One Holiday, Two Americas: Memorial Day Thoughts

Some of our fathers and brothers, even our sisters and aunts, served in wartime. Some serve now. Perhaps you too.

Today is the day we honor the fallen in all the many conflicts of this, our country.

Can two Americas fit into a holiday designed for one?

Thus do the two Americas array themselves: those for whom service is a calling and those for whom it is an economic necessity; those powerful and those without prospects; those respected and those afraid; those with fat wallets and those with empty purses; the few who are part of our volunteer army and the majority who choose not to be.

When my father did his duty in World War II, walking the Champs-Élysées on the first Bastille Day after the liberation of Paris, there was such a thing as military conscription: able bodied young men were required to participate. In post-war Germany, as part of the occupying Allied forces, he related the following in an October 19, 1945 letter to my mother:

We have two colored boys in our convoy who were carrying our postal equipment. When we went to supper … the Sargent who ran the mess hall made them eat in a separate room. The colored boys were fighting mad for which I can blame them little. I complained about this treatment to the mess Sargent, who said that the First Sargent made the rule. I went to the latter and told him off plenty (my dad was a Staff Sargent). His answer was that I didn’t have to eat in the mess hall either if I didn’t like the rules.

So this is for what we fight. I finally talked to the colored boys and pacified them somewhat.

Some of us thought we were beyond the racial animus of a time 70 years past. Not just the discrimination, but the idea of discrimination. Still, no matter our domestic troubles, we must honor the fallen. My father, who served but did not die in service, would be troubled at our regression; yet he would honor the fallen, as we all should, amid the burgers and bratwurst and beer we inhale today. In this, at least, we can still be one country, even if the ritual unites us only for a few hours.

I wrote some of this seven years ago. Other parts are new:

If you are unhappy about the polarization of our society, think about the differences institutionalized by the volunteer army’s creation. However much good was achieved by the elimination of conscription, surely the absence of shared sacrifice contributes to the ease with which we oppose our fellow-citizens.

No longer does the USA pull together in the way possible during World War II, “the Good War.” In part, “the Good War” was good because enough people believed in the values for which the USA fought, knowing their children, husbands, and brothers would defend those same values with their lives; and it was good because those at home (regardless of class) shared in the rationing of goods, the terror of having loved ones in harm’s way, the heartache of their absence, and a preoccupation with the daily progress of the conflict.

The soldiers shared something more, and more widely than the smaller fighting force of today. Men of different religions, regional accents, political opinions, and ethnicities depended on each other for their survival and discovered the “other” could be depended on, laughed at the same jokes, and partook of the common fear and dedication all brought to the war effort. Even though military segregation deprived brave blacks and Japanese Americans of the opportunity for such camaraderie except with men of the same color, the nation benefited from the portion permitted. The soldiers benefited by the love and mutual reliance of those in the same foxhole. Our fathers and grandfathers were woven together in a way we are not today.

These thoughts occurred to me as I listened (on CD) to the book Final Salute by Pulitzer Prize winning author Jim Sheeler. The volume is about the officers who inform families they have lost a loved one; and of the families who suffer the unspeakable pain of the death of a son, a husband, a wife, a brother, or a sister; a dad or a mom.

Several survivors become your acquaintances in this narrative, as well as the warriors — the Marines — who died serving our country. And you will get to know Major Steve Beck, a Marine who delivers a message nearly as shattering as the projectile that killed their loved one.

Major Beck and the Marines live by the creed of leaving no comrade behind. Consistent with this value, Major Beck leaves no family behind, providing comfort and support long after the knock on the door that changes everything, creating a “before and after” without end.

I wish I had the words to convey what is in this book. I don’t. I only will say it is plainly written, eloquent in its simplicity, aching in its beauty, profound in its impact. It does not make melodrama of what is already poignant enough. Rest assured you will contemplate war, any war, differently after reading Final Salute; unless, of course, you are a member of the “other America,” the one fighting the wars and sending its loved ones into conflict. If you belong to the bereft group within this group, then there is nothing here you do not already know at a level too deep for words.

To those who have lost just such a one as the young men portrayed in Final Salute, I can only give my condolences to you and your kin.

