Wednesday, May 28, 2008

My Cup Runneth Over (By Ron)

Have you ever heard anyone say this? It usually has a Biblical connotation representing an overflowing of blessings. In my work with couples, however, I’ve found it to be a good metaphor for how we use anger. Assume you and your partner are arguing about something minor that just happened. All at once you are being bombarded with anger about things that happened yesterday, or last week, or last month. Well, you may have been “anger cupped.”

Imagine that somewhere in your brain there’s an area that functions like a cup. This is your anger cup. This is where you store slights, and hurt and judgments and other angry feelings and thoughts. When he doesn’t help do laundry you store that anger in your cup. When she forgets to pay a bill on time you store that anger in your cup. When he… When she… and on and on.

Each of us has a different sized cup. Each of us can store different amounts of anger before we go ballistic. But, there comes a time when your anger cup is full. Full to the brim. Not running over, but there is simply no more room. Then something minor happens and before you know it you are “hitting” your partner with every unexpressed bit of anger you have experienced towards him/her in the past days or months. You couldn’t stop if you wanted to. There was no room in your anger cup and when you tried to stuff one more thing into it, it exploded.

We’ve all been there. We’ve all been in arguments with our partner when the original problem is forgotten. Arguments that get out of control because of the amount of anger one of you has held inside. We don’t know why, but we seem unable to stop refilling the cup. We hold that anger until we simply cannot control it. Then we let go! Is it any wonder that we continue to argue about the same things over and over? When we store our anger we seldom have a chance to address the causes individually.

One of our psychotherapist friends once gave us some very good advice. When one of you feels angry because of something that just happened, say “that pissed me off.” Yep, that directly. There are lots of other ways to say this but I particularly liked his wording and have used it effectively in my relationship with Gayle. Some people might say something like “that hurt,” “that made me angry,” or “ouch!”

The words you use are not important so long as they are not blaming. For instance, “you pissed me off” puts the other on the defensive. Nothing will be solved that way. “That pissed me off” says what you are feeling, not what they did to you. It may seem to be semantics but I can assure you it works. What is important is that you attend to problems when they occur. You have much more hope of clearing the air if it isn’t polluted by anger that may be so old you don’t even remember it.

So, be aware of your anger cup. As long as you continue to put your negative feelings inside it you can expect only more problems. Address problems when they arise. Let your partner know what you are feeling at the time you feel it. Asking them to remember how they “made you feel” sometime in the past rarely works. Also, addressing it immediately gives you an opportunity to find out if you actually heard what your partner meant to say. It may all be a misunderstanding. What a shame to miss an opportunity to understand one another better.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Look of Love (by Gayle)

What to know a secret? It's one we've been diligent about putting into practice in our May-December marriage, but it's one that will enhance ANY relationship.

Learn to listen to, hear, and understand your partner. Want to know why this is so incredibly important? A very wise supervisor of ours from years ago gave us the following definition for self-esteem:

  1. Feeling successful as you define success -and-
  2. Being listened to, heard, and understood by the people important to you. (Yes - you actually build their self-esteem when you do this.)

We've put the definition to the test both personally and professionally. It works. You'll never settle an argument (for once and for all) or work through difficult issues unless both you and partner believe you've been heard and understood by each other.

You're going to have to work at this one. Saying "I understand" is NOT enough. It take real understanding. How will you know you've got it? First, if you're thinking your partner is crazy, irrational, stubborn, nuts, selfish, a pig or something similar you're not there yet. Second, when you get there you'll see it in your partner's eyes. It may start as a look of surprise. After a while you'll recognize it as the look of love.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Why Does Getting Better Usually Involve Feeling Worse? (by Gayle)

If you read Earnest Talks, you’ve read about our dog Shorty and you may even know he is being treated for heart worms. We knew he had a mild case of the little buggers, when we adopted him last December, but they thought his preventative medicine would do the trick. Last week, I took him in for his 6 month check up. Our vet decided we needed to go ahead and treat Shorty’s heart worms more aggressively. The first injection left Shorty sore, droolie, lethargic (but restless), and obviously confused – much like Ron after a recent alternative treatment for his arthritic knee. (There is an orthopedic surgeon in Irving who sharpens his scalpels when he sees Ron’s name in the appointment book. He can’t wait to replace those knees. Ron is trying just about anything to avoid this outcome. Ron blogged about this treatment which he describes as torture.)

