Breaking the Heart of One You Love

My mother said some memorable things. “People say I’m kind, but what I want to know is, what kind?” was among her greatest hits. Another was borrowed from Groucho Marx: in the middle of a less than scintillating party, she might utter, “I had a wonderful time, but this wasn’t it.” Quietly, of course.

Mrs. Stein proclaimed one habitual belief I never quite understood: “Regret is a painkiller for fools.” I gather she was being dismissive of those who looked back in sadness. Though I never took the statement to heart, I regret little about my lucky life. One old sorrow sticks with me, however.

Breaking the heart of a loved one is never harder than when the one is seven-years-old.

“Dad, is Santa Claus real? Nicole (a friend) said he isn’t.”

I had learned long before this, the importance of being honest.

I looked at Jorie, but perhaps didn’t recognize just how invested she was in her belief in Santa.

What I valued, however, was her trust in me. Before I answered, I decided I ought not break her trust.

“No Sweetie, he isn’t.”

I can still envision her little face melt into a waterfall of tears. I comforted her as best I could; so did her mom.

This was not the last time I caused pain to someone I love, but was the first time I remember doing so to any child of mine.

Welcome to the real world, honey; the place where things aren’t always as they seem or as we would like them to be. A place where hard reality trumps fantasy; a place where someone who “loves you to pieces” breaks your heart into pieces.

That was a long time ago. I’ve wondered what else I might have done instead to save this little person from the pain of a message amenable to postponement.

Should I have said, “What do you think, Sweetie?” Was a Socratic dialogue possible — a perfect sequence of questions leading her to the same truth without hurting her so much?

A change of the subject, perhaps, to avoid the answer and let her continue to believe anything she wanted?

Or, should I have lied? “Of course Santa exists, Sweetie.” And then left her open to potential ridicule of friends, as well as some doubts about whether her dad was trustworthy.

Janet Landman, in her book, Regret: the Persistence of the Possible, likens regret to the dilemma of coming to a fork in the road and making a choice. You walk down the chosen path for a while, before you realize your selection isn’t quite as good as you hoped. “I probably should have gone the other way.”

No matter which road you chose, “the persistence of the possible” is present. Nothing in life is perfect, but in your imagination the alternative remains idealized. Only in your mind – in the world of abstraction and fantasy – does perfection reside: the perfect job, the perfect mate, the perfect result, the perfect performance of whatever kind.

And, for me, the perfect answer to a simple question.

Sometimes in life no ideal solution is available, no right path, only a bunch of imperfect possibilities. We never know the alternative from lived experience, nor return to the moment; because, as Heraclitus said, “You cannot step into the same river twice.” With the passage of time, the river changed and so have you.

No, you cannot un-ring the bell. No do-overs when it comes to the knowledge of whether Santa is real.

We must live with the inevitable heartbreaks when they come. In the one life we have, we can never be quite certain whether a different road would have made all the difference or none at all.

One can only accept the terms life allows. The metaphorical contract we sign by having the audacity to take our first breath at birth grants no escape clause from hard knocks. Not, at least, while life goes on.

I still wish I could have protected Jorie from the terrible knowledge I delivered on the near-Christmas day; not just about Santa, but about life. Indeed, as I think back, it isn’t knowledge from which I wish I could have sheltered her, but from the pain of life itself.

Such things are not in our power. Life will have its way with us. If we are lucky, we will also be compensated by beauty, joy, friendship, laughter, learning, and love.

Jorie and I lost a little innocence that day.

The good news?

Our love abides.

———————-

The second image is of a Young Ashaninka Girl in an Apiwtxa Village, Acre State, Brazil. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons and the work of Pedro Franca/Ministry of Culture. This post is a reworking of one I wrote several years ago.

Delivering “Bad News” and Causing Pain: Ending Therapy and Romance

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Until recently, I didn’t fully understand the upset of various reality TV stars when they have to “let someone go.”

I am referring to shows like “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” on ABC. These programs offer an attractive single-person the choice of a couple of dozen equally magnetic and youthful members of the opposite sex, with the desired goal of “finding love.”

The settings for these mini-series are always extraordinarily (if not exotically) beautiful, involving story-book activities that prime all the suitors to have strong feelings about the targeted object of their affection, unable to distinguish the dazzle of the surroundings from the more ordinary human qualities of the participants.

