One Month to Live

This is Paul Coakley. He's my age and he died Tuesday. This is what love looks like.

This is Paul Coakley. He’s my age and he died Tuesday after just a month of knowing anything was wrong. I think this is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. I think this is what love looks like.

Someone important died and I never got to meet him.

He was married with three kids and has a fourth on the way. He and his wife learned just before Christmas that he had cancer. He had surgery the day after Christmas.

He died Tuesday.

I didn’t know Paul Coakley.

But we have a bunch of mutual friends.

They all say he was amazing and I believe them because they’re pretty amazing themselves. Every one of us knows someone who represents the best of humanity. Those people with an endless supply of kindness and smiles. With infectious laughter. That squeeze the most out of life while constantly giving more of themselves to others than they take for themselves.

That’s who he was. 

What if You Only Had a Month Left?

Paul’s friend asked me that.

“What would you do?”

How do you answer that question honestly without feeling like you’re wasting every second of your life? Maybe that’s the point of asking. It’s in our nature to take things for granted. To lose sight of the fact we all have a one-way ticket out of this life with our names written on them. We get caught up in our routines. And we forget to live.

What would I do?

I have a son. He complicates the answer to this question. My life is for him. I think I would do all the things we do now. I would just be more mindful of every precious second.

But I would also have a lot to say. I’d write more. I’d write and write and write and write, because a month isn’t long enough.

I’d write here. I’d try to finish a book.

But most importantly? I’d write something to each individual in my life, past and present, who left a mark. Something specifically for each person. Maybe it would matter to them. Maybe it wouldn’t. But there would be an actual piece of me living in those words and maybe they’d care.

Why do we wait for deadlines? Why do we need to lose someone else to reflect once again on the opportunities we waste?

Tragically flawed, humans are. I try to think of it as endearing. Because irony makes me laugh.

I didn’t know Paul Coakley.

But had I gone to the university my mother wanted me to, we’d have probably been friends.

Guys like Paul make me feel a mixture of things. And even though he’d hate it and even though he’d insist it was unnecessary (because I know people just like him), some of it would be feelings of inadequacy.

Feeling inadequate is almost always a bad thing and a useless human emotion that holds us back. But maybe not in this case. Because Paul’s was a life worth emulating. I don’t have the first problem with an exceptionally good man making me want to be better than I am.

I think he made a lot of people feel that way.

There isn’t a greater legacy.

Do you know people in your personal or professional lives that you find difficult to get along with? Maybe you avoid them because you don’t have much in common, or because they make you feel stressed? Maybe you don’t invite them to your parties or for Friday after-work beers?

I think most of us do that.

Paul either didn’t know how, or didn’t want to.

If someone was getting marginalized socially, he turned up the friendship with them because no one was getting pushed to the side on his watch.

I think about all the times I had the opportunity to be a better friend to someone in school or at work or to show kindness to strangers.

And I pray in those moments I remember how I feel right this second to remind me to walk that higher path.

People always ask: What do you want out of life?

I want people to talk about me the way they talk about Paul Coakley.

I have a lot of work to do.

Be Good to Others

Everyone in your life—everyone you dislike or fear or hate or shun or avoid—they’re all going to die. All the strangers you pass on the street or in the store and pay no attention to are going to die. Every single one. Maybe tomorrow.

Why aren’t we more kind?

Someone important died and I never got to meet him.

Light up the darkness. And live. Hard.

Because life’s too short.

Because yours is a life worth emulating.

Because you’re important.

The Coakley Family

This is the Coakley family.

As you can imagine, the lives of this pregnant mother and her three children just got infinitely more challenging. If they weren’t just about the most-beautiful people I’ve ever read about or heard about, I wouldn’t ask. But this family is worth it. If you want to make a difference in the lives of deserving people, you can read about the Coakleys and make a donation here.

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How to Own Your Shit and Never Be a Victim Again

Dont-Be-A-Victim

Eilene asks:

“Have you ever thought (even if briefly or secretly) that your divorce was more her fault than yours? I ask because I know we’re supposed to accept our part in things but I REALLY think it is more on him. I’m struggling with that.”

No.

I am a lot of things—including occasionally hypocritical—but I am pretty skilled at evaluating a situation and understanding who is responsible for what.

People are horrible at accepting responsibility for their life circumstances. HORRIBLE. And it makes us all feel like victims. And when we feel like victims we can’t make our lives better because everything in life is just happening to us against our will.

It makes us powerless to change anything.

When we accept responsibility for where we are in life and own our choices, THEN, and only then, do we have the power to make things better.

I don’t know Eilene. But on faith, I believe her. In my experience, wives get marriage right INFINITELY more often than husbands do. I’m sure her husband or ex-husband sucks at marriage every bit as much as I did. People often don’t get this: Good people can be awful at marriage. You don’t have to be a bad person to suck at marriage. It’s a skill. I can’t fix a car. That doesn’t make me shitty at life. I just don’t know how to fix cars. But I can learn. I didn’t know the really important information about marriage until it was too late. I think a lot of men might be like that. Objectively, it probably is more on him than Eilene. Just like in my marriage.

But never again can I allow myself to start pointing fingers at others.

 …

Let me walk you through my bouts with victimization since turning 30:

My father offered me a job at his small company 500 miles away. Assuming I’d done a good job (and I would have), I would be making top 1% money in my 40s and 50s and have every opportunity to retire a multimillionaire and live the kind of life most of us dream about. My wife didn’t want to go. It was our first major fight.

Victim Matt: I can’t believe how unfair this is that I can’t secure our financial future simply because she doesn’t want to move eight hours away. How could she be so selfish? This will solve EVERY money problem—forever. And now I’m stuck. Because of her.

Smart Matt: I will lose my family if I do this. Money isn’t, and will never be, more important than family. I chose to marry this woman. We make decisions together. She feels like she can’t do this. Okay. We’ll find a way to make more money here in Ohio.

It wasn’t my wife’s fault that I chose a profession (journalism) where making money is such a challenge. It wasn’t my wife’s fault that she didn’t want to live in Illinois far away from everyone she knew. And once I stopped being angry, I saw it as a good thing I had married someone who valued family more than how much money her husband earned.

