Tag Archives: Communication

Relationship RESET

IMG_1193“Never restart a journey and use the same road that failed you before.” –Dennis E. Adonis

When I was a little kid, it seemed like I did everything with my older brother. I was just like any of the other kids from the neighborhood. We would all seem to find a rallying spot at some point in the day and figure out if we were going to play football, Capture the Flag (we called it “Flag Game”), Kick the Can, or whatever. At that age, I never paused to wonder if I would have considered my brother to be my “friend” or if we were close. We were only a year apart in school, so we were invariably drawn together in various circumstances.

But then middle school, high school, and college rolled around, and it quickly became clear that no matter what we were before, we were now anything but close. I don’t really remember even any conversations with him from those years. We didn’t fight or have sibling rivalry; it wasn’t like that. We just seemed to live in completely different worlds, even as we sat right next to each other at the table or in the car. My brother drove me to school for a couple of years in high school, and I don’t remember ever talking to him during one of those rides. That seems so weird when I think about it now. I will save the sociological and psychological analyses of how our society socializes boys and the communication patterns of adolescents for another post, but suffice it to say that during those years, I was totally invisible to my brother.

With all of that as background, you might be shocked to learn that by the time I arrived in my mid-20s, the same guy that completely ignored me for more than a decade had become something of a hero to me and one of the people I most enjoyed talking to in this world. That has continued to this day, and even though I don’t talk with him very often—a recurring theme with even my very closest relationships—there is still no one I would rather get a call from. We can instantly dive into a topic, and there is a mutual respect, admiration, and interest in the other person’s thoughts that I never would have dreamed possible when I was 16 and invisible. It is one of the greatest discoveries and gifts of my life, this late-blooming relationship.

My brother and I somehow managed to find the RESET button on our Relationship Remote Control, and we both chose to press it simultaneously. Nobody was holding any grudges from childhood, so we kept what we admired and otherwise gave each other a clean slate. It was as though we stepped off of our separate flights, found each other at the gate, and chose to bypass the baggage claim as we stepped into our new relationship. When I look back at our story from this distance, I can see how hitting RESET and really giving the relationship a fresh start was quite feasible. There is a tremendous divide between childhood and adulthood in terms of how we act in and care for relationships. So many childhood friendships are accidental, a product of whose team you were placed on or who sits next to you in school. As an adult, we bring a little more of an opinion to the game. We are intentional. We choose. And we are also able to see that so much of what happened as kids was so totally unimportant. Think about it: do you remember the specifics of your relationship drama from when you were 15, and do you still hold that against the other person now? More than likely, if that person somehow re-entered your life today, you would take a fresh look and see if they are worthy of your time and friendship, and go from there. Friendships that pass from childhood to adulthood can be restarted and happily go the distance.

But what presses on my mind today is not a mere friendship and it is not a lifelong relationship. I want to know if a marriage or other adult romantic relationship can really hit RESET. When we agree to become life partners, we sign onto a tremendously complex and fluid organism that is our relationship. People grow together or they grow apart, and the commitment to grow together is an admirable but incredibly challenging one. Once we get past that blissful, falling-in-love phase and settle into the reality of an actual life together, things get interesting. Adorable idiosyncrasies shift in the direction of annoyances, and things we once looked past now seem to dominate the scenery. Some of the luster gets scraped off that superhero we built our partner up to be at the beginning, and that disappoints us—sometimes a little, sometimes a lot.

And life happens. You go through tough stuff together, whether it is the loss of a job, a death in the family, or just a really bad fight between the two of you. These things deepen the relationship, but they also leave scar tissue. Baggage. Our partner becomes inextricably intertwined with these things, though. We come to know them in so many different ways. With that, of course, comes knowing their weaknesses and their insecurities. We know how to hurt them, and—sometimes more importantly—we are keenly aware that they hold the power to hurt us. Everyone silently hopes for a continuous cease-fire, as we have all been witness to at least one divorce that turned evil, a testament to the power we have to either protect or completely shatter our partner’s heart. Most of us are happily in denial of the fact that in a long-term, committed relationship, we are walking on the razor’s edge between being the object of our partner’s loyal love and the object of their unbounded hatred.

For me, life seems to unfold in front of me as a direct reflection of my thoughts about it. I believe we see what we expect to see. If we think of the world as inherently beautiful and people as inherently kind and generous, we find examples of that in our day. If we think of the world as cruel and people as selfish and rude, we will just as surely find examples of both as we go about our business. The world presents itself the way we expect it to, and what we focus on shows up more often in our space. The question, then, is: What do you choose to focus on? What do you expect to see?

