Linda: When Charlie and I met nearly 50 years ago, it was inconceivable to either of us, that this relationship could go anywhere. He was an introvert who prized his solitude. I was an extrovert who loved to make contact with people. He didn’t much care for parties. I have always been super social and love them. His life was chaotic; mine highly structured and tightly organized. Charlie spent a lot of time up in the clouds, a dreamer, impractical. I’m down to earth. Practical is my middle name. He loved baseball; my take on it? Booooring. He drove a motorcycle; I was petrified of them. I believed in the work ethic and personal responsibility. He believed in fun and play. Even our styles of working out our differences were different. He came from a very expressive family where everyone freely indulged in their desires to let it all rip whenever they felt like it. My family had taught me to be a good girl and to keep my mouth shut as much as possible. Like many of my friends at the time, I was conflict-phobic.
Charlie: We were very different, in backgrounds, personalities, worldviews, and styles of relating. It seemed impossible that there was any way that we could ever bridge the gap enough to create anything long term together. Yet our connection was obviously intense, and the passion that we shared was a hell of a kick. Though it seemed very unlikely to me that this would be a very long ride, it would definitely be a gas while it lasted.
One of the primary ways in which Linda and I have always differed is in the ways in which we process information. As an introvert when I’m under stress, I find it easier to get clear about things by being alone and self-reflecting, rather than interacting with others. Although I often find it helpful and interesting to use a relationship as means of gaining greater clarity, my initial inclination is generally to look within myself first.
Linda: My tendency is exactly the opposite. I need to connect, to talk…. a lot! The degree of frustration that we both experienced was probably enough to have destroyed most relationships, and most likely would have wrecked ours had we not found effective ways of working with our differences and the conflicts they frequently engendered. In the early years, Charlie and I played out a number of issues resulting from the gender-related stereotypes that we had each adopted. Rather than try to become more accepting of each other’s stylistic differences of relating, we became more deeply entrenched in our own defensive and reactive patterns. Our interactions often got pretty ugly, particularly when we were each doing our best to get each other to “straighten up and fly right”. Differences became arguments that became battles that often failed to get resolved, thus creating an accumulation of “incompletions”. These battles took a great toll on each of us. We spent a lot of time blaming, manipulating, vying for control, intimidating, making threats, guilt tripping, and seeking revenge. Why and how we managed to stay together, I don’t quite know, but in the process, we did manage to learn a lot.
Charlie: Eventually, we discovered that if we didn’t come up with some way of working things out, our relationship would die from the poisons of built up resentment and self-sacrifice. The challenge that presented itself to us was: to be responsive to each other’s needs, as well as our own. One of the things that made this difficult was that my skillfulness in the art of manipulation had accustomed me to having the expectation of getting my way. I wasn’t particularly anxious to give that up. During the first several years of our relationship Linda had indulged me in this area, causing me like a spoiled child, to want and expect more of her. She had been giving in on this and many other areas in hopes that if she gave enough that eventually I would finally become satisfied and then it would be her turn to receive whatever it was that she was wanting from me: time, attention, closeness, affection, whatever. Of course, her continual accommodations only fueled my appetites and her resentments more. Eventually things reached explosive proportions and I realized just how close to the edge we were.
Linda: The crisis, which to me felt like a “near death experience” of our marriage forced us both to learn some new ways of relating. Fast. It was that or else we were finished. Fortunately the core of our connection hadn’t yet been destroyed; otherwise I have no doubt that we would have taken the same route that many of our friends took when things had gone too far. But then the really hard work began: freeing ourselves from our deeply entrenched behavioral and attitudinal patterns that had been in place for most of our lives and have been reinforced by our friends, family and culture. It was probably one of the most difficult things that we had to do in order to cool the fires of conflict.
For most of us, this process takes a lot more than we think it should: more time, more effort, and especially, more patience. It’s so easy to blame our partner when, despite our best efforts, the same old reactions keep getting triggered again and again and again. Probably the most important thing that either of us learned in this process is to have compassion for each other and ourselves in the process of trying to free ourselves from these patterns that are so deeply entrenched. Essentially, our work had to do with learning to develop what we refer to as responsible self-care (something that our parents would have called “being selfish”). We each had to learn to accept the validity of our own needs and wants as well accepting responsibility for getting them met legitimately and directly.
