Every year, Charlie and I take two summer vacations-one with our kids and grandchildren, and one just with each other. They don't have to be real long, just long enough to get a clean break from our day-to-day lives. These vacations each provide us with very different experiences, and we love them both. But it's the one we take by ourselves that gives us the time to reflect together on where we are and where we're going over the coming year. This also allows us the luxury of taking as much time as we need to relax into the love that we are often too busy to really enjoy and savor. Sleeping late and staying in bed cuddling or making love, or just hanging out together with no agenda, no cell phones, no computers, no responsibilities, it's as close to heaven as I've ever been. When I describe this scenario to friends, however, they sigh in envy and tell me they wish they had the time to do the same thing. I hear them. We used to feel that way too that is, until we realized that we did have the time, we just hadn't prioritized it correctly.
Samuel Johnson once said that there is something about facing the end of life that tends to focus one's attention, particularly on those aspects of life that we may previously have ignored, denied, or put off. Inevitably there comes a time when the debts from all of this procrastination come due; and the piper must be paid, with interest and penalty fees. The cost of deferring our concerns and true feelings until "later" can be excruciatingly high: deep remorse, guilt, despair, profound loneliness, isolation, and unrelenting regret over what we wish we had done differently. Bonnie Ware learned about this from dozens of dying people whom she served in her years as a professional caregiver in Australia. Her experiences taught her first hand about the extent to which end of life regret plagues many of the dying as well as their families and friends. Her book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying illuminates the lessons she learned from working closely and intimately with people in the end stages of their lives. Many of them lost in a quest for material success or approval realized too late that the only thing that they could take with them in the end was regret that they didn't live life differently.
The Hidden Causes of the Work/Family Conflict Laura: “Now that I am back to work full time, I get up at 5:00 A.M. to get the kid’s lunches ready. I often find myself doing laundry at 10:00 P.M. Last week I was picking up groceries at the supermarket at 11:00 P.M., and my stomach is churning while driving to the day care center because I don’t want to be charged the late pick-up fee. I’m so exhausted at night when I got to bed, I can hardly talk to my husband, no less make love with him. I don’t like living this way, but I’m not seeing a way out.” Jack: “I don’t like it either; but if we want to continue to enjoy our standard of living, we need both incomes. It’s really stressful when one of the kids gets sick and can’t go to day-care. We get into a big argument every time about who will stay home with them, because it may put each of our jobs in jeopardy to not come in. I’m sure we’re working much harder and longer than our parents did, with less to show for it.”
Jesse, our first born, was three years old before I was willing to leave him for a vacation with my husband, Charlie. To say that I had been an obsessed, overprotective, neurotic, overwhelmed mother was... well, just about right. My parents, who lived over four hundred miles away, were the only other people with whom I would entrust my baby. I wasn't totally wacko, but pretty close. Our destination was Martha's Vineyard. On our first night, we stayed in a bed-and-breakfast inn by the beach that had an antique claw-foot bathtub. I filled it with the hottest water we could stand, and we both got in. After relaxing for several minutes in the steaming heat, Charlie silently picked up a soft washcloth and began gently washing my face with a sweet-smelling soap. I suddenly found myself beginning to weep. I was the baby now, being nurtured by someone who dearly loved me. Ours had been a difficult transition into parenthood, with both of us working, earning graduate degrees, and having a baby who had been more demanding than I had expected him to be. I was bone tired. We knew that our honeymoon was over, and that we were much more overdue for some serious R & R than either of us realized.
Yes, it can be a real problem to be bored with one's spouse. It's a frequently voiced complaint that therapists hear from their clients. Fortunately, this condition can usually be easily fixed. Unfortunately, the source of the problem is generally in the last place that you want to look. That would be at yourself. The very things that initially attracted us to our partner can sometimes later on be a source of irritation. For example those wonderful qualities of predictability, stability, solidity, dependability, or reliability they bring into our fragmented and tumultuous life, in time can leave us bored and irritated. That which at one point in a relationship feels like security, at another point feels oppressive and tedious. Your partner probably hasn't changed, and neither have you. Those qualities in him or her that you initially found so attractive are still there; it's just that they are less evident to you because your focus is on those aspects of your relationship that you find dissatisfying.
