Your cell phone is ringing. Your inbox is overflowing. Your friend wants to discuss her son’s glue-sniffing habit. Martha Beck has news for you—you don’t have to Be There for all people all the time. Just follow her escape routes.
The great English writer E.M. Forster may have valued connection above all else, but for us 21st-century folks, disconnection is as necessary as connection for creating a healthy, happy life. When we force ourselves to connect against our heart’s desires, we create false, resentful relationships; when we disconnect from the people who deplete us, we set them free to find their tribes while we find ours. I’ve listed some of my favorite disconnection strategies below, in the hope that you might find them useful.
1. Hide. Blame my high school English teacher—I’ll call her Mrs. Jensen—who married at 17, bore her first child at 19, and was a farmwife and mother of four by age 22. When she felt overwhelmed, she’d retreat into a field of tall corn near her house and hide there, listening to her children search for her, until she heard a cry of genuine pain or felt ready to reconnect, whichever came first. "Martha," Mrs. Jensen told me, "every woman needs a cornfield. No matter what’s happening in your life, find yourself a cornfield and hide there whenever you need to."
I’ve used hundreds of other "cornfields" over the years: cars, forests, hotels, bathrooms. I’ve been known to hide for days, but even a few minutes can calm my strung-out nerves—or yours. If you don’t already have a cornfield, find one now.
2. Go primitive. We all know that technological advances have made connection easier than ever before. They’ve also led some people to think that breaking away is a violation of the social order. At such times, I become downright Amish, religiously committed to avoiding all modern communication technology. I unplug phones, computers, intercoms and fax machines, risking opprobrium, because I know that if I don’t lose touch with some of the people who are trying to reach me, I’ll lose touch with myself. The over-connected me is a cranky, tired fussbudget. Silence is golden if it keeps me from broadcasting that fretful self into my network of treasured relationships.