Love & Wisdom
Heartbeat: Showing Up
Be there for life’s biggest moments
By Dr. Pepper Schwartz June 15, 2023
It’s been an odd wedding season. Basically, a large number of weddings have been on hold because of Covid and now, anxious to finally make their commitment legal, weekend after weekend, couples are lined up with local and destination weddings. The destination weddings have me thinking.
It started when I called dear friends from San Francisco whose son was getting married on the East Coast. I suggested to the wife that rather than go to that wedding, I come to San Francisco at some later date when we would have more real time together than at the wedding. I was sure that the two of them would be swamped that weekend with parents-of-the- groom duties and events.
As I talked to the wife, her reply was unexpected. She said that she wouldn’t be overwhelmed. In fact, she needed her friends there because she wouldn’t be in her home city, and she wanted her close friends to be around her.
“OK,” I said. “I’m coming.” I arrived for the weekend festivities, and it was a terrific ceremony and a rocking party with numerous good moments to talk to both of them. I was the happy recipient of numerous warm and grateful hugs and several “we are so touched you came” remarks from the bride and groom. It was deeply rewarding.
After a few experiences like this, I’ve decided what I suspected before: that the quintessential, core element of deep friendship is showing up. Yes, you can say all kinds of wonderful things to each other — about how you admire, even love, each other, and you can share a past, and secrets and memories. But if you don’t show up, at least a few times in each other’s big moments, it doesn’t reach the level of true friendship.
Maybe it’s my age, but I want to show up when needed, and I want others to show up when I need them. I don’t want it to be just words or happenstance that we see each other. Over the years, I realize that I have been noting who did and did not show up to important events in my life: when I lost each parent, when my dear colleague and his husband died, my weddings, my kids’ weddings, my university retirement party, and a few other occurrences of some magnitude.
I also noted when I did, or did not, do the same for people in my life. And I began to draw some inferences about who I could and could not put in that slot of “who could you call in the middle of the night.”
I think it’s important to know the answer to that question. And you cannot answer it just on sentiment. You have to answer it by track record. And that means who has shown up in the past. Not always. Not to everything. But, honestly, ever.
That doesn’t mean I don’t like, admire, or want to see the people who don’t show up. I do. But I don’t want to mislabel them. I don’t want to call them close friends. I want to think of them as acquaintances, perhaps treasured acquaintances, but not close friends. I think it’s important to know the difference.
This is the standard to which I want to be accountable. I don’t want to excuse myself because I know the difference between being there and not being there — it is the difference between a casual or convenient connection and a profound friendship. It is the latter that is meaningful to me now.
My son is living with a woman without being married, which is against my religion. We have agreed to disagree on this, but they are coming to visit, and they want to stay with us. He knows I disapprove of his lifestyle. I would like to tell them to stay elsewhere but my wife, who is also devout, feels we will turn him away from us. Who is right here?
I think we should think of goals and outcomes rather than who is right or wrong. The reason I say this is because I think everyone is right. You are entitled to believe the way you do, your child is entitled to create his own moral standards, and your wife is right to worry about what will happen if your son feels rejected because he cannot stay with you.
Our country is founded on the premise that all people have the right to create their own moral guidelines. And sometimes that comes into conflict with another one of our most cherished values: the protection and prioritization of our family, even when family members do not share all their values, goals, or beliefs.
So, that’s why I would rather think about what you want as outcomes rather than whose beliefs about cohabitation are going to be observed.
Let’s say you cannot abide having an unmarried couple in your home. I see a few possible outcomes depending not only on what you do, but also how you do it. For example, if you say to your son, “I disapprove of how you are conducting your relationship. You know it, and you should not stay with us because it is immoral,” you will probably offend your son, also his partner, and your wife will feel terrible (and you may as well).
But if you say to your son, “I love you, but you know I feel morally uncomfortable about a live-in relationship before marriage, so perhaps you would understand if I helped you find a place to stay during your visit” — he might still not like this stance, but it probably wouldn’t set off a firestorm.
That said, maybe there is another answer to this dilemma. I would never tell you to violate a rule in a belief system that organizes your life, but is it possible you could also think about a different decision? That is, because your son does not share your beliefs about premarital sex and cohabitation, you might consider a position that makes it clear you that while you think that living together before marriage goes against righteousness, you will, out of love and tolerance, still invite him into your home. That gesture would be seen as what it is — generous, loving, and a familial gift — that does not change your moral guidelines for yourself.
One other thought is about family. Children do not necessarily adopt their parents’ beliefs and the gap between them can cause relationships to wither and sometimes die. An olive leaf on this issue would certainly touch your child’s heart, and perhaps your wife’s as well.
I know this would be hard for you, but if you could just support your son, you would be doing a lot to keep your family strong. In my mind that would be worth bending your rules for a few days for his visit. But this is not my decision. It is yours and your wife’s, and the two of you will have to work to come to a decision that feels reasonable to you both.
Let’s say you cannot abide an unmarried couple in your home. I see a few possible outcomes depending not only on what you do, but also how you do it.
I would just encourage you to think about how important it is for your son (and his partner) to feel welcome. And also, not incidentally, how you can support your wife’s deep and appropriate desire to keep the family together.
I understand that this places you in a moral quandary. I do not underestimate how difficult that can feel. But you have a pivotal role in this, and if you can be tolerant about your child’s choices, it would bode well for future family dynamics.
My husband travels a lot, and he told me that he would stop as soon as he got his promotion. Well, he got the promotion, and he isn’t traveling any less. We spend a lot of time apart and I am lonely. I find I am drinking and eating a lot more than I feel good about. I wonder if this is really the way I want to live. I do have an appointment with a therapist, but I want your opinion about marriages where the man is away too much.
I understand how having a spouse gone a lot could weaken a marriage. But one of my first questions is whether or not you have developed your own life enough. In other words, is part of the reason you are missing him so much caused by not creating enough friendships, outside activities, closer ties with your kids, etc.? Some people who are in marriages where one or both spouses are often absent actually treasure their alone time to do things they want to do that don’t easily fit into shared spousal interests. They spend extra time at work, see friends more, invest deeply into a hobby, or have soothing private moments reading, writing, or playing music. If that doesn’t sound like a solution to you, have you thought about what would be enough time, even if it wasn’t a perfect amount of time together? What would be your bottom line?
When you figure that out, you can present that true time you need and see if your husband can change his life enough to meet it. It does sound like he’s given you assurances that have not been fulfilled, so you might need an actual “due date” on when he can be home more. If you have asked for a reasonable amount of time and he can’t or won’t find a way to be with you more, I suggest couples counseling.
About the Heartbeat: Ask Dr. Pepper Schwartz Column
Welcome to my world!
I spend a lot of time thinking about intimate relationships.
If you’ve read any of my previous work as a professor at the University of Washington, or watched me on television, you know that I care about what keeps people together, what drives them apart and what gives them pleasure. I am curious about trends, but also unique behaviors. I look at people above the clavicle and below the waist. It’s all interesting and important to me.
I know it is to you, too. I want to hear what you’re thinking. Please ask me questions or give your point of view at Pepper@seattlemag.com and I will respond, if appropriate, online and perhaps in print.
Let’s have some meaningful conversations – and some fun while we’re at it!
So, what’s on my mind today?