We — those of us in the non-fighting America, those of us for whom the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are abstractions — perhaps remain too comfortable, detached from something of desperate importance: the duty done far from home in our stead by the children of other people. And removed and distant from how the “best and brightest” of their families risk and sometimes give up everything they hold dear.

For such families, the human cost never fully goes away, for there is no inoculation against the plague of war, nor any cure.

They are out there, these inhabitants of “the other America.”

We walk past them unaware …

Once a year we give their departed a day of remembrance, if that’s what you call taking an extra day off from work, singing the National Anthem, looking at the maimed soldiers standing at attention, and then forgetting why we sang before our bottoms touch the seats. The words “play ball,” don’t quite capture a sentiment of honor or atonement, do they?

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All the images above are sourced from Wikimedia Commons. 1. “Vice Admiral Scott Swift, Director of Navy Staff holds Savannah Wriglesworth of Bowie, Maryland during a group photo with families of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) before taking a tour at the Pentagon May 23, 2014. The children of fallen U.S. service members toured the Pentagon seeing different exhibitions from the Navy, Army, Marine Corps and Air Force including Klinger the horse. Klinger has served at more than 5,000 military funerals and has a book published about him called “Klinger: A Story of Honor and Hope” and is often a warm and comforting face for the children to see when making their final good-byes.” (Department of Defense photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo). 2. and 3. The work of Allstrak. 4. “Arizona Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt looks on during the singing of the National Anthem before his squad’s Memorial Day Major League Baseball matchup against the San Diego Padres at Chase Field in Phoenix, May 26, 2014. U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Brandon Kidd, right, was on hand to represent the United States Marine Corps during pre-game dedications.” (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Tyler J. Bolken).

Dealing with People Who Say Therapy is a Crutch

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It is so easy to judge. Legions of “friends” and acquaintances evaluate your decision to enter treatment. Some signal thumbs up and applaud your courage. Others gesture thumbs down and render disapproval:

It’s not as bad as he thinks.
He needs to suck it up.
I’ve been through worse.

While many people are understanding, critical voices say you betray weakness by reaching for this “crutch.” Surprisingly, those who have experienced a similar problem are often less empathetic than the rest. If your friend also got over a traumatic accident like yours, research says he is probably less sympathetic than people who were lucky enough not to have had that piece of bad luck. The closer your experience is to one the other person triumphed over, the more likely he is to think your adversity is manageable. A pity, because when you reach out to the buddy you expect to be most soothing, you might discover he comforts you not.

Sometimes we must give up on such “friends.”

Nature fashioned us to survive. Like athletes trained to forget their failures quickly, we are more content if we get past the pain of remembrance. Thus, our own photo-shopped recollection of triumphing over the bad breaks of life can make us less sensitive to fellow-men when those traumas are akin to ones we once endured. Arm-chair chest-thumping is like the braggadocio of a political office-seeker who tells us how easily he would fix a national problem if only he were in office — condemning the effort of those who now grapple with the job. The sideline of life is a place where judgment produces cheap and imaginary victories rarely duplicated once the judge steps out of his robes and into the game himself.

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes (up) short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat (Theodore Roosevelt, 1910).

Adding to our misfortune is the tendency to condemn ourselves. History offers examples of people who triumphed in extreme situations. We get the sense such folks are plentiful because they are the objects of story and song — as numerous as the apples on a fruit tree. If we buy-into the ease with which people survive and thrive we compound our already miserable state by observing the contrast with our own plodding struggle.

From the therapist’s chair, survival and persistence are, by themselves, heroic. Perhaps not the heroism of a Shakespearean tragic figure like Coriolanus, but admirable nonetheless.

I treated just such people in my therapy practice. For a time, sometimes for months or years, they were immobilized by the hammer blows of fate. Signs of resilience and the will to fight slowly emerged. Not always, but often.

The art of life is more like the wrestler’s art than the dancer’s … it should stand ready and firm to meet onsets which are sudden and unexpected.” (Marcus Aurelius, VII, 61).

Like the athlete thrown to the floor, in time you must get up.