I was laid off from my job on Jan. 1, 2010. Only people who have lost a job unexpectedly can appreciate what an enormous loss and psychological impact it can have.

Victim Matt: I can’t believe how unfair it is that I lost my job even though I always did it well. How am I supposed to find work now that I’m 30 and have no experience except in newspapers? Now what am I going to do?

Smart Matt: The company was losing money. Without layoffs, EVERYONE would have lost their jobs. Had I been the best, most-valuable employee at the paper, I would probably still be there. So, work harder next time and don’t take employment for granted, asshole. I accepted that job. I wanted it. No one made me take it. I am responsible for choosing to work there, and I am responsible for not ultimately proving myself indispensable regardless of circumstances.

My marriage ended. On April 1, 2013, technically, but not legally until August a few months later. I thought it was unfair because I didn’t want to get divorced.

Victim Matt: When I was standing on that alter and said: “I do,” I meant it. ‘Til death do us part. Sure, it had gotten bad. Really bad. But I wanted to fight for it. I was in marital limbo. A situation in which I didn’t want to get divorced, but was mentally and emotionally incapable of sleeping in the guest room much longer. It was a brutal time. The hardest thing I’d ever been through. Sometimes I’d cry in the guest room. I could hear her footsteps in our room upstairs. And I’d just cry because: This is so un-fucking-fair. After she left, I learned about a new relationship. All I could think about was how happy she must be with this new guy. And I’m sitting in our empty living room and I can’t even breathe. How could she do this to me?

Smart Matt: I caused this. Not because I’m a bad guy. And not because she doesn’t bear any responsibility also. But because I COULD HAVE and SHOULD HAVE been a good husband. A really good one. I used to not know how to cook or drive a car or read or play poker. But then I took an interest, I learned, and I excelled at those things. What if I’d invested more of my time in the most-important thing in my life? What if I’d EXCELLED at marriage? At being the best man, husband and father possible? Had I spent each day being exceptional at those things—would she have left? She’d have never wanted to. This isn’t something that happened to me. This is something I allowed to happen. Through negligence, irresponsibility and a lack of discipline. Sure, it may not all be my fault. But you can bet your ass I’m responsible.

Own Your Shit, Please

If you ask yourself the right questions, an adult can always come to this conclusion: You are ALWAYS responsible for what happens to you. Somewhere along the way, you made the choices that led you right here, right now. Other people didn’t make the choice. You made the choice.

I am responsible for me. No one else is.

I am not responsible for anyone else. These are the strong personal boundaries we need to establish if we want to have healthy relationships with potential mates, friends, family, business associates, etc.

I’m tired of everyone’s reasons for why they “can’t” do something or why it’s always some outside force or lack of opportunity that prevents everyone from doing whatever it is they say or feel they want to do.

The first step to achieving whatever it is we desire is to accept that the No. 1 factor in whether we will achieve or not achieve that thing is the choices we make.

Good choices yield positive results.

Bad choices yield negative results.

This has always been true and will always be true until the end of time.

And once we come to grips with this—once we shake off the gravity of realizing just how large of a role we play in the vast majority of bad things that happen to us, we can take a deep breath and smile.

This is good news, you think. Because now I can do something about it.

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Ask Me Things, Please

Image courtesy of kindnessresources.com

Image courtesy of kindnessresources.com

In an effort to evolve this blog and maybe have a little fun or some great conversation, I launched a page called Ask Me Stuff which you should go read.

I want you to ask me things because it will create some new content opportunities and because maybe I’ll accidentally help someone once or twice.

Let’s call it a social experiment.

For anyone inclined, I appreciate your time and contribution very much.

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Somebody’s Got to Feel This*

write feelingsI was watching Benji with a group of family members in my grandparents’ living room the first time it happened.

Something sad happened onscreen and I wanted to cry so I pretended like I needed to go to the restroom so no one would see me even though every adult probably knew.

Even at 5, I’d already been trained that boys don’t cry.

My parents had recently divorced, so I’m sure I was more emotionally sensitive than I had been prior. But I doubt that’s the reason the sad Benji moment made me feel something.

I wasn’t much of a crier throughout most of my childhood, and save the tragic death of my father’s only brother when I was 17, and a handful of instances where I was forced to say bye to my father for several months at a time because we lived 500 miles apart, I didn’t do much of it.

Maybe because “boys don’t cry.” Or maybe because I ran out of tears for the “small stuff.”

I wasn’t a cyborg. I felt. At funerals of my great grandparents, or the ones I occasionally worked as an alter boy in my childhood church.

I felt when I read Alfred Slote’s Tony and Me.

I felt when I read Where the Red Fern Grows.

I felt when I saw E.T.

Just because I didn’t cry doesn’t mean my body didn’t want to. I just pretended to be tough because that’s the role I thought I was supposed to be playing.

The writing did its job. It made me feel.

In the end, I think that’s what made it good.

Do You Have Any Advice For Other Writers?

As I’ve continued to write personal stories here, something became clear: No one is reading any of this shit because of the writing quality.

People are reading because I wrote a personal story they identified with. I wrote something that mattered BECAUSE it mattered to them, personally. It’s really hard for us to empathize with people who have lives nothing like our own. It’s incredibly easy to empathize with people who have the same stories.

I think the longer we live, the more in common we start to have with everyone else. You know—the law of averages and all that as more things happen to us.

People who have been through divorce sometimes find catharsis in reading someone else’s first-person account.

People who have sick children sometimes find peace and perspective when reading about someone else’s challenges with their child’s health.

People fighting addiction sometimes find strength and support when reading someone else document his or her struggles with the same.

We get so afraid to talk about it.

Because we’re private or shy or don’t want to be seen as weak. Because we’re afraid of what other people think.

That’s what’s so beautiful about writing. The opportunity to be brave and help others.

Some of you might be thinking: “But I don’t think my story is special. I don’t think it can help anyone.”

There’s a scared, self-doubting version of ourselves that lives inside each of us. And that’s the lie that coward tells us so it can stay comfortably and safely hidden in the shadows.

I laugh at the idea of me offering another writer advice as if I’m in any position to do so. But then I remember the most important thing I’ve ever learned about human beings:

We’re not so different, you and me.

