Category Archives: Being Human

The Cancer of Misunderstanding

hieroglyphics egyptian

(Image/Pinterest)

Remember when we were kids?

Afraid of getting on the big roller coasters. Afraid of jumping off the high-dive at the local pool. Afraid of the person we liked at school finding out about it.

We think back now, and if you’re anything like me, you might wonder: Why did I care about all of that lamer crap?

I think the answer is: Because we were entirely different people then. Through the prism of hindsight and years piled on top of years of life experiences, we now laugh at our naïve, immature, foolish selves.

We were mostly doing the best we could. In any given moment, we were mostly just acting on whatever our beliefs were at the time. We still do that today. We believed things based on what we were taught as children, combined with our limited life experiences.

We were just kids.

True story: My son in third-grade lost a tooth a few weeks ago, and I half-expected him to tell me that he no longer believed in the Tooth Fairy. We also just had Easter, and while the words “Easter Bunny” were never spoken aloud, I’m not under the impression he knows I put the candy, toys and baseball cards in his Easter basket.

As an aside, I do question whether we are doing the right thing feeding our children stories about imaginary magical beings they will later learn were totally made-up. I wonder how that breach of trust and shattering of innocence that occurs might negatively impact them in other ways, but that’s beside the point.

My son is just a cute little kid.

How I think and feel about his words and actions are totally different than how I think and feel about the words and actions of other adults who I believe should know better.

Imagine if I talked to my son the same way I might talk to, say, a friend at work…

Me: “Hey buddy! Did you have a good weekend?”

Son: “Yeah! I lost a tooth and put it under my pillow, and the Tooth Fairy came and left me money! Awesome, right? But then it got even better. When I went downstairs Easter morning, I saw that the Easter Bunny had visited overnight and filled my Easter basket with some presents and my favorite candy.”

Me: “You’re shitting me, right?”

Son: “Dad. Language.”

Me: “Right. Sorry. I mean, are you being serious right now?”

Son: “Yes! The Tooth Fairy AND the Easter Bunny both came to my house in the same weekend! Isn’t that amazing, dad?”

Me: “Wait. Just wait. Let’s back up the Sanity Truck to the beginning of this conversation. You’re seriously not messing with me right now? You left a tooth under the pillow you sleep on, and you believe a supernatural fairy magically flew into your bedroom, pocketed your shitty old blood-crusted tooth, and then gave you money for it?”

Son: “Yes. That’s what happens, dad. When you lose a tooth and put it under your pillow at night, the Tooth Fairy comes and leaves you money.”

Me: “Rrrrrrright. A. I can’t believe you actually believe that. And B., I can’t believe you don’t think it’s TERRIFYING that some creeper fairy is buzzing around your head collecting gnarly old teeth and actually paying money for them. It’s pretty illogical, across the board. I can almost understand believing in Santa given how much we’re inundated with Santa stories and images around the holidays, but the Tooth Fairy? Good God, man. You’re like a Cro-Magnon special-ed student. Are you high on drugs right now?”

Son: “What’s a ‘crow magnum’?”

Me: “Don’t worry about it, Copernicus. I’m more concerned with the other thing you said. You think a giant-ass magic bunny that either looks like an actual rabbit, or possibly just a large two-legged rabbity mascot-looking thing ACTUALLY snuck into our house like Santa Claus and left you presents?”

Son: “Yeah.”

Me: “And this doesn’t terrify you, why?”

Son: “The Easter Bunny isn’t scary, dad.”

Me: “Whatever you say, genius.”

I would never speak to my little boy the way I talk to my adult friends or buddies at the office. And that’s because I’m intellectually capable of understanding that it makes sense for my young son’s perceptions and life experiences to be much different than mine, or pretty much any adult.

And here’s where I think it gets interesting: As easy as it is to recognize these totally sensible differences between what’s expected of children’s behavior vs. adults and adjust our language and emotional responses accordingly; we often appear HORRIBLE at recognizing that it is equally sensible for other adults to have radically different beliefs, opinions, and emotional responses than us to any given situation we happen to be in. Others’ unique life experiences can lead them to thinking and feeling differently than us, and that is in no way strange when you go through the mental exercise of how different you would have been had you been born with THEIR DNA, and born into THEIR family, living in THEIR town, going to THEIR church or THEIR school, and being taught THEIR beliefs.

Other people are different than us for various reasons.

The people we marry or have romantic relationships with are among those very-different people.