512px-Wikipe-tan_Fight_back!_(cropped_version)

The moment of resurrection is different for each of us. On the wrestling platform of life no referee demands a speedy rise. Ah, some in the audience will criticize, but they do not writhe in your anguish or see the torn sinews beneath your skin.

The effort to stand again is not over until you say so. Those who judge are unaware (or have forgotten) how they would react in a similar situation. Some resort to a kind of cheap self-flattery to quell anxiety at the possibility of themselves experiencing your adversity. “Oh, I would have been able to handle that” is soothing to say and makes them believe they are resilient and brave, but is lots easier from the grandstand than on the field.

Your misfortune is also a cruel opportunity, but an opportunity nonetheless: to triumph over fate. Sometimes victory is just persevering.

When Shakespeare’s flawed hero Coriolanus was banished from Rome, his mother lamented his departure. He attempted to console her with words she taught him. The perspective he learned from her was that a crisis was a chance to distinguish himself as better — more heroic — than the average person:

Where is your ancient courage? you … used

to say extremity was the trier of spirits;

That common chances common men could bear;

That when the sea was calm all boats alike

Show’d mastership in floating …

In other words, it is easy for us to sail along without concern when the water is smooth.

You who are in pain would give up the suffering if only you could. Now, however, you will find out who you really are. The rest of us are waiting for whatever challenge drops on us for the chance at such knowledge. I am not suggesting we seek it. Yet, once fate arrives, do battle in whatever form you can however weak you feel. Even if taking a breath is, for now, all you can muster.

For those of you in the fight of your lives, I salute you.

The Wikipedia “Fight Back!” logo is the work of Kasuga-commonswiki.

Hurting People: How Our Distance Makes a Difference

US 41

We tend to associate distance with safety. We even have a phrase for it: “a safe distance.” When you were little, mom would say “Be careful. Stay away from X.” The danger might have been traffic, fire, a particular person. Mom’s advice was, in effect, to keep a distance. But there is a problem with separation that isn’t usually mentioned: that, at a distance, we can be safe, but others are more easily harmed.

A troubling thought? Perhaps you won’t continue to read, and thus distance yourself from that which is bothersome.

I suppose it started with the bow and arrow. Or maybe just a rock and some strong-armed caveman. It was doubtless easier and less messy to fell an enemy 50-yards away than to have to grapple with him hand-to-hand, pit your strength against his, smell his breath. No fun to hear his voice and his bones both cracking, and be fouled by his blood.

The machinery of death has only gotten capable of greater distancing since then. Missiles and torpedoes and drones allow men and women to avoid even the sight of those they injure. The infliction of death has become a computer game, but without colorful imagery.

We distance ourselves from violence in other ways, as well. Our volunteer army fights our fights. Our own hands don’t get dirty or injured; we don’t see the gore, except on TV. Wars become easier to start and continue if someone else’s children are fighting them. In the words of Zygmunt Bauman, “…violence has been taken out of sight, rather than forced out of existence.”

We distance ourselves from illness, too. Doctors still made house-calls when I was a little boy and the sick did most of their suffering at home where families watched close-up. Now we go to the MDs alone or with one other person and, even worse, to hospitals for treatment. True, visitors are allowed, but they only see the pain and suffering in small doses. Other people (doctors, nurses, and aides) do the caretaking. Mortality is kept neatly shrouded. No wonder that so many of us act as though we will live forever.

Trident_II_missile_image

We have created institutions that make it easier to avert our eyes from the first-hand observation of death, with its personal message about our fate and fatality. TV, another modern intermediary between us and life, adds its message that death is something that is acted, not experienced; that tomorrow, today’s dead movie character will get up from the floor and take a different role in another fictitious life.

The business world is not free of this distancing. A CEO can fire people she has never met. She doesn’t see the children who no longer have decent meals to eat. She won’t observe the sleeplessness, anxiety, and depression of the mother she dismissed; the one whose life she diminished with the stroke of a keyboard.

That same keyboard lets us shatter the lives of a loved one with impulsively expressed anger or a cowardly, antiseptic message of rejection. Email missives become missiles, targeting hearts to be broken, protecting the sender from the faces that dissolve into waterfalls of tears.

