Category Archives: Being Human

I Figured Out Who To Blame For My Divorce

man and woman pointing fingers at each other

(Image/shawnpowrie.com)

After an 18-month downward spiral of misery hallmarked by sexlessness, sleeping in separate bedrooms, and crying more than any middle-class white guy living in the United States should be allowed, my wife packed a bag and drove away with our preschooler in the backseat.

And because during those final months I felt as if I was trying harder than she was to make it work, I blamed her for ruining my life and taking half of my son’s childhood away from me.

I felt abandoned. Betrayed. Rejected.

I felt like she chose someone else over me because I wasn’t good enough.

Not rich enough. Not smart enough. Not attractive enough. Not sexy enough. Not tall enough.

Not ANYTHING enough.

Must be this tall to ride.

She moved out. And before I had time to figure out what hit me, she was with someone else.

I blamed her for breaking up our family. I blamed her for disrupting our little son’s childhood. I blamed her for the intense pain I felt in my head, chest and stomach. I blamed her for leaving me alone in a town where I didn’t have roots, but couldn’t move from.

I blamed her for ruining my entire life.

She did this to me.

The Skill of Blaming

When bad things happen in my personal life, my brain quickly creates stories to explain why those bad things are as much Not My Fault as mathematically possible.

It’s kind of incredible how instantaneously it occurs.

I’d call it a superpower, but maybe everyone does it. Also, I perceive superpowers to be tools used for good, and blame-shifting even as an involuntary subconscious process that happens before we even have time to speak or act, is not something I’d consider “good.”

I don’t have to try hard to do this.

Point to something you don’t like about me, or some aspect of my behavior or lifestyle you observe as needing improvement, and I can tell you a legit story about why it’s that way.

Only child.

Small-town Ohio.

Divorced parents.

Unforeseeable economic conditions.

ADHD.

Super-busy.

Single father.

Whatever.

Something I inherited or some limitation created by someone else can usually be blamed for whatever The Bad Thing is.

Sometimes I even catch myself saying: “That’s not meant to be an excuse; that’s the actual reason” to people to whom I’m probably just making excuses.

I’d like to think I’m being honest when I say it.

But maybe I trick myself into believing my own bullshit before I ever get to the part where I challenge my own assumptions. Maybe I sometimes move on before ever getting to the self-challenging part because I’m busy or distracted or lazy. That’s probably how a whole bunch of false beliefs and general assholery happens.

I think I might thoughtlessly do what many humans thoughtlessly do: We rationalize and believe whatever story makes us feel most comfortable.

I’ve been thinking about blame ever since another writer pointed me in the direction of this Dr. Brené Brown video on blame. It’s excellent and you should watch it in an effort to keep your assholery quotient as low as possible.

When Blame is Good

I’ve been trying to work out when blame or the act of assigning blame might be useful.

If someone is wrongly accused of a crime or even just misidentified as having caused The Bad Thing at home, school or work, it seems like a good thing to exonerate the innocent by discovering the true cause.

Similarly, bad things sometimes happen on a broader scale, like a workplace accident, airplane crash or building fire. In these situations, some type of root-cause analysis and investigation is conducted to identify the reason The Bad Thing happened.

It’s good to identify reasons. To assign “blame” correctly, because then steps can be taken to learn from any mistakes that might have contributed to The Bad Thing happening.

There are very few items on my Reasons My Life is Better Because of Divorce! list that I just invented.

But one of them is: Now that I’ve identified several ways that my incorrect beliefs and asshole behaviors contributed to my divorce, I can now be confident that I’m unlikely to repeat them.

Which is a bigger deal for people like me than you might realize.

People who smoke a pack of Marlboros every day, and pound fast-food cheeseburgers and shakes for every meal are more likely to gain weight and develop heart disease, cancer or another potentially fatal disease linked to poor nutrition.

There was a time in history not so long ago where MOST people in the world didn’t know things like that.

Figuring out what to “blame” for the sickness and death was good. It was useful. It helped us collectively make better choices moving forward.

The truth is that blame is rarely good or useful. A better word for the good kind of “blame” is Accountability.

When Blame is Bad

I’m wrong more often than I want to believe (You are too. Sorry!), but I’m pretty sure blaming other things and other people for The Bad Things we encounter is almost never good.

Brené Brown says it best in that video above that you probably didn’t watch.

She said “I’d rather something be my fault than no one’s fault. Why? Because it gives us some semblance of control.”

And that very thought is, I believe, the one that helped me get from depression and borderline-suicidalness, to the place where I can find comfort and peace that my son and his mother have someone other than me who cares about them and looks out for their wellbeing.

When my needy, bitchy, nagging, unsatisfiable and overly emotional wife left me, I was a victim, and powerless to any of her personal-life decisions (which impacted me directly because we share a child). Everything was her fault, and I was miserable and kind of wanted to die.

However.

When my unsupported, emotionally abandoned wife who had spent several years trying her best to help me understand how my actions and attitudes were harming her and our marriage (while I repeatedly denied it and refused to change) FINALLY worked up the courage to leave the relationship in the face of sacrificing so much time with her son, and suffering the personal-life fallout of all who would judge her disapprovingly for that choice…

Everything became MY fault. 

Because—despite tricking myself and others for many years—I had been a monumentally shitty husband.

And after coming to terms emotionally with the depths of my failings, my misery turned into power.

My despair turned into hope.

Because I finally, finally, finally understood how my actions had lead me to the place I was in, and I could feel the incredible power that comes with being in control of my own life again.

And when you understand how something you did or didn’t do lead to the worst thing that ever happened to you, you get to stop being afraid of it happening again for the same reason.

We can’t fix things when we don’t even know what’s broken.

Blame blinds us to accurate diagnoses.

Brown said: “Blame is the discharging of discomfort and pain. It has an inverse relationship with accountability. Accountability is a vulnerable process.”

Similar to how The Gottman Institute has conducted incredible amounts of research and amassed huge quantities of data on which to base its relationship-counseling advice, Brown also has taken a research-based approach to helping people develop better relationship skills.

“Blaming is simply a way to discharge anger. People who blame a lot seldom have the tenacity and grit to actually hold people accountable because we spend all of our energy raging for 15 seconds and figuring out whose fault something is,” Brown said. “Blaming is very corrosive in relationships, and one of the reasons we miss our opportunities for empathy.”

And if you don’t exactly know what empathy is and why it’s important (I did not throughout the entirety my nine-year marriage), then you’ll be pleased to know it’s the one thing you can start practicing today that will literally change your life and those of everyone you interact with regularly in profound and positive ways.

Nine out of 10 doctors recommend it for curing a bad case of assholery.

When I blame other people and happenings for the bad things I experience in life, then nothing I do matters because everything good or bad that happens to me is out of my control.

The poor helpless victim that I am.

When I accept responsibility for all of my choices from an appropriate age of accountability through today, then everything I do matters because everything that happens to me is a result of something I can influence by whatever I choose next.

It’s the difference between anxiety and confidence; between despair and hope; and between a life where things just happen to us, and one where we decide what happens next.

It’s easy to blame everything on my ex-wife.

It’s hard to be accountable for everything that happened to my family.

But my most important discovery following the worst thing that ever happened to me is this: I can do hard things.

And so can you.

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The Power of Understanding

The Power of Understanding

On the left is what we consider “color-correct.” On the right is what someone with red-green colorblindness sees. (Image/Irv Aron’s Journal)

Person #1: “I love the way the red pomegranates, orange oranges and yellow bananas pop in this photo.”

Person #2: “What are you smoking? Everything looks muted. Dark greens and grays. Nothing is red or yellow in that photo.”

Person #1: “Are we looking at the same thing here? The colors are vibrant and beautiful. You’re crazy if you don’t think so.”

Person #2: “Whatever. You’re a moron. I know what I see.”

Couples fight a lot. We’re human. We disagree because our brains work differently than others’. But when we FIGHT, it’s mostly because we don’t understand.

And then, no matter how many different situations crop up, it seems as if the fight is always the same.

Both people believe they’re looking at the same thing, yet both people see something totally different, in much the same way people with color-correct vision perceive color differently than those with red-green colorblindness.

That situation rarely comes up today because advanced tools and understanding in optometry detects colorblindness early.

But you can imagine the conversations people were having before it became widely known that color-blind people literally see something different than those of us blessed with the ability to see the full range of colors.

Two sane people arguing about how something right in front of them looks totally different than what the other is describing, and both thinking the other must be crazy or intentionally trying to upset them.

I think that sums up the majority of marriage and relationship arguments throughout human history.

Sometimes one person will be factually incorrect, yes.

But the marriage fights that slowly break down the emotional connection between two spouses tend not to be about things we can “prove.”

We Don’t Need to Speak the Same Language; We Need Only Accurate Translations

I can’t read nor understand any spoken language that isn’t English (not counting the 30 words I still remember from my Spanish classes).

