Tag 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.

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under happy endings, love, marriage, relationships

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under dating, divorce, love, marriage, men, personal growth, relationships, single mom

cling less, love more

My friend Ryan is talking a lot lately about trying to become less attached to “outcomes” in his life.  For example, rather than going out with the hope of meeting someone new, or starting a project with the hope of a promotion, he might just pursue something for the sake of doing it, knowing that the experience itself may be the only outcome.  Although perhaps oversimplified, this is a tenet of the Buddhist practice — being in the present, completely, and feeling and sensing it and experiencing it, without attaching a “want” to what comes after or letting the what comes after determine the value of the experience.

I’m sure most of you have heard of this approach, and some of you may practice it. How often have you gone on a date or an interview and told yourself to keep your expectations in check?  This is a common version of this practice, even by non-Buddhists.  And, in all likelihood, all of you have experienced the wonder that can come of it.  Like those evenings when you set off for what you thought was a normal, run-of-the-mill night out with friends, one for which you had no greater expectations than to simply get out of the house, and instead you returned home from one of the most memorable or special evenings of your life?  And, in the reverse, how many times have you built up a date or a vacation to such enormous expectations that it felt flat and vaguely disappointing when it actually happened?

Attachment to outcomes is something that undermines all of us, I think.  It’s just too damn easy to do.  We get excited about something, our imagination starts to run, and we convince ourselves that we will only be happy if a particular outcome occurs.  We don’t even realize how tightly we are clinging to a particular outcome, until it collapses (often of its own weight).  I see this happen a lot when we face having a difficult conversation.  Think about the last time you had to prepare to talk to your partner about something that was bothering you.  Most of us tie the success of that conversation to whether our partner hears us and understands and makes it better — but those are outcomes.  How many of us tie the success of the conversation to the fact that we are having a voice in our life and being clear and honest and authentic in that moment?

I also see this frequently with friends who are freshly dating after a divorce or break-up.  Each new suitor holds such enormous promise, that when the new relationship naturally peters out after a date or two, the feeling of let-down is disproportional to the nature of the relationship.  We hardly knew this person, we barely shared any time with this person, and yet we feel deflated that he was not “the One.”  But why?  Because we were attaching an outcome to the experience.  Just going out on the dates, just sharing space with someone and having a nice conversation, just being present in the moment, was not enough.  The value of the dates lie solely in their ability to propel the relationship forward, closer to the goal or couplehood or commitment or even marriage.

Women are not the only ones who do this.  On my second date with Coach, a busy dater and notorious commitment-phobe, he was already talking about how my children could attend the university at which he worked for a small percentage of the usual tuition.  A clear indicator to me that he had allowed his imagination to entertain the possibility that I would be the one to cure him of fear of commitment (a theory confirmed by him many months later).   When it is presented back to us, in black and white or verbalized aloud, the ridiculousness of pursuing life that way becomes obvious, but when we are in that moment, it seems normal, even natural.

Which is why it’s so hard to not do it.

I think it’s also important not to confuse outcomes with goals.  Goals are usually medium- to long-term ideals that we set for ourselves, such as buying a house or running a marathon.  Most of us need goals in our lives to propel us forward, and they can be helpful in creating and sustaining our focus.  Those are not outcomes.  Outcomes have to do with how we live the moments on the course to our goals. If every moment and every decision is laden with outcome expectation, the path to the goal becomes heavy and monotonous, indeed.  But if we release ourselves from the outcome expectations, the journey ahead becomes lighter and more pleasant, and more valuable for its own sake.

The real danger in outcomes — which again distinguishes them from goals — is that they are beyond our control for the most part.  You can be pretty determined to meet your soulmate, but as any dating single will tell you, no amount of determination will make that happen until it’s supposed to.  Same with that dream job — no matter how much you want that job and lobby for the job and effectively advocate for yourself in your pursuit of that job, it is ultimately out of your control.  And going back to the example of the conversation with your partner — you can be the best communicator in the world and deliver an oration that surpasses the Gettysburg Address in eloquence, but you cannot control your partner’s reaction.  Perhaps they will hear you and understand, but perhaps they will not.  You can only do your best and know that their reaction is out of your control.  To the point, the outcome is not yours to dictate.

Shortly after returning from my trip back East, where I listened to Rob discuss his struggles to let go of outcomes, one of my favorite bloggers shared an article from Psychology Today, “Cling Less, Love More”, which talks about exactly this issue.  (If this topic interests you, I’d suggest a quick read, and you can see her post about it here.)  One of the things I love best about this article is how it describes the physical tightness we feel when we’re clinging to an outcome.  Can you feel that in yourself, hear it in your voice, when you are clinging to an outcome?  If not, I’ll bet you can see it and hear it in a good friend.  Watch their body language and listen to how their voice sounds almost brittle as they cling to their outcome.  Usually, these are the conversations in which I find myself gently asking, “What are you defending, and to whom?” because they can sound very much like someone being defensive.  I suppose, in a way, it is a kind of defensiveness, in which we’re defending the importance of clinging to that outcome.

