Thursday, August 19, 2010

time to take out the trash

imagine what your house would look like if you never took out the trash. picture the piles of refuse growing in your kitchen, decaying and putrefying; your wastebaskets overflowing onto the floor around them. visualize the mess spreading to other parts of your home. as time moves forward, the smell of garbage permeates not only your home, but spills out onto the street. anyone who passes by your house can smell the stench before they reach your front door.

once there is no longer any room indoors, and the refuse spills outdoors, your front yard is littered with old appliances, newspapers, and filth of every kind. critters begin to build nests and burrows in and amongst your leavings, and other infestations soon become a real problem. finally, imagine yourself at the breaking point. when you can take the burden of the chaos and filth no longer, you make the decision to do something about it. but now, the problem is almost too large to address. where do you begin? it’s overwhelming because the issue of taking out the trash is no longer the only issue. now you must deal with the pests and their nests. you will need to sort through the piles, organizing what to keep, what to trash, and you will need to re-learn how to live without the clutter. you will need to learn how to take out the trash. you are also ashamed by the realization that your trash has affected your neighbors and has created an eyesore in the community. all of this will take a supreme amount of time and energy to confront the enormous task ahead. got the picture?

neglecting to take out the trash is one of the most common causes of failure in marriages. it starts out as a very small problem, almost unperceivable, but over time, it’s fatal.

i’m talking about the trash of bitterness: the little offenses, the slights, the unsolved issues that exist in every marital union. it seems so much easier to ignore them, to stuff them. they’ll go away . . . riiii - ight?

consider these scenarios:

#1 she’d always been controlling. at first he saw her as a “go-getter” . . . outgoing. eventually she seemed merely controlling. no matter what he did it was never right. she corrected and nattered at him all the time. he tried to talk to her about it, but usually backed down. it’s wasn’t worth the hassle, so he ignored it. over time he realized that he too was becoming more and more critical of her. he didn’t voice it as she did, but it was there. he found that he preferred the company of his buddies more than that of his wife. more and more he made excuses to come home later, and after awhile, he just didn’t care.

#2 he had a history of drinking. while he was drinking he neglected his wife, neglected his children, and generally lived the life of a drunkard. but she loved him, and waited for him through all of the pain and the financial fall out. finally after years of begging, he checked into rehab, and he came out sober. she had great expectations for him to take the helm and be the head of the household. it was a slow process and things didn’t move along the way she’d hoped. she found herself resentful but she maintained a stiff upper lip. resentment eventually grew to criticism, and then disdain. before long their home had become a boxing ring, where ugly things were thought and said and thrown like punches. neither one wanted to stay with the other any longer. it was just too hard.

#3 he didn’t like the dinner. he told her so. although he was well-meaning, it hurt her feelings. she chose not to talk to him about it, after all, it was such a small thing. yet she found her heart cooling toward him.

little offenses, no matter how small, will become big ones, when not dealt with.

in order to keep our marriages free from the clutter of bitterness, we must take out the trash, and do it regularly.

i know one couple that makes a practice, every night, of taking a few minutes and touching base with each other. “did i do something today that hurt or offended you?” they choose to be honest with each other. they disclose, and they offer forgiveness. when that question has been answered, they follow with “did i do anything today that made you happy?” at first, this practice may take longer than a few minutes, but you will find that as the garbage can is emptied regularly, it becomes easier and easier, not only to take out the trash, but to prevent the creation of garbage in the first place.

for this practice to be effective you must agree to be honest with each other. do your best to state your case in terms that are not accusatory, but rather focus on how your spouse’s behavior affected you. then, when your spouse is sharing, own it. don’t make excuses, don’t rationalize. if you hurt your partner, whether intentional or not, apologize. and mean it. when your mate apologizes, forgive. true forgiveness is more important to your own well being than to theirs (another issue – probably for the next blog).

of course, this approach assumes that there isn’t much trash to take out. if your trash has accumulated and you find that your relationship is characterized by contempt and criticism, it’s time to get help. get help and get it fast. check your local church or city chamber to get some referrals for a marriage counselor. ask around to see who’s good. some churches offer free counseling, others are fee based. whatever the price, it’s worth it. consider the alternative – divorce is a messy and very costly “solution” when the trash build up has gotten out of control.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

the box

his ashes were scattered under the old oak tree he loved so much. he had died first. ironically, she had always been the fragile one, the one with all the health problems. but his struggle against alzheimer’s had taken him before her.

they met during oktoberfest. they married and he went off to the war. they had shared 56 years together. and together they faced the korean war, lived in ten houses, worked through her 30+ surgical procedures, had three children, gained and then lost a small fortune, celebrated six grandchildren and five great grandchildren. they faced his illness with their usual resolve – they would see this through together. and they did. no matter what life brought them, or took away from them, it was the two of them, and their family, that they treasured the most. fidelity, loyalty, and commitment were the foundations of their marriage.

when the small but solemn family gathering ended, she wanted to keep the container that had held the cylinder with his ashes. one last keepsake of a life that had meant everything to her.

in the two years after his death, her health had deteriorated rapidly. no longer needing to be strong for him, she relinquished the fight, and allowed her bones to fail at last. she had been bedridden for most of that time, and in constant pain. she remained ever cheerful, and grateful for the life they had lived together. surrounded by her children and her grandchildren, she relished the warmth of the family that had started as they used to say “with just the two of us”.

on our last visit to the nursing home, she talked about the pain, and its constant torment. she was done. and she was tired. the three of us held hands and we prayed “Lord, if she’s ready, please have mercy and let her go”. she nodded her head in silent agreement, and as always kissed us goodbye with a smile. again she repeated, how thankful she was for their family. there were so many in the nursing home who had no one, yet the two of them had been so rich. they had a loving and caring family, and that meant so much.

