Five years ago this month, a Fulton County Superior Court judge I never met signed a document hurriedly thrust before him and, with a stroke of his pen, dissolved my marriage. It was a relationship that had consumed half my life. I’m only now getting my bearings back.
Since then, I’ve watched other friends and relatives marry and divorce. I’ve witnessed the “blending,” of any number of combinations of family units. My children’s friends talk of ex-step-brothers or previous step-parents. They witness all sorts of creative couple alternatives.
I’ve always thought it ironic that society prepares us least for the two most important roles we will ever play: that of parent and that of partner.
If I were asked to teach a college course on the realities of those two life paths, I would include the following lessons about relationships with a partner and with kids that I’ve learned the hard way:
What you see is what you get. A friend of mine likes to comment that people don’t change that much over a lifetime, they just become more and more like themselves. Entering into relationships thinking others will change is fatal. Learning to accept others just as they are is vital.
Expect to be disappointed. At some point in your relationships, you will be greatly disappointed. Probably hurt in a way you never thought possible. It hurts a lot less if you anticipate it. The chances of your relationships with your partners or your kids surviving the injury greatly increase if you prepare ahead of time a coupon entitling them to at least one “free forgiving.” We all make stupid mistakes at some point. There was only one person who was perfect and He begged the rest of us to learn to forgive.
Just get through the bad times. A couple of times each decade, people enter what author Gail Sheehy called a “passage.” Passage means a way through to the other side. Let them get there on their own. If you think your partner or kids are all of a sudden acting crazy, focus on something else. Take long walks. Increase your exercise regimen. Join a class or a support group. At some point, they will return to the path. It may take months or even years, but the wait will be worth it.
Give up control. You cannot control anyone except yourself – and that is enough of a challenge. Let your partner or your kids (above age 14) do what they have to do to learn their own lessons. Trying to prevent others from pursuing their own friends or hobbies or bad habits will only make the pursuit seem more enticing. Let them go. Try to control them and they will quickly forget why they loved you in the first place.
Silence is golden, listening is divine. So much of the bad stuff that goes on in today’s households is the result of not paying attention. We don’t listen but want others to listen to us! They won’t – until you’ve demonstrated that you really understand them. Then, they will signal you when they are ready to listen to you. Usually by asking for your opinion. Until then, they are not ready. Be patient.
One of my favorite lines about life or relationships is from “A Song for Life,” by singer Rodney Crowell: “I’ve learned how to listen to a sound like the sun going down.” If you can do that, you’ll be the best parent or best partner you can be – until you mess up. And that leads to the final lesson I’m still learning five years later:
Forgive yourself, learn the lessons and move on.