Yes, if you’ve ever in your life seen a Joan Rivers routine, you’ve certainly heard “Can we talk?” The question I’d like to ask the midlife world today is, “OK . . . can we???”
Last Thursday night’s guest on my internet radio program was relationship expert, Kathleen Sims, and she talked about the sorts of things that go to make up a successful relationship, especially at midlife. She was very willing to go beyond the kinds of hype that other relationship gurus seem to be using (the kind of promotion that says, “We guarantee that if you follow our easy 3-step program, your relationship will achieve instant perfection!”). We talked about how, as relationships mature, the challenges actually deepen.
In this context, she revealed a startling bit of personal experience: as part of the mentoring that she provides to couples, she has several times offered workshops on communication. Remarkably, she has had little success convincing people to attend. Both she and I have had similar experiences: in general, people seems reluctant to handle the basic fundamental things that are required to create the life that they want. This can be a devastating deficiency at midlife: failing to take care of yourself properly can catapult you into a crisis situation that has the potential to destroy your career, your relationship(s) and/or your health unnecessarily. So . . . can we talk?
Communication forms the very essence of any relationship. Of course we’ll have many relatives (face it: we’re stuck with them) in our lives, but that doesn’t mean that we will have a relationship with them. They’re like many of the items in our safe deposit box: we have to keep them, but we don’t need to deal with them. Some people (falsely) assume that, just because you’re married to someone, you necessarily have a relationship with him or her. When imagining that you have a relationship with someone else, it’s as though you imagine, in Kathleen’s inspired terms, that birth or marriage or civil union has merged the two of you into a sort of conglomerate. If you imagine yourself as a circle and your relationship-partner (by birth or in law) as a second circle, you may think that your relationship causes the circles to merge. I have to agree with Kathleen that, in fact, they do not. Instead, there’s a third circle that represents your relationship, and it ‘belongs’ to neither one of you, but to both of you.
That third circle that we call ‘relationship’ is not natural, it’s created and sustained by the decisions and actions that both of you take. Those decisions and actions determine whether or not there will be communication. Here’s the simple ‘bottom line’: if there’s no communication, there’s no relationship regardless whether you’re parent-child, siblings, life partners, or just friends. You can’t be in a relationship by default. You’re either working at it (by continually learning to communicate and practicing what you’ve learned), or it doesn’t exist at all. You don’t have to have a court order to ‘divorce’ your husband, wife, partner, father, mother, sibling, partner, friend; all you need to do to have an effective divorce is to stop talking about what’s really important to you.
As usual in this midlife ‘game’, men have a tougher time at this than women do, and in both directions: we haven’t been raised to share our deeper thoughts and feelings, nor have we been taught the skills of active, empathetic listening. We too often replace real understanding and empathy – real communication – with the ‘right answers’: “Yes, dear,” or “OK,” or “Yup . . . understood.” There are so many nice and agreeable responses that we men can make that feign listening. We use them in our work situations all the time. They’re empathy surrogates: they’re meant to make it appear that we’re doing what we know we’re not: listening. We know the difference. We man know when we’re really telling you the truth; and very often it scares us to death!
Midlife can’t be successfully navigated without fully engaging in the never-ending struggle to learn to communicate more effectively. It means learning to tell you who I am and what’s going on with me. It also means listening to you at a level that goes far beyond your words: recognizing that, for example, when you’re upset, it’s about you and not about me. It’s a life-long task to learn to extract the meaning from the words, especially when that meaning has little to do with what the words mean. The task very often involves listening with the heart and blocking out the head – particularly in very intimate relationships.
You may be saying, “I don’t need to learn how to communicate! After all, I’ve been doing it since before I learned to talk!” Or do you? Too often, our fear and our pride keep us away from working on the ‘basics’, as though learning to communicate with others was like learning to feed yourself: once you’ve got it, you’ve got it. That attitude leaves many people foundering with a childish skill level in adult situations. We feel like those we most need to have a relationship with “just don’t understand us,” whereas it’s most often we who are unable to tell them what we need or even what’s going on with us. People who love us very often don’t understand because we’re incapable of telling telling them what they need to know. In relationships, as in every other facet of life – particularly in the midlife transition – it’s much easier for us to blame others for not ‘getting’ us than it is for us to do the hard work necessary to learn how to tell them what we need for them to know.
Midlife severely affects three areas of your life: 1) your career, 2) your relationships, and 3) your health and well-being. If any one of those areas isn’t working for you right now, you need to take a deeper look at yourself. Pointing fingers at others will do nothing to get you out of whatever situation you find yourself in. You alone are responsible for your relationships. What do you need to do – to change – to make these things work. Dumping them should be a resort taken only when it makes no sense to continue (usually because the other person in the relationship has decided not to do the work to maintain his or her part of the relationship).
One final note about relationships: don’t imagine that having a deep and vital relationship means that things will always go smoothly between you. They won’t. Growth only comes from meeting (and grappling with) challenges and obstacles. A ‘relationship’ that has no friction or disagreements is most often that way because it lacks real intimacy. In fact, I’d be willing to go out on a limb here and say that the more vital and intimate a relationship is, the more challenging the struggles that ensue. Likewise, the more difficult the midlife transition from adulthood to maturity proves to be, the richer and fuller the maturity will become. Can we talk? Hang in there: don’t quit before the miracle happens!
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Copyright © 2009 H. Les Brown
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