As the field of contenders is narrowed, the show’s “star” is typically shown struggling with an ongoing set of decisions: who to “keep” and who to dispatch. Much agony is displayed, sometimes to the point of tears, and not just by the people who are dumped. Indeed, as often as not, the individual making the choices seems more upset than the rejected admirers.

I’ve tended to side with the underdog, that is, the feelings of the soul who is being rejected, cast out of the Eden-like gorgeousness of the show’s locale, and set aside in the pursuit of romantic happiness. And while I appreciate the difficulty of making such choices and delivering the bad news to someone you have gotten to know, I’ve thought that the “star” generally tends to make too much of his or her own pain rather than that of those being rejected.

Recently, however, my own experience has opened my eyes a bit on the subject.

Although it has been a while since I retired from doing psychotherapy, this was written in the midst of telling my patients of my plans to set aside my career as a therapist. And, of course, with it, to set them aside.

I anticipated that it would be difficult for some of them. If the therapy relationship had been productive — if the implied promise was that “I would be there for them (forever)” — it could only be difficult. Therapists should be reliable and, for some people, the contact with a therapist is a life-changing relationship. The patient’s gratitude and reliance on a psychologist’s emotional support, which can become a dependency, are precious in any two people between whom those feelings exist.

I knew objectively and intellectually that the news of my retirement could produce a range of feelings; from disappointment to tears to a sense of abandonment to anger to anxiety and a sense of loss. But I had not done it before; I had not delivered such information. I had not had the task of telling people with whom I had a therapeutic relationship this potentially unsettling news.

Since I had not “lived it,” I could not know fully how it would play out. Still, I had a pretty good idea of how they would feel. I was less certain of how I would feel — what it would be like for me.

It turned out to be more difficult than I expected for myself.

A therapist is in the business of helping people, trying to assist them to feel and live better. Causing pain is just the opposite of what we hope to do. Relieving pain, sympathizing with pain — that is the ticket. Inflicting it is not. I was prepared for their pain, but not ready to be the source of it. And in the weeks before the news was delivered, the anticipation and the stress of becoming, however minimally, the instrument of suffering and disappointment, began to weigh on me.

I thought a good deal about how to deliver the news. I tried to tell all of my patients more than three months ahead of the event, face-to-face; and nearly all of them heard it in the space of the same 10 days. I didn’t want anyone finding out through the grapevine.

I explained that I would continue to see them until my retirement, assuming that they wished to continue. I told them that if they wanted a referral, I would be as helpful as I could be in that process, either before or after the end-date of their last therapy session. And that they would be able to email me thereafter. The way I put it was something like, “I won’t be fully out of your life unless that is what you want me to be.”

I was trying, in this way, to cushion whatever blow they experienced and inoculate them against a personal sense of rejection. For those who expressed interest, I briefly explained how I had come to the decision to leave the practice of psychotherapy.

I made my announcement at the very beginning of each session, in order to permit enough time to deal with the feelings it evoked and questions that might need answering. I also mentioned that I would be fully willing and interested to talk with them about their feelings concerning this change as the therapy process with me moved toward its closure.

Although I doubted that any of my patients were so vulnerable as to decompensate significantly, my plans for our termination were aimed at a break-up that did not lead to a break-down.

Seeing the surprise, disappointment, or pain (including tears) in some of my patients was also painful to me. But I don’t want to make too much of my end of this. In any relationship’s end, it is almost always the person who is making the choice who feels better about the parting. I must admit, it was a relief to have delivered the news, to make public what had been private, to get it behind me. But at no point did I feel good about it.

It brings to mind, I suppose, a very old memory that virtually all of you have experienced at least in some approximate way. It involved a college girlfriend with whom I maintained a long-distance relationship.

Expecting a phone call on her Wednesday return home, one day ahead of Thanksgiving, I called her because that contact hadn’t happen. It turned out that she’d been in town from Sunday or Monday without a word. Still, we made a date to get together the next evening, after the holiday festivities had ended.

As they say, “the handwriting was on the wall.” And, as Adlai Stevenson II once noted, “Most people can’t read the handwriting on the wall until their back is up against it.”

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Belshazzar’s Feast by Rembrandt

In the course of that dreadful visit I learned that she now had another relationship back at school and that, of course, she hoped we could remain “friends.” This kind-hearted 19-year-old was in tears as she delivered the bad news, presumably the message that she had hoped to delay or avoid by not contacting me immediately upon her return home.

