Empty Nest & Retirement Years as Invitations to Re-Create Shared Meaning

The apex of Dr. John Gottman’s “Sound Relationship House” – the metaphorical distillation of his decades of scientific research on marital success—is Shared Meaning. 

A couple’s Shared Meaning is established and reinforced by intentional habits and patterns of interaction that create and reinforce a couple’s friendship. Friendship is what Dr. Gottman’s research has shown to be the bedrock of a close, passionate, and enduring relationship or marriage. Friendship is comprised of the principles Gottman has named: Love Maps, Turning Toward One Another (connecting), and Nurturing Fondness and Admiration. More could be written on these, but suffice to say that Love Maps is partners having a detailed “map” in their head of their partner’s world; they are familiar with each other’s internal and external world, such that they know how to “be there for” each other.  Turning Toward One Another is the habit that satisfied and long-lasting couples have of connecting often in ways that keep the friendship alive. These are dates, regularized stress-reducing-conversations, weekly checkins, daily rituals around partings and reunions, purposeful celebrations, thoughtful considerations, etc. Nurturing Fondness and Admiration is the mental and verbal rehearsing of what we like, love, respect, admire, and are grateful for, concerning our spouse.  It is feeding a positive sentiment toward our husband or wife; it is spinning in a positive direction what could be spun negatively, but for our refusal to do so. It’s being thankful for who we have rather than making comparisons to the facade we see in others’ spouses. 

The friendship that is formed in dating is unlike the friendship that is re-formed in empty nest and retirement years. And that reformation is different still from the friendship that was honed in the fires of educational pursuits and career development, challenged and defended amid the chaos of raising children, or creatively protected in the lean years of our offspring’s education and career pursuits. At each stage, connection was (ideally) given the priority it deserved, afforded the creativity and resources due something of high priority, and enjoyed by both partners like a refreshing drink enjoyed by a parched traveler. The ways and means of connection was different at each stage, but hopefully valued, prioritized and defended the same. 

The empty nest and retirement years are not parched ground devoid of nutrients now that child-rearing and career-building have been accomplished; quite the opposite. They are another opportunity to redecorate the living space that is our marriage, like we’ve done before. It’s time to pick out new curtains (okay… window coverings), decide where we’ll sit and on what in our new environment, re-purpose the kids’ rooms in a way that makes sense for our life and lifestyle, and replace academic, league, and career-oriented calendar items with mutual and separate passions for which there had not been time, before. 

In short, the empty nest and retirement years are an opportunity to—indeed, a requirement to—redefine our shared meaning. What rituals, roles, goals, symbols, practices, routines, celebrations, and pursuits will define our lives together and individually as supported by one another?  This can even include anticipation of and preparation for medical decline and mutual care-giving. No need for ill health to come upon us as a surprise or morose experience. How can it be part of our “us” just as were the plans made during more active years?  

Before that time comes, are these the years we can finally go dancing, hold hands while walking in beautiful settings, go out to those restaurants that the kids never liked, play cards again if we can find anyone who knows how, invest in the lives of others, serve in altruistic ways once precluded by work and parenting?  

My wife and I have re-written our shared meaning to now include Saturday morning breakfast out. The waitress knows our name and our usual shared order.  Travel is always west… to the homes of one of our three children, where Nana and Poppy take on the cherished role of weekend playmates and caregivers, including giving our kids a night out with their spouses.  It’s one of the things we enjoy most. Also high on the list is leading marriage seminars every few months, whether in our own city or elsewhere, and leading or co-leading a topical or Bible study with a group of friends. We’re invested in the  ministries of our church and strive to correct on our block the cultural tragedy of neighbors not knowing neighbors. These are years in which I can finally write with more regularity and my wife supports me alongside as she pursues her own interest in shared space made warm, comfortable, nurturing, and life-giving to our marriage.  It’s a stage of oneness-building like every stage of marriage affords, but now with new ways to understand, prioritize, value and depend on each other. This time, with less hair. 

Finally, as with any stage of marriage, the measure of the above meaning re-creation and its practice is how we’re making each other feel in the process. The Gottman Institute’s identification of extremely high ratios of positive to negative interactions between Master Couples tells us that satisfying marriages are built in the intangible process more than on the tangible product. Whether it’s sipping coffee together over laptops, navigating cross-country or across-town travel, or managing a messy lunchtime with grandchildren, the invitation is always the same… to be for the other the safest place on earth; the greatest teammate; the most encouraging and affirming friend who is there for our spouse, as he or she is for us. That is both the product and process of shared meaning—at any stage—and the measure of any marriage. 

