Life’s just that way. Who crooned those words, sliding silky-smooth into the stanza’s final measure? I can almost hear them, almost sing them, almost free them from neurofibrillary tangles in a forgotten snag of gray matter. I peg the song in the mid-80’s. I hear John Denver or Christopher Cross.
“We wake up every morning and rub noses,” Tim said, “And it’s so great because we never go to bed with incompletions.”
“And how long have you been married?” Barry asked. It was the question on the tip of every tongue and it’s implication hit me squarely across the cheek with a loud and resounding slap.
Barry has been married since God molded mud in Eden and he knew… he knew it couldn’t, wouldn’t last. Beneath his question and smug smile lay: just you wait you young upstart; you’ll see.
Swirling in a vortex of thought, carried swiftly offshore in a riptide of connected conversations, I could barely wade back to the current conversation. Barry’s question was telling for us all. Life’s just that way; isn’t it? We believe our relationship will be different and watch with best intentions and impotence as it slides from grace and love. We bumble along, playing the lead in a familiar motion picture, an inherited role and way of being learned from parents, grandparents and their predecessors.
“It’s so great to be with someone who gets me,” Tim continued unphased, “Someone who supports what I’m up to.”
I called him later to express what I heard, thought and felt.
“That’s it; isn’t it? To be with someone who gets you and supports what you’re up to.” Empowerment. Tears welled up and spilled down my cheeks. “It’s really what we all want.”
“Yeah,” Tim sounded wistful. “Thanks for getting that.”
I caught myself early on, in disagreement with and disapproval of my husband. Further, my behavior was disagreeable and disapproving. In a rare moment of clarity, I discovered my disapproval grew from familiarity, an inherited role and modeled behavior, one I’ve labeled: the Disapproving Chinese Wife or, when I am less generous, the Empress Dowager. I knew I didn’t want to be that.
The ranks of disapproving, wronged wives far outweigh the content and happy. In a model that looks for something’s wrong versus right, the result is both logical and predictable.
And the best performance by a leading man in a supporting role goes to: silent, withdrawn and enduring! A man’s man, those strong, silent, and aloof John Wayne-types we epitomize and love to love. John Wayne too, is an inherited role and way of being, equally unworkable and unknowingly mimicked because life’s just that way.
“You know,” I began with caution, “Every now and again we meet a couple who have been married forever and actually still love one another AND love is clearly visible. Like you can see the love that flows between them in their style of communication and the tenderness of their touch.”
Mark and I were newly acquainted and walked three blocks from the garage to a tiny restaurant of dark wood paneling, reputed for stellar seafood salads.
“And we think it’s rare and that they’re lucky.”
“It IS rare and that they ARE lucky,” he asserted.
I could not disagree. The couples I knew with relationships effusive in kindness and love had, for the most part, stumbled unknowingly into them. In retrospect, communication with an intention for workability was key, the old adage: Never go to bed angry – a practice, and communication – seemingly excessive.
Erich Segal wrote: Love means you never have to say you’re sorry – a formula for pale and pathetic love – and so very John Wayne.
“I think they have a set of tools that are foreign to the masses,” I said. “Those tools are available now, from a sundry of sources and… I notice we’re not all racing to get them.”
“Nobody wants to work at this,” Mark snapped.
“The truth is, we are always working on something,” I countered, “Working on being right, working on making the other wrong, working on being angry or difficult. We could work on being loving and having love present.”
“Why are you talking to me about this?” Mark stopped mid-stride and turned to me.
“Because something you said made me believe you’d be interested in this conversation.”
That something was elusive, nothing specific but a hint, gossamer that Mark suffered in his marriage. His subtle omissions, an undercurrent of disequilibrium, like a man with one foot in the boat engaged in the tricky business of balance. He looked like a man trying to manage something. The life of a mahout – managing the large, pink elephant defecating on the living room floor.
We stood on a crowded street corner, beneath the midday sun of a crisp spring day and even Earth seemed to stop hurtling through space.
“I am so alone in my marriage,” his voice cracked with his heart. “I sleep alone, I do all the cooking and cleaning. My wife works six twelve-hour-shifts a week and … she doesn’t have to. She doesn’t even have to work!” he spat. The bilious bitterness in his words scorched the pavement.
“How long have you been living like that?” I recalled pictures of his daughter, nineteen and beautifully sporting her father’s pert nose.
“Years,” his brows knitted with dis-ease.
