The best places to look for solutions — to any significant problem you may face; not just relationship problems — are in the non-obvious places.
The places you haven’t looked.
The places you wouldn’t think to look.
And that’s the rub. It’s counter-intuitive to think of things we don’t naturally or instinctively think of. It’s sort of impossible to notice or know about things we can’t see.
One relationship partner’s failure to notice something (or many things) meaningful to the other is the root cause of many strained or broken couples.
Maybe she thinks he’s a selfish asshole for not noticing, or not acknowledging a Herculean effort on her part to plan a huge family event. Or re-decorating a room in their house. Or for all that she sacrificed so that their children are well fed, perform well in school, and get to and from their extracurricular activities safely and on-time without significant interruptions to his career and work schedule.
Maybe he’s super-busy advancing his workplace skills and accomplishments because from his earliest memories, the measure of a man was directly tied to career success and his ability to provide financial security to his family both today and for the entirety of their lives. Maybe his highest priority is the long-term wellness of his wife and children, and he’s afraid of failing them every day. And maybe while he’s keeping his head down trying to better himself and his family’s circumstances, he’s blind (literally never even saw) a change to her hair or their home.
While he’s looking in one place at one thing, something is happening outside of his field of view. He doesn’t even know there’s a thing to notice.
His checked-outness feels like disrespect to her. Like only the things he does matters, and she apparently amounts to little more than a house-cleaning nanny who cooks dinner, packs lunches, and who only gets feel-good attention when he’s trying to have sex with her.
When she finally speaks up about it, or cold-shoulders his attempt to connect in the bedroom, it seems to him that it came out of left field. What did I do this time?!
When we are trying to find solutions to our problems (or to locate anything missing like our phone or car keys), we default to looking in the obvious places first. And this makes sense as one of my favorite writers Seth Godin points out when he wrote “Look in the obvious places first.”
“That makes sense, because the obvious solution is obvious because we’ve learned how to solve problems like these. Your car keys are probably on your dresser, not in Santa Fe.
“Here’s the thing: if the problem is a longstanding one, if it hasn’t been solved in a while, then the places you think are obvious aren’t. Because they’ve already been tried.
“As time goes on, the most likely site of the solution is further and further away from what you would have guessed. So begin there instead. That’s the new obvious place.
“Hint: it’s probably a place that feels uncomfortable, risky or difficult.”
The answers to your questions and the fixes to your problems are probably not in any of the places in which you’ve been looking for them.
Couples have the same fight for 10, 20, even 30 years, if they make it that long.
And if one of them — so sure of themselves and certain of their correctness — hasn’t managed to convince the other, what must that signify?
That one or both of them are woefully incapable of effective communication. That one or both of them are intellectually incapable of comprehending the brilliance of the other.
Or maybe it means that two people can look at, hear, feel, or otherwise experience the same thing, and come away with differing accounts of what happened, and differing accounts of how they feel about it.
And maybe neither one is objectively correct or incorrect.
As my brilliant friend Lesli Doares, a Cary, N.C.-based marriage therapist says, if we have 10 thermometers telling us it’s 65 degrees Fahrenheit outside, we can feel secure in that objective truth: It’s 65 degrees outside.
But the answer to the all-important follow-up question that will make or break your relationships is NOT objective, even though most of us treat it like one:
Yes. It’s 65 degrees. But, is that hot or cold?
It’s Not One Event or One Thing — It’s the Accumulation of the Tiny, Unnoticed Things
I’ve long described the end of my marriage as death by a thousand paper cuts.
One paper cut isn’t a big deal. We shake it off and move on. Same for the second and third, and probably even the 100th. But maybe after a thousand, the wounds are so severe that we bleed to death and die.
Our relationships die with one or both of us asleep at the wheel.
This idea — this death-by-a-thousand-cuts concept — fascinates me. How can it be that two people agree to forsake all others and partner up for life, and pool their resources, and make children and homes and new lives together, and then half of them fail to the tune of 6,600 divorces per day in the United States alone?
How can that be? After so many decades of experience and knowledge and new generations of people? How can so many people fail at the most precious and important thing at the center of their lives?
Are we all cosmically huge assholes hell bent on mutual self-destruction?
Are we all horrible, incompetent, evil, manipulative, selfish, nasty people incapable of behaving with love and kindness?
Do the things that end us seem so inconsequential — so harmless and insignificant — that we don’t bother with them?
Do things that we encounter every day (I call them the All The Time things) escape our notice simply because our brains are biologically prone to adapt to our surroundings and routines?
In our never-ending search for comfort, we build in personal systems of routine and familiarity in our actions, our surroundings, our habits, and the people with whom we surround ourselves.
And then we become blind to what becomes constant. Like the summer-nights hum of insects or the everyday sounds of city traffic from a downtown office building. Like white noise.
What happened to cause your marriage to fall apart?
There’s rarely one thing. One event. It’s the accumulation of a million data points, and when the positive ones emerged consistently, two people fell in love and had content, healthy relationships. When the negative ones emerged consistently, things began to erode from within until the structural integrity gave way and everything collapsed.
Simon Sinek, a brilliant author and speaker, describes it from the opposite perspective — how two people fall in love, which I’d argue is simply the reverse-engineered version of how we break our relationships.
When we go to the gym once, or even twice, can we see results? No? Then it must not work! So people quit.
When we brush our teeth for two minutes a couple of times per day, does it make a measurable impact? Not particularly. Doing it once won’t fix a cavity or whiten your stained teeth. It must not work!
Sinek talks through process in the video (that I tried and failed to embed below), and it’s perfect. He discusses both love and business leadership, but the lessons are the same in either instance.
Brushing your teeth for two minutes twice per day doesn’t do anything. It doesn’t matter. UNLESS, you brush your teeth for two minutes twice per day always. It’s the consistent behavior that matters. It’s the consistent behavior that produces healthy, desirable results.
WATCH THIS, please. It’s fantastic.
Take a Closer Look at the All The Time Things
We have questions. We have pains.
So we look for answers. We try to solve our problems so our pains go away.
We look in the places we think to look.
But if the problem has been around for a long time, whatever thing or piece of information you need to achieve your desired result is elsewhere.
And just maybe, they’re hiding in plain sight in the white noise of the All The Time.
NOTE: If you would like to explore whether working with me might help you notice things that exist in your blind spots, or whether reframing your thought and communication habits in your relationship might help you have a breakthrough, please consider whether my coaching services could help you or someone you love.