just a few days later, we got the call that she had followed him into eternity. it had been quick. one minute she had asked the nurse for something, and the next she was gone. just like that.

we made our way to the nursing home and had our moment. later that day, as we began to gather her things, we found it – the box. she had taped pictures on it: a picture of him, another of the two of them with all of their grandchildren.

sensing that this was something sacred, the container was opened very tenderly. in it she had kept her most prized possessions: cards she had received when he had died, pictures of the family . . . and his letters. years of love letters he had written to her. she had kept them all. “to my sweet valentine”. “to my loving wife” “to my only girl in the world”. each letter recounting his love for her, his devotion, and his continued commitment to weather every storm at her side. she had kept those sweet memories as her last link to him.

next week we will scatter her ashes, just as she had hoped, under that same oak tree. and the family that they began almost 60 years ago will be gathered together to pay tribute, to support each other, to bring comfort to each other with our stories and our memories.

theirs was a legacy and a lifetime of constancy, forged through years of “ups and downs, tears and laughter, smiles and frowns”, as he had described their life together, for better or worse, for richer or poorer. thanks mom and dad, for honoring your vows and for the family you built out of your love for each other. you have left us an inheritance much more precious than money.

there’s a bench that sits under that oak tree. the perfect place to remember, and to be thankful.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

emotionally naked, and not ashamed

vulnerable: a real buzz word for the last couple of decades. it has been used to describe a certain desireable quality in a partner. the word “vulnerable” suggests a kind of sexiness. both men and women tend to find vulnerability in the opposite sex very attractive.

in any relationship, especially in a marriage, vulnerability is a key component to communication and intimacy. the most successful marriages are the ones in which each partner has made him or herself completely vulnerable to the other. if vulnerability is a gateway to connection and intimacy, all the buzz makes sense.

what does it mean “to be vulnerable”?

consider webster’s definition: vulnerable (vul׳ nәr ә bәl) adj. 1. capable of or susceptible to being wounded or hurt physically or emotionally. 2. susceptible to temptation or corrupt influence. 3. open to or defenseless against criticism or moral attack. derived from the ‘late latin’ meaning “wound-able”

webster’s thesaurus lists “unprotected” as a synonym. or “exposed”; which means the condition of being exposed to something detrimental. exposure to attack.

these words paint an incredible picture of trust. a choosing to present your weakest and most defenseless places to your mate, believing that your loved one will protect and cover you, rather than lean in for the attack. by the definition, that’s what vulnerability is, allowing oneself to be “wound-able". in a marriage, allowing yourselves to be susceptible to each other, and guarding the other’s back will result in a closeness and a depth of communication that is truly unparalleled.

let me use our little chihuahua, jasmine, as an example of being “wound-able”. jasmine is loved and well cared for. her favorite pasttime is to find a place in the house where the sun is streaming through the window and lay down in the sunshine. it is in that posture that she is the most content. recently she has adopted a practice that makes us laugh, but says a lot about her trust in us. while she is “sunbathing” if one of us gets within a few feet of her, regardless of where she is, she rolls over, belly up. in the dog world, exposing one’s underbelly is the equivalent of submission, confidence, a feeling of safety. when we approach our pet, she is so confident that she is safe and loved that she voluntarily exposes her weakest side. in doing so, the result is often a scratch on her underside, a pat on the belly – the equivalent of intimacy and affection in dog-land.

what does vulnerability look like? ask yourself - when i am with my spouse, am i guarded and self-protecting, or willing to easily expose my underbelly? when my spouse exposes his or her frailties, what do i do with that? am i affirming and encouraging, or do i go for the jugular? there’s no question that we’ve all been wounded at some point or another by the one closest to us. when that happens, how do i respond? do i retaliate in kind? do i keep my deepest thoughts, my dreams, my failures to myself because i am afraid of getting hurt? or are we healthy enough as a couple that i can forgive, and allow myself to be vulnerable again? emotional intimacy simply cannot exist in an environment where each spouse is afraid of emotional nakedness. if there is a sentinel on duty, posted at the gates of my heart, warding off any potential attack from my spouse, then we cannot share our hearts with each other.

we all know of a marriage where both partners co-habitate under the same roof, but there is no depth, no softness, no susceptiblity to each other, no emotional nakedness. tragic. if that is your conditon, it is not too late to turn things around. do some soul searching, and be honest, first, with yourself. ask yourself some of the self-evaluation questions we noted earlier.

then ask your spouse “do i make you feel safe? have i ever wounded you when you made yourself vulnerable to me?’” caution: don’t ask this question at the family dinner table. set aside a time when you can be alone, perhaps after the kids are in bed, or you are both out having coffee together. invite your spouse to be gently honest with you, and when your mate answers your question, don’t make excuses, just listen. if your spouse tells you that you have indeed wounded him/her, then apologize. ask for forgiveness. remember, at this point, it is your loved one’s perception of the situation that you are most interested in. in time, as you learn to protect each other’s soft spots, affirming each other at every opportunity, your confidence and sense of safety will increase. take the first step by making yourself vulnerable, and see how that will encourage your mate to do the same. carl s. avery said, “love enables you to put your deepest feelings and fears in the palm of your partner’s hand, knowing they will be handled with care”.

here are some additional quotes to chew on:

“the only love worthy of a name is unconditional” john powell

“when you make a sacrifice in marrige, you’re sacrificing not to each other but to unity in a relationship” joseph campbell

“when we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable. but to grow up is to accept vulnerability – to be alive is to be vulnerable” madeleine l’engle

** please note we are not addressing relationships where physical abuse is an issue. that is another subject for another time. **