Personal growth through relationships

Maybe this is a “no duh!” but this observation snuck up on me today when I least expected it. But it seems that we grow as a person by how well we manage the relationships in our lives.

For many people there is not much to manage. Maybe they have great social skills, or are highly compatible with those people in life they come in contact with on a daily basis. Then there are the rest of us for whom every relationship is a challenge and a potential minefield.

For me a good example is my spouse. In a couple months I will have had her in my life for twenty years. Yes, it does boggle my mind – where did all that time go? Soon for half of my life she will have been there. Not surprisingly we complement each other and in other ways we are polar opposites. It is not the things we share in common that are ever the problem. We can talk about computers, or the virtues of certain classical music and we rarely disagree. Even when we do disagree we are always respectful toward each other. There are no hurt feelings if she prefers Bach and I prefer Beethoven. During those times life and our relationship are serene and we are filled with a pleasant and happy glow from finding such joy in each other.

Then there are the differences. There’s the rub all right. I am a classic introvert in the sense that I keep my feelings largely bottled up. Terri says she is an introvert and no doubt she gets a lot of her pleasure inward rather than outward. But when it comes to expressing feelings, she must express them. For example, when we drive anywhere she will make loud and rude (sorry dear) comments about every act of bad or inconsiderate driving she encounters. Those of you who drive in the DC area know that this is about one every 15 seconds. If she tries to shut up, she gets upset and develops headaches. Expressing her feelings RIGHT NOW is her safety valve because her inner teakettle is always close to boil.

It is true I don’t usually want to hear her observations since I have heard them ad nauseum for nearly 20 years. But she could no more stop expressing her feelings than the Niagara River could reverse its flow. It is a pull like gravity. So whether I want to hear it or not I will and I am left to either try to cope with it or stuff cotton in my ears. Maybe this is why we don’t go on cross-country car trips. No, to me life is much more serene when I refuse to get upset about every transgression on the road. There are too many of them anyhow and getting upset about them wouldn’t improve my day. But that’s how I think and that’s how I deal with this little daily annoyance. But Terri cannot NOT get upset.

So it’s a good thing we mostly drive separately I guess. What matters though is how I (and she) cope with behavior from each other that tends to drive us crazy. Yelling at each other is one solution. I’m not good in that department since I am an internalizer, but it works for lots of couples. Their tactic: get out those angry feelings, kiss and make up, then go through the cycle again the next time. I am really good at keeping it all bottled up. But eventually there comes a time when I can’t keep it bottled up anymore. I don’t usually start yelling at her, but I might opt to hide in another part of the house, or take a sudden trip by myself, or sometimes I even say “Can you PLEASE stop shouting at your computer! It can’t hear you and you are driving me CRAZY.” (BTW, this doesn’t work. It just makes her more upset.)

Allegorically we are two bulls thrown into a tight pen together. We can’t often get out of the pen. We have to learn to live with each other or we have to give up and get divorced. I am sure the latter option has crossed both our minds on numerous occasions.

In my family divorce is something we don’t usually do. We don’t tend to be quitters when the going gets tough. We figure we’re supposed to hang in there, although we don’t know why and yeah, maybe it is kind of stupid come to think about it. Why be miserable? Curiously in Terri’s family divorce is the modus operandi. It’s because her parents got divorced, her aunts and uncles have been through strings of marriages, and her own brother has shuffled through a number of wives that Terri doesn’t want to go down that route. If we can stay married to each other, I think she thinks, then she can prove she’s got the “right stuff” and they don’t. Or maybe she really does love me enough to put up with all my eccentricities. Who would have thunk?

Every relationship is unique, but a common thread among my friends is that they both love and loathe their spouses at the same time. And while they are at it they have similar mixed feelings about neighbors, coworkers, bosses, friends and acquaintances.

My recurring fantasy is that somehow, magically, my wife is transformed of these habits of hers that sometimes drive me crazy. Twenty years have been full of ups and downs and I’ve enjoyed a lot of those years with her, and some years drove me up the wall. Wouldn’t it be great if she were up ALL the time? If we complemented each other perfectly? Yes, life would be perfect. Or maybe not.

Because life is about change. If things aren’t moving, alive and vital is it life at all? I recall my teenage years (1972-1975) when we lived in Ormond Beach, Florida. Every day was pretty much the same: sunny and hot, afternoon thunderstorms. The Spanish moss hung limply from the trees every day. There was not much to do and no place to go. It felt like creeping death. I was so glad to grow up and move out of that town, not because I don’t like my parents but because it was so terminally dull and so always the same. One could look forward to death living there.

So maybe challenging relationships are all about inner growth. Maybe it is about spiritual growth. And maybe that’s why it’s so hard and can be so rewarding, because you learn your true character through adversity. Of all the challenges in my life though, including child rearing and getting a midlife graduate degree, none come close to the challenge I have fully loving and accepting my wife for who she despite differences that often drive me to distraction.

Variety is the spice of life, but spice adds flavor and is not food. It is the daily relationships that are the foods that truly nourish our souls, although it may not seem that way. Like the cat eating the same cat food every day, it’s not much to look forward to. Learning to fully love and appreciate those we take for granted is, for me anyhow, the most challenging problem in life.

Hillary escaped by climbing Everest. That was easy.

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