Focusing on relationships
The emotional connections we have with family and friends can be one of our greatest sources of joy and self-affirmation. But, when these bonds are rife with ambivalence and conflict, they can leave us feeling adrift and less than whole.
Libby Reid of Braintree is a busy young mother of two toddlers, ages 2 and 3 1/2 . She says that when she was a college student, immersed in history and literature, she used to complain about having “too much to read, and too much structure” in her life.
“I laugh when I look back at those complaints, because I would give anything to have that kind of structure and time to read again,’’ she says. “I now spend most of my days averting the small disasters and complete chaos that toddlers can create.”
When she does read, she usually chooses novels that focus on relationships, because “these motivate me to make the time to reflect on the condition of my important relationships.’’
The last book she read, “The Threadbare Heart” by Jennie Nash, struck personal chords and “touched on marital, parental, and familial relationships, and the complicated emotions they stir in us all.”
In this 2010 novel, Lily and her husband, Tom, college professors in Vermont, have raised two sons in a successful marriage.
With the children grown and raising families of their own in California, Lily and Tom stun family and friends when they purchase an avocado ranch in sun-drenched Santa Barbara. In an effort to reinvigorate their relationship, while allowing Lily to pursue her passion for quilting and Tom to become a gentleman farmer, they leave New England for good.
This move also brings Lily face to face with her mother, Eleanor, and forces them to confront their lifelong differences.
Numerous problems and conflicts emerge with the reconnection. And just as Lily and Tom are settling into their new life, tragedy strikes and the entire family is forced to look to one another in order to move forward.
Will they allow their family to unravel, like the threads of Lily’s quilting fabric? Or, despite their many differences and emotional limitations, can they find the strength that will allow them to heal?
Libby says she could especially relate to the mother-daughter relationship, in part because of memories of her own somewhat turbulent relationship with her mother during adolescence. Now, as a relatively new mom herself, she often reflects on what it will take to develop a good relationship with her children, while maintaining a truly solid connection with her husband.
“I really loved this book because it takes a good hard look at many types of love and is narrated from many alternating points of view,’’ Libby says. “The characters are realistic and imperfect, and it really raises the whole question of the importance of forgiveness in relationships of all types.”
She adds: “This is clearly a very thought-provoking novel that focuses on the challenge that seems to exist in all relationships of letting go of the resentment, disappointment, and hurt that inevitably occur over time.”
Libby admits, however, that she has one hesitation in recommending the book.
“I’m not convinced that it would be appealing to most men,’’ she says. “I think that this is a shame, given the importance for all the relationships we care about, to learn how to set aside differences and to forgive.”
As a psychologist, I appreciate Reid’s reluctance, and suggest that those not inclined to read popular women’s fiction — no matter how well done — consider Robert Karen’s “The Forgiving Self: The Road From Resentment to Connection.”
Karen, a psychologist, recognizes that forgiveness is a necessary aspect of the workings of love, and that all sustained relationships depend to some extent on the capacity to forgive.
This book is meant for a broad audience, and Karen doesn’t intend for his work to be a self-help manual. Rather, he uses examples from current events, literature, movies, and his own psychotherapy sessions to demonstrate how one can explore the possibility of forgiveness and begin to repair wounded relationships.
He emphasizes that anger, withdrawal, and even the desire for revenge are a natural response to emotional hurt, but that when we continue to nurse these resentments, “we are acting from an insecure aspect of the self, that harbors unresolved pain from childhood,” and thus should be explored.
Libby says, “I genuinely believe that the desire to forgive and be forgiven exists within all of us, but we really sometimes need help to learn how to do it,” and for some of us, “books can at least begin to pave the way.”
Nancy Harris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.