Category Archives: Life

Are You Afraid When the Elevator Doors Open?

(Image/The Belltower – the Mount Aloysius College student newspaper)

A friend of mine—female—was in a work meeting with a bunch of guys. It was a corporate meeting of department heads several months ago discussing how to fairly handle dress code policy surrounding the culture war between the Black Lives Matter crowd and the Make America Great Again crowd.

She was advocating for the company to take an empathetic position regarding experiences other people have even when we, ourselves, aren’t necessarily affected by them. For example, how me, a middle-class white guy in the United States, doesn’t know the first thing about what it’s like to not know where my next meal is coming from. What it’s like to be side-eyed and morally judged because of who I love. What it’s like to have dark skin around a bunch of people who might have been taught to fear me or hate me.

Somehow, these ideas have been politicized. As if they should be about policy and money rather than about human beings.

When I was younger, because I was so comfortable and safe and surrounded by people like me, I didn’t know how to respect all of the things that didn’t immediately affect me.

I took that condition into my marriage. And I didn’t know how to respect things that affected my wife but didn’t affect me. Her requests for help, or “complaints” about the unpleasantness she sometimes felt because of things I did or didn’t do were met with responses not dissimilar from: “Why are you making YOUR feelings MY problem?”

It was all part of the slow, steady march toward the end of my marriage. I just didn’t know it yet.

So my friend is in this meeting surrounded entirely by guys who didn’t necessarily agree with her point of view. Then, she asked them this question: “When you’re in a strange place, alone on an elevator, have you ever been afraid of the elevator doors opening?”

She looked around the room. Everyone shrugged, shaking their head no. None of the guys had ever even considered the idea of being nervous about who might step onto an elevator with them, or who might be waiting for them when they step off.

But my friend knew the feeling. She couldn’t NOT know it. Being stuck on an elevator with the wrong kind of person was very much a threat to her. No one told her to feel this way. Life had taught her to. Cruelly.

“Well, I am. If I’m alone, I’m a little afraid every time the elevator doors open.”

I wrote last week about my new book now available for preorder, which I’m geeking out about because writing a book has been a dream of mine since I was a child. And here we are.

I was excited to tell you about it. And when I did, someone responded in a way I didn’t see coming. While genuinely happy for me (she even preordered the book, she said), she couldn’t help but share a little pent-up anger with me.

She wrote:

“I am in that space of cognitive dissonance, absolutely joyous for you while absolutely fuming because for generations, women have been expressing (screaming) the exact same things you have now been credited for ‘figuring out’ and making what you refer to as ‘life changing’ gobs of money [sic]. I hope the irony is not lost that this is what happens in business meetings, where a woman will put forth a brilliant idea only to have it be repackaged and credited to the guy in the room. But congratulations.”

For as long as I can remember, the implication from so many societal norms and childhood lessons is that women, while not less valuable than men, were somehow beneath them on the human totem pole. The whole: “Quiet now, little lady. The men are talking.” You know, that bullshit.

I’m no sociology expert, but I think some combination of being taught when I was in preschool that God made the first woman from the rib of the first man, combined with watching my mom, grandma, aunts, and other women more or less handle all of the childcare, cooking, cleaning, and domestic household responsibilities might have played a role in my beliefs about the sexes.

Nobody said: “Hey Matt! You should disrespect women!”

But I think the math result of what I was taught equaled disrespecting women whether or not I realized it.

This is how good people with the best of intentions inadvertently hurt people, and then feel totally justified in defending themselves when they’re called on it.

If she’s saying what I’m doing is bad or wrong, then she’s ALSO saying my mom and dad were wrong and bad. That my friends were wrong and bad. That my extended family was wrong and bad. No way can any of that be true!

Therefore, we feel more than justified in trying to set the record straight or defending ourselves—two responses that inevitably invalidate what our partner just said. And if you don’t already know this, 100 percent of the time you invalidate a human being’s experiences, they will trust you just the tiniest bit less moving forward. And if you do that over and over and over again every day for many years, eventually the perpetually invalidated person won’t trust you at all.

And once there’s no trust left in your relationship, the whole ship goes down.

Two Things Can Be True at the Same Time

That’s kind of a Captain Obvious statement, but here’s what I mean.

The natural reaction from someone who genuinely feels happy for me about the book was to also feel anger about the notion that women have been fighting for an equal voice as citizens, as working professionals, as athletes, as artists, as intellectuals, and as romantic partners for eons.