Sure, you might like sauerkraut and Mountain Dew: Code Red and rye bread for reasons hard for me to fathom. But when you strip away our skin color (thank you, Dr. King), gender, personal tastes and cultural differences? We are remarkably, miraculously, beautifully (and sometimes tragically) alike.

You Can Feel It*

If you had a family like mine, you were told how special you were your entire life. “Matt, I hope you know how special you are,” I was told by my grandparents, and my parents, and my aunts and uncles, and family friends.

And then you grow up and you realize you really aren’t that special and that’s just something they said over and over again because they loved you a lot and were trying to compensate for the perceived hardships they thought you were dealing with as a child with 500 miles separating your parents.

If you didn’t have a family like mine, you might have been told verbally or otherwise that you weren’t special. That you didn’t matter much. The net result of an upbringing with an unfair amount of dysfunction or neglect or abuse.

The truth is: we are all just a bunch of people. And if every single one of us grew up with the exact same parents in the exact same house with the exact same opportunities in the exact same school in the exact same town, we’d all be excruciatingly similar.

It’s not about special or not special.

But it is about unity.

I write things sometimes about marriage and relationships and women, and people are like: “Whoa! He really gets it!”

And it’s not because I know anything about you or how you feel, or about anyone else.

It’s because I know myself and I have extreme confidence that if I just write honestly about that, it’s going to be relevant to more than enough people to matter.

So, if you’re looking for some writing advice on how to write stories that matter, I’ve got one thing: BE YOU.

And I don’t mean the person your friends hang out with, or the person your co-workers know, or the person everyone thinks you are at school or at church or at parties.

Be the you that you know. Inside your head. When it’s just you in the dark staring up at the ceiling. That’s the you that can help people, and you don’t even have to try.

All you have to do is be brave enough to write it down.

The things that make you happy.

The things that make you angry.

The things that make you laugh.

The things that make you cry.

Because there’s a person out there who gets happy and angry and laughs and cries about the exact same things. And sometimes they feel like a freak. And they’re too afraid to talk about the things they think about when they’re staring up at the ceiling in the dark. They’re afraid of rejection. That no one will like them. That no one IS like them.

That they’re alone.

The most important thing I’ve learned as a writer, as a divorced guy, as a parent, as an insecure single guy who is shitty at dating—is that we’re NEVER alone. By that I mean, we are NEVER the only people feeling something.

There are hundreds. Thousands. Millions.

Countless people just like you. Just like me. Just like us.

And if you can be brave enough to feel something.

And brave enough to write it down.

And courageous enough to hit “Publish.”

They’ll find you. And then they realize: Wow. I’m not the only one.

And then you’ll know you did something that mattered.

The secret to making people feel isn’t through clever wordplay or manipulation.

In fact, there’s no secret at all.

You just write down what happens on the inside. The parts we often hide from the world as we attempt to convince everyone we’re better or stronger or richer or smarter or funnier or braver than we are.

Because you’re not the only one.

Because it’s okay to cry.

Because the best stories are the ones that make us feel something.

Please tell us one.

Author’s Note:

*- that’s what she said.

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Don’t Invite Me to Your Divorce Party

happy divorce

Because a bunch of people have been encouraging me to write for Huff Post Divorce, I’ve been spending more time reading it.

There are thoughtful pieces I like and agree with, such as “An Open Letter to My Ex-Husband’s New Girlfriend.”

There are thoughtful pieces I hate and disagree with, such as “Here’s Why My Affair Will Turn Into A Healthy, Long-Term Relationship.”

There are very practical Things You Should Know pieces. About legality. About emotional turmoil. About child-custody issues. About moving on.

But there is one type of story that’s prevalent and bothering me.

The Fuck-Yeah-I’m-Divorced-Let’s-Party story.

My ex-wife was in a relationship after our separation. Never met the guy. And that’s more than okay.

When something bad happens to you—something really bad—it cuts you on the inside in ways you didn’t know was possible. It’s shocking.

You’re reeling from the horrible thing that happened. And all the sudden your body and mind are experiencing things you were totally unaware were even possible, making healing seem impossible.

Almost like losing grip on reality. And maybe that’s exactly what happens.

I spent countless hours and nights alone on the couch or in bed. I’d watch TV sometimes, but it was so hard to focus on anything that I would often have to rewind whatever I was watching over and over again because I’d get lost in thought and not pay attention.

I was almost obsessed with them. Another man with my wife. And I spent unhealthy amounts of time picturing them together. At the dinner table. Maybe curled up on the couch together. Maybe driving around in cars. Maybe on vacation to places I could never afford to take her. And, of course, in bed.

In about 35 years, I had never felt anything more excruciating.

You can’t feel more rejected than that.

You can’t feel smaller than that.

You can’t feel more humiliated than that.

You don’t just lose your partner. You lose all your memories of your partner because she ceases to be the person you know, because the person you know would not be doing this right now.

And then you lose yourself. And you can’t recognize yourself in the mirror because you’ve never felt or behaved like this before.

It’s all very scary.

My marriage broke. Much of it was my fault. But that didn’t stop the hurt.

My parents divorced when I was 4, and you might think that life experience would help prepare you for the realities of divorce in your own marriage.

It didn’t.

Divorce was the most brutal thing I have ever experienced. I know some people have experienced more-challenging things and that I’m blessed to have not.

But make no mistake: Divorce (if the love was real) is very hard. Worse, I believe, than most people give it credit for. It’s the second-most-stressful thing that ever happens to you, according to the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale. Marital separation is No. 3 on the list. It is only behind the death of your spouse, and ranked ahead of things like going to prison and the death of a close family member or friend. When it happened to me, I freaked.

What that means is, when I see your Fuck-Yeah-I’m-Divorced-Let’s Party stories it makes my skin crawl.

It means I want to punch you in your face, even though I would never, and even though you might not deserve it. (Everyone’s divorce story is different.)

On behalf of the institution of marriage—an important union designed to bring enormous stability to our world—I’m insulted.

On behalf of every scorned spouse who has fallen asleep alone in the dark sobbing and thinking about the person they loved being with that other person—I’m offended.

On behalf of every child that cries and suffers financially and socially and academically and spiritually because his or her mommy and daddy don’t love each other anymore…

I wanted to write it. And almost did. It’s perhaps the most unkind two-word phrase we have in the English language.

