Saturday, May 22, 2010

Expecting Too Much

Expecting Too Much

By Kirsten

Being that my last blog entry could easily be seen as an indictment of John (see Two to Tango), I think it only fair for me to paint at least part of the other side of the story. Namely, how did I, Kirsten Joy Cronlund, contribute to the inner crumbling of my marriage to John.

I just finished reading the book Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert, which I highly recommend. It chronicles the soul-searching and research, both academic and informal interviewing, that the author undertook during the time leading up to her “shotgun” wedding.

One segment in Gilbert’s book really got me thinking about myself and relationships:

Maybe it would be useful for me to at least acknowledge to myself now, on the eve of my second marriage, that I, too, ask for an awful lot. Of course I do. It’s the emblem of our times. I have been allowed to expect great things in life. I have been permitted to expect far more out of the experience of love and living than most other women in history were ever permitted to ask. When it comes to questions of intimacy, I want many things from any man, and I want them all simultaneously. It reminds me of a story my sister once told me, about an Englishwoman who visited the United States in the winter of 1919 and who, scandalized, reported back home in a letter that there were people in this curious country of America who actually lived with the expectation that every part of their bodies should be warm at the same time! My afternoon spent discussing marriage with the Hmong made me wonder if I, in matters of the heart, had also become such a person – a woman who believed that my lover should magically be able to keep every part of my emotional being warm at the same time.


This passage sums up the way that I feel that I most profoundly failed John in our marriage. I expected him to be my best friend, to be a successful businessman, to be a patient, devoted father, and to do it all on my time schedule. And worst of all – I took meticulous notes about all the ways in which he fell short of the mark. And I’d remind him of those “failings” at such opportune times as when we were fighting about something completely unrelated.

Put simply, I was mean to John. This point was driven home to me like a smack in the face about halfway through my one year Positive Psychology masters program at Penn. I’ll never forget the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach when I learned of an amazing research finding by psychologist Shelly Gable about an important way that really healthy couples interact with one another.

In short, Gable outlines a pattern of interaction that she calls Active Constructive Responding. This involves a genuinely positive (i.e. interested, curious, supportive – not necessarily cheerleaderish) response by one partner when the other shares good news.

Contrast the active constructive response to the active destructive (“Oh, honey – that idea you have for curing cancer is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard!”); the passive destructive (“That’s nice that you lost 5 pounds, but guess how much Susie’s husband lost?”); and the passive constructive (“That’s nice, dear.”) An active constructive response would look more like this: “Wow, Sweetie. I know you’ve been working really hard for this promotion! I’m so happy for you that your boss saw what you have to offer. What’s the most meaningful part about this for you?”

Not surprisingly, Gable’s studies show that active destructive and passive destructive styles of interaction are not healthy for relationships. But what’s less intuitive is that the passive constructive style is negligibly better than the two destructive styles. In other words, the only style that contributes to the health of a relationship is active constructive.

Now, that’s worth noting.

If I were being really generous I would console myself with the fact that while I was married I didn’t know anything about positive psychology, let alone the work of Shelly Gable. But I can’t let myself off the hook that easily. Honestly, I can remember the deflated look on John’s face many times over when he tried to share something fun or exciting with me and I ignored him or stomped on his ideas. If I had taken just a moment to put myself in his place I would have seen that what he really needed and wanted from me was enjoyment and support.

The slap in the face of Active Constructive Responding still makes me squirm a little (even as I’m typing this), but the part that makes me downright sad is the fact that not only was I not able to share in John’s joys and dreams, but – perhaps more importantly – I had cut off many of the parts of myself that included unabashed joy and celebration.

To me, life was serious business, and if I behaved irresponsibly on my watch by dancing and celebrating then all hell might break loose. I was a rule follower and a responsible citizen, and as a result people knew they could count on me… but I sure could be a drag. And the way this played out in my marriage is that – I suspect – John learned through experience that I was not the one to turn to in good times. And that’s a problem.

