Humbled: The Price of Wisdom

04/08/2014 04:56 pm ET | Updated Jun 08, 2014

Charlie: One of the things that can be so frustrating about relationships is that it's often at those very times that you think that you're finally "getting it down," that you get whacked upside the head by something that really humbles you and brings you to your knees. Linda and I had an experience like this after we'd been together for 14 years. You'd think that we'd have known better by then, at least that's what we thought. We'd been through enough crises to get the basics down, and seemingly had learned quite a bit from them. Plus, we'd become marriage counselors and had spent several years helping people work out their own problems. So when we were knocked for a loop, it was not only embarrassing, it was very scary.

Linda: Whenever you think that you've really got it together, you better watch out because it's pretty likely that you will soon receive a loud and clear message inviting you to get down from your high horse. That's what's what happened to us in 1982. Charlie had taken a job as a trainer with a large personal growth company and we had each closed our practices in Connecticut and moved our family to the West Coast. Our California honeymoon was short-lived and it wasn't long before our dream turned into a nightmare. Part of what made it all so hellish was that we both had thought that from our past experiences, we had immunized ourselves against a disaster of the proportions that we were about to meet.

Charlie: My job turned out to be completely consuming, and for the first time in my life I found myself caught in the throes of a genuine obsession. Because I had always maintained a pretty healthy relationship with my work, the one thing that neither of us had anticipated in this career change was that I'd become a raging workaholic. But that's what happened.

Linda: Charlie experienced a full-blown personality change. I literally didn't know this person, and most of what I was seeing I hated. His preoccupation with work was so extreme that for several years he was not only on the road about three weeks a month, but even when he was at home, he was emotionally unavailable to the kids and me. I did everything in my power to bring him back, but it was like trying to hold onto somebody who is getting pulled out to sea in a roaring current. My best efforts weren't enough.

Charlie: This went on for five years. I'm really not sure how we survived it. I was so caught up in my work, that Linda's pleas to reconnect to the family just sounded like whining self-pity, to which I responded with anger and entreaties to become more self-sufficient so that she could support me more. I kept trying to turn it around. And I was becoming such a skilled manipulator that much of the time it was working.

Linda: It was very crazy making for me. For a long time I actually believed Charlie when he told me that I just needed to try harder to stop being so needy and dependent. That was one of my big buttons. It was because I tried so hard and for so long to do things on his terms that I finally saw the madness in what Charlie was saying and in what I was doing. Our family was going down the tubes and here I was trying to make everything okay. In reality, I was in total overwhelm.

Charlie: It finally got so bad that almost all of Linda's friends were encouraging her to leave the marriage before she and the kids got completely burnt out by the stress and pressure of what was going on. Our oldest son, Jesse was acting out and getting in trouble in school. And it seemed that there was almost constant turmoil in our home. I would usually be home only a few days a month, not long enough to get sufficiently involved with things to have any meaningful impact, then I'd be gone again, and for the most part glad to get out. I'm not proud of all this but I think that its important that we realize how lost we can get even when, perhaps especially when, we think we're on top of things. Arrogance can be a killer.

Linda: Finally, as a last ditch effort, I convinced Charlie to accompany me to a couples retreat. It was the weekend before his 40th birthday. With the support of a roomful of caring people, many of whom had been through similar situations and lost previous marriages and families because they had acted too late, Charlie finally got the message. With their help he was finally able to hear me.

Charlie: It was as though I was hearing the message for the first time. When I realized just how bad things were and saw how much we were all suffering, I collapsed in grief and remorse. This moment was the true beginning of our healing as a family and my recovery from some very unhealthy patterns.

Linda: We all want to believe that it is enough to see what's wrong, but that is only the first step. There are always actions that need to be taken to implement the necessary changes. And sometimes they are difficult to make. For both of us there were major changes that would be required.

Charlie: The day after the retreat, I announced my resignation from work. As frightened as I felt about not having any income, I knew without a doubt that I was going to have to totally unplug from work for a while before I'd be able to trust myself to be non-compulsive about it. I realized that I was no different from any other addict who needed to go cold turkey before he would have any possibility of having a healthy relationship with his drug of choice.

Now 25 years later we've not only survived this crisis (as well as a few others), but our marriage is more solid than either of us ever imagined it could be It was a very close call, a sort of "near-death experience," but out of it we've strengthened our love and ourselves immeasurably.

We can all become "stronger at the broken places," but often, not without a healthy dose of humility that may not occur without some painful lessons. Whoever said that "Pride goeth before a fall," knew that territory first hand. And just as the stock and real estate markets at times need to experience "corrections" when commodities and properties become over-valued, so can that same thing happen to us humans. The Greeks knew that the gods have their ways of reminding mortals of what their rightful place is when they get too inflated. The Buddhists call it Karma. Spiritual traditions throughout the world and over the millennia have reminded us of this universal truth. No one is above this law. When we can finally come to accept our rightful place in the nature of things, we see that we are neither absolutely divine nor absolutely evil, but somewhere in between. And since that means we don't have to be perfect that's not necessarily a bad place to be.