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Needless arguments - 8/3/2015

I woke up on a recent morning, thinking I should start a blog. I don’t know how to do it or what it really is, but I wanted to talk about me living my life. On the one hand, it would be about this wise caring, sympathetic psychologist, a basically good person, who has insight, sensitivity and tries very hard to help people. On the other hand, it would describe an old imperfect human being, who, at times, goes through life behaving in ways that my inner psychologist figuratively would kick people in the butt for doing if they were his patient.

The dichotomy often is humorous but sometimes very sad. My hope would be that, if such a blog existed, people would read it and say, “Oh, my G-d, I do the same sort of thing. Maybe I’m not crazy, bad or unlovable. Possibly, I’m also an imperfect human being who makes mistakes and has crazy thoughts, but is still deserving of love.”

In today’s blog, I would talk about a recent argument between my wife and me. Mind you, in six months, we will have been married 60 years. That’s a lifetime, and the craziness is that, after all these years, my knowledge doesn’t always convert into behavior that’s totally healthy or constructive.

For example, a couple of weeks ago, my last patient canceled, which allowed me to go home early. Instead of calling my wife, Harriet, as I usually do, I headed home to surprise her. I was in a good mood and happy to be getting off early.

After arriving at the house, I opened my briefcase and found a note from my office manager stating that she had marked out a weekend for “Harriet’s Luncheon at the beach house.” So, I asked Harriet, “What’s this luncheon all about? Is it the weekend you’re having your retired school teacher/friends come down?”

“I’m not doing that this year,” she replied. “That’s the weekend Melissa and Stephen (our granddaughter and her husband) are inviting people. You heard us talk about it. Don’t you recall?”

I said, “I don’t and, to be honest, I don’t keep in my head what week in August someone is going to the beach house. There are other things going on in my head that far supersede that.”

She said, “Well lately you don’t remember things!”

For a second, I saw myself putting on my suit of armor, mounting my horse and charging off to do battle. Then, out came the inner psychologist, who said, calmly, “Where are you coming from? What are you arguing about? Is it essential that I remember which weekend my granddaughter is using the beach house?” Whereupon, she gave me “that whatever look.” That’s when the knight in armor reemerged shouting, “I’m not their parent, I’m their grandparent,” which, in retrospect, seems a pretty ridiculous response.

I justify it, however, because by that time the knight was in full battle mode. After the fields were scorched and the houses burned, I surveyed the ruins and thought, perhaps I should’ve said, “Ed Reitman, where are YOU coming from, why are YOU taking the bait, why are YOU so angry? You’re totally blind to where both YOU and your wife are coming from.”

The next morning, we partially made up, but I still was angry and brooding – at least until I revisited the previous evening. Let me note that before I arrived home, Harriet had gone to visit a friend whom she had taught with for more than 30 years.

Her friend is a very bright woman who, to this day, can answer almost any question about any subject and provide the correct answer. However, after her husband died several years ago, her health declined. She fell, was unable to walk and then had a stroke.

Harriet, who frequently visits and brings her lunch, arrived the same day her friend’s daughter told her mother about her plans to place her in an assisted-care facility. With tears, her friend stated, “I know it’s right, but the thought of selling my home and car and leaving my friends is like saying I’m going there to die.”

In retrospect, I recall asking Harriet, “How was your visit?”

Her response was, “Horrible, and that’s where we’re headed.”

My response, which I now see as rather insensitive, was: “So, what we have to do is ensure we don’t get there any sooner than we have to.” Pretty good advice, but somewhat inappropriate, in light of what she was really communicating, which was, “I’m frightened. I don’t want to be an invalid or have to go to assisted living to die.”

Who would? But, those weren’t her words. She said, “You can’t remember your granddaughter wanting the beach house and don’t hear what I’m saying.” In the latter case, she was right. I didn’t hear between her lines. Nor did I recognize that the emotionally insecure guy inside me was more concerned with getting accolades for coming home early, than he was sensitive to her reaction to her friends’ circumstances.

In effect, we both were blind to where we were coming from and certainly not verbalizing what we were feeling. As a result, we engaged in an inconsequential, meaningless argument that was damaging to us and our relationship.

What Harriet could have said was, “Ed, I’m so glad you’re here. You don’t know how bad I felt today after leaving my friend. The thought of getting old is no fun. But, all I could think about was ‘there, but for the grace of G-d go I,’ and I need you to hold me and say you understand.”

My response, definitely, would have been, I love you, I’m here and you matter. But, whenever I hear anything that sounds like rejection, I feel like everything I do in life to get love and to be a good person is to no avail, and I regress back to being the little kid who grew up in a home with a mom who never knew how to love and I get angry.”

What’s really sad is that when it’s all said and done, our conflict isn’t unique. It’s probably the rule, as opposed to the exception. Even worse, most people never recognize or resolve their conflicts. Instead, they bury them; allow them to ferment and to eventually manifest themselves in long-term differences between them.

What I’d have you see is that there are lessons to be learned from our mistakes that can teach us to cope far better with life and each other.

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