The Lesson of Relationships by Elisabeth Kubler Ross and David Kessler
All the passages below are taken from the book “Life Lessons” by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler. It was published in 2000.
A forty-one-year-old woman remembered an uneventful evening she and her husband had spent several months ago. They ate a simple dinner she had prepared, then watched TV. About 9 P.M. he said his stomach was upset and took an antacid. A few minutes later he said he was going to turn in early. She kissed him good-night, saying she would be in a little later and hoped he would feel better in the morning. An hour and a half later, when she went to bed, her husband was fast asleep.
As soon as she woke up the next morning, she knew something was wrong. “I could just feel it,” she said. “I looked over and I knew Kevin was gone. He died in his sleep of a heart attack at age forty-four.”
Now, she says, this heartbreaking experience has taught her not to take relationships, people, or time for granted. “After Kevin died, I looked back at our lives and saw everything so differently. That was our last kiss, our last meal, our last vacation, our last hug, and our last laugh together. I realized you never know, until after the fact, which was the last evening out, the last Thanksgiving. And there will be ‘lasts’ in all relationships. I want to look back on all those events and feel like I did my best to be fully present, not just half there. I understand that Kevin was a gift I could keep for a while, but not forever. This is true for everyone I meet. Knowing this makes me take in these moments and people even more.”
We will have many relationships in our lifetimes. Some— spouses, significant others, friends— we choose, while others, such as parents and siblings, are chosen for us.
Relationships offer us the biggest opportunities for learning lessons in life, for discovering who we are, what we fear, where our power comes from, and the meaning of true love. The idea that relationships are great learning opportunities may seem odd at first, because we know that they can be frustrating, challenging, even heartbreaking experiences. But they can also be, and often are, our greatest opportunities to learn, grow, love, and be loved.
We tend to think that we have relationships with relatively few people, primarily our spouses or significant others. The truth is that we have relationships with everybody we meet, be they friends, relatives, coworkers, teachers, or clerks. We have relationships with the doctors we see only once a year and the annoying neighbors we do our best to avoid. These are all relationships, individual in their own ways yet sharing many characteristics because they emanate from us. You are the common denominator in every single one of your relationships, from the closest and most intense to the most distant. The attitudes you bring to one relationship— positive or negative, hopeful or hateful— you bring to them all. You have the choice of bringing a little or a lot of love to each of your relationships.
Hillary, now on her fourth admission to the hospital, had spent the past few years dealing with her cancer, its treatments and recurrences. Her best friend, Vanessa, and Vanessa’s husband, Jack, shared with me that they could accept that Hillary was dying. But Jack said it was so sad that she had not found her special someone and would die alone.
I replied, “She will not die alone. You will be there.”
On my next visit to Hillary, Vanessa and I walked out to the hallway to talk because so many visitors were in the room. She said, “Jack had thought it was so sad that Hillary had not found the love of her life, but I am envious of all the love in that room. I had no idea how many people loved her. I don’t think I’ve ever sensed so much pure love for one person. I think it’s surprising Hillary, too.”
Later that evening, Hillary looked around the room, took in all the faces, and said, “I can’t believe all these people are here to see me. I never knew you all loved me so much.” Those were her last words.
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Some of us may never find that someone special, but that doesn’t mean we won’t find special love in our lives. The lesson is that we don’t always recognize love because we categorize it, declaring romantic love to be the only “real” kind. So many relationships, so much love all around us. We should all be so lucky to live and die with the kind of love that Hillary was surrounded by.
There’s no such thing as an insignificant or accidental relationship. Every meeting, encounter, or exchange, with everyone from a spouse to an anonymous telephone operator, no matter how brief or profound, how positive, neutral, or painful, is meaningful. And in the grand scheme of things, every relationship is potentially important, for even the most trivial encounter with a passing stranger can teach us a great deal about ourselves. Every person we encounter holds the possibility of sending us to happiness, to a loving place in the mind, or to a place of struggle and unhappiness. They all have the possibility of bringing us great love and great relationships where we least expect to find them.
