I met Helen Hurst at a national meeting for nurse educators. While we were discussing Win Without Competing!, I asked her how she managed to juggle working on a doctoral degree, university teaching, two children, and a husband. She described her marriage to her husband Mike, and, when I learned that she still kept and treasured two diaries from their early years together, I asked her to share her intense and exciting courtship. Letís welcome onstage Helen, from Louisiana:
I was seventeen years old, and my father was working in the Middle East. My mom and I stayed at home in England so that I could continue in college, rather than attend a foreign school. My mom was a critical-care nurse, and my parents made the decision that my dad would work away from home three months at a time. During that summer, I stayed with some of my parentsí friends in Saudi Arabia, as my dad only had a one-bedroom house. While there, I met someone, who would change my life forever.
Sitting by the pool one day in the American compound, I met a group of American helicopter pilots. One in particular was exceptionally handsome and funny, although he was obviously a little older than me. I thought that he must be about twenty-three or twenty-four. We talked on and off and I was attracted to him, but there was nothing overtly romantic about it. We visited daily, and I learned a lot about him. He was, in fact, eighteen years older than I was, had a son my age, and was separated from his wife. I was shocked, and I immediately shelved any romantic illusions I had conjured up. However, sometimes you donít get to choose whom you like and whom you donít. When I left Saudi Arabia that summer, we decided to write to each other on a platonic basis only.
Beginning in September, we wrote to each other daily, and I really mean daily. I still have every single letter and card he ever sent to me. It soon became apparent to both of us that we really missed seeing each other. He told me all about being married and a father at seventeen, about his experiences in the Vietnam War, and the strained relationship he had with his wife. In turn, I no doubt bored him with the everyday trials of a seventeen-year-old in college.
During this time, I told myself I was crazy to write to someone who was eighteen years older than me, still married, and whom I never saw. I wrote him and told him we had no future and to stop writing. I think I cried as I wrote every word, but even then I think I knew deep down that I had found the person I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. I began to date again, but my heart wasnít in it. The boys I dated seemed like such boys, and it was all too much work.
The following summer, I was back in Saudi Arabia, and I had turned eighteen. The first day there, I went to Mikeís apartment and left a note. ďThe English girl is back! Call me!Ē It would be a note that would change my life. For days I didnít hear from him, and I was devastated. How could I be feeling this way? We were not romantically involved; we had stopped writing. It just didnít make sense. Then, about a week later, I got a phone call from him, asking me to come to dinner. I thought I was going to faint. I had never been so nervous in my entire life prior to seeing him again, but the moment I saw him, he hugged me and I knew I didnít care what we had to endure, what obstacles we had to overcome, I was going to marry this man!
September came around and I had to go back to England. Again we started writing, and now we started calling, too. My parents were worried about what I was getting into. I was an only child and I think I was mature for my age, and I was blessed to have parents who supported me and gave me quiet advice, but who never pushed or demanded. I think they secretly thought, ďHe is thousands of miles away, and this will pass.Ē How wrong they were! Every day I anxiously awaited the mail, and without fail there would be a letter or a card. We wrote about everything under the sun. I think we communicated more in those letters than anyone who dated face-to-face. We said what we felt; we laughed and cried. Long phone conversations also ensued, but every six weeks he would take a flight home to Texas and not to England to see me. The four weeks he would spend in the states were terrible for meóno letters, no phone calls, no contact. What is the point, I would think? And once my mom said, ďI donít know why you want to pick bruised fruit anyway,Ē referring to the fact that he was still not divorced.
One time, Mike came and stayed overnight at my parentsí house, but after that it was eighteen months until I saw him again. The letters continued, but I was starting to feel like I was second in line, and I began to pressure him to make a firm decision about our relationship. So, after eighteen months, we decided to meet in Amsterdam and talk about our plans for the future. I can only imagine the mixed emotions my parents had about his trip, but as usual, they were quietly supportive. He and I had a fabulous time in Amsterdam, but we didnít really resolve anything.
By this time I was twenty, and in the fall I went on an exchange program from my university in England to a small liberal arts college in the heart of Pennsylvania. He came to England, and we traveled to the U.S. together. We flew to Houston, then drove to Pennsylvania. We spent two weeks on the road, and he showed me dozens of places along the way, and it was the most romantic and fun trip I had ever had. Once I was settled, he returned to Saudi Arabia, but not before renting an apartment in my college town where he planned to stay when he was in the U.S.
In October, I received a huge vase of flowers, with a note from him: ďI did it.Ē He had filed for divorce. That Christmas, my parents flew to Toronto, and we spent the holidays with my aunt and uncle. It had been years since the whole family had been together, and I had an engagement ring, although we were careful to keep it hidden. When he arrived from Saudi Arabia, he handed my dad a letter asking if he could marry me, explaining that we wanted to be married in the summer. My father said ďyes,Ē and my mother began to cry, saying, ďI just didnít think this would happen so soon.Ē To her, it was too soon, but for us it had been years.