The Things We Don’t Teach Men: EVERYONE Loses Right vs. Wrong Debates in Relationships

Sometimes I’m smart and know things. Like indisputable fact sort-of things. And I’m capable of getting frustrated or overtly angry if I hear or read someone “being wrong” about this thing I know.

Sometimes I just think I know things, but actually don’t. A false belief like I used to have about the Tooth Fairy, or how afraid I should be of getting on a ridiculously fun roller coaster or of jumping off high-dive boards into swimming pools.

When we believe we are Right or Correct, or that our opinions are Better or Worth More Than, we often argue or debate the point with anyone who disagrees.

And that is often the person we married or have a serious relationship with, simply because they tend to be around the most often.

And I’ve come to believe that these arguments—which often turn into fights—frequently destroy adult relationships. Not only does it erode while we fight, but our poor sense of how to communicate and help manage our partner’s emotions can poison everything further.

I think the things we, societally, are directly and indirectly teaching (or not teaching) boys, and later reinforcing in men, are the primary drivers of these marriage-ending, family-breaking behavior patterns.

Men often demonstrate the desire to be right. Correct. Smart. Reliable. Trusted. Skilled. Best. Respected. (This is not all men all the time, just as there are millions of women who ALSO demonstrate these traits. We’re talking in broad generalities here.)

It happens to me all of the time. In friendly conversations at work, or with friends, or even right here with MBTTTR blog comments.

I still trigger easily into “I Am Right, Therefore They Must Be Wrong” mode, but fortunately I recognize this assholery much faster than I used to.

But most people don’t seem to think it’s an asshole move to debate Right vs. Wrong. About politics. About sports. About music or movies or restaurants. Some people LIKE debating. I’m one of them.

There are others who DON’T like debating because it makes them feel uncomfortable.

And this is where, in my experience, the VAST, VAST, VAST majority of men seem to totally miss the boat.

The Undetected Cancer of Not Understanding Each Other

If a wife or girlfriend is upset about us leaving a dish by the sink, we may spend hours—and even weeks, months or years—arguing the merits of the dish.

And this is a frightening symptom society should treat like cancer because THIS moment is the beginning of The Great Misunderstanding at the root of why couples always have the same fight.

Two people CANNOT get over a fight involving a major violation of trust when neither person actually understands what the other person is saying or feeling.

I wrote that a wife will ABSOLUTELY leave her husband and end her marriage over something as seemingly simple as him leaving dishes by the sink.

And a common reaction to that is: “What a petty, control-freak bitch! Why does HER opinion about where the dish should go rank higher than his? What gives her the right to break up a family over something that insignificant? Marriages are more important than debates about dishes! She’s the one who is wrong!”

Over and over and over again, people (mostly men) read about the dishes by the sink and the countless marriages that ended because of them or some other seemingly insignificant “crime,” and over and over and over again they fail to make the connection I’d hoped for, which is probably because of substandard writing on my part.

So we’re trying again.

I agree with you, Person Who Says Marriage is More Important Than Dishes, Thus Something So “Minor” Should Never End Them.

I’m on your side. I promise.

However. This has never been, and never will be, about who has the most valid opinion. We’re measuring Right vs. Wrong like morons. Like if we tried to measure human weight in Celsius degrees or sound decibels or kilometers per hour. We have bullshit data because we’re not using the right filters.

The Big Secret That Shouldn’t Be a Secret

It will never matter who makes the best or most-convincing or most-skilled argument.

That’s NOT why she’s leaving us.

You couldn’t out-debate her because Correct vs. Incorrect never even came into play.

It’s about this really important secret, and nothing else:

Something you did, said, or are actively doing, HURT her or is HURTING her.

Like if you were throwing rocks at her face, or striking her with a belt. Like if you were calling her vile names and telling her she was ugly and that you didn’t love her anymore.

Something you’re doing or saying is causing actual pain.

And the scary part is that you don’t know. We don’t know because it would never hurt us. Because it would never hurt us, we act like she’s weak. We act like her response is crazy or illogical or out of line with reality.

Then when she tells us about it, we don’t apologize and stop the hurtful behavior like we would if we were accidentally hitting her with rocks or belts.

Moreover, we pile on more hurt in the form of us puffing our chests in all of our “correctness,” defending our behavior, and implying or saying outright that she’s stupid or mentally unstable or a bad or mean person for feeling all of these illogical things on account of our perfectly reasonable and justifiable actions.

First, we inflict pain without realizing it.