Our distancing, both psychological and physical, allows those who represent us to do damage for which we hardly feel responsible. In ancient Greek city-states like Athens, all the citizens had a direct hand in making decisions; that is, legislating. There, a real democracy existed, (although women and slaves were excluded).

In our much larger democratic-republic, we elect people we have never met to act in our name. These days, few who are paying attention are happy with the result, but many behave as if politics is somewhere else, someone else’s problem. Better not to think of it, they say. And, once again, the damage comes with our remoteness from the nitty-gritty of governance.

Sometimes the distance does cause us damage rather than those faraway. Say you buy something over the internet. No human contact involved, quick, and easy. But just try to contact customer service. Now you want human contact. How many telephone prompts are you willing to endure? Is it even possible to get to someone who might have the authority to remedy your situation? You have been distanced into virtual helplessness.

Small businesses in our nation’s antiquity existed when people worked for themselves at some craft, on a farm, or in a “mom and pop” store. When you purchased something from them, you dealt directly with the persons who made or supervised the making of the product or the growing of the produce. Now the business owner is most often unseen and might have no idea how his products are actually manufactured; no first-hand experience.

It is said that the distancing influence of bureaucracies and factories enabled the 20th century’s greatest crimes: the well-organized and systematic attempts to destroy entire ethnic groups like the Jews and Gypsies of Central Europe. Indeed, the Holocaust required a level of remoteness and the employment of interconnected systems of manufacture that couldn’t have been imagined at any earlier time in history. Countries other than Germany had greater and more violent histories of anti-Semitism, but none were so advanced technologically and so organized bureaucratically.

The assembly line that made cars easier to produce made the destruction of humans easier, as well, and required as little passion. The person at the far end of that assembly line hardly had any sense of what he was contributing to.

The Nazis learned that they risked push-back from the part of the German public that was upset by seeing pogroms against the Jews in their neighborhoods, as happened on Kristallnacht (the “Night of Broken Glass”) in 1938. They came to realize that the worst of their crimes had to come in a place where they could not be seen. And, that “out of sight” soon meant “out of mind” to most Germans, a point made in Zygmunt Bauman’s Modernity and the Holocaust, an important book upon which this essay draws significantly.

Distance also enabled those involved in a small piece of the giant Nazi killing machine to miss the moral implications of what they were doing. Without the factories to build the railroad cars, the everyday laborers who laid the railroad tracks, the clerks who kept transport schedules to bring the human “cargo” for “special handling” (a linguistic distancing) to the death camps, the atrocities could only have happened on a smaller scale.

Without the architects and engineers who designed the crematoria, and scientists who created and manufactured the poison gas — all at a great remove from the actual act of committing the murders — the genocide of millions in less than four years would have been impossible.

Remember, too, that the Nazis took away the names of their victims and assigned them tattooed numbers, still another form of distancing that made their targets easier to treat inhumanly. Joseph Stalin, one of the greatest mass murderers in history, understood the distancing effect of numbers very well: “One death is a tragedy, one million is a statistic.”

Xenophobia lives most comfortably at some distance from the alien objects of its dislike. How many anti-Muslims in the USA have ever had a conversation with a Muslim except for a few seconds in a check-out line? Or a similar exchange with an immigrant from south of the border?

In the absence of interaction that is personal and intimate we can imagine anything we want about others. We mentally take away their individual characteristics and make them uniform members of a category. Our fantasy and fear can transform them into bomb-throwers or economic leeches, as we choose. And, if a prejudice-based effort to keep them away fails, what else is there to do but aspire to live in a gated-community where the self-imposed distance is maintained by walls and security guards?

There is an old saying, “to have a heart.” That is, to be capable of pity — to be sensitive to the hurt in our fellow-woman and fellow-man. But the heart is an organ that is best engaged by what can be seen and what can be touched. In effect, we are more often touched by what we can, quite literally, touch. The world today removes that opportunity much too often.

There is no going back, of course. By that I mean that we cannot return to ancient Greece and have each citizen (now, thankfully, including women) vote on all matters of civic importance any more than we can get rid of remote-controlled missiles and the impersonality of email communication coming from someone higher-up or faraway. But we should be aware of what has been lost and try, as best we can, to recreate a personal, intimate concern for people. We can look into the eyes of those potentially affected by our actions at close range. We can fight a kind of last-ditch stand against a further erosion of the compassionate contact that is necessary in any life worth living.

