(August 2010, originally printed in 280 Living, Birmingham, AL)
‘Tis August—the month of the restart. Not so much new beginnings, but the restart. Restart of what, you ask? Why, school of course. Which is odd. In my day, school started again much closer to September. Now, it’s much closer to July (hence, why the topic is assigned to August). Restarting.
School restarting always put a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. That “ugh” feeling of “the long journey to the end of the year begins again.” I hated the beginning of the school year. School years were soooooo long; and it wasn’t just the assignments and tests that made it that way. Sometimes it was the anticipated social trouble combined with the getting-up-early/lack-of-sleep-all-the-time fatigue combined with never-ending-expectations-and-something-is-always-due feeling. And it was worse during the ride-the-bus-years (thankfully those were minimal). But to top it off was the feeling of, “I’m going to do it better this year than I did it last year” (and I was one of those kids whose goal was perfect attendance each year, which I always blew around February or March when I succumbed to the cold and flu season). I would invariably start off with lots of good intentions and energy, did all my homework the first two months, did extra credit work, did all my assignments on time, read all my assigned reading, all of that through mid-term. I was a great starter. Come November, I’d start to slow up, and by the time the Christmas holidays arrived, I had developed a slight hitch in my step. The break was always welcome (it was Christmas, after all), but there was always resistance in starting back up in January—“really, do we have to go back?”—so that by February/March, when I got sick, I was full on limping to the end of the school year, dragging myself to school, lucky to complete any and all assignments (I’m making it sound worse, but it was bad—it’s awful to have all motivation sucked out of your life).
Yeah, in restarting the school year I always felt like I had a rock in the pit of my stomach. A 20-pounder.
Restarts are not fun. And I generally don’t like to start anything over.
Which made restarting a marriage a wee bit of a problem.
Slight detour: when I work with clients, the first session is something like this: after we go over the basic policies and procedures, I then tell folks a brief bit of my professional and personal background, get an overview of the season of life the clients are in along with their expectations of how counseling can play a part, and then give my prognosis, how I would work with them. All of this is about determining if I can offer helpful help. If so, we continue; if not, then I refer to another counselor (all of this at half the cost of a regular session because I do most of the talking, and who wants to pay full price to hear me talk the entire time?). In disclosing my background, I give some particular highs and lows. One of those lows is that my life has been touched by divorce, in several ways, one of those being very personal in the loss of my first marriage.
As many of you know, divorce sucks. It’s awful, terrible, horrible, and can definitely ruin a good day, especially if you never saw it coming, especially if you did work to hopefully ensure it would never happen. But it did. And it was not fun. It was a surprise party I would have preferred not being invited to or be the object of.
But then again, getting remarried was a bit of a surprise, too. Didn’t really expect that, at least not to anyone other than my first wife. And no, we didn’t HAVE to get married. We chose to. We wanted to. We were a fit, a match, a complementation (if that’s a word), and others saw us that way, too. So we married, and it has been awesome, a great pairing and a great adventure, with 2 kids that have joined us, and a third on his way.
But what made the restart challenging? Well, I hate starting over, particularly because of my mindset that “this year will be different—this one will be better—I’ll get this one right.” I had to do a “hold on there, bub; not so fast; not sure if that way of thinking is going to be real helpful here.” At the time, I wasn’t a counselor yet, and was not the wealth and fount of relational wisdom I am now (chuckle, chuckle; tongue firmly inserted into cheek). But I felt that if I made my aim for this marriage to do better, then I was aiming for the wrong target.
“Doing better” is slightly subjective, wouldn’t you say? “Doing better” is kind of vague, and hard to guess at, which is what you have to do a lot of (guessing and ongoing guessing). A better approach for me, I determined, was to be; to be more of myself (which ultimately was my biggest problem in my first marriage; I compromised myself away in order “to do the right thing”), which meant living vulnerably and cooperatively, fully present, fully myself, fully divulging my perspective but open to deciding together OUR approach to whatever was in front of us, be it disciplining children or deciding dinner. And being me was doable and required less guessing and the best thing for US (provided being me didn’t mean being a mule/donkey/you-know-a-stronger-word-for-that-but-isn’t-necessarily-a-good-word-to-print). This determination led to a rootedness that allowed me to be more solid in myself and in my relating to my spouse, which made our relationship more secure. And because I was choosing to be more secure, which made me more secure and stable, it gave US something to work with, and makes her and the whole family more secure, more stable. And security and stability are good things (very good things) in marriage.
Marriage, like a school year, is a loooooooong test of endurance. Finishing well requires starting well, and starting fast isn’t necessarily a well-start. My doing-better approach generally led to a fast start. My being-me approach has led to an authentic pace that has been sustainable, respectful, and ultimately very fulfilling and successful. And even though there are days when I don’t show up like I want to, I think my wife would say I’ve had perfect attendance in our marriage.
And that brings me a huge sigh of relief.
Whew—that restart wasn’t so bad.
To talk further about restarts or other life encounters that leave a rock in your stomach, please consider LifePractical Counseling for your counseling or consultant needs. You may reach us at 205-807-6645. Paul Johnson is a professionally licensed marriage and family therapist and professionally licensed counselor in the state of Alabama. And though he has a collector’s nature, rocks have never been one of his preferences (nor insects—though he had to create a bug collection for 10th grade biology—ugh).