Suddenly the endless acquisition: the boats, the cars, the homes, the dress shirts – one in every color – made a certain kind of tragic sense.
Watch each one reach for creature comforts, for the filling of their holes. ~Peter Gabriel, In the Blood of Eden
“Mark, can I tell you about the Landmark Forum over lunch?”
Ping! Brent was hard to miss, towering six-foot-and-ten over the queue for our northbound flight. Handsome, lean, athletic, darkly tanned in shorts, t-shirt, Tevas and buried in a paperback; he beautifully bore all indices for a sonar ping. Did I mention tall? I could naught but notice. Boarding thirty people before me, I was surprised to come upon him in the emergency-exit-row with adjacent empty seats.
“You’re no dummy; huh?” I opened the conversation with a smile.
“Nope, I know where I fit,” he smiled back.
“Bet you do. May I?” Brent stood to let me pass. There was no getting around his infinitely long appendages otherwise.
“Lorin,” I extended a hand.
“Brent.” My hand disappeared into his uncallused, dinner-plate of a hand. OMG!
“My girlfriend Kendra is behind me. Okay if we save this seat?” I motioned to the one between us. Kendra would love sitting next to Brent; any woman would.
We were returning home following the completion of our yearlong Partnership Exploration Course. Effervescent and bubbling in it’s finality, Brent asked about our course. It naturally led into a conversation and invitation for an introduction to the Landmark Forum.
“The Landmark Forum is a guided dialogue that can forever change the point of view from which you live,” I proffered, “And it does this reliably, weekend after weekend, after weekend.” Brent was clearly interested and clearly stopped.
"How would you feel if your husband was on a trip and talking to two women?"
“Are you concerned with presenting this invitation to your wife?” I was aghast.
“Well, yes.” Brent’s face turned somber. “How am I going to explain that I was talking to two women on the plane and they invited me to something?”
“Correction,” Kendra help up a finger, “Invited you both.”
“I know, but do you know what I mean?”
I knew exactly what he meant. Jealousy will sour love faster than heat sours milk. There is no appeasing a jealous spouse.
“You tell her the truth; just like that,” I snapped my fingers. Brent rolled his eyes and gave me the look, a look that clearly communicated the conversation would be fraught with danger.
“Brent; are you not allowed to talk strangers?” My question caught him off guard. “Are you allowed to speak only to people your wife knows and only do things with her approval?” He paused and responded slowly.
“I’m away a lot; I travel for business quite a bit. And while I have never been unfaithful, she is so suspicious. She would be upset if she knew I was talking to two women.”
My eye roll was unintentional, automatic, autonomic methinks, and completely indiscreet.
This watchfulness of women for betrayal is an ancient trait – try Paleolithic – when women, both weaker and smaller, were dependent upon men for survival. While we’ve come a long way baby, we’ve come not far at all.
The jilted wife is an uncommon scenario though we act like it’s frequent and imminent. Women watch for and fear betrayal. Life’s just that way. We leave our men like Brent, feeling like he can never do or say enough for his woman to feel safe and sure.
While we gossip about our men and their shortcomings, airing our grievances and fears that they might leave, there is one conversation that seems notably absent. That conversation is akin to this: Who would I have to be for him to want to stay, not from duty, default, inertia or piety, but with all his heart? Am I willing? Can we make that work?
Ultimately, the fear of inquiry, our unwillingness to look, and our attachments to the way things ought to be, keep us stuck.
“She quit working after we married,” Brent’s voice pulled me back. “Now she sits home and waits for me.”
“That’s a pretty small life,” I commented.
“No kidding. Don’t get me wrong,” he raised a large hand, “I love my wife and there is a lot that works but obviously, my marriage is not what it could be if I have this concern and… I’m not the best communicator. You know, I keep my mouth shut and try to keep the peace.”
Funny, my Dad said the same thing at his 50th wedding anniversary party. When asked to share how they made it to their golden anniversary my mother spoke of compromise. My father’s statement was much more telling and classic John Wayne, “Shut up and do what you’re told.” The crowd laughed. I wept.
The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. ~Thoreau
“Honestly Brent,” I said in earnest, “A married man is married... not dead. I don't expect him to forgo meeting people, talking to people, being interested in people and generally having a life. A married man is married,” I gathered momentum and steam, “Not imprisoned - though sometimes the difference is difficult to discern. When a married man is not free to express himself for fear of being misconstrued, misinterpreted, maligned or any number of things, he begins to live a life smaller than his capacity. That is a sad day in his community. Does this communicate?”