And suddenly, some divorced asshole on the internet (who is a guy) is saying many of the same things she and her fellow wives, girlfriends, and mothers have been fighting for since long before any of us were born. And while the women have collectively felt brushed aside or ignored, particularly by their male romantic partners, suddenly one dickhead starts writing the same crap on the internet and he’s rewarded with book contracts and pats on the back (all after being a shitty husband and putting his wife through the same emotional experiences that they also feel in their relationships).

I totally understand how maddening that must feel to certain people. I hope you do too.

Yet. Two things can be true at the same time. And while everything just covered is totally true, and that angry people are absolutely justified in feeling angry at being ignored, sidelined, hushed, invalidated, and disrespected for millennia, something else can be true.

Me saying it can have a greater impact than them saying it. And I think it has much less to do with being male than it has to do with me not hurting the men I coach, or speak to, or write for. I don’t think it’s fair. I just think it’s true.

Me being male only helps insofar as other guys can relate to the stories I tell about my marriage, and they know that I can relate to theirs. We have similar shared experiences, and that almost always connects people.

But that’s not, in my estimation, the most important component of this.

At the root of men and women having conflict in romantic relationships is the tendency by men to invalidate their female partners. NOT because they’re trying to invalidate them. I don’t think most guys even know how to think about it that way. But because they very honestly disagree with something their wife or girlfriend is saying or feeling. And then they say so during conversation or an argument, and the results are predictably bad.

When we’re not extremely careful in our conversations, we tend to also invalidate others’ experiences whenever we disagree with them.

In most life scenarios this isn’t a big deal. It doesn’t end male friendships very often. It tends to not be an issue at work, or in causing huge riffs with neighbors and family members.

But it DOES damage a romantic relationship—particularly a marriage or cohabitating long-term couple. Because trust.

Consistently, in my work, I see men inadvertently invalidating the experiences their hurt wives or girlfriends are trying to share with them.

And consistently, I am able to have this conversation with guys with greater success than their wives or girlfriends can.

I think wives and girlfriends sometimes feel resentful about this because it feels to them like some asshole stranger who just happens to be a guy is getting more respect than they are. And if I were them, I’d be totally pissed about that too.

But I seriously don’t think that’s what’s happening.

Frequently, when wives or girlfriends try to communicate to their male partners how they feel, the men end up feeling attacked, shamed, judged, criticized, or as if they’re being told they are not good enough. They’re hurt. They’re confused. They’re frustrated. They’re sad. They’re angry. They WANT to be good enough. They don’t want their wives to hurt. And they honestly don’t know how to navigate the situation to an effective, healthy resolution.

And when I try to communicate to these guys how their wives or girlfriends are feeling, the men DO NOT feel attacked, shamed, judged, criticized, or as if they’re being told they are not good enough.

Men don’t try to invalidate the things I say to them in my coaching work, because I am very careful to not communicate that I believe they are bad, or that they are wrong, or that there is anything wrong with them.

I simply communicate that the math result of their actions equals pain for their partner and damage to their marriage. Nothing more, nothing less.

Therefore, the mission is NOT to stop being bad and to become good. The mission is NOT to stop being wrong and to become right. It’s simply about recognizing that sometimes, the result of our actions is inadvertently harmful to people we love.

And if we can have the discipline to mindfully develop the habit of NOT invalidating our loved ones when they tell us something is wrong, and to not fail to consider our loved ones in our everyday decision-making, then trust can thrive in our relationships.

Safety and trust can be restored.

And when safety and trust are present, there is very little conflict. When safety and trust are present, we can get through damn near anything together.

For some, this feels a lot like some sexist, patriarchal bullshit that they’ve been battling their entire lives. And that is undoubtedly woven into the fabric of many male-female relationships, romantic or otherwise.

But I think it’s mostly about our habits. About loving someone enough to not allow the math result of our actions to hurt them.

For men, that often shows up as a lack of emotional intelligence, a lack of investment in shared domestic responsibilities, a failure to consider their wives/girlfriends when they make decisions, and a tendency to invalidate them anytime their wives or girlfriends dare to ask for help to hurt less.

And for women, I think maybe it shows up as a failure to consider what it means to allow your words, actions, or tone of voice to communicate that your husband or boyfriend is intentionally trying to ruin your life. That he’s bad, or dumb, or weak, or lazy, or worthless, or some horrible, unlovable thing.

And I think there’s a bit of magic in communicating our pain in a manner that does NOT suggest that we think someone’s bad or shitty or out to get us.

Men bear a ton of responsibility for the awful state of male-female communication in relationships. The majority of it in my estimation.

But the key to breaking through isn’t about sex or gender. It’s as subtle and nuanced as accurately calculating the impact of our words. Because words have power. Because words and ideas matter.

I understand why the men in the meeting had never considered an elevator ride a dangerous or uncomfortable experience. They’d never had reason to.

