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You Have To Let Go To Get Out - 12/5/2007


William was adamant. Nobody was going to take his daughter, Jill, away from him.  It was his responsibility to be in her life and he intended to do so, no matter what it took, or how much it cost.  His intentions were admirable and it’s easy to understand that the loss of a daughter can be emotionally traumatic for any parent.  At the same time, the situation was such that he was butting his head against a brick wall.  What he needed to see was that, sometimes, doing nothing is the best thing you can do.   

Let me be more specific.  William’s wife wasn’t what you might term a bad parent.  Nevertheless, she was emotionally limited, not only with regard to her ability to make her own life productive, but to provide a positive role model for a 2½- year-old daughter. Consequently, William was the one who provided discipline, gave Jill a sense of importance and created a world for her that was safe, protected and nurturing.  Unfortunately, those qualities are often invisible to the eye and individuals engaged in the practice of family law are frequently blind and insensitive to them, or are handcuffed by the letter of the law.  As a result, mother was given primary custodial status.  Father was given normal visitation rights.  

Objectively, William and Jill were cheated.  On the positive side, he could still have played a major role in her life.  But that was not to be.  Instead, William initiated a major attack, legally, emotionally and intellectually.  As a result of his over zealousness, his contacts with his daughter were severely restricted.  To make matters worse, his wife felt even more insecure than she had initially.  As a result, she limited his phone calls and attempts to contact his daughter to the point that he was deprived of any extra involvement  that he might otherwise have been granted.  

It  was then that I first met William.  I saw him as a basically good guy who truly meant no harm and had the genuine interest of his daughter at heart.  At the same time, his reactions were excessive, self-righteous, confrontational and intimidating.  Thus, it wasn’t what he wanted, but how he went about trying to exercise his desires that caused him problems.  

In the course of our sessions, I requested a visit with his ex-wife, who agreed, as long as the meeting was only between the two of us.  Despite her obvious emotional shortcomings, I didn’t see her as ill-motivated.  I even felt she would have gladly cooperated with William, if only he had been more civil.  However, by that time, they were enemies whose confrontations negatively affected their child, and undermined their own emotional adjustment.  

My suggestion to William was “Back off.  Live up to your responsibilities.  Be there for Jill.  Send her notes, cards, and little gifts.  Make her aware of your presence, your love and your concern.  But take the high road.  Never find fault with her mother and be available in case of any emergency.” My words didn’t suit William.  In his mind, when you are right, you have might.  Thus, he hired another attorney, one he felt was sufficiently a bull-dog to achieve his goal, a greater role in his daughter’s life.

Three years, many thousands of dollars and a lifetime’s worth of anger and stress later, William came back to see me.  This time, however, he  listened.  He lived up to his responsibilities and avoided confrontation with his ex-spouse.  Also, time proved to be a good medicine.  William’s anger abated, his ex-wife’s fears lessened and his visitations were broadened by mutual agreement.  In part because the problems and needs of their daughter also grew.  As a result, mother welcomed the help he offered and the freedom his lengthened  visitations provided.   

Those are the facts.  But there’s more to be learned from this story.  Several months later, William called me.  He said, “There’s something I want to tell you.  You were right.  I wish to God I had listened to you.  It would have saved me a couple of years of anguish and a hell of a lot of money. Intellectually, I knew it, but  emotionally, I had to take action.  I felt I had a lot of good stuff to give my daughter and I didn’t want her robbed of it.  Rightfully, I should have been made the custodial parent and it’s kind of worked its way into that now. But, do you recall what you said?  ‘Do nothing.  Well,  I’m not built that way.  Doing nothing says you give in and that just didn’t sit well with me.”  

I totally understood what he was saying and it’s the issue I’d like to discuss with each of you.   There are times in our lives when we have to learn that taking no action can, in itself, be an action.  You don’t have to attack, convince, capitulate or run to resolve a problem.  Instead, you have to trust that time can heal many wounds, especially if  you behave with honesty and sincerity, while steadfastly holding on to your convictions. In contrast, if something happens that’s hurtful, unfair or disappointing and you hold onto it, talk about it and go over it countless number of times, it doesn’t go away.  Quite the contrary, it plagues you even more. Your obsessive concern only acts to increase and perpetuate the hurtful emotions that you’re trying to avoid.  For example, imagine me saying, “Don’t think about whether or not you locked the back door when you left the house..  In fact, I want you to repeat to yourself twenty times, ‘I’m not going to think about the back door’.   Guess what stays on your mind?”   

Many of you will recall another example from your youth - the Chinese finger handcuff.  It consisted of a woven bamboo tube two or three inches long into which you put the index fingers of both hands.  The harder you pulled, the more the woven band tightened on each finger.  In effect, you kept yourself enmeshed in the trap.  The way out was something that was contrary to your natural inclinations: it was to let go.  Not to fight it, but to relax, let your fingers go further in, and then remove them when the tube expanded.  You see, doing nothing, letting go, is an action in itself.  In many instances, this lesson can help you to escape many of the problems you yourself feel trapped by.  The motto for William, and for you, might be, “You have to let go to get out.”

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