We demand a lot from our romantic relationships: healing, happiness, love, security, friendship, gratification, and companionship. We also want them to “fix” our lives, to lift us out of depression or bring us incredible joy. We’re especially demanding of these relationships, expecting them to make us happy in every way. Many of us even believe that finding that someone special will improve all aspects of our lives. We don’t often think this openly or consciously, but when we examine our belief systems, we find that the thought is there. Haven’t you ever once thought something like “If only I were married, everything would be great”?
It’s one thing to view romantic relationships as wonderful, as sometimes challenging yet desirable experiences. They remind us of our unique perfection in the world, that we are not in any way broken. Problems arise when we mistakenly believe that they will “fix” us. Relationships cannot and will not fix us; it’s fairy-tale thinking to believe so. Yet, it’s no surprise that many of us engage in fairy-tale thinking. We are, after all, raised with fairy tales, often encouraged to believe that finding Prince Charming or the girl whose foot fits into the glass slipper will make us whole and complete. We’re left with the impression that every frog needs to be a prince. We’re subtly taught that until we find that someone special, we are just half a shell, part of a puzzle seeking completion.
Fairy-tale thinking is magical, fun, and has its place. But too much lets us off the hook, relieving us of the responsibility of making ourselves happier or better, of handling problems with our careers or families, of dealing with all the other problems of life. Instead, it lets us believe that wholeness, completeness, and solutions will spring from someone special.
A lanky construction worker named Jackson was living as best he could after being diagnosed with leukemia. Shortly after being diagnosed, he met and fell in love with Anne. After a brief courtship they married, and now, two years later, she was nursing him through what was thought to be his final year.
Anne was so proud of their two years together. She said, “I never thought I would be able to love another person so deeply. I was so afraid of commitment, but now I’ve been able to make the ultimate commitment. I never lasted more than a year in a relationship until I met Jackson. Because of his illness, I’ve been able to push through all my blocks. In loving Jackson, I finally feel whole.”
Then the best— and the worst— thing happened. After failing numerous other therapies, Jackson became eligible for a bone marrow transplant. It worked. Jackson was delivered from a death sentence to remarkable health. Within six months, you would never have guessed he had had leukemia. But now the relationship was quite ill. Anne felt smothered and possessed; she complained that the passion was gone. Her experience is not surprising in relationships that are formed when one partner is quite ill and thought to be headed toward the end of life.
Sensing the change in her, Jackson confronted Anne. “You were prepared to love and honor me, to be my wife until death do us part— but apparently only if I was going to die in six months. Well, I didn’t die, and now this is a real relationship, a real marriage for life. Now that there’s no death sentence hanging over me, we’re left with the day-to-day commitments, the usual problems everyone deals with. I’m happy I’ve been given the gift of life. You act like you’ve been given a life sentence.
“The fairy-tale ending has come true. I am going to live after all, but there are no magic solutions to being in a marriage. We have to really figure out our problems and our marriage. It is much harder to make the day to day work when ‘till death do us part’ could be fifty years away.”
After a confusing struggle with her feelings, Anne went into therapy to try to sort things out. There she learned how it was easier to commit in loss. She said, “Jackson was right. I had just fooled myself again, I had made yet another short-term commitment. I saw how it was one thing to be the hero, the woman who came along at the end of Jackson’s life, and quite another to be his wife when he was going to live. I saw how I had tried to use the relationship to fix me, to help me have a successful relationship. Thanks to Jackson’s courage to be himself and tell me the truth, I learned that the magic only lies in the day-in-and-day-out experiences we have over the long haul with one another. Jackson’s illness pushed me to a deeper sense of commitment. After all we’ve been through, I realized he really did have my heart. I found the passion again, without the drama of life and death.”
Connecting with another person caused Anne to look deeper within herself. It was an incredible lesson about the parts of herself she needed to heal, a tumultuous illustration of what real life is. She exchanged her fantasies for real life and real love, instead of fairy tales and heroes.