I went outside to check on Shorty and found both he and Ron in the backyard. You could see the love and despair in Ron’s body language as he watched Shorty’s unrest. Had there been another observer in our yard that day, he or she would have seen the love and despair in my body language as I watched Ron watching Shorty. Ron noticed my surveillance and just looked at me and shook his head. I could tell he was close to tears. In nearly a whisper I said to him “welcome to my world.” His gentle eyes told me he understood what I meant. He knows I struggle when I see his pain. He said, “at least I can talk”. I remember thinking that while we humans can talk when we are in pain – often we choose silence. I’m learning to live with the silence when it happens. I try not to take it personally, but the damn helpless is the hardest part.

I felt a strange sense of validation when I saw my helpless on Ron’s face. I believe it’s part of loving fiercely. There are things we just can’t "fix". In my worst moments several years ago when my best friend was dying, I found comfort in the words of Oriah Mountain Dreamer’s poem – The Invitation .

I want to know if you can sit with pain
mine or your own
without moving to hide it
or fade it
or fix it.

Ron and I both knew this knee treatment would make him feel worse before he got better. We knew that Shorty would feel worse before he got better. I even know when clients walk in the door of my office they may leave feeling worse than when they came. The doctor who's doing the alternative treatments for Ron has Marine's t-shirt which says - "pain is weakness leaving the body." I think what we don't often take into account is how darn weak we are going to feel while we watch someone else's pain leave their body.

Thankfully, winter leads to spring. The earth may get cold and hard and the tree are barren but new growth lies just beneath the surface hidden from sight. Austere hibernation is a vital part living. You can’t hide it, fix it, or fade it. You just sit with it, sometimes hold a hand, and keep breathing.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Silverlocks and the 3 (well more than that) Hairs (by Gayle)

I recently read that the single most important invention responsible for us looking younger longer is hair color. With all the other advances (Botox, nips, tucks, lifts, potions, lotions, and peels) in “anti-aging”, I was surprised by this statement. Hair color has been around forever. Then I pondered its impact in my own life.

My mother - Goldie Luster (not her nickname) had silver locks by the time I was born 2 months and 3 days after her 40th birthday. It was 1957. Not an era in which women were typically choosing to wait until midlife to give birth to children. In fact, my mother hadn’t waited. She had given birth 16 years earlier to a son who survived for 3 fleeting days. My parents continued to want a child in the years to come, but evidently I wasn’t ready to be here yet. They were preparing to start the adoption process when I came bounding into their lives.

When I was 5, dad commissioned an artist to paint a portrait of my mother and me. At 45, her silver locks shone like a precious metal highly polished. My father adored her hair color. I know he loved me, but I think the painting was really meant to capture the beauty of her hair for all time.

By the time I was 6, the kids at school thought my mother was my grandmother. They didn’t understand the beauty of her silver locks. Neither did I. I was embarrassed by the color of her hair. I begged her to get her hair dyed. My dad did not consent. It was my mother’s head, but in those days dad was THE head of our house. No hair was changing color unless he agreed.

It wasn’t until I was 8 that my wish finally came true. My little 3 year old cousin Jody was able to reach my mom where I had failed. Jody’s favorite book was full of illustrated nursery rhymes. Jody seemed obsessed with The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe. She was constantly saying “there was an old woman who lived in a shoe, she had so many children she didn’t know what to do” in our presence. She dragged the book toward my mom. Mom thought Jody was bringing the book to her to read out loud. But when Jody got next to mom she opened the book and pointed to the old woman who lived in the shoe . Obviously the old woman didn’t have a flat iron, styling products, or much time to tend to her silver locks – her hair was standing on end looking frazzled.