You might be asking, “What does any of that have to do with my restarting my relationship?” You see, as I said above, we come to know our life partners from so many different angles. We see all of the charming and admirable stuff that we fell in love with—the person we wanted to show off to friends and family—but we also see that other stuff that we wish they would be, and the annoying parts, too. Their portrait becomes a lot more complex. So, what do you choose to focus on? From what angle do you choose to view them? It is a choice, after all. I am not talking about burying your head in the sand and living in denial of issues that really need to be addressed. I am talking about dumping your baggage, grudges, and competition, and seeing anew the qualities you fell in love with, and MORE. I am talking about going in with eyes wide open—not ignoring the things you wish they would change but accepting them as part of the package that you dearly love—and choosing to focus on the good.

I suppose this is where this question goes from the micro to the macro level. It is as much a Life question as it is a relationship question: Can you take the brighter view? Can you choose to focus on the positive? Can you accept the parts you wish were different because they belong to a whole that is amazing and admirable and worthy of love? It is no small task. It requires discipline and a willingness to start every day with the proper focus, with your heart and mind centered in a generous and loving place. That’s tough. But ask yourself: “Is the great love of my life worth it?” I think you already know the answer. I know I do.

How about you? Do you have a relationship that needs to be restarted? Open up your journal and dig in. Who is it with? While I was stuck on the idea of restarting a romantic relationship, you don’t have to be. I think a parent-child relationship is another wonderful and challenging option, actually, as one party has been an adult the entire time and one may have transitioned from childhood to adulthood and is ready to be viewed as such. What parts of your partner are the most appealing and admirable? Why did you love them so much in the first place? Are those qualities still there? Which of their characteristics do you most wish you could change? Is anything on that list a deal-breaker on its own? How about the collection taken as a whole: too much to handle? Is there something on this negative list that must be addressed with your partner before you can start the relationship over in your mind? Which ones do you just need to get over? Can you focus on the good stuff? Can you give them a break? Can you let go of the grudges? Can you wake up tomorrow looking for their goodness? Can you love the whole, complex package? Leave me a reply and let me know: Are you ready for a relationship RESET? 

Live the way you want to be remembered,

William

Have You Gone Dark?

DSC_1061“You can’t stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.” –A.A. Milne, from Winnie-The-Pooh

Hello friend,

Yesterday, I had a total “Blast-From-The-Past” moment. I got a Friend Request on Facebook from an old, dear friend whom I haven’t heard from in over 15 years. It felt like it arrived from another planet! Memories flooded my mind and my heart, and I wanted to see her—or at least give her a call–right then and there. I have thought of her so often over the years and silently wished her all the best. Silently. So what did I do? Nothing. I told myself I would send her a message right then, but something came up—as it always seems to—and the moment passed. Somehow hitting “Accept Request” was not nearly as satisfying as a phone call or an embrace. Bummer. Welcome to my world!

That old friend’s face is sticking with me, though. Eating at me, really. I recently read an article about the most frequent regrets of people on their deathbeds. The one that really struck a chord in my soul was “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.” Actually, it wasn’t just that it struck a chord; no, it was more that it stuck a knife in my heart. I have been really feeling that lately, and the article was a bold reminder.

It made me think of a group of guys that I went to high school with, guys that I liked a lot but weren’t necessarily in my innermost circle of friends. I often hear about these guys still finding a way to get together a couple of times per year despite living all over the country, and still communicating often. I think that is so cool. I am envious of not just their friendship with each other, but their persistence in keeping it close and frequent. They have done the right work, because good friendships are worth it. Those guys will be tight until the day they die.

So, what about me? Have I kept a group like that? And beyond the group, have I even kept individual friends that close? I just now made a list on a full sheet of paper of all the friends who have been nearest and dearest to me on all of the stops on my journey. I started with my friends from childhood and high school; that is where the biggest group came from, and really the people I still consider my dearest friends. Next came the other stops where I stayed long enough or exposed enough of myself to build relationships: college, Minneapolis, New York City, Los Angeles, college again, graduate school, and then finally my pre-children life here. There are over 30 names on the list, and they are all people I would love to happen upon in a quiet space, so that I could give them a big hug and enjoy a wonderful conversation. Friends only, no acquaintances.

