Escape With Each Other

Hug

In my last post I presented the idea that relationship issues are frequently (and perhaps usually) not actually issues with the relationship. Rather, they are issues with stress management.

I think it’s safe to say the following is true:

  1. people have different amounts of stress in their lives
  2. we are different in how well we manage the stresses we do have
  3. some ways of coping with those stresses are healthier than others

We all have stress in our lives, and studies show just how damaging stress is. It’s extremely bad for your own health, and it’s also extremely bad for relationships. In fact, high stress jobs tend to also be associated with high divorce rates.

So stress management is pretty important for both your own health and the health of your relationship. We all have things we do to de-stress. Ways to escape, however temporarily, from the stresses of life.

My idea in my previous post was that over time, in our heads our partner comes to represent our stress. We start to incorrectly see them as the source of our stress instead of seeing them as someone who is dealing with the same (or at least similar) stresses as us at the same time.

In a healthy relationship, our partner is our shelter in the storm of life. They are the first person we go to in order to let go, or relax. So once we’ve started to associate them with the stresses of life, our relationships get into trouble.

It is often said that bad relationships cause stress. That may be true, but stress doesn’t only happen in “bad relationships”. People can have relationships that have all the ingredients to be amazing, but they can still be destroyed by stress.

Allowing Escapism

In my last post I talked about escaping from stress, and how many forms of escapism are unhealthy ways of dealing with stress. For example, I believe this sense of escapism is actually one of the leading causes of affairs. But there are also healthy forms of escapism.

One reader (bac4sccr) made the following comment:

I believe the trick (I am no expert though) is to allow the escapism. You may think I am crazy but if it is allowed you can get away from the stresses of life. The catch is can you do the escapism together as a couple. Zombiedrew2 already used sex as an example of escapism. I agree that it can be used but it cannot be the only form. It could be weekly dates where you are not allowed to talk about money or kids or your car breaking down. You do something with your partner to escape. You associate this escapism (positive) with your spouse and then your relationship grows because you associate it and your partner with positive thoughts and feelings.

I absolutely love this comment, and wanted to expand on it a bit – stealing some of my reply to his comment.

As a side note, many thanks for the people who write in and leave comments. I try to respond to every comment I get, and feel it is the interaction between bloggers and readers that really drives a site. If you have any thoughts on any of my posts I encourage you to write in. I am always interested in different ideas and insights, and believe we can learn a lot from each other as well as provide a bit of support for each other at the same time. Plus when you comment (or even just hit the “like” button) it lets me know someone is actually reading – which is always nice.

Back on topic, I think escaping together is probably the lifeblood of a relationship. And it’s also the area that MOST couples fail.

Miserably.

Escaping Alone

The hardest part of a relationship is balancing the “me” and the “we”. It’s not healthy to completely lose yourself in your relationship, but at the same time you don’t want to be roommates who simply share bills and sleep in the same bed.

It’s important that you maintain the couple. You should never use the excuse of there being “not enough time”, because it’s pretty damned important. Important enough that you need to MAKE time. And when you actually do have time, you need to let go of the distractions of life. Turn towards each other and focus on each other.

Yeah, you still need to do things as an individual. It’s important to have time to yourself, away from your partner. But when most or all of your escape time is as a “me”, here’s what happens…

Your escape time is when you can let go of the stress of life. So when your escape time is usually on your own (or at least away from your partner) at a subconscious level you start to associate the feelings of being relaxed, and being free from stress with the times that you are away from your partner.

If you had already started to associate the stresses of life with your partner, this just deepens it.

And if those stresses have led you to have any doubts about your relationship? Well, this will just “prove” those doubts to you.

I think this happens to couples with kids more than couples without, and there’s a reason for it that is at once sad and ironic.

Kids are awesome, but they require a lot of care and attention. Often it can be hard to find care, so one parent ends up home with the kids while the other is off having “me” time. So they are able to relax on their own.