Sweet little Jody looked at my mom and pointed to the picture. My mom got it – we didn’t - yet. Thankfully my mother’s sense of humor was much better developed that her sense of vanity. Mom started laughing and asked Jody if she (my mom) looked liked the old woman who lived in the shoe. Jody nodded innocently. That was the day my mother became THE head of her own head. Within weeks Silverlocks was gone never to be seen again.

More than 40 years later, no one had to read a nursery rhyme to prompt me get my hair colored. The first time the gray started persistently peeking at me, I sought help! Now every six weeks you’ll find Ron and faithfully tending to the ritual of highlighting and coloring gray at the salon. We visit our stylist on the same day and share an appointment so to speak. I arrive 30 minutes before him to get highlighting foils and color applied. While I’m “baking”, our stylist put highlighting foils in Ron’s hair. Yes Ron gets highlights. After too much “Sun-In” one summer, he decided to get professional help (remember, I told you we get outside assistance when we need it!) To read more about his hair coloring history click here.

For years in this May-December relationship our age difference was not much of a visual issue. People could tell he was ambiguously older than me, but no one was calling CPS. Only lately has the difference become more noticeable. In recent years we’ve had a couple of encounters where it was assumed that Ron was my father. That’s a story for another blog, but suffice it to say I didn’t like it. I think Ron took it much better than me. His pride didn’t appear wounded. I reeled silently.

Actually, I think it bothered Little Gayle, just like she didn’t want people thinking her mother was her grandmother, she didn’t want people thinking her husband was her father (ick). So I began wondering if I should grow my hair to it’s natural color. My stylist strongly objected. She said it would age me prematurely (wasn’t that the point) and that the color would look awful (no beautiful Silverlocks for me!) Coincidentally, Ron started wondering what he would look like if he let his hair grow out to its natural color (did I mention that Ron’s son also has beautiful Silverlocks.)

So there I am with a major boundary dilemma. It was Ron’s head, but I didn’t want him to change it. I struggled with what to do or not do. Finally I decided to try the enlightened (not highlightened) path and tell him about my feelings and my confusion. I explained from where my anxieties were coming and told him that I knew what he did with his hair was ultimately his decision. In Ron's typically laid back fashion he replied with a nonchalant shrug and said “No problem - I was just wonderin.” I spend (waste) a whole lot more energy worrying that he does!

And that was that. Once we (Little Gayle and I) got heard and understood the anxiety dissipated. Ron and I still get highlightened and I have ALL my gray covered too. Now I get devilish pleasure when I see confusion in someone’s eyes about our age difference. I better enjoy their perplexity while it lasts. Who knows how long it will be before my hair color isn’t enough to throw them off track! Whether or not Silverlocks ever comes to visit the heads of Lambert-Luster household remains to be seen.

Monday, May 19, 2008

It's Not Always About the Gap (by Ron)

My first wife and I married when I was 18. My parents didn't have a great deal of advanced notice. I was home from Navy boot camp when she and I decided to marry during my two week leave. I can recall my mother following me from the front porch to the card yelling that I was not getting married. I was too young!

My ex and I were married almost a quarter century. In that period of time my mother and the rest of my family took her into the family without reservation. Needless to say our divorce did not sit well with them.

When we separated and I began the divorce proceedings I called my parents to tell them. Although I was no longer a child mom continued to think of me that way. She told me that I needed to make my marriage work and "forget this divorce foolishness."

Later, when I told her I was divorced and planned to marry Gayle she said, "she's only after your big check." She didn't even mention the age difference.

