Pen and Moon

from the writing nook of Theresa Jarosz Alberti

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Life Lessons: Saying Yes to the Positive, and a Big Do-Over

Life is handing me a bit of magic lately. In two weeks, Bob and I will be traveling off to England and Iceland again. Yes, for those of you who’ve followed along, we DID just go to both places last May to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary. It’s really almost miraculous that through some really good fortune, we are getting to go again. I’m thrilled and touched at this opportunity.

 

Some of you read along as we blogged, posted and photographed our way through England and Iceland last year. It was a great trip and we had a good time, but there were some flies in the ointment. I weighed over 300 lbs and was in a lot of pain every day, my knees, feet and legs so tight and sore that I couldn’t walk very fast. I limped, and we needed to make frequent stops so I could rest. It was very frustrating. And while Bob and I were getting along, it wasn’t any kind of a second honeymoon trip for us. We had our issues that had piled up on us. And while neither of us knew it at the time, we were headed toward September when Bob would request a divorce, followed by many excruciatingly grief-filled months. It’s been a tumultuous, painful, rewarding and transforming time, so this magical trip is very welcome. And I’ve learned a big lesson, too, just by how it came about.

 

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May 2014 London

 

 

About a month ago, Bob was supposed to have a week of training to earn some certification here in Minneapolis. The day the training was supposed to start, he found out that it had been cancelled, since he’d been the only one to sign up. He called the training company, based in London, to find out where else he could get the training. There were some places in the US he could take it, but it was also offered in London. Well, why not try? The training company said he could take it there, and then Bob went on to ask if they had any apartments they could put him up in. The company said yes, and they agreed to let him stay for free since they’d had to cancel the Minneapolis training. Hmmm… now he had training and a place to stay in London. He only had to convince his workplace to fly him out there. He asked, explaining that they wouldn’t have to pay for his lodging since he already had that covered… and they said yes, throwing in a per diem for food for the week as well. He called me excitedly, saying that we could turn this into a trip to England and Iceland again for the two of us, would only have to pay for my airfare and some of our expenses as we extended the trip into another week, and I could see more of London during the day while he was in training.

 

Of course I said yes. I could hardly believe that something that sounds so improbable actually came together so easily (well, Bob did do a lot of work to manage it all). And I still get teary-eyed thinking about it—to me, this feels like the Universe is handing us a big Do-Over. After such a hard time, we get to go do this trip again, and now we are in a better place in our relationship, and I am certainly in a better place myself. I’ve lost over 60 lbs since then, I’m not in pain, I can walk and move and fit into things so much more easily, and I feel like I’m more in touch with my authentic self. I get another chance at this, I get another chance at life. And I’m so, so grateful.

 

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Tower Bridge 2014

 

The big lesson I’ve learned in watching this all come together comes courtesy of Bob. I grew up learning to be a negative-thinking person. I was taught to look for what will go wrong, to be on guard, to not expect good things to come my way, and to prepare for the worst possible outcome. It’s kind of a survival-mentality, based on fear. But Bob, bless his heart, is definitely a more positive-thinking person most of the time. He’s also good at taking risks. So when the training was canceled, he didn’t just say “damn, that sucks,” like I might’ve. He started looking for a way to make it work. And when he reached for the bigger stars (training in London!), he just kept not being afraid to ask for what he wanted. London? Free apartment? Airfare? He believed it could work, and it turned out, that was enough. Sure he had to also do footwork to make it happen, but the most important thing he did was believe something great and positive could happen. And it did.

 

I’ve been taking improv classes for a while now (scary but fun!), and one of the basic tenets of improv is to say “yes, and.” When you team up to do improv with others, you’re never supposed to negate any ideas that a partner comes up with—you go along with it and add to it. If someone says, “I’m a pink polka-dot dinosaur,” you wouldn’t say “there are no pink polka-dot dinosaurs.” You’d say, “yes, and you make the best dinosaur-sized chocolate chip cookies!” You build on what is given to you and work with it. It creates a positive relationship and makes the improv work better.

 

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Gates of Buckingham Palace

 

It’s a challenge for me to learn to be more positive– in improv and in life. In the situation of this training (if it had been me) my negativity would have resulted in disappointment, not getting the training, or maybe looking for lesser options. But look where having a positive outlook turned this whole situation around—for Bob and for me. It really has opened up my mind, and it amazes me. How can I apply this to other areas of my life?

