Tired, empty and disillusioned with her married life, writer Susan Pohlman was ready to call it quits and divorce her husband of 18 years. The Pohlmans were an ordinary family from California with a marriage in crisis -- until the couple took a leap of faith and their two kids and traded their busy lives in Los Angeles for life in a small seaside town in Italy. And it was there that the Pohlmans unexpectedly found love again.
Susan is the author of the new memoir Halfway to Each Other: How a Year in Italy Brought Our Family Home. Today, Susan shares her inspirational story of how the year abroad led the Pohlmans back to one another and taught them to connect in ways they hadn't been able to in L.A.
You're going to love what Susan has to share. It definitely got me thinking about some of the ways I'd like my own family to connect, love, work, and adventure together.
Susan, tell us briefly where you found yourself in 2003, in your life, your marriage, and your family?
At that time, my husband and I, married 18 years, were living the typical over-scheduled American lifestyle near Los Angeles. We had two beautiful children, Katie(15) and Matthew (11), wonderful friends, and a house we loved. From the outside it seemed that we had achieved our American dream, but on the inside, we felt estranged and disconnected. Neither of us was happy and we were tired of trying to figure out why. Though we were both devastated at the thought of it, we were ready to call it quits.
One night, just steps away from filing for divorce, you and your husband made a huge decision to change your life to save your family. Can you share about that night and where it led?
This is the crazy part of the story. Tim asked me if I wanted to accompany him on a client trip to Italy. We had hosted many of these trips over the years, and, due to the nature of our situation, I wasn’t sure it was a good idea. In the end, I went along since it was business, not knowing that it would be a turning point in our lives.
The sensual beauty and spiritual energy of Italy unexpectedly moved both of us, deeply. On our fourth day, Tim looked at me as we strolled along the Ligurian Sea in Santa Margherita and said, “I could live here.” Those four words began a two-day, gut-wrenching conversation about who we had become as a couple and where our lives were headed. Did we have the guts to step out of our hard-earned lifestyle and put the emotional health of our family first? Would it be possible to start over?
Within forty-eight hours, we found a school for our children and signed a lease (in Italian, no less) for a furnished apartment to rent. It was terrifying and strangely exciting at the same time. We were walking a fine line between adventure and disaster, taking a real risk for the first time in our lives.
Why did you believe at that time that a new locale could solve your family's troubles? Did that end up being true?
Though the Italian Riviera is stunning, I didn’t think that the locale itself would be a panacea for our problems. What was worth considering was the fact that we were both willing to give up everything we had worked for and step into this idea together. At the height of his career, Tim was willing to quit his job. That caught my attention and made me realize that this was not an opportunity to be ignored. Turning a corner together, even without knowing the outcome was enough. Our main goal was to save our family, and we hoped that the details about how to do it would reveal themselves as we went.
Once settled in Italy, what were the biggest changes you noticed with yourself, in your marriage, and with your kids?
Our relationship began to change right away. Once we landed in Italy, we needed to act as a team. We didn’t know the language or culture. We didn’t even know where to find the grocery store! Our days involved instantly improved communication and problem-solving as we went about the task of setting up our new life. We had to let go of past history and look ahead to provide a stable home for our displaced children. Because of the various situations we found ourselves in, there was abundant humor.
Drastically simplifying our lifestyle was liberating beyond words. I did not expect it. At first, I missed some of our belongings, but the memory of them soon faded as they were replaced with adventure and a renewed sense of family. Time was now spent on “doing and enjoying new experiences” rather than “owning and settling down.” I found a direct correlation between the absence of the material and abundance of the spiritual.
Our children were introduced to a life without a family car and very limited technology. Though this was initially greeted with loud sighs and arms folded in anger, we watched Katie and Matthew become interdependent at an emotional level previously unknown to them. They turned toward each other and relied on each other in order to find their way on a new continent and survive this bizarre turn of events.
What about living the Italian lifestyle do you think spurred these changes? Was it really something about Italy or was it about being away from home and away from the life you had created here?
It was a combination of the two. Italy delights the senses and Italian culture supports the family in ways that were very healing for us. Italians close their shops for three hours midday to go home and eat as a family, they stroll together through town early evenings and Sunday afternoons (la passeggiata), and it’s okay to put things off until tomorrow (domani). The food is fresh, and the people are warm and inviting. All of this enabled us
to slow down and enjoy the moment, be present for one another. The old adage rang true that Americans live to work and the Italians work to live.
Stepping outside of the life we had created in Los Angeles enabled us to see ourselves in a new light. I was able to peel away the years and see with sudden clarity how our choices began to work against us. I don’t know that we would have fully recognized the roles that stress, exhaustion and culture played in the crumbling of our relationship had we not chosen to move.
When did you know that you wanted to stay in your marriage? Was there a precise moment you remember?
Renewal of a relationship comes in a series of moments. We had been together as a couple for twenty-five years and shared a deep history. What we found was that under all of the layers of those years we were still the two same college kids who had fallen in love. Once we began to live a life of simplicity, we were able to create the emotional space needed to interact in meaningful ways.
What were the most positive changes you saw in your children living abroad?
The opportunity to embrace another culture and attend an international school enabled Katie and Matthew to see themselves as global citizens. They quickly adapted to their new lives and became self-confident and independent as they mastered the transit systems and blossomed as individuals.
Katie, especially, as a teenager experienced life and friendships without the material and social pressures of L.A. She was truly happy and began to love her unexpected life in Genoa.
When did you decide it was time to come home?
We were living on the profits of the sale of our house in LA (back then you could make money on a house!) and found life abroad to be more expensive than we had anticipated. Though we were not emotionally ready to return to the US, we needed to be fiscally responsible. By April of that year, we knew that we would have to come back.
Do you think families in crisis can make changes like you made right here at home, rather than by doing something huge like moving everyone to Italy?
Absolutely! One does not need to move in order to learn the same lessons. There are three things that helped us: simplicity, surrender, and adventure.
Simplifying one’s life style takes sacrifice and is not easy, but the payoffs are enormous. Creating emotional and physical space reduces stress and frees families to get out and enjoy the community.
Surrendering our need to control every minute of our waking hours stifles any chance of delight and happenstance sneaking into our day. Letting life evolve without my help and taking the day as it unfolded became an enchanting way to live. Though, certainly, there are tasks that must be completed each day, I leave a lot of wiggle room for the unexpected as those are the moments that feed my soul.
Finally, don’t underestimate the power of adventure in keeping a relationship healthy. Adventure can be as simple as changing a routine (a picnic dinner on the back lawn) or as complicated as moving to new locale. Whatever the scale, adventure provides natural bridges to intimacy with your loved ones and helps create a family treasure chest of memories.
Do you think your relationship could benefit from an infusion of simplicity and adventure like this?
Susan Pohlman is an educator and freelance writer. Halfway to Each Other is her first book, and it was awarded WINNER in the Relationships category at The 2010 Next Generation Indie Book Awards.
Image via Cebete/Flickr