But then my friend nudged them. She shined a little light into a shadowed corner and asked them to look.

We don’t hurt the people we love because we’re bad.

We hurt the people we love because we fail to consider how subtly, but somehow also radically, different their experiences are while we’re all so busy trying to navigate all that life throws at us.

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What it Means When Your Partner Says You Always Make Everything About You

(Image/Big Think)

I always made things about me in my marriage, even though I would have told you I thought of myself as an unselfish person and valued the idea of selfless love.

Back then, my wife would say things like: “It’s always about what Matt wants,” and I’d think she was being an asshole. Then I’d defend myself, obtusely proving her right.

If you’re someone like me who is accused of “making everything about you,” please consider that you may also have the same blind spots that I had. It doesn’t make you a bad person. You literally don’t know, and I don’t think you should be judged or made to feel awful about it. I just think if you value your romantic partner and aspire to have a non-shitty relationship with her or him, that it’s important to understand that they often experience you differently than you believe they should.

I understand that you feel like a well-intentioned person who has demonstrated sufficient evidence that you love your partner and have made many personal sacrifices on their behalf. So, it feels particularly unfair and gutting to hear suggestions to the contrary from the person you’ve given the most to.

That’s how it felt when I was married and pissed at my ‘unfair’ wife whenever she had the audacity to suggest I wasn’t the world’s greatest husband.

Now I think I get it.

In my coaching work, we hyperfocus on habits. I can’t help anyone with a character defect that I don’t even believe is there. I’m not a doctor and I’m not that smart. I can’t help a bad person become good. That work is well above my pay grade. But also, I reject the notion that I’m working with bad people. (If you’re married to a “bad person,” please consider leaving. There is no compelling argument for subjecting ourselves or our children to the abuses of bad people.)

I don’t think bad people doing bad things is what ends most relationships. I think good people unaware of how much pain their partner might sometimes feel (thereby demonstrating little respect, compassion, or empathy for the hurt they’re experiencing) is the problem.

Let’s talk about the two primary ways that we sometimes “make everything about us” which our partners experience as neglect and abandonment for several years before they stop wanting to be with us.

Making Everything About You, Part I

The first way we make everything about us takes place during our conversations.

Something happens, resulting in our partner experiencing pain somehow. Sadness. Anger. Fear. Embarrassment. Anxiety.

Everything feels wrong, and when things hurt and feel wrong, our top objective is to get back to normal. To stop the pain.

When the pain is emotional, and stemming from a relationship, it makes sense for one partner to say something to the other partner. Unless you’re both psychic telepaths, or prefer written correspondence, actually speaking to one another is the preferred way of sharing what’s happening.

“Hey Matt. That thing that happened earlier? I feel hurt by it,” my wife might have said.

When I wasn’t invalidating my wife by telling her she was incorrect about what happened, or invalidating her by telling her the thing wasn’t as big of a deal as she’s making it out to be and therefore should not be feeling so hurt by it, then I was invalidating her by defending my actions or good intentions.

One of the most common ways we make it about us, is by responding to our partners as if THEY’RE hurting us by informing us that they’ve been hurt.

When my wife would say: “Hey Matt. I’m hurt. Please help me not hurt,” I would reply in ways that eroded her trust in me. In ways that resulted in her hurting even more than before she said anything.

Even though I would never want my wife to feel pain, I did not respond to my wife out of concern that she was hurt.

Even though it would have been useful to understand WHY something was hurting my wife so that I could cooperatively participate moving forward in her NOT feeling hurt by that same thing, I didn’t invest any energy in trying to understand what had happened.

What I did was put my energy into defending myself.

I didn’t mean to hurt you, so you shouldn’t be upset with me. I’m not at fault here.

Or.

Hey. It makes sense if you think about it the way I think about it. Let me explain why this happened because I don’t want you to be mad at me anymore.

  1. Our partner is hurt.
  2. Our partner attempts to let us know.
  3. Our energy immediately funnels NOT toward alleviating their pain, or expressing concern that something is wrong, or demonstrating that we’re willing to understand why this hurts so that we can be trusted to not do this same thing again (because pain is most often caused not by harmful intentions, but by things we never even realized were happening).
  4. Our energy immediately funnels instead to defending our character, justifying our actions, explaining our thoughts and feelings as a means of alleviating ourselves of responsibility for any harm caused.

This is what it looks and feels like when someone experiences pain, and then when trying to recruit their partner to help them not feel hurt anymore, the partner makes the situation about themselves.

That’s what I most often did in these moments. My default setting was to prioritize defending my character or “well-intentioned” actions at the expense of whatever pain my wife might have been feeling.