The “let’s be friends” overture was, I think, quite sincere, but it never is heard the way the person uttering it hopes. In this instance, it sounded something like, “I know you were expecting filet mignon and champagne, but I think I have a half-empty can of warm Pepsi that’s been open on the counter for a few days. How about it?” That said, she was a lovely and sweet-hearted person, and was clearly very much pained by what she was communicating. It was just that our desires didn’t coincide.

That lack of attunement between any two people is simply a part of the human condition. Not the best part, for sure.

Historically, such communications often came by letter during wartime. The “Dear John” letter to a serviceman overseas was widely dreaded and became something of a cliché during World War II, when duty’s potential cost of a soldier’s life or limb could also include a broken heart due to the infidelity of the wife or girlfriend back home.

Today there are lots more ways to deliver the bad news: emailing, texting, instant messaging, etc. All of these are missile-like missives launched from a distance; bad news that the sender doesn’t have to see hitting his target. But the emotional carnage of the unwanted communication is no less real for all that.

It is easy enough to vilify the person who has placed you on his discard pile. And certainly some methods of delivering the rejection are much worse than others, at times cowardly or cruel.

But we mustn’t forget that it is the human dilemma that sets the stage for such disappointments. It is simply a routine part of life that not all relationships find our interests aligned in a mutually satisfying way forever. People retire, therapists and friends leave town, bosses let go of employees, and romance that blooms in the heart of one good person is not always growing in another who is equally kind and decent.

Only the worst among us set out to do injury with malice and premeditation. Nonetheless — much too often, in fact — we are at cross purposes with each other and someone will be hurt.

If it weren’t so excruciating one could almost call it “normal.”

You may be interested in this related topic: How to End Relationships: a Practical Guide to Rejecting Others.

The top image is of the space reserved for Elvis Presley at Heartbreak Hotel, a cottage on Elvis Presley Boulevard. It was photographed by Evelyn Simak on February 3, 2009. The second picture is a reproduction of Belshazzar’s Feast by Rembrandt, sourced from the Web Gallery of Art. Both can be found on Wikimedia Commons.

“Have a Little Faith in People:” Therapy and Love in the New Year

manhattan

The beginning of the New Year is one of those moments when love-past and love-future stand back-to-back. I suppose they always do, but rarely do we so literally turn the page, see the annual number change, and acknowledge our movement across time. The advancing calendar makes our heart’s progress (or lack of progress) harder to ignore than usual.

If you had a relationship-past that is better than your present, there is a chance that the New Year will remind you of those times when there was love and enchantment in your life; when bygone people who meant everything to you also believed that you meant everything to them. The New Year in that case offers another chance, hoping to recapture what was lost or trying to achieve the thing that has been so elusive.

The subject of love — the lost and found quality of it — is at the heart of Woody Allen’s 1979 movie Manhattan; much more a romance than a comedy, for all its good humor. You may not think of Woody Allen as someone who specializes in tenderness, but Manhattan certainly does.

Mariel Hemingway plays “Tracy,” a young woman in a May-December romance. She is soon to find that her openness to love leaves her as vulnerable as if she were in surgery. Perhaps she is also too young to know that the operating theater of romance always involves the potential for heartbreak as well as the hope that finally — finally — someone will see all the good inside of us and cherish it without conditions. That their eyes will brighten on our arrival, and that even our scent on a just-worn garment will warm the frozen sea within. Love is compensation for the lacerations of living, but also the cause of those same cumulative cuts.

If the New Year’s dawn is spent in the company of someone who is constant and caring, it is easy to feel intoxicated even without champagne. But if we are alone on New Year’s Eve, the back-to-back character of the old year turning new forces us to look both ways. In one direction is the receding memory of ended romance and present loneliness, while the tightrope of hope beckons in the other direction — the hope that relationships yet unknown are just up ahead; if only we can keep our balance and brave the journey from here to there.

That dream confronts the darker aspect of our memory. All of us have been betrayed or rejected by lovers. The surgical scars bear witness. As Sartre said in No Exit, “Hell is other people,” but so is heaven, at least as we imagine it. Still, it is easy to give up.

The line I love the best in Manhattan comes in its closing moments: “You have to have a little faith in people.” For those who have been repeatedly hurt, this is asking terribly much. Yet the first job of the lovelorn is to keep alive the faltering flame of future possibilities. A therapist can be of help in this.