Second, we are informed of the pain we cause, and we wave our hands dismissively and tell her she’s full of shit.

Third, we get angry when she won’t let it go, and flip it around into a “This is actually YOUR fault for being such a miserable and ungrateful bitch all the time” discussion.

Fourth, we stay angry that she keeps bringing it up and “nagging” us about something we think we’re “right” about, and make everything about us, and how she’s the unfair person ruining the marriage.

Don’t you see it?

I’m not blaming anyone for this. These aren’t the behaviors of evil people. These are the behaviors of two people who emotionally harm one another over the course of five to 10 years with little to no awareness of it.

We accidentally cut and bruise her with our stones and belts without ever realizing we’re striking her.

Then, not only do we NOT apologize for it, or attempt to change the behavior, but we often defiantly blame everything on her, and tell her that nothing is ever going to change because she’s got this whole thing wrong.

And if you keep saying it enough times, maybe you believe she’ll figure it out too.

Ironically, she feels exactly the same, right up until she can’t take the hurt anymore.

She might be able to handle the metaphorical stones and belt lashes. Because the years have scarred and hardened her.

But she’s sure as hell not going to take the blame for it anymore, nor dedicate the rest of her life to an intimate partnership that rewards her with: “Why don’t you cry about it, you nagging bitch? And by the way, I love you, honey. Wanna have sex later?”

Neither person meant to hurt the other. It just happens, and most of these guys have no idea how it’s perceived by his wife or girlfriend. Not until it’s too late. Not until she’s heartbroken and gone.

It’s one person being hurt and the other person saying through their actions, “I don’t care about the same things you care about. Also, I don’t even care THAT you care. Your stuff doesn’t matter to me.”

Because THAT ends marriages. Thousands of times per day.

And I think it’s tragic.

Because it’s essentially just a big misunderstanding.

And I don’t believe kids should have to cry and spend every night missing one of their parents for the entirety of their childhood because of a misunderstanding.

We can do better.

We must.

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Guys: Emotions Matter, Are Normal, and You’re Not a Weak Pussy for Having Them

man sad with grief

(Image/Aidan Nworks)

Author’s Note: I think the #1 problem in the world is how poorly humans manage their relationships. Even if you disagree, follow my logic, please. The biggest influence on whether our lives suck or are awesome is the quality of our closest relationships. For most of our lives, that’s the relationship with our spouses or long-term romantic partners. While it would be nice for everyone everywhere to get along—because of the huge problems caused by our Us vs. Them mentality—I still believe it all comes back to husbands and wives, or two committed partners in general. Human conflict is problematic everywhere. But when it’s two people who decided to pool their resources and have promised to love one another forever, and make and share children? It’s a crisis. The ripple-effect consequences know no bounds. Divorce breaks people, and then broken people break other things.

I think the #1 cause of divorce is relationship-damaging behavior by men who honestly don’t recognize it. Good men with generally good intentions who do things over and over again that damage their wives’ emotional and mental health. And they just don’t realize it in time.

How? Why? There are no easy answers. But I think the closest one is: No one knows. Just like people spent decades smoking tobacco without knowing it had dire health consequences.

I think we don’t teach our children the truth about adulthood. That we don’t teach our boys the truth about manhood. Not because we’re liars. But because we didn’t fucking know either.

This is the first in a series of posts about The Things We Don’t Teach Men (And How It Ruins Everything).

Things We Don’t Teach Men: #1 – Feelings Matter, Are Normal, and You’re Not a Weak Pussy for Having Them

“Why don’t you cry about it?”

“Be a man.”

“Stop whining like a bitch.”

“You’re acting like a little girl.”

“Toughen up, you pussy.”

Every one of us have heard it. Most of us even said it.

Men have been taught to keep emotions to themselves. Because expressing emotions is a sign of weakness. It’s “something girls do.”

It’s like the ultimate double whammy to healthy male-female relationships.

We cultivate emotionally stunted boys with dangerously flawed perceptions of what it means to “be a man,” AND we teach and perpetuate sexism simultaneously by shaming boys for doing things “like a girl.”

We make it BAD to be female, and then act all confused that misogyny and sexual abuse, or even just general displays of disrespect toward women by men are as common as they are.

Writer Paul Hudson in an Elite Daily article said it as well as I ever could:

“Men aren’t always accepted when they’re being emotional. For years and years, men have gotten bashed, personally and in the media, for being heartless, for not being understanding of women and the way they feel. Many women will still use this as an argument-squasher. The truth is, men didn’t allow themselves to understand the way the women they loved felt because they didn’t understand why women weren’t willing to follow the rules they were taught to follow.

