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Cormorants, Dogs, Expectations and Friendship

On Christmas morning, after breakfast and the opening of gifts were concluded, I walked out onto the lanai to enjoy both the balmy Florida weather and the lovely little lake which sits sixty feet away. As I was settling into my lounging chair a cormorant landed at the lake’s edge and prepared to begin his daily hunt.

I thought, “He’s working on Christmas day. No opening of gift boxes. No family hugs or holiday toasts. For him this day is like any other and he is doing what all wild animals do each day; he’s hunting for protein.”

Unlike humans, animals live in the moment. They do not romanticize other creatures or imbue certain days with special meaning. If a dog is sitting in a yard scratching himself and a meatball is thrown over the fence he will eat it, lick his chops and resume scratching. He couldn’t care less about who threw the meatball or why. He doesn’t say to himself, “Wow, how sweet! A loving person threw me a meatball. I wonder who it was.” He eats the protein and that’s it.

It occurs to me, though, that some folks are similar to the cormorant and the dog and don’t romanticize people, dates or places. Other folks are the opposite and ascribe qualities and meaning to people, dates and events that may or may not be there.

Norm, a client of mine, when asked by his wife if he has ever felt the urge to find and get to know his relatives in Europe, said, “Not really. What for? I don’t know them–they don’t know me; why would I have any interest in meeting them?” He is comfortable with his bare bones, non-sentimental view of the world. Amy, his wife says that when she waxes eloquent and becomes teary eyed describing her new found, loving relationship with relatives in Europe, Norm listens patiently but then good naturedly shakes his head in wonderment as though she’s being kind of sappy and silly.

Norm views the world through non-sentimental-reality based glasses. Amy, on the other hand, views the world through glasses that ascribe positive and loving qualities to people, dates and events. It is this difference between people I find intriguing in terms of its implications for friendship.

Norman’s bare-bones, unsentimental view of people will probably protect him from being hurt by friends. He does not romanticize his friendships. By keeping his expectations low he is less prone to be disappointed. The tradeoff for him is that he will lose out on the closeness that comes with “jumping in” emotionally. The ability to let go and allow oneself to become close to friends is a gift. Emotional closeness cannot be experienced without accompanying emotional risk. This is true for our platonic friendships as well as our romantic ones. Norman, for balance, needs to open up and allow himself to see and acknowledge the special qualities in his friends which will allow him to get closer to them.

Amy, on the other hand, ascribes great qualities to all of her friends and as a result has high expectations of them. While it is a wonderful quality to see the best in others it can be painful when their behavior doesn’t match ones expectations. Thus, Amy is sometimes disappointed because her friends appear to let her down. For balance she needs to lean more toward “assume the best but keep expectations in line with reality.”

A fine example of this difficult choice within a romantic friendship occurs in the wonderful film “Shadowlands” which features Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger. Hopkins played a middle aged English writer (C.S. Lewis) who for his entire life had played it emotionally close to the vest. He falls in love with Debra Winger, an emotional and demonstrative American. Once he commits to her he tells her in a moment of soul baring that he cannot bear the thought of losing her now that he has allowed himself to love so completely. She responds (I’m paraphrasing), “That’s the deal isn’t it? We can’t have love without letting go and we can’t let go without the emotional risk.” Sadly, she dies of cancer and he suffers the great emotional pain he feared so much.

This example, while focused on a romantic relationship, perfectly represents the dilemma we all face when dealing with our platonic friendships. We must allow ourselves to become emotionally involved by assuming the best about our friends, “letting go” and trusting them. If we don’t do this we miss out on the wonderful, satisfying intimacy and support that friendships offer. The risk we run when we do make this trusting leap is that we can be hurt when our friends let us down. But as the Debra Winger character says, “That’s the deal, isn’t it.”

Do you have a question or comment for me? Feel free to post it by clicking on the comments link below.   

An Ambivalent Visit

When I was in my middle thirties and still a clinical psychology doctoral candidate at the University of Nevada, I remember discussing a personal family problem with my supervisor, Dr. Duane Varble. He and I had finished talking about one of my clients and since we had twenty minutes left in our appointment, he asked me what I was planning to do over spring break. I told him I was going to New Jersey to visit my parents and added I was feeling strong ambivalence about the trip. Interested, he asked me if I knew what that was all about. I said I didn’t, but it was something I should probably discuss since it had been bothering me.

He then asked, “When you go home to see your folks, what do you want to have happen?”  I thought for a bit and said, “I wish during my visits that they would inquire about my life. They don’t seem to have any interest in what I’m doing here in the doctoral program or how I view the world in general. Whenever I visit, all my dad wants to do is garden and cook, and all mom wants to do is watch movies and do crossword puzzles.”

Duane said, “So, your ambivalence about the visit is tied to the worry that you won’t be nurtured.” I nodded in agreement. He then said, “Maybe you need to think about which Ron you want to send home for the visit. Is it Young Ron who wants nurturing and parenting, or is it Adult Ron who accepts his folks just as they are? If you buy a plane ticket for Young Ron, I suspect he’ll be disappointed again.”

“Why must my visits be on their terms?” I asked.

Duane answered, “Because they are who they are. They don’t know how to relate to you in the specific manner you deem acceptable. I’d suggest you consider taking the high road and send Adult Ron home to visit-he’s the one who is more willing to accept them exactly as they are.”

I gave Duane’s interpretation of my ambivalence a lot of thought and decided it would be worth the effort to send “Ron the Adult” home for the spring-break visit. I decided I’d suspend all my expectations about how my folks should relate to me and that I would gracefully and enthusiastically join in any activity they wanted to pursue.

I did so and what occurred was magical. I had a wonderful four-day visit. I gardened with my dad and moved yards of dirt, and together, we planted boxes of flowers and veggies. I also spent time with him in the kitchen. I picked his brain about how he cooked some of his Italian specialties. While we were doing some of these activities, he told me stories about his family and the Italian traditions he learned growing up.

My mom and I did crossword puzzles together and watched movies. While doing these things, she began to talk about her childhood, her life before marriage, and what it felt like getting older.

I’m sure they could not have put into words what I was doing differently during my visit but I knew they could clearly feel I was more present and more involved in their lives. My need for them to relate to me in more psychologically sophisticated ways dropped away. Our connection during those four days felt rich and right, and it confirmed Duane’s belief that I needed to shift my expectations.  

Over the years, clients have come into my office with this same dilemma. And I have asked many of them the two very important questions that Duane asked me: “What do you want to have happen during your visit,” and “Which person will you decide to send home to visit with your folks?”

This little story illustrates the powerful effect unrealistic expectations can have on our friendships. The more we are able to accept our friends and family exactly the way they are, the less often our hopes will be dashed when we relate to them. The great gift, of course, is that we may even find out that dipping into their world is great fun.

Do you have a question or comment for me? Feel free to post it by clicking on the comments link below.