 

With all the transforming I’ve been doing in many areas of my life lately, I think this is one lesson I can really use and start applying. And lucky us, we will get to reap the rewards of Bob’s “yes and”-ing the situation. We get a do-over, just as we’re getting a kind of do-over in our relationship too. Oh, how can I not cry a little over this miracle, this gift. Happy tears!

(Photos by Bob or Theresa Alberti)

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Bob by hearth in Shakespeare’s birthplace

 

100 lbs: Lessons in Less of Me

A few weeks ago, I reached a big milestone —I stepped on the scale, ecstatic to realize I’ve lost 100 lbs. since 2005. I used to watch The Biggest Loser and I remember how exciting that moment was for contestants, achieving that goal. It boggled my mind to think of doing such a thing myself. What would that feel like? Now I know…

 

Pretty damn good! 🙂11072306_10153139153744431_1028452397_n

 

     My friend Serena tells me that my weight loss is great, but it’s one of the least interesting things about me, especially after the tumultuous year I’ve had, and the many changes I’ve made. After a lifetime of focusing on weight and feeling fat (whether or not I actually was fat), I love that comment of hers. I’m starting to believe it. Losing weight is really good for me because it’s improving the quality of my life and my health so much. But I am so much more than this.

 

But in honor of this milestone, I’ll share the story of how I got to where I am and what I’ve learned along the way.

 

     For the first half of my life, I had a pretty normal body size. I was a bit chubby, but as I look back at photos of myself, I’m surprised at how average I looked compared to how I felt about myself. I was bigger than my thin sisters and I developed a butt and hips early. I was sturdy, but I was full of body shame early in life, felt fat, grotesque, unacceptable. I know this isn’t uncommon for a lot of girls and women, which is really sad, and such a waste.

 

     My mom and a few others were preoccupied with my weight, and I became self-conscious and awkward, and this added another link to my low self-esteem. Our home life was chaotic and dysfunctional with addiction issues, and I didn’t have the security or support to cope, so by age 11 I was well underway to an eating disorder. After a little dabbling in anorexia, I became a binge eater (which wasn’t recognized as an eating disorder at the time, so when I tried to get help as a teen I couldn’t get treatment). My old journals from my teens (and my 20s, 30s and 40s) are full of angst about food, weight, my body, bingeing and my attempts to fix that part of my life.

 

wedding     I look back on the photos of my wedding and honeymoon, and in retrospect, I can see how normal-sized and lovely I was. But I remember how fat and unacceptable I felt on my honeymoon—too big, bloated and out of control.

 

I’d spent most of my life feeling fat, but I had no idea of what it was like to actually BE fat. That soon changed.

 

     I started gaining some weight after I got married. I was finishing my college degree while working and adjusting to married life. I was completely stressed out. Then I got pregnant with twins and had a tough pregnancy with preterm labor, was on hospitalized bed rest for 6 weeks and gained a lot of weight. We became parents of preemies, dealt with the NICU, then brought them home and I became a stay-at-home mom.

 

For me, food was my primary coping mechanism to get through all the stress and challenges of my life. I’d been in therapy for years but suffered a lot of depression, anxiety and low self-esteem. I didn’t know how to feel or handle my feelings. I didn’t know how to get out of these traps that kept me stuck.

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Cut to the quick—by 2005, I’d gained 200 lbs. since our wedding day in 1989. I remember stepping on the scale and seeing the number 348, my highest weight ever. I realize that if I took 3 more steps forward I would be closer to 400 lbs. than 300, and I vowed to myself that I wouldn’t do that. Also, we were planning our month-long trip to swap homes with a family in Germany. I wanted to be able to walk around with my family to see sights, I wanted to fit on the plane better. At the time, I could barely walk 2 blocks.

 

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I started walking on the track at the Y, once around at first, then increasing little by little. I rode the stationary bike too. I gave up a few of my addictions, like replacing my frequent habit of McDonald’s biscuit breakfast sandwiches with a homemade healthier version of a whole wheat muffin, an egg, Canadian bacon and spinach.

 

     By the time we went on our trip, I had lost over 30 lbs. and could walk 2 miles. It was a great trip! I was still morbidly obese, but now I had an exercise habit.

