A Grateful Goodbye: The Importance of Endings

Old relationships leave a variety of marks. Dark and light, faint and bright, on the surface and below. Some fade quickly, others remain: the wistful, the love sick, the haunting. Endings matter. They impact how you remember past passions, family, and friends of all kinds.

Therapists talk about grieving, but what comes after? Is more yet to learn?

We grieve close-up, but understand at a distance, needful of time’s passage to tally the score and figure what happened. In the brightness and intensity of proximity our emotions get in the way of reason and perspective.

The people who have reappeared as memories in my life sometime took new forms, offered new lessons. One, who lived on a pedestal far too high, became more narcissistic and closer to earth with time. I understood her only after a while. But an old girlfriend is one thing, a parent something else.

Though as a little boy I was “the cream in her coffee,” mom and I lived at odds most of her life. Over time I learned to master the largest part of my animosity, fulfilled my responsibility and visited the folks without incident. She knew I came out of duty more than admiration and said so in her 70s. “You love me, but don’t like me.” I could not deny it.

Age mellowed mom some. The cutting edge of her double-sided compliments was duller, the clever complaints more effortful, less acid. After my 88-year-old dad died in the summer of 2000, mom (81 herself) was desperately unhappy. She’d long since given up on friendship, not wishing to risk closeness. The wounds of her childhood remained unaddressed. Much as Jeanette Stein could be a tough person to deal with, the emotional devastation of an alcoholic father; a paranoid, smothering mother; youthful poverty and teen-aged tuberculosis – these were her most faithful companions. They alone, along with her three sons, represented the only “relationships” left with dad gone.

In the last six-months of her too-long life (she daily prayed to my father and her mother to take her) I visited her every week. Preparation was required. I donned my armor suite, readying for the joust: criticisms aimed at me, the kids, the wife too; none of them present for the “fun” of seeing her again. Mostly I kept quiet, carried on conversation about the TV shows she watched, my brothers’ lives, searching for “safe” topics, and whatever else might pass the minutes with as little incident as possible.

The last time we talked wasn’t a remarkable event. While mom was her usual critical self, at least she was not at her worst. The next week Mrs. Stein didn’t answer the phone call made from the retirement facility’s reception desk. I took the elevator to her room, but no amount of knocking got a response. The facility manager opened her apartment for me. We discovered mom sitting upright with a cooling cup of coffee tableside. She never regained consciousness.

Not an unusual ending, then, but I haven’t told you what happened two weeks before: the second to last time I talked with her. My mother suffered from lots of physical pain even when she escaped invasion by one of her frequent headaches. Not this day. She felt “pretty good” and offered me a lightness of spirit I’d not seen in decades. We laughed. She was at ease. Her cleverness had no ill intent. The time together was an unexpected joy for me, almost a miracle: one of the most extraordinary days in my pretty interesting life. The kind of day you want to capture in a bottle and take home with you; the more poignant and precious because you can’t.

Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize winning psychologist, has described us as having two “selves.” The experiencing self and the remembering self:

The experiencing self is the one that answers the question (say, during a painful event): ‘Does it hurt now?’ The remembering self is the one that answers the question: ‘How was it, on the whole?’ Memories are all we get to keep from our experience of living, and the only perspective that we can adopt as we think about our lives is therefore that of the remembering self.

Kahneman continues, “The experiencing self does not have a voice. The remembering self is sometimes wrong, but it is the one that keeps score and governs what we learn from living.”

Yet this is not the whole story, as the psychologist also tells us. If you are having surgery, your memory will be influenced by the “peak-end rule.” Both the extent of pain at its peak and the level of suffering at surgery’s end affect whether you will think back to the procedure as awful or no big deal. A benign ending can transform the experience.

Endings are like boomerangs – they keep returning. Seventeen-years this month have passed since mom died. It has become easier to “live” with her ghost and be more sympathetic to her tragic life. My brothers and I get along better and the family jokes I tell do not have the bitterness of the past.

That last good day lasted just a couple of hours. Not long, but it didn’t need to. Some people get nothing of value when relationships end. The things unsaid remain unsaid on one or both sides; the finish finishes, at best, in discontent, at worst in horror. You think you will have more time and then it’s gone. I was lucky to see my mother once again beautiful and gay, happy and happy with me.

It was not enough for the teen I was once, but by then it was enough for the adult, surely more than I expected or imagined possible.

It will do.

——-

The top photo is my mother as a young woman. The Suit of Armor is from the Carnegie Museum of Art, sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The Daniel Kahneman quotes can be found in his wonderful book Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Near Misses and Near Mrs.

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Call him Ishmael.

I saw “Ish,” an old friend and a fellow psychologist, at a party about 15 years ago, when he was about 40. My wife and I arrived late. He introduced us to a couple we didn’t know, but he didn’t look to be himself and left soon thereafter.