Why?

Because they actually trust their partner with the kids.

They can relax because they know that their partner will take care of the kids. This sense of trust allows them to relax. But if they only relax when they are away from their partner, over time that negative association is made.

Hmm, I have fun and I can relax on my own. But when I’m with my partner I’m stressed and can’t relax. Shouldn’t I feel differently? Maybe this indicates a problem in our relationship? Maybe I’m better off on my own?

Yeah, when it comes to the health of the relationship that’s not really a good association to make.

Trends in Divorce

Divorces can happen to couples at any time, and for any number of reasons. But if you look at stats on divorces you will see that there are a few trends, and times in life and marriage where they happen more frequently.

The first group are marriages last less than two years. Chances are those are couples who were simply a bad match, and they couldn’t get along.

The next group is probably in their late 30’s to early 40’s. They are hitting midlife, and are probably at one of the hardest stages in life for dealing with the stresses of “day to day” life. This is when people are most likely to have young kids and tighter cash flow. But it’s also when they are most likely to question “is this it” about their relationship and life in general. If your marriage is going to fall apart, chances are this is when it happens.

And the last is after the kids have grown up and moved out. This couple was probably in trouble when they hit group 2, but due to the kids they were able to hold on and get by. Suddenly they look at each other and realize they have grown apart and the only thing they had in common over the past 15-20 years was the kids. Some stay in the marriage and live largely independent lives. Probably because they’ve invested so much time and they don’t want to start over.

Holding On

I guess my point in all this is that you start a relationship because you saw something in each other once.

Something wonderful.

Something beautiful.

Something you wanted to hold onto, forever.

But a lot of us screw things up. We lose the very things that brought us together, and we don’t realize it until things are in a bad spot – and for many it’s too late.

And when it fails, often it wasn’t the relationship that was the problem. It was the stress of daily life, and the fact that instead of tackling it together stress caused us to retreat into ourselves and focus more on being an individual.

Finding time as a couple and making it a priority is the ONLY way out in my opinion. But to do that you need to recognize the difference between relationship stresses and life stresses. The life stresses are ones you are both experiencing at the same time, and changing the relationship won’t make them any better.

So yeah, you will need to escape sometimes.

But do it together.

Focus on each other, and always make time to connect (or reconnect if need).

Remember that you are supposed to be each others shelters from life. When times are hard, don’t turn away from your partner.

Turn towards each other, and just love each other.

Advertisements

Is This All There Is?

Driving off

Is this all there is? This is a question everyone asks themselves eventually.

Is the life I have right now the one I want?

Is there more to life?

Growing up, we have a bit of a romanticized notion of what “being an adult” will be, and what life will look like.

We will be free. We won’t have to live under the rules of our parents. We won’t have to go to school every day. We will be adults – we will be our own person and be able to live our lives how we want!!!

And then we get there.

Once out “on our own” we need a place to live, and we need to eat. So we get a job. Maybe we find one we like, and maybe we just find one that will pay us. But that’s alright, because it pays enough of the bills to let us get by. If we want more “stuff”, we need a better job.

But the job is just a job. Sure we may make some friends at work, but our job is just there to help us finance our life; and our life is the important part.

In our personal life we have friends and family. Often we have a spouse or a partner, and maybe we have kids. THOSE are a greater source of happiness than our job.

But our friends and family have their own lives too. And as much as we may love our spouse and kids, they can be sources of stress and conflict almost as much as they are sources of joy.

We live our lives, and although there may be a lot of joy, life becomes routine. We need to work to pay the bills, and hopefully put away a bit of money to be able to go on a vacation once in a while. Or get a nicer car, or a nicer house.

So we find ourselves in this cycle, going through the motions of life day after day, month after month, and year after year.

Eventually though, *something* triggers you to take a look at your life.

And you come to the realization that being an adult is not what you expected. Careers aren’t what we expected. Marriage is not what you expected. And being a parent is not what you expected.