 

Over the years since then, I had times of achieving some healthy success followed by relapses. I still struggled with my eating disorder and all the personal issues that kept me stuck. My weight yo-yoed, mostly staying around 300 lbs. I sought help in many places and always kept trying—I had a personal trainer and started running, even made it through a 5K race once even though I was incredibly slow. I took many classes like Zumba, step and spinning. I read books and took online workshops trying to deal with my eating. It was always a struggle.

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Gradually my extreme weight began to greatly affect the quality of my life beyond just the usual frustrations and annoyances of being big. My body couldn’t handle it anymore and I began to live with daily debilitating pain. My feet and knees hurt constantly, my legs stiffened up with arthritis; I hobbled around and received many comments about my limping. I had to give up the exercise classes I loved because they hurt too much. Even walking hurt. When Bob and I had our wonderful 2 week trip to England and Iceland last year to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary, we walked a lot and I did my best to keep going. I was in great pain every day despite pain killers, and we had to stop frequently so I could rest. It was so discouraging.

 

If you’ve been reading my blog, you know what caused all the great change in my life. When people ask me how I’ve lost weight in the last 7 months (down 62 lbs. since then), I ruefully tell them, “Well, first my husband told me he wanted a divorce, and then I lost my appetite…” That’s the simple version. I was so blown away by immense grief and overwhelming anxiety that I couldn’t eat or sleep for quite a while. That was the beginning. And in the process, I ended up taking a good hard look at my life and realized that I really hadn’t been happy with so much of it. I’d just been existing and complacent. With my new magnifying lens, I saw that my eating disorder and my extreme weight were ruining my life. I was handicapped with pain and could do less and less. My obsession with food was a factor in Bob wanting a divorce (it wasn’t the main thing, but it was part of it); it had affected our relationship. It was a raw, hard truth, and I was finally waking up to it. And I saw and acknowledged for the first time that It Just Wasn’t Worth It. I had looked to food with some excitement and anticipation for most of my life, and now I saw that what it had given me wasn’t anything I wanted anymore. Numbed out on food, afraid to reach for goals in my life, afraid of my own feelings, I wasn’t really living. And I decided then and there, I didn’t want it anymore.

 

10981798_10155369677360545_5085440350496665717_n     It may sound strange to say it, but dealing with food and losing weight became easy after that. I suppose easy isn’t the right word, but I no longer struggled with the compulsive urge to eat because I didn’t expect it to be anything more than nourishment anymore. Having a treat, having something taste great was no longer a priority. And since I could no longer hold back my feelings anymore because they were too big, now I didn’t need food to cope with them anymore. Now I cried and screamed and yelled. I talked to Bob and friends about my grief and pain. I opened myself up through blogging, sharing my story and asking online friends for help. I was and am basically living a whole new life. And I got help from The Emily Program, and local eating disorder clinic as well, which has given me a lot of support.

 

As I lost weight, my pain levels started to go down drastically and I began to be able to exercise and walk again. Clothes started fitting better, and then I began to pull out things from the back of my closet that had been too small for a long time. I started feeling attractive for the first time in a long time—but part of this was all the work I’ve been doing to heal my heart and my self-esteem too. I am aiming to move beyond all the things that have gotten in my way before, and I’ve been plumbing the depths of painful issues from my past that I’ve carried around. Not only am I lighter physically now… I’m getting lighter mentally and emotionally too.

 

Over the years of being so interested in food, I have amassed a lot of knowledge about nutrition, fitness and health. These are topics that have always interested me, so I’ve read a lot and learned a lot as I’ve gone. Now that I’m not bingeing on junk food (as was my frequent habit), I’m able to eat for health most of the time. Pleasure is a factor and it’s nice to eat tasty food, but it just isn’t such a priority for me anymore.

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There’s an old saying I heard when I went to Weight Watchers many years ago: “Nothing tastes as good as being thin feels.” I don’t really like that saying—it sounds smug and patronizing. But I do have to say that for me, nothing tastes as good as being alive feels. Nothing tastes as good as finally letting my authentic self come out to engage with the world. I have been given a great gift though this whole painful process—ME! I’m finally able to love myself, to have a body that feels good, to feel my feelings and be vulnerable with people. Even with all the pain, I wouldn’t go back to where I was last summer.

 

Looking at these old photos of myself makes me very sad. I know all the pain that was hidden under all that weight, and I deeply regret how much time I wasted and how I felt about myself then. But I’m coming into a new compassion for Old Me now. I know how hard she worked, how she never gave up despite not being able to make lasting changes. And she did all the ground work for me to be able to move forward now.