Those were the days before the Internet and social media explosions; when you went to a party and learned things about your friends that weren’t available on your computer screen or your phone; before you could easily track the lives of people you hadn’t seen in years.

The next day I met my buddy again and found out the unpublicized details of why he was out of sorts the night before.

“Remember that dark-haired woman I introduced you to yesterday?” asked Ish. “I hadn’t seen her since college. She was the first person I was really in love with.”

“Oh, yes,” I said. “A real beauty.”

Yeah,” replied Ish. “She broke my heart way back when. It was quite a 24 hours — another party, actually.”

It was the summer before my senior year in college. You think Vanessa (the woman’s name) is good-looking now? You should have seen her back then! A shock of prematurely white hair, cut short; pale skin, “bee-stung” lips, very leggy; and a languid way of moving that was hypnotic. She had a swan-like grace, that’s the only way to say it. When I first saw her she was wearing a white bathing suit and I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. She dyes her hair now — you can’t imagine how stunning she was.

As I got to know Van, I admired her dedication to her passion — competitive swimming. She enjoyed my sense of humor and we lined up on things musical and political. Both of us were also studying psychology at the time. We seemed to have a lot in common.

But there was this distracted quality about her. I always was trying to get her attention off of whatever else she might be thinking about. She was more compliant with me than enthusiastic about me — along for the ride, but never completely “into me.” When I think about it, I was actually unhappy lots of the time I was with her. She seemed just out of reach, and I was knocking myself out trying to generate some enthusiasm.

Ish related that Vanessa White (her family name had been Weiss back in the old country) was a year younger than he was, went to a different college, and that he had the feeling he was more a “place-holder” than a heart-throb over the summer vacation from college about which he was speaking. Still, he’d hoped that with effort he might make a big enough impression to keep the relationship alive when they both went back to school in late August of that year. The party he was telling me about, in fact, was an end of summer celebration that one of Ish’s friends had planned before everyone returned to campus.

“Van” would leave within a couple of days.

After the party, I drove Van home and we sat and talked in her parents’ living room for a while. But when I tried to pull her close to me, she held back; and then she lowered the boom:

I don’t think we should see each other any more, Ish.

Of course, Ish wanted to know why.

There’s someone else back at school I’ve been thinking a lot about. I don’t know for sure if it’s going to go anywhere, but I don’t think it would be fair to you to make you think there would be a chance for us.

Ish recalled that Vanessa made some comment about “being friends,” but that he’d pushed the idea aside. The conversation with Van continued for a while and Ish remembered that Van shed a few tears.

But then, she actually cried pretty easily on other occasions. She wasn’t an entirely happy person either — very sensitive to a lot of things, including human suffering; unfortunately, not my suffering. No, that’s not fair; more like she wasn’t sensitive to my feelings for her. I guess I would say that she was preoccupied much of the time. I knew she had a really, really good heart, but I could never figure out what was going on inside her head.

At least she didn’t give me the “it’s not you, it’s me” routine. She was painfully honest. It was clear that, for her, it was definitely me.

I remember saying to her that I’d actually thought about a life with her. I tried to make a joke of it — that, she was “Miss White” who just might be “Miss Right.” That made her laugh a little before it made her cry even more. Funny, as devastated as I was, she was the one doing all the weeping. I was mostly just numb; kind of dumbstruck.

Ish recalled leaving “The White House” (as he referred to Van’s home) and getting into his parents’ car in front of her family’s place and just sitting there. Sitting there for a long time, thinking sad thoughts, thinking of what was not to be, including the very vague future life with Vanessa that he’d mentioned to her: the life as “Mrs. Ish.” Or “Mrs. White-Ish.”

Off-white?

Snow White?

Does that make me a dwarf?

Confusing and silly ideas like that popped up as they sometimes do when everything else is going down. Ish realized that he’d never revisit the “White House” or kid Van’s father, Mr. White, about building an “Oval Office.” He’d never again call him “Mr. President” and see his sideways grin in response. Ish knew that he’d miss Van’s mom and dad, who always made him feel very comfortable.

If you’ve been through this kind of break-up, I’m sure you know how peculiar and disturbing it can be.

Surreal and disjointed, not to mention devastating.

One minute you are on the road; the next, you are in a ditch.

But Ish’s tumultuous 24 hours weren’t over.

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I was scheduled to go out with my buddy “Starbuck” the next evening. He’d been at the party, too. That summer he worked at the post office. I think he had to get up at about 5:30 AM for his 7:00 shift. And he and his new girlfriend stayed up after the party until it was time for him to take her home, drive back to his house, shower, shave, and go to work.

So, by the time we started out for that night’s White Sox game at Comiskey Park, Starbuck hadn’t slept for about 36 hours. But, he said he felt fine and wanted to drive to the stadium. I was in no mood to argue given how I was doing after getting dumped.