Wholeness and completeness must come from within you. Finding that someone special won’t cure issues with intimacy or commitment problems. It won’t make you happier at work, won’t get you that raise, won’t make your grades shoot up, won’t make the neighbors or city hall any nicer. If you were an unhappy single person, you’ll be an unhappy spouse. If you were unable to settle into a career, finding that someone special will make you a careerless person with a partner. If you were a poor parent, you’ll be a poor parent in a relationship. And if you felt that you were nothing without Mr. or Ms. Right, those feelings of nothingness will eventually surface in the relationship. The wholeness and completeness you seek are in you, waiting to be discovered.
The search for wholeness in someone to love is based in the concept that we’re not enough, we’re not complete, we can’t generate our own love, we can’t create our own happiness in our personal, social, and work lives. The real answer lies in ending the search and completing ourselves. Instead of trying to find someone to love, let’s make ourselves more worthy of being loved. Instead of trying to get the partners we already have to love us more, let’s become worthier of being loved. And let’s ask ourselves if we are giving as much love as we wish to get, or if we expect people to love us dearly even if we’re not so lovable and giving. As the saying goes, if your own boat doesn’t float, no one will want to sail across the ocean with you.
If you are looking for love, remember that a teacher will appear when you are ready for the lesson. When it is time for you to be in a relationship, that “someone special” will appear. There is nothing wrong with wanting a companion in life, but there’s a difference between desiring a loving, joyful relationship and needing someone to complete yourself. You were meant to find great joy and happiness with others. You were also meant to find a sense of wholeness and completion on your own. Someday, you will probably find that someone special. Meanwhile, you are worthy and lovable, just as you are, on your own. You already deserve to be happy, to be a great friend, to get that good job and all the other wonderful things life has to offer.
Always remember that you are something special, just because you are. You are a precious, unique gift to the world, whether you are successful in a career or not, whether you’re married to the perfect mate or are on your own. You needn’t wait until that external thing comes or happens; you are already whole. The solution doesn’t lie in romance. Whether you’re married or not, if you want more romance in your life, fall in love with the life you have.
People in intimate relationships usually have the same issues, but in reverse. If you struggle with love, you’ll attract someone who has mirror issues with love. If one partner tries to dominate, the other may be passive. If one partner is an addict, the other may be the rescuer. If the shared issue is fear, one attacks it by skydiving and mountain climbing while the other prefers to keep both feet on the ground and stay out of elevators. Like attracts like, in an “opposite” way.
Someone once explained the phenomenon this way: “In any relationship one person makes pancakes, the other one eats them.” Typically, when a problem occurs, one partner wants to be more proactive, talk it out, get in there, and work it out. The other, however, prefers to approach it differently, to step back, think, and reflect on it. Each of you thinks the other has a problem, neither of you likes the way the other handles it. But in a very real sense you’re perfect for each other: her more direct approach to the problem pushes all his buttons, and his “refusal” to deal with it actively pushes hers.
You are always moving toward healing all those places in you that are wounded. But the progress is not always obvious or smooth. Love will deliver everything unlike itself to your doorstep for healing. If we ask the universe to make us more loving, it may not send loving people to us that day. Instead, it may bring hard-to-love people into our lives. As we struggle to deal with these people, we have the opportunity to become more loving. So often, the very people we find ourselves with in relationships push our buttons like no one else can. Frustrating as these people are, they may be just the ones we need— the “wrong” people can often be our greatest teachers.
A strong, outspoken woman named Jane, standing at the end of life, shared how she had felt victimized by an abusive, alcoholic father. “And then I chose a husband who turned out to be abusive and a practicing alcoholic. I ended up leaving that marriage. Looking back, I can see that as painful as it was, marrying him was the best thing for me. I had to go back and visit all those feelings of being victimized as a child. I had a lot of healing to do, and that marriage brought all those issues to the surface. Now I am deeply grateful for it.”
This is also true for those in our life we didn’t choose, often our families. Our parents, siblings, and children, especially teenagers, can upset us in ways no one else can. Difficult as they sometimes are, these relationships are special teachers of lessons, because we can’t disconnect as easily as we can from friends or others we have chosen. We often have no other choice but to find a way to work it out. We may find that the solution is simply to love them, just the way they are.
The situations presented in relationships will bring us all the lessons we need to learn. Like diamonds in a tumbler, we polish each other’s rough edges in our relationships.
