Our dreams are promises of the future, imaginary shadows of our wishes come true. They beckon us to strive, to endure hardships, and to postpone pleasure. We live for our dreams, so losing them is like losing our reasons for living.
We don't surrender our dreams easily. Our dreams are mere wishes, so they can easily generate other dreams. If we lose a dream, we may dream that it will reappear. As a result, grieving for a lost dream is often far more difficult than grieving for other lost treasures.
When we lose a dream, each emotion visits us, and each is unwelcome. Anger strikes frequently, but we try to drive it back. Fear stalks us, but we try to elude it. Sadness haunts us, but we try to cling to our optimism. Joy materializes as we glimpse a ghost of our lost dream, but slips away as we reach for the phantom.
Rachel struggled with all of her emotions as she tried to cope with a marriage that had failed her dreams. Her emotions fogged her reasoning mind to the point that she couldn't realistically see her dreams, her own interests, or her marriage.
When I first met Rachel, she was twenty-nine, working, and married. She greeted me with a smile that seemed artificial, considering her complaint.
"I've been depressed lately. I just feel hopeless and helpless.
"I think it's because of my marriage. I'm afraid it's falling apart. Jack and I have been married seven years."
"Big investment," I noted. "Big loss."
"But I haven't lost him," Rachel protested. "And I don't want to. Jack's the best person I've ever known."
"Then tell me why you think your marriage is in trouble."
"A lot of things. Jack used to be my best friend. He's not any more. We used to talk about everything. We don't any more."
Rachel stopped smiling. Her eyes searched the room as though she were looking for more to say. She continued after a few seconds.
"I must be doing something wrong. Can you help me save my marriage?" she asked earnestly.
"I don't know. Two people are required to make a marriage work, but one can make it fail. Does Jack want to help you make it work?"
"Sometimes he makes suggestions. He said my cooking was boring."
"That sounds more like a criticism than a suggestion. Did you change your cooking?"
"I tried new recipes for a while. But it didn't help. He still complained. I tried wearing sexy lingerie, too."
"Did that help?"
"Sex was better for a while. But our marriage wasn't."
"How else have your tried to improve your relationship?"
"I've tried everything I can think of. I asked Jack if I could go bowling with him, but he said, `No. You're not good enough.' I asked him to go dancing with me, and he said, `No. I'm not good enough.' I asked him to help me think of new things we could do together. He said, `I already have enough to do.'"
"Has Jack told you he wants to save your marriage?"
"I think he wants it to be better. But he doesn't seem to know what to do. At least, I hope that's the problem."
"Tell me more about Jack."
"He's sensitive, but not many people know this about him."
"How does he show you his sensitivity?"
"He's considerate . . . at least, he was. He was always there when I needed him. "
"He's not considerate now?"
Rachel shifted in her chair as she selected her next words.
"He ignores me. And he seems interested in other things."
"I don't know," Rachel responded warily. "I don't think so. Just other things."
After Rachel talked more about Jack's attitudes and behavior, I said, "It sounds like Jack wants out of the marriage."
"That's not fair. You don't know him."
"That's right. I don't know him, nor do I love him as you do. And I'm not determined to make your marriage work, either."
Rachel's lips twisted, and her nostrils pinched slightly. She appeared uncomfortable thinking that her marriage had failed, but she didn't say so verbally.
Rachel seemed to sense this, and it gave her a dilemma: Because she wanted to save the marriage, she wanted to please Jack. However, pleasing him would mean divorcing him, and this would displease her. At best, one of them would be unhappy; at worst, both of them.
I addressed this dilemma indirectly. "It's tough when we are disappointed with someone we love."
"I know. It's true that Jack isn't the best husband in the world. That used to be okay with me. I guess I'm getting impatient."
"It seems you've been waiting for Jack to change his mind. Perhaps he isn't happy because this isn't the marriage he wants."
Evidently, this remark was meaningful to Rachel. She settled back in her seat and looked directly at me. Her features relaxed and her smile disappeared.
"Jack wants a lot more from me, and I want a lot more from him. I'll admit I'm not satisfied with our relationship."
"Why do you stay in a relationship that isn't satisfying?"
"I don't know. Maybe he'll change. Maybe I will.
"It sounds like you are dreaming."
Rachel smiled sardonically.
"I've been a dreamer all my life. I stick with my dreams, but I also get frustrated.
"Sometimes I get mad at Jack and yell at him. I shouldn't get mad."
"Why shouldn't you be angry? You're human, aren't you? Humans get angry every time they have a problem.