And you find yourself asking, is this it?

Is this all there is?

Midlife “Crisis”

I think this stage of taking a hard look at your life is what is often referred to as a midlife crisis.

As a kid, I thought a midlife crisis was a bit of a joke. When I heard the term I had visions of an older guy who would divorce his wife, get a sports car and a girlfriend at least 10 years younger (probably a yoga instructor).

It was the sort of thing you saw in movies and on TV, but I didn’t think it really happened.

Of course as a kid I also thought that marriages lasted forever, people would always love their partners and affairs only happened in soap operas. Ha!!!

Now that I’m at midlife myself I read peoples stories on blogs, and I look around at friends and acquaintances and I see that midlife crisis is actually quite real.

It’s just not quite what I thought, and the idea of the sports car and the yoga instructor isn’t often that accurate.

More commonly, instead of a “crisis” people have a period of midlife reflection and transformation.

Sure, some people respond badly, act selfishly and do some really stupid things (and those are the ones we most frequently hear about). But that doesn’t have to be what it’s about.

And in fact, this period in life can also be very healthy.

What Causes Midlife Crisis?

If midlife crisis is a period of reflection and transformation, what causes it?

I think mid-life crisis is really about recognition of our own mortality. It happens anywhere from some ones late 30’s to early 50’s (around “mid”-life). And if you hear enough stories you start to see that there is usually some sort of trigger.

The person going through it often has lost someone close to them, or perhaps they or someone close to them has been impacted by a serious illness.

Sometimes the trigger is just age, and with it the realization that statistically their time on this earth is moving into its second half; and we are closer to our death than our birth.

Why do People Handle it Differently?

To me, the biggest question is why do people handle it so differently? At this time of reflection, some people don’t seem affected at all. Others take stock of their lives and decide to take up a new hobby. And then we have those who dump their partner, buy a sports car and start dating the yoga instructor.

It’s clear that not all approaches are equal, and some have much more significant long term repercussions than others.

Each person is doing what seems right to them at the time, but in the cases that are “newsworthy” to friends and loved ones it often seems like they are watching a car crash. They are watching a loved one engage in what appear to be self-destructive actions and decisions.

So what causes this difference in behavior?

I think it’s primarily due to two things:

  • The size of the gap between where you hoped/wanted to be and where you feel you are
  • The degree of control you feel you have had over how you got to your current situation

The first one seems obvious. You sit back and look at your life, and it’s not what you expected. Maybe a big part of that is due to a romanticized notion of what life “should” look like, but if your life doesn’t look like the one you wanted and you believe that your time is running out, it makes sense to want to make changes.

I think the second reason is actually MUCH more important though.

I write about relationships, but the main underlying theme in my writing is choice and accountability. I feel that choice, and the belief that you have the ability to make choices is one of the biggest keys to happiness.

When I hear stories about midlife crisis, the people who make the biggest changes are usually people who have been living the life they thought they “had” to, or the life they felt was expected of them. Commonly they didn’t assert themselves, and instead just went with the flow.

And now they don’t want to do that anymore. Instead, they decide to live the life they “want” to live – usually acting very impulsively and with little thought about consequences. It’s at once a rebellion and an assertion of individuality; a way of taking control of their own life – with either very little thought given to the damage being done in the process or a belief that they have “sacrificed” for long enough and they don’t want to anymore.

I truly believe this element of choice and control is much more important than the actual gap between where someone is and where they want to be.

If the gap is large but it’s a result of your own choices? Well, there’s no one to blame but yourself. You may not have what you want but you’ve done the best with what you had.

If you feel that you have been living the live that was expected of you though?

People can have what from all outward appearances are great lives. Great families, jobs, partners that truly care about them and support them. It doesn’t matter how “great” a persons life is though if they don’t feel they “choose it”.

