Just when you think you have this communication thing down, something comes along to remind you that good relationships take good work – and just because you took a leadership training course doesn’t mean you don’t need to be reminded to use your skills. Or, as I used to tell my kids, “Use your words!”
Last weekend, I got married. We had a fun, boisterous reception with a hundred people, preceded earlier in the day by a small ceremony with only a dozen people. It was beautiful, and meaningful, and even though it was my second wedding, it was the one at which I was fully present. My kids, my brother, my in-laws, my dear friends…all were on hand to witness our vows as we promised to take care of each other and each other’s families. Even my birth dad made the trip out from Maryland to attend the intimate ceremony – no small act considering that we were estranged for almost half my 46 years.
And it was precisely that complicated history that made for a valuable lesson, for both of us.
My father and I have been slowly repairing our relationship over the past two years. He called me out of the blue in 2010, he apologized, I accepted, and we have since moved into a nice friendship. I find him very pleasant to talk with, as he went through a similar leadership training course a few years after I did. We discuss ideas and politics and the weather. Like I said, it’s nice.
But add a highly emotional experience like a wedding, and all bets are off.
Immediately after our ceremony, my father left. He didn’t say goodbye to me, he didn’t wave at the group. He just…left. It was a bit alarming when we tried to find him to pose for the requisite pictures, but someone said he must have been tired, so I figured I’d see him at the reception once he’d had a nap at the hotel. He never showed up at the reception.
The next morning, after repeated voicemails and text messages from my brother and me, he finally called. He said he didn’t feel he belonged, so he felt it was better if he just said his goodbye and “have a good life” now and went on his way. I was stunned when I hung up the phone 27 seconds later. In fact, I was so stunned that I went immediately into emotional shutdown and autopilot. I was 13 years old again, hearing that my father was leaving my life. I wasn’t going to hurt if it killed me.
Luckily for me, my other half keeps me accountable, and because of that, is my greatest champion.
“Oh no you don’t! I’m getting him on the phone and telling him to get over here now!” is what I heard. And that’s exactly what happened. Twenty minutes later, he and I were sitting, knee to knee, in the sunshine at the outdoor café, digging deep and trying to make things better.
Me: “So, what happened? You were there, and then you weren’t and you didn’t respond to our messages and I was worried about you” I said.
Him: “I didn’t feel like I should be there.”
Me: “You didn’t feel like you belonged there? You were feeling like you weren’t part of the group?”
Him: “I just looked around at everyone and they’ve all known you for years and I haven’t,” he said.
Me: “You felt like people were thinking that you didn’t belong and it made you uncomfortable?”
Him: (Pause.) “Well, the pastor didn’t mention my name when she was talking about people who were important to you.”
Me: (Pause. I breathe. And I realize something. When people say that your wedding day is all about you, they lie. It’s really about managing everyone else’s feelings. At 46, I get that now. The 24 year old me, at my first wedding, would have never even been at that café table.) “So, you didn’t hear your name, and it made you feel a ton of emotions, like awkward, and embarrassed, and …”
Him: “And sad. I was sad that I wasn’t there for you or your brother when you were growing up and needing me to be a father. And I am so sorry that I wasn’t there, and I know I’ve asked you to forgive me but I just need to know that we’re okay. And I was overwhelmed so I left and then I was embarrassed that I left so I couldn’t come to the reception and then I thought you wouldn’t want to see me anymore so I decided to say goodbye first.”
And there it was.
Earlier I mentioned valuable lessons. So what did I learn? Well, I learned that no matter how far you’ve come, when you get emotionally overwhelmed it’s very easy to slip back into old patterns…and that’s okay as long as you make the time to change the pattern. My father and I are committed to having our relationship be one of honesty and acceptance. That is our new pattern of behavior. And I’ve learned that it’s one thing to Active Listen, and it’s another to give people the space to talk. If you ask me, those two lessons are going to carry me a long way as I embark on my Happily Ever After.