Other-centeredness

We can know everything there is to know about marriage—intellectually—and still wind up with a bad marriage, or even divorced. Information about what makes marriage work isn’t enough. Conversely, people relatively ignorant of academic research and intellectual insights into marriage can have mutually endearing and enduring marriages, regardless of their life circumstances. What makes the difference, then, if not knowledge? It comes down to other-centeredness.

Other-centeredness… is that even a thing? (I have to hyphenate it so my spellcheck doesn’t object.) Yes, it must be a thing, because its opposite—self-centeredness—is a thing. And when it comes to marriage—and nearly all relationships—other-centeredness is THE thing. Bad behavior that creates or contributes to bad relationships is not mysterious. Bad behavior is simply self-centeredness in motion. Where it comes from is as individualistic as the individuals involved. But whatever its source, and whatever its more legitimate cousins—self-actualization, self-preservation, and self-protection, for example—its focus is on self, not the other. And self-focus (self interest at least, self centeredness perhaps, or selfishness at worst) usually doesn’t feel good in a relationship. It feels less than loving.

Other-centerdness is actually my definition of love. In scripture, the apostle Paul begins his chapter on love by remarking that a person can fathom all mysteries and have all knowledge, but have not love, and thereby be nothing. (1st Corinthians 13:2)  That’s a strong verdict, especially in our culture that idolizes information. Yet, in the world of relationships, nothingness is what becomes of us if there is not love (other-centeredness). Listen for that term under all the words the apostle Paul uses to describe love: “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” (1st Corinthians 13:4-8) You might have noticed that there is not a self-serving word in the entire list. Everything that Paul commends as love would only be done for the benefit of someone else. After all, why be kind; what’s in it for me? Answer: It’s not about me; it’s about blessing someone else. Why be patient if I’m feeling impatient? Answer: for the sake of another. Why not be a braggart or envy others who have what I can’t have? Answer: Because other-centered love can be happy for others who have what I don’t. And we could go through the entire list this way. The point is, everything love does, it does for the benefit of someone else; that’s what makes it love.

Notice, too, that Paul’s list is devoid of feeling-words. Love is not an emotion. Love is a combination of attitudes and behaviors acted on regardless of how we feel. In fact, often, love is about doing the opposite of what we feel like doing. Love summons self-control so that we are not controlled by what our emotions tell us to do or say. It’s how responsible parents love their children. This understanding of love may not sound very romantic, but it is a relationally safe way of love that is the most solid foundation for romance. Romantic relationships are built upon the foundation of a ratio of “feel-good” to “feel bad” interactions. We are drawn to, and remain drawn to, people who make us feel good. Obviously, being affected by another’s self-centeredness feels bad; being gifted by another’s other-centeredness feels good.

Research by Dr. John Gottman has identified seven principles that undergird successful, mutually satisfying, long-enduring loving relationships. The first of these principles he calls “Love Maps.” A  Love Map is detailed knowledge of a partner’s world. It is familiarity with what is important to one’s partner—their likes, dislikes, hopes, dreams, disappointments, fears, anticipations. It is knowing what relaxes our partner, what stresses them, what angers them, what makes them feel supported, etc. It’s good information to know; but, as we noted earlier, knowledge is not enough. Knowing these things about our partner is like knowing French. What good is it, if we don’t use it? To quote Bob Goff’s book title, “Love does.” Love (other-centeredness) takes what we know about our partner (Gottman’s Love Map) and uses that knowledge to make our spouse feels protected, important, remembered, respected, and honored. It takes our partner’s likes and dislikes; preferences and anticipations, and includes them on our shopping lists, personal calendars, and to-do lists. Love looks for opportunities and invents ways to use the Love Map to make our partner feel good. Remember doing this when you were dating? It’s what many couples stop doing once they get married, and maybe start doing with someone who isn’t their spouse—their eventual affair partner. Affair partners learn each other’s preferences and build those into their interactions; they remember what is important to each other; they carefully govern their words and go out of their way to speak kindly; they listen and express understanding, rather than arguing their own point of view. In other words, they practice other-centeredness, like husbands and wives used to do when they were dating.

