sometimes, in the middle of an ordinary life, a fairytale happens. — Anonymous

I awoke this morning thinking of my friend “Laela.”  Laela is a truly amazing woman; one of those people in my life who forever altered me by being my friend.  I was fortunate enough to meet her my first day of law school and we became fast and steady friends.  She is one of those women who, when she enters a room, every eye is upon her.  Many like to dismiss that effect as merely a function of her beauty, for she is, indeed, strikingly beautiful in a Hollywood blond bombshell kind of way.  But what I quickly realized is that it isn’t Laela’s physical beauty that draws people to her; it is her wide open heart and a lightness she exudes.  She loves easily and openly and loyally.  She celebrates her friends without a trace of jealousy.  She makes everyone in her life feel like they are a little closer to the sun when in her orbit.

But Laela, like many women, went through a long period of poor choices in men.  Not horrendous choices… just unhealthy ones.  It culminated when she met “David.”  David was dashing and erudite and could match Laela’s intelligence and ambition step for step.  She fell madly, deeply in love with him.  As they were both regulars in the society pages, their romance was followed avidly and David’s planned Valentine’s Day proposal was reported in a major national paper before Laela even knew  of it.  But their relationship wasn’t the  fairytale the papers and gossip columnists wanted it to be.  After many months of decline, their relationship came to a screeching end when David did something so unforgivable, Laela could barely speak of it.

I met David once while they were dating, and couldn’t have despised him more if he had made a pass at me or physically assaulted me.  He was pompous, patronizing, and spent the few minutes we had alone denigrating Laela and then me.  It was phenomenally horrible and I grieved for her when we parted.  When the news came that the relationship had ended, I was nothing but relieved for her.

But life is funny.  And that’s not the end of their story.

After her relationship with David imploded, Laela was devastated.  She had been working with a therapist for some time, but without any real progress.  I suspected that her therapist — like most people who meet Laela — was in awe of her and not truly able to guide her to and through her blind spots.  But after David, Laela’s devastation prompted her to make some serious changes in her life, including firing her existing therapist and signing on with a new one.  And for the next several years, Laela went to intensive weekly sessions that left her alternately drained, exuberant, terrified, and hopeful.   You see, Laela was like many of us — a smooth, calm surface on the outside, but underneath were layers of hurts and pains and fears that were leaking into every aspect of her life, holding her back from achieving happiness in the ways that were most important to her.  I watched from half a continent away as Laela began tentatively dating again.  She wrote a book and did a book tour.  She jettisoned “friends” who were merely hangers-on and hunkered down with the people who really loved her.  She drew healthy boundaries around family members who were undermining her and causing her pain and fear.  Very slowly, Leala blossomed in all the best ways.

Then tragedy struck.

Laela collapsed and was rushed to the hospital, unconscious and seriously ill. The hospital personnel consulted her “Next of Kin” listing and guess who it was?  That’s right, David.  Leala had never changed her forms with her insurance company or her doctor.  And so David was summoned and rushed to the hospital, where he assumed the power of attorney granted to him and made the decisions that ultimately saved her life.  When Laela finally awoke in her hospital room, David was sitting there, a worried mess.

Now, if this were Hollywood, there would be a passionate embrace and a slow fade out, signaling a happy-ever-after.  But this is real life, so it didn’t happen quite that way.

They talked.  They learned that they’d both spent those intervening years in therapy, working through some really difficult, really intimidating personal stuff.  They learned that the things they’d liked about each other hadn’t changed, just a lot of the stuff that they hadn’t liked.  And they fell back in love.   Less than a year later, Laela and David were married on a rooftop patio in Italy.  It’s been 3 years and they are still madly in love.

I offer you this true story as evidence that fairytales do happen.  But my real point is this:  they only happen when we’re ready for them.  Laela and David had a chance earlier and failed miserably.  And, to be fair, although David was the one who made the final mistake, neither of them were ready at that point to be the partner the other one wanted and needed.  They had to be ready.  They had to be whole and complete and capable before they could be that partner for someone else.  We all deserve a fairytale, we’re all inherently lovable, we all want to love and be loved.  But are you ready?  Really ready?

So, this Valentine’s Day, as you’re pondering your own relationship or lack thereof, try asking yourself:  Are you the partner you would want?  When was the last time you took a long, hard look at what you’re bringing to the table instead of pointing the finger away from yourself?  Can you look in the mirror and honestly say that you’d want to be in a relationship with yourself? (This is a tough one.  Ask it out loud and then wait.  The truth is there.)  Are you defensive?  Controlling?  Bossy?  Do you keep score of chores done?  Small hurts incurred?  Do you judge your partner harshly?  Is there room for mistakes in your world?  Can you listen — really listen — to your partner, even if their truth is not the same as yours?  Do you treat your relationship with integrity and value?  Do you understand that commitment means more than keeping your pants zipped?  Can you be vulnerable and open, even when it’s scary?  Do you ask for more than you give, emotionally?  Physically?  Do you feel protective and loving and kind towards your partner?  Or do you see them as something to be fixed, advised, or directed?  Do you know how to be fun, to be playful?  Do you understand the difference between being fun and being juvenile?  Do you want to make your relationship better, or is that your partner’s “job”?  Is their sexual satisfaction important to you?  When was the last time you talked about it?  Do you hold grudges?  Do you withhold love or time spent together or sex as a means to get what you want or obtain the upper hand?  Is your relationship about power?  Or love?

These are the kinds of questions I’ve been mulling lately.

For the last three years I have devoted one hour a week to working on myself.  Only me.  Not my career.  Not my kids.  Not my house.  Me.  No matter how busy I am or how chaotic the rest of my life, I set that time aside to poke around in my head and my heart and do a little housecleaning…. a little redecorating… some serious demolition.  Sometimes it’s difficult.  Sometimes I cry.  But it’s worth it.  My god is it worth it.  My last boyfriend used to scoff at me for it, his tone indicating that he felt that I was somehow lesser for “needing” that therapeutic assistance to guide my self-improvement.  But I was unfazed.  How can I possibly expect to be ready — really, truly ready — for my own prince (in whatever form he takes) if I don’t work on my own shit along the way?  Yes, I want to be loved for who I am; we all do.  But I’m not letting myself off the hook.  He deserves the best version of me, just as I deserve the best version of him.  And even when we’re ready for each other, we won’t be done with that journey of self-discovery and self-improvement… it’s never-ending, and that’s part of its beauty.

Laela and David still work on things.  Every day.  But now they realize that their individual problems nearly cost them their fairytale.  So they work on things as they come up.  And they do it with love and real commitment.

Their story is not about David coming back.  It’s not about his apology or her forgiveness or staying in a relationship that’s unhealthy.  It’s about Laela and David being ready for each other. Finally.  Ready for their own, personal, real fairytale.

Are you ready?

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