How accurate or helpful a written document or spoken set of instructions may be can’t overcome my inability to understand them when offered in any language but the one I know.

There’s profound power in understanding what something means.

The Power of Habit

Stuff happened to you when you were a baby that you can’t remember, but the imprint those things left on you is responsible for some of the emotional triggers affecting you today.

They look and feel different for everyone. Even siblings raised by the same people in the same environment.

Moreover, we spend our lives subconsciously developing habits. Habits are very powerful. When our spouses say or do certain things, it may trigger something within us that brings out the worst in us. It’s emotional, deep-seated chemical response based on a lifetime of experiences (many of which we may have misinterpreted or misunderstood at the time!).

Charles Duhigg wrote an awesome book about habits. Here’s a quick video about the power of habits:

So, I finally understood what my wife had been saying all these years, and that fundamental shift in understanding changed EVERYTHING for me in terms of my ability to properly frame our conversations and disagreements.

It was incredibly empowering (albeit regret-inducing) to recognize reality. To be clued into the truth about colorblindness for the first time.

And I was so excited about this information that seemed so powerful and important to me that I wanted to share it with as many people as possible.

Divorce was very hard as a child to see your parents go through it, and it’s very hard as an adult — the breakage and loss we feel, and the added pain of watching our kids suffer and knowing we had a hand in it.

And FINALLY, I know something that other guys don’t know, but IF they knew, they could all change and then maybe they won’t get divorced like me.

That was what I thought and felt.

But after doing this for four years, seeing and hearing how so many relationship and divorce stories play out, and going through the human experience myself in my various family and social relationships, I’ve learned something else very important.

We Don’t Change — Our Understanding Does

I thought my new understanding would change me. I even used the word “change.” I described myself as a new person. A different person.

It’s a lot of semantics of course, but I’m not actually all that different. And I haven’t really changed despite all of my newfound understanding.

I used to believe that I could help a man understand what I know, and that if he “got it,” he could then flip a switch and magically turn into someone else who never did the things which upset his spouse.

That’s not what happens.

People don’t magically turn into other people with totally different personalities and habits, no matter how much they learn.

I used to believe that a guy would simply stop doing all of those things which started fights at home and THAT would save a marriage.

I no longer believe that.

I believe a guy — any person, really — will continue to be exactly who they are. But I believe they will occasionally be more mindful of their behaviors and reduce instances of situations which historically caused an argument.

But the real value is in the understanding.

Marriages aren’t saved by people changing everything about themselves and the chemistry that brought them together in the first place.

Marriages are saved by people who learn how to understand one another. We learn that our translators are unreliable, so we must account for things getting lost in translation. We learn that the goal of a conversation is not to win an argument, but to achieve mutual understanding.

We learn that we can look at the exact same photo as someone else and see something totally different because neither of us are wrong. Then, when we talk, we are — maybe for the first time ever — actually talking about the same things with the same frame of reference.

Because my brain and your brain are not the same.

Because all of my individual experiences, and all of yours, shaped us into people who see and feel things differently.

Because colorblindness is real.

“Oh, he’s colorblind. Of course the fruit looks different to him. He isn’t wrong. He isn’t crazy. And he hasn’t been intentionally trying to anger or hurt me all this of time after all.”

We want them to change.

But all we really need is for them to understand.

That’s when good things happen.

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How to Determine Your Worth as a Person

Sotheby's art auction London

What’s it worth? Everyone gets to decide for themselves. Just like we do about ourselves. (Image/Art Market Monitor)

Let’s pretend I possess the world’s largest diamond collection.

Because diamonds have high market value, I would be “worth” a lot of money.

But why are diamonds valuable? They’re stones. Like the ones we skip across ponds or kick to the side of the trail.

Simple supply and demand, which I understood but didn’t actually get in high school economics class.

When many people want something not readily available, prices go up. “Value” goes up. It’s why there are empty seats at every Cleveland Indians regular season game, but you have to pay double or triple for standing-room only tickets for playoff games.

Diamonds are rocks. They’re extremely valuable as precious stones coveted by high-end jewelers and gem collectors. But they’re just rocks.

Just like paper money or treasury bonds or gold coins, diamonds aren’t worth anything during disasters or in a post-apocalyptic society. Diamonds are useful for looking pretty (and cutting things; but mostly just looking pretty).

Water, for example, is a much more useful substance than diamonds. Water provides life-sustaining support to plant and animal life. Our bodies are primarily composed of water. Water is fundamental to Life being a thing.

Without diamonds, everyone just buys ruby and emerald engagement rings.

Without water, everything dies and turns into a Sandbox of Horribleness.

Sometimes called the Diamond-Water Paradox, diamonds and water best demonstrate the contradiction of water having MUCH more usefulness and intrinsic value than diamonds, but most of us dump water out on the ground or down sink drains every day.

And diamonds are among our highest-valued financial possessions.

The Paradox of Value, it’s called.

So, you tell me: What has greater value? Diamonds or water?

Value—What Something is Worth—Is Purely Subjective

In other words, you get to decide.

Listen, water is totally more valuable than diamonds. Right? Right.

But if the Diamond Fairy and Water Fairy both show up at my house offering me a bucket of their finest offerings, I’m telling the Water Fairy to go kick rocks.

If I was dying of thirst in an ocean of desert sand, I’d probably make a different choice.

A longtime reader went through a recent break-up, she said in her email. She said it was the second break-up that ended with her walking away and feeling as if the guys weren’t fighting for her or their relationship.

That made her feel shitty.

She said this: “Please just tell me—am I worth something? I’m so lonely and sad. I ask myself, ‘What is wrong with me that I’m not being valued?’ It’s so hard.”

I get it.

I put on a pretty good show because I’m not the crying lame-ass I was four years ago when the sky was falling at home. Because I’m “healed” now, I probably seem less pathetic and “okay” to casual observers.

But when I realized what my wife was choosing over being married to me, and what she was sacrificing as far as her time with her son as part of that choice, I got to feel the full brunt of hardcore human rejection for the first time in life.

It blew ass.

And I’m still…recovering? Coping? Coming to terms with myself?

I don’t know.

I just know that I now understand what it looks and feels like to let other people influence how we feel about ourselves.

If she’s choosing THAT, how much can I really be worth?

Other People Don’t Get to Decide

I had a problem with this idea for most of my life.

And it’s not the first time I’ve written about it.

Because football is wildly popular, nationally televised, and generates billions of dollars in advertising, merchandise and ticket sales; I thought it was reasonable to tell my wife she was wrong when she preferred something else.

If she liked some derpy, cliché-riddled romantic comedy better than some spectacularly awesome movie I liked, I would use some metric to “prove” my favorite was more valuable than hers (if they contradicted each other), like the number of positive movie reviews or a big box-office haul.

Let me be clear—I wasn’t trying to “win.” I was trying to convince her to like all of the same things as me because it was super-inconvenient that we mostly didn’t like the same things, and I wanted to change that without me having to become an accomplished ballroom dancer or snow skier.

It didn’t work.

I’m not sure why, but I think it’s because people like different things, and telling someone their opinions and preferences are “wrong” generally doesn’t make people magically change all of their personal tastes.

But…Why?

The 4 Kinds of Value

There might be more variations. I don’t know.

But I believe it looks like this:

1. Intrinsic Value – the concept of something having worth “in itself” or “in its own right.”

I believe human beings have intrinsic value. When people have intrinsic value, we don’t rape, murder, steal, injure, defraud, defame, or otherwise harm them. As a general rule. So I think it’s a nice belief.

2. Market Value – a constantantly fluctuating metric based primarily on supply and demand.

3. Personal Value to Other People

4. Personal Value to Me

So…

What’s Your Worth?

If you believe what I believe, you have intrinsic value by virtue of being a living, breathing human being.

Your market value depends ENTIRELY on context. If you are the world’s best computer programmer, you’re going to be the coolest and most “valuable” person in the room at your next conference or hackathon, but maybe you suck at other things, like long-distance swim races, or building a deck, or training K-9 unit police dogs.

Your personal value to other people?

I care about what others think of me. More than I should. Even strangers. But when I get really intentional and thoughtful about it, I inevitably come to the conclusion that no one else’s opinions matter.

Some people eat cabbage and sauerkraut and canned spinach on purpose.

Some people think chocolate tastes bad.

Some people think ultra-tight skinny jeans look good on men.

If disagreeing with them is wrong, I don’t want to be right.

I can only conclude: If the concept of VALUE is purely subjective, then only an individual can determine her or his own worth; and others’ opinions (or possibly just what we mistakenly think they are) are unreliable and irrelevant data points in the equation.

I know it hurts when you break up.

I know it hurts when people you like don’t seem to like you back.

I know it hurts when people seem to value a relationship less than you.

But I also know that girlfriends, boyfriends, wives, husbands, friends, strangers nor anyone nor anything else on earth gets to decide what you’re worth.

What she’s worth.

What he’s worth.

