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Coping with the emotional distress of divorce: The islands of life

By Rob Kaufman, LCSW


Hawaii is one of my favorite vacation spots, particularly the islands of Maui and Kauai. The people and lifestyle there are so different from here in L.A. Have you ever thought what it might be like to live in Hawaii, or on any island for that matter? If this sounds inviting, picture yourself on a sailboat somewhere in the South Pacific, maybe near Hawaii or Tahiti. It’s a warm summer day, with a brisk wind cutting across your bow. Gliding through deep blue waters, you taste the salty ocean spray tickle your face. Standing at the helm, you are in control, your destiny rests in your hands.

Off on the horizon you eye a small land mass, an island perhaps. You grow curious and steer toward it. Piloting closer you see a scene you’ve seen a thousand times before. People lounging around on the beach, laughing and playing in the surf. Behind them stand tall hotels with all the typical sounds you would expect to hear while on vacation. The people and surroundings look so familiar if you didn’t know you were hundreds of miles away you would think you were back in Hawaii. Then the strangest thing happens. Out of the corner of your eye you see a second island a few miles to the west of this one.

Continuing on course toward the first island you veer a little west to get a better look at this second island. Your gut tightens as you draw closer. There appears to be movement on the shore but you can’t quite make out whether it is people or wild animals. The sounds are so unfamiliar, nothing you have ever heard before. Craning your neck to listen better you still can’t make out whether you hear shrieks of joy or cries of terror. Your heart is racing and your hands tremble. Every bone in your body screams stay away. But curiosity gets the better of you as you head directly toward this ominous second island.

You’re within a thousand yards of shore when out of nowhere you notice a tiny third island. Gripping the wheel tightly you lean into the wind trying to get a closer look at this third uncharted island. As you sail closer your muscles clench. Instead of hearing strange noises from this island you hear dead silence. The island is clearly deserted except for a few wild animals that quietly roam the soft white sands.

These are the islands of life. To which island will you sail? This is the question you must answer as you stand at the helm of your future gripping the wheel with all your strength. The island you choose will shape your destiny. Should you go to the first island where the people and surroundings are familiar? Or, should you take a risk and pilot to the second island, the scary island, where the sounds and figures feel foreign and unnerving? Or, should you sail to the third deserted island where you are guaranteed to be alone for as long as you like?

Most people choose to sail to the first island. This is because we want to surround ourselves with people and situations that are familiar and comfortable. We don’t always enjoy these types of relationships or surroundings. However, we draw comfort in knowing how to negotiate our way through them even if they are painful and unhealthy. This explains why people so often go from one relationship to the next experiencing the same dynamic even though the partner is different. For example, a woman who divorces her husband because he is so controlling may soon find herself dating a new man who is equally if not more controlling. It also explains why people go from one problem situation to another even though the surrounding environment is different. For example, a man may never ask for a raise at work because he doesn’t feel deserving of it. Similarly, he likely will purchase used cars, not because he can’t afford a new one, but because he doesn’t feel worthy of a new car.

People who choose the second island, where the sounds and inhabitants are strange and unfamiliar, often are looking to consciously change old unhealthy patterns and relationships. What makes this island so scary is that the relationships or behaviors are vastly different from ones they had before. For example, a woman who always chooses men to whom she gives and receives nothing in return would feel frightened by a man who gives as much as he receives. This kind of healthy relationship would scare someone who deep down does not feel worthy of this kind of love or affection. Similarly, a quiet and submissive man looking to change these personality traits would sail to the second island. Here he could become more gregarious and assertive, even though the process of changing will be frightening.

People who sail to the third island, the deserted one, do so to feel safe knowing they must be alone. Not because they want to be alone (most prefer a companion) and not because they don’t trust others, They choose to be alone because they know they cannot trust their own judgement in selecting who will be in their life. These people tend to have long histories of very painful unsatisfying relationships and have given up altogether on ever finding a healthy fulfilling one. They have been battered by the stormy seas of life and welcome the safety of isolation.

So where will you sail? Will you play it safe and sail to the first island where the people and situations are all too familiar, regardless of how unhealthy and destructive they may be? Will you look to break free of old patterns that have made you feel miserable for years by steering toward the second island where change is possible but challenging and scary? Or, will you race to the nearest deserted island, secure in the knowledge that isolation will protect you from the evil of others even though loneliness will be your only companion?

Where will you sail? Your destiny rests in your hands.

Pick an island . . . any island. This is the island of your life.


Rob Kaufman, LCSW is a psychotherapist specialized in families and divorce, in Encino, CA. See website.



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