When someone is hurt, and every time they tell you that they’re hurt and ask for help, you tell them that they should magically stop feeling hurt instead of helping them, or say that even if they are hurt, it’s not your fault or problem, they will always hurt a little bit more and trust you less afterward.

They can’t trust us to not make THEIR pain about US. We rob them of their opportunity to appeal for help. We steal it from them. We tell hurt people to stop being weak, and then we tell them to stop making US feel inconvenienced by their pain.

This is a major reason why—even though you’re pretty awesome most of the time, and everyone seems to like you—your partner sometimes thinks you’re a selfish asshole.

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Shameless Book Plug: Preorder My New Book “This is How Your Marriage Ends” Today

My new book, written in 2020, is scheduled for release on March 22, 2022. It is, aside from becoming a father, the highlight of my life. I don’t think it sucks. Hopefully you won’t think so either. I took the lessons of my divorce shared throughout this blog, combined it with some new stories, some coaching client stories, and the ideas I try to share in my coaching calls, and tried to make the book I would have needed to understand how my behavior was inadvertently destroying my marriage and to develop meaningful relationship skills. If you believe in what I’m doing here and want to support the mission, you ordering this book would be the best thing I could ever ask for. And someday, if you like it, maybe tell a friend. Thank you so much. Preorder “This is How Your Marriage Ends: A Hopeful Approach to Saving Relationships”.

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Making Everything About You, Part II

The second way we commonly make everything about us in relationships is not about what we do, but what we DON’T do.

It lives under the umbrella of the No. 2 habit I ask my coaching clients to work on: Consideration.

Marriage and romantic relationships often suffer from one person investing infinitely more energy into the relationship than their partner, and if we’re being honest about it, it is—far and away—most common for women to suffer from this condition in male-female relationships.

What I often hear from female clients is that they’re married to, or dating someone, who doesn’t consider them when they make decisions. That might seem petty-ish on the surface. I thought so during my marriage. Imagine complaining because I didn’t bring a coffee home to you, as if I would ever be that petty to you!

This is a big deal. People don’t see it. Particularly men. Husbands. Fathers.

What often happens is that one partner (usually the wife or girlfriend) wakes up every day and throughout each day, all of their decisions about how they spend their time is filtered through the prism of “How will my husband be affected by this?” and “How will my children be affected by this?”

If you think of the decision-making process as a math equation, wives and mothers (often just women, in general) rarely fail to consider how their actions might impact their partners or anyone they care about.

Me + Making a Hair Appointment at 4 p.m. Tuesday = I won’t be able to drive my daughter to basketball practice, and it will prevent me from preparing the family meal, which will require my husband to manage dinner if we’re going to keep our normal schedule.

Someone who thinks like this mindfully communicates these logistical dilemmas to everyone involved. Maybe the daughter gets a ride to practice from a teammate’s parent, and maybe her husband prepares the meal, or orders takeout, or whatever.

Often, a wife/mother in this situation won’t do what she wants to do (go to her hair appointment at 4 p.m. Tuesday), and instead schedule it at some super-inconvenient time for her that won’t adversely affect her husband or children.

This is how she lives her life every day. Constantly—all the time—having her Awareness switch flipped to the “On” position. Never making decisions—large or small—without running those decisions through the filter of how the people she loves might be affected by them.

And then there’s us.

You know who you are because you’re just like me. Hi. Sorry. I know it sucks. You’re not trying to make anyone else’s life harder. You don’t FEEL like a selfish, shitty person. You don’t intend to be. You’re just living your life, getting up in the morning, going to work, and trying generally to be cool the rest of the time. You want to do fun, relaxing things whenever you’re not doing what you HAVE to do (going to work and house/family-related chores).

And then you’re hearing about how selfish and inconsiderate you are because you’re playing a video game, or because you forgot to empty the dishwasher, or because she’s acting hurt or angry that you planned to go hunting with your dad and brothers, and waited until afterward to tell her about it. Now, she’ll spend that weekend caring for the kids and pets alone regardless of her plans, and if she dares to object, then she’s the bad guy because she’s “trying to keep you from doing things with your family.”

What a drag and ungrateful nag, my wife is. I never complain to her about stuff like this.

But the truth is, every day of your lives, your partner is perpetually mindful of how their actions impact you. And because you’re loved and respected and cared for, they constantly modify their behavior to account for you and the other people they love.

But, nearly every day, there’s evidence that you don’t do that same thing for them.

It’s not that you’re a bad person. It’s not that you’re doing anything bad or harmful, and even if you did, it was 100-percent an accident. I get it.

The pain isn’t so much from the isolated incidents, or because of the notion that you’re a bad person who tries to hurt your loved ones.