No matter how much good there is, if they feel they have been living the life that others expected of them then it lays the groundwork for considerable resentment.

What is the Crisis?

When this midlife time of reflection becomes a crisis, there are a few common areas. These include the following:

Loss of Identity

This is probably the biggest one. In life we play a number of different roles. And in the process of growing and changing it’s easy to find that in all the roles we have “lost ourselves”.

We have become the parent, the partner, the co-worker, the child. We are all these different things to different people. But who are we?

I think we are the sum of all these things. Each of them makes up a part of us that is part of who we truly are.

When there is a sense of lost identity, maybe people never actually knew who they really were. This realization can be painful, but also powerful.

And midlife becomes a time of finding yourself again, and perhaps finally accepting yourself for who you are, instead of looking at who you are not.

Loss of Freedom

At midlife people often talk about “wanting to be free”. There is often sadness at lost youth, and a yearning for the freedom that came with it.

But the sad truth is, as much as we may try there is no going back. We were “free” because we were kids. We had adults to take care of us and look after us.

Once you are an adult? Freedom doesn’t really exist – at least not in the way it did when we were kids. You pretty much have to go to work. You have to have shelter, you have to eat. If you have kids, you have to take care of them. And if you want a relationship, you have to put effort in.

All of these things definitely DO put restrictions on you.

You absolutely CAN choose to walk away from those restrictions, and some do. Some hit a point that they find the stress too high and they just walk away one or all of these parts of their lives – their partner, their job, and even their children.

However when people do that they are looking for a freedom that they will never truly find. And that type of freedom not only comes at great cost, but is also usually not quite what someone expects.

Feeling Stuck

Another issue that can cause midlife to be a time of crisis is the sense of being “stuck”. Life has become mundane and routine. You feel like you are just going through the motions. Alive, but not truly living.

The advertising world tells us that “normal” is bad. It tells us that we are special, we aren’t like all the “other people”. We deserve more.

Then we look over and see the kids. And the mortgage. And the bills. And the pile of laundry.

And over time a sense of sadness and hopelessness builds, which in time can turn to depression.

I think this is probably the leading cause of affairs and divorce. People are looking for some sort of change to shake them out of the rut they are in, and finding comfort in the arms of another is an easy (and temporary) way out. People who have affairs often say that they wanted “to feel alive again”, and that they had lost that feeling.

Affairs are a quick fix though, and they don’t address the underlying issues. I talk about this as it applies to relationships in Losing the Spark. But even individually we all need goals. We need things to strive towards (both individually and as a couple) in order to allow us to get through day to day life.

Truthfully, we all could probably do with a bit more excitement our lives. But it doesn’t just happen, we need to build it in.

A Time for Change

Midlife is a time for reflection. Even if you have been living the life you felt you had to, or the one you felt was expected of you – sometimes when you take a good look at it you realize hey, it’s not so bad.

Maybe there are a few changes you can make, a few goals to pursue, a bit of improvement in communication with people you care about.

And sometimes improving a few little things can make a world of difference. We don’t necessarily have to wipe the board clean and start our life over again.

Last year I hit 40. Mid-life.

There was a bit of turmoil in my life at the time, but I can truly say I never entertained thoughts of the sports car and the yoga instructor.

I did reflect on my life, and I do on a fairly regular basis. But every time I do, I come to the same conclusions.

Yes, life could have been different. There are any number of choices I made which, had I chosen differently would have resulted in a different “me” today.

But I have no regrets. All of my choices were mine, and all of them helped shape me into the person I am today.

And honestly? I like me. Hell, I love me.

And I love my life.

My life is not perfect and it never will be. And things won’t always work out the way I want. But I have a lot of things to be thankful for.

And I ALWAYS have choice.

Others matter to me, and I care about their opinions. They may even influence some of my choices in the way I live my life. But they were still my choices.

I can always choose to improve the things I don’t like, accept them as they are, or change them.

And so can you.