 

I still have a long way to go on my journey to get down to a normal, healthy size. Another 100 lbs.! It doesn’t seem so daunting anymore, since I’ve already done it once. I’m so grateful to be where I’m at in my life right now. I still have a lot of painful emotions to work through and many challenges to face in my life, but I feel so much better now. Physically better, and better about myself as I really come to love myself. This is a good place to be. Thanks for all your support, my friends!

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(Many photos by Bob Alberti)

 

Divorce Lesson #10

I’m sitting out here at the almost-6-month mark.  It’s been quite a journey, and my life is basically unrecognizable from what it used to be– mentally, emotionally and physically. I’m crossing a landscape of intense feelings I never knew existed before.  It’s weird.  It’s good. It’s hard. It’s my life.

I know I’ve mentioned before that I’ve been on a voracious knowledge-seeking quest (hence my Hermione nickname).  I haven’t been able to read fiction hardly at all–  I’ve been absorbing self-help and relationship books at a fast pace.  Because of the intensity of my situation, I’ve been on a steep learning curve and I’m racing to keep up.  I want to know everything NOW—  which sounds a bit desperate, and maybe it is, but it’s been fueling huge growth for me.

The relationship between Bob and me is continuing to change and grow.  It can never go back to what it was before, and that’s good.  In many ways, we were stifled in our marriage, and it took this blowout for me to wake up and see it.  I wasn’t really happy, not with our relationship or with myself. Even though this whole process has been terribly, sometimes unbearably, painful, there are many great and hopeful things coming out of it.  To name a few– I’ve lost 50 lbs so far, my eating disorder is no longer crippling me, my physical pain has diminished, my activity has increased, I’m feeling a whole world of feelings that I used to numb, I’ve opened myself up to people and have received tons of support, and I’m finally able to connect with and be my authentic self now– the one I’d buried under all this shit for so many years.

And things have been pretty wonderful between Bob and me, too.  Yes, despite the difficulties, there were many good things about our relationship during our marriage and we put a lot of work into it, which is why we’ve been able to make so many changes so quickly. The parts that weren’t great have improved remarkably–  we are more open, honest and vulnerable with each other.  We’re examining old patterns that kept us stuck and speaking up about them and working them through.  There’s deeper communication going on now.  We’re “dating” or whatever you want to call it, and more changes are coming in our future, with their own issues and challenges to deal with.  Our path is not an easy one, but the potential for rewards is great.

One thing I’ve had some struggles with is Doubt.  I’m gathering info and making some emotionally-laden choices, and I question myself about what I’m doing.  There’s angst, there’s uncertainty, and I’m looking closely at my motives.  What am I doing?  Why am I doing it?  I can bend myself into a pretzel over choices.

worry crop

I’ve also felt the heavy weight of others doubting me.  As I’ve talked with people, I’ve been questioned by a few friends and professionals about why I’m doing what I’m doing.  Is it good for me?  What are my motives?  Am I acting out of irrational feelings?

All this doubt can turn me in circles, leaving me more anxious than I was.

However, lately as I take a deep breath and settle down into the center of me, I’ve been coming to a new realization.  I’m looking at myself and my processes over the last few months, all the work I’ve done and the knowledge I’ve acquired.  I see some real strength in myself, bravery too.  And even in this time of uncertainty, I’m finding a calm sureness in myself.

 

Divorce Lesson #10:  Learning to Trust Myself

Feelings.  As a child growing up in an emotionally-charged difficult household, I learned that feelings weren’t safe. At around age 11, I started in with an eating disorder to manage it all– from sadness, happiness and anger to feeling bad about myself. I lost track of my emotional landscape for a long time.  One moment stands out for me as a teenager:  I went to see Terms of Endearment with my cousin, and she and everyone else in the theater was sobbing over the sad story.  I sat there dry-eyed, unable to feel. I didn’t even know how.

