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Apr 25 2009

Measures of Maturity: The “Why Did Your Last Relationship End?” Test

Published by at 5:07 am under Advice

This is the central fact of dating at midlife: if you are single at 20, you are just single. If you are single at 40, you have a story about it.

No one gets to be forty years old without having been hurt or having hurt. How a person deals with this unfortunate truth shapes their expectations about new relationships, and the way someone tells you their story tells you what they are expecting from you in the coming relationship.

There is a lot you can learn by listening to how they tell their stories. But you have to know what you are listening for. One of the things I listen for is how they deal with the fact that they have been hurt, or that they’ve hurt someone.

In my experience, if you have not reconciled yourself to this dark side of life, you will put certain specific and unreasonable pressures on your next relationship. In this short article, I want you to think about how this works.

I am going to start with the story of the Troubles Tree, an old Jewish folk tale.

One day in a small town in rural Poland an angel appeared and told everyone that, because of the piety of certain people the town’s people would be given a gift. For one day, everyone could walk around freed from the burden of their life’s troubles. A tree would appear in the center of the town and each person could hang their troubles on it.

Since these were very ordinary people, their troubles fell into the two ordinary categories. There was the suffering they had to bear because it was inflicted on them and there was the suffering they had to bear because they had caused suffering in others.

The first kind of trouble came from being betrayed, cheated, lied to, and taken advantage of. This trouble caused people to be resentful, suspicious and expecting some kind of compensation for the damages they had suffered. These feelings led them to be in a constant sad and complaining mood, always feeling entitled to better.

The other kind of trouble was the trouble of being guilty. Many people couldn’t stand facing the fact that they had cheated, betrayed, lied and taken advantage of others. This trouble caused them to justify and excuse themselves and accuse others of being even worse. It led them to be afraid of simply enjoying their lives, always worried that what they had would be taken from them.

To be free of these troubles, both groups had to write down their troubles on a piece of paper and pin it to the tree. Those who felt sorry for themselves had to write down the injuries they’d suffered. Those who felt guilty had to write down what they had done to others.

The Day of Relief was sunny and clear and people relaxed. At sundown, they gathered in front of the tree. First, the angel pointed out that every single person in the town had pinned something to the tree. Everyone had troubles. Second, the Angel said that anyone who wished could take anyone else’s troubles instead of their own.

The people began to read the pieces of parchment. In the end everyone chose to take back his or her own trouble.

But from this time forward, they bore them willingly. It made a great difference.

It makes all the difference in the world whether you bear your troubles willingly or you bear them with fear, denial, or resentment. And this becomes oh so clear as you try to create a new relationship for yourself at midlife.

If you have been hurt and haven’t come to grips with it, you will expect someone else to make special allowances for you. And as a listener to a story of unfairness you will be tempted to say something like, “Oh, that’s okay. I’ll shelter you. I’ll do better than the others. You may not have been able to trust them, but you can trust me.”

If you have hurt others, and haven’t accepted that, you will want to get off the hook. You may want to warn the other people away: “I’m too dangerous. I have too much baggage. I’ll hurt you.” Or you may want to be excused, “She made me be mean to her.” And if you are listening to someone who doesn’t want to be carrying their guilt, you will be tempted to lighten their load: “That’s okay. I forgive you. I understand that you were just reacting. I can handle it. I’m strong.”

So many people enter into new relationships expecting to do better than the previous girlfriend or boyfriend only to end up being rather sympathetic and curious about the previous lover. People who can’t carry their own troubles will make demands in a relationship that will eventually wear it down.

Most counseling involves convincing people that they can carry their own luggage. That, and showing them how to do it.

Clearly, the past can not be undone. If you have hurt someone, you have. If you have been hurt, it really happened. The message from the Buddha is that Life is Suffering. The message from Jesus is that we each must carry our cross.

These are the tests of maturity: Can we carry our baggage without resentment? Can we carry it without trying to find some way to get out of carrying it? Can we accept the emotional facts of our lives and live well any way? Those who have learned to answer, “Yes,” (and I don’t think you are born with this capacity) live differently and love differently.

Now I return to my initial premise, if you are single at midlife, you are single, with a story about it. How you tell that story foreshadows how you will tend to create the next relationship you get in to. This is true for you, and also for the person you are dating.


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2 responses so far

2 Responses to “Measures of Maturity: The “Why Did Your Last Relationship End?” Test”

  1. […] Source:… […]

  2. Vinaon 19 Dec 2011 at 2:21 pm

    What a joy to find such clear thiinnkg. Thanks for posting!