The problem was, by the end of the game he was over 40 hours without sleep. And as we were headed back home down the Dan Ryan Expressway, I noticed that the car was moving into the next lane of traffic. I looked over at him.

STARBUCK!!! I screamed.

His eyes were closed.

I grabbed the steering wheel and jerked it to the right with my right hand, while I shook him with my left. A van blaring its horn flashed by on the driver’s side, narrowly missing Starbuck’s little VW. He pulled over and let me take the wheel. We’d just about gotten killed; what you call a near miss.

Those 24 hours were like that: a near Mrs. and a near miss.

I figured that was the end of the story and Ish did too. But when we next met-up, I discovered that there was more.

“She called me,” said Ish.

“Who called you?”

“Van. Vanessa. She invited me and Arlene (his wife) over to dinner at her house, with her husband and kids. And then we had coffee a few days ago, just Van and me.”

“Go on…”

Well, you know, it was pretty enlightening. Every so often over the years I’d wondered what happened to her, how her life turned out. But this — this I couldn’t have imagined. You see, her husband is a psychologist, like you and me! And when we were out for coffee, she said “I should have given you more of a chance.”

When I asked her about that, she offered that her life now — married to a psychologist — sounded very similar to the life that Arlene has with me. Apparently, at the time we were dating, she imagined a very different kind of life and a very different kind of husband.

Vanessa was looking for someone who was a competitive athlete. She was on the college swim team aiming for the Olympics and fancied that the only kind of guy who would really “get” her had to be someone who understood the world of competitive sports; so I got disqualified pretty much from the start.

But, just between you and me, my lack of confidence in college surely didn’t help. And nothing Van did back then boosted my confidence.

And there’s more. It was interesting to see her interact with her husband and her kids. Of course, she eventually had to go into a professional career and works for a human rights organization. Does really good work. Travels across the ocean. But, at the same time, at the dinner she managed to criticize one of her kids in front of me and Arlene instead of doing it in a way that we wouldn’t have witnessed (and wouldn’t have embarrassed the kid).

And, she winds up being away from her husband and her children for long and pretty frequent periods in connection with her career, something that she said at coffee makes for nagging resentments at home. In fact, Van told me that her husband was a bit pissed-off that she was going to have coffee with me, because he doesn’t get as much time with her as he wants.

“So how do you feel about all that?” I asked.

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Well, when I’ve thought about her over the years, I sort of idealized her. I’d never realized how self-involved she was. Before, when we were dating and she seemed distracted I took it exclusively as her lack of interest in me. But, seeing her with her husband and kids — seeing the way she relates to them — I guess this is just part of who she is, a part that hasn’t changed much. And, I guess seeing all of that now takes her off the pedestal I’d erected for her. So the life she had in my imagination, the kind of person I’d remembered her to be, was actually not the same as the flesh and blood person she is.

Now, really for the first time, I can see that things couldn’t possibly have worked out between us. But not for the reasons she’d identified — not for the fact that I wasn’t an elite athlete; it would have killed me to be with someone in a marriage who is as into herself and her work as she is. And, it wouldn’t have been good for any kids we had.

But you know what else? Even with all that, seeing her again stirred me just the way it did the very first time we met. I mean, maybe it’s pheromones or something, but there are just some people you are drawn to, no matter how much your head might tell you not to go there.

Thinking about her now — 20 years later — from the point of view of a clinical psychologist, I realize that sometimes things aren’t as they seem. The judgments you made “way back when” (really, when you were a still kid) aren’t necessarily trustworthy or wise.

Van is a very good, very attractive person and she always was. She means no one harm and does good in the world. But a life with her, the thing I desperately wanted, would have been disastrous for me.

“Sobering,” concluded Ish. “I guess the ‘Van-Ish’ relationship needed to vanish. I would have drowned trying to reach her.”

Then, after maybe 30 seconds silence, came his postscript.

I nearly took a hit from a van on the highway, just after taking a hit from a Van I was in love with.

The near miss could have killed me.

But the near Mrs. would have killed me, for sure.

Isn’t life something?

The top image is of a Young White Whale or Beluga approaching an inflatable (Churchill River near Hudson Bay, Canada) and is the work of Ansgar Walk. The drawing that follows of Captain Ahab is the work of Petesimon. The final image is an Illustration of the Final Chase of Moby Dick, from the 1902 edition of Herman Melville’s famous novel published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1902, drawn by I. W. Taber. All three are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Sex: When Your Spouse Says “No”

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People always give reasons. Over the years, I’ve heard lots of them from couples, especially on the subject of sex.

These usually come in the form of complaints from husbands and excuses from wives, although it is the other way around more often than you might think. The excuses are frequently indirect expressions of marital discontent. Unfortunately, spouses do not always read these for what they are, especially men.