When the divorce first came up, I lost my appetite and my eating disorder, blown away by the raw hurricane of grief.  Without food– my old coping mechanism– now I had no buffer between me and all the feelings.  I’ve written before about what I went through those first few months, so I won’t repeat here.  I’ll just say that now, being in touch with my feelings is a whole new world.

driving me crazy

Part of my journey lately has been to actively work on processing my emotions and my experiences– past stuff that keeps haunting me and present stuff that feeds on that.  I’ve just had this sense that I don’t want to be stuck anymore in my l life– weighed down by old obstacles and beliefs, too afraid of feelings to move forward. I’m going with my gut instinct to find ways to help me do this.  Here’s some of what I’ve been doing:

–Sitting in front of a candle and mentally poking my finger into painful childhood memories and feelings.  I opened myself to the floodgates of grief, really getting in touch with the scared and overwhelmed little girl I was.  Lots of weeping.

Finding the letters written to me by an old boyfriend and reading them again.  I’ve carried deep wounds from that for a long time.  It was an emotionally abusive relationship and he cheated on me– all this during a very vulnerable time for me.  And this old stuff did have an impact on how I related to Bob; it made things harder for us both. I examined the core issues that relationship unearthed for me. Weeping!

–Doing some psycho-drama work with a wonderful friend who is an energy worker.  This involved us re-enacting a scene from my childhood, with each of us taking turns being little-girl me and my mother. I felt like I was that child again, and it was raw and cathartic.  We also did some work with a doll, me holding her, cuddling her, saying to little-me what she needed to hear. Weeping!

Writing in my journal almost every day, posing hard questions to myself about my life, my issues, and the choices I’ve been making.  I give myself the space to examine what’s going on for me, explore my doubts, feel what comes up for me.  Often weeping.

I created a ritual to help me mourn the loss of my marriage.  Not surprisingly, I’ve had a huge pile of feelings about this loss, despite our continuing relationship.  First, I decided to wear black for a week, as a reminder to myself, a symbol of mygrief.  That felt heavy and appropriate.  Next, I decided I wanted to burn something.  I had recently found the garter my mother-in-law had made me for our wedding.  It was still pretty and lacy, but the elastic no longer functioned.  I cut off the engraved medallion to save, tucked the garter into its tissue paper wraps and closed the box.  I wrote some phrases on paper that highlighted things I was giving upand losing in not being married.  Then I bundled up for January and went out to the firepit and lit a fire, burning it all.  It was hard, I cried, but it felt cathartic.  Here’s a slideshow I made of the ritual.

 

These are just a few of the experiments I’ve been trying in processing my feelings.  None of this has been easy, but giving myself a little push to wade through the deep stuff has resulted in a lot of shifting going on for me.  And when I think about the doubts coming my way– from myself or others– I’ve realized that I really can trust myself.  I’ve been willing to do hard work, I’m willing to question, and then I’m making the best decisions I can out of that self-knowledge.  I have my own process in figuring things out for myself, and I can trust that process.  That doesn’t mean my decisions are rock-solid, that I won’t have to re-evaluate and change as I go, but I’ve really come to respect myself in all this.

I’m also realizing that this is indeed a process for me, and it will take time for me to get where I want to go.  I do want to be differentiated and independent, I do want to get to places on this journey that I can’t quite envision yet.  But I don’t have to get there by tomorrow, I don’t have to be fully evolved next week.  I can trust the process and take my time, and be utterly kind and compassionate to myself along the way.

F%&# you, Doubts!

F%&# you, Doubts!

So I’m not going to be tossed away by doubts anymore– mine or others.  This is not to say that I’ll stop questioning myself, but I’m going to give up the angst and flagellation around it (at least I’ll try to; I’ll give myself permission to).  I’ve learned a lot about myself in the last 6 months.  I’m tough and I’m vulnerable. I can face the challenges ahead. I can ask for help.  And at last, I know I can trust myself.

Catch up on any previous Lessons you’ve missed:

Divorce Lesson #1: Stay in the Present Moment

Divorce Lesson #2: Love Is All Around

Divorce Lesson #3:  The Freedom in Hopelessness

Divorce Lesson #4:  Do It Your Own Way

Divorce Lesson #5: Thanksgiving– Changing It Up

Divorce Lesson #6: Don’t Pre-Suffer (or Post-Suffer, Either)

Divorce Lesson #7:  Re-(Blank)-ing Myself

Divorce Lesson #8: The Elevator Speech

Divorce Lesson #9: The Great Relationship Tool

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(Photos by Bob Alberti and Ayanna Muata, during a fabulous photo shoot they did of me last November.)

Divorce Lesson #9

It’s been just over a month since Bob moved out. I find that I’m in two different places on my journey right now. On the one hand, there’s been a slow feeling of settling in to the new situation, getting used to the feel of it, figuring out how it all works, individually and together.