And, going back to the recognition of my too high expectations and my internal spreadsheet of John’s successes and failures at meeting those demands, perhaps living with me became no-win situation, in which there were few fun respites.

The reason why I write all this is not to chastise myself or to suggest that I was a horrible wife and that I deserved the end of my marriage. That’s not really my style. I write it, instead, for two main reasons: 1) It is a reminder to me that I choose who I am in every relationship I’m in, and if I want to be miserable then I can dwell in negativity and seriousness at all times. Or, if I want to have joyful, playful relationships, then I can choose to celebrate what goes right in them and to focus my attention primarily there. 2) I also want to send a message to everyone who reads this blog that your words and actions in your relationships are vitally important to the people you love. I think I really didn’t understand this for many, many years, and through conversations with people in the last 6 years, I notice that there are lots of other people in my same situation. Choose your words carefully; they matter.

So now I’m a little better than I used to be - in my relationships with my kids, in my friendships, in my relationship with John, in my work relationships, and in romantic relationships I pursue. I try now, when I feel that I have been wronged, to take a step back and to analyze my feelings to figure out why I’m feeling that way. Then I remind myself of all the wonderful parts of my relationship with that person. And then, if I decide it’s important enough for me to communicate my feelings to the other person, I think carefully about how I will say what I want to say. I remind myself that the other person is not trying to hurt me, and that my words have the power to either inspire or to deflate them, depending on how I phrase things.

Living fully in the moment, open to what’s good in that moment, remaining curious about what might unfold. That’s the stance I wish I could have taken in my marriage. Who knows if it would have meant that John and I would still be together, but I sure would feel better about how I had showed up there. And, either way, I have the opportunity moving forward to act on the insights I have gained through my mistakes.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Two to Tango

Two to Tango

By Kirsten

It seems like whenever the topic of divorce comes up, the phrase, “It takes two to tango” is somehow woven into whatever conversation follows. Sometimes I even say it myself.

But I’ll tell you – when I was in the early stages of the breakup of my marriage, I used to literally feel like throwing up when people would say that to me. This is because I didn’t want my divorce, and I knew that if John met me halfway, we could piece things together and grow together. But he checked out, telling me outright that he would never work on our marriage again and that as far as he was concerned our marriage was over. He suggested that we stay together for the sake of the kids, but he was clear that he planned to divorce me when they grew up.

This was not only one of the most painful messages I have ever heard in my life, but it also left me with few options. Some friends suggested that I wait it out, that he was bound to turn around if I just hung in there and kept my heart open to possibility. I don’t know if I could have done that. Maybe. But I’ll never know because I ended up filing for divorce within a couple months of his declaration.

I did this because all the rules changed in our relationship at the time John made this declaration, and I ended up with no power. John had control over our finances, and he began to tell me that I now needed to get a job to support myself and the kids. He would not kick us out of the house, but he would no longer pay for many of the things required to keep a household running. Meanwhile, he began making major purchases without consulting me.

And the emotional rules of the game had also changed dramatically. John spent significant amounts of time with another woman, and while he and she both claimed that they were just friends, warning sirens were screaming in my ears. And John quickly lost any interest in hearing about my feelings on the topic. It got to the point where he couldn’t even stand to be in the same room with me. He told me he felt like he was suffocating.

I say all this not to villainize John, but to explain why I had such a visceral reaction when people would tell me, in what struck me as a very pompous manner, that it takes two to tango. Their implied (and sometimes explicit) message was that I had played as much a role in my marriage getting to the place it was as John had, so I had no right to complain or point fingers.

Of course, this was as my heart was bleeding from the pain of it all…

From my current vantage point, I totally see what people were telling me. And I have done enough soul-searching to see many, many ways in which I made life unbearable for John while we were together. Yes, every relationship is a dance, and if both parties aren’t doing their best to stay attuned to one another, to satisfy the emotional and physical needs of the other, then the whole thing will fall apart. I’m as guilty as the next guy. But…

When one person really wants to take dance lessons, or to throw herself into the rhythm, and the other person won’t even join her on the dance floor, then what can she do?