The top image is a mileage sign on Highway US 41 to Gowers Corner, FL by Dan TD, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

A Question of Trust: A Story That Leads Back Home

The old guy was an easy mark. He’d had a stroke a few years before, made a good recovery with no evident physical effects, but certainly wasn’t the bright young man of his youth. And he wasn’t just any old guy. He was my dad.

“Rain or Shine” Milt Stein, an appellation that referred to his reliability and work ethic, was 83, but still active. Early every morning he took a walk of perhaps a mile in the area near the condo he shared with my mother, who was seven years his junior.

It was the very steamy summer of 1995, the hottest in Chicago’s history, topping out at 106 degrees Fahrenheit (41 degrees Celsius). On the day in question the temperature was already in the 90s, although not yet 7 AM. A relatively young couple with a small boy approached him.

“Our car broke down, sir. Do you have any water — water to drink?” It was a Sunday and stores would not open for three hours or so.

Milt Stein was a gentle and decent man. Perhaps he noted that the family wasn’t especially well-dressed — that their clothing was damp with perspiration. Approximately 750 deaths by heat and dehydration had been reported in the news recently. The condo was only a couple of blocks away. He led the family there.

My mom was shocked when dad unlocked the door and the family entered. Much less trusting than my father, Jeanette Stein never would have permitted this if she had been given a choice. Beauty, charm, and a quick wit were my mother’s strong suits. Faith in humanity wasn’t high on the list. She often said that “no good deed goes unpunished.” Mom knew this wasn’t exactly politically correct and wondered what others might think of her lack of trust. She sometimes made a joke of it by saying (always with a twinkle in her eye), “People say I’m kind, but what I want to know is, what kind?”

No time for such comments now. Strangers were inside her home. As she viewed it, the “aliens” had breached the gate. But what could she do? Dad was already on the way to the kitchen to get some glasses and fill them full of water. Meanwhile, the man and woman began to talk excitedly to my mother.

The boy disappeared.

It all happened quickly. Within just a few minutes everyone had been hydrated and the trio departed. But when my parents went into their bedroom, they noticed that a closet door was open and a cardboard box on a shelf there was ajar. The box was empty of the $10,000 in jewelry it had contained only a few minutes before. The little boy had done his crafty worst. He had taken the treasure.

The police were engaged quickly. A report was filed and the officer told my parents that there had been similar episodes in their neighborhood recently. None of this made my dad feel any better. He felt the fool and, unfortunately, my mother’s criticism of his trusting nature didn’t encourage a quick emotional rebound from the event.

Surprisingly, the police actually were able to recover more than half of the jewelry within a few weeks. But Mrs. Stein’s approval wasn’t so quickly retrieved by Mr. Stein. Mother would tell people the story and father would have to admit that, yes indeed, his kindness had not been repaid in kind.

So what we have here is a difference of temperament or personality on questions of trust and compassion — two models of how to live. You probably have a few family stories yourself, the kind that illustrate similar things, get repeated, and eventually become amusing, even if they didn’t begin that way.

As time passed, my always-clever mother found a humorous way to tell this tale. First she would explain the details of the “con.” Next mom would comment about my father’s naivety and mention the recovery of some of the jewelry almost as an afterthought. But you just knew she couldn’t end it there and the twinkle in her eye gave away that she was getting ready for the knock-out punch. Mrs. Stein pointed her index finger at the man to whom she had been married for nearly 45 years, took a deep breath, wound up and delivered:

“People keep telling me that I should change the locks on the condo. But the problem is, he’s got a key!”

The image above is my mother as a young woman. This is a revised version of a story I wrote some time ago.

“I’m Still So in Love:” Why We Must Give Up the Ghost

https://i2.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e2/Unioncemetery02.jpg

Some patients haunt your memory.

I recall treating a teenager who had lost her father suddenly.  It had actually been many years since he died, but she remained cut-off from the world and her family.