What I’m worth.

You do.

I do.

Diamonds or water?

We decide.

I can’t tell you what to believe. But I can encourage you to decide that you matter, since your opinion is the only one that counts.

 

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She Divorced Me Because I Was Nicer to Strangers Than I Was to Her

couple fighting in public

(Image/Bao Moi)

I was usually nicer to strangers than I was to my wife.

People I didn’t know and would never see again. I treated them with patience, courtesy and politeness.

But the person who lived in the same house, gave birth to my son, and did more for me than anyone else? I often didn’t extend those same courtesies to her.

While I was oblivious to most of my missteps as a husband, I was fully aware of this—something I’ve noticed about myself from childhood: I sometimes treat total strangers better than the people I love most.

From age 5 on, I lived with my mom nine months out of the year. I lived with my dad, who lived hundreds of miles away, the other three months (school breaks).

I was observably nicer to my dad than my mom.

Throughout my relationship with my wife, she would point out instances when she felt I was being mean, or impatient, or thoughtless toward her, and that it hurt her feelings because as she was feeling that way, she could see me being kind, patient and thoughtful toward others, even strangers. She wondered why I couldn’t treat her that way, too.

My defense was always something like: “I LOVE you. I married you. Everything I have is yours,” arguing that should somehow earn me the benefit of the doubt.

I don’t know why I did that, felt that, or thought that.

I have a little boy in third grade who I love in ways I don’t know how to articulate. He’s my favorite everything.

But sometimes, I’m kind of a dick to him, and I hate it.

When he gets crumbs on the floor, or makes some mistake that is probably super-standard for little boys in third grade, or otherwise “fails” whatever expectations I have for him in a given moment, I sometimes respond with anger and a little harshness.

Sometimes I imagine if the last words I ever said to him were angry or prick-ish, and then I died in a car accident or something.

I almost feel like crying when I mentally put myself there.

I was nicer to other adults than I was to my parents.

I was nicer to other people than I was to my wife.

I was and am sometimes nicer to other children than I was or am to my son.

We know that we love the people we love. But the people we love only know we love them when they see, hear and feel evidence of that love. They don’t just psychically or magically feel good because of our thoughts and intentions.

When we are nicer to others than we are to them, they can begin to question whether we actually do love them.

I don’t know what that does to a parent when their child treats others better than them as I’m still in My Dad Can Do No Wrong Land, which will surely go away in the next couple of years. Not looking forward to finding out what that’s like.

Bad things happen to children who feel unloved and unaccepted by their parents.

And bad things happen to people who feel unloved, unwanted or rejected by their spouses.

All because we sometimes treat strangers better than people we love.

As Always, You’re Not the Only One

The term is “selfobject.” And you and I have “selfobject needs” and when these needs go unfulfilled, we lose our sense of self, feel shittier about our lives, treat ourselves and other people worse, and inadvertently damage all of our relationships, including our marriages.

Psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut figured this out and coined the term in the mid-twentieth century, and therapist F. Diane Barth illustrated it with examples from one of her married-couple clients in her excellent article “Why It’s Easier to be Kind to Strangers Than Our Partners” which I discovered by typing almost that exact phrase into Google.

“At some point in every relationship, partners, parents, siblings, friends, and even children provide psychological and emotional functions for us that we cannot provide for ourselves.”

Most people—even non-parents—can probably relate to married couple Bob and Ann.

The couple struggled for years to conceive a child.

When they finally did, they welcomed a colicky newborn into the world who cried nonstop every night for a long time.

The first thing that happened was all of the happy things they’d imagined in their heads about starting a family looked and felt quite different in real life. It was supposed to be amazing and feel good. But mostly it was exhausting and felt bad.

Bob and Ann both are stressing out, big-time.

Ann feels like a crappy mother.

Bob feels helpless but tries anyway by offering suggestions. The suggestions anger Ann. She cries and lets him know how much harder he’s making it on her.

He withdraws. She feels abandoned.

This is totally NOT how I thought this would go, they think.

Stress is hard on marriage and relationships even when the stress is good, like moving into a new house, taking a new job, or bringing a new child home.

“It is also common not to have compassion for one another during these times, even though it would seem that it would be exactly the most useful emotion in the moment,” Barth writes. “Why is it that we can be compassionate and kind to friends, relatives and even strangers in ways that we cannot muster for our loved ones?

“The answer is in part found in the meaning of compassion itself. One of the keys to compassion is empathy, which author and speaker Brené Brown defines as the ability to take another person’s perspective, to understand and appreciate what they are feeling. We expect our loved ones to do exactly this for us. Ann expected Bob to appreciate how badly she was feeling about herself as a mother, for instance. She also needed him to recognize how hard she was trying and to tell her that she was not a bad mother simply because her baby was not being soothed.

“But, as happens in relationships, Bob also had needs. In particular, he needed Ann to help him feel okay about himself as a partner. He needed to believe that she would know how to soothe their baby. And he desperately wanted her to let him know that they were going to be the family he had imagined they were.”

Kohut said people require “selfobject needs” to be met just like they need oxygen to breathe, from birth to death.

Kohut explained that humans use the RESPONSES of certain others—our romantic partners or parents or children or friends, etc.—to help us maintain a healthy, balanced, positive, stable sense of self.

In other words, we make those closest to us an actual part of ourselves, and those people provide important psychological and emotional functions for us that we can’t give ourselves.

We literally rely on loved-ones’ behavior to guide our beliefs about ourselves, and to know the person we believe ourselves to be and see in the mirror while brushing our teeth.

And when those others stop providing the responses we’re conditioned to expect, or that we grew accustomed to, we’re not really ourselves anymore. We stop being the person we thought we were.

And when people in marriages or romantic relationships of any kind become someone else, everything tends to break.

But you know that already.

Because it’s not just you. And it’s not just me. And that often makes us feel better to know we’re not in this alone.

But I don’t really feel that way about this, because it’s another in a LONG and distinguished list of things that cause divorce that WOULDN’T cause divorce if we were simply aware of it before it happened, or as it was happening.

I’m aware of many areas of my life that could use improvement. Sometimes, I take steps to make things better. Sometimes, I let bad habits continue to make my life worse and erode my relationships.

Even when I understand that my words and actions are accidentally hurting someone I love and care about, I still sometimes say or do those things thoughtlessly.

Maybe that will always be.

Or maybe some habits are simply harder to break, and I’ll get there one day.

I didn’t know how to make my wife feel loved.

I don’t know if I would know how to make her feel loved now.

I only know that a bunch of bad things happened because I was unaware of how my words and actions made her feel, and then everything got sick and died.

But you can’t treat an illness that you can’t diagnose.

And maybe now that we’ve identified it, we can do things better.

You deserve it.

And so do all the people who matter most.

If we can treat total strangers with kindness, using polite language and thoughtful action, I think we might be able to do the same for our spouses.

And since I don’t have one of those, I’m going to have to count on you find out.

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On a Personal Note

handwriting a letter

(Image/Corcianonline)

Hey.

I felt like writing to you, instead of another new version of the things I almost always write.

I’m sitting here debating spending $50 on a Wu-Tang Clan ugly Christmas sweater to wear to my friends’ annual (and irreverent) ugly Christmas sweater-themed party. $50 does cross my I-don’t-like-wasting-it financial threshold, and I’m currently thinking about all of the little kids who won’t receive presents or possibly even food on Christmas Day, and thinking that if I drop $50 on a Wu sweater, Jesus will send me a very disappointed text message with a stern emoji face, and my mother will zap me with lightning bolts from the sky.

I might have that backward.

Dolla dolla bills, y’all.

Okay. Moving on.

That Awkward Moment – A Divorce Story

There are probably some cool customers out there who handle every post-divorce life situation with enviable skill and grace.

I’m not one of them.

On the heels of divorce, you experience a bunch of things for the first time, with varying degrees of unpleasantness and/or emotional impact.

It’s awkward when you and your recently separated ex are both godparents to a baby girl at her baptism.

It’s awkward when you hang out with your friends without her.

It’s awkward when you see your friends hanging out with her without you on Facebook before you block the feed for self-preservation reasons.

It’s awkward when you go to parent-teacher conferences together for the first time.

It’s awkward when your little boy cries for his mother when he’s with you, or cries for you when he’s with mom.

It’s awkward when you travel alone for the first time.

It’s awkward when you go on a date for the first time.

It’s awkward when you take a date to a wedding, and your ex-wife’s aunt and uncle you were shocked to bump into are ironically seated at the table next to you.

It’s awkward when you first visit your extended family for holidays as a single adult.

It’s awkward when your ex-wife comes over that first Christmas Eve so you can both watch your son open gifts from his parents.

It’s awkward when you’re driving around town with your mom in the passenger seat who is visiting from out of town, and you randomly see your ex-wife’s vehicle, but a guy you know is driving it at 10 a.m. on a weekend morning.

