Embrace the NOW With Gratitude!

As I have aged, so have my clients! Funny how it works that way! And I am so grateful to the elders in my practice for all they are teaching me. As I accompany them on their journey through the last third of their lives, I am often in awe – at the wisdom they have learned and are willing to share, for the example they provide of how personal growth can continue until the day we die, and of how the examined life is truly more rich and rewarding that its antithesis.

One theme that runs through these conversations is grief. How is the sadness of grief different from the weight of depression? What can our experiences of loss teach us about how to live? What is the “right” way to grieve? How long does the grieving process take? How can I allow myself to grieve and still keep on with the demands of life?

All of these questions reveal one very salient fact about life in America: we are still reshaping our vision of aging, death, and dying. As more and more of the Baby Boomers – those born between 1946 and 1964 – age into graying hair, retirement and Medicare, we are being starkly confronted with the challenges facing our aging population. We are also learning about the joy that can be found in our 60s, 70s, 80s and even 90s. Greater independence from responsibility, improved health for elders, and more adequate financial resources for many are offering Boomers a new “life stage.” Referred to as the “Third Chapter,” or the “Third Third,” this new stage stretches Erik Erikson’s concept of Generativity vs. Stagnation in ways never before imagined.

And, I have observed, profound grief can sometimes rob us of a sense of purpose and meaning in our later years. What results is not so much stagnation as paralysis, a sense of “Who cares,” or “What difference does it make?” “Why try to work through this and make it better when it won’t matter in the end.” And those clients experiencing such grief in their elder years are teaching me one very important lesson: Be grateful for each moment we have with loved ones while they are alive. If we do not notice the gifts of our loved ones in the present moment, our grief when they are gone will be filled with painful regrets. If our grief tends to focus on “Why didn’t I?” or “I just wish…,” moving through our loss to a balanced view of the joys and sorrows we shared will be delayed, difficult, perhaps even impossible.

So how can we remember to practice gratitude in the midst of busy, routine-filled days?

One idea came to me several weeks ago. My wife and I were getting ready to leave the house for a long-awaited “date night.” We were both tired and stressed from the week. I found myself concerned that our dinner conversation would turn, inevitably, to work issues, family concerns, or planning for upcoming social events. And the last thing I wanted was for our meal to be polluted by conflict. How could we unplug from all those things and really enjoy an evening reconnecting and engaging with one another? How could we have fun when we were feeling so weary?!

My antidote for heaviness is always GRATITUDE! So I suggested we have a “gratitude dinner,” expressing, with specificity, our gratitude for one another, for the joys and abundance of our life together, for our sweet home and beautiful garden, for our friends and family members, for our work in the world that gives us a sense of purpose and offers meaning for our lives, for events or trends in the world around us that give us a sense of hope and optimism – in other words, all that seemed right with the world at that moment! What resulted was a fun, light, energizing evening that brought us closer together and served to renew our couple bond.

As we age and move into our Third Third, such activities become essential to our health and wellbeing. Keeping a Gratitude Journal, going on a Gratitude Walk, sending frequent cards and letters and emails to express our Gratitude, sharing a Gratitude Meal – all of these practices will serve to keep us focused on what is right and good with our lives. And, they will also serve to ease the aches and pains of aging, help us hold on to a sense of purpose, allow us to deal more effectively with our fears, and keep a smile on our faces!

If you are coupled, my heart’s desire for you, is that when the time comes, you are able to grieve the loss of your loved one without regret; that you have practiced gratitude sufficiently in the present moment so that you enter the grieving process with few if any regrets. Katherine Mansfield, the New Zealand author, wrote, “Regret is an appalling waste of energy. You can’t build on it – it’s only good for wallowing in.” I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to spend my last days wallowing!!!

Learn HOW to Fight!

“ We never fight. I just don’t think it solves anything.” “We have the same arguments over and over. They just never get resolved.” “When we have a disagreement, it seems like it takes us forever to clear the air.”

I hear these comments from couples in my practice of couple therapy nearly every week, and I am always struck by how conflicted we are about conflict! I was too! I grew up in a family where my parents didn’t argue – they had three fights in 58 years – so I never got to witness what healthy marital conflict looked like.   I had to learn. I am still learning and you can too.

The first thing to remember about conflict – in a marriage, at work, among classmates, between friends, even between political positions – is that it always signals a need for change. In any discussion, we are actually conversing on three levels: the content or issue we are focused on, the feelings we have associated with the issue, and the unmet needs we may be experiencing under the content and emotions. We usually just talk about the issue and our conversation is fueled by our feelings. We seldom if ever get down to really talking about our unmet needs, if we have even been able to clearly identify them.

The research by John and Julie Gottman at the “Marriage Lab” in Seattle revealed that the amount of conflict in a relationship is seemingly unimportant. Couples that have lots of conflict as well as couples that have very little can enjoy a fulfilling and rewarding relationship. What is important is how couples have conflict and how quickly they repair any resulting rift in their emotional bond. They also determined that in even in the most fulfilling of relationships, nearly two-thirds of couple issues never get resolved to agreement.

So what is going on when couples handle conflict effectively? What are they doing that leads to the creation of a sturdy couple container within which they can disagree and yet be loving and supportive with one another? Here are some practical suggestions from the Gottmans’ research.

  1. Soften your startup. Arguments that begin loudly and aggressively will tend to end in the same way. Take a brief moment to calm down when you are upset about something, and figure out a way to gently introduce the topic for conversation. You can use that “time out” to compose an “I” Statement, the best way to state your concern. More about “I” Statements in another post at a later date.
  2. Complain, don’t criticize. Speak about what is bothering you in terms of behaviors without judging your partner’s character or identity. It is so much easier to hear “I get frustrated when I have to pick up your clothes and shoes from the bedroom floor,” than to hear “You are such a slob!”
  3. Make and receive attempts to repair after a fight. Look for and offer words and behaviors that help to slow down the conflict, avoid escalation, and keep you from walking away in anger and with harsh words. “I need to calm down. Let’s take a break for a bit.” “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you.” “Can I give you a hug? I don’t like feeling so apart from you.” There are countless ways to repair; be intentional about building your repair repertoire.
  4. Soothe yourself and one another. Have you and/or your partner become flooded with emotions? Take a break – go for a walk, complete a mindless task, sit and focus on your breathing – and give yourself a chance to recover from the emotional hijack you are experiencing. And remember: if you do not return to the conversation soon, you risk creating additional resentment in your partner. Some of us need time to soothe ourselves alone. Some of us become very frightened and feel abandoned when we are left alone with our strong feelings.
  5. Learn when to “let it go” and not fight, and when to compromise. Look for common ground, not just what separates you. Give some rational thought as to how important the issue really is in the larger life picture. And remember: we all want to feel that we can have influence over our partners. Be willing to accept such influence from your spouse.
  6. Finally, be tolerant of who your partner is. You can’t change them! And you will only drive yourself and them crazy trying. The very characteristics in them that are currently driving you crazy are often the very things that attracted you to them in the first place. Try to take delight in the uniqueness of what they bring to your relationship, to your family, to the world. There is no one else quite the same!