I went back to college and my mom went back to England and planned my wedding. I went home in June, and Mike arrived a week before the wedding. On August 30, 1986, I could hardly believe it was real as I rode to the church. For many of my family and friends, this was the first time they would meet my husband.
Helen and Mikeís story suggests that they were the Right Fit and perhaps even a flawless fit. But their life together grew far more complicated than she could ever have imagined. Helen explains:
On September 2, 1986, I turned twenty-one, on my honeymoon. In 1989, Maria was born, and in 1994, Madeline came along. So, where are we today? What has happened? Along the way, I finished my degree in business and a year later went back for my BS in nursing. Mike came back to the U.S. full time and went into management. I got my masterís and became a certified nurse midwife, ultimately ending up where I am today, teaching obstetrics in one of the largest nursing programs in the country.
However, during the past twenty years, we have become lost to each other. The pressures of children, advancing careers, and juggling all of it have taken precedence over our relationship.
We have gone from being the great letter-writing communicators to people who just live in the same house. Who has time for romance and keeping a marriage alive and vibrant when there are always issues with the children, demanding jobs, and with me now trying to complete my doctorate? I talk with my friends, many of whom are nurses, and we all seem to be facing the same issues and challenges. Although we have built a wonderful network of friends, having all my family overseas has made finding help with the girls a constant worry. It is stressful for me if things donít run according to my plan. Even when I am away on business, the children call me to ask for advice, and I, in turn, call and check to make sure everyone is where they are supposed to be at the required times.
But our marriage takes a position at the bottom of the ladder. Time for each other just doesnít exist. As for communication, who has time for that? Mike goes to bed early because he goes to work early; I stay up late and work on projects because I am a night owl. We are both tired. I often wonder if we should start writing to each other again. On several occasions he has asked me, ďI am at the bottom of your list, arenít I?Ē Although I donít want to admit it, I know he is right. I donít seem to have the time or the energy to work on a romantic relationship. I think this may sound familiar to many people. Our husbands take the back seat to everything that is going on in our lives. After all, they love us so much they let us pay them no attention. Is this the way I want things to be? Of course not. Would I do all this again with the same man? Absolutely, without question! I just donít know how to ďfixĒ it.
What Do You Do With a Right Fit Marriage Gone Wrong?
When I talked with Helen after reading her story, I realized that Mike was the fourth priority in her lifeóafter career, children, and even pets. I asked whether Mike had read those diaries she kept from their first years together. She said he had asked to read them more than once, but she had not let him. I told her the time was now. They were preparing for a Christmas cruise, and I suggested that she giftwrap the diaries, take them on the trip, and present them to him as a Christmas gift. She loved the idea and said she would do it. I knew Mike would see this gift as communicating an important messageóyou are important to me, and I want to rekindle our romantic relationship. Did this strategy work? Absolutely. The right gift is an effective way to pitch a message. Be thoughtful about determining and selecting the right gift for your life partner.
What does Helen need to do next, after they return home from the cruise? She must reorder her priorities so that she schedules quality time for Mike and herself in the same way she schedules everything else. Parents spend lots of time chauffeuring their children. Why not hire someone else to do part of that job, even though finding the Right Fit assistant may not be easy? Why not carpool your children to reduce the number of times you need to drive weekly? Manage the Process rather than becoming submerged in your responsibilities. This is an important step in maintaining a Right Fit marriage.
What does Mike need to do next? Mike travels a lot as the chief pilot of a large helicopter company. Sometimes, Helen doesnít know when he will be coming home or going away. He, like Helen, needs to Manage the Process better. When Mike understands that he is no longer Helenís fourth priority, he can determine how to travel less or take Helen with him some of the time.
Both Helen, age forty-one, and Mike, age fifty-nine, need to change their behaviors in order to reconnect and capture the romance and intimacy that is the Right Fit for them now, as it was long ago. They must arrange a time for a long conversation to Pick, Probe, and Pitch to fix their fit for their long-term future together.
E N C O R E
I recently had a note from Helen Hurst and was delighted to learn that she followed my advice and shared her courtship diaries with her husband Mike during their holiday cruise. She wrote:
Well, we went on our cruise, and, Arlene, I followed through with your suggestion to give Mike the diaries as a gift. Each day on the ship, I put it off. I couldnít find the right time. I mean, this was like giving away a piece of my soul; no one but me had ever seen them. But, on our last night I gave them to him, wrapped in a single box. When he opened the diaries, he was stunned. He said he was truly speechless and didnít know what to say. He was overwhelmed and couldnít believe I would give to him something so personal. He said it was as though I was giving him a piece of my soul. We were both tearful, and it brought us both back to how strong our emotions were before we were married. Marriage is work, everyone agrees, but sometimes we have to sit back and realize how it all started. I know Mike and I would do it all over again. We just need to remember that, and to keep in mind that we were a perfect fit long ago, and we remain the Right Fit today.
Iím delighted that my Right Fit Method worked for Helen, and I know that it will work for you, too.