On Hurricanes and Relationships
I ran across an article last week on Vox about hurricanes and people evacuating their homes before the storm. The title was somewhat provocative, which is probably what caught my eye:
Why some people never evacuate during a hurricane, according to a psychologist
I started reading, then kept going because it wasn’t at all what I expected. And, it hit me, relatively quickly, that the article was as much about trying to end a marriage as it was about deciding to leave before a storm hit.
Let’s look at the four main reasons people don’t evacuate before a storm hits, as found in a comprehensive study of people before and after Hurricane Katrina in 2005:
They can’t leave due to disabilities. Physical, mental, financial, there are things that keep people … stuck with no ready way to leave. The lack of nearby relatives and support networks are also prevalent here.
They don’t hear the warnings. In this age of iPhone, texts, social media and the works it’s hard to believe but a lot of people really don’t get the word in enough time to even consider evacuating. Add that many people are so caught up in personal/work dramas that can include everything from illness to being laid off to being overworked to dealing with the kids in every conceivable combination that they miss what’s going on around them and ….
They have pets. They can’t leave because it would mean abandoning the pets.
The house. Everything – emotionally and financially – is invested in the house, they simply cannot leave it to its fate alone.
Pretty easy to see the parallels with marriage- add children to the one about pets and you pretty much have a solid list of the reasons people stay in marriages even while warnings are going off all over the place. We all know people who were (or are) in similar positions right now.
Here, though, is where the article really got me. Right under the four reasons people stay was this admonishment, in large, heavy black print: “Don’t be so quick to shame the people who stay.”
There is one thing to observe a situation and quite another to live it. Or, as the head of the study put it, “there’s this mismatch between the way that the event was seen from the outside and the way that the people themselves actually experienced it.”
They go on to say that just because someone chose to stay doesn’t mean they weren’t proactive. It didn’t mean they just hoped for the best, it meant they did what they could to cope and make the best of it.
I find this remarkably insightful when applied to family law.
Now I’m the first to admit, I’ve been the guy in relationships, in my far distant past, that felt more like a hurricane than anything else. Most of us likely have been there – he or she sure seemed like a good idea at the time, right? I recently had a conversation with a colleague of mine, Janet Tingwald, who is an awesome Relationship and Life Coach who put it to me this way – Finish this sentence… ‘A relationship is supposed to be __________ (what?)’…and 80% of people will answer with “work” or even “hard work.” Why? Because that’s what our modern, Westernized, American culture says it should be. This message is all over TV, movies, music, etc. – But it doesn’t have to be that way. Why can’t the answer be “easy.” In her experience, the best couples who have the best relationships truly do feel this way. It can, in fact, be easy.
From what I’ve seen, my clients don’t start a marriage with the plan to fail. Even the clients who were fortunate enough to have a prenup, weren’t planning to fail as much as they were planning to protect their future spouse. And far from hating the other person and wishing they had never been married, many of my clients truly mourn the breakdown of a relationship that has defined his or her personal identity for 5, 10, 20, or even 30-some years.
Did either party not leave earlier because they were foolish, or because of the false “sunk-cost” value – like getting pot-committed to a bad hand of poker? Did they not leave earlier because they were just afraid of change? Or did they see the hurricane coming, sandbag around the house, board up the windows and doors, and do everything they could to resist the damage. After all, that’s what we value, correct? We value people who work hard, don’t give up, and never quit in spite of the greatest odds. Does this sound like a lot of movies you’ve seen too? That’s what legends and myths are made of, right? But at what point does that heroic effort become foolish. At what point does the work become a myth – but a myth like Sisyphus, the futile effort of continually pushing a boulder up a hill, only to see it roll back down again. Or how about like John Henry – conquering the machine only to die with his hammer in his hand?
There’s no mistake, that point between admirable perseverance and foolishness does exit. However it’s not for me to say where. It’s easy for me to say hey, this is ridiculous, we’re not getting anywhere, and so-and-so’s not changing, when I’m not the person in the relationship. When I consult with new client, and they tell me they want to save the relationship, but the other person doesn’t, then I say “great, I’ll give you resources and the guidance that I’ve seen has worked in the past, and you can try a few things, but we’ll also develop a backup plan to protect you in case it doesn’t work out.” The client will sometimes take action, sometimes not, and sometimes the marriage is saved, and sometimes it isn’t.
One of my favorite podcasters, speakers, and authors is Jocko Willink, a fomer Navy Seal Commander, who served in the toughest of combat tours in Iraq. He talks about a one of the abilities that made him and others like him successful, a concept he calls “detachment.” Essentially while going through one of the most physically and psychologically intense experiences in life – combat, this was the thing that set people apart. To be successful, he was able to take a step back mentally, examine the larger picture, make a decision, and execute on that decision. He didn’t lose himself in the intensity of the situation, adrenaline, fear, or the heat of passion. He wasn’t emotionally tied to one course of action or another. He was able to step back in his mind and take that look at the situation from a higher perspective. The critical decision wasn’t like a knee-jerk, reflexive reaction made without any thought, and it wasn’t like sitting down and writing a deliberate pros/cons list, this was a brief pause for something almost like an instantaneous, out of body experience, in the moment. Almost like a quieting of the mind to concentrate on the situation. This isn’t a skill he was born with, it took training and experience to develop this ability.
Most of us have never been through Navy Seal training, let alone commanded a special operations unit in combat, but I think the same concept applies in hurricanes – real or metaphorical. I think we can also develop that ability and find that clarity in our relationships – marital or otherwise. If we are only self-aware and conscious to our environment, then we also can pause, detach, examine the situation from a higher perspective, make a decision, and execute on that decision.
Why don’t we leave these hurricanes sooner? I think it’s because we really didn’t see it coming, or couldn’t fully appreciate the reality of what was coming, for whatever reason. And that’s ok. Call me – we can deal with the situation you’re in, minimize the damage, and next time we can do better. Going forward, we can be more conscious to approaching storms. We can be ready for the next personal hurricane in our own lives. And we’ll know – self-awareness and perspective in the moment is everything.