"Look at your problems: Your needs are frustrated, and Jack doesn't care about them. Even worse, you feel responsible for his feelings.
"From what you've told me, I think you are trying to hold on to your marriage to save your dreams. This is what I hear when you say, `Maybe he'll change.'"
Rachel looked away from me, abandoning all attempts to maintain her facade. As her features melted into sadness, I continued.
"Jack's needs are important, but your needs are just as important as his.
I reached into my desk drawer for a poem, and handed it to Rachel.
"This is a poem I wrote for people who blame themselves for being themselves. Take it with you."
Cactus thrives in the dry, bright, heat.
Mushroom lives in the wet, dark, cold.
If a cactus and a mushroom are side by side,
Death will gather one of them,
Or both of them enfold.
Rachel read the poem twice and closed her eyes. After a few seconds, she lifted her head and smiled, her eyes glistening through tears, and thanked me.
As she prepared to leave, Rachel said she would give much thought to what we had discussed. Then she turned, put on her public smile, and walked back into the world.
"I've been thinking a lot," she said. "At first, I didn't want to deal with what we talked about. But my friend, Marilyn, made me think about it.
"Marilyn has been divorced five years. Her marriage was a lot worse than mine. Her husband beat her when he was drunk.
"Jack's never hit me, but I feel the same way Marilyn felt. She didn't hurt from her bruises as much as from losing control over her life. That's how I feel.
"Marilyn had a job, but she couldn't concentrate on her work. She spent most of her time worrying about what mood her husband would be in when he got home that evening.
"She didn't tell anyone about her problems, though. She was ashamed. She thought she was a failure as a wife.
"She also had two children to care for. When they asked why their father was so mean, she made excuses for him.
"She thought she did this to protect the children. But she finally realized that she was trying to protect her husband. And her marriage.
"Marilyn decided to get a divorce when she realized that her marriage was over. She said she woke up one morning and could see that a relationship isn't a piece of paper or a bunch of long-forgotten promises."
Rachel was clearly buoyed by sharing Marilyn's experiences, and how she identified with her. This time, her smiles were genuine. I just listened.
"She said it was tough at first, but now she's happy. She's going to get married again. Her fiance loves the children, and they love him.
"She told me that if she had stayed in her first marriage, neither she nor her children would have had what they needed. Her husband wouldn't have been happy, either.
"I relate to a lot of Marilyn's experiences. I feel that Jack controls my life.
"I try to be the wife Jack wants. But if I were, I wouldn't be myself."
Rachel paused in her story, looking at me to respond to what I had heard.
"It sounds like you've decided that this marriage is over, and that a divorce is the solution to your problems," I noted.
"I wish it were that easy. That's why I'm here today.
"One minute I'm convinced that we'll both be happier if we separate. But the next minute, I worry about the problems a divorce would cause."
She felt ashamed, and she worried that Jack's family would blame her for the failed marriage. Yet she knew that she couldn't afford to live her life to suit others.
She was afraid that she would lose social status as a divorced woman. Yet she knew that she needed her self-esteem more than she needed the esteem of others.
She feared losing the friends that she shared with Jack. Yet she knew that she could make her own friends.
She was afraid of loneliness. Yet, she knew that she already felt lonely in her marriage.
Rachel could see that in ending her marriage, her gains would far outweigh her losses. But she couldn't make a decision based on a balance sheet. Such an accounting doesn't allow for emotions.
"How do you feel when you think about a divorce?" I asked.
"It hurts. I can't tell you how many times I've started to cry when I've come close to telling Jack that I think a divorce is the best thing for us. I stop thinking about divorce to stop the pain.
"It feels as though I can't get over the pain--that I'll hurt forever."
"The pain you feel is the pain of grieving for your losses.
"A divorce means many losses. You've already described some of the losses associated with divorce: your security, your friends, your social status.
"You know that you can cope with these losses, and that you can solve them by using your ability to reason.
"However, emotions aren't reasonable. You're afraid that you can't cope with the emotional pain of losing your dreams for the marriage. You think you can't grieve."
"What do you mean by that? My mother died when I was ten, and I'm still grieving for her. I cry every time I think of . . . ." A cascade of tears interrupted Rachel's recollection. Looking embarrassed, she stopped her tears for a few seconds. Then she started sobbing again.
I waited until she composed herself before continuing.
"Just then, you demonstrated what I mean. You haven't grieved for your mother. If you had healed after she died, you wouldn't cry like that when you think of her now.