But now the other hand has been opening up for me as I’m starting to have a lot of old issues come up, past emotional baggage, deep unhealed wounds. Now that I have more quiet space in my life, a tsunami of ancient grief (mixed with the newer pain of loss) has been washing over me, and I’m feeling it all at once. God, it’s like being sliced open, and it’s easy for me to feel overwhelmed, especially since there’s a sense of never-endingness to it. This is the time for me to go through this and process it all—it sucks but I don’t want this old stuff ruling and ruining my life anymore. All I can do is buy more tissues, wail, be in touch with the waves of feelings, and be kind to myself. Ask someone to listen when I’m at my lowest. Journaling and lighting candles helps. Also, the comfort of tea.

I’ve been reading a lot of self-help and inspirational books lately. Some people may scoff at the genre, but it’s helping me process my experience and fuel my growth.

I’ll read something from this one, something from that one, back and forth, absorbing and pondering. Bob teasingly calls me “Hermione” because my first reaction is always research. I want to know, I want to figure things out, and researching not only helps me, but gives me a sense of control. I want to learn from what others share of their knowledge and experiences so that I can decide for myself what is right for me.

For the last few months, I’ve been swirling around a new concept that has totally excited me, sparked my imagination and given me hope. It began for me when I was talking to my New Therapist about co-dependency. Bob and I had been talking about our co-dependency issues with each other for a while, how we felt that our patterns of emotional enmeshment made it hard for us to move forward in healthy ways, products of the dysfunctions of our growing-up years. New Therapist opened the discussion up by saying she prefers to think about it as Differentiation and Enmeshment (or Fusion), a more descriptive way of examining patterns in relationships.

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Differentiation was originally a biological term, referring to the way cells develop.

Huh? Even though I’ve been in therapy on-and-off for 30 years, I’d never heard these terms before. I’d heard of co-dependency, and honestly, was somewhat frustrated by it. It seemed vague to me—this idea that I was emotionally dependent on someone, but what did it really mean? And even though I’d read about it, what did one do about it? I felt trapped in the murkiness of the definition with no way out.

During sessions over the next few weeks, I began to understand more about Differentiation and it had enough meat to it that I could sink my teeth into. Then she recommended a book on the topic which opened it up for me in a whole new way: Passionate Marriage by David Schnarch, Ph.D. “It’s got a lot of sex in it,” New Therapist said (the author is a sex therapist), “and it’s about marriage. But it explains differentiation really well. I think you’ll like it.”

 

Passionate Marriage: Keeping Love and Intimacy Alive in Committed Relationships  (click link to find it on Amazon)

I did. I talked to Bob about it, and now we’ve both been reading the book to further our quest for a healthier relationship. I’ve been talking to people about it, too, and they tell me they’re intrigued. So now I feel driven to share it with anyone open to hearing about it.

 

Divorce Lesson #9:  The Great Relationship Tool*

 

According to Dr. Schnarch, differentiation is “your ability to maintain your sense of self when you are emotionally and/or physically close to others—especially as they become increasingly important to you… the ability to stay in connection without being consumed by the other person.”

This sounds pretty simple, a no-brainer. Why would this be so important in a relationship?

The answer is equally simple: for relationships to be healthy and satisfying there needs to be both emotional intimacy and space for individuals to be their whole selves. There needs to be room for growth, or the relationship will reach a stalemate. And without differentiation, it’s so easy for bad patterns and poor communication to set in.

Let me paraphrase Dr. Schnarch’s description of relationship development with a little story. Sam and Sal met at a party one night and felt an immediate attraction. They begin that exciting phase of falling in love– they share their interests, their likes, their beliefs, their secrets with each other. They find all the ways to match up. Everything is about connection and communication (mixed with passion!).

Time passes, and clashing starts to happen. Maybe it’s small stuff… Sam likes to go to movies and Sal would rather go see plays. Maybe Sal doesn’t like the way Sam leaves his dirty clothes around the bedroom. Or bigger stuff, like Sam can’t believe Sal voted for that politician he despises. Or Sal doesn’t like Sam’s best friend.