Charlie: In this process we came to see that it was our wounds themselves that were to become the source of much of the growth and healing that Linda and I would experience together. These wounds included emotional injuries from our early past and original families and previous relationships as well as the many painful wounds that we inflicted upon each other during the years that we were groping blindly towards some means of trying to keep our marriage intact. We were each steeped in the dysfunctional gender expectations of the fifties and early sixties that we all called “normal” back then. Brought up on The Donna Reed Show, Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best, both Linda and I “knew” what it was to be a strong, all-knowing, successful, take charge man, and a good, supportive, all-loving, self-sacrificing, emotional woman. There was a great discrepancy between the image that we each projected outwardly to the world and our inner experience and this disconnect was a source of pain to both of us. The problem wasn’t just that we were failing to meet society’s expectations, but that we were trying so hard to pretend that we were fulfilling them.
Linda: It seemed that most of our wounds were in the places that had gotten axed by society’s dictates of what was appropriate male and female behavior. We came to understand that the source of our distress did not originate in the other person, but rather was the result of playing out in our relationship our own inner struggle. That which we resist in the other is the part of ourselves that we have denied, seeking to assert itself. This is what is referred to as doing “shadow work”.
Charlie: Turbulence in relationship tends to be wildest when the disowned parts of ourselves can no longer be contained and despite our efforts to suppress them begin to emerge from within our inner dark recesses. This happens when we just can’t keep the pretense up any longer. At these times our partner may become frightened and resistant as well. The inner conflict between the part of us that wants to emerge and the part that wants to remain hidden, expresses itself in an outer conflict between our partner and ourselves.
Linda: Having grown up in the South, I had a particularly heavy gender conditioning around “appropriate” feminine ways of being. I gradually began to stop using my various (mostly covert) methods of manipulation and coercion. I became more direct and honest in expressing my desires I discovered aspects of myself that I had been denying. I began to value my privacy, to assert my needs, presence my warrior spirit to express anger, be a worthy opponent in an argument, draw boundaries, and become more independent. I began to find my voice to speak my truth. Much to my surprise and relief, Charlie hung in there with the ‘new me’ and didn’t attack me or bail on the marriage.
Charlie: I on the other hand, learned from Linda how to be more vulnerable and less defensive. Doing my work required me to become more accepting and expressive of my sensitive, feeling, nurturing side. I stopped denying to myself and others, my needs and fears. In learning to relinquish increasing amounts of control, I found that I could begin to allow my boundaries to become permeable which allowed greater intimacy between Linda and me. In softening my rough edges, I found that becoming more open didn’t mean a loss of my power or strength.
Linda: When we hold our relationships as a sacred teaching ground, where everything can be utilized as an opportunity to learn and grow, our lives take on a more vital, creative, alive dimension. The process requires time and effort laced with generous doses of patience and forgiveness. Our challenge has to do with the cultivation of these last two qualities, since we can only strengthen them incrementally, over time, not overnight. By holding our partner as our teacher, rather than seeing him or her as the source of our happiness or pain, we can learn to develop a more integrated sense of ourselves. We can learn to be both strong and sensitive, and become more at peace with who we truly are. As we more fully come to accept that which has been hidden or denied, our lives become richer, fuller, and more joyful. Our relationships become characterized by mutual respect, shared power and deep intimacy.
Charlie: The notion of learning to learn from and with each other has been a dominant theme of our relationship for many years. The perceptual shift from seeing one’s partner as a competitor for scarce resources (time, attention or love) to an ally in the process of self-development, transforms us from insecure rivals into committed partners who are simultaneously loving teachers and motivated students.
There’s nothing magical about getting to this place in a committed partnership. And there are no short cuts. To the degree that we can remember that we are all always doing the best that we can given the level of understanding and intelligence that we have at the time, we can find compassion, rather than blame for ourselves as well as each other. To the degree that we can practice this in our closest relationships, (they’re always the hardest) we will naturally inspire others to live together more lovingly. For most of us, this process can be challenging, and it usually takes longer than we think it should. But the good news is that with support, patience, and effort, it is possible to bring a higher level of joy into our relationships than many of us can even imagine. Whatever it takes, it’s worth it!