It’s awkward when your son goes on vacation with his mom’s family and you discover that guy is going too.

It’s awkward when you pick up or drop off your son at his mom’s house and that guy’s shoes are by the door even though he’s not there.

It’s awkward when you pick up or drop off your son at his mom’s house and that guy is there, clearly totally at-home.

It’s awkward when you hear him call her “Babe.”

And it’s a little-bit awkward when the three of you start attending your child’s extracurriculars together.

I arrived at the gym about 10 minutes before tip-off for my son’s weekend basketball game. His mom and her boyfriend were already sitting there. As the people were positioned around them, sitting next to him and not my ex-wife was the sensible move.

Aside from that regretful and/or jealous tinge we bury way down deep, I don’t have any problem sitting next to him. He’s an excellent guy and I have no reason to treat him with anything other than kindness and respect. He’s good to my son and his mom. He’s smart. Polite. Treats people around him well.

Those things matter.

At some point during the game, I caught out of my peripheral his hand reaching over to caress hers. I was surprised to discover it made me want to set myself on fire.

After the game, a bunch of parents were milling around the hall outside the locker rooms waiting for the kids to come out.

That’s when a dad whose son played for the opposing team randomly approached my ex-wife’s boyfriend because they’d gone to high school together.

I wasn’t at all surprised to discover wanting to set myself on fire when everyone was meeting each other and exchanging small-world pleasantries while I stepped a few extra feet away before being miraculously saved seconds later by a hug from a little boy happy to see his dad. Like magic—the I-don’t-really-matter feeling disappeared.

We bleed and scar and heal. We grow—wiser, tougher.

We become okay. Not fake-okay, but actually okay.

But the sucker punches and awkward moments don’t stop ‘til they stop.

Maybe they will someday.

The Importance of Mattering

I’ve spent the past three and a half years writing about divorce and marriage and relationships. I did it at the beginning because I needed to get the emotional vomit out of my system. And then I kept doing it because it appeared to be helping some people. That was a big deal to me.

You know? A reason for existing?

A husband and father has purpose.

But some divorced asshole is just another cliché statistic most people don’t want to hang out with lest they contract the Divorce AIDS by proxy.

I’m half-joking.

My little boy remains my purpose. But let’s be honest—mom is the better parent by every measurable standard outside of my genetic advantage in the Involved Fathers Help Children Thrive space.

I know this isn’t unique to me. When she walked out that door, so did a bunch of the purpose I had—without being mindful of it—felt throughout our relationship and marriage.

This is something I didn’t learn as a child—but quickly realized once I was the last person living at home: Our lives MUST be lived for things greater than ourselves.

I was a well-documented shitty husband.

But I loved the woman and cared about many things simply because I was married to her. When good things happened, or I experienced successes, or I received good news or learned something interesting, only a small part of the experience felt good on its own. The good part was sharing the good thing with her.

The craving—something damn close to need—for her respect, her validation, her pleasure, her praise, her love was strong.

I think most husbands feel that in profound ways.

Which does a couple of things:

  1. Helps explain why we feel so mind- and heart-fucked when she moves out and starts seeing someone else.
  2. Makes us incredibly dense assholes for all of the times we blatantly disregard our wives’ expressed wishes because—hell, I don’t even know why—because it’s inconvenient in the 20 minutes we’re living in right that moment?

We’re going on four straight years of self-reflection on all this, and I still can’t explain it.

This Has Given Me Purpose

This has given me a thing to do. A thing that provides value for some people. Where people sometimes say: “Matt. You’re doing something special and important and you matter.”

I want to be doing it for all of the selfless reasons that matter to humanity-at-large, but I’d be lying if I didn’t acknowledge the selfish desire I have to feel like something I do matters.

Everyone has varying degrees of psychological and emotional needs. Super-healthy, functional people with great relationships manage them effectively.

The rest of us just fumble about in the dark, unfairly mother-effing all of the innocent inanimate objects when we hurt ourselves tripping over them.

The Two Ways to Help People

I’ve struggled for a long time with the idea that I didn’t know how to help people in struggling marriages or just trying to get through the day while going through a divorce.

I watched my parents split and grew up with divorced parents as my life narrative.

Then, about 30 years later, after a lifetime of assuring everyone around me I’d never get divorced, I got divorced.

You know the expression “eat crow”? Well, it’s not crow. It’s a giant feces pile composed of digested crow. A big pile that’s not all the way gone.

I don’t write about it much anymore for the same reason most people only share positive-storytelling things on social media. I’m ashamed of it. I don’t want you to know. I don’t want my family to know. I don’t want my friends to know.

Divorce is the dominant theme of my entire life story.

It begs the question: “What does this moron know about how to have healthy relationships and good marriages?”

I get it. I’d wonder the same thing.

I want very much to be able to offer specific actions a person could take to fix his or her marriage.

But I don’t know what to do either. And even if I did, the you-love-another-totally-unpredictable-human-being X-factor will always rule out the possibility for relationship instruction manuals.

I mostly just know what NOT to do. Sometimes that helps people.

“There are two ways to help people in this world: 1) give them specific, tangible advice on what they should do to fix their problems, and 2) normalize their suffering to simply remind them that they are not as alone or as hopeless as they think they are,” wrote Mark Manson in his latest post “6 Books That Make You Less of a Horrible Person.”

“Often what we need the most is not more ‘tools’ and ‘tips’ to get through our hardest hours. What we need is someone who simply understands our pain, and is able to clearly and beautifully articulate that it will one day be OK again.”

I am embarrassed about the basketball-game story I shared. It seems immature and petty to feel as I did. I don’t like that I felt those things. And I don’t like you knowing that after all of this time, things can still cut. I can still bleed.

I think everybody bleeds.

And I think the reason to talk about it is so other people who also are bleeding or feeling shitty or feeling afraid or sad or ashamed can feel: “That happens to me too. It’s nice to know I’m not the only one.”

In the end, I think that’s how I might be able to help someone. I think that’s how I might be able to help myself.

I don’t really know anything. I can’t provide great wisdom or teach any valuable life skills.

But I think—sometimes—I can help a person feel like they’re not the only one.

I hope that can be enough.

Looking Toward 2017 and New Things

Holy shit, right?

2017.

That’s insane. I’ll turn 38 in March. Maybe other things will happen also. We’ll find out.

This blog will need to evolve.

I would like to convert it into a multi-contributor platform with other writers willing to bleed on the page a little.

I’d also like to introduce a new feature of some kind, and audio and/or video content seems like the obvious evolution.

Because I’m occasionally shy, I’m going to ease my way into it by doing simple blog-post readings of posts new and old using Facebook’s new Facebook Audio feature. (You can follow the Facebook page here.)

That might be fun.

I’m looking forward to trying it out and seeing what you think.

In the meantime, it’s Christmas again. They come so fast anymore. For the first time in my life, Hanukkah coincides with Christmas. I’m not sure why that’s cool, but it seems so.

No matter what you celebrate, I hope you have a very happy and blessed holiday season, and to my Christmas compadres, a very merry and beautiful and connection-building and relationship-healing Christmas with loved ones.

Thank you so much for giving your valuable time and attention to this place. It means the world.

We have another opportunity to light up the darkness. Please do.

Do good things.

Cheers, you.

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We Can’t Always Get What We Want, But if We Try Sometimes…

maslows-hierarchy-of-needs-by-angela-duncan

Everyone needs a few things. If you deny help to your partner in their pursuits, or become an obstacle, then your relationship will inevitably suck or end. (Image/Angela Duncan)

You and outside forces are engaged in a never-ending dance—working in harmony, or against each other—to motivate your spouse or partner to stay with you or leave you.

While I never thought of my marriage as any sort of Gotcha!-trap for my wife, it’s pretty clear upon reflection that my behavior frequently conveyed the belief she would never leave and that I had no power nor responsibility to influence her decisions or motivate her to choose me and our marriage over other options.

Maybe it’s because I grew up Catholic and didn’t see much divorce.

Maybe it’s because I was ignorant and oblivious.

Or maybe it’s because I was a stupid asshole.

It has become clear to me in the years following the 2013 divorce that ended my nine-year marriage that my wife needed things in life (whether or not I agreed with her conclusions) and that my job—my solemn duty as her husband—was to help her acquire or achieve those things, even if those things were as simple as more attention, more respect and more empathy.

Our opinions regarding others’ needs have little impact on their behaviors and choices. If THEY believe they need something, they will pursue those needs with or without us.

We can accept that and thrive, even if it means exerting more energy and giving more of ourselves to others.

Or we can reject it, and learn the hard way in our failed relationships (even when we mask the truth and convince others—and sometimes ourselves—things are okay even when they’re not).

What Do Our Partners Need? What Do We Need?

People need things.

We can debate semantics surrounding the word “need,” like whether electricity or indoor plumbing or Wi-Fi or sex or vehicles qualify. But if you’ll grant me some latitude on using that word, it will help very much.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow famously published his hierarchy of human needs in 1943.