As you might have heard, men are from Mars (where a different language is spoken)! And, frankly, it is a planet where bluntness comes easily, and romance and consideration can be in short supply.

Many things have been known to come in the way of sex: depression, exhaustion, communication problems, physical difficulties, fear of performance failure, anger, an abuse history, and stress, not to mention a partner’s clumsiness and selfishness (or indifference) in the course of the act itself.

Here are a few of the reasons for sexual refusal that I’ve heard about most often, followed by thoughts concerning the failure of some males to get the message, the power of women, and a poetic plea on behalf of passion:

  • You aren’t kind to me.
  • It’s too early.
  • It’s too late.
  • Where were you when I needed help with the kids?
  • Maybe tomorrow.

  • You just yelled at me and now you expect me to make love?
  • I’m tired.
  • I’ve got a headache.
  • I’ve got a stomach ache.
  • You don’t treat me right.

  • That’s all you think about.
  • The kids might hear.
  • Wait until I finish my chores first.
  • I’m having my period.
  • I’m feeling unattractive.

  • I just need some “down time” to rest and be alone.
  • I don’t like the way my body looks.
  • I’ve got to study.
  • You mean the football game is over?
  • I wanted to watch this program (movie).

  • I’m feeling too full.
  • You never compliment me.
  • I need to get something to eat first.
  • You need to shave and shower.
  • I’ve got to clean.

  • Your not tender enough.
  • There isn’t enough time.
  • I just put on my makeup and did my hair.
  • Why is this the only time you show me any affection?
  • It doesn’t seem like you really want to do this.

  • I’ve got to do my nails.
  • I’m upset. I need you to listen to me, not get frustrated and insist I do things your way.
  • I’m waiting for a phone call.
  • The repair man is coming.
  • I’ve got a cold.

  • You never help with the chores, the errands, and the shopping.
  • I’m too warm.
  • I’m having a hot flash.
  • We never talk.
  • I want an apology first.

  • I’ve got an infection.
  • Where were you when I asked you to help with the cleaning?
  • I was just going to exercise.
  • I think I pulled a muscle.
  • My back hurts.

  • I’m not in the mood.
  • I feel too much pressure.
  • It didn’t work the last time.
  • You need to be more romantic.
  • Why do I always have to initiate it?

  • You finish too soon.
  • You criticize me too much.
  • You take too long.
  • You fell asleep the last time before we could do anything.
  • I don’t like it when you are drinking.

Instead of indirectness, some women might be advised to take a page from Aristophanes comedy Lysistrata, first performed in 411 BC. In the title role is a woman who organizes other Greek females to withhold sexual favors from their husbands or lovers until they agree to end the Peloponnesian War.

On the other hand, I’m reminded of the poem To His Coy Mistress by Andrew Marvell, the seventeenth century British poet and statesman. The narrator speaks to his reticent love about the shortness of life and her reluctance to seize the passionate and sexual day.

Unfortunately and perhaps unfairly, Marvell didn’t also pen a companion rhyme that favored the need for kindness, romance, shared responsibility, respect, and sacrifice in order to set the stage for passion as well as marital bliss.

Still, most men will identify with Marvell’s sense of urgency, all too aware that life is not infinite: “Had we but world enough, and time, this coyness, lady, were no crime…”

He continues: “The grave’s a fine and private place, but none I think do there embrace.”

The poet reminds the woman he loves that they will not always be in the bloom of youth and beauty, or capable of the explosive rush of passion that the springtime of life offers:

Now therefore, while the youthful hue, sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires…

Marvell closes with the idea that while they cannot stop the forward motion of time, at least their physical passion can make the most of it:

Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

Like it or not, fair or not, marriages do die for lack of sex.

Sometimes that leads to infidelity, sometimes to divorce, and too often to a grim stalemate that is a bad imitation of what marriage can and should be, rather like being members of a two person prison chain-gang — something for each partner to think about before the flame of mutual attraction goes out.

The above image is Lovers by Jacob van Loo, a seventeenth century Dutch painter. Sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Growing Apart in Marriage

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In the black and white world of “absolutes,” life decisions are easy and obvious. But life as it is actually lived becomes a good deal more complex and muddy.

Here is an example:

Take a middle-aged man and wife, both approaching 50. They married young for many of the same reasons that other people do: physical attraction, the fun and good times of first love, and religious faith.

He had been groomed to work hard, build businesses, and accumulate wealth. She had been raised to refinement, home making, and the raising of children. Although both were college graduates, neither saw education at the time as more than the expected and required thing to do.

They both succeeded at their appointed tasks. He was often absent, working late to achieve and maintain the commercial success that he won. She had the major responsibility for raising the children and keeping the home a beautiful and congenial place in which to live.