Brent’s eyes grew. “You’ve touched on a topic that is very dear to me,” he responded with unusual candor. “This living a life smaller than my capacity has definitely been an issue. I am so easy-going that unfortunately, internalizing this has not helped my relationships, past or present. OK therapists,” he smiled broadly, “I can tell it will take a few more flights up and down the coast to really get into this.”
“Here's the thing Brent,” I nailed him with my eyes, “You get to say how your life goes. You get to choose. You have been more than forthcoming and you’re such a good sport. Please accept our invitation when it suits you, to check out the Landmark Forum. It’s quite a remarkable weekend that few regret and it pulls far more relationships together than apart.”
We swapped emails and I sent the particulars for he and his wife to join us. He never did; nor did Mark. I can only surmise why two men in difficult marriages would not attend an evening that might give them tools and access to something beyond their current situation. To do so would require venturing beyond the familiar and we are none to keen on that.
Ultimately, we do not believe those rare and lucky relationships are possible or we would clamor for one. I’ve got what I’ve got and life’s just that way. Nor are we willing to trade our difficulties, the endurable and tolerable known, for the unknown.
My conversations on the other side of the yearlong Partnership Exploration Course, an exploration into communication as the bridge to partnership, are less formulaic. My boundaries have expanded. I am less willing to ignore these uncomfortable conversations that hang in the air, waiting with bated breath, begging a voice. Once broached, these out-of-bounds conversations are surprisingly transparent. The ease with which transparency and vulnerability occurs points to something akin to breadcrumbs – indicative of right path-finding.
My Mother was right in pointing to compromise. Workability however, is much more useful. While they seem one and the same, they are distinctly and critically different.
“We HAVE to set a lunch date for July,” I insisted. “The…,” I hesitated, What to call the Yummy Men? – that group of delicious men with whom I regularly dine – “… cadre is clamoring and I cannot schedule anyone until I schedule you.”
“Why? Because I’m the most difficult?”
“Um, because I say and because you’re schedule can certainly be difficult.”
“Am I the most difficult person you deal with?”
“I,” I stabbed my chest with my thumb, “Am the most difficult person I deal with.” We laughed.
“Am I the second most difficult person you deal with?” Good Lord he was determined.
“You – are the person I manage with the most joy and the most difficulty, but the difficulty is me, not you.”
I am clear that loving relationships are about capacity: the capacity to love and be loved, to give and take, to contribute and allow contribution, to risk full self-expression and listen to the degree that the other is left feeling heard and known.
I notice that in relationship, we tend to do what we do, whether it works or not. We seldom, if ever, willingly put ourselves into counseling, therapy, coursework, or anything that might disrupt our habitual ways of being and dismantle the unworkable. Far easier to blame others than face that The Empress Dowager and John Wayne, as models for behavior, do not work.
Tim was right when he pointed at incompletions, that is, upsets that have not been addressed and managed to everyone’s satisfaction. We make messes and let them fester and boil. We keep quiet and wait for upsets to blow over. That’s the fallacy, they don’t. Upsets have a sticky quality, a residue that wraps us in web and sucks the love from our lives.
We have a saying: get off it with velocity. The velocity with which we address and clean our messes is directly proportional to happy and loving relationships.
“How this work occurs for me,” I said, looking into 300 expectant faces, “Is like taking a sledgehammer to my concrete. Before the Landmark Forum I had walls, lots of them, and as they are dismantled, something else is possible.”
My friend and Wisdom Course leader Joan says, “Resignation and cynicism are the familiar path of most relationships. If you are going to have a life that works, you must be willing to hold others to account and be held to account. There is an exquisite life on the other side of this but it is not for the faint of heart.”
Long before our first syllable, we are born instinctively to communicate. We grow in communication, learn through communication, marry in communication, divorce in communication, thrive in communication, live alone or in community - all within communication... or not. Learning to communicate effectively, lovingly, with an intention to support and empower is wise, generous, and infinitely satisfying. Oh, to be that.
“Be surprised by something,” I challenged.
“Find uncommon peace and joy,” he charged before boarding his plane.
“I’ll be on the lookout for it.”
“Oh, it’s there!”
They are here methinks, uncommon peace and joy are here, beneath the rubble and fractured concrete.
Life’s just that way. Neurofibrillaries untangled! Christopher Cross, on the album of the same name. Song: I Really Don’t Know Anymore. Co-crooned with Michael McDonald, 1979.