It’s normally presented in pyramid form like this:

hierarchy-of-human-needs-pyramid-image-by-huriata

Image/Huriata

In reverse pyramid-stacking order, people need:

1. Physiological (Basic Needs)

We need air, water, food, clothes and shelter.

Typically, if any of those are missing, we don’t care very much about family drama, the economy, or The Walking Dead season finale.

2. Safety

We need to feel safe.

If lions and bears are chasing us, or someone is pointing a gun at us, or we are diagnosed with a life-changing or threatening disease, or the financial markets crash and we lose all of our money, or terrorists detonate bombs in random public places, we lose our ability to feel safe.

Stress and anxiety consume us, and we are stuck on the second rung of the Life Needs ladder until the feelings of safety return.

3. Love/Belonging

We need to feel loved and/or as if we belong to a tribe.

Humans have such a profound need to feel loved and part of something that they will often sacrifice personal safety to cling to physically/sexually/mentally abusive parents, caregivers and romantic partners in their pursuit of feeling loved and connected to others they identify as being “like them.”

4. Esteem

We need to feel respected and accepted.

We crave professional success, mastery of a hobby, accumulation of wealth, victory in competition, as well as fame and recognition in a constant pursuit of feeling respected by others.

Maslow called this craving for the approval of others the Lower form of Esteem.

Because we can NEVER feel respected and accepted until we respect and accept ourselves. Self-respect is the Higher form of Esteem, Maslow said.

5. Self-Actualization/Transcendence

We need to achieve whatever our individual or collective potential is, and accomplish whatever we are capable of accomplishing in order to live and die without shame and regret.

As you move up the five-step pyramid from Basic Needs for staying alive to more mind- and heart-based needs, you will notice the group sizes getting smaller and smaller.

That’s because we must not just understand, but master, a level of human need before we are able to move on to the next. Maybe people for many reasons live their entire lives without feeling loved, without respecting themselves, and never really feeling safe or comfortable in their own skin.

Also, let the record show you can regress and fall down a peg or two.

Because I’ve lived many years succeeding in the #4 Esteem space, and now I mostly stumble around back in #2 (an apt bathroom metaphor) trying to figure out what the hell is wrong with me and whether I’m even capable of pulling myself out of the sewage-like post-divorce shit bog to achieve a satisfying life for myself and those I love.

‘Is My Marriage/Relationship Suffering Because ACTUAL Needs Aren’t Being Met?’

Yep.

You need things. And she or he needs things too. And when one or both of you need things, you (often involuntarily) will pursue them.

And the simple truth is this: When we are obstacles to our spouses’/partners’ pursuit of needs, or when we neglect to fulfill any of their needs required of their partners, then we are complicit in our partners’ decisions to pursue those needs elsewhere.

No, guys. That doesn’t mean it’s cool to cheat on your wife or girlfriend because she won’t agree to threesomes, or to jerk off to internet porn at the expense of sex with your wife because you claim she doesn’t satisfy superficial sexual “needs.”

No, ladies. That doesn’t mean it’s cool to have an affair with Greg at work, or Brad at the gym because the attention they provide satisfies your feel-good emotional needs.

But I think it DOES mean that we should all be super-intentional about discovering our partner’s needs (not what WE think they are, but what THEY think they are) and commit to helping them achieve their personal five levels to become their best-possible selves.

Either that, or communicate quickly and clearly that we’re unwilling to so they can pursue a great life without us deliberately holding them down.

Your Marriage is Dying Because You Don’t or Won’t Trust Each Other

I always honed in on infidelity when discussing the word “trust” in relationships.

That always seemed like a big deal. To be loyal and trustworthy. I also believed there was merit in being a “trustworthy” financial partner and co-parent.

I figured: I don’t cheat, I don’t physically abuse, I don’t gamble away all of our money, I’m not an addict, and I’m not a threat to abandon her or our children. I’m trustworthy!

But that’s not the equation for Trust.

The equation is:

Safety + Belonging + Mattering = TRUST

That’s according to Christine Comaford who writes about neuroscience and business leadership.

There’s a problem, of course: Our faulty brains.

While amazing and miraculous, they’re also totally unreliable. If we all bought our brains at The Brain Store, most of us would have returned them already for ones we hoped would work better. Not that I’d be able to find the receipt.

Comaford helps business executives understand that their employees NEED things. Fundamental, primitive things. And that no matter how unimpressed the employer may be with those “needs,” a failure to help employees achieve them (at home for personal reasons, or at work for professional ones) will always keep employees and business teams underperforming, or inadvertently motivating people to seek work-oriented need fulfillment elsewhere.

The parallels to our marriages and personal relationships are obvious.

“So as a leader, and as a human, you must identify whether it is safety and or belonging and or mattering that is most important to the people in your life… and then do everything you can to satisfy that subterranean subconscious need,” Comaford wrote in this Forbes piece on human motivation.

“Safety + belonging + mattering = TRUST.

“This means leaders must behave in ways that make employees feel that they are safe, that they belong, and that they matter. Doing so will help shift them out of their fear-driven Critter State (where all decisions are based on what they perceive will help them survive) and into their Smart State (where they can innovate, collaborate, feel emotionally engaged, and move the company forward).”

The People You Love Need Things

And they will pursue them—again, regardless of whether you agree with their “need” list.

People are programmed to crave and pursue their needs.

The concept of meeting the needs of our spouses/romantic partners/families isn’t new to me.

But until I applied the concept of basic fundamental human need and motivation to my own failed marriage, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen so clearly how one must aid his or her loved ones in their individual pursuits up the five-level Life Need Pyramid or, at the very least, avoid being an obstacle.

My wife needed things and stated them. I either didn’t believe her or chose not to act because I disagreed with her priorities.

But our marriage WAS a priority to me, even if my behavior failed to demonstrate that.

And I think if I’d understood that NOT being an active participant in my wife’s climb up the Life Need Pyramid would stamp my divorce certificate, I might have made different and better choices.

And I think if I’d made different and better choices, I’d be enjoying the upper levels of the Pyramid, instead of the damp and musty basement.

And I think everyone who makes different and better choices gets to reach that top-floor penthouse where genuine peace and contentment live.

Where life is LIFE. Joyful. Uplifting. Satisfying.

Where energy is abundant, and we collectively give more to pulling people up, up, up to the top floors with us.

Where we’re living for something greater than ourselves.

I think maybe that’s where fear, shame and self-loathing go to die.

I think maybe that’s what it means to really live.

And I think the view’s probably pretty nice up there.

And if we try sometimes, we just might find, we get what we need.

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The Strangers We Live With: Maybe Birth Control, Food & Aging Dooms Our Relationships

sinkhole

Sinkholes open without warning, sometimes destroying things and killing people. I think body chemistry might work that way, too. (Image/CNN)

Even the most-honest people lie sometimes.

When we love or even just like someone, the last thing we want to tell them is that we don’t like their new haircut, or that the meal they just prepared for us tastes gross, or that their ass totally looks fat in those jeans.

Maybe that’s not a “lie.” When you’re trying to protect someone’s feelings. Or maybe it is, but it’s not bad due to its noble intentions.

Or maybe a lie is a lie, and it’s ultimately bad no matter how well-intentioned it is because dishonesty is NEVER better than honesty. I don’t think we’ll ever know because humans are never going to collectively start telling the whole truth.

So, maybe we’ll never really know why attraction went away and they left. Or why we chose someone else. Or why love died. Or whether love and attraction were ever present in the first place.

Maybe everyone has a secret they’ll never tell. And maybe being afraid of everyone, or even just one person, discovering that secret will keep us “lying” our entire lives.

Maybe those lies—or rather undiscovered truths—will prevent us from ever “solving” the problems that harm or end our relationships, sometimes ruining our lives.

Maybe we never really know someone all the way.

And, just maybe, even if we do know someone all the way, they don’t always stay the person we’ve gotten to know.

And, just maybe, we don’t always stay the person we think we’ve gotten to know.

And, just maybe, when you can no longer recognize yourself in the mirror, all bets are off.

Why Do So Many Relationships Go Bad?

Let the record show that until proven otherwise, I maintain the stance that Shitty Husbandry (which is mostly accidental) is the No. 1 cause of failed marriages and divorce.

But there’s something else that happens to people which we’ve rarely, if ever, discussed here. All humans are affected by changing hormone levels and body chemistry at different points in our lives for various reasons. And while I’m no science whiz, I’m reasonably confident in saying that, when you change something’s literal chemistry, that thing always changes into another thing.

You don’t even have to change the actual building blocks to change something into something else.

Mix carbon and oxygen so that there are two units of oxygen for every unit of carbon, and you get carbon dioxide (CO2), which is our friend, and used by trees and grass to produce breathable air.

By simply reducing by half the amount of oxygen in the equation, you create carbon monoxide (CO). And if you don’t know, that shit will kill you.