But I don’t really mean it.

Because there are some marital horror stories out there. And the women and men who feel liberation, who feel peace, who now have an opportunity to pursue real love in a post-divorce world DESERVE to feel good.

And it makes sense that people with those stories would want to use them to empower other divorced people and encourage them to find peace and contentment in this new life.

But I want so badly to live in a world where love and families are viewed with more reverence than our throwaway-marriage culture calls for.

Where we empathize with people in pain, and the blameless children caught in the middle.

Where divorce is frowned upon and strenuously avoided.

Fuck Yeah, We’re Divorced, Let’s Party?

Have a good time.

I won’t be there.

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The Secret to Life and Marriage

Guy-telling-a-secret

No. Not again.

It’s a dull, pulsing pain that starts in my stomach and runs to the bottom of the back of my head between my ears.

Unregulated, the headache starts. Very acute, sharp pain around the crown.

Almost every muscle feels engaged. Tense.

Everything hurts.

I can’t find my smile.

My face, stuck in place, just, hurts.

It’s stress. A physiological reaction to anger and perhaps my least-favorite way to feel.

Don’t forget to breathe. In, then out. And again.

If you had EVERYTHING in the world you ever wanted, but felt this way on the inside? How long could a person make it? Not long for me.

It’s poisonous. Anger. And we feel it a lot. We make others feel it.

My marriage ended because of anger. My entire life circumstances—my entire reality—dictated by the net results of angry people doing angry things.

People are Dicks

We are. Perhaps me more than others. But—and this is VERY important to me and I’ll defend myself and others with it until my last breath—I try.

In a candid moment. When no one’s watching. When it’s just me inside my head left to make whatever choice I want: I choose kindness. I intend to be good to others, even when it’s hard.

I don’t know if that makes me a good person. But I hope it makes me close.

When I’m angry, only two things work to make it go away: love and laughter. Staples of a life brimming with kindness. A life worth chasing.

I want to know what motivates people to intentionally choose unkindness and I want to know why, even though it has been documented ZERO times in human history to benefit anyone, people choose abrasiveness in their human relationships at home or at work or in some other facet of their lives.

My favorite writer James Altucher has written repeatedly about how he has cut out of his life every person who makes him feel bad on a regular basis. How peace and contentment are so hard to achieve when constantly dealing with emotional vampires.

If people don’t pass the Vampire Test? Stake their asses and walk away.

But What if You Can’t!?

It’s a fair and difficult question. Because there are many examples in life of people being tied too closely together to simply cut the cord and walk away.

In my search for answers, I kept coming back to marriage.

Why do people have so much trouble loving the people they forsook all others to love forever?

I found something beautiful and important and insightful when I stumbled on a great piece in The Atlantic called “Masters of Love” published about six months ago.

You should read it in its entirety because it’s better than this blog post. But I’d like to explore the highlights, and hopefully by doing so they’ll become more ingrained within me. And maybe moving forward it can help me be a more patient, wiser, better human being.

According to Ty Tashiro, author of The Science of Happily Ever After, only three out of 10 marriages remain happy and healthy.

You read that right: 70% of marriages either break or turn miserable and dysfunctional. Think we might have a problem with kindness and anger?

Psychologists John and Julie Gottman run the New York-based Gottman Institute—an organization dedicated to helping couples achieve loving, healthy marriages through science. They did some homework on this kindness thing.

From The Atlantic story:

John Gottman began gathering his most critical findings in 1986, when he set up “The Love Lab” with his colleague Robert Levenson at the University of Washington. Gottman and Levenson brought newlyweds into the lab and watched them interact with each other. With a team of researchers, they hooked the couples up to electrodes and asked the couples to speak about their relationship, like how they met, a major conflict they were facing together, and a positive memory they had. As they spoke, the electrodes measured the subjects’ blood flow, heart rates, and how much they sweat they produced. Then the researchers sent the couples home and followed up with them six years later to see if they were still together.

From the data they gathered, Gottman separated the couples into two major groups: the masters and the disasters. The masters were still happily together after six years. The disasters had either broken up or were chronically unhappy in their marriages. When the researchers analyzed the data they gathered on the couples, they saw clear differences between the masters and disasters. The disasters looked calm during the interviews, but their physiology, measured by the electrodes, told a different story. Their heart rates were quick, their sweat glands were active, and their blood flow was fast. Following thousands of couples longitudinally, Gottman found that the more physiologically active the couples were in the lab, the quicker their relationships deteriorated over time.

But what does physiology have to do with anything? The problem was that the disasters showed all the signs of arousal—of being in fight-or-flight mode—in their relationships. Having a conversation sitting next to their spouse was, to their bodies, like facing off with a saber-toothed tiger. Even when they were talking about pleasant or mundane facets of their relationships, they were prepared to attack and be attacked. This sent their heart rates soaring and made them more aggressive toward each other.

The masters, of course, were physiologically calm and steady.

Giving a Shit Matters

Gottman wanted to know how the masters had achieved the emotional state of being that allowed the relationship to thrive even during difficult times, so he conducted another experiment.

He designed a lab to look like a beautiful bed and breakfast retreat. There, he observed 130 newlywed couples doing what couples do on vacation—cooking, eating, chatting, hanging out, playing games, etc.

Then Gottman discovered something I’ve never heard anyone talk about before as a predictor of marital success, but it makes perfect sense.

From The Atlantic:

Throughout the day, partners would make requests for connection, what Gottman calls “bids.” For example, say that the husband is a bird enthusiast and notices a goldfinch fly across the yard. He might say to his wife, “Look at that beautiful bird outside!” He’s not just commenting on the bird here: he’s requesting a response from his wife—a sign of interest or support—hoping they’ll connect, however momentarily, over the bird.

The wife now has a choice. She can respond by either “turning toward” or “turning away” from her husband, as Gottman puts it. Though the bird-bid might seem minor and silly, it can actually reveal a lot about the health of the relationship. The husband thought the bird was important enough to bring it up in conversation and the question is whether his wife recognizes and respects that.

People who turned toward their partners in the study responded by engaging the bidder, showing interest and support in the bid. Those who didn’t—those who turned away—would not respond or respond minimally and continue doing whatever they were doing, like watching TV or reading the paper. Sometimes they would respond with overt hostility, saying something like, “Stop interrupting me, I’m reading.”