It is faith in what another person might be able to do that ultimately brings the lonely to therapy and keeps them in the game of love, doing the hard work that treatment involves; dreaming finally to come out whole; and trying once more to find a lasting romance.

With or without therapy our job is the same, this New Year and every year: To have enough faith in people to keep searching; and, once the right one is found, to hold tight.

“Relationship Crime” or the Man Who Knew a Little Bit Too Much

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Knowledge can be a problem. You know the old saying, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”

I once had a friend who was dating a lovely woman. She was charming, sweet, and fun to be with. And, this lady was very kind, a person who respected others and went out of her way not to do harm. My wife and I enjoyed her company and my friend seemed to appreciate her immensely, as well.

But, not really looking for someone else, he stumbled upon another woman who pursued him; a pursuit to which he succumbed. Rather quickly, it is true. He didn’t put up much of a fight.

She too was charming and perhaps a bit more energetic than his current lover, and I suspect a little bit sexier, too. She had a sleek sultriness that his girlfriend didn’t possess. But since he never told woman #2 that he was “involved” with someone else, he was “fair game” as far as she could see; and he certainly didn’t proclaim any abiding allegiance or committment to the lady he’d been dating.

From this point, my buddy enjoyed the company of both women — enjoyed sex with each of them — and he saw no reason to tell either one about the other.

But he did tell me what he was doing.

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I asked if either one knew that he was sleeping with someone else; and he had to admit that each of them thought she was in an exclusive relationship with him — that she was the “one and only.”

I pointed out that there was implicit deceit involved, since he knew that his lovers were with him only because they did not know the truth.

“No one is being hurt,” was his reply. And he was sure, he said pre-emptively, that he did not have a sexually transmitted disease, which he’d checked out recently with his MD. No one was in harm’s way from physical disease, he assured me.

As far as this man was concerned, he had made no promise of eternal fidelity and believed that a “no strings attached” understanding existed all around.

My friend was not a young man, nor were the two women — the three of them hip-deep into their fifth decade on the planet. Everyone had been around the block several times. All parties had been hurt more than once. They knew the pain of heartbreak. They didn’t need any more of it, not that anyone of whatever age needs more. It was just that the resilience of youth was no longer as available to any of them as it had been a while back, and one would have hoped that the man had thought just a bit about this fact.

I asked him how he would feel if his youngest sister were sleeping with someone who was doing what he was doing: simultaneously having sex with another woman whose existence was a secret?

This sort of thing used to be called “two-timing,” but I didn’t remind him of that.

He pretended that he did not hear me. Better to keep the walls up, the compartments separated. It was the sort of response (or lack of response) you get from someone who doesn’t want to think any troublesome thoughts that might arouse his slumbering conscience. And so he kept the metaphorical blinders on himself, so that he could not see the collateral damage of his self-serving behavior.

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Although he wouldn’t have admitted it, he viewed these women “instrumentally” — in terms of what they were good for and how they could be used, while comforting himself that “no one is being hurt.”

Perhaps you are asking why all this troubled me. Several reasons. I cared about the first woman — my wife and I both cared about her — and were happy to have become her friends. We knew that she was being fooled, even if she was not presently in any pain. We knew that the “relationship” was based on deceit and her lack of knowledge. We expected her heart to be broken before long. And, I felt bad about the moral degradation of my friend, someone who I could no longer look at in the same way as before — could no longer respect as I once had.

My buddy told me all that I have now related to you on the condition of confidentiality. But that was going to be a problem. Not that I would break his trust, but that I now had what might be called “guilty knowledge.” I knew too much for my own good.

My wife and I had a double-date scheduled with our friend and girlfriend #1. At dinner I was uncomfortable. I knew something that his lady friend didn’t know and I realized that eventually she would be left spinning, which didn’t lighten my mood. It was as if I had just read her X-ray and discovered a spot on her lung about which she knew nothing — yet.

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Nor did I want to participate in the sham of their implicitly exclusive relationship, the references to future things that they planned on doing (some with us), or watch the way that this gracious and good woman-in-love looked at a man who, although he was my friend, was ( I now realized) not nearly so gracious and good; and not in love with her.

The day after this get-together, I phoned to tell him that so long as he was dating both of these women I could not go out with him in the company of either of them; I could not pretend that I didn’t know what I did know.

I knew a little bit too much.