Time passed. As the children left the home, she turned increasingly to her religious community for companionship and to the comfort provided by her faith, the one which he professed only nominally. She attended less to her physical well-being and gained weight. She was satisfied with her life, fulfilled and sustained by her belief in God and a like-minded group of co-religionists. This woman believed her relationship to her husband was satisfactory in terms that were typical of a long-married couple with grown children.

The man, on the other hand, became more interested in philanthropy and involved himself in charitable projects in which the wife was uninterested, simultaneously turned-off by the religious focus of his wife; indeed, by now he had become sceptical of organized religion, if not agnostic in his outlook. And, in the free time that his success afforded him, he worked-out and kept fit. As well as discovering a passion for history, philosophy, and science, he read voraciously for pleasure. The world of ideas had captured him.

The wife would encourage her husband to pray with her and to attend bible study groups, but his study of the history of religion made him doubt the authority of the documents that his wife accepted as the foundation of her world view. She was calmed by the certainty of her belief in God, while he had become a sceptic.

For her part, the increasing “intellectuality” of her husband and his decision to return to school for occasional classes left her untroubled, but unable to connect with his newly developed interests. His efforts to engage his wife in conversation about the things that he found intensely exciting found her indifferent, unable even to feign curiosity. That was simply not who she was.

And so they grew apart, although her life remained satisfactory to her, since she was not looking for the intellectual interaction that her husband wanted; or sex, for that matter, although she dutifully complied with his desire to continue a physical relationship with her. Other than the children and  the practical matters that occupy business partners or roommates, there wasn’t much depth of communication, and certainly no meeting of minds.

The woman did not sense the extent of her partner’s disaffection, his feeling of emptiness, or experience these feelings herself. She was close to the children while he had only business associates, no close friends. Nor was he one to talk about his feelings with her easily, so that his wife’s lack of intuition left her unaware of his loneliness and his desire to engage with someone who stimulated him in every sense.

Indeed, intensity was not what his wife wanted, not in bed, not in the world of ideas, not in thoughtful conversation about his feelings. When he did try to achieve these things with her, he was left even more disappointed than before.

Still attractive to women, with a strong personality, good looks, and the status conferred by money and power, he was tempted by younger, more admiring females who offered a sense of engagement that his wife seemed not to value. Still, the ethic of responsibility with which he was raised gave him pause, and he experienced a feeling of anticipatory guilt as he thought about the prospect of being unfaithful.

Whether this man acted on the temptation for an extra-marital affair or sought a divorce is not something I’d like to address quite yet. First, I want to raise some basic questions about relationships and responsibility:

1. Should this couple stay married for what might be another 40 or more years?

2. Is it possible that the idea of fidelity — the promise of a lifetime of faithfulness — made more sense when lives were shorter than they are today? The average lifespan of 50 at the turn of the 20th century has now been extended, at least in this country, to the mid-70s for men, and even longer for women.

3. How much should we be held accountable for a decision (to marry) made at a relatively early age that does not — cannot — fully anticipate the unpredictability of changes in personality, behavior, and beliefs that may occur in any life?

4. To what degree should one member of a marital couple sacrifice his or her happiness so that the other member remains satisfied and content?

So what happened?

The female was not interested in marital therapy (although she did give it a half-hearted effort), instead believing that it was her husband’s lack of religious faith that should be the target of intervention, and that only if he was properly devoted to God would he be relieved of his troubles. He eventually did have affairs, but when his wife found out he saw what injury he had done to her, felt guilty, and renounced infidelity (and the divorce he also contemplated) going forward.

The husband attempted to accept his wife’s limited interests in the things that stoked his imagination. In his mind he had already hurt her enough and therefore could not demand more.

This woman was now, once again, contented in her life, if ever mindful of her husband’s potential for further betrayal, of which she did not hesitate to remind him. The couple stayed in their rural suburban community away from the stimulus of the city that he craved, partly as his penance for harming her, and partly (she hoped) to keep him away from temptation. He did not again pursue other women or respond to their attempts to entice him.

Later, as his involvement in the world of business began to wind down he suffered a diminished and unsatisfactory life, relieved only by the self-stimulation of reading, his increased closeness to the children he had left for his wife to raise while he pursued the bread-winner role, the grandchildren who received the best of him (as his children had not), and the joy that came with being an active part of their small lives.

Most of us know at least one old friend, someone we hardly ever see anymore, with whom we somehow remain close. “We pick up wherever we left off, even though we haven’t seen each other in years,” or so we say in such situations. But we also know the experience of growing apart from a person we might even see fairly often.

In the first instance we have taken different routes in life, lived away from each other, but wound up in the same psychological, intellectual, and emotional place. In the second example, even though our external paths have not differed very much, our internal compasses led in different directions. We may be close by, but we are no longer close.