These bidding interactions had profound effects on marital well-being. Couples who had divorced after a six-year follow up had “turn-toward bids” 33 percent of the time. Only three in ten of their bids for emotional connection were met with intimacy. The couples who were still together after six years had “turn-toward bids” 87 percent of the time. Nine times out of ten, they were meeting their partner’s emotional needs.

According to The Atlantic, Gottman can predict with 94 percent certainty whether couples—gay or straight, rich or poor, with kids or without—will be together and happy, together and miserable, or broken up several years later.

Was my divorce a foregone conclusion?

That’s a hard idea to stomach.

Contempt is the number-one factor that tears couples apart, the researchers said.

People who are focused on criticizing their partners miss a whopping 50 percent of positive things their partners are doing and they see negativity when it’s not there.

“There’s a habit of mind that the masters have,” Gottman told The Atlantic, “which is this: they are scanning social environments for things they can appreciate and say thank you for. They are building this culture of respect and appreciation very purposefully. Disasters are scanning the social environment for partners’ mistakes.”

“Being mean is the death knell of relationships,” The Atlantic’s writer Emily Esfahani Smith wrote. “Kindness, on the other hand, glues couples together. Research independent from [the Gottman’s] has shown that kindness (along with emotional stability) is the most important predictor of satisfaction and stability in a marriage. Kindness makes each partner feel cared for, understood, and validated—feel loved.”

It’s hard to be kind when you’re pissed.

But it’s also when it’s most important.

To walk the walk under the most trying of circumstances. That’s what separates the strong from the weak.

INTENTION is a very important concept. One that should be used to fairly evaluate every situation and person involved.

I’ve believed it forever.

It made me feel good to see these renowned researchers agree:

“One way to practice kindness is by being generous about your partner’s intentions. From the research of the Gottmans, we know that disasters see negativity in their relationship even when it is not there. An angry wife may assume, for example, that when her husband left the toilet seat up, he was deliberately trying to annoy her. But he may have just absent-mindedly forgotten to put the seat down.”

Psychologist Ty Tashiro offers this parting advice: “Even in relationships where people are frustrated, it’s almost always the case that there are positive things going on and people trying to do the right thing,” he said. “A lot of times, a partner is trying to do the right thing even when it’s executed poorly. So appreciate the intent.”

Another breath. In, then out.

Everything’s going to be okay.

Knowledge is power.

And then I find my smile again.

Because I like knowing secrets.

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The Thing About Stepparents

Maybe that's his father. Maybe that's his stepfather. There's beauty in the fact we can't be sure.

Maybe that’s his father. Maybe that’s his stepfather. There’s beauty in the fact we can’t be sure.

My parents divorced when I was 4, and twice a year all the way through high school, my parents met at a McDonald’s on the eastern edge of Illinois and exchanged me.

I grew up in Ohio with my mom. My dad lived 500 miles away.

Some of my strongest memories include the anticipation of that meet. Seeing my mother and father together. It always felt weird for me. Feeling simultaneously excited to be leaving with my father and sad to say bye to my emotional mother. And feeling absolutely devastated when I’d get into the backseat of my mom’s car at the end of a long, fun summer with dad knowing I wouldn’t see him again until Christmas.

Time goes fast now. But it’s an eternity when you’re little and sobbing in the back of a car watching a McDonald’s disappear behind you at 70 miles per hour.

There is nothing fair about divorce for children. None of it is their fault. They had no say in the matter. And they are perhaps most adversely affected by the drastic and emotionally challenging lifestyle change.

I write about divorce a lot because it has been a dominant theme in my life for more than 30 years.

These are wounds that never fully heal.

But We Do the Best We Can

Life is hard. And no one tells us how hard marriage is, and the ones who try do an inadequate job conveying the gravity of their advice and warnings.

A lot of us marry young, without as much information as we should have. A lot of us have children. And half the time it breaks. And so many people get hurt, and it just keeps happening over and over and over again.

But we do the best we can.

I have a six-year-old son in first grade and he’s my freaking favorite.

He is the first line of defense and litmus test for every woman I meet. Right or wrong, I ask myself immediately: Could she be a potential stepmom for my son? If the answer to that question isn’t yes, then seeing her again is little more than a total exercise in futility.

If I ever find an actual girlfriend, it’s going to take a very long time before I introduce my son to her. That’s because I think children of divorced parents have had enough loss and change in their lives and don’t deserve to grow attached to ANOTHER person that could be taken away from them.

There’s no guarantee it won’t happen anyway. But we do the best we can.

I talk to lots of divorced parents and most share my thinking. People they date often don’t meet their children. I tend to agree with the policy.

I know of one mother whose boyfriend has been involved in her only child’s life for months, perhaps years, but she still has reservations about marrying again (despite him appearing to be a very good man) because of her daughter.

And something dawned on me while hearing the story. Her parents are still together. She has never had any experience with stepparents.

Maybe a lot of people are like that.

My Other Father

I met him on my birthday.

I was young. He brought me candy and a board game. Just some guy.

But after a while, he wasn’t just some guy. He was the guy who loved my mom and who did very dad-like things for and with me.

He was a basketball coach and he took me with him to his practices. Taught me how to shoot a decent jump shot.

He was a sports enthusiast who refereed football and basketball, and umpired baseball games. He taught me all about the games I love.

He taught me to read when I was in kindergarten. He taught me to swim and ride a bike, too.

He supported me financially like a father.

Disciplined me like a father.

Loved me like a father.

His parents became my grandparents. His brothers and sisters became my aunts and uncles. His presence became a familiar comfort while I was missing my dad.

It’s hard to imagine how my life might have turned out without that man’s steady hand being part of it.

He taught me about character.

He taught me about teamwork.

He taught me about choosing to love.

My stepfather and his extended family were a very important piece of my childhood. And while divorce and its hardships hurt me as a child, it would be disingenuous to not express enormous gratitude for the many blessings that also came from it.

My father remarried also. My stepmom, too, is an important part of my life, but growing up under my mother’s roof, my stepdad had a much more direct impact on my development.

These are IMPORTANT, life-altering relationships.