It was not long before my friend ended the contact with the first woman. I suspect that his decision to end the relationship had more to do with his developing feelings for female #2, than any unhappiness with his first girlfriend or the flowering of his dormant conscience. And, I’m pretty sure he’d had difficulty coping with the logistical problems of juggling two relationships, each with a woman who wanted as much of his time as he could give. After all, there are only seven days in a week and the task of keeping both women happy (and unaware of the other) began to wear him down a bit.

And just to show how little influence I had on my friend, he repeated the two-timing when another woman came along who found him attractive. Now girlfriend #2 achieved the position of the previous girlfriend #1, and like here predecessor, she too was eventually taken to the relationship consignment shop. I guess practice makes perfect.

Many years before, when I was an intern in a psychiatric hospital, I recall a raving, out-of-control man being brought into the locked-unit to which I’d been assigned. He was suffering from Bi-Polar Disorder, which you might know by the label Manic Depressive Disorder. Clearly, he was in a manic phase — grandiose, impulsive, erratic, exploding with energy, and incapable of making good judgments.

He had been a high school teacher of mine. A wonderful teacher. Fortunately, he didn’t seem to remember me and I made no effort to remind him of who I was and thus risk embarrassing him.

There are things that we don’t want to see in life: the failings of our friends, the frailty of respected parents and teachers, the needless hurt that one person we care about is doing to another one we care about. We don’t usually want to be party to deception, an accessory to even the kind of commonplace “relationship crime” that my friend was committing against a woman he liked very much.

None of this is very earth-shaking, I know. Unless, of course, you are girlfriend #1. But watching people diminish themselves is no fun, even for therapists who see it every working day. Bad decisions, hurtful decisions, thoughtless and self-serving decisions — all of it part of routine human experience.

We’ve all done some of it, but the best among us learn that it is wrong while others just keep on doing it.

As I said at the start, “I once had a friend…” He might now more accurately be described as an acquaintance. Someone about whom I think wistfully, remembering the days when I thought he was better than he turned out to be. Was he? Had I simply missed some things about him, never seen him in the kind of situation that revealed his limitations?

Sometimes the only conclusion to the story is “I don’t know.”

The top image is Two Women with Sink by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. The second photo is of Bernard Spindel Whispering in the Ear of James R. Hoffa in 1957, taken by Roger Higgins, a photographer for the New York World Telegram and the Sun newspapers. The following picture of a Saddlebred Stallion in Harness is the work of Steve Fortescue. Finally, the flash-animation Spinning Dancer was created by Nobuyuki Kayahura at the Procreo Flash Design Laboratory. All images are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

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.

When the Lover is Ready the Soul Mate Will Appear

Mel Nudelman and Sally

I’ve read or heard two different meanings attributed to the Buddhist saying, “When the student is ready the master will appear.” The first suggests the universe is ordered in such a way that things happen when they are supposed to:  knowledge will be offered by events in the universe (or God) at the right time. If I am allowed to amplify the meaning slightly, the saying would also refer to the idea that when you are ready, the right person for you might also appear, not just a teacher, but your future love.

I prefer, however, another, more psychological way of thinking about this aphorism: there are always available “masters” or other persons who might be important in your life, but the “student” doesn’t notice the presence of those persons until he is ready. Or, to look at a different aspect of this notion, important knowledge is always or almost always available to us, if only we are open to it, prepared by experience or mind-set to receive it.

In other words, we must be ready to learn, to think and feel differently than we have before in order to recognize there is something important to be learned.

Those in life who have all the answers — certain of everything — will never learn anything new. Those afraid to do new things are unlikely to learn, since in order for the “master to appear” one must have one’s eyes open and actually get out of the house — the master being unlikely to call you to make an appointment, unsolicited.

But if you are humble about what you know, humble in the knowledge there is always more to learn, you might just learn something. Branch Rickey, the baseball executive, said “luck is the residue of design.” I’d add to that, so is learning the residue of design. And part of the “design” or preparation is to put yourself into situations where it is possible to be enlightened, whether by people or events or your actions; by books or theater, music or child-rearing or romance.

A good therapist is enlightened by his patients. He experiences a whole world, the world of the patient, seen through the patient’s eyes. His patients also inform him, directly or by their response to him and to the therapy, what works and what doesn’t.

People in less formal relationships than therapist and client teach us too, and enrich our lives. For example, some people believe there is only one person who represents our romantic destiny. When the person comes along they might say, by the first definition I gave you at the top of this essay, the universe or God put this person in our lives at just the right time. There is a Yiddish word that captures this notion nicely: “bashert” or “beshert.” In other words, to be “fated.” It is used when someone tries to say an event was “meant to be,” and is often employed with respect to a reference in the Jewish Talmud that God has chosen your soul mate.