The relationship problems exemplified by the couple that I’ve described grew out of the divergence of these two human personalities as time passed. It would be easy to see one partner as evil and one as good, but I hope that it is clear that this situation was more complicated than that. The husband was not cruel. He did not wish to harm his wife and, in the end, was clearly leading the less happy life of the pair.

He had sought fulfillment by pursuing other women, at least temporarily. But did not his wife pursue her own self-interest, as well? It included a kind of marriage between herself and an institution of faith — the church and the people who made it up. That it did not involve sexual infidelity, however, does not mean that it had no effect on her husband. Indeed, he craved an intellectual, emotional, and physical exhilaration that his wife found unnecessary to her well-being.

It could be argued that in ultimately choosing fidelity to his wife, forsaking the kind of betrayal he had visited upon her earlier, the man had betrayed himself and the possibility of a satisfying companionship for himself ever after.

Life does not always easily correspond to neat categories of right and wrong, good and evil. Even the Ten Commandments are not seen as absolute by most Christians and Jews, at least those who justify killing in wartime or self-defense, or accept the State’s right to perform capital punishment.

Sometimes people who once matched well, change. Sometimes you can do nothing wrong and get an unfortunate result. Sometimes the choices that partners make prohibit mutual satisfaction because of who they are, not because one is good and one is bad. A relationship that works for both parties today may not continue to work indefinitely.

It is a bit unsettling to look at life this way.

But that is the way it looks from here.

The image above is American Gothic by Grant Wood, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Lost and Forgotten Loves

Do you remember, perhaps wistfully, someone who has long been out of your life? The person might be a first love or a romantic interest who came along at a vulnerable moment. That individual provided something timely and touching, perhaps a feeling that you thought you would never have. Usually it was the possibility of love — the possibility of being loved and feeling loveable — something that hadn’t been experienced recently if at all; something that seemed hopelessly out of reach. And so, this person who opened the door to embracing that feeling — to a sense of being worthwhile and valuable — acquired a special value herself. She brought the “music” into your life and might continue to hold a special place in your heart.

Perhaps you felt that the lost love was too good for you — at least so you thought. The interest she had in you seemed a bit astonishing to you. And you were enormously grateful for her interest and the pleasure that she seemed to take in your company. If you were lucky, the relationship lasted long enough to change you for the better. And even though it ended with your heart breaking, you still carry inside of you a sense of gratitude and an enduring soft-spot for this person who you’ve likely not seen for many years.

There are ironies here, at least two I can think of. First, that your gratitude just might be a bit misplaced. You probably thought too little of yourself and too much of the object of your affection. Perhaps you placed her on a pedestal. You might have dismissed what you brought to the relationship: your good nature, your wit, your humor or kindness, or  your own physical attractiveness. And so, whatever affection or interest you experienced that felt to be more than you deserved, might in fact have been just what you were entitled to: you were better than you thought.

Another irony is that, as much as you might still think of this individual from time to time, it is entirely possible that she almost never thinks of you. You did not change her life, even if she changed yours. Your role was more peripheral, less important. To her, you are another relationship in a history of such contacts, not the one that made an enormous difference in her life, as she did in yours. It seems a bit unfair, doesn’t it? Yet that is the way life works.

But I think that the ultimate irony in these unequal pairings is that there is probably someone out there whose life you did alter, to whom you meant everything, and who you now hardly ever think about. In other words, the roles described at the start of this essay are reversed. And you may not even know (or remember) just how profound your impact was on that lover of the moment. For him or for her, that time together with you was much more special, decisive, and profound than it was for you.

It helps to see both sides of this. Both the over-valuing of another and the impact we make on people without really trying — just by showing up in their lives at the right moment and being ourselves. The most dramatic impact outside of a romantic relationship (and indeed one that has more influence) is surely that between a parent and a child, but bosses and friends can sometimes approach the importance of a romantic partner.

Therapists and teachers need to be mindful of this too, in their relationships with patients and students, respectively. Whether you help or you hurt another can be of enormous importance. And, if you’ve done your job especially well or especially poorly, you will probably be recalled long after the relationship has ended.

My high school friends and I take part in something called the Zeolite Scholarship Fund, about which a search of this blog’s archives will reveal more. One of the things we have done in addition to giving scholarships at our alma mater is to honor our old Mather High School teachers. We let them know how much they meant to us, at least those who made an important difference in our lives and are still living. Even decades later and long since they might have recalled any of our names, we remember them and their influence.

I suppose that the most appropriate metaphor for the way in which we unknowingly impact others negatively (and this can apply to teachers who were particularly poor or nasty) is one of walking down the street, being unaware and unconcerned (as we all are) of the very little creatures (bugs) that we might be treading upon. I know that this is an exaggerated comparison to the way that we are affected by others. But the point is that we are all pretty fragile, easily hurt by those who care less about us than we do about them.