I’m not sure how to live a life free of outcome expectation, but it’s one of those things I’m working on.  I know how much more relaxed and happy I am when I focus on my goals, rather than my outcomes.  So, apparently, at least for me, it’s a valuable endeavor.  If you’re already doing it, Ryan and I would both love some pointers…

Photo courtesy of Clinging to the Rock blog.

2 Comments

Filed under dating, general musings, love, personal growth, relationships

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.

9 Comments

Filed under dating, divorce, love, marriage, men, relationships

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…

View original post 1,081 more words

Leave a comment

Filed under dating, friendships, marriage, parenthood, single mom

target date

Last night, after I attended two Back-to-School picnics with my daughters, Pete and I stole away for some special, quality time alone.

At Super Target.

That’s right, folks.  We went grocery shopping together.  I helped him pick out a new shower curtain, and he stood gamely by while I picked up a new blush compact and some bagels.

This is what passes for romance when you’re both single parents of two small children each.  Sexy, no?

But, to be honest, it was really nice.  We strolled along, him pushing the cart, me holding his arm.  I poked around through the handbags (I can’t resist handbags anywhere) and he weighed in on the ineffectiveness of using 3M Command Strip hooks to hang up towels.  We kicked off our shoes to test drive the bathmats, and he made jokes about what a shame it was that the bedding section didn’t actually have any beds to, you know, “try out.”   Weaving through the aisles, we chatted aimlessly about the kids and work and various bits and pieces that I don’t even remember.

What I do remember is how nice it felt.

When my marriage was in shambles, I read a book that very plainly laid out, in question form, whether your marriage had the necessary ingredients to re-establish a good union.  One of the points that struck me — hard, in the gut — was the question of could you do nothing with this person and still feel that you passed the time pleasantly?  Without the benefit of a fun schedule of activities, the company of friends, or expensive toys or vacations.  Could you, quite simply, just be with that person and still feel fulfilled?  When I read that section of the book, I felt my heart sink.  My husband and I had long ago reached the point where, without some pleasant distraction, the air between us was heavy and sad and tense.   It seemed like it had been ages since we had been able to just be together — just us — and enjoy each other.  I didn’t know where we had gone wrong or how we had gotten off track, but when I looked over my shoulder, I saw that the road behind us was thick with overgrown problems and resentments.  There was no going back.

But from that sad moment, I extracted a valuable lesson:  to cultivate and nurture the simple times.  When a couple is first together, everything is fun because you’re still learning about each other, hearing stories, exploring your relationship.  But later, after the first few months or years, it is all too easy to begin to disengage.  To begin dividing chores and duties, spending less time together and more apart, developing common interests and experiences with people other than your partner.  Until one day, you have traveled so far away from each other down divergent paths, and the road behind you is too thick to find your way back to each other.

One of the gifts of divorce, if we choose to embrace it, is the chance to be more mindful in our choices and our patterns; to make different mistakes than we made the first time; to recognize how patterns established early on will influence and direct the course of the relationship in the long-term.  We can do things differently, and hopefully find a different result.

I’m not talking about being hyper-vigilant or over-analyzing everything and suffocating the natural evolution of a relationship.  What I’m getting at is recognizing and acknowledging the good stuff you share and protecting it because you value it, making course corrections as necessary to preserve it, and not allowing the noise and stresses of life to distract you while the relationship goes off the rails to crash and burn in a fiery divorce.  I get that this isn’t easy, but I don’t think it’s supposed to be easy every day, all the time.  I know that when my ex-husband and I married, we understood that there would be “hard times,” but we imagined them to be akin to the struggles we faced with my daughter’s health, and the financial scares of my husband’s lay-offs.  We congratulated ourselves on weathering those times quite well and solidly as a couple.  But we didn’t fully understand that perhaps the hardest part of a relationship is just keeping it healthy.  Healthy bodies can sometimes withstand even a severe, acute illness, but unhealthy bodies can be laid low by simple viruses.  Our divorce was definitely precipitated by lots of small viruses, rather than one, massive heart attack.  I believe the same is true of relationships —  and it is far harder to restore them to health once they are unhealthy than it is to maintain their health in the first place.

So, I am busy noticing the easy things and the simple times and remembering that it’s important to nurture the aspects of a relationship that you love and value; to not take them for granted as somehow being inherent in relationship, unchangeable and constant.  Because even those wonderful elements that come so easily in the beginning can fall away over the years like sand through our fingers unless we are conscious and present in our attempts to keep them full of life and energy.

