Retirement is anticipated with either relief or dread. Those with a positive attitude mark it as a new beginning. There are others who have to face the truth that their relationship has deteriorated beyond repair and it’s best to separate. In an extract from Relationships in our 50s, 60s and Beyond published by My Life Change, Sandra Kimball shares advice on how to face unaccustomed togetherness.
The Room of No Escape
Because the focus has been on careers or childrearing for so many years, many couples establish ways to avoid each other, withdraw self-expression and minimise contact. Therefore, initially in the room of no escape they will have to face the unconscious habitual strategies they have used to avoid true intimacy. These strategies are recognisable because they are often tense, insensitive and punitive.
After years of disconnecting, we can become expert at tuning our partners out or tearing them down as a way to feel good about ourselves and to build ourselves up. Another tactic to avoid intimacy is to get caught up in our own stories and dramatize events and feelings. We may think we’re getting attention, but with all the noise we’re making we won’t notice that we’re the ones who have been tuned out.
Another evasive method is to stonewall – suck it up and wait it out, while the other partner rages and seeks support by acting childish. We notice how we play to each other to keep these sturdy avoidance patterns in place and that they have become second nature. But eventually, an unexplainable disgruntlement alerts us to the fact that these strategies are harmful, outdated and it’s time to change.
In the imaginary room of no escape, the other person is most often the main topic of our internal mental chatter. When it’s good between us, the thoughts are met with pleasant feelings. But when it isn’t, our self-talk will be classifying them into varying shades of bad and wrong. In the privacy of our own mind, we enumerate our grievances, list their shortcomings, and solidify the unforgiven moments from past failures and indiscretions. Disconcerted complaints bind us to our anxiety and support feelings of contempt and separation. To lessen the anxiety, we begin to badger the other. Badgering turned outwards shows up in the form of nagging or complaint. Turned inwards, we head to the emergency escape exit in our imagination where we can discard our partners altogether to rehearse, plan and create an alternative, make-believe and unburdened life without them.
These unhelpful mental meanderings could have been running parallel for the duration of the relationship and oftentimes they’re coupled with a secret fantasy of being with somebody else. Living right on the horizon in our imagination, this faultless ‘someone else’ would hang on our every word, and wouldn’t judge, criticise or notice our flaws. They would approach us with the perfect amount of sexual desire and know exactly what we like. Or, we still might be clinging to a fantasy attributed to a past, unrequited love and we wander off to imagine what it would have been like to be with them, if only it had worked out. Possibly we have acted out our wish to be with someone else by having an affair. Whether it’s in the past or an ever-present possibility in a daydream, our attention has gone elsewhere which prevents connection from taking place.
If we’ve become an expert at diagnosing what’s amiss; analysing, labelling, blaming and criticising our partners, we’re riding on a torrent of discontent. We become spectators instead of participants in the relationship. Freshness and flexibility go out the window and our partner is no longer revered as the most important person in our lives. We are unable to infuse our most cherished bond with understanding, equanimity and compassion.
It gets very chilly living in a house of complaint. Some couples find that the only reason they stay together may be a complex entanglement of shared finances, children, family and friends. They have to find out if the motivation to remain in an unsatisfying relationship is out of the fear of being alone or if they have unexamined dependencies on each other.
The bond with an intimate partner, whether it’s vibrant and strong or barely operating on a low voltage battery will bring out the best and the worst in us. When changing bad habits, removing the clutter or remodeling the communication in a relationship, it’s important to know the difference between thoughts, feelings and emotions because it’s common to mix them up. We get stuck when we don’t distinguish the differences. We need to pick them apart and understand how they relate to each other.
A Thousand Thoughts
Thoughts are the words and language we hear in our head. They are the running commentary about anything and everything that resists following a logical sequence. Research shows that the average person thinks about 60,000 thoughts a day and they’re mostly the same thoughts as yesterday and the day before that. Calculating age, one can imagine how many thoughts spinning around the same topics are generated in a lifetime.
Thoughts generally fall into predictable categories that form a concept around feelings of worry, anxiety or disdain. The other top contenders are thoughts of judgment and planning. Some thoughts are helpful, but most of them aren’t. Constructive thoughts need to be put into a logical sequence, the others we must let pass.
As we grow older, we have to bring some authority over our thoughts and cultivate only those that are significant. Otherwise, we hold on to our treasured beliefs and miss opportunities to experience anything new and refreshing. Our internal and private dialogue becomes systematic, repetitious and predictable. It can be especially harmful to our relationship if we imprison our partners in hardened, unimaginative or outdated thoughts about who we think they are.