Just something to be mindful of in any relationship, whichever end of it you are on. Like throwing a stone into a pool of water, the ripples can go on for a very long time.

Be nice.

gustav-klimt-the-kiss-c-1907-detail

A cropped version of the painting at the top of this page: The Kiss by Gustav Klimt

Unloading Your Therapist: Breaking Up is Hard to Do

Ending a relationship is difficult. Most of us have been on the receiving end of a relationship “break up” of some kind. We know that it doesn’t feel good. Indeed, we know that it can be taken as a rejection (and often that is exactly what it is). Nonetheless, that doesn’t stop some of the same people who decry the insensitivity of those who unceremoniously “dumped them” from doing the very same thing, in the very same way, when they wish to be free of seeing someone else ever again.

With that in mind, here are a few guidelines for thought and action, and some examples of what people do, when and if it comes time to end a relationship with a therapist. Today, I won’t be talking about the sense of loss or sadness that sometimes accompanies therapy’s end. I’ll leave that weighty topic to another time.

1. The “I’ll call you” strategy. Usually, this is delivered by phone message. The patient probably has an appointment with the therapist and cancels it, adding that he will call to reschedule. Experienced therapists know that many people will attempt to end the therapeutic relationship in this way. It avoids a face-to-face conversation which the patient might imagine as uncomfortable, and it avoids actually giving any reason for terminating therapy. It leaves the therapist a bit in the dark, not knowing whether the predicted call will ever come, and probably not knowing what the reason is for the decision to end treatment.

2. The “end of session” termination. Patients often wait until the end of the therapy session to say something of importance, in part because it is uncomfortable or they don’t want to discuss it in any detail, at least not yet. This method of termination has the advantage of being done face-to-face; what it doesn’t do is to allow the two parties to process the reasons for that decision and discuss any concerns. Without some time to talk, the therapist cannot be helpful to the soon-to-be-departed patient, or find out much about the client’s reasons for his decision. Without knowing what those reasons are, its hard for the therapist to learn from any mistakes he might have made, anything he did (or didn’t do) that made the patient uncomfortable, etc.

3. The “no-show” departure. Some individuals who are receiving counseling decide to end therapy by simply being absent from their next scheduled appointment. This is rude, of course, and also risks that the therapist will charge you for the time even though you didn’t come to his office (most therapists expect 24-48 hours notice of cancellation in order to relieve you of the obligation of payment).

4. The “nasty phone call” ending. While this is a rare event, sometimes people want to hurt the therapist because they believe that they have been hurt or neglected by him. They leave an angry phone message and avoid any chance for the therapist to find out why they are hurting, just as they make it impossible to come to a more amicable resolution of the issues at hand.

5. The “I need a break” message. It is, indeed, sometimes appropriate for patients to take a break from treatment. It can get too intense for some, who realize that taking a breather might be helpful. On other occasions, the complications of life outside of the counselor’s office make continued therapy difficult for the moment. However, when giving the message that you “need a break” is simply a way of leaving therapy, with no intention of return, it doesn’t allow for any closure to the relationship, or any of the benefits that such closure provides (which are described below).

6. The “best” way. Whether you have been seeing the therapist for a long time or a short one, the issue of termination is an important one. It is appropriate for you, even from the start of treatment, to ask how long it is expected to last. If you are finding counseling unsettling or unproductive at any point, it is best if you discuss your concerns with the therapist as they happen. Since many people who enter therapy have a hard time with being assertive and direct, it might well be tempting not to talk much about anything that you believe the therapist doesn’t want to hear, and simply to end the relationship unilaterally. Unfortunately, you and the therapist are short-changed if you do this.

Ideally, your concerns should be expressed early in a session, when there is sufficient time to talk about them. Be prepared for your therapist to ask you why you are thinking of ending treatment. You might be surprised that the therapist agrees with you. Alternatively, you might be persuaded if he makes a good case to continue for a while. But if you are certain that it is time to end things, be sure to hold your ground. A good counselor should accept this without trying to make you feel bad about your decision.

Once an understanding is reached about ending treatment, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it must end at precisely that moment. You and the therapist might decide to taper-off sessions or to have at least one additional session to sum up the history of your work together and to say “goodbye.”

There are several reasons for having just such a final session. First, it should allow the two of you to review what you have accomplished, how your life has changed, and what you have learned. Equally, if nothing or little of value has occurred, it can give you the chance to inform the therapist where treatment went wrong. Therapists should be grateful for this information since it allows them to learn, adapt, and improve so that they can help those patients who will follow you into their offices. And, a last session gives the therapist time to point out treatment alternatives or refer you to other available therapists who you might wish to consult.