The difference between Life and Death.

All because you changed the amount of one of just two basic ingredients.

Which begs the questions, I think:

Can changes in our hormone levels—our literal body chemistry—turn us into entirely different people?

Isn’t it possible that we all change into different people who sometimes transition into people unattracted to, or incompatible with our partners?

Isn’t it possible that we all change into different people, and that sometimes, our partners don’t like nor are attracted to the new and different versions of us?

Isn’t it possible that we all end up living with strangers or discovering them in our reflections, and that when one or both members of a marriage change into someone else, it strains the relationship in ways difficult or impossible to properly repair?

Maybe Hormones are the Sinkholes of Relationships

Let me just say this: Sinkholes are bullshit.

There are a lot of things to be afraid of in life. Natural disasters and disease and mortal enemies and other things. And most responsible people take precautionary measures to avoid these things when possible, which is how the human race has survived to this point.

But sometimes, you’re just sleeping in your bedroom at night, and then the ground gives way beneath your home, and your house falls down into the planet, and then you die.

It’s pretty much the least-fair thing I can think of. And the thing I am theoretically most afraid of due to its fundamental randomness. I can’t even trust the ground I stand on.

And maybe hormones are just like that.

One time, the person I loved most and knew best in the world had a baby and then everything about her body chemistry changed for a while afterward, and then later still, everything about Us got sick and died.

And when We died, I don’t think either of us were still the same person who met at that college party 15 years earlier.

Many things affect hormones.

The birth-control pill, in particular, interests me because it has been demonstrated to take away a biological tool women use to choose partners—smell. Pheromone detection via the olfactory system. It’s a thing, I guess.

According to this article in The Telegraph (U.K.): “…the Pill could stop women picking up these important genetic clues because it alters hormones which make the body think it is pregnant. While that stops women getting pregnant it also means they would rather be surrounded by close family members, and so are more attracted to people who are genetically similar. And for choosing a partner, that is dreadful.”

Pregnancy and child birth, menopause, and menstrual cycles all affect women’s bodies in chemistry-changing ways.

Most forms of contraception (about 60-ish%) affect hormone levels as well.

Estrogen, progresterone, testosterone, adrenaline and cortisol are some relatively well-known hormones. Leptin and ghrelin are some appetite-related lesser-known ones.

We all have all of these hormones. But as the levels of one or many increase or decrease, we literally become different versions of ourselves.

Different versions who tend to be shitty at the things that keep marriages thriving, or even simply afloat.

The food we eat matters.

Men today have significantly lower testosterone levels than our fathers and grandfathers. Some of the pesticides used to grow much of our food has high estrogen levels, which many in the science community point to as an explanation.

The food supply would affect women equally, on top of the previously mentioned changes.

Lifestyle factors like sleep, poor nutrition and a lack of exercise all affect us as well.

Sinkholes scare me. And they’re a bullshit, unfair wrinkle in our collective efforts to not die.

Hormones? They’re just like that.

Affecting all of us indiscriminately.

Turning people into someone else.

Turning lovers into strangers.

Turning Life into Death.

And maybe if everyone keeps on hiding the changes we feel because of this or that, maybe we’re all doomed to end up living with strangers.

Even when we live alone.

…..

(Update: Edited to correct nonsense scientific claim that trees and grass produced carbon dioxide rather than oxygen, because we don’t live on Venus.)

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What Screws Us Up Most in Life

Little girl looking into a telescope in the mountains

Maybe she’d be super-into space. (Image/Telescope Guide)

There’s at least one missing child. A beautiful little thing I would love intensely. Maybe this would be the first holidays where she was old enough to be excited about a visit from Santa. Maybe she looks like her mom.

Of course, maybe she’s not a girl at all. Maybe my third grader has a little brother instead. Three little boys, even if one of us is disguised as an almost-40-year-old.

The house is different. The plan was to move.

Thanksgiving and Christmas Day plans are different too. What was supposed to be busy and filled with family will be something else.

Maybe my imaginary daughter or son would have just been disappointed anyway.

I always had an idea in my head about what Life would look like. It never occurred to me it would be anything but that. But then Real Life happened.

We’d always talked about two kids. But after abandoning my wife in the hospital five hours after she delivered our son via emergency C-section, and then leaving the creation and management of baby logistics to her throughout most of our first year as parents, I think I sapped her desire to go through anything like that again.

I once asked her if I was the reason she chose not to have more children.

She said yes.

‘What screws us up most in life is the picture in our head of how it’s supposed to be.’

I read that yesterday in MBTTTR commenter Drew’s excellent blog post about marital affairs.

This is a Life Thing I had picked up on when I was still young. I always said: “Expectations are everything.”

And what I mean by that is, my enjoyment or disappointment in something—or rather, my initial perception of something’s quality—was based entirely on my expectations prior to the experience.

Things like movies and books taught me this.

I can go to the theater to see two movies of approximately equal quality, say Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and Avatar; or I can listen to two new albums for the first time—say AWOLNATION’s Run and Brian Fallon’s Painkillers—and my feelings about all of them are predicated entirely on what I thought heading in.

I thought Avatar was going to be the greatest achievement in cinematic history. It didn’t achieve that for me. The Force Awakens met my expectations entirely. Both movies, in my estimation, are of equal quality, but I like Force Awakens quite a bit more, and I think that’s why.

Same with AWOL and Brian Fallon. I expected to like the AWOL album. And I did.

I didn’t have any expectations whatsoever for Brian Fallon (front man for The Gaslight Anthem). And that album kicks ass. I don’t know whether I think it’s better than AWOL’s or not. But BECAUSE it was an out-of-nowhere pleasant surprise for me, I have a major fondness for it.

Maybe everyone does this.

Maybe I’m a little extreme. Or maybe some people are much better at accurately predicting their emotional responses to things, and maybe those people have much happier and healthier relationships and lives as a result.

I only know that pretty much all of my life experiences are impacted greatly by whether Real Life meets, exceeds, or falls short of, my prior expectations.

This has implications for my human relationships I’ve yet to wrap my head around.

This Isn’t Where I Thought I’d Be

Divorce changed everything.

That’s a MAJOR reset-button push when you don’t see it coming, or are in denial about its inevitability once a certain amount of breakage and ugliness has poisoned the marriage.

Everything in the very beginning is a blur.

When everything is broken on the inside of you, the world looks skewed and it’s impossible to tell whether what you’re seeing is wrong because it’s actually wrong, or because your brain’s Reality Calibration is busted.

I had just turned 34 when Everything became Something Else.

After a lifetime of companionship and/or reliable care from loving and responsible adults, I woke up to silence and a reflection in the mirror I hardly recognized.

Everything felt unsteady and out of balance, and even now, I can’t be sure how much of that to attribute to the psychological and emotional trauma of ending a nine-year marriage and losing half of my son’s childhood, and how much was simply the radical change in environment.

Where there used to be a person making noise in the house—Being a mom. Eating dinner with me. Talking on the phone. Watching TV. Walking around.

Where there used to be life and conversation and full calendars and partnership and the pitter-pattering of little feet and the stability and reliability and comfort that comes from waking up to This Is Normal And Right… there was nothing.

A void.

I was obsessed with dating at first. Not actually doing it, per se because I wasn’t very good at it and it all felt so, just, off. Wrong.

But at age 34 the ticking clock was louder than I’d realized. And I felt like filling the new void in my life quickly should be a priority.

After all, I was clearly the kind of guy who got married and lived that kind of life. Which meant, I faced the monumental task of finding someone who fit what is probably an impossible list of criteria, that I then loved along with any children she might have, and was loved by her (as would my son be), and felt secure enough in all of that to get married again.

When you’ve never been single and divorced before, it’s easy to imagine that happening in a three- to five-year window (which I did).

But then Real Life happened.

The clock ticks.

The calendar pages flip.

The seasons change.

You mark another line higher on the wall where you measure your child’s height.

You tell him to put on a pair of pants only to discover they no longer fit.

One Christmas turns into two, and then three with a fourth fast-approaching.

And then you wake up, and it’s today.

Divorced and Single Four Holiday Seasons Later

There was a part of me during the early days of this blog that believed I’d eventually have a relationship to tell you about.

Not all the nitty-gritty. I keep too much private for that.

But at least a birds-eye view of giving Round 2 a genuine shot while armed with what I believe I’ve learned about life and love and relationships. I thought maybe that would help people. I thought maybe that would help me.

But that’s not where things are.

That’s not Real Life.

In actuality, I’m just a guy who read a crap-ton of New Zealand travel guides so I can tell you all about the country, but I’ve never actually forked over the money nor invested the time to experience it myself.

(That was a metaphor. I haven’t actually read a bunch of New Zealand travel guides.)

But I’m not even sure that’s right.

That suggests fear. And I’m not afraid.