“Don’t cry. Don’t pout. Don’t complain. Be a man — an emotionless, stubborn man. Again, not all men but most, I’m afraid.

“Men were taught emotions are a sign of weakness. Women were taught the opposite. So what are you left with? Men who believe women are weak because they’re emotional, and women who are pissed off they’re seen as being weak for something they were taught to embrace.”

For decades, psychologists studying human behavior would conduct studies about human emotion by surveying parents of children, or asking adults to self-report.

As you might imagine, that only further cemented our preconceived notions about emotions and gender.

Once the psych-research community started asking better questions, studies started to yield more interesting results.

And several studies have concluded that men are actually more emotional than women, even though men will say they are less emotional than they actually are, and women will claim to be more emotional than they are.

From The Daily Mail:

“Neuropsychologist Dr. David Lewis who led the study said, ‘Gender stereotypes about men being stoic and women being emotional are reinforced by our day to day consumption of media and our social interactions.

“’We tend to oversimplify and exaggerate the perceived differences between men and women and are more likely to focus on evidence that supports our existing gender stereotypes.

“’This study suggests that men feel emotion just as much as women, sometimes more strongly, but are less willing to express these emotions openly due to expectations put on them by society.’”

Dr. Peggy Drexler also tackled this topic in: “Guess What? Men Are More Emotionally Fragile Than Women.”

Why This Emotion Thing Matters

Because truth and authenticity in intimate relationships matters.

Because fear and anxiety and shame cause us to wear masks and lie and hide parts of ourselves from the people who trust us to love and care for them.

Every man who fakes stoicism to appear like a tough guy because he thinks that’s what he’s supposed to be, or because he thinks that what his wife or girlfriend or whoever wants him to be is a fraud.

I don’t mean that in an ugly way. He’s not being deceptive with malice in his heart. He’s exercising self-preservation techniques to avoid rejection.

We want to be accepted by other males in our various tribes. At school. At work. On teams. In a contingent of soldiers, police officers, firefighters, etc.

We want to be accepted by our fathers. By our coaches. By our mentors.

We want to be accepted by the women in our lives. Respected. Admired. Desired.

So we put on our masks so our friends will stay our friends, and so dad approves, and so our wives or girlfriends won’t want to leave us for those super-tough and stoic guys who never shed tears or feel anything because we never knew that they were all either sociopaths or fellow mask-wearers who feel just as afraid as we do.

So we wear our tough-guy masks and mock or show blatant disregard for everything that doesn’t pass the Man Card sniff test.

And because a husband and wife will never achieve unbreakable status without the level of trust and intimacy that can only come from not hiding true parts of ourselves from the other, this emotion thing can play a significant role in the slow erosion of our relationships.

While we openly disrespect one another over who’s right and who’s wrong, even though nobody is either.

While we egregiously break hearts and tear one another apart in another bloody round of The Same Fight. The same fight we always have. The same fight couples always have.

More from Paul Hudson:

“Men have been taught to keep their emotions to themselves. I’m sure there are some men out there who were raised in a household that praised emotional honesty. But even such individuals had to have stepped out into the world and realized the rest of society and the culture we’ve built over the centuries prefers men to keep their emotions to themselves.

“We were taught to believe sensitivity is synonymous with weakness, which is exactly the opposite if you think about it. Sensing more, feeling more, experiencing more, understanding more, interacting with the world more, that is a strength, an advantage — not something to be ashamed of.

“Boys are taught to be ashamed of the emotions they experience, so they grow into men who are both emotionally confused and in denial. Emotions aren’t meant to be suppressed. They don’t necessarily need to be paraded for everyone else to see — even though there isn’t anything intrinsically wrong with that — but they ought to be accepted and understood. Otherwise, the build-up can kill you.”

If it doesn’t literally kill you, you can bet your ass it will kill your marriage.

And those dark days following the end of your marriage?

Staring at a stranger in the mirror. Restless nights. Loss of friends and family. Deep shame and guilt. A powerful sense of failing at life’s most-important thing in a very public way. Fear of an unknown future. Stress about the loss of time with children and influence on their lives.

Those things can kill you.

Unless.

You choose courage. You take off the mask. You own your shit. You do a better job today than you did yesterday. You make things as right as you can. You love even when it’s inconvenient. And once you feel human again, you have the chance to start over—maybe alone, maybe with someone new, or maybe even in a second try with the mother of your children.