Personal boundaries never existed in my family of origin. Mom and dad felt we kids should always toe their line. If we didn't, we heard about it a lot, primarily from mom. When one of us put our foot down and did what we wanted, mom often complained to all of the other siblings. Everyone always knew what and whom mom was angry about. I knew I was destined to hear a lot from her about my new marriage, but I also knew I was going to keep my boundaries with my family secure.

Mom wasn't worried that I was 15 years older than Gayle. She wasn't interested in the size of Gayle's check. She simply didn't want to deal with the first divorce in our family. She wanted things to continue the way she wanted them to be. She wasn't a bad person, she was just scared and confused about the future.

Finally, when she knew she had lost, she brought out the big guns. "Ronnie", she said, "you can never bring that woman into my home." That took me by surprise. I had not expected my family to immediately welcome Gayle with open arms. However, I certainly hadn't expected her to be barred from my home. This was the beginning of major changes in my relationship with my mother. My response to the woman who had borne me and whom I knew loved me dearly was simple and direct. "Mom, she's my wife and if she's not welcome in your home then neither am I. I suppose we have seen each other for the last time in this life."

She didn't believe me, of course, and continued to ask when I was coming home to see them. I continued to emphasize that I could not come home alone. This continued through the Christmas holiday season. On Christmas day I made a call to mom and dad, as I always did. As usual since my divorce our conversations were uncomfortable. Dad spoke for only a few minutes, as was his usual pattern. Mom and I talked a little longer but I was finally able to begin bringing the conversation to a close. As I told mom goodbye and gave her my love I heard her say something that was totally unexpected. She said, "let me talk to Gayle."

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

On Becoming Old, Bitchy, and Itchy (by Gayle)

I'm weary of being told that 50 is the new 30 or 40 or 49 or whatever. I wonder if it isn't our newest form of denial. And I'm certain it can be more pressure to be more (or less) than we already are.

I've been married to Ron for 21 years. On our wedding day, he was about to turn 45 and I had recently celebrated my 30th birthday. Those numbers meant nothing me. We were (and are) so compatible that age just wasn't a consideration. When he turned 50, I teased him about the AARP literature flooding our mailbox. He took it well and teased back. He warned me my day was coming albeit 15 years down the road. Even our "60-45" year didn't seem very monumental. It was notable because Ron was going into a new decade (something he was doing for only the 6th time in his life). I thought the occasion was worthy of a surprise party. We celebrated with friends and family at a casino in Louisiana.

But when our "49-64" year hit, I got all itchy (and bitchy) inside. I was prepared for the AARP mailings, but I wasn't prepared for the Medicare sign up mailings that were coming to "get" Ron. All of a sudden, I wasn't just dealing with my shriveling ovaries squeezing out the last of their eggs and the night sweats that were waking me up far before sunrise. My aging was no longer only about me. I was experiencing it against the backdrop of his aging and he was 15 years ahead of me. The boundaries were blurry.

The (thankfully mild) stroke Ron had in 2003 happened inside his brain, but it changed our lives. The knees that need replacing are under his skin, but the way they impact us is getting under mine. I want him to be 50 with me and I don't want to be 65 with him (except when he is 80). The fact of the matter is different than the heart of the matter. What does matter is our love - a love I believe existed before this life and will go with us into the next. So age doesn't get to matter now.

In any relationship, a large part of our happiness relates to focus (you know the glass half full or empty thing.) You don't generally start a May-December romance focusing on age. But, when things get rough, it easy to place the focus there. In reality, what is happening to us could be happening to anyone. It has nothing to do with May or December or age or gaps. It has to do with life. It has to do with what Ron talks about in his post "Life is a Death Sentence."

So, the next time I'm shredding mail from AARP and Medicare I'll be finding a new focus. I'm going to shred it with a vengeance, channel my anger that this life comes with an expiration date into the grinding sound of the blades, and give thanks I get one more day to live and love...