I guess I feel more like the tired old man coaching basketball (even though I certainly don’t think of myself as a “coach,” or that I’m qualified to instruct others in any way). I know what good basketball is supposed to look like, but am not inclined to get back out on the floor to play in any games.

Maybe I feel too tired. Or too old. Or too busy.

I don’t know.

I also don’t know whether to feel good, bad or indifferent about it.

As in all things, there’s some good and some bad.

But I’m learning to have fewer expectations. Less disappointment, you know? Maybe less joy, too.

I wouldn’t know.

I’m trying to remember what my daughter’s name would have been. The one I never had.

Julianne? Julie Anne? A J-name that stopped mattering the second I held my son.

Or did it?

I think about that little girl a lot. The one who never was.

And the family that isn’t. The one I used to know. And the one I’d imagined with them. And the one I was forced to imagine for a reimagined world.

But I wish I would stop. Because in The Way Things Are vs. The Way They Should Be, I’m not sure we’re always smart enough to know the difference.

And with these little ones involved, real or imagined, how much can we afford to get disillusioned by reality falling short of what we’d expected or hoped for?

Thank God she didn’t die after birth or from miscarriage.

Or that she didn’t fall ill.

Or that she never ran away or went missing.

Or that the courts never said I couldn’t see her.

Or that her family never lost her precious life.

Or that my son never lost his little sister.

And that we never had to sob over that too.

Maybe I don’t make it to today, had that not been the case.

But there’s still a bit of tragedy in Never Was.

And I can’t help but wonder sometimes about an alternative life where I chose other options and turned to different Choose Your Own Adventure pages with entirely different outcomes.

Because that would have been cute, right? Watching the Thanksgiving Day parade? Showing her massive balloons? Reminding my eldest to be kind to his sister? Putting up the Christmas tree and watching her face as we plugged in the lights for the first time?

I’d have liked that, even if the real-life version would have gone an entirely different way.

I’d have especially liked the part where I told her about that first night in the hospital where I stayed awake all night holding her so mommy could sleep.

Many years later, we’d teach older children how things that seem innocuous in a moment can redefine everything in the future.

We’d talk about having expectations. About the bad. And the good.

About regrets. And triumphs.

About fear. And hope.

We’d all show up, and just be.

Because that’s everything, really. Showing up. Being present. And being invested.

The reason my life is as it is today is virtually 100% because I failed to show up because I was too ignorant to know I was supposed to, too irresponsible to actually do it, or too selfish to actually want to.

It’s not always Life and Death, but maybe just Life and Never Was.

But sometimes, it’s hard to tell the difference.

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Can Male Attractiveness and Good Husbandry Coexist?

black father and son

Does this guy automatically stop being attractive to his wife because he proves reliable and safe during their marriage? (Image/Breaking Brown)

When I was a kid, I liked big two-story houses with full basements better than other home designs.

Three stories of living space seemed better than just one. Having a basement seemed better than not having one.

Thirty years later, I’ve spent several thousands of dollars on waterproofing a basement, and walking up and down two flights of stairs to take laundry to and from my laundry room to the second-floor bedrooms. And I’ve also spent time in coastal Florida, witnessing the many benefits of one-story, ranch-style living.

Now I’m less certain which style of home I prefer.

I’ve long known that, with virtually every choice we make, we are sacrificing something to acquire another thing. There’s always a tradeoff.

But I didn’t always know how little true objectivity existed in the world. Even the most intelligent and skilled among us committed to the idea of measuring things objectively can’t really do it.

The closest we can come is to say that A is better than B when judged or measured by (insert metric of choice here). But that baseline metric? Even THAT was created by the subjective judgment of people along the way.

It can be a little headache-inducing if you travel too far down the rabbit hole, but I think this phenomenal (subjective!) answer on Quora does an amazing job of breaking it down.

What’s better?

Chocolate or vanilla?

Country or rap music?

Biggie or Pac?

Butter or margarine?

Winter or summer?

The color green or the color purple?

Some people like pulp in their orange juice while others do not. Some people like eating escargot while others do not. Some people like to be defecated on during sex. Neat. Sounds not-awesome to me. I can only assume most people prefer not being, um, dumped on.

In life and love, many things are subjective. Attractiveness—sexual or otherwise—is subjective.

We forget constantly that our personal experiences and worldviews are not Absolute Truth for everyone else, because to us, we have to use our imaginations (which are totally unreliable tools for predicting things) to try to put ourselves in the circumstances and mindset of others.

On the whole, humans are pretty shitty at doing that as demonstrated by the politics-related unrest happening today, and also by all 794 kajillion instances of human arguments/fights/wars/breakups/abuses/crimes/attacks that happened in the past five seconds.

All of that to say: Attraction is a subjective metric.

But despite its subjectivity, there’s evidence that some physical, behavioral and status-related traits in men are commonly considered more attractive to women than others.

A discussion took place yesterday in the comments of my last post and got me thinking about what I perceive to make a man more attractive to women in general, acknowledging there’s no accounting for individual tastes.

The Optimized Man

“I disagree with the premise that women go seeking other women because men don’t provide the things we need. The more sensitive, the more feminine a man becomes the less attractive he is,” insanitybytes said.

Human conversation, especially typewritten, can be funny. A single sentence can be interpreted several ways by different people.

I spend A LOT of time on this blog talking about how I believe men have to make MAJOR strides toward understanding why their wives are unhappy in their marriages, and then altering their behavior accordingly, if marriage is to ever return to a place where every wedding guest doesn’t secretly wonder: Are they going to be among the half who don’t make it?

Here’s something I’ve never felt, thought or said.

I’ve NEVER said that men should be more feminine. (Which—let’s be honest—is also a subjective qualification.)

From a personality standpoint, one might say that men and women should try their best to be most like whatever they were at the height of their mutual attraction.

I do not want men to change who they are. Every human has an equal amount of inherent value. I don’t have a lot of love for murderers, rapists, terrorists, hate groups, child molesters, etc., but—ideally—everyone who doesn’t present a clear and present danger to others would be recognized for their inherent value, and not put on a pedestal nor rejected based on each of our arbitrary standards.

But whatever. We’re all just a bunch of people with our own set of arbitrary standards, and when you line them all up next to each other, you can find patterns.

As a digital marketing professional, I know from very large data samples that certain people will behave on the internet in certain ways—whether that be responding to an email subject line, or clicking a link, or ordering a product.

As a random dude writing about relationship stuff, I THINK I know from personal and anecdotal evidence that most women commonly find certain male traits or behaviors attractive.

The Physically Attractive Man

  • is tall
  • has a symmetrical face
  • has a body-fat percentage around 12% (meaning you can be lean or stocky or somewhere in the middle, so long as your muscle-to-body fat ratio isn’t too far off whatever your 12% looks like)
  • wears clothes that fit (also a status cue)
  • has a deep voice

The Behaviorally Attractive Man

  • passionately pursues his personal goals
  • has a healthy and active social life where people are drawn to him
  • demonstrates confidence in the majority of life situations
  • showcases follow-through; his actions match his words
  • possesses leadership qualities
  • pursues physical health and fitness
  • has a sense of humor

The Status-Based Attractive Man

  • has the financial resources to acquire or experience the things people value, OR demonstrates the intellectual capacity to achieve it in the future
  • has a high-status position among friends, or at work, or in whatever groups or organizations he’s involved with

I’m sure I’m forgetting several. But really, it’s a silly exercise.

A sensitive, reliable, eager-beaver husband type may bore the hell out of many young, single women, but seem like a breath of fresh air to someone suffering at the hands of an aggressive and abusive dickhead.

But I don’t think we should confuse reliable, loyal or sensitive traits as feminine any more than we then we should consider promiscuity and betrayal as masculine ones.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. In all things.

And I believe that many traits we generically and thoughtlessly label “masculine” are considered attractive by the general female population.

I think men (if appealing to women is a value they possess) should aspire to demonstrate as many of these attractive “masculine” traits as possible, and develop healthy self-acceptance and confidence surrounding any that his genetics prevent him from having.

But there’s a second component to all this, and I think it’s important.

Marriage.

The Attractive Married Man

I can only conclude that a married woman is attracted to the man she chooses to marry. However her personal ranking and value system works that out.

Our conversations about marriage here are not about people who marry for what I consider atypical reasons (money or young trophy wives or citizenship or cultural arrangements).

Our conversations here are about MOST people. The 80-90 percent who get married with the intention of having a committed partnership and/or family that lasts their lifetime.

How does THAT guy remain attractive to his wife in the face of her natural biological urges and the unfortunate realities of hedonic adaptation?

I think the baseline characteristics listed above should be pursued and maintained for life. Those things = attractiveness.

But a person can possess all of those things and become unattractive to someone if they represent any kind of threat to them, their children, or general wellbeing. It happens when a person brings harm to another.

People we consider beautiful literally STOP being attractive to us for many reasons, but I think Making Us Feel Shitty is probably No. 1 on that list.