I know that some days will surely suck — we’ll argue, we’ll be sad, or we just plain won’t like each other that much.  But the only thing I can do to protect us from those days’ damage is to celebrate and reinforce all the awesomeness we’re creating now.  Even when that awesomeness happens in the aisles of a Super Target.

3 Comments

Filed under dating, divorce, love, personal growth, pete, relationships, single mom

“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! 🙂

9 Comments

Filed under happy endings, love, marriage, men, personal growth, relationships

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…

14 Comments

Filed under dating, divorce, love, marriage, personal growth, relationships

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.

5 Comments

Filed under dating, divorce, happy endings, love, marriage, personal growth, relationships

the distinction between “happy with yourself” and “happy by yourself”

A couple of days ago, I wrote a post about feeling blue and weepy, despite having a full life and doing all the things that a modern, single mother should do to be happy on her own.  The particular source of my blues was centered on a fractured faith that my Mr. Right would eventually appear in my life at some point.  But I received a comment on my post that took my thinking back around to a common (and tired) theme that is revisited frequently for single people (and especially women).  It is the idea that somehow, some way, we must each find a way to perfectly happy and content alone before we can ever be such in a truly fulfilling, healthy relationship.

Well, I don’t think so.

I’m an only child who was raised by a single mom and a lot of babysitters.  I have traveled through and relocated to foreign countries alone, lived alone for most of my single life, spent holidays alone, taken short vacations alone, and I often go to the movies or out to eat alone.  Trust me, suggesting that I need to spend any more time with just myself is nothing short of insulting.  And frankly, I think that’s true for a lot of women, whether they have the passport stamps or other tangible evidence of their aloneness or not.

To a large extent, it seems that women have been convinced that if we desire a partner in this life, there is something inherently insecure or lacking or insufficient in us.  I would (and frequently do) argue loudly to the contrary.  Since when did the desire to make a heartfelt soul connection with a romantic partner become a weakness or a liability?  Why is it not evidence of an open and generous nature seeking the same?

Certainly there are many people out there (and I would argue that at least half of them are men) who simply pinball from one bad or mediocre relationship to another just to avoid any time with their own company.  We all know who they are; their discomfort with themselves doesn’t take a clinical psychology degree to recognize.  And yes, I would definitely agree that those folks would benefit from some serious alone time — to figure themselves out and how they fit in the world and what they really want from a relationship and this life they’re a part of.

But most of the women I know are not those people.  Most of the women I know are quite capable of being alone, they would simply prefer not to be.

Psychologists and psychiatrists have long understood that we need to be comfortable with ourselves and possess a love for ourselves and what we have to offer before we can successfully offer it to someone else, but pop psychology has lately mutated that into some kind of rationale that we should first be completely happy and fulfilled alone. That’s jacked up, if you ask me.  People who don’t need or seek deep emotional connections are what we call “emotionally unavailable”; indeed, at the furthest end of that spectrum, we label it autism.  Needing a deep emotional connection is not abnormal; it is, in fact, the very definition of normal.   I don’t think anyone should feel bad about admitting that they want a partner in this life.  There is nothing noble in being alone and not caring that you don’t have a heart full of love for someone.  To be truthful, the people that I have known who have most loudly proclaimed their comfort with being alone were also the most emotionally walled-off people I’ve met, without exception.

I think it all amounts to the difference between being happy with yourself and being happy by yourself.

It seems to me that the psychology researchers and professionals have been trying to encourage us to figure out how to be happy with yourself before trying to be happy with someone else.  But that is not the same as being happy by yourself.  Being happy with yourself focuses on how you feel about who you are and what you have to offer, whether you like yourself and your company, whether you know who you really are.  Being happy by yourself suggests that other people aren’t really necessary in your life to bring you happiness and fulfillment.  And let’s be honest, unless you’re an extremely devoted religious observer (like a Catholic nun or Buddhist monk), that probably isn’t a healthy — or reasonable — road to happiness for most of us.

Speaking of spirituality, I have friends who strongly believe that our souls come into this realm seeking to experience different things in different lifetimes. For some people, that means seeking to experience solitude or peace. For others, it might mean seeking to experience financial security or professional success. And for others — possibly most — it is seeking to experience and learn from a heart connection with other humans.  They believe that our souls come to Earth to have a human experience; something they can’t have in the other realm that you might call heaven or the beyond or whatever.  For most of these souls, a huge part of that human experience is human connection.  To this way of thinking, seeking that connection is not a weakness, but the fulfillment of a divine destiny.  How beautiful is that?

So maybe we should all let ourselves off the hook for hoping that somehow, someday, somewhere we will have someone magical to share our lives with.  Perhaps that desire is simply evidence of a healthy, beating heart.  Perhaps it is just part of being a perfectly normal human.  Perhaps it is nothing more than the pursuit of a divine destiny….

14 Comments

Filed under dating, love, personal growth, relationships, single mom