Poles apart

Awaiting her return

Right now, we are about 10,000 miles apart from each other.

And we don’t mean this emotionally or psychologically. Nancy has returned to Dallas to help care for her ailing father, and to situate her mother in a senior residence. Barry has remained in chilly Wellington for now, with only a hot water bottle to hug.

Phone conversations, made easy by VoIP systems like Skype, have been the main way we’ve tried to be together though apart. For hours at a time, we relate our separate experiences or take up mutual business like family financial issues or travel arrangements. And when we want, we can see each other via Skype – or at least a grainy simulacrum of the other. It moves; it talks! We share activities as well. We had a date day this week, watching the finals of the US Open tennis tournament together (with the light-hearted tension of enduring a 15 second time delay down under). In the past, we’ve also watched movies simultaneously (thank you, Netflix!).

In sustaining our relationship by phone, moreover, it’s not all fun or business. We recently started philosophizing about the ways couples or family members can find themselves emotionally apart, even when physically together.

You probably recall the popular psychology/sociology book some years ago that demonstrated how conflict ensues because men are from Mars and women from Venus.  But gender, we were thinking, was just one influence. For each person lives by his or her own world view, constructed out of one’s genetic inheritance, character, culture, experience and training – a construct that helps one make sense of life and guide oneself through it. Of course, this world view strongly determines one’s actions, preferences and choices.

Your world view can change, but it’s a very difficult transformation. Because it is somewhat like the mind’s operating system, it remains more difficult to alter than even religious or political beliefs. If you’ve ever have seen how a friend or relative can harm himself by not changing his approach to life – let alone if you’ve ever tried to persuade them to change – you know something about this. For we all hold onto our world views as a matter of life and death. As Barry discovered some years ago, you can find yourself bound to an outmoded world view as you grow older, one that has stopped working well for you. Trying to remake your outlook so you function better can prove to be emotionally wrenching, frightening to the core.

For a couple, even in simple day to day matters, their dual world views and preferences often conflict. Is one a night person, the other a morning person? Neat and orderly, or somewhat disarrayed? Like the room hot or cold? Clearly you can adjust to each other over time, but you can easily move further and further apart if such dichotomies probe closer to your core views. Are you listening to me, or just nodding? Why do you need to be the boss? Why don’t you stop doing what really annoys me? Why are you always taking the opposite stance? Just add in the stresses of work, or crises, or the pain from having low expectations regularly met, and any day could become an episode of some soap opera titled When Worlds Collide.

So, couples can become more and more alone even when together, locked apart within those habits and negative emotions that have accreted in the conflict. Divorce just finalizes the widening isolation.

Like most couples, we’ve experienced this feeling of being worlds apart. Fortunately, we’ve recognized how it can happen and learned together how to make adjustments to stop the drift. Sometimes it’s frank conversation that helps; sometimes it’s a moment of reflection and gaining perspective; sometimes a heartfelt apology. We may still have distinct world views, but we have become better at bridging the divisions they can cause.

Oddly, we find that our physical separation helps too. As we experience what it’s like to be without each other, loneliness proves a valuable ally. We work extra hard, and think more deeply, on how to help each other deal with any troubles. We stretch supportively across the distance. The result is a kind of soft reboot of the relationship. It’s not that our world views are completely changed, but our Mars and Venus find a much more synchronous orbit.

Whirling around the North Star

Of course, what’s missing in this separation is the touch, the warm body, a kiss. When we hang up the phone, we look outside where the planets and stars whirl away.

Southern Cross constellation above Wellington, or Maori anchor of a great canoe

In the chill, black winter night, Barry can spy the Southern Cross constellation hanging just over the hilltop; in the heat of late summer, Nancy can peer through the haze and light pollution of Dallas at the North Star. However much technology and talk and love connect us, and our orbits more closely align, we know we’re miles apart.

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