Stronger at the Broken Places

How challenges can strengthen your relationship

Downsizing Your Attachments to Preferences

Loosen your white-knuckle grip on your expectations.

Kristen: Ever since I was a little girl, my fantasy picture of a happy family has included a big beautiful house with a big yard and a dog, a lab. The pictures in my mind’s eye were vivid, and my attachments to them were very strong. When I married Joel, he was a computer whiz, and was very financially fit. It didn’t hurt that he was smart and good-looking and that we were both in love. So for a while, my real life matched my cherished image. All went well for several years, at least for the kids and me. I believed that it would go on forever that way, that we would always have a comfortable life and that I would be well taken care of. Then the whole picture shattered.

Joel: For years, my real passion was my artwork, but I didn’t trust myself to provide a living with those talents. So I settled for a career that I felt confident would provide adequately for our family’s material needs. After almost ten years of earning a good income, but not-so-silently feeling deeply unfulfilled in my job, I finally told Kristen that my work was empty and boring for me and had been for some time. I told her that I just couldn’t stand it anymore, and that I had to leave my field. Initially she was frightened that our perfect life would be jeopardized and she refused to support my plan. I felt like I had been making sacrifices for years by supporting her vision of an ideal life and that it was her turn to support me in going after my dream. For a while there was a lot of tension and arguing between us because we couldn’t get on the same page. I’m usually pretty easy-going about most things but on this one I couldn’t back down. Kristin finally got the message and reluctantly agreed to support the idea of my changing careers on the condition that if things didn’t work out, we would reconsider the decision. After I made the move, we did suffer a marked decline in our economic status. We had to sell our big house and put the kids in public school. It was definitely an adjustment.

Kristen: For a long time after Joel left the company, his former manager tried to entice him back with contract work to develop short-term projects. Each time he was offered a package, I would get my hopes up that he would take it, because the old work was so lucrative. I cherished the idea that we would return to the life that we had previously enjoyed. Back then, I thought that my challenge was to adapt to living on a smaller budget, with a smaller house. But it was actually much greater than that. It was more about adjusting to a whole new life than it was about making a few changes in our life style. This period of time was painful because I was still having trouble accepting the reality of what my situation had become.

Joel: For me, it was a matter of integrity. I felt that I had compromised my values during the years I worked in the computer industry. I knew that I was really done with that chapter of my life. The amount of part time work that I had picked up doing freelance artwork was increasing and I was clear that there was no going back for me.

Kristen: Once I could see how clear Joel was about things I realized that something had to give somewhere. I saw that my attachment to how things had to look was actually part of the problem and that I was going to have to give up my white knuckle grip on my expectation that we would soon be able to go back to the “good old days”. At that point it became clear that we would not be able to make it even in a scaled down lifestyle unless more income was coming in and for the first time since before we had kids, I went to work, at first part time, later full time. I didn’t just do it because I wanted a comfortable life but because I could see how much it meant to Joel to have the freedom to pursue his passion. I wanted that for him as much as what I wanted for myself.

Joel was aware that I was releasing my grip on what I wanted my life to look like, and he was incredibly grateful that I was making the “sacrifice” to go back to work. Actually it felt more like a benefit than a sacrifice. Getting back into the work pool gave me a sense of purpose and value that I had missed after so many years of being a stay at home mom. I don’t at all regret the time that I had spent at home with the kids. Those were precious years and I wouldn’t change them for the world, but I don’t know that I would have made the change when I did, if ever, if Joel hadn’t taken the stand that he took. He has been incredibly supportive of me, and has always encouraged my professional success. Over time, my attachment to being taken care of financially has turned into a slight preference, particularly since I trust from experience, that we can live on a lot less than I had thought, and that I too can make significant contributions to our family’s financial needs. The benefit has of course overflowed onto the kids who are thriving with the time and attention that their Dad provides now that he is no longer at the beck and call of an employer.

Joel: Kristen and I are much closer than we were in those days when I was in the computer industry. I have a huge debt of gratitude to her for hanging in there with me while we made the big life changes that went along with my career change. There were definitely some rocky times that we had to go through but the good will that we had accumulated in the previous years of our marriage got us through the tough times. I’m proud of her for what she has accomplished professionally, and we are both certain that the richness of our family life has been enhanced by the risks that we have taken.

When the real life situations of our relationships don't correspond to our cherished pictures, we may think that the relationship isn't working. What’s often more likely to be the case is that the model that we’ve been operating from is no longer appropriate for the emerging needs of one or both partners in the relationship. The only constant in life is change, and when we get overly attached to the way we think things need to be, there’s likely to be some pushback from our efforts to maintain a system whose time has come to change. All relationships go through many forms and structures in their lifetimes, so it’s best not to get too attached to any of them since at some point this too shall pass.

Things change over time. We can’t put our relationship into a box, and expect it to remain the way it’s been. Life is full of surprises. Great relationships require us to know, accept, and respect each other without judging or coercing our partner into adopting our preferred ways of being, while continuing to honor our own integrity. This is hardly an easy challenge to fulfill but it is doable when both partners are sharing a commitment to the relationship that overrides their personal preferences. Ironically, when this spirit of good will is mutual, it rarely feels to either partner that they are sacrificing anything that they really need.

You can’t always get what you want, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Linda Bloom, L.C.S.W., and Charlie Bloom, M.S.W., are the authors of Secrets of Great Marriages: Real Truths from Real Couples About Lasting Love.

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