We sometimes tell ourselves that we’ll be happy when certain things about our relationship change. We wish for this because we want the relationship to make us happy. We think that when we change them or the relationship, we’ll have the perfect spouses and we’ll be happy. That’s baloney.
Our happiness does not rely on relationships changing for the “better.” The truth is that we can’t change other people, and we’re not supposed to. What if they never change? What if they’re not supposed to change? And if we want to be who we really are, shouldn’t we allow them to be who they really are?
Our relationships are not “broken.” And that the other people are not being what we want them to be doesn’t mean that they are “broken.” All relationships are reciprocal, meaning that we mirror our relationship partners. Since like attracts like, we attract what’s inside of us.
Charles and Kathy have been married for five years. Charles understood the bad news about the mirror concept. “If I’m in a boring relationship, it may be because I’m bored. Or even worse, I’m boring.”
Yes, Charles is right. But the good news is that it makes the problem more tangible. To say that the relationship is boring is not very tangible and leaves it— the relationship— the problem.
The good news is that the issue is inside of you, so it can be reached and worked on. Remember that it’s never about letting the others know they are wrong so they will change. Neither is it ever about making the other person better— it’s always about you. You create your own destiny. It is for us to see what lessons lie in the problems before us. Too many times we get rid of our partners instead of the problems. These partners present us with a unique opportunity to see our issues and ourselves. That doesn’t mean you should remain in an abusive relationship. But before tossing a partner aside, ask yourself if the problem lies in the partner, in the relationship, or in you.
Looking at the other person keeps us distracted from our real work in the relationship— ourselves. As the saying goes, “How empty of me to be so full of you.” The only person we control is ourself. If we work on that person, the circumstances as we see them usually change on their own. This may mean that the relationship is working. Or, it may mean that we see, for the first time, that this relationship doesn’t work and it’s time for us to move on. It is always an “inside” job.
Several times, when asking people if they want to be in love, we have been surprised by the instant, emphatic replies: “Yes, forever!” or “No, never! Love means giving up my career, sacrificing myself, and always pleasing another person.”
The first response is sweet, if possibly unrealistic, but the second is equally disturbing. Is “tremendous sacrifice” really the definition of love? Or is this what these people learned about love when they were young? We model the relationships we see and study as children. Being surrounded by unhappy relationships when we’re young can color our attitudes toward love and relationships for the rest of our lives.
We have to look at our relationships and ask, “Is the love I give and receive based on how love was defined for me when I was a child? Is this the kind of love I wish to give and receive? Is it the kind of relationship I really want?” If we see love as being painfully complicated, we must examine why.
If we are thinking love means entanglement, we probably saw entangled relationships as children.
If we think love means abuse, we probably saw abusive relationships.
If we think love means sharing joyfully, we probably saw joyful, sharing relationships.
If we think love means caring for someone lovingly, we probably saw loving, caring relationships.
Unfortunately for some— for too many— what we think of as love is often really control or manipulation, and sometimes even hate. But we needn’t be stuck forever in the craziness created by unhappy definitions. We can redefine love for ourselves, we can create the relationships we wish to have. Unfortunately, we don’t often do so. Instead, we remain in unhappy relationships, wishing that something would magically happen. Just as some people throw away the partner instead of the problem, others remain in the problem.
We stay in relationships that don’t work for two reasons. First, because we hope they will change, and second because we were taught that every relationship should work out. How many times have you known or heard about people going back to old relationships that didn’t work? How many times have you heard about a woman going back to a man who has told her that he won’t make a commitment? If you’re looking for a commitment, why go back to the person with a commitment problem? Why go back to a dry well?
When people are frustrated in repeat relationships, it’s as if they’re looking for milk in a hardware store. No matter how many times they go up and down the same aisles, they’re not going to find any milk. If you want love, tenderness, and affection in your relationships, but you have chosen a person who clearly can’t give it to you, it’s time to choose someone else. Don’t allow people to be reckless with your love, your heart, and your tenderness. And don’t allow old definitions to dictate your present life. You can rewrite the rule book by learning to honor yourself and others, and by recording over the old tapes. You can find a new definition of love for yourself, one that truly means treating the other person as valuable, as worthy of great love and care. And you can expect that same treatment for yourself. Whatever it is, it is yours to define for yourself this lifetime.
