Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Letters from Wise Women: Pat Conwell

Pat Conwell is one of the wisest women I know and has helped guide me though many life changes and inner conflicts in the past several years..  She is also funny, irreverent and immensely kind. 

She works with families in the midst of divorce to help them create a peaceful zone for their children.  Many of her clients come to her from the courts so she has heard and seen parents at their worst as they deal with the pain, anger and frustration of ending a marriage and yet being forced into a life-long partnership of parenting their children.  She is currently completing a book, Parenting after Divorce:  7 simple steps to raising happy kids during and after the custody battle, to help these parents and the innocent children who too often are pawns in a brutal struggle.  Pat lives in San Diego with her husband Walt and her canine companion Audrey.  More info at her website.

I asked Pat to help me launch a new series about lessons learned and wisdom gained through personal letters that share those lessons and wisdom with others.  I hope you enjoy this periodic series.

Pat's letter to all of you ...

“It’s my way or the highway” is a dead end road for relationships.

I was the product of a Norwegian and Kentuckian.  They were raised on farms and there was no room for give and take.  They had to get up at four to milk cows and stay up until 11 to drive the truck during harvest.  They had to gather the eggs, feed the rabbits, kill the chickens.  From their youngest age, they learned there was no choice.  They always had chores.  It was instilled in them that obedience to their parents was the first rule of law.

Then they had a family and passed on what they learned.  I learned that black and white were the colors of the day.  No grey.  I eventually learned my parents were not right about everything, but I also internalized the attitude they projected.  There was a right way and a wrong way to do things.  My judgment was correct, any different  judgment was wrong.

And then I got married. 

It was the ‘70’s.  Being married was going to be easy, because we just loved each other so much.  And so, for 14 years, we struggled to make it work.  I was intractable.  I didn’t just let things go.  I thought I should have an opinion on everything, and if my husband didn’t agree, he was wrong. When he decided the marriage was at an end, it came as a shock.  I knew we were not on the same page about having a second child.  I never knew he would leave the marriage.  It broke my heart.

But I had a beautiful toddler who needed me so I had to pull myself together, with the help of a few very good friends, and therapists,  and find my way as a single parent.  It took a couple of years, but I eventually came to the conclusion that the divorce was the best thing that ever happened to me.  In having to find my way alone, I also found the grey zone.  I found I didn’t have to have an opinion on everything.  I found other people’s way of rinsing dishes or folding towels or washing clothes worked just fine.  It didn’t work for me, but it worked for them, and so what?  

This was not an overnight epiphany.  I was challenged at every turn.  While I never said “you’re doing it wrong,”  I freely gave advice couched in terms that I thought were agreeable, helpful, instructive.  After all, it was for the person’s own good.  “You should rinse the dishes this way because..., you should fold the towels this way because, you should … “and the list goes on.

Gradually, slowly I found new language.  I eliminated “you should,” “you need to,” “you have to,” and substituted “you might want to think about.”  Why did I need to tell other people how they should run their lives?  And to my utter relief, the loved ones in my life did just fine without my opinion.  They did things their way, and things turned out just fine.  If only someone had told me when I was 15 (or younger) that people can live full, productive, happy lives WITHOUT me telling them how to do things the “correct” way.  If only someone had told me eliminate “you should,” “you need to,” “you have to” from my vocabulary. If only I had known that no one needs to do ANYTHING my way.  No one needs me to “should” on them.  

Why didn’t someone teach me to ASK permission before I started giving advice?  When my daughter was in her early twenties and had found the man she would eventually marry, there were times when she would tell me about their relationship, and I would ask “can I give you some advice?”  And she would blithely tell me “no, I just wanted to get it off my chest.”  It gave me apoplexy to stop there.  To not go ahead and say “well, this is REALLY good advice.”  I had to respect her right NOT to hear my thoughts.  Some times she would, after a couple of minutes, laugh and tell me, “sure, what do you think.”  She just wanted to see my face turn blue from the effort to hold in whatever golden bits of knowledge I had to offer.

So, in our house we called them UA’s … unsolicited advice … and they were a no-no.  As much, or even more, than the courtesy ban on using foul language, UA’s were at the top of the taboo list.  We always had to respect the fact that a person would “solicit” our advice if he/she wanted it.

Here are some of the things I've learned, the hard way, about how to have happy, long-term relationship:
  • Learning to agree to disagree gives a lot of room for growth and longevity, and fun.
  • Ditching the need to be the judge and jury of another person shows respect and caring.
  • There is more than one way to skin a cat.
  • The need to be right makes for an unhappy relationship.
  • Be grateful for every day you have someone in your life with whom you share mutual respect.
  • Ask yourself, at every turn, “am I being kind.”
Practicing these tenets has made me happy.  I’m hoping you try them out, and you find that they help make you, and the ones you love, happy, too.

Pat Conwell


  1. I understand completely.. My mother was from Holland. Sadly, for her, her black and white attitude lost her many friendships. We can learn from others mistakes, but good to have a reminder now and then.

  2. Another reminder to let go of the shoulds I put on myself as well as anyone else I think should listen to me...what a circle...and my way or the highway...well, when does that ever really get someone what they want besides lots of alone time?