"Jeremy told me that he loves me but he's not IN love with me. I knew where this was going and sure enough I was right. The next thing he said was 'I want us to be friends, good friends'. Well the very LAST thing I want to be with him right now is his friend. I don't ever want to see him again!" Ellen was upset. Actually she was outraged, and hurt, and confused, and broken-hearted. And if you've ever been in Ellen's shoes, you probably know how she felt. And if you've ever been in Jeremy's shoes, you know what he felt, and perhaps had just as much difficulty articulating it as he did. "I love you but I'm not IN love with you." Linda and I have heard from so many people who were on either the sending or the receiving side of this message that we began to get curious about what was going on with them when they spoke those words. Some of the things that we heard them say about what they really meant but felt that they couldn't say were:
“For one human being to love another, that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks; the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation.” - Rainer Maria Rilke It’s mysterious that a process as natural and universal as loving can as challenging for so many of us.. In fact, it seems that more often than not, the art of learning to love well is one of the most demanding challenges that we ever take on in our lives. Many people, having made a number of painful or unsuccessful attempts to develop sustained, loving relationships, conclude that they’re just not up for what it takes or that they’re just not the type to settle down with one person, or committed partnership is an unnatural arrangement. They choose to let go of their dream rather than to risk the prospect of continued pain and disappointment. Why is it that loving relationships can be so difficult for us to develop? Is it true that there really are “very few good candidates out there” who are willing and able to relate skillfully to others? And is it really even possible for us to unlearn the protective patterns that served us in childhood but now cause us to feel frustrated and isolated?
In Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, he writes eloquently about those individuals who have achieved an extremely high level of success and accomplishment in their chosen fields of interest. Outliers are those people whose achievements fall well beyond the range of normal experience. His examples are of those who have made the very most of their potential. He points out that there were a number of critical factors in their ability to accomplish what they did, among them being what he refers to as the “ten thousand hours” of practice that enabled them to master their chosen field. He used the ten thousand hour figure literally, not metaphorically. Outliers can exist in any field including the arts, sports, business, or entertainment. Although extensive practice is essential to the process of becoming an outlier, there must, of course be a strong innate interest and potential present on the part of the individual in order to fuel their passion for success. It’s safe to say, however, that most of us use only a fraction of our capacity and that for many, our true potential remains largely untapped. Estimates of the percentage of the potential that most of us utilize ranges somewhere between 10% to 20%.
The next best thing to preventing conflict is having the skills to manage differences effectively. Differences are inevitable in relationships; conflict is optional. It’s the differences in our personalities, styles of relating, perspectives, and temperaments that make us attractive to each other and allow us to have a fuller, more complete experience of life. We rarely are strongly attracted to people who are just like us. Differences turn into conflict when one or both partners try to coerce the other to do, say, think, or feel what they want them to. Conflict occurs when both partners are engaged in a struggle to resist each other’s efforts to become dominated or controlled. Most of us don’t come into marriage with highly developed conflict management skills, but these abilities can be cultivated through practice on the job. While most couples have an abundance of opportunities to practice the art of conflict management, the great majority of them fail to take advantage of those opportunities. They choose instead to either grudgingly accommodate each other, engage in various forms of manipulation or coercion, or simply practice denial or avoidance. These strategies are all potentially destructive to relationships and often lead to continual cycles of pain, resentment, and alienation. While many couples collude to deny their differences as John Gottman points out in his writings, couples who are most likely to divorce are not those who are most volatile, but rather those with the strongest tendency to avoid dealing with differences.
When did the honeymoon end in your relationship? Was it the first time you realized that your mate wasn’t all you had hoped for? Or maybe it was when you discovered that sometimes their cheerful optimism could turn to resentment or depression for no apparent reason. Do you remember your first fight? How about the first time that you wondered whether you had made a mistake in your selection of a partner? If you’re typical, then you’ve had the experience of disappointment, frustration, confusion, resentment or helplessness more times than you’d care to admit since you exchanged vows. If you’re like most of us, you may have taken these feelings as an indication that something could be seriously out of line in our marriage or relationship. And if you’re human, you’ve probably attempted to influence your partner’s feeling, attitudes or behaviors only to discover that you’d now created a new problem. Most of us spend between twelve and twenty years of our lives in school yet nowhere are we really informed as to the specific requirements of sustaining and enhancing the quality of our relationships. We hope, believe or pray that despite our ignorance of the nature of interpersonal relationships that we can make it work anyway. And when the inevitable upsets arrive, we may feel defeated, angry, or despaired.