Relationships change and grow over the years. Wanting what’s best for others isn’t—or shouldn’t be—something new in a relationship; all relationships are—or should be—a balance of taking care of ourselves and taking care of others. Knowing how to maintain that balance is the trick, and the constant lesson. Sometimes, just when you think you’ve nailed it, something comes along to remind you that caring for a relationship is a lifelong learning process. Even if one of you is a professional relationship therapist.
The first time Angelo and I tried out spending time apart (on purpose) we called it a marriage sabbatical. He was going back to Italy for about six weeks to “replant his roots” and I was going to stay home and manage our life here. We had never had a separation of that length before, but at the time, our lives were pretty normal and stable; we had jobs and our kids were all out on their own, so there were no parenting issues we’d have to contend with. We were pretty sure we could weather that kind of time apart without having to excavate hidden feelings or personal history. And we did okay.
Flash forward almost six years: Angelo is back in Italy-alone. Again, I was in favor of the trip. After four years of caregiving topped off by a year of pandemic, the plan was to have no plan, he just needed to get himself back there and settle in. I’d follow along at some point. To be honest, as much as I wanted to go back to Muro Lucano myself and join Angelo, I realized I was enjoying some “down time.” There were other matters to attend to before I could go anyway. I had several trips to make to take care of some family obligations both local and out of state, and I wanted to get those things resolved first.
Meanwhile, I was getting daily reports on Angelo’s progress. Before heading to Muro, he stayed for almost a week in Naples. The weather was sunny, hot and perfect; the streets were busy and the museums were open. I got updated on who was wearing masks, where the good lunch places were and how economical the fruits and vegetables were, which he purchased so he could make dinner for himself at the B&B he was staying in. His texts, phone calls and WhatsApp videos were so full of, well, joy, and it made me realize that I hadn’t seen Angelo this happy in a long time. He was brimming with it, as if he was just seeing Italy for the first time or finally returning after too-long an absence; which it was.
And then, he arrived in Muro Lucano—his hometown. It seemed as though the universe was also in favor of Angelo’s trip because all the details that he hadn’t ironed out beforehand were suddenly fatto! An apartment, a bank account, internet service and the use of a car all sorted themselves out with few or no frustrations. The newly remodeled apartment was equidistant between two of the cousins’ homes, there was a coffee bar across the street out the front door and a pastry shop down the street from the back door, with several other markets in between. The men in the square resumed including him in their posses when they went for a caffè or a beer. His calls and texts were filled with descriptions of the long walks around the town that he was taking with Francesco, up to the mountain fields and down to the paths below the castle. There were times when we joked that he knew what he was doing when he bought a one-way ticket, because it didn’t sound like he was coming back!
During one of our earlier trips to Italy together, I saw the letters TVB spray painted on the walls of the towns and cities we visited. Some of the cousins would say it to each other. When I asked about it, Angelo explained that it meant Ti voglio bene, which means “I love you” but literally translates into, “I wish you well” which puts the sentiment in the realm of wanting what’s best for the other, not for oneself. One website describes it this way: “Ti voglio bene implies unconditional, selfless love . . ..” Often abbreviated as “TVB,” it’s used as a salutation in Italy to those who mean the most to you.”
When I realized how good this trip was becoming for Angelo, I felt a strong sense of knowing he was in the right place. I had been so focused on what I needed—time alone—that I didn’t realize that Angelo probably needed some time alone too. But he needed alone time in Italy. I was really happy he was there, even without me. A couple of times I worried that I was enjoying my solo time too much. Did it mean I had “outgrown” the marriage? But of course, that wasn’t it–my feeling differently didn’t mean the relationship was different, I had just grown a little. Which is the optimal outcome after a test like an absence.
The surprising thing was that the realization wasn’t threatening. We weren’t having “problems”—it was simply new information becoming available. In addition, the time was ticking by for my window of opportunity to join Angelo. My forays online to find airfare were stressful: inconvenient dates, expensive fares, scheduling Covid tests, and it looked like there would come a point at which I wouldn’t even be able to go. I wanted to, but soon our conversations started being about when he might return rather than when I might get there. And that didn’t create tension or frustration, either. I suspected we were learning a little more about how to be apart and together without it doing any damage to the relationship. I discovered that we could be apart, I could be alone and we could change our minds about what we needed from this trip within the parameters of our relationship. In fact, Angelo would be the first person to commend me for discovering a new level of comfort in understanding my own limitations and abilities.
In all relationships, there is room to be disappointed AND happy for each other. For us, this trip didn’t work out at all the way we thought it might when we started making plans for it. There are definitely some things we should have done differently, but the reality is we can’t go back now and change them. We did the best we could do with the information we had at the time. And when we got more information, we did the best we could with that. The result of this trip isn’t that it didn’t work out; the result is that we both discovered parts of ourselves that will allow us to be better partners for each other. If that isn’t ti voglio bene, I don’t know what is.