Finally, a good therapist who has known you for a bit of time usually has some very nice things to say about you, about your courage, wit, grace, intelligence, and the guts it took to look your problems in the face and try to change your life. The last session also gives you a chance to say “thank you,” if that is something that you believe appropriate. The counselor will usually let you know that he would be grateful to hear from you again, just to know how you are doing. And, the door is almost always open if a return to therapy is required.

So, therapy, even when it wasn’t as helpful as you had hoped, can and should end with an expression of respect and good wishes for your future well-being. You will usually feel good about being direct in doing what you believe is in your interest, and having the self-confidence and respect to tell it to the therapist face-to-face. Your therapist will be grateful too, in almost all cases.

No losers here. Only winners.

Gone in 60 Seconds: How to Lose Three Girlfriends in a Minute

https://i1.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/9/94/Bath_Time_Smooches.jpg/500px-Bath_Time_Smooches.jpg

I was a dashing little boy. Resplendent in the Indian (Native American) head-dress my parents gave me and the cowboy holster and six guns that I wore around my waist. Of course, the contradictions among those elements of attire didn’t bother me. Perhaps they were an early indication of my tendency to see both sides of an argument.

I was a six-year-old. I didn’t wear my western outfit to school, but I was still pretty cute: a curly-haired, fresh-faced, sweet little boy, with large hazel eyes. And I had three girlfriends! Count ’em: three! Way more than any of the other little boys in my kindergarten class. Was it at Avondale School or Jamieson? I don’t remember that.

Little did I know that I was about to meet my Waterloo. Little did I know that the great disasters of life are largely unforeseen; and that fortune can turn in an instant.

The teacher gave us an assignment to draw something. I don’t recall just what it was. But I was good at anything having to do with art and quickly finished off my mini-Picasso masterpiece. That gave me a little time. And so I walked over to the place where two of my girlfriends were hard at work on their own artistic products.

What exactly did it mean to have three girlfriends? I was six, for God’s sake. I never saw them outside of our kindergarten class. I doubt I ever held hands with even one of them. Still, there was a sense of security, a point of pride in “having” three pretty little females each of whom also thought I was her boyfriend, and each of whom was just as clueless as I was about what that might mean.

I can still see myself standing in front of the first two charmers, who were, by the way, best friends. And I can still hear the question one of them asked me: “Gerry, whose picture do you like the best?”

Remember, I was six. Maybe even five. No life experience. A piece of unripe fruit, yet to be churned by the cruelties of the human food processor of daily life. I was pure and naive. And terribly, terribly honest.

So I answered. I chose one. I don’t remember which one. I only remember the aftermath.

The unchosen female immediately burst into tears. “You made me cry. You aren’t my boyfriend anymore!”

I was stunned. It might even have been her question that prompted the answer she was blaming me for. I considered using the Nuremberg Defense (“I was just following orders).” But before I could say anything, the next hammer dropped.

Her companion, girlfriend #2, looked at me and said: “You made my friend cry. You aren’t my boyfriend any more.”

My stock was falling like the Dow Jones Industrial Average on “Black Friday.” I was down two-thirds on my net girlfriend-worth. I was sweating. I didn’t know what to do. I must have mumbled something about being sorry. But the hard-hearted pair facing me had rendered their unchangeable verdict. The Gerry Stein Fan Club was quickly disbanding.

In my desperation I did what most anyone would do. I ran over to my one remaining girlfriend, the better to secure my position with her. God knows, if she asked me what I thought of her drawing, I was prepared to tell her that not even Rembrandt could have done half as well.

Unfortunately, in my haste I wasn’t especially careful about where my feet were going. And the hard wood floor had recently been polished, making traction tricky and braking balky. I over-ran my target and accidentally stepped on my remaining girlfriend’s foot. This damsel, now in distress, quickly began to cry. And you already know the rest: “You made me cry. You’re not my boyfriend any more.”

Dazed, stunned, disillusioned, and confused, I probably would have walked into traffic if we hadn’t been in a secure environment. Everyone else continued to busy themselves in drawing and conversation. I alone was crushed, alienated from humanity, feeling for the first time in my life the cruel indifference of a world that goes on about its business, ignoring the human road-kill still to be observed in its peripheral vision.

Little did I know my moment of lifetime peak popularity with the opposite gender had passed.

Somehow, life went on. I did, of course, have girlfriends again, although always one at a time. I eventually recovered enough to get an education, do some things of value in life, win a few awards, marry, and have children.

Over the years, my perspective on this event changed. I came to realize that I’d done something pretty remarkable. That I set a world record for most breakups within 60 seconds time. You can check it in the Guinness World Record Book.

Like Joe DiMaggio’s achievement of hitting safely in 56 consecutive games set in 1941, I’m pretty sure this mark will stand the test of time. There is a little bit of solace in that, some compensation for my kindergarten disaster, my childhood tsunami.

And now you know why I became a psychologist!

The above image is called Bath Time Smooches by Kyle Flood, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.