And mislabeling behaviors like:

  • Listening to our spouse
  • Empathy for their pain
  • Respect for their thoughts and opinions
  • Helping with housework and parenting tasks even if our fathers and grandfathers didn’t
  • Occasionally choosing to invest time in our spouse’s interests over our own for the sake of togetherness…

Well. I guess I believe it perpetuates the Man Card problem that got us here in the first place.

A man should be strong. In all the ways.

A man should pursue “success.” However he defines it.

A man should be confident.

A man should lead.

A man should pursue good health.

A man SHOULD be “manly” in whatever ways his genetic makeup allows.

I have never, and will never, say that men should be more feminine in an effort to make their wives happy or succeed in their marriages. And I never will.

But most men simply do not know about the things they do thoughtlessly that cause significant emotional damage to their wives.

We can argue all day about whether women SHOULD be hurt by whatever those actions might be, and whether women should be equally responsible for adjusting their reactions to particular behaviors.

But the reality is that common male behaviors HURT wives.

Hurt wives become unattracted to their husbands. Unattracted wives’ behavior makes husbands unattracted to their wives.

And that’s when all the marriage-breaking shit happens. While everyone is all emotionally beat up and messy and volatile and imbalanced and without the support of the person they’ve long relied on and felt closest to.

Dudes acting “girly” won’t fix it. If this blog conveys emasculating men, then I’ve done a shitty job of writing it, or people have done a shitty job of interpreting it.

Perhaps a bit of both.

Men are men. Women are women. They often like one another and exchange I-Promise-To-Love-You-Forever Vows and make children together.

And so long as this human song and dance continues to happen, I think it’s in the world’s best interest that we make it as successful as possible.

A bunch of “Nancy-boy sissies” won’t help anything.

But a bunch of attractive men learning how to meet the emotional needs of their wives and avoiding the relationship spiral which results when men do not?

Like the people we’re attracted to, and the stuff that makes us attractive to them, I think that’s a world worth pursuing.

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Our Political System is Broken for the Same Reason Our Relationships End

wedding rings on american flag

(Image/Inspired Acorn)

NOTE: I wasn’t planning to post today, and certainly not about politics, but my response to a comment on yesterday’s post—which had a headline I think many people misunderstood for the EXACT SAME REASONS our political climate is such a mess—turned into a thousand words. So I figured, what the hell. Linds wrote in a comment that the nature of a politician’s job doesn’t allow for she or he to be trustworthy. My reply turned into the following.

My commitment to fairness runs deep.

I reject the notion that politicians can’t be trustworthy. But I accept my perceived reality that they typically are not.

Because of the system being what it is, it’s impossible for non-billionaires to win elections without lots of financial backing.

That forces people who need political funding to sometimes compromise their principles for “the greater good,” convincing themselves they can’t do any good from the sidelines, so compromising 5-10% of their values in order to achieve the 90% once they’re in office is worth it.

But then, after they win election, they have all these ideas about what to change in order to make things better for the people who supported them.

But with every potential change comes some type of negative consequence to politicians’ financial stakeholders, and a bunch of politicians fighting against change because it’s “good” for their re-election, and a bunch of politicians fighting against it because they play for the other team—and winning elections is more important than actually legislating!—and a bunch of politicians on the same team who won’t support change for various political and financial reasons.

Getting 51% of elected officials to agree on something that directly affects American lives, or affects them emotionally, or affects the financial systems in some way is an extremely tall order.

It’s funny. All humans basically want the same things: Safety, financial opportunity, good health, good education for themselves and children, and basic levels of infrastructure (roads, water, electric, law enforcement, emergency services, etc.)

The vast, vast, vast, vast, vast, vast majority of Things Humans Care About are agreed upon by most elected officials, regardless of political affiliation.

That those people will not sit down at a table together to work cooperatively to address the many things which AREN’T divisive, crushes my freaking soul.

When you build cooperative bridges, improving the 70-80% of things everyone collectively cares about, maybe everyone would stop being so shitty to one another about the divisive issues people like to scream about.

Maybe.

But in the end, the TRUTH should not be such a difficult thing to ascertain.

We have elected officials who lie because they have something to hide OR because they have something to lose.

We have media outlets who report false or incomplete information because they have a political agenda or because they’re ignorant of facts, or because they have a financial mandate to report dramatic things as quickly as possible without verifying facts.

And now we’re here.

Republican politicians are trusted by only a minority of registered Republicans, many of whom watch Fox News, read Breitbart, the National Review, NewsMax, the Daily Standard, etc.

Everyone who is not a Republican assumes the R-politician is lying, and that those media outlets are reporting misinformation to promote a conservative political agenda.

Democrat politicians are trusted only by a minority of registered Democrats, many of whom get their news from MSNBC, The Huffington Post, The Daily Beast, Daily Kos, Slate, etc.

Anyone who is not a Democrat assumes the D-politician is lying, and that the left-leaning publications are intentionally reporting misinformation OR ignoring truth in order to advance their political agenda as well.

A third group of people trust no one. They’re the most cynical of all. And I can’t think of a compelling reason why they SHOULD trust anyone.

We’re now to the point where no one can trust an elected official to be honest, nor can they trust their media outlets to be reporting rock-solid facts and truth.

Yet, we’re all confused about how TWO people with 60% disapproval ratings can end up as our two choices for president.

We turn our backs on the process most of the time, watching “Survivor” and “CSI” and “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.”

Then we all get super-interested once the national media starts covering it heavily, and we all talk about it on social media long after all the important work of CHOOSING our candidates actually takes place. So many people, not necessarily through any fault of their own, don’t really know what they’re talking about because there aren’t any places to gather reliable information.

Even the New York Times and Washington Post, which are long-time journalistic standard bearers, are no longer trustworthy to the those made uncomfortable by the Times and Post headlines.

Even IF the information is solid (many journalists are fantastic, even if big-money media is not) a person can’t realistically expect someone of an opposing political viewpoint to believe it’s coming from a place of truthful objectivity. Every major media outlet has now been labeled Right or Left.

And that means everyone spends all of their time in their preferred echo chambers, hearing and reading only the things they want to hear and read.

We need a critical mass of people to decide they want TRUTH more than they want COMFORT.

We need a critical mass of people willing to trade in CSI and the Kardashians for a lot of hard work spreading the word about people who would make amazing leaders—telling their stories effectively—and sharing them with the masses.

Republicans and Democrats (and everyone else) MUST be more committed to problem solving than they are to opposing one another and smearing people wearing different labels.

People seem more interested in winning arguments than actually accomplishing anything.

Coincidentally, that’s also why most divorce happens.

When Our Political Activism Amounts to Blocking Friends on Facebook and Only Digesting Media We Agree With For a Month Every Four Years Right Before Elections, This Will Never Change

But as in all things, I choose hope.

This shit isn’t working at all. Even if Donald Trump somehow proves to be an objectively good chief executive of the United States, there will be MILLIONS of people actively working against him, hoping he fails, spreading lies, denying whatever good might come from his decisions or initiatives, and more and more citizens will soak all that up and either grow more pissed off at the president, OR grow more pissed off at all the negativity and sabotage.

Which is EXACTLY what President Obama has dealt with for eight years.

And what President Bush dealt with before that.

And what President Clinton dealt with before that.

It’s not okay.

It’s NOT okay that this happens.

I’m in favor of spirited disagreement. I’m in favor of people with strong opinions explaining to others why they believe what they believe. But it’s as if no one knows how to do that without hating the person disagreeing with them. They take the Battle of Ideas and make it personal.

And more hate spreads.

But it’s not hard to see why this happens.

For my ENTIRE LIFE, I’ve been unable to listen to an elected official tell me something from behind a podium and trust implicitly that the information was true.

For my ENTIRE LIFE, I’ve been unable to turn on the nightly news or read a newspaper regarding something political and not assume the information was somehow politically slanted one way or another depending on the source.

Right leaners EAT UP Breitbart and Fox News and the Washington Times.

Left leaners EAT UP Daily Kos and MSNBC and the New York Daily News.

Everyone believes not Truth, but what they WANT to believe. They believe the stories that make them most comfortable. Always, always, always.

Very few of us, or the politicians we vote for, own their bullshit. Very few pursue truth even when it’s inconvenient. And very few are committed to helping people who have different wants and needs than “People Like Them.”

I don’t know how.

But if we could get people to raise their hands to accept responsibility for their laziness and pursuit of comfortable lies; and if we could get journalists to vigilantly pursue truth even when the truth works against the beliefs and candidates that make them comfortable; and if we could get enough people to understand that it’s possible to improve circumstances for EVERYONE—not just certain groups at the expense of others—then, just maybe, we have a chance.

When OUR WAY = GOOD and THEIR WAY = BAD, our relationships suffer greatly before eventually breaking. 

True in marriage.

True in all human relationships.

The root causes of our political horrors are the VERY SAME as those of our shitty marriages and broken families.

And the solutions are the same, too.

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