When Life Just Happens

Too often it is only after years of sidestepping talk of discontent, that the thwarted desires of partners are openly and seriously explored. Much that might be timely addressed goes unsaid, until it is too late.

Here is the story a divorcing couple recently told. Seventeen years earlier, she’d become pregnant, they married, and she gave up her college plan. He achieved career success, making it unnecessary for her to take a job for pay. As the family grew, they moved to an upscale suburb where the children attended private schools.

Although she yearned to return to serious study, little was said of this as obligations at home and in the community filled her days. After a time he felt trapped in a career he would happily leave, but for the need to support their expensive lifestyle. The immensity and seeming impossibility of their dreams, and their discontent, was only occasionally the subject of aimless late night talks.

Now, with all passion spent, and the decision made to part, they didn’t blame each other for the disappointments they openly discussed, both suggesting: it just happened.

Some years ago, a friend introduced me to a small volume, “How to Get Control of Your Time and Life” by Alan Lakein. It’s one of many books I never finished, but the early pages contained a suggestion I took to heart.

Following the author’s instructions, each year, usually in January, I sit before a blank piece of paper and without allowing any time for rumination, spend just two minutes writing the answer to each of the following questions:

1) What do I want to accomplish over the next five years?

2) What do I want to accomplish over the next year?

3) How would I spend the next six months if I knew I had only six months to live?

I’ve kept my annual lists and from time to time, I look back. Sometimes, with pleasure, I note goals that have been met. Other times, I recognize that year after year the same objective is repeated without much forward movement. My answers to the third question are quite specific but least likely to have been implemented. Denial?

I never share my lists with anyone. But many conversations with friends and colleagues are spawned with my aspirations in mind, and projects designed. Trying to enlist my husband to join me in this specific question and answer process failed. Wasn’t his style. But over the years, my formalizing of goals, long and short term, often led to talk about our dreams and miseries. We gave each other permission and support to initiate change, and many important changes were made.

But what happened to the two people seated on my office couch who spoke of their regrets, as they made plans for lives apart? At an earlier time they felt great attraction for each other, and probably shared many values, yet they failed to seriously talk about or support each others’ longings. Their imaginings about a different way of life were defeated before they were realistically explored. What if they had asked each other how steps in new directions might have been taken over the next six months, or the next year?

Perhaps every couple, or at least one partner, should go through an annual assessment of what they wish they could do or be, to see if articulating what one hopes to achieve, might lead to important disclosures by both of them, and support for those ends. Together.