The pain stems from the idea that your partner, and possibly your family, are not even part of your thoughts when you make decisions. No matter how insignificant that decision might seem.

“My partner doesn’t remember me when he makes decisions. I know he doesn’t hurt me on purpose. I know he’s a nice guy. What hurts is that I’m not important enough to remember. What kills me is how little I matter to him. The bad thing didn’t happen because he wanted it to. The bad thing happened because he totally forgot about me.”

Betrayal isn’t required to lose the trust of the people we love. Sometimes, it’s simply our blind spots that we’re not working to eliminate. Sometimes, it’s our habits.

The way we speak. The way we think.

I know you’re not a bad person. I don’t think I’m one either.

But things I did resulted in significant pain and broken trust with my wife, and that’s why we’re not married anymore. She didn’t leave because she’s mean or selfish or wanted to hurt me.

She left because SHE hurt, and every time she tried to recruit me to help stop the pain, I always made it about me.

Every day, she was reminded that the only person I always remembered to care about was myself.

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An Open Letter to Shitty Husbands, Vol. 15

(Image/Shutterstock)

“My husband isn’t honest with me,” wives sometimes say to me.

“You mean, he lies to you?” I reply.

“No. I think the things he says are true,” they say. “It’s not that he lies. It’s that he doesn’t always share the truth.”

Trust is the thing your relationship requires most to stay healthy. Some people say love, but I think they’re silly. People who love each other have screaming fights, engage in extramarital affairs, and get divorced every day.

Trust. It’s the top of the Making Relationships Work food chain.

So, if you and your partner are experiencing relationship problems, it can pretty much always be traced back to a breach of trust.

Trust is a funny word. It doesn’t always mean what we think it means. We can trust someone to feed the pets, or water the plants, or keep our children safe. And some might believe or say that would make that person trustworthy.

But if you’re married to or otherwise in a relationship with that person, maybe you can’t trust them with household finances. Maybe you can’t trust them to make sure the kids brush their teeth before bed. Most often, mistrust in a relationship develops because one or both partners has a serial invalidation habit.

That leads to someone thinking and feeling: Whenever I am hurt or sad or angry or anxious or afraid, and I try to share that with my partner, I always feel worse afterward. They always respond in a way that communicates that they think I’m crazy to think what I think, or I’m weak to feel what I feel. Every time. For many years. Therefore, I don’t trust them.

I don’t believe anything erodes relationship trust more frequently or consistently (among otherwise very decent, ‘trustworthy’ people) than an invalidation habit. It disguises itself as no big deal. Harmless disagreement. So, people just keep doing it or subjecting themselves to it until one day, often years down the road, the levee breaks.

But perhaps in second place on the Ways Good People Destroy Trust in Relationships list is the non-lying form of dishonesty.

No matter how well intentioned we might be, when our spouses or romantic partners believe that we’re holding back from sharing the whole truth with them, they lose trust in us. And your relationship WILL suffer from an absence of trust.

It gets messy and uncomfortable in these gray areas. Love and marriage are sometimes messy and uncomfortable. Welcome to the party.

“Do you like my new haircut?”

“How do I look in these new jeans?”

“How is it that you could not know this is the 10-year anniversary of our first date?”

“Do you think my sister is pretty?”

“Are there things you want to do in bed that you’ve never shared with me?”

“What do you think of this new recipe?”

“Do you want to go visit my parents this weekend?”

Every couple and situation are different, of course. But those questions present honesty landmines for many people. Answering with 100-percent, no-bullshit honesty WILL hurt their partner’s feelings.

Perhaps one doesn’t want to hurt the other. So maybe they tell a little white lie.

“It’s great, babe. You look beautiful no matter how you have your hair done.”

Or maybe total honesty in the past was rewarded with venom.

“Oh my God. THAT’s what you want me to do? THAT’s what you think of me? I feel so disrespected and dirty.”

Or perhaps something like “You never want to visit my parents, and it really hurts my feelings. They’re always asking about you. It’s like you hate being a part of my family.”

Sometimes, people tell the whole truth, and the results are painful. Therefore, people may choose to not tell the whole truth because they don’t want to be punished for honesty.

It turns out that THEY don’t trust their partner to handle totally transparent, vulnerable honesty.

But much of the time, withholding the whole truth stems from fear.

“Will he get mad at me again?”

“Will she think I’m a freak pervert and not want to be with me anymore?”

So, we just don’t say anything. But sometimes, our partners know. They don’t know what we feel. They don’t know what we believe.

They only know that we DO feel something. That we DO have thoughts about something. And that we’re not sharing. That we’re not letting them in.

