In the marriage book Getting The Love You Want, there is an exercise called “Closing Your Exits.” An exit, according to author Harville Hendrix, is any way you avoid being fully present with your partner.
Oh, I don’t do that, I thought. I don’t avoid Phil
because then I would be drinking alone.
So, I amended the exercise from “How do you avoid being fully present with your partner,” to “How do you avoid being fully present?” Because if you are avoiding the present moment, you are indirectly avoiding anyone who exists in the present moment, in addition to anything that is actually happening in the present moment. More importantly, you are avoiding how you feel about what is happening in the present moment, which is most likely the reason you are escaping it in the first place.
This gave me much more material to work with.
The problem I encountered while compiling my list was that all my exits are pretty lame. In the first year of our marriage, I was hospitalized with an eating disorder. According to Hendrix, that’s a SERIOUS exit. INSANITY. That’s exactly how it appears in his book, in all caps: INSANITY IS A SERIOUS EXIT. But now, my exits are just soft, garden-variety, small font exits.
And this is a problem…..why?
It is not a problem – it just makes the exits easier to rationalize and harder to eliminate. When your exits are not destroying your life or that of someone else, that little devil on your shoulder pops up and says, “Oh c’mon. Is _________ really that bad? So what that you like to drink wine and cry to the Jackson Browne Pandora station? Isn’t a girl allowed to relax around here?” But the fact that you have to ask yourself that question is a little…suspect.
I’ll give you an example.
I am addicted to real estate websites: Trulia, Zillow, Realtor.com. I know everything from the cost of a two-bedroom ranch in Austin, TX to an entire vineyard in the Napa Valley. I know the Zestimate of your house, my house, and Ellen DeGeneres’s house.
Little Devil: “So what’s the big deal? You like houses – it’s just a hobby
kind of like porn.”
Maybe that is true for some people. And maybe that would be true for me if I was purely stalking celebrity real estate transactions. But in quiet moments, usually at night when the kids are in bed, I look up my old house in Scituate.
The photos are still live – photos of the house I decorated for Christmas, of the wrap around porch with the hammock where we napped and cuddled and read books, of the electric fire place that warmed our dog’s tired bones in her final days. And just like that, I am transported back to that house. I can smell our neighbor’s wood burning fireplace. I can see the salty sea air crystalized on my windshield in January. I can hear the ocean buoy. I am there.
But there is not here.
Here, where Phil is, where my girls are, where my life is now. And that is why it is, in fact, a big deal.
When I confessed all of this to Phil, he said: “This makes makes me feel terrible. I want to fix it. I think we need to sit down and strategize. Hold on, let me just go get my white board…”
Strategizing-white-boarding-and-overall-fixing is in Phil’s Top Three Exits,
right after beer and Peanut Butter Captain Crunch. By brainstorming for the future -or as he calls it, Braunstroming – he gets to escape the painful moments happening in our life right now.
So…if I am escaping to the past and Phil is escaping into the future….who the hell is running this whole operation? It’s a miracle the kids get bathed and fed.
We made a pact to close these exits and see what came of it: No rehashing the past, no Braunstorming for the future. I deleted the Trulia App from my phone, and Phil shoved the whiteboard in the closet.
Then, we went for a run, together.
And we had absolutely nothing to talk about.
We ran the first mile in total silence. I know this because when my running watch beeped at the 1 mile mark, I thought, Holy shit we have not talked for an entire mile. I started to feel panicky – I wracked my brain for something to say that did not involve the past or future. Nothing. I had nothing.
As we passed the duck pond at mile 2, Phil broke the silence:
“Interesting that the ducks and geese don’t intermingle,” he observed.
“Huh,” I replied. “Weird.”
Then, back to running.
Around mile 3, an Olympic-type runner blew past us on the trail.
“Wow,” I said. “He’s fast.”
“Yeah,” Phil replied. “Real fast.”
Back to running.
It wasn’t until the final mile that I stopped resisting the silence and just settled into it. And just like that, the run went from awkward to pleasant. Relaxing. My mind drifted. I remembered a car ride with my cousin Megan and her husband David, when she turned to him, and said with such a sweet innocence that it squeezed my heart:
“Honey, do you think squirrels laugh?
To which he replied (lovingly), “Babe, you are so weird.”
Maybe this what well-adjusted couples talk about….the complex inner lives of squirrels, ducks and geese. Maybe this is what you talk about when you aren’t busy lambasting yourselves for your last mistake or maniacally planning your next one.
If those are my choices, I choose the ducks.
I came home from the silent run feeling oddly recharged. While it felt strange at first, in the end it was a relief to spend time with Phil minus any “big talks.” It was refreshing to spend time together without our usual psychobabble: Am I projecting or are you projecting? Are you being passive-aggressive because you are internalizing conflict? Why don’t we draw a life map identifying all our mistakes and the upper limit problem that caused them?
Maybe labeling something as a mistake is the real mistake.
Maybe this whole thing is not as hard as we make it.
Maybe the seemingly innocent things we think help us relax, or connect, or feel in control do just the opposite. Maybe the escape – however harmless it may seem – causes more pain than that which we are escaping from. Maybe that which we label as “pain in the present moment” is actually vulnerability and tenderness. Maybe the present moment feels uncomfortable because we don’t stay there long enough to get comfortable. Maybe, if we are patient, we might discover a whole world that exists beyond those first few miles of silence.
But we’ll never know unless we stay and find out.