And for all the heartache and fear attached to divorce. For all the protective measures we take on behalf of our children, I think it’s critical to never lose sight of the unknown future and the many good things that could be coming for us.

We hurt because our families are broken.

We feel ashamed because we couldn’t hold it together for those little hearts and minds that mean so much to us.

But unless you had a childhood like me, you couldn’t possibly know it.

That if you make good choices. If you find someone with a kind heart, a good soul, a steady hand, and the ability to truly love? You give your child gifts of value impossible to measure.

We feel sad, broken and frightened sometimes. Afraid of the unknown future. Of screwing up our kids even more.

But maybe sometimes we’re just overthinking it.

Maybe if you just find one of the good ones—and they are out there: good, kind, smart, decent people—you create joyful opportunity for yourself and your children.

Maybe it’s not the same as what you’d always imagined, but maybe on balance, it really isn’t so bad for them. And maybe it’s even a little bit good.

Maybe there are fewer tears and more laughs.

Less pain and more hope.

Because that’s the thing about stepparents.

The really good kind, anyway.

The ones like mine.

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Maybe It’s Time to Leave

I feel dirty suggesting that leaving a relationship might be a good idea. But honestly? It might be the only way he learns.

I feel dirty suggesting that leaving a relationship might be a good idea. But honestly? It might be the only way he learns.

My ex-wife reads this blog and probably often thinks: “Fuck that fucker,” even though she’s pretty nice to me most of the time.

Why?

Probably because I wasn’t like this when we were married, and sometimes when I write things, ladies will ooh and ahh because they believe I would make decent boyfriend material because I come off more enlightened than all the Neanderthals they date or marry because I am now more enlightened than most of them.

And she probably thinks the entire scene is a massive pile of bullshit.

Hard to blame her.

As with most situations in life, there’s a lesson to be learned here.

Sayonara, Hombre

Ignoring the fact I just sexed up Japanese and Spanish, and ignoring the fact that I REPEATEDLY have pleaded and begged and advocated for people to choose to love and be strong in marriage and fight the good fight even when it’s hard and inconvenient… I wonder…

I wonder whether leaving is the only way to know for sure.

To know whether he loves you.

To know whether he respects you.

To know whether he’ll fight for you.

I don’t know. I just wonder. Because that is how it worked for me.

I met my wife when I was 18—a drunk college freshman at a keg party. She looked, and was, spectacular in every imaginable way. At one point, in the middle of our conversation, I had to excuse myself to vomit in the bathroom. And she still married me.

There’s a joke there somewhere. But I’m busy trying to make an important point amid all the bad words and language-banging. A fantastic writer named Mark Manson made this important point first:

Most people only commit to action if they feel a certain level of motivation. And they only feel motivation when they feel an emotional inspiration.

I’ve won sympathy from hundreds—maybe thousands—of women here because I was crying and scared and missing my son and uncertain I could ever find someone to be with me again.

And that was real. I wasn’t faking. I actually cried. I was actually scared. Still am.

“And they only feel motivation when they feel an emotional inspiration.”

You weren’t there all those nights. Countless nights. Dinner was through and the kitchen was cleaned. And there she was on the couch, presumably open to suggestion. Presumably waiting for me to take the lead and show initiative. To do something together.

Anything, really. Talk. Laugh. Hold. Hug. Kiss. Cum.

But, hey! She was busy watching HGTV! I’ll go do this other thing I like to do!

So, I’d play online poker or watch football or go do this other thing that didn’t involve my wife—the person I loved the most but clearly wasn’t motivated to show in any meaningful way.

Sometimes we’d talk and she’d cry when things got hard. I’d try to comfort her but it wasn’t authentic because I felt secure in the relationship as demonstrated by just how much I took the entire thing for granted.

So, she was never comforted.

The hurt and frustration continued to build.

Me watching 24 on Netflix. Me playing poker. Me immersing myself in pursuit after pursuit, but never pursuing her.

Men don’t always realize it because we’re so focused on infidelity as the primary breach of trust in a relationship and a marriage’s worst crime. And it, along with physical abuse, is VERY bad. But men don’t always realize that emotional abuse can sometimes hurt worse.

Men leave their wives alone in the marriage. Physically, emotionally and spiritually.

I left my wife alone in our marriage.

And then one day, it all breaks.

Au revoir, marito.

Fuck that fucker.

But I Am Different Now

There is a fundamental part of me that will never change. We are who we are. But we do have an incredible capacity to grow and change and evolve as we learn and experience new things.

And I’ve learned new things. The hard way. And I’m a better person for it.

And maybe most people have to learn things the hard way for changes to stick.

I am a father. And I was a husband. And these things mattered to me very, very much. They defined me, which is why I felt so lost when one of those things went away.

I felt lost and sad and broken and angry. You know what that is? Emotional inspiration! And it works.

From Mark Hanson: “And we’ve all slacked off for lack of motivation before. Especially in times where we shouldn’t. We feel lethargic and apathetic towards a certain goal that we’ve set for ourselves because we lack the motivation and we lack the motivation because we don’t feel any overarching emotional desire to accomplish something.”

Emotional Inspiration → Motivation → Desirable Action

My beautiful, crying wife feeling sad and alone wasn’t enough to get me to take desirable action.

Fuck that fucker.

So, without even trying, my wife did the perfect thing to help me finally overcome lethargy and apathy. She checked out, and eventually left.

And now? I’m me. Nice to meet you.

If you’re a hurting spouse or girlfriend, you’re just like millions of other women who fell in love with millions of guys like me. I want so badly for him—especially if he’s a father—to love you the way he’s supposed to. To keep your kids’ parents together. To show your sons how to be a man. To show your daughters what love is supposed to look like. To stand as an example to friends and family and neighbors for what it means to do love and marriage the right way.

Because that’s what we’re called to do. To serve something greater than ourselves. To lead through service. To love through action.

But, we are, inevitably, human.

And sometimes the inertia is so strong, and you’re out of tools in your arsenal to try to get him to move, and you’re out of energy to look for another way.

It’s against EVERYTHING I want to stand for. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t the only thing that will work: Maybe it’s time. Maybe that’s the only way to inspire real change.