When you own your shit and trust someone enough to show them the things you used to hide, then—THEN—bonds too strong to break can finally form.

Not because you were a big pussy who showed too much emotion.

But because you showed more bravery than you ever have before. And everything was okay. You weren’t some weak-ass pussy, after all.

You were strong. Resilient. A warrior.

A man.

We hide the truth because vulnerability is hard. And our relationships suffer for it. And then everything and everyone in our entire lives suffers for it.

Let people in, even when it’s hard.

Because we can do hard things.

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The Things We Don’t Teach Men (And How It Ruins Everything)

father holding baby son

(Image/abc.net.au)

The world fails men.

We fail everyone, but we fail men in particular. And that failure leads to a countless number of men—some incredibly smart, talented, strong, brave, and decent men—achieving positions of influence where they inevitably perpetuate the cycle of collectively failing men, and by proxy, all of the women and children in their sphere of influence.

Husbands.

Fathers.

Big brothers.

Best friends.

Business leaders.

Celebrity influencers.

Politicians.

Coaches.

Educators.

Commanding officers.

Group leaders.

Classmates.

Teammates and tribesmen.

What men in these positions think, believe, do, feel and say affects countless people—the ripple effects of which can last for centuries.

Many of these guys are amazingly virtuous. Many are trying their best every day to live according to the values instilled in them. They’re simply following the examples of their male role models from their youth.

These aren’t evil men Muahahaha-ing and fist-bumping a bunch of other sadistic D-holes in the secret back room of their private male-only clubs. I mean, some are, but those dipshits aren’t hard to spot, nor are their crimes dangerously undetectable.

What is so dangerous about the world failing men is that we’ve created billions of very decent human beings who unknowingly walk around every day trying their God’s-honest best, but are accidentally napalming their homes and closest relationships.

It’s a problem.

Your Life Will Be Measured by Your Family and Friends—Not All That Other Stuff

Life is essentially a contest to see who can have the most people say truthful, authentically nice things about us at our funerals.

Men are taught that status is everything. It’s reinforced by women, because women are often attracted to high-status men. It’s reinforced by children, because children’s lives can often benefit in observable ways (financially and socially) from high-status fathers.

Men pursue wealth. Men pursue fame. Men pursue physical attractiveness. Men pursue business ventures, athletic competitions and hobbies where they succeed. Men pursue sexual conquests. Men pursue the accumulation of material possessions. Men pursue all of this shit that doesn’t mean a damn thing to ANYONE the second the doctor tells them they have terminal cancer, or discover their wife having an affair, or try to digest their child’s suicide note.

What men really want is to have PURPOSE.

And all of those aforementioned “successes” have a legitimate purpose in our personal lives. I’m not trying to trivialize success in personal ventures. It matters to all of us.

I’m only saying that most of us coast through much of life unaware of this obvious truth:

The #1 influence on how good our lives are is the quality of our human relationships.

No amount of money, possessions, career success, trophies on the shelf, notches on the bed post, nor fame can provide the peace and contentment we all crave down deep inside.

Fear. Sadness. Pain. Anxiety. Anger. Stress. Grief. Shame.

These are the mortal enemies of all of us, but surely for men.

When we put the people we care about, live near, and work with, first—selfless love, humble leadership, principle above profit—the only Life currency that actually matters starts to accumulate.

And then when we do that enough, more people will cry and share funny stories at our funerals instead of not give a crap we croaked because they kind of thought we were assholes anyway.

Most of What We Believe About Marriage and Relationships Is Wrong

It’s not our fault.

All we have to go in is our parents, who either divorced, or fumbled through marriage hiding most of the hard stuff from us because no one taught them any of this either.

Our marriages or long-term relationships (or lack thereof) ultimately prove to be the biggest influencers on our day-to-day lives. If our relationships are shitty, our lives are shitty.

Many men believe if they make money or experience personal success somehow, and showcase attractive characteristics while being generally nice and not cheating on their partners, that THAT is being a good husband and/or father.

Men think that being a good man automatically defaults them to “good husband” or “good father,” if they are married or have children. I thought the same thing.

But it’s a dirty lie we accidentally tell ourselves.

Good men can be colossally shitty husbands. You can have all the character and professional skills in the world and still demonstrate gross incompetence as a husband and father.

You can be a genius and still not know how to design and build skyscrapers or working space shuttles.

You can be a brilliant musician and still not know how to play several instruments.