It is certainly bittersweet to look at this list. It is sweet, of course, because I truly love these people, and it does the heart good to think of those I love. But the bitter part is aimed at my own role in the next column of the list. That is where I noted how much communication I have with each person. Sadly, next to almost every single name on my list, it says “None”. None! My favorite people in all the world—outside of my family, of course—don’t hear from me at all. That is both disappointing and embarrassing. I cannot stop looking at this list! It is haunting, really. These tremendous people and the relationships that I had with them are now like ghosts to me.

How did I get to this point of having created these ghosts? Of course it is easy to claim lack of time. That is our world, isn’t it? But, even if that can explain it, it doesn’t satisfy me. There is the issue of the increasing awkwardness that goes with increasing time between correspondences. I wonder if it would be weird to call someone out of the blue—would I be inconveniencing them?—so I hesitate. That hesitation continues to the point that I wonder if I even matter to them the way they still matter to me. So I go dark, sitting silently and wishing them well.

Then I think about how to transition the relationship from a catch-up conversation (e.g. “What do you do, in general?” or “How have you passed the years?”) to a regular conversation (e.g. “What did you do today?” or “What do you think about Issue X”). The whole process paralyzes me, gets in my head and keeps me from doing what my heart knows it should do, which is reach out. Make that call. Send that letter or email or Friend Request. But since I haven’t, and because I don’t really seek out new relationships, I have a pretty tiny social circle. Even living in this city the last dozen years, there are only a couple of people I make it a point to see occasionally. This seems to be why, as I age, my family becomes increasingly my best friends (though I do a pretty poor job keeping in touch with them, too, I must admit).

All of this is just to say that I can definitely see how “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends” made the list of top deathbed regrets. I am (hopefully) in the middle of my life, and I already regret it. I miss them. And I think I will miss them even more in the years to come if I continue my silence. So, I think I will get on Facebook tonight and send that old friend a message. Maybe we can even trade numbers and have a real conversation. That would do my heart good, maybe even ease some regret. It is something. A baby step. But nevertheless, a step in the right direction. It is time to break my silence. Time to turn the light back on. I am open for business!

How about you? How well do you stay in contact? Open up your journal and spill some ink. Maybe the best way to start is by making the same type of list that I made, with all of your most beloved friends from the various stops on your life journey and how much communication you currently have with them. How does it look? Are you pretty good at making the consistent effort, or is your list as bleak as mine? Are your best best friends from childhood, like mine, or are they from a different phase of your life? Is your communication frequent enough that you have “regular conversations”, or are you stuck in “catch-up conversations” each time you talk? How many do you get together with in person? Do you have a group that still gets together for things like a “girls weekend”? How much regret do you feel from losing touch with people, and how does that compare to how much you think you will feel on your deathbed? Is it enough to get you to reach out? This listing exercise was quite therapeutic for me, and I hope it works the same for you. Leave me a reply and let me know: Have you gone dark? 

Listen to the quiet wisdom of your heart,

William

My Family’s Adopted Holiday

1975154_10202817070604257_1405049607_nHello friend,

My normally-silent cellphone was buzzing on Monday.  It was St. Patrick’s Day, and text messages were flying across the country seemingly every few minutes, loaded with photos of all sorts of green and/or shamrock-shaped food and other shenanigans.  It wasn’t my friends out on the town getting silly on green beer.  No, it was simply my siblings and parents, each in their respective homes, celebrating this minor holiday in a major way.  They were putting photos and comments on Facebook, too, sharing recipes for home-made shamrock shakes and photos of big spreads of corned beef & cabbage and shamrock cookies.  I have four siblings, and every single one—along with my parents—were doing the day for all it is worth, and then some.

As I watched the messages and photos pour in, I couldn’t help but think we are an odd bunch, making St. Patrick’s Day our unofficial family holiday.  To most people, I think this holiday is nothing more than a chance to get an extra party night in the year or to wear a green shirt as a conversation piece in an otherwise normal day.  Otherwise, on every 17th day of March, the world goes on the same as it did on the 16th or 25th day.  Schools are in session, banks are open, and no one is gearing their vacation around it.  As holidays go, it is more April Fool’s Day or, at best, Halloween, than it is Thanksgiving or Christmas.  Those are the big ones, the ones that not just get families together but bind them together.

