“Relationships are work because they relate to creating a third entity and they are not about personal benefits.” – Bernie Siegel, M.D.
For more than 25 years, Pam and I have worked together on our relationship. From our first date, we seemed to share a deep connection. As the end of that date neared, we sat in my car, the street light illuminating our faces. We looked deeply into each other’s eyes…not kissing, not talking, and yet there was a language of the soul occurring – a recognition. This was both exciting and scary.
I was attracted to Pam on many levels. Over time, however, as often happens in relationships, some of those same things that attracted me to her started to drive me crazy. She was so sweet and nice and agreeable, which eventually became aggravating because she wouldn’t offer a strong opinion. I liked to make fast decisions and talk about things; she liked to keep her own council and mull things over, occasionally sharing her conclusions with me days later. Sometimes I could have shaken her to get those words to spill out! This was just the beginning of my education in learning patience and trust in another’s style of communication.
I came from a family that would fight about everything. Pam’s family, on the other hand, never fought. In fact, they were hesitant to express any strong feelings, even affection.
One of the first and most important things a couple needs to learn is how to fight. We carry with us what we learned from our parents, and this third entity, the relationship, needs to develop its own way of resolving conflict. Pam and I learned how to fight in a way that worked for both of us. I helped Pam to demonstrate her anger. Previously she would swallow her anger, and it would come out sideways.
As Pam learned to be passionate in her anger, I remember my shock and glee the first time she told me to “shove it.” I couldn’t help but smile, which made her even angrier. She was out of the closet! Conversely, she helped me learn to create a pause between an event and expressing my anger, to hold my tongue and let the thunder roll in the clouds of my mind instead of reactively striking out at the people around me, often out of proportion to the event itself. Most importantly, this helped me reduce the need to be right all the time.
Being young when we met, we each had natural strengths, as well as underdeveloped areas, and our pieces seemed to fit together well. Eventually, I focused more on my career and ran the financial part of our relationship, and Pam, especially once the girls came, focused more on the house and kids.
After our first daughter arrived, Pam attempted to go back to work full-time teaching German and being a housemaster at a boarding high school. Both our jobs required long days and carried a lot of stress, and it quickly became apparent that we were all miserable. One morning as I dropped our 4-month-old daughter off at day care, I saw the fear in her eyes as we headed inside. And my heart said, “This must end.” My brain’s concern about financial stability was overruled and we chose to leap into a new family dynamic. Pam resigned the next day, only staying until they could find a replacement. We even took the leap of buying our first house, a huge financial commitment, at the same time we would lose Pam’s income.
As often happens when we make tough decisions for the right reasons, Pam loved being a stay-at-home mom, our daughters thrived for having her home with them, and I quickly was promoted and made more money than we had ever made combined.
Yet, we were still not whole, in and of ourselves, because we depended on the other with attachment, expecting each other to fulfill our assigned societal roles in certain ways. Pam and I each took on responsibility for things that the other felt less inclined to do, or perhaps felt inadequate to do. So if the children were sick, Pam would be the one to stay up with them all night, because I had to head off to work the next morning, and frankly, I was glad for this excuse.
As our girls grew older, Pam became a life coach, and moved in new directions beyond home and family. A large part of my identity had been tied up in being a professional money manager, which I loved, and yet the time came when I knew it was time for me to leave that role. Despite the significant ramifications this had for our lifestyle, Pam wholeheartedly supported this life-change. As a life coach who advocated trusting one’s inner guidance and following one’s heart, she trusted that things would indeed work out, even though it wasn’t obvious just how at that point. Yet she also supported this, in part, because she no longer wanted to be married to “an empty suit” – even if it was hand-tailored and fit the societal norms.
From that point forward, our journey toward wholeness accelerated. We’ve reconsidered who does what from a pragmatic view, and have shifted what society might define as roles for husbands and wives. I do healing work, lead workshops and drive the children to school and on field trips, while doing more of the domestic chores. Pam is a business coach and earns the majority of the money that supports our family. She now handles all of our financial matters, from paying bills to doing taxes. This is what our relationship offered us, the opportunity to reclaim aspects of ourselves that had not previously been tapped. This greater access to expanded definitions of who we are and what is possible created more balance inside each of us and within the relationship – a richer expression of the potential in all three entities.
Ironically, as we become more whole, we need each other less, yet want each other more. Our relationship isn’t based on attachment or fear, but on co-creation. We are mirrors for each other, reflecting back what is inside of us.
Dave and Pam Nelson will present a couples workshop, “Better Together – Getting the Best Out of Your Relationship,” with Lynn Woodland on September 26-28 in Minneapolis. Its focus is to increase awareness of the strength of each individual in the relationship and the strengths and opportunities offered by the relationship. For details and to register, go to www.icoachlife.com.