The hope for marriage is the recognition that both partners do indeed have Love Maps. It is further recognizing that partners’ Love Maps are not going to match. That does not spell incompatibility; it spells opportunity to understand what this entirely-other-human-being needs to feel loved. Hint: it won’t be what comes naturally to us. Our partner is not us; they’re them. Other-centeredness learns what feels good to them; love doesn’t insist that they like what feels good to us. Love is about learning a new map. This education will not come from a book. It will take other-centered focus to notice and remember what makes our spouse feel loved, respected, safe, secure, nurtured, supported, honored, comforted, protected, accepted, and liked. It is on the basis of such feelings that a ratio (feel-good to feel bad interactions) will be built that becomes strong enough to feel like love. Love is about knowing our spouse better than does anyone on the planet, and using that knowledge to make our spouse feel all of the things just listed. And to know how to do so better than anyone else on the planet. When our spouse is also—with other-centered love—meeting those same needs for us (but according to our different Love Map), then there is a solid, safe relationship.

Again, other-centeredness is not natural. Self-centeredness is natural (survival of the fittest). It can be a struggle to get beyond ourselves and empathize with someone else. Ideally, we experienced this kind of love from our parents. If so, it’s easier to replicate. If not, then we need a reparative experience or experiences from which to draw. If those experiences don’t come from safe people in our life, then God offers what people might not. That which we may not have been given to us by humans is available to us by the Holy Spirit. For free. The heart that humbles itself to Christ as Lord, and calls out to the Holy Spirit for help, will be graciously given awareness of God’s loving presence within and alongside it, always. One work of the Holy Spirit is to transform self-centeredness into other-centered love, like the love of God toward us. It was this love that drove him to visit earth, love the unloved, serve like a servant not a king, and die like a criminal so that we wouldn’t have to. That’s other-centeredness. That’s love. It’s what God has in his heart for us, and what he wants to form in our hearts for others. Just ask him for this gift. He will answer and grant you his heart.

Real Relationships

I have people-centric jobs, yet fight to spend time with people. I am a counselor, pastor, chaplain, and teacher chained to a computer much of the day. And it’s not optional. There are daily, weekly and monthly reports to be filed, emails to be read and sent, social media to update, websites to maintain, documents to produce, mandated electronic records to keep, resources to create, and even blogs—of all things—to write! There would be bulletins to produce and monthly newsletters, as well, but our church does not use them; I refuse to spend time on them, given their poor return on investment.

The investment that does pays off—in strengthened lives, empowered people, healed wounds, and functional families—is in real relationships with people. Yet, with many households being characterized by two working spouses, sports commitments nearly every night and weekend, smart phones that allow us to work all the time, and nearly everything requiring us to go online, except for gassing up the car… who can be away from a little screen long enough to talk with a flesh-and-blood person? Even people who go to coffee shops “to be around people” sit staring into little screens instead of engaging with the people around them. I even see kids at bus stops staring off into space with earbuds in their ears, intentionally walled off from each other by personal playlists. It’s like a disturbing sci-fi movie.

Jesus’ last prayer on earth surprised me. In John 17, he prayed for his disciples and all those who would follow them in faith. Given the myriad things Jesus could have prayed, what did he pray? He prayed, “…that they be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.” (v.21) He prayed that people be united; that they be one as he and the father are one. In other words, he prayed for bonded human relationships. If that’s the case, then what are going to be top priorities of the liar/enemy/deceiver/destroyer? Isolate and divide. And hasn’t he done a marvelous job of it!?! Not only has he walled us off from one another as in the above examples and many more, our enemy has taken even the most intimate, connectional experience imaginable—that physical intimacy capable of producing a human life—and turned that into a disconnected “hookup,” or worse by way of even less connected online counterfeit experiences.

Brain scans have shown us a great deal, including the neurological and chemical responses that are created in response to varying human interactions, such as looking into the eyes of another human being, having a conversation, working as a team, receiving a smile, experiencing nonsexual touch, or engaging in caring sexuality. Brain scans reveal that God made us with a need for human relationships, and that these cannot be fulfilled by cyber connections. Thus, our adversary—in the name of convenience and productivity (measured in time, currency, inanimate objects, and other factors unrelated to human well-being)—has isolated us into boxes. We live in insulated boxes; drive in mobile boxes; sit in work cubicles, and constantly hold hands with an omnipresent mobile box. Exit human relationships; enter isolation, loneliness, and neurological lack of familiarity with attachment and real intimacy.