I say all this because I recently had a conversation with a friend about this blog, and her feedback for me is that it’s great and inspirational, but it’s also a little painful for those who want to have a functioning relationship with their ex, but the ex won’t participate.

Wow. Really good point.

I’m so glad she brought this up because the aim of this blog is not to showcase John and me as having it all together, and it is certainly not to suggest that somehow we have all the answers and that if you don’t have a great working relationship with your ex then you must be doing something wrong. No, no, no…

Our story is one way, a way that has worked for us. That’s all. The tango dance continues, and if one person chooses not to participate, even ongoing as exes, then the individual on the dance floor cannot be held responsible for that choice. Or be punished for it. Or be righteous about it.

It simply provides an opportunity for a different kind of dance. A solo dance. One which celebrates what is possible and good in that moment for the dancer.

Ultimately, this is the tack I took when my marriage began to crumble and when John expressed his unwillingness to participate in the dance that was our marriage. I could have raged, I could have begged and pleaded, I could have laid down in a mess on the floor (I did do that quite a few times), but at the end of the day I knew that I could only be in charge of me. And my best choice was to practice and enjoy the solo dance that I would create for myself from this point on.

So that’s what I would say to all readers of this blog. There is no magic formula. John and I happened to luck into this ongoing relationship that works for us and for our kids. If you have an ex who won’t meet you halfway, then seize the opportunity to be the best person you can be. Your kids will see it, the world will see it, and – maybe most importantly – you will feel it. You will be filled with energy and joy, and your unique dance will make the world a more beautiful place.

Friday, May 14, 2010


by Kirsten

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about blame, and how easy it is to slip into… and how un-useful it is. I mean, I guess there are times when you need to assign blame, i.e. in the case of a car accident. Determination of which insurance needs to pay for the damage to both vehicles should rightly be dictated by who was acting negligently, right?

But in the case of so many situations, we rush to assign blame when there is really no purpose and when only harm is done by doing so. Divorce is ripe for this pitfall. When people hear about a couple that is splitting up, isn’t the first questions out of their mouth: What happened? Was there an affair? We want to get the facts so that we know which side to land on and whom to support. Otherwise, the muddiness of the crash-and-burn is too chaotic for our brains and our hearts to deal with. We have a need to make sense of things, to place things into neat boxes. “He was the wronged party because she bailed after 15 years.”

To the extent that we do this when other people split up, we do it a hundred times more when it’s our own breakup. The ground shakes beneath us as the life we have created with our spouse starts to crumble, and we’re afraid. More afraid than we’ve ever been in our whole lives, probably. The fear has to do with financial instability (how will I pay the mortgage this month, or next?) and insecurity about changing relationships with the kids (will my ex turn the kids against me?). But the fear runs much deeper than this.

I’m reading a book right now, called The Courage to Teach by Parker Palmer, in which he talks about the fear that teachers unconsciously face when they walk into a classroom of young folks. The fear has to do with feeling exposed, and being revealed as a fraud, similar to the Wizard of Oz when Toto pulls the curtain away. Teachers protect themselves by portraying themselves as “experts” as a way of mitigating their fear, but what this ends up doing is building an impenetrable wall between them and their students – a wall which cuts off curiosity and excitement for learning and intrinsic motivation.

True communion with others, on the other hand – whether in a classroom, in a long-term relationship, or even with a stranger on a bus – requires that we expose ourselves. That we show our vulnerabilities. That we admit to not having all the answers.

Have you ever met someone who was so incredibly refreshing because of their guilelessness? I have an image of a young woman I knew in college who still serves as my role model for how I want to interact with the world. At the time she was carefree, laughed easily at herself and the world around her, and sought adventure as if there were no other way. Her approach to life scared the living daylights out of me, since I was about as diametrically opposite to her as could be, but I was also enthralled. I was attracted to her attitude and her stories of adventure, and although I didn’t admit it consciously to myself at the time, I know now that I longed to be like her.

