DISCLAIMER: The following column is a composite of several different experiences I have had with clients. It does not depict a specific encounter. This story is not about you!

Though it is common for people in our community to marry in their twenties, when it comes to personal growth, we are much closer to the beginning of figuring out who we are than we are to the end, when we finally have it all figured out. As we embark on our life journey, we are constantly being exposed to people, places, and things as well as reacting in ways that are specific to our personality, strengths, and weaknesses, and we find ourselves evolving in surprising ways.

So, when you think about it, it can be interesting and downright challenging to see how two spouses who began their journey at a similar starting point end up at kindred places, some forty, fifty, sixty years down the road. Obviously, spouses can have a tremendous influence on each other, thereby affecting similar patterns of growth. And that is typically ideal.

But sometimes, despite feeling close and loving with each other, different attitudes and circumstances are at work, leading to a product that is different and unique from the one they started out with.

When that is the case, it doesn’t mean all is lost. For instance, if one spouse loves to travel and the other doesn’t, and the spouse who likes to travel is fine travelling with friends, no one is worse for the wear. If one spouse loves to spend hours engaged in some sort of physical activity and the other is happy relaxing and enjoying activities at home, and they are both happy doing their own thing some of the time, again, no problem. But when the husband and wife are very far apart from each other in terms of their vision about what their life should look like and there seems to be no compromising or “working it out,” that’s when they can have a problem.

Over the course of their fifty-five-year marriage, Yitzy and Shiri seem to have veered far away from each other. By the time they came to see me, they might just as well have been living in separate countries. There was little they agreed on in terms of how they would spend the last chapter of their lives, and what would make their lives most fulfilling.

He Said

Seventy-six-year-old Yitzy appeared full of vim and vigor. He retired not too long ago from his successful career as a surgeon, and was very excited about finally doing all the things he dreamt of doing when he was working. “I was always very committed to providing well for my family and worked hard toward that goal,” said Yitzy. “There were many things I only dreamt of doing during those labor-intensive times, but I felt that if G-d granted me the years, the time would come when I would finally enjoy my life fully. Thank G-d we have the funds and the health and now I’m ready to go.

“Unfortunately, Shiri seems to be on a different page. I want to go out to dinner with friends, learn to play couple’s bridge, travel, maybe even take dancing lessons. Shiri wants none of it. She seems to have no get up and go. Sometimes, I start to feel guilty because I was so busy working all these years, I wasn’t really paying attention to how Shiri was living life. I just assumed she was also living with fulfillment and thinking about what our time together would look like when I retired. My retirement date was never a secret. But I never really took the time to have a conversation with her about what this stage of our lives would look like. I had so many dreams, but I guess I kept them to myself.

“Honestly,” Yitzy added. “I don’t even know what to make of Shiri’s behavior and attitude. And that’s why I insisted we speak with a therapist. I’ve asked her if she’s depressed but she says no. But now that I’m home, I’m horrified to see that there are days when she doesn’t even get dressed and leave the house. Maybe this has been going on for years and I just wasn’t around enough to notice. But seeing her so lethargic and so disinterested in having fun together makes me sad for myself and for her as well. She will sometimes comment on my need for activity as inappropriate for someone my age. Yes, thank G-d, I’m energetic, but I don’t think there is anything weird about my behavior, as Shiri insinuates. I feel blessed and want her to feel the same way.”

She Said

Though Shiri and Yitzy were close in age, Shiri definitely lacked Yitzy’s high energy level. She had a tired, “blah” look about her, and I wondered what was up with her because something definitely seemed to be going on. I turned to her and began by saying the following: “Sounds like you and Yitzy arrived at a stage in life where you can really start enjoying each other in ways that weren’t possible while Yitzy was working so hard. Yitzy seems very excited about the prospect of trying new things together. What are your thoughts about spending time together and trying all kinds of exciting new endeavors?”

Shiri took her time answering, but eventually she said the following: “I have to tell you; I’m exhausted just listening to Yitzy’s extensive bucket list he’s been putting together all these years. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with having goals and dreams. But he doesn’t understand that some people are happy to relax at home. He can’t understand why I’m never bored. And I know more than a few women my age who are also happy at home, relaxing, watching TV, reading, talking on the phone, etc. I don’t want to have to be tied down to a schedule. I don’t need to learn how to do new things at my stage of life. I don’t complain ever to Yitzy that I’m unhappy. So, I don’t understand why he can’t just let me be.”

At this point, Yitzy turned to Shiri and responded. “Shiri, don’t you understand that I love you and want you by my side? I don’t expect you to run all day long, even though I could happily do that. But wouldn’t it be nice if we at least went out to lunch together, went for a walk, went shopping… anything?”

At this point, Shiri just slunk further in her seat and looked at me and said, “You see, he just doesn’t get it.” The two of them went back and forth, basically saying the same things to each other over and over, using different words but saying nothing new.

My gut told me that there was way more to the story, but I felt it would be impossible for me to dig deep with the two of them together. I needed alone time with each of them to get a better grip on the real story.

My Thoughts

I felt the bigger answer rested with Shiri, though it’s never 100% one person’s “fault” if we can use that word. It took several visits with Shiri for her to feel totally comfortable with me and finally let her hair down enough to make herself vulnerable. What I learned was definitely heart-wrenching and unfortunate.

Shiri shared the fact that while Yitzy was building a successful career and a well-respected name for himself, she always felt invisible. Though she harbored dreams of becoming a doctor herself, it was not to be since she began having children right after they got married, and was busy supporting her husband and raising a family. Somewhere along the way, it seems as if Shiri lost her sense of purpose and identity separate from that of a wife of a successful surgeon and mother to wonderful children who were busy living their own lives.

Though she never discussed these feelings with Yitzy, nor did she ever discuss the fact that over the years she kept putting on weight and feeling very self-conscious about her appearance, she began to figuratively and literally fade into the background, finding safety and comfort in her own home. At this point, Shiri felt ingrained in the role she assumed over the years and couldn’t imagine stepping out of it. “Was she depressed?” I wondered. I decided that she wasn’t clinically depressed, but she could certainly benefit from talk therapy and a new attitude.

On the other hand, Yitzy was so busy building his successful career that he never took the time to check in with Shiri to see how her life was going. Yes, the day-to-day life they shared appeared to be on track. The kids were fed, the house was clean, their bank account was growing, but Shiri never opened up and Yitzy never took the time to determine if Shiri was also feeling fulfilled in her life. While Yitzy was planning for a fabulous future and retirement, Shiri was falling into survival mode.

It became clear to me and Shiri that she had thrown in the towel years before and gave up on the idea of “working” toward a better life. And work it was. However, Shiri did start taking baby-steps and eventually bold, brave, major steps toward taking better care of herself, which translated into a higher energy level.

Though it was clear to both Shiri and Yitzy that they would ever want or need to do things at the same pace, Yitzy became more sensitive to Shiri’s past and present feelings and together they found ways to spend time together that were mutually satisfying and also brought them closer in an honest and fulfilling way.

 

Esther Mann, L.C.S.W., is a psychotherapist in Hewlett. She works with individuals, couples, and families. Esther can be reached at 516-314-2295 or by email, mindbiz44@aol.com.

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