It wasn’t meant to be this way. We were made for relationships… real human relationships. It was what Jesus prayed for when he prayed his last prayer on earth.

Best Christmas Gift: Extending Unconditional Love

 

Togetherness. It happens at Christmas. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Yes, it is. Togetherness means drawing close; but sometimes that feels like a collision. The trick is managing our togetherness with other-centeredness toward each others’ speed and direction.
If you’ve ever heard me speak or teach on relationships, you know that “other-centeredness” is how I define love. As an expert on the worlds of your loved ones, you know some of things that makes them feel good; you have knowledge of what they enjoy; you have experience in how words affect them; how decisions feel respectful and empowering or disregarding and defeating. You know some things they like and some things they hate. And you know what contributes to their sense of well-being and protection. In other words, you know how to love the people in your life in other-centered ways.
This Christmas, give the gift of other centeredness. Extend unconditional love without regard for reciprocation. Go first in offering respect, honor, kindness, gentleness, patience, and protection. Resist the temptation to even look for anything in return. Let the joy be in the giving, not in receiving. Love from the overflow of God’s love, who drew close to you in Christ despite it all, offering grace, forgiveness, and mercy that is new every morning.

All Relationships Come Down to This

There are people you count as friends. There are people whom you most decidedly do not count as friends. What’s the difference? Around your friends you feel good; accepted; nurtured, protected, maybe even loved. You trust your friends; you presume they’re there for you, as you’re there for them; that they’ve “got your back,” as you have theirs. “Enemies” by definition are not for you, but against you. They don’t have your back, they’re stabbing you in the back. And for those of us not in third grade, anymore, we probably don’t count anyone as an enemy, but there are people we don’t number as “friends,” either. We just don’t feel special around them; there’s not a connection or bond we’re going to seek out when we need nurture. There are others—friends—that we trust to meet those needs, or at least to wallow with us in our neediness.

That’s it. A friend doesn’t even have to be successful at meeting our needs; they just have to really, really want to, and feel really badly when they’re not able to. That feels great! We feel cared for; connected; nurtured; not alone. There are people in our corner. Friends.

Marriage is more about friendship than about romance. In essence, we get married because we feel good around this person. They make us feel better than does anyone on the planet. In fact, they make us feel so good that we want to make that feeling permanent. Sure, there’s romance, but romance without friendship is just sensual. It’s emotional and maybe physical, but as enjoyable as those are, they won’t sustain a marriage. Marriage is sustained at the level of attachment needs. And attachment needs have more in common with friendship than with passion.

What are attachment needs? They are identified in Attachment Theory as “the bottom line” of human relationships; even of human formation. Ideally, our attachment needs are met by our parents or primary caregivers. They include acceptance, safety, belonging, nurture, comfort, love, and respect. That is, we don’t have to “be more like our brother” in order to be loved by mom; we are accepted for who we are and who we aren’t. We have a  secure sense of belonging the family; we’re not threatened with abandonment, or cut lose to fend for ourselves. Our primary protectors actually keep us safe; they don’t endanger us. We find nurture and encouragement to become who we’re wired to be. When we’re hurt, or sad we find comfort in these human relationships. It is in such emotionally and physically safe relationships that we discover love and respect as a human being. From this base of human attachment, we have a place from which to launch and replicate other healthy relationships.

That’s where relationships live. All relationships—parents and children, spouses, friendships, neighbors, co-workers. All relationships come down to this… feeling good. Do we make them feel good? Do they make us feel good? “Feeling good” comes down to feeling attached to someone who is safe to be attached to; someone who is there for us, not against us; someone who accepts us, nurtures us, comforts us, loves us; someone who will be there in our time of need. A friend.

Dr. John Gottman of the University of Washington has observed couples in relationship for forty years and concluded that if there is one thing that holds together a marriage more than anything else, it’s friendship. That’s not very sexy; it’s not filled with “romantical” images. But a lover who isn’t a friend is a dangerous playmate.  If we’re going to superglue ourselves to someone for life, better that someone be friendly than merely sexy. Attachment will soon become more important than attraction. In fact, attraction will grow stronger with attachment, as what could be more attractive than someone who is safe, nurturing, accepting, and comforting? Relationships come down to that.