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In a well-differentiated couple, Schnarch says, “your willingness to confront, support, soothe and prod yourself determines whether or not your marriage moves forward and the two of you grow.” Sal and Sam could work through these issues. Sam would recognize that Sal is her own person and while he might not like it, he can “soothe himself” about the fact that she voted for that guy, and allow her to be her own person. Instead of stuffing down her desire to see plays and just go along with Sam to his movies, Sal can find a friend to go to plays with and allow Sam to have his own movie interests.

However, it turns out that Sal and Sam are not differentiated. At some point in their relationship, they both started to need validation from each other, rather than being able to validate themselves (“I need you to like the same things I like! Why can’t you believe what I believe?”). The relationship became SO important to them that when conflicts came up, they each began to withdraw their true selves from the relationship to protect it. Not wanting to rock the boat and risk the relationship, Sal bit her tongue whenever Sam’s best friend was over, pretending she was okay with his racist jokes and crude behavior. Sam gave into Sal’s nagging about seeing plays even though they bored him to tears and he hated going.

Over time, this pattern of giving in, not being honest about themselves and being overly bothered by each other’s moods and feelings led to erosion in their relationship. Their communication suffered, they had more frustrating fights they couldn’t resolve, they felt misunderstood by the other, and their sex life suffered. These patterns circled around for a very long time. Sam and Sal weren’t happy, but were willing to turn their heads away from the fact that they were somewhat miserable, thinking that this is what happens to relationships over time. It was either this, or end the relationship, or if they’re lucky, learn to differentiate.

Bob sunrise

I’m going to say goodbye to Sam and Sal now to talk about my own experience. For me, what really excited me in learning about differentiation was seeing how it applied to my life. In the months following the divorce talk, I finally woke up to see that Bob and I had really developed some unhealthy patterns in our relationship. I could see that, for myself, I had made the relationship more important than my own individual self. Instead of being honest about my feelings or frustrations, I curled it up inside myself and found ways to tiptoe around, or to try to manipulate the situation to get what I wanted indirectly. I was afraid of Bob’s bad moods, because then I’d feel awful myself. I wasn’t able to let him have his feelings and separate them from me—his feelings felt like mine, and that is classic enmeshment. I can see now that in so many ways, I was operating in smaller and smaller circles in our relationship and my life, and I hadn’t been happy.

For us, digging ourselves out of this mess has involved separation, so that we can each learn to focus on ourselves, and not be emotionally dependent. Even before he moved out, we were putting the tools of differentiation into practice—learning to be honest with each other in our communication, sharing what our real experiences and feelings were with each other, learning to let each other take care of our own feelings (ah, that’s a tricky one and will take more work), learning to self-soothe, and when conflicts come up, I’m learning to go inside myself first to see what’s really going on for me and what’s driving the conflict before I turn to discuss it with him.

Already this has resulted in a better relationship with more openness and intimacy. We still have a long ways to go to get past our old patterns, but a healthier relationship is developing, and we are committed to each getting healthier for our own selves.

What can I say? If you’re having any difficulties in your relationship, I highly recommend Dr. Schnarch’s book. It’s a dense but interesting read, and the promise of a better, closer, happier relationship with yourself and with your partner is irresistible. I’ll write more about self-soothing in another blog, because I know that’s been an important concept for me to explore and one of the keys to differentiation.

I’ll end here with a quote, and a song that describes differentiation.

“The point of marriage is not to create a quick commonality by tearing down all boundaries; on the contrary, a good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of his solitude, and thus they show each other the greatest possible trust. A merging of two people is an impossibility, and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development. But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.” –Ranier Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

 

I love Amanda Palmer, and this song of hers fits this topic so well (warning: sexy & swearing).

*Disclaimer: I’m not a therapist or psychiatrist or even a psych major, just an autodidact trying to make sense of the concepts I’ve learned. I’ve tried to portray Dr. Schnarch’s philosophy to the best of my ability. Please forgive any falterings.

Divorce Lesson #1: Stay in the Present Moment

Divorce Lesson #2: Love Is All Around

Divorce Lesson #3:  The Freedom in Hopelessness

Divorce Lesson #4:  Do It Your Own Way

Divorce Lesson #5: Thanksgiving– Changing It Up

Divorce Lesson #6: Don’t Pre-Suffer (or Post-Suffer, Either)

Divorce Lesson #7:  Re-(Blank)-ing Myself

Divorce Lesson #8: The Elevator Speech

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Photo credits:  Cell photos from the public domain, sunrise photo by Bob Alberti, snow couple photo by me.

 

 

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