Maybe what we think is harmless enough. But the fact that we are not giving them access to it results in an erosion of trust.

Maybe what we think is scary and hurtful to them. The mere anxiety of having to wonder about that is enough to widen the trust gap between two people who otherwise love one another and want to treat each other accordingly.

Trust is essential to making marriage work. To making intimate relationships of any kind work.

Not kind-of important. But critical. Necessary. Trust is a non-negotiable prerequisite for your relationship not sucking.

Above all else, we must build and maintain (or restore) trust in our most important relationships. It’s the only way.

So, please be someone your partner can be honest with without being punished for it.

Please be willing to get uncomfortable so that your partner doesn’t have to wonder what you’re not telling them.

Please consider that no matter how well intentioned your shrouded honesty may be, you ARE inadvertently harming your marriage or romantic relationship regardless.

I know it’s hard. The epic struggle between Uncomfortable Truth and Comfortable Lies.

But there’s only one path to a healthy, sustainable relationship. Trust.

And, if loving and caring for our marriage, or family, or partner is a value we possess, we must fight for trust. Whatever it takes.

It’s often not what people see and hear.

It’s what they don’t see and don’t hear. It’s the unknown hiding in the shadows. Maybe it’s a threat, or maybe it’s nothing.

When the people who we’re supposed to trust are the ones hiding the truth from us, it doesn’t make much of a difference.

You May Also Want to Read:

An Open Letter to Shitty Husbands, Vol. 1

An Open Letter to Shitty Husbands, Vol. 2

An Open Letter to Shitty Husbands, Vol. 3

An Open Letter to Shitty Husbands, Vol. 4

An Open Letter to Shitty Husbands, Vol. 5

An Open Letter to Shitty Husbands, Vol. 6

An Open Letter to Shitty Husbands, Vol. 7

An Open Letter to Shitty Husbands, Vol. 8

An Open Letter to Shitty Husbands, Vol. 9

An Open Letter to Shitty Husbands, Vol. 10

An Open Letter to Shitty Husbands, Vol. 11

An Open Letter to Shitty Husbands, Vol. 12

An Open Letter to Shitty Husbands, Vol. 13

An Open Letter to Shitty Husbands, Vol. 14

…..

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The Two Reoccurring Moments That Destroy Trust in Relationships

(Image/Clearway Community Solar)

In one home, it’s a pair of dehumidifiers near the family’s basement laundry room.

In another home, it’s a little double-sided sign stuck by magnet to the dishwasher. One side reads ‘Clean.’ The other reads ‘Dirty.’

In my home, it was all sorts of things, but a dish by the sink—a drinking glass for water—stands out as the star of the marriage-killing show.

This is how your marriage ends. This is how your relationship ends. In the sometimes difficult-to-hear whisper of a busy, routine-filled life speckled with what one person considers a “little thing”—a minor infraction so slight as to be deemed inconsequential. This same seemingly benign event is experienced by their partner as an emotional papercut at best, and an emotional gut punch at worst.

Relationships full of stress and conflict lack the ingredient most needed for relationships to succeed—trust. Above all, we must have trust. And relationships—and their participants—are routinely damaged because of these nuanced moments in which one person interprets it as painful and the other perceives it as harmless.

It’s this discrepancy between the two individual experiences that triggers the moments which can strengthen strong, healthy relationships, but usually ends up eroding the integrity of most.

In one home, a kind, loyal, but increasingly sad woman, makes her way to her basement laundry room nearly every day in service of her family’s clothes-cleaning needs. She dutifully washes everyone’s clothes in the washing machine, transfers those clothes to the dryer, and afterward folds or hangs up clothes for everyone in the house. Her children. Herself. Her husband.

And while she toils silently doing this lonely, invisible, thankless work that she’s been doing for more than two decades, she sometimes glances over at the two dehumidifiers. The lit-up red indicator lights scream: Your husband didn’t take 45 seconds to come downstairs and empty the water bins again even though you have kindly asked him dozens of times and he promised he would do it.

He’s upstairs in his lounger having a beer and watching baseball on TV. She’s folding his underwear. She’s crying and feels like the loneliest, most invisible, most unimportant, most unloved person in the world. She’s strongly considering ending a marriage that has taken up most of her life, and which her entire identity is wrapped up in. And he’s upstairs in the family room watching the next pitch, oblivious to her growing sadness which has become suffocating.

In another home, a kind, loyal, but increasingly frustrated woman makes her way to the kitchen with her used plate and fork. The dishwasher sign indicates the dishes are dirty. She opens it up, to place her plate and fork in the rack, but the detergent reservoir lid pops open indicating the dishes had been washed recently.

