I first met Sam & Leela, about two years ago. Their hands were full with a sprawling bushel of frustrations and one massive power struggle. Both in their late 20’s, on the cusp of booming careers, they were trying to make a long-distance relationship work through bi-weekly rendezvous in hotels. Every other week they climbed over a mountain of unmet wishes to wrap their arms around each other.
They might have been the cutest couple in Austin. I think they had matching dimples. She was beautiful, reserved, and running her own business. Sam had a lovable, charming personality that surely made him everyone’s favorite. His career was blowing up, taking him further and further away from Leela and the life she wanted.
“Sounds challenging,” I said.
“Oh yeah”, said Sam. I saw them make a shape with their eyes that couldn’t decide if it was an exclamation point or a question mark. A question mark can’t keep its shape if you ask it its name, so I dropped this: “How’s that going for you guys?”
It’s hard enough for one person to bluff their way through that question. Ask a couple, and the silence spits a novel. Sam was the talkative one, and he opened up. There was a joyful, light-hearted quality to him, balanced by Leela’s pensive demeanor. She held an intensity bloated with cries. She wanted Sam to move closer. He wanted her to support his career. She was frustrated by his unwillingness to settle down. He was reluctant to do anything until his career was solid.
With all couples, it always boils down to a power struggle. But the things they’re fighting about are never the thing they’re fighting about. The details they wrestle with are shadows on the wall. I listened to them wrestle with their shadows all the way to the restaurant.
As we approached the destination, things got quiet in the back seat. I heard them whispering, then suddenly Sam offered: “Hey, why don’t you join us for dinner? We’d like to talk about a few things with you. Dinner’s on us.” I usually decline invitations like this, but I really wanted them to win. I parked the car and went to work.
As they walked, their hands reached out and formed a fragile chain link fence, held together by one finger. The other four fingers wandered off, their lifelines meandering in different directions. Their trigger fingers were busy shouting accusations and projections; their middle fingers were bloated with resentments that gained a voice mostly when they were drinking; their ring fingers shivering in an igloo that feigns independence but promises a lifetime of freezing alone in bed at night; and their thumbs seemed to be hitching a ride to opposite shores. But they clung to each other through the most humble finger, the pinky, keeping their chain-link fence intact. I tried to determine if they were linked or if they were chained. Or perhaps linked by their chains.
During dinner, all I heard Sam say was, “I want to work this out now”. Under the cover of diplomacy, Leela kept saying, “I do too but I want to have a romantic dinner with you, you shmuck!” Most couples try to enlist the counselor in aligning with them against their partner. That didn’t happen here. They complained but didn’t attack. They wanted to be closer. They were just two people sitting on a fence, waiting for the other to jump over. They just couldn’t pull the trigger and make a decision for their WE. Their trigger fingers were holding the wrong gun, firing bullets that said “me, me, me”. One letter off but it separated them by a lifetime.
After dinner, I took them home and gave them my card. I expected to hear from Sam, but to my surprise, it was Leela who called. Within a few sessions, she determined the fence sitting was too painful. For a while, they did the back-n-forth dance but neither really threw both feet into it. The relationship seemed to drift into the background as other issues rose to the surface. After about 3 months, Leela dropped out of counseling.
I’d like to say I helped her, but that wouldn’t be true. I heard from her about a year later for a brief check in, and then we lost touch again.
Then, a few weeks ago she contacted me after reading one of my columns. She told me that she and Sam were finally together under one roof. Somehow, their four errant fingers found each other and formed a link. They got off the fence, merged lifelines and created a 3rd: They’re expecting a baby girl next month.
Delighted, I asked her what contributed to the breakthrough. This is what she told me:
“I’m not sure if “ breakthrough” would be the proper term. We went back and forth quite a bit, both of us ending it at one time or another. But, we always came back. So, finally we committed to committing. It takes daily work and lots of communication. But it feels right. “
We committed to committing.
Sometimes I trick myself into thinking that if I say the right words or do something brilliant, I’m influencing outcomes. But once in a while something happens that puts things in perspective: It’s got darned little to do with me.
I’ve worked with scores of couples in my career. Almost every one of them insisted on focusing on reasons for not committing instead of the other way around. Fence-sitting is Bardo. Not pleasant, but definitely a choice. Until one makes a commitment to committing, any reason will do. Life is abundant with opportunities to avoid committing to a person, or a career, or a goal. The people who succeed are the ones who commit to succeeding regardless of the circumstances.
It’s easy to focus on disappointments and complaints about the other person. Maybe that’s natural. The elixir is in the willingness to make a commitment to being committed. Once that’s done, then you can tackle your differences. Waiting for the other to fix something or change before committing is a red herring. Gazing at your partner’s shortcomings is like staring through the hole in the chain-link fence, wishing it would close. Do that long enough, the only thing that can happen is the hole will grow. All your dreams slip through while you play the blame game.
Sam & Leela made a decision. They chose their WEdom. The result is this little baby girl.
Photo Credit: Getty Images