When unbridled thinking stops or at least slows down, there is space to listen and observe our self inwardly. We’re able to find our self in ourselves rather than in the other person. Then we can move toward the other and pay attention to their experiences unburdened by our preconceived notions.
A Life with Feeling
Feeling is complimentary to our thinking. Whereas thinking is mostly embedded in the past, feelings come and go. The most primitive of feelings are the instinctive reactions to our moods, circumstances or connection with another. Information is taken in from the outside world through the senses and very quickly there follows a subjective reaction to this information that registers as pleasing or not pleasing, positive or negative. If it’s pleasant we want more of the same. If it’s not, we want to get away from it. The instinctive movements of approach and avoidance are what we share with the animals.
Feelings place our experience of the world in the realm of verb and adjective rather than in an array of objects and things. It follows then, that feelings of love for our partner must also be in the realm of verb and adjective. Feelings are less conscious than thoughts and we can’t always understand or explain them so we try to express them through a thought. For example, “I’m in love with you” is a thought trying to express an experience in the realm of feeling.
While thinking exists in our heads as a brain activity, feelings register somewhere on the body – most often in the heart but sometimes in the stomach. Statements like – “ I have a gut feeling” or “Her heart is broken” are examples of our language supporting this. A broken heart can’t be thought but is most definitely felt. Because their nature is to come and go, we can’t always choose our feelings, but we can deliberate on how to handle them.
“Whereas a feeling can lie quietly and unknowingly out of our awareness for quite a long time, an emotion can creep up on us rather quickly.”
We often know what we think but sometimes it’s harder to name how we feel, especially in this modern age where the importance of the intellect far outweighs feelings. As we get older, there is danger of losing the warmth of our feeling life. With age, feelings can cool and hearts can harden.
Emotions are the extra layer we add to what began as a simple reaction to certain sensations. Everything we call feeling is also an emotion. Both feeling and emotion are bodily experiences; the blood vessels expand and contract, our organs react and chemicals and hormones are secreted. But there is a difference. Feelings move from the inside out whereas emotions feel like they overtake us. Emotions are much stronger and more complex and have personal conscious content.
An emotional response intensifies the original feeling of like or dislike with additional body sensations, mental note taking and judgements. Most social scientists agree that there are seven basic emotions – anger, contempt, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise. When we ask someone how they are, we can expect an emotional weather report. They will respond with an answer based on one of the primary emotions yet there are numerous ways to give an account of it’s peculiar characteristic – similar to the hundreds of words people who live in colder climates will choose to describe snow. For example, someone might answer they feel agitated which is a mild form of anger.
Whereas a feeling can lie quietly and unknowingly out of our awareness for quite a long time, an emotion can creep up on us rather quickly. We may not notice it until it has taken possession of us and we’re already having a full-blown experience of it. It’s not beneficial to shut off or stuff down an emotion but it is to our advantage to get better at controlling its expression, intensity and duration. While the power of an emotion might be strong, if we put in the effort to understand and work with it, its life span is relatively short. Many couples don’t know how to use their emotions. Instead, they’re being used by them.
When we fall in love, it’s an overwhelming emotional experience. However, this kind of love can’t go the distance. Emotional love overtakes us and because it’s based on emotion, it can’t be fully trusted. The nature of emotion is to change – one day it’s calm, the next turbulent, the next day it disappears only to appear the following. The paradox of emotional love is that it brings us together so that we may discover our separateness. However, there is the potential in any long- term relationship to rest in a deeper love, a love that warms and brings imagination. It’s centred in the heart and is developed by inner presence and observation.
Peace is Possible
In the room of no escape, a couple can remodel and embellish their shared life together from the ground up. The bricks worth laying down in the foundation are the thoughts, feeling and emotions that engender trust, intimacy and respect for each other’s differences and unique qualities. Thoughts and feelings of vindictiveness or rancour will act like a destructive rising damp.
The bricks that caused a compulsion to contract will need to be replaced with ones that support mutual respect and a natural ease in each other’s company. Only then is it possible to leave the room strengthened by our connection and ready to face the world as two people with diverse desires, distinctive talents and the right to self-determination.
Relationships in your 50s, 60s and Beyond: How Yours Can Survive and Thrive is available from mylifechange.com.au
Sandra Kimball is a counsellor, author and educator who has worked for more than 20 years in the arena of mental health. She specialises in couples therapy and couples retreats.