Not only did he leave these for me to do again, but he didn’t even have the courtesy to flip the sign over to the other side like I’ve asked him to do dozens and dozens of times. He promised he would. But I can’t trust him to. He doesn’t keep his promises. I’m too young to subject the rest of my life to someone who doesn’t respect me enough to do what he says he will do. What’s it going to be like when we have kids?

That’s probably close to what my wife thought about in the years leading up to her decision to divorce me because I left dishes by the sink or because I was a shitty father.

We destroy trust—and as a result, our relationships—by recycling two moments over and over again. This is what the majority of my discussions with coaching clients revolve around.

These sometimes obvious—but most often, nuanced—moments in which trust erodes.

The first reoccurring moment that destroys trust is the incident itself. A major relationship crime like cheating, lying, hiding financial activity, or verbal abuse. Or typically something more subtle. Usually something one person perceives as some type of relationship-damaging infraction that the other person disagrees is important.

In heterosexual relationships, it most commonly shows up as female partners in pain resulting from the actions or inactions of their male partners.

Good grief. She’s whining about the dehumidifiers again. Imagine what she’ll do during the next power outage, or God forbid, a death in the family. She really needs to get a grip.

Or.

Holy shit. She’s bitching about that stupid sign on the dishwasher again. I cooked for both of us. I cleaned up the kitchen. I emptied the sink, loaded the dishwasher, and ran it. And NOW SHE’S UP MY ASS BECAUSE I FORGOT TO FLIP THE SIGN AGAIN. Imagine being this petty about stuff. Gee, I hope she doesn’t chip a fingernail soon, or we’ll probably need to start a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for her emotional recovery.

The second reoccurring moment that destroys trust in relationships is the conversation about the incident.

The one where one person attempts to communicate that something is important and potentially painful for them, while the other person deflects, minimizes, defends themselves, or justifies their own actions.

One person is simply begging to be seen and heard.

I spend every moment of my day serving my husband and children, and he can’t even prioritize giving up one minute of his evening or weekend to empty the dehumidifiers. Something I care about isn’t worth him remembering. I don’t matter enough to him.

Another person is simply begging to be treated with enough respect so that she can trust that he will have her back as life gets more difficult and they face greater challenges together in the future.

If I can’t trust him to flip the Clean/Dirty sign, then how can I trust him to be my children’s father? Nothing I say or do seems to get through to him how important it is that I be able to trust him. Maybe it’s time to cut my losses before I get in any deeper.

My first client is now dutifully emptying the two dehumidifier containers every day. Not because he’s submitting to the nagging wishes of his ungrateful wife. But because he loves and respects her very much, and he truly appreciates how much she sacrifices so that he and his kids can have the life that they do. Because he never even thought about how sad and lonely and afraid she used to feel while folding his clothes and seeing those two dehumidifier indicator lights. He didn’t know what those lights meant to her. But now he does and he’s doing something about it.

He’s doing the work.

He has made the decision to not allow the woman he loves to feel pain because of his blind spots. He wasn’t going to allow her to feel lonely and unloved simply because he was previously too busy and comfortable to remember the dehumidifiers. So now he does. Now, he embraces the opportunity for his wife to look over at those dehumidifiers and feel SEEN and RESPECTED and CONSIDERED and SAFE and LOVED because the indicator lights are dark and the two units are running.

And once he was able to connect dehumidifier indicator lights with very real emotional experiences his wife had been having, he learned how to connect other moments—and other conversations about those moments—with very real emotional experiences she was having.

He learned how to mindfully love his wife—not just with empty platitudes and brittle reassurances—but with love in action. The invisible became visible.

Emptying dehumidifiers equals building and maintaining trust with his wife. He doesn’t care about the dehumidifiers running nearly as much as she does. But he very much cares about her feeling pain because he was too busy or too comfortable not paying attention.

He did the work. And now she feels a new level of being loved and respected in their marriage.

I’m insanely proud of this guy for doing the work I was too big of a wimp to do in my marriage.

I’m rooting hard for my new guy—the Clean/Dirty sign guy. Because he doesn’t lack emotional intelligence. He doesn’t lack kindness or goodness. He simply lacks the mental habit of remembering that things we do or don’t do can feel very bad for someone else, even when they don’t feel bad for us.

He’s practicing. Grinding for a new normal where she will perpetually feel seen and respected and considered and safe and loved.

This is the work of turning relationships from ones filled with conflict and mistrust and frustration and resentment and loneliness into the kind of relationships we all believed we were signing up for when we first agreed to venture through life with someone else.

This is what it looks like to sacrifice, in small, unsexy ways for someone else—not because you think the thing is important, but because THEY believe it’s important.

This is love in action.