Friends were kept at a distance, her mother was pushed away, and her stepfather was never permitted to come close to her, try us he might.

Never ever.

Her mother and mom’s second husband worried about her self-isolation, so they brought her in to see me.

As the treatment progressed, I discovered that this young woman thought about her father a lot.

Every day.

She would review the memories that she still retained of his kindness and warmth.

Of course, I’d never met him, but I got the sense that she had idealized him — fashioned her memory so as to make him a vision of perfection that no flesh and blood mortal can hope to achieve.

And the recollected reproduction of her father, almost like a ghost, remained the most intimate connection of her life.

Not just historically, but even while I was treating her.

In fact, sometimes she would talk to him; one way, naturally, since she was not psychotic. And that provided her with a kind of closeness that was the best she could do to recreate the comfort that her dad had provided when this young woman was little.

As the protagonist states in Robert Anderson’s play I Never Sang For My Father, sometimes “death ends a life, but not a relationship.”

The people — the real people who reached out to my patient — found her unresponsive. They could not compare — could not compete — with the vanished flawlessness of her dad; an excellence that, after all, probably never existed in the first place, however dedicated and fine a man he might have been.

Moreover, her “relationship” with her father was safe: the dead cannot die on you; or reject you; or move away. They are utterly reliable and totally benign, unlike the rest of us.

As most of us do, my patient had been trying to protect herself from the injuries that life delivers from without, but left unguarded those equally tender places that are open to the wounds that come from within.

When a child loses a parent early on, she often loses the surviving parent, as well.

No, not to death, but to grief. Having lost a spouse, the surviving despondent parent (more often than not) is unavailable to aid the children. She is too bereft herself to be able to be the life-giving, supportive, attentive, omnipresent presence that children sometimes need a parent to be.

Worst of all, it is precisely at this time of loss that the child needs the surviving parent most desperately. And, it is at precisely this time that the remaining parent is least available and least capable of giving what he or she might wish to give, if only he or she could.

The result is a double-loss: one dead parent and another who is, for a time at least, a dead man walking, the half-alive state that we all know from the shock and privation and emptiness of a broken heart; a heart that one cannot imagine will ever heal.

It is no one’s fault, certainly not that of the grieving adult. Rather, this is just one of those dreadful ironies of the human condition: in the moment of loss and for some time after, the now-single parent has no capacity to do what must be done.

But the child needs that impossible thing, all the same.

Once I came to understand that my patient was still in a relationship with her father, her therapeutic needs became clear.

She needed to grieve the loss of her father to a satisfactory conclusion — a grieving that had been prevented by her fear of bringing up her own loss with her mother as much as her mother’s inability to console her child.

She needed to realize that she had put her life on hold by clinging to a ghost who, of course, could only provide so much warmth.

She needed to open herself to a stepfather who longed to engage her, even if he could not be the plaster saint her father had become; and the peers who were ready to provide their own rewards, even if they could not replace her dad.

The therapy worked out well.

My patient did not so much lose her relationship to her deceased father as let him go to a different place in her memory and in her heart.

It helped for her to answer the question, “What would your father want for you if only he could tell you?” Because the only answer he would have given (and she knew this) was that the beloved father of her dreams would want the best for her; and for her to reattach to life and to the people who could give her something that he could not.

After all, he was dead.

And so, she said goodbye to him. At last, she let him die.

So that, finally, she could live.

The photo above is of ectoplasmic mist at Union Cemetary, CT on 10/29/2004 by 2112guy, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Father’s Day (via Dr. Gerald Stein – Blogging About Psychotherapy from Chicago)

This is a revised and expanded version of a post I wrote two years ago about my father.

Father's Day Father’s Day can be complicated. Like any day of honor, some tributes are deserved more than others, or not at all. Some obligations are carried out with joy, while others are a matter of dutiful routine. And sometimes there is pain, where once there was (or should have been) pleasure. But, for myself, Father’s Day is pretty simple. While I miss my dad (who died 11 years ago), the sense of loss is no longer great. He was 88 when he stroked-out in … Read More

via Dr. Gerald Stein – Blogging About Psychotherapy from Chicago

Growing Apart in Marriage

Grant_Wood_-_American_Gothic

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.