Besides defining love, we must learn to love without illusions. If our relationships are pure, if we allow the universe to work, and if we get the lessons as they come, our relationships will eventually be built on giving, free-flowing participation and sharing from both parties. Once we let go of trying to change them, we can feel the power of love, without illusions. You don’t have to plan, fight, struggle, manipulate, and control. No more “I’m afraid if I don’t control him, he won’t do it” or “She won’t be who I want her to be if I don’t change things.” We must learn to share our truths with one another. There is nothing wrong with confronting another about something that we find upsetting. But confrontation with expectation is manipulation. We must share, we must speak our truth, but not simply to get the reaction we want.
As long as we cling to our agendas and our illusions, we do not truly love. Let them be who they are. If they leave, it might be because they were supposed to go.
Living each day as if we were on the edge of life reminds us that we have “pictures of how it should be.” How many times has someone been happy in a relationship today, but wound up fighting over “Will you still be here in twenty years?” Maybe they will, perhaps they won’t; the future is not for us to know.
It can be difficult to see people in the present, rather than to focus on the past or future. How many times have we held on to the memories of something they did a long time ago? How often have we let those unhappy memories color our opinion of them today, even though they’ve apologized and changed? We have our agendas, we still want to punish them or to make them see the past hurt. We hold on to our feelings, accumulating resentments and gathering evidence against those that we love. If we hold on to the past hurts, we no longer have the intention of loving them. Instead of holding on to these unpleasant feelings, we must learn to say “ouch” when we are hurt, and to the person who hurt us. Then we can move on.
When we let go of the future pictures and illusions of how things should look, of our strategies and agendas, love takes on a life of its own. It goes where it wants to go, as opposed to where we try to direct it. We were never really successful in directing love, anyway. When we let go, love can take us to some wonderful and tender places we could never have imagined for ourselves.
Not all relationships are supposed to last a lifetime; some are supposed to end. Some are supposed to last fifty years, others six months. Some relationships are only complete when a person dies; others complete themselves during our lifetimes. The length of a relationship, or how it ends, is never wrong. It’s simply life. Ultimately, we have to look at relationships in terms of whether or not they are complete, and of how to best complete them.
Just as we judge death as a failure, we feel relationships have failed if they do not last. The same way we say the only complete and successful life is one that lasted ninety-five years, we feel that the only successful and complete relationships are those that last forever. The reality is that relationships are successful and heal us even if they only last six months. They do what they are supposed to. When they are no longer needed, they are complete and successful.
Unfortunately, we don’t always know that relationships are complete and successful. James, who hoped he could make every relationship “work,” described his unsettled feelings about a relationship: “My friend Beth and I had a relationship. Two years ago, it ended. I never felt we were supposed to be together, but I did feel that we failed at having a relationship. I was hurt, angry, and sad, and so was she. A month ago, for four straight days, I kept running into people who said, ‘I saw Beth last night.’ I ran into her coworker, her best friend. My mind immediately said this means something. Maybe I’m supposed to call Beth, maybe the relationship wasn’t supposed to end. So I called her and we went out to dinner. At dinner, we never talked about the possibility of getting together again. Instead, we talked about how much we had learned from one another, and how we would be better people in our next relationship because of the one we had had together. Amazingly, the evening shifted my mind from seeing our relationship as a failure to seeing it as successful and complete.”
People recycle in our lives. Sometimes this happens because we’re not done with the relationships, there’s more healing to be done. However, sometimes people recycle because while the relationship is over, we have not completed it in our minds. We need to do our final work on the ending. Sometimes that just means changing our perception of the relationship as incomplete or failing.
There are no mistakes in relationships; everything unfolds the way it’s supposed to. From our first encounter with one another to our last good-bye, we are in relationships with each other. We learn through them to see our souls, with their rich topography, and to deliver ourselves to healing. When we let go of our preconceived agendas in loving relationships, we set aside questions of whom we will love and for how long. We transcend these limits to find a love that is magical and created by a force greater than us, just for us.