My own opinion, however, is that most of us might have met, fallen in love with, and married any number of good people and had equally good lives as we have with the person whom we did marry; different, certainly, but just as good, more or less. That we didn’t marry someone else might have been due to a lack of maturity when the “other” person appeared, poor judgment about the value of the qualities in a person, or fear of rejection and heartbreak, to name just a few possible reasons.

If you protect your heart against the poisonous arrows that can harm it, you also might prevent Cupid’s arrow from reaching it.

One must be open, then, for the right person, for the master, for whatever knowledge or experience might enrich us. Vincent Van Gogh wrote the following to his brother Theo in 1880:

Many a man has a bonfire in his heart and nobody comes to warm himself at it. The passers-by notice only a little smoke from the chimney, and go their way… I am drawn more and more to the conclusion that to love much is the best means of approaching God. Love a friend, anyone, or anything you like, and I tell you, you will be on the right road to learn more. You must love with a high and intense determination, with your will and your intellect, and seek always to deepen, expand, and improve your knowledge. …”

Which makes me think of my late friend, Mel Nudelman. Mel was an old friend in both senses of the phrase — I’d known him since the ’70s and at age 87 he lost his wife of 50 years and was devastated. But, to his credit he fought through and grieved his broken heart to the point of making a new girlfriend! (A lovely woman, by the way). And so, Mel lived as he always did, learning, taking classes, counseling others, being with his children and grandchildren, making friends young and old; ever curious about politics, music, sports, medicine, and the world. All this until near the end of his days in his 90s.

Put differently, Mel was open to life and whatever it would reveal to him.

My advice then, to you and to myself, is to keep learning and keep being open to “possibility,” including the possibility there are things yet unseen, unexpected, or unacknowledged to enlighten us if only we keep our eyes open and look.

We are all students of the greatest teacher of all: life.

The photo above shows Mel and Sally Nudelman.

Beautiful and Smart, But Unlucky in Love: The Reasons Why

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I have treated many beautiful women who reported a history of bad relationships: unfaithful boyfriends or husbands, frank physical or verbal abuse by their partners, or a loss of interest by the men from whom they most wanted that interest. There are lots of reasons for this. Here are a few:

1. If you came from a home where you were neglected, criticized, or abused, your self-worth is likely to be less than what it should be. Recall Marilyn Monroe: famous, beautiful, and talented, but insecure and unlucky in love. A woman with the background I’ve described often looks for approval from someone who unconsciously reminds her of the person who failed to love her as a child. It is as if the unconscious mind is still looking for the thing never achieved before (love or approval), and it only has value if it comes from a similar person. Since the parent in question was neglectful or critical, the chosen substitute will likely be that way as well, providing the woman with another chance to win loving attention. Given her poor choice of a partner, the sought-for affection and approval are no more likely than they were in childhood.

2. Whether male or female, if you moved too often as a youngster, the insecurity of being the new kid on the block is hard to shake. You may also feel the never-ending need to prove yourself. Once again, insecurity can lead to choosing someone less good and kind than you deserve.

3. Are you too needy? Are you dependent upon your boyfriend or husband to make decisions for you? Are you unable to support yourself financially? Can you bear to be without a boyfriend for very long? Do you need regular reassurance you are “the one and only?” This gets old. While that reassurance will temporarily calm your fears, your lover will almost surely tire of it, leaving you insecure if you don’t ask repeatedly for confirmation of his devotion (or him feeling put-upon if you do). As with a number of the concerns mentioned above, therapy is suggested if your self-worth requires an ever-present escort who constantly bolsters you; and a tendency to lose your sense of self in the relationship, forget about your friends when with a romantic partner, and give-in to the new love-interest for fear he will otherwise leave you.

4. Is your beauty (or sex) all you believe you have to offer? There are tons of gorgeous, sexy women out there and, unlike you, they won’t age! (Or at least it will seem so, since, as you get older there will be a new cohort of young females who eventually will look preferable in purely physical terms). Although men can be pretty primitive in their response to the physical characteristics of women, qualities like wit, kindness, intelligence, good humor, and integrity grow in their value to all but the most unenlightened men. As someone once said, “Beauty fades, but stupid is forever.”