Not my family, though.  No, while we enjoy the other holidays (and certainly gather more frequently at Christmas), the day that binds us together is St. Patrick’s Day.  It is only in the last couple of years that I have recognized this, and truly it was not always the case.  When I was a kid, we wore green just to avoid getting pinched, and of course I loved to get a Shamrock Shake at McDonald’s when we went to Montana on our annual skiing trip (I still love those shakes, too, and that is the one and only day of the year I visit the Golden Arches, driven mostly by nostalgia but also by that minty, sweet goodness).  But that was it.  St. Patrick’s Day came and went like Arbor Day or Flag Day.  It is only in my adulthood that it has become this sort of glue to my family.  But why?  This is what I was shaking my head about as I watched the messages keep flying into my phone that night.  Thankfully, it was about that time of the night when I usually sit down with my journal.  As always, my old friend helped me find some much-needed clarity on the topic.

What I came to see in the process of my writing is that the underlying motivation for us to not just celebrate St. Patrick’s Day but share it with each other in this unusually passionate way stems from our deep love of our father and our attempt to let him know that in a way that he can let in.  Let me unpack that thought.  My dad’s mother—my grandma (we called her “Nana”, and she was a gem)–was fully Irish, her parents having come from the old country and settling on the open plains of North Dakota to raise a family.  She died while I was in high school.  In the ensuing years, my old man became more sincere in his remembrance of St. Patrick’s Day, seemingly in an attempt to make sure that all of us not just remembered but honored our Irish heritage and, as an extension, his dear mother.  As my siblings and I started having kids, it was not unusual to get a little package of green necklaces, headwear, and other paraphernalia just before the big day to ensure a complete celebration and a passing of the torch to the next generation.

Tracing this back to my grandma’s death helped me see the source of the passion from my Dad’s end, but still the question was lingering about why my brothers, sisters, and I have so completely climbed onboard with it and are passing it to our own children.  It turns out that for us kids, it is also about paying tribute to a parent.  You see, my old man can be a bit difficult to get close to.  Like a lot of guys his age—or any age for that matter—he doesn’t really let his guard down enough to allow you to share a truly intimate moment with him.  He tends to disappear when it is time to say goodbye after a visit, leaving the hugs and tears role to my Mom.  It is tough to say “I love you” and have him truly receive it; he just doesn’t take that in very well or make it comfortable for you to try to say, even.  It is tough to get past the wall.

I love my Dad like crazy.  I always thought I would never be able to tell him that, though, never be able to share with him that he really means the world to me.  As you might guess, I am more open and expressive with my emotions than he is, so we are not always on the same page in the communication department.  But, as I came to understand while writing about St. Patrick’s Day in my journal on Monday, it turns out that I have, unknowingly, learned to speak his language and say what I want to say in a way that he can hear.  In the absence of a lot of hugs, terms of endearment, and the like, adopting this holiday has become the one way for the kids to tell the old man “I love you” in a way that he can accept.  We can kind of slip it in under the radar.  No one has to admit—even if we are aware of it, which I wasn’t until writing about it—that this is what is really happening.  Embracing St. Patrick’s Day to the hilt is our tribute to him and our acknowledgment of his love for his mother.  We celebrate her to celebrate him.  And since no one says that out loud, he doesn’t put up any walls or keep the celebration at arm’s length.  Even though that sounds like a lot of subconscious smoke & mirrors, it actually seems to work for everyone.  I am okay with it.

So, it seems that for my siblings and I, the depth of our sincerity in celebrating St. Patrick’s Day is less about honoring our Irish heritage than it is about honoring our Dad.  My Mom sent us all a text message Monday morning with a picture of the old man all clad in green (see above) and a quote from him: “If you’re lucky enough to be even a wee bit Irish, you’re lucky enough!  Happy St. Paddy’s Day.”  To that I would say of the man who bestowed upon me the middle name Patrick: if you are lucky enough to have a Dad even a wee bit like mine, you are lucky enough!

Okay, your turn.  Get out your journal and start exploring your mind.  What holiday has your family adopted?  What is it about that holiday that connects you to each other more than the other holidays?  Is it, like mine, underlined by a sentimentality toward a parent or grandparent?  Also, how do you communicate with your parents or family members?  Are you as affectionate and physical as you are with your close friends, or do you feel like you have to filter yourself?  Have you found a new language to speak in, like my placing uncommon importance on a holiday?  If you have kids, is the pattern reproducing itself, or have you charted a new course in affection and communication?  Probing the depths of your heart and mind about family matters is an enormous can of worms, but the digging is, in my experience, simultaneously fascinating and liberating.  How deep are you willing to dig?

Be brave and be YOU,

William