It took her leaving for me to ask the right questions. For me to recognize some truths I’d been running from.

And maybe it will for him, too.

There’s only one way to find out, and it doesn’t have to be forever.

But today is today and he’s not the man he promised to be. He’s not the man he’s supposed to be.

I wasn’t either. So, I can’t begrudge her resentment.

Fuck that fucker.

But look at me now.

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An Open Letter to Shitty Husbands, Vol. 10

trust-torn

My wife felt unsafe because she could no longer trust me.

She didn’t feel unsafe because she thought I would physically hurt her or because she thought I couldn’t protect her if someone else tried.

She didn’t stop trusting me because she worried I might have sex with someone else.

My wife stopped trusting me because she determined I could not be counted on to be the partner she needed. As a parent. As a housemate. As a lover. As a financial partner.

It wasn’t the big things that brought her to that point. There often aren’t big things in marriage.

It was the little things. Often, it is the little things that scratch and claw and chip away at the integrity of a marriage until the union and its participants look nothing like they did when first formed.

She was a youthful, fun, vibrant, happy, joyful young woman.

She grew tired, weary, anxious, frightened, sad and angry.

I begged and pleaded for the girl I knew to come back once I stopped recognizing her. I grew sad and angry when she couldn’t or wouldn’t. I blamed her for not trying.

But I think maybe she wanted to. I think she wanted to feel like her old self again. But she simply couldn’t.

Because she couldn’t trust me.

So she kept her guard up.

Because she didn’t feel safe.

Men (I) Have a Problem

And I think maybe women have this same problem but because of the state of the world in which we live (where men sometimes literally believe they’re better than women), I think the male version is worse.

Men think and feel and experience the world around them in certain ways. We experience things, see things, hear things, digest information, and come to what we consider to be very rational, very logical, very sensible, very correct conclusions.

When you think you’re right, everyone who doesn’t see things the same way must be wrong. Thus, your wife or girlfriend is “wrong” A LOT.

For example, despite loving our wives, forsaking all others, being willing to die for them, and spending every day trying to earn more money and respect and admiration for and from them, our wives often FEEL unloved.

And because we don’t think it makes sense for them to feel unloved based on all the things I just listed—because we think it’s crazy, irrational and unreasonable—we pretty much ignore all suggestions to the contrary.

I am mocking and sarcastic. It is a brand of humor my friends and I have enjoyed for as long as I can remember. When I call my male friend a name or laugh at him about something, it is understood that he is my friend, he is loved and respected, and that by virtue of me wanting to be around him and wanting him to be part my social circle, that the comments and laughter are in fun and not mean-spirited.

My wife did not appreciate my mockery and sarcasm directed toward her. She was my wife and deserved a higher standard of treatment, she said.

She was right.

I accidentally hurt her feelings a lot. I NEVER did it on purpose. So I always got pissed when she’d get mad at me over something I did unintentionally.

But.

The “intent” argument only works the first time.

If you’re out hunting and you fire a shot that accidentally kills someone in a nearby home you didn’t realize was there, you are unlikely to be charged with murder or homicide. Because it was an accident.

But if you go out hunting again to that same spot and accidentally kill a second person due to negligence? Have fun in prison.

My crime wasn’t hurting my wife’s feelings the first time. An accidental one-time offense is almost always forgivable. My crime was hurting my wife’s feelings repeatedly, even after she explained why it was happening.

Because I don’t respond to things the same way she does, I never really changed, and expected her to adjust to my “correct” way of thinking and feeling and behaving.

Go ahead and keep that up guys and let me know how it works out for you.

She’s going to fall in love and have sex with someone else, and she’s probably going to tell him and her friends what a chump you are.

You’re not going to like it.

The Thing About Trust

I don’t like to sound like I know everything, because I don’t know anything about you or your life or what you think and feel.

But what I think I’ve learned is that when I feel and experience something, I can feel confident that MANY others have felt and experienced it too. Because we’re not so different, you and me.

I think most men think about trust in the context of infidelity.

I think one of the major hang ups guys have about committing to a relationship or to marriage when they’re young is that by doing so, they’re effectively promising to never have sex with anyone else again. I don’t know whether men like variety or options or freedom or what, but that’s a big deal when we’re younger.

I thought of marriage mostly as agreeing to a permanent girlfriend. By agreeing to marriage in my early twenties, I thought I was agreeing to have an exclusive relationship with my girlfriend forever and to not have sex with anyone else.

And that’s dangerous because a girlfriend isn’t that important and is reasonably easy to replace.

A wife?

In some respects (if you meant your vows) is irreplaceable and a piece of your soul gets poisoned and dies when you lose that fundamental part of you.

You take it for granted. You take her for granted.

Like your eyesight. Or functioning legs.

But they’re really important.

And you figure it out when they’re gone.

The trust is rarely about whether she worries about you cheating.

It’s more about whether she can trust you to not hurt her emotionally. About whether she can trust you to help her by not sabotaging her efforts to keep your house clean, or to plan activities with family and friends, or to be a reliable parenting partner.

We had this little stand in our bedroom. I have this thing—especially with jeans—where I wear them once or twice and consider them too clean for the laundry basket, but too dirty to fold and put away. Laundry limbo, if you will. I used to throw them on this stand in the back of our room.

She didn’t like it because it made the room look disorganized and she prided herself on a clean and tidy home.

She’d get mad at me because I kept thoughtlessly doing it even after repeated attempts to get me to stop.

Men think: Why’s she making a federal case about this? Is a pair of jeans sitting out somewhere in my bedroom where no visitors come really THAT big of a deal?

We rationalize it with our sensible, logical brains. And we don’t necessarily work very hard to change the behavior because: “She’s not going to leave me over laundry!”

No. She’s not going to leave you over laundry.

She’s going to leave you because she can’t trust you to be her partner because you don’t even respect her enough to put your laundry-limbo jeans in a different location.

“If I can’t trust him with this little teeny-tiny thing,” she thinks, “how can I ever trust him with my heart?”

You’re Like a Child

And in EVERY other situation in life, I’d tell you that’s a good thing. Kids laugh 200-300 times a day and love life and are happy and innocent and free. Adults are miserable.

We must never stop playing and laughing and dreaming and seeking fun and adventure.