"I didn't cry at her funeral. I was the oldest daughter, and I had to comfort my younger sister and brother, and even my father. Everyone was proud of me. Aunt Nellie told me I was doing very well, that I was growing up fast."
"Your aunt discouraged your grieving because you were doing well from her point of view. You were one less child for her to worry about.
"But in trying to protect her feelings, you set yourself up for a lifetime of depression. Worse, you set yourself up to fear any kind of a loss. Naturally, you don't want to go through that kind of experience again. That's why you are afraid of a divorce, even if it would be best for you."
"Do you mean I'm not normal?"
"Normal enough. You certainly aren't alone. Many people block their healing to please others or to relieve their immediate pain. Unfortunately, however, this only leads to more pain. As it has for you.
"Don't worry, though. You can use your reasoning to manage your emotions. You can rationally decide to heal.
"Deciding to grieve is as sensible as choosing to stop a toothache, particularly when you consider the alternative. You can decide to accept the temporary discomfort of visiting the dentist, or you can decide to accept the permanent pain of a toothache."
"Do you mean that the only reason I want to save my marriage is so I won't have to grieve?"
"That's exactly what I mean. You're afraid you will feel the pain forever, as you do for your mother's death.
"In fact, you'll hurt as long as you stay in your marriage. However, if you allow yourself to grieve, the pain will eventually end.
"Think about this: The worst reason to stay in a bad relationship is to avoid grieving."
I explained to her that we need to heal after every major loss, including lost dreams, and that her greatest loss was losing her dreams for her marriage.
"You dreamed many dreams for this marriage. Unfortunately, however, you've tried to keep your dreams alive in a marriage that is dead. If you nurture your dreams in a dead marriage, your dreams will die, too.
"Separate the fate of your dreams from the fate of this marriage. Considering Jack's attitude, the only way to keep your dreams alive is to let this marriage go.
"As you recognize the loss of your marriage, you will feel all of your emotions: anger, sadness, fear, and joy. The first three are uncomfortable, but joy is pleasing. However, you won't feel your joy at first.
"So prepare yourself for discomfort. Temporary discomfort. Like at the dentist's.
"You can expect to encounter two difficult parts of grieving: guilt and anger. Let's anticipate these problems so you won't stumble over them.
"Judging from the ways you blame yourself for the failed marriage, I think you feel guilt. Am I right?"
"Of course. I feel like I'm killing my marriage. I feel like a murderer."
"But, you aren't killing your marriage. You are simply pronouncing it dead. That's a big difference.
"Besides, you can't keep the marriage alive all by yourself. This job requires two people, each giving 100 percent of their effort.
"By trying to accommodate to Jack's wishes, you've bent yourself into a pretzel. An unhappy pretzel.
"Also, there's no point in trying to change Jack. He has shown you many times that he isn't interested in changing to accommodate to your wishes. If he changed for you, he would be an unhappy pretzel.
"Jack didn't kill the marriage any more than you did. Remember that neither of you is at fault for your lifeless marriage. Your dream died of natural causes."
Rachel nodded in understanding. I continued.
"You don't have to hide your anger. Anger is normal and healthy. It's the emotion that goes with disappointment and frustration.
"And remember that you are angry because you are disappointed. You're not angry at Jack. Anger isn't directed. Reminding yourself of this will help you to not feel guilty when you feel like you are attacking him.
"Anger is valuable to you because it gives you the energy to solve your problems. For example, tell me about a disappointment or a frustration that you've felt during your marriage."
"That's easy. I wanted children, but we don't have any. Jack doesn't want them. That was my dream."
"Wanting children is a big dream to lose. Does that frustration make you angry?"
"I suppose it does when I think about it. Most of the time, I don't think about it. It hurts too much."
"Of course, it hurts. But, here's some good news: If you give up your dreams for this marriage, you can revive your dream of having children.
"While you are grieving, I want you to focus on reviving your dream for children. By reminding yourself of this, you'll know that losing your marriage is a beneficial loss. Your anger for the loss will soon give way to joy for recapturing your other dream.
"Any other disappointments or frustrated dreams?" I asked.
"Yes. I've always wanted to share my life with someone who loves me for who I am, and likes the same things I do."
"Is Jack that `someone?'"
"No. I won't have what I want with him. And he won't have what he wants, either."
"That's another reason the loss of your marriage is beneficial. Before you can reap the benefits, however, you need to proceed with your grieving. Are you ready?"
"I guess so. I want to get this behind me. How do I grieve?"