5. If a man shows interest in you too early, are you turned off? It’s true that there is an element of gamesmanship in dating and mating, but don’t choose the intrigue of a man who is hard to get and miss the devotion and decency of another.

 

https://i1.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/5/5b/Du_Caju_%28miss_Belgian_Beauty_2006%29.jpg/500px-Du_Caju_%28miss_Belgian_Beauty_2006%29.jpg

6. Are you entitled? Do you believe your boyfriend or husband should keep you on a pedestal, shower you with gifts, and buy the best house in just the right neighborhood? Do you value money, status, and material things too much? If you do, a well-grounded man will tire of you or avoid you. One who is less secure or less enlightened may simply become weary of your demands for “more,” and instead seek a woman who is less self-involved and shallow.

7. Are you a good listener? I hope so, because relationships demand this. If you aren’t, your partner will not feel understood. Unless you respect the differences between yourself and your lover (which very likely were initially attractive), you will find the relationship works poorly or not at all.

8. As I’ve said before on my blog, sexual interest and enthusiasm are necessary parts of a good relationship. Abandon them at your own risk. However, this is not to suggest you should have sex simply because your partner wants (or worse) demands it.

9. Do you allow yourself to be demeaned in public by the man you are with? I always ask marital couples seeking therapy what attracted them to each other. One male I recall said, “She ‘shows’ well,” about his beautiful wife. The words and tone were demeaning, in no way a compliment. Indeed, the man might have said the same thing about a show dog or show horse. The lovely lady remained silent. A more self-respecting woman might have walked out of the room.

10. Do you have a drinking or drug problem? Does your male friend? How do you know you don’t? Just because friends and acquaintances drink as much as you doesn’t mean you can avoid the alcohol or drug-driven downside of heartache, arguments, and a bad end to the relationship. Read up on alcohol abuse to get a sense of where you stand: http://www.alcoholscreening.org/

11. Do you wind up with men you feel sorry for? Not a good choice. Do you give in to men who pursue you relentlessly, even though you aren’t enormously attracted to them? Again, this is not destined to lead to a successful match.

12. Do you believe you can change the man you are with? A miraculous transformation is unlikely to occur. Meaningful alternations in any of us take their own time and much painful effort. As the old therapy joke goes, “How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb?” Answer: “One, but the light bulb has to want to be changed.” Take a measure of who you are with while you are still capable of being objective, which means your evaluation needs to be done early in the relationship. Once your heart takes over, rational judgments are either too late or altogether impossible.

13. As a father two two career-minded, married daughters, I applaud independent women who forge careers. But just as a man needs to remember his wife and children require attention, so do women in high-powered careers need to live by the same rules. If you are neglectful of your partner, mentally or physically exhausted by the work you do between 9 and 5, and consumed by issues related to your vocation, the relationship is at risk.

14. Are you too critical? If you experienced or observed a fair amount of criticism growing up, it is easy to become like the person who did this. Indeed, we are often at risk of becoming the thing we hate, or of normalizing the unfortunate characteristics we observed in our parents because we had no other family to compare them to. Compassion, understanding, forgiveness, and acceptance are needed in any good relationship, and in large quantities.

15. Do you expect your boyfriend or husband to fulfill your life and make you happy? No one can really do that for you, although having a companion can be worthwhile and important. But a relationship will not solve all problems or make life perfect. Don’t expect it to. The weight of that expectation is more than most lovers can bear.

16. One final point, and a sad one. If you are smart and beautiful, and especially if you are professionally accomplished, there are men out there who will be intimidated by your competence, intelligence, authority, and attractiveness. As a result, you might have to generate more than the usual amount of effort to find a good match. Unfair, but true.

In closing, I should say that making a good choice of mate, regardless of whether you are a man or a woman, is challenging. But there are a lot of good people out there (albeit fewer men than women), so if your history shows a pattern of failed choices, its best to look in the mirror and ask why. And, if you can’t come up with an answer or change your pattern even though you are aware of repeating the same mistakes, therapy often helps.

This post has generated one very heated and critical comment. You might want to read it and see what you think: Dealing with Online Criticism of that “Bald, Ugly, Old” Man: Me.

The top photo is of Marilyn Monroe, a cropped frame from her 1953 movie, Gentlemen Prefer Blonds. The second image is of Céline Du Caju, Miss Belgian Beauty 2006, taken by Eddy Van 3000 and sourced from Wikimedia Commons.