But in a marriage? Being like a child is bad. That’s why children can’t and don’t get married.

Your wife used to be a girl.

The girl you fell in love with because she was beautiful and fun and playful and wanted you and made you feel good.

And now she doesn’t act like that anymore. She’s worn out. Angry. Short-tempered. Frustrated. Disinterested in your penis. And seems to not even like or respect you anymore.

And now you’re angry and resentful, because your mom never treated your dad like this, or because you thought she was just going to take care of you the way your mother always did.

You’re angry because you haven’t changed that much, but she has, and you feel cheated because she said “I do” and now she’s acting like the man she married isn’t good enough.

You feel unwanted, disrespected, and ashamed.

But, probably without realizing it, you did it to yourself.

Because you have a home, and finances, and maybe children or pets or possessions of significance. You’re not kids anymore. But you still act like one. When you playfully mock your friends or your wife. When you leave your pants out, or a dish in the sink, or forget to do that thing you promised on your way home.

And all these little things add up.

Why are you making such a big deal about this!?, you wonder.

And now she CAN’T be a kid anymore. She can’t play and laugh and live carefree anymore. Because you are. And if she does it too, nothing will ever get done.

The clothes will never get washed. Meals will never be made. The kids will never have what they need.

You refused to take the next step.

So she HAD to.

And now she’s angry, resentful, sad and afraid.

Because you’ve left all the adult work to her.

But, more importantly?

You left her with no choices. And now she doesn’t get to be who she used to be.

And you want that girl back.

But she can’t come back.

Because there’s no such thing as time travel.

But the clock’s still ticking.

You May Also Want to Read:

An Open Letter to Shitty Husbands

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How to Achieve Your New Year’s Resolutions

habit loop

I was going to write a book.

I was going to get in the best physical condition of my adulthood.

I was going to maybe find a girlfriend.

Fail, fail, and more fail.

I wrote a third of a book. I worked out every day for a stretch and was feeling good and then let the holidays totally derail my efforts instead of maintaining a disciplined routine. I continued to be shy and cowardly out in the world and never met anyone I could realistically have a long-term relationship with for one reason or another.

It does make me a failure. But it doesn’t make me weird. About 92 out of 100 people failed to meet their New Year’s resolution goals in 2014.

That paltry 8% success rate is expected to continue in 2015.

Do you want to be the kind of person who fails to achieve their goals but takes solace in being a member of the overwhelming majority?

Or would you prefer to be a better version of yourself? The kind of person who says or aspires to do something, and then goes out, follows through, and does it?

A hundred years ago, nobody brushed their teeth every day like most of us do now in the United States.

Claude Hopkins was among the first admen to figure out that marketing isn’t all art. There’s a science component, too. One of his old business colleagues invented a toothpaste called Pepsodent. The friend asked Hopkins to build a national ad campaign for the product.

Selling toothpaste in the early 20th century was financial suicide. No one brushed their teeth. It was like trying to sell snow skis in Florida, or live fishing bait in the middle of the Sahara.

Despite the enormous challenge, Pepsodent was one of the best-known products on earth five years later and more than half of all Americans had begun brushing their teeth daily after a lifetime of never doing so.

Hopkins defined a problem and provided a solution.

He identified one of the most-important, most-overlooked phenomena in the human experience: The habit loop. 

Cue, Routine, Reward

That’s it. That’s the habit loop.

The cue? A dirty, smelly mouth with slimy, filmy teeth.

The routine (or solution)? Daily brushing with Pepsodent!

The reward? A clean, fresh mouth, with white, beautiful teeth that made you look better than other people.

Changed the whole world.

I’m reading a fantastic book called The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg. I picked it up on a whim at an airport during my holiday travels.

The book explores the reasons why human beings do what we do. And it explains how habits guide so much of our behavior, effectively eliminating decision making from much of our daily activity.

It explains why you smoke and drink and exercise (or don’t exercise). It explains why Cinnabon stores are rarely located by other food vendors, why people with severe memory loss who can’t recognize their home can learn to walk around the block and find their way back, and why Alcoholics Anonymous has had so much success through the years helping people change unhealthy behavior.

We Don’t Really Quit Our Bad-Habit Urges

In some respects, they’re unstoppable.

The cue happens. And your brain requires the expected reward.

To achieve that reward, you will automatically turn to things that you know give you the reward. Smokers smoke. Alcoholics and addicts will drink or get a fix. Others will eat unhealthy foods or indulge in sexual urges or bite fingernails or whatever.

The key to stopping those unhealthy choices is to recognize what triggers the urges.

That’s your cue.

And if you’re mindful of the cue, your next task is to figure out an alternative to achieve that same reward.

Maybe it’s caffeine instead of nicotine. Maybe it’s a therapeutic conversation with a sponsor instead of a drink. It almost doesn’t matter so long as one understands there is always a trigger and always a reward the brain and body craves. The only thing that needs to be changed is the routine. And then we replace the bad with the good.

Once you do something enough times? It becomes automatic. Thoughtless. Easy.

And then everything changes.

Happy 2015

I didn’t make a New Year’s resolution even though researchers at the University of Scranton say people who explicitly make resolutions are 10 times more likely to attain their goals than people who don’t make them in the Journal of Clinical Psychology.

But I also don’t like being cliché. I didn’t successfully quit smoking years ago because of a New Year’s resolution. I quit smoking because I didn’t want to die young and because I didn’t want my young son to believe smoking was okay based on what he observed his father doing.

But I don’t need the turn of the calendar to make positive changes because there are no advantages to waiting. I can start today. Right now, even.

I can work to stop biting my nails.

I can develop new time-management habits that would allow me to finish the book.

I can find new ways to engage my son and be a better father.

I can insert myself in new environments and situations that will allow me to meet more people and make more friends.

I can read more books.

I can exercise longer and harder and more frequently.

I can be more grateful.

I can think more.

I can ask better questions.

I can be quicker to apologize and forgive.

I can be more mindful of today and tell people I love how much I appreciate them while they’re still here to tell.

I can pray more.

I can love more.

I can give more.

I can be more.

The hunger and cravings are there. The rewards are felt when I indulge them.

But the routines fall short.

But they don’t have to.

And I don’t have to wait until later to do something about it.

And neither do you.

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