Ever wondered what saying "Goodbye" in a healthy way might look like? Because it seems like none of us detach very well from relationships. That's why they make frozen yogurt and Netflix, right?
Even as an adult, our adolescent break up strategies carry over into our divorces, into the way we leave our parents and sometimes define how we end an affair.
Why can't we kiss each other goodbye and ride off into the sunset without the pain of betrayal, the heartache of lost potential or the somewhat temporary satisfaction of slamming a door in anger?
Detaching well is important. The way we say goodbye can define not only the future of the one we say goodbye to, but ours as well.
When my ex-husband and I divorced, there was a period of separation that seemed so painful there was nothing anyone could say or do that would ease the heartache of the transition. Going from being a married-couple-family to being a single-mother with every-other-weekend-children was wrenching. I thought it would destroy me. I couldn't believe that I was missing what felt like half of my children's lives. What if they said something or did something cute and I missed it? What if they got hurt or had a bad dream and I wasn't there? It wasn't saying goodbye to my ex that killed me it was letting go of my role as full time mom that destroyed the vision I had of myself. I was no longer "good mom," I was "terrible mother," and I felt like everyone in the grocery store, everyone I met on the street, at the gym, could read it on my face.
"There she is, " they whispered, " the woman who says goodbye to her kids on Friday night and runs back into her house and weeps uncontrollably...then drinks a vat of wine by herself and binges on Sex & The City."
My pain made me do things I deeply regret. I turned my anger and fear onto my ex. I blamed him for my shame at being a half time Mom. I stopped calling my own Mother, who was sick in bed, on oxygen at the time. I couldn't tolerate the sound of the sympathy in her voice when we spoke. I knew that she needed to say goodbye to me, that her time to leave for good was coming soon, but I couldn't say goodbye to her too. By not speaking with her it was as if I could ignore the reality of her too, ending our relationship.
I turned down dates with friends, I worked too many hours, and I slept hardly at all. And then I started dating a married man. At first it seemed harmless. He came over and helped me with things around the house. I couldn't start the grill, he pulled the little lever thing-ee that I never knew was there. One evening there was a mouse caught under my couch in my living room and I panicked, like a girl, and he was the first man on speed dial on my cell phone. He came over and picked the small rodent up by the tail and threw him out into the yard. There were other things that he helped me with, including caring for me and loving me, unconditionally, back to life. He never asked anything from me, he just wanted to be there, to be strong, until I could find myself.
Then one day we were laying in bed, mid-afternoon, post-coital, and I noticed that his voice was drifting in and out of lulling me to sleep by telling me a story of his own Goodbye. He was leaving his wife. He had been with her for many years, had never loved another woman until me. I shot up out of bed. I panicked, like the mouse under the furniture, caught between a soft place and nowhere to go. Shortly afterward I watched as he drove out of my driveway, and that goodbye hurt too.
But I wanted to do it better this time. I didn't want to lose myself or to feel disconnected from my life or the real me that I knew was in there somewhere. I knew then I had to call my mother, to say goodbye. And I had to do it well. I would spend time with my children, as much as I could, every moment before they too left, and grew up, and moved away. I realized it is as important to learn to be present and attached as it is to detach well from a relationship. It is crucial to learn to do both well.
Most of us fall into an attachment; we "fall" in love - we do it almost unconsciously, without thinking. I should have been more conscious with my first husband and thought long and hard before I attached. But the falling is easy, it's the getting up and moving on that's tough.
We learn to attach in our childhood, from our parents. The way we attach comes from the role we played in our family. Attachment is about safety. When we are small we attach to the closest adult - usually a parent - in order to find shelter, food and warmth. We cling for dear life to that adult until we are old enough to feed ourselves and get ourselves off to school in the morning. Then, slowly, we start to detach. Some of us are better at it than others. Depending on the parent or the adult that we are attached to, our childhood can go well or it can be challenging, it is somewhat just the luck of the draw. But the crucial part is eventually becoming strong enough and grown up enough to leave home. Detaching from the parent when we grow up can be tricky.
Separating and individuating is what makes us an adult ourselves. If we do it with a strong sense of our own identity intact, and our parent's wave goodbye with a smile and wish us well, our sense of security and our belief about the world as a safe place is healthy and we are off to a good start. If on the other hand leaving is wrought with difficulties; a clinging adult who makes it hard to leave, a crisis or drama that forces us to escape instead of walk out calmly, or grownups who don't even notice we are gone, we develop a strong sense of insecurity and anxiety when we move into our adult relationships. Aside from how attached we felt as kids, it is the detaching that can really mess us up.
As adults, being in a relationship means there is a continuous, perpetual need to detach. Every day there are small ways that we let go. We say goodbye in the morning and we kiss goodnight before falling asleep. We deal with a partner who seems distracted during the day or we fight over feeling rejected or not getting enough attention in the evening. Learning to stay connected even when there is continuous detachment is called trust - that's what maturity is all about.
Growing up is learning to say goodbyes - the small, every day goodbyes, as well as the bigger more painful giant ones.
Today I am remarried to a man who is home all the time. Our goodbyes are usually me leaving for work, or getting on a plane. My goodbyes are laced with hope that he will still be there when I come home. That is a mature goodbye - one that appreciates the attached times, but knows that detachment happens.
My son is leaving for college in a few months. My baby is packing up and moving out. I don't let him see me cry about it, I try to hide that, in fact. In the house I am cheerful and happy and I delight in the fact that he has grown up and has become an amazing individual. But I will miss him. His dad will be at the graduation, along with his step father. His grandmother, my mom, will be looking down on all of us.
Eventually we all detach, from each other and from life. I hope that by appreciating our time together when we have it, and always remembering to say a good goodbye, that we won't have to regret any of the moments that we have left with one another, because we will always do them well.
Dr Tammy Nelson is a world renowned expert in relationships, a psychotherapist in private practice and a seminar leader worldwide. She is the author of several books including Getting The Sex You Want; Shed Your Inhibitions and Reach New Heights of Passion Together and The New Monogamy; Redefining Your Relationship After Infidelity. She can be found at www.drtammynelson.com and her Facebook page Getting the Sex You Want.