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Life Transitions: Managing Expiration Dates

We’re surrounded by expiration dates, the date on the salad dressing in the refrigerator, the best by date on the cereal, the discard by date on the prescription medicine bottle. Some are easier to follow and commit to than others. The emotionally abusive relationship, the slowly dying marriage, the dead end job, we bargain with ourselves or with the other person, allowing guilt or low self-esteem, fear of  loneliness, or fear of being unemployed to blind us to the expiration date. Little compromises along the way, we sniff the salad dressing or the milk, taste a bit of the cereal, simple decision we either consume or throw it out. No one wants to have that uncomfortable feeling in the pit of the stomach after consuming expired food, therefore, you make the choice swiftly and decisively to discard the questionable object.

Relationships with significant others, our spouse and even the dead end job, touch us at a far deeper place. Stemming from our families of origin we bring all of our emotional baggage to the table. The Family Hero, or perhaps “Shero” driven to save, overcome and more importantly, to not quit. You work harder to remain, telling yourself that everything is good, you can handle it, or the best compromise yet, “It could always be worst”.  The expiration date started when you realized that you were starting to agree with the criticisms, the devaluing behavior, the constant feel of being less then, unseen or unheard. You come to believe that your needs for connection, deep, safe emotional connections are, “too needy” or “too much”. There is no detectable odor, the impact is mainly on the inside. Women may take extra time with their make up or hair, attempting to put their best foot forward, despite the pain inside.

For men, the expiration date may look like a search for self-esteem, to matter, to be respected, struggling to find meaning and value within the relationship, tempers flare, he may demand to be noticed, to be regarded, suspicion may set in, committed to make it work, he digs in , trying harder only to secretly feel the gnawing sense of failure setting in.

When the couple begins to realize that the expiration of the relationship has been reached a variety of emotions can occur. So how does one manage this difficult time? Personal accountability is critical, specifically each individual is responsible for her or his emotions and feelings. Recognition of the pain, confusion, hurt and anger is key. When the expiration date is near or has already set in, it is easy to believe that the other person is purposely working to hurt your feelings. It can become easy to snipe, act in anger, lash out with hurtful words or complain to the children. We hurt and we want others to know how we feel.

Personal accountability can be difficult under these circumstances, did I say, we hurt? However, there is an opportunity to take the high road. Bearing in mind that the failure of a marriage, is one of the deepest wounds we can experience in life, the high road requires great self-awareness and insight. The high road allows us to recognize our emotions and feelings  and meet the need appropriately. By appropriately, I am referring to seeking the support of extended family or close friends. Taking care of ourselves by seeking faith based support, working out stress via exercise, seeking personal therapy with an experienced therapist. Personal accountability creates an environment in which couples can safely and respectfully begin the process of un-coupling. The focus shifts from,”gotcha” to communicating about the priorities, the children, the division of assets, the co-parenting relationship if applicable.

Personal accountability does not leave a trail of destruction in which bridges are burned, children are traumatized and former spouses are bitter, resentful and oh so, angry. Let’s face it, the expiration date comes quickly when the work isn’t done to keep the relationship healthy, vibrant and connected. The urge to blame someone for the pain is great. How we leave a relationship and the painful lessons learned create a path for different, purposeful and intentional choices and lives. The expiration of a marriage does not have to permanently define who you are in a negative manner. The high road and personal accountability allow you to create a future in which you can be your best you.

Tammy Austin, MA, Licensed Mental Health Counselor and Relationship Coach

Facilitating change from the inside out:

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