You can be a GREAT guy and absolutely destroy your wife, causing her to cry for months and years before she eventually has an affair and/or files for divorce.

Men Have Done, and Will Do, Great Things

For all of the bad things men have done and will do in the future, guys are still pretty awesome.

For every horrible story you can tell me with a man at its center, I can share dozens more about guys who did great things—brave warriors, courageous leaders, wise teachers, loving husbands and fathers, genius inventors, inspiring artists, disciplined athletes, and brilliant thinkers who helped shape and change the world in positive ways with better ideas.

I still get the occasional note accusing me of man-bashing and betraying my own gender. The last thing I want to be is someone adding to the negativity.

What I’d like to be is a teacher because I think there are men out there who I’m capable of helping, even though I’ve always felt like an asshole trying. As if I somehow know more about life or relationships or anything than any other guys out there.

What’s worse than some know-it-all jerkoff acting like he knows more than you, or is in any way better than you?

Burning sensations while peeing? Traffic jams when you’re in a hurry? That whiny cartoon kid, Caillou?

Pretty sure that’s the entire list.

I’m not on any one group’s side. I’m on EVERYONE’S side. Men are going to have a lot to do with humanity’s future turnaround when the tenets of good relationships become common knowledge instead of the annoyingly huge secret they seem to be today.

Sometimes I Can Help, So I Must

I’m not better nor smarter than you. I’m probably worse and dumber.

But I might still be able to help.

Maybe not you. Maybe not your partner. Maybe not your friends nor family. But someone, probably.

I hit a couple of quasi-significant personal milestones recently.

I turned 38 about a week and a half ago.

We never feel as old as we are, right? That number doesn’t seem as significant to me as it did when my parents were my age. But 38-year-olds can know things. I’ve been eligible for the U.S. presidency for three years now.

Also, April 1 marked four years since my marriage ended. Four years that I have spent dissecting my failed relationship from every angle I could think of, and always asking: What could I have done differently that would have led to a happier result for my wife, son, friends and extended family?

If my divorce was someone else’s fault, then that means it’s a lottery. Dumb luck. It means I am a helpless slave and victim to the passing whims and fancies of whoever I date or marry, and have absolutely no control over what happens to me or my young son.

But if I’m responsible—and I am responsible—then there’s hope. I don’t have to be afraid of it happening again.

My marriage ending was the worst thing that ever happened to me. There is no close second-place thing. Yesterday morning while I was dropping my son off at school, he told me he doesn’t like Mondays because no matter which of his parents he just spent a fun weekend with, he knows he’s probably not going to see them again until Wednesday evening and that it makes him sad.

I’ve been thinking about that ever since. What that child has to carry because of me.

He’s in third grade, so he hasn’t asked me any hard questions yet. But he probably will someday.

That’s when he’ll realize that his father failed his mother, and by proxy, him. That I made his life shittier than necessary because I too often made things about me when they needed to be about them—him and his mom.

When we put others first, our lives are satisfying and filled with meaning.

When we put ourselves first, we damage others—often without realizing it—and that damage can change the trajectory of our lives and of those closest to us. And then we inadvertantly damage ourselves.

It can ruin us. Poison us. Break us.

Broken people raising broken children.

Broken fathers raising broken sons.

Broken men raising broken boys and girls who don’t always learn how to be whole again. Girls who may never learn what it’s supposed to look and feel like when a husband loves a wife. Boys who may never learn what it looks like to love and serve our families, to lead humbly, and how the rewards of unbreakable marriage and family is much greater than the short-term highs of their individual pursuits.

Boys and girls become the new men and women.

And then they don’t teach their sons the things they needed to know. So the boys grow up repeating the sins of their fathers.

Not because they’re bad. Just because they didn’t know better. Because their parents didn’t know. And their grandparents didn’t know. And neither did anyone else.

Marriage is difficult, and everyone “knows” it just like we know that fire can burn us.

Still we often learn the hard way while our relationships crumble around us just like we can only feel the intense pain of severe burning in the middle of the fire.

And too often, for a long time afterward.

NOTE: Some may cover familiar territory but the next several posts will cover topics I believe are The Things Men Don’t Know. The things we aren’t teaching people. Things that are critical to couples and families not breaking from within on account of a bunch of good people who just didn’t know better. Yes, it’s a huge pile of broad generalizations. But as the emails from guys “like me” continue to come in, I am always struck by how similar all the stories are. Time to talk more about it.

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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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