I was serious and studious and responsible. People knew they could “count on me.” I felt dull and lifeless, like a worn old kitchen utensil, and I longed to shine like my friend. But I didn’t believe I had it in me, and I was also afraid to throw off the rules that bound me in. These rules kept me safe, and they kept others safe, and safety, ultimately, was more important to me than exploration.

I sacrificed so much by clinging to the safety of the rules. I rarely laughed, I didn’t talk to people who weren’t in my inner circle of friends, and worst of all, I thought I had the answers.

What I know now is that having the answers is the best way to kill a genuine human connection. As soon as I’m sure about the motives of another, or I want to tell them “the way it is,” I leave no room for the humanity of that Other to be revealed to me in trust.

My divorce forced me to question all my rules and assumptions about myself, others, and the way the world should operate. I didn’t throw them all out, but what I did throw out was the conviction that I had held so dearly and for so long that if I just kept everything tied up neatly then things wouldn’t fall apart. Relationships would remain steady, my loved ones would be safe from harm, and I could count on a stable future.

Of course, what I had to learn the hard way is that 1) No one can hold things together, no matter how hard they try, 2) The more you try to hold things together, the more they crumble from within, and 3) When things fall apart, they’re actually okay despite your greatest fears.

These three realizations, recognized over the long period of my divorce process, have freed me in many ways. I am free of the notion that I can tell another person what to do or how to be (and I can’t even think it); I am free of the certainty that if I “figure it out” and “make the right decision” then there will be no heartache; I am free of the idea that there are even answers to most of life’s baffling questions; and I am free to laugh uproariously at myself, others, and the wonderful complexity of the world around me. I don’t always laugh – sometimes I weep from a place deep in my soul – but that’s the way I want it. I want to live in the highs and lows, knowing that closing myself off to any of it means closing off the connection to others.

So, bringing this back to blame and - since this blog is about divorce - blame during and after divorce, I am struck by how fear leads to years of bitterness between divorced folks, and how that bitterness negatively impacts the people who are at all connected to the divorced individuals. Talk to most people going through divorce, and they can give you a mile-long laundry list of how they have been wronged by their ex. I’ve heard some pretty compelling stories, and empathy naturally swells in my heart when I hear these tales, but I also think to myself and sometimes say out loud, “So how is it serving you to hold onto these stories?”

I’m not suggesting that we should turn a blind eye to situations where emotional or physical abuse is occurring, but once you have removed yourself from harm’s way, why not let go of the need to be justified? It might feel good in the moment to prove to someone or to yourself that you are the injured party, but that negative energy you’re inviting into your world by hanging on actually holds you back from embracing happiness that could be yours right now.

You could be laughing! You could be exploring. You could be meeting new and interesting people, and pursuing a path that you never allowed yourself to pursue before. I went to grad school (actually about to graduate from my second grad program in three years) and launched a new career for myself.

Mindfulness is the ability to remain open to the experience of reality as it’s occurring right now. It encompasses flexibility of thought and action, and it definitely requires the surrendering of the notion that you control what’s happening or that you have the answers. It leads to tremendous heartfelt joy, as well as gut-wrenching sorrow, but in the end it leaves open possibilities that are life-giving. And blame certainly cuts off the ability to be mindful.

One final thought for today. You know the college friend I talked about earlier? The one who was filled with life and adventure? Well, sadly, I ran into her about 10 years ago and was crushed to discover that she had become cynical and closed off to exploration. Life had dealt her some hard blows, and she showed scars from her experiences. I haven’t seen her since that time, so maybe she has been able to regain some of her joy of life. But the good news for me is this: I don’t need to depend on her to show me an adventurous spirit. I have come to embrace that for myself, and I’m light years closer to the person I want to be than I was in college, and I don’t ever have to go back!