Life is a Death Sentence (by Ron)

When did I know that was what I was thinking? I think it was December 10. 2007, the day I "celebrated" my 65th birthday. It might also have been when I began to be inundated with applications for all of the various Medicare providers to "old folks" like me.

Well, I guess the birthday celebration was better than the alternative. I have to say, though, 65 is the first birthday that has given me a problem. I now think 60 was probably the one to which I should have paid attention. Although I am trained in psychotherapy I had not realized until now I was already in Erickson's final psychosocial stage of personality development. I thought that stage began at 65. When I reached 65 and the number actually bothered me I checked. I have been in it for 5 years! I must have missed that Age and Stage class.

So, at 65 I checked Erickson. You know what? There aren't any more stages! Did he think personality development ended at 60? I don't know about him but I think not! I don't care what we call it but I believe my biggest challenge began at 65. I'm fighting an aging body, an often unreliable memory, and a lingering belief in our society that life begins to end at 65. I have to admit it has sometime felt like a losing battle and yet I know I will lose only if I surrender.

You know what? Life is a death sentence. We received our sentence at conception. If we lived with that consciously hanging over our heads we would be unlikely to experience any personality development. For some reason fear finally triggered for me on December 10th, although it was just another day as had been the 64 birthdays before. So, I am working to extend the beginning of Erikson's final stage to 75 or 85 or 95. (105 anyone?) Then I may need to look back. Now I'm looking forward.

Oh, I will fill out the Medicare forms when I get closer to retiring in a few years. In the meantime I let my current medical plan take care of me. It's much better than Medicare.

In a May/December relationship it's inevitable that one partner will reach a milestone age before the other. It's likely the younger partner will not fully understand the reaction of the older partner. Gayle and I each reached milestone ages in 2007. Hers was 50 and you can check out her feelings about that in her blog.

It doesn't matter how long you are together. It doesn't matter how much you believe you know the other's thoughts. You can never fully understand the emotional experience of another human being. Sometimes the best solution is to just let your partner experience the pain, fear, elation, or whatever. I know that is painful at times but you must trust your partner to know how to ask for help when necessary. Asking for help is another skill that will be discussed in later blogs.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Pooling Around (by Gayle)

Spring doesn't last long here in our part of Texas. It already feels like summer, but I'm frustrated because our pool isn't ready for swimming. I've been practicing pool chemisty for 9 years now and I still can't quite get it right. Today Ron and I made one of our numerous summer treks to the pool store. I wish we had gone sooner. Today would have been a great day to get in the water.

One more time, we show up with a bottle of pool water in hand begging for HELP! A pool connoisseur is going to have to show us how to fix this mess. Again I learn something new about pool water chemistry. I continue to be amazed at how much there is discover about this subject and wonder if that's what they were teaching the day I skipped chemistry class in my senior year.

We return home with list of detailed instructions. We have pool homework! Add a little of this, wait a few hours, put in a dash of that, wait a bit more, and top it off with a skosh of something else. Sleep on it and the pool should be good to go in the morning.

During 21 years of swimming in the same pool with Ron - so to speak, we've made treks all over the country (including the Barnes and Noble right down the street) to get expert advice for our marriage. In some instances, more desperately than in others. Keeping the waters of our marriage swimable is an ongoing process and a delicate balance. Some days I need a little extra togetherness. On others, I "vant to be left alone". Ron isn't a mind a reader and I don't come with one of those nifty chemical test kits to help him figure out exactly how much of what I need and when.

One of the things we know for absolutely positively sure about each other is that we don't know anything for absolutely positively sure about each other (an exaggeration - our genders have remained the same throughout the years give or take a little estrogen and testosterone). When our water gets murky, we try to figure it on our own. If it doesn't clear up after awhile, we get help. We've learned that getting help is NOT a sign of failure, it's a part of our committment to staying "in love". We don't wait to ask for assistance nearly as long as we used to. We want the waters swimable as much as possible.

We also discovered that sometimes we have to sleep on it and we'll be good to go in the morning!