It’s not always easy to notice the stuff that we historically haven’t cared about but which matter to someone else. It’s just always worth it.

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Maybe Your Marriage Sucks Because You Don’t Really Know Your Spouse

(Image/Pinterest)

I never really knew my wife even though we were married for nine years and together for 13.

Not because of some crazy spy shit nor from any deliberate attempts on her part to hide her true identity from me. I didn’t really know my wife because I never invested the time, effort and energy to know her in a way that would have equipped me with the information I needed to avoid hurting her in ways I didn’t know were hurting her.

That’s the big defense in our relationships, right? “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to! I had no idea this was such a big deal to you!”

That’s the BEST version of this dynamic and it will still poison your relationships and end your marriage.

The more common version of this story involves one of us (usually the guy in a heterosexual relationship) trying to convince our partner that they’re overreacting—that it SHOULDN’T be a big deal to them. That, if they realize how insignificant the incident was, or how silly the fight is, then they can stop feeling bad about it. No one’s upset anymore! Problem solved!

That’s what I did. I tried to help my wife feel better by explaining how I felt about it, believing, I guess, that she might adopt my version of events, thereby relieving her of the inconvenient pain or anger or sadness she was feeling.

It makes sense when you’re a dipshit who has no idea that you’re a dipshit. (*points at self)

Something that frustrated me in marriage and which seems to frustrate many of the men I talk to in my coaching work is the idea that our wives are constantly “surprising” us with new complaints.

Right? Like, you’re just going about your day, minding your own business, not doing anything that seems harmful to anyone, and—BAM—she’s making the face and using the voice again.

Here we go again. What is it this time, princess?

Honestly, my wife would be hurt and/or upset by something she experienced, and my legitimate mental and physical reaction was to filter everything she was telling me through this idea of her being a petty, unfair, nagging, hyper-sensitive, overly emotional ingrate.

I thought SHE was the one making our marriage shitty. I seriously believed that.

And if you’re reading this and identifying with my wife in this story, and your blood is boiling a little bit because of what a condescending, invalidating asshole I was being BEFORE even speaking to her, I want to encourage you to consider that your partner believes that too.

I say that with zero judgment.

When you think of yourself as a smart, kind, polite person who succeeds at work, has healthy social and professional relationships, and who always got along with family members growing up, and the ONLY person who ever complains about you is your spouse (who you promised to love forever, share everything with, and who you perceive yourself to sacrifice most for), then it’s easy to mathematically arrive at this conclusion.

The sad and angry wife in this example is the statistical outlier. She’s the one who is acting radically different than the rest of his interpersonal data sample. Who am I going to believe? My own judgment plus EVERYONE I’ve ever known? Or this crazy woman trying to make me out to be the bad guy?

So please don’t interpret me as demonizing these men or myself 10 years ago. You can be legitimately decent and well-intentioned and STILL harm your spouse and marriage in your blind spots.

Good people can be bad spouses. Good people can unwittingly destroy their marriages.

And one of the ways that happens is when spouses (usually husbands) are “surprised” by their wives’ expressed sadness or anger. Over and over and over again.

How did this happen? How is it possible that she’s THIS upset about something I never even saw coming?

The Damage Happens Because You Didn’t See it Coming

When you’re a parent—or even just an adult—and you see children running in the house, or next to a swimming pool, or skateboarding in the middle of the street, the dangers are obvious to you.

You can see all the potential hazards. Like a prophet.

It’s probably not because you’re psychic. It’s probably because you’ve ran into sharp corners, or burned your hand on the stove, or cut yourself with a knife, or had some scary close calls while riding your bike in your neighborhood.

It’s the knowledge and wisdom that comes with experience and a nuanced understanding of the situation.

The same things happen in our career pursuits and favorite hobbies.

Whatever you’ve spent the most time practicing, or reading about, or thinking about, or discussing, are the things you have the most expertise on.

All of us have something.

I type fast and can usually string words together pretty efficiently. I know a lot about NFL football, Marvel movies, bourbon whiskey, video games, the newspaper industry, cooking, and poker relative to most people.

I’ve also learned an enormous amount about relationships over the past seven years, because I’ve studied them, thought about them, written about them, and talked about them more than anything else.

Whatever we do the most and have learned the most about are the things in which we develop expertise or mastery.

I had a relationship coaching client in his 70s. Married 36 years.

He was expressing frustration about hearing the same complaints from his wife for nearly 40 years. (Feel free to laugh. I sort-of did even though it’s probably more sad than funny.)

I asked him to grab a pen and paper, and in two columns, jot down the things that mattered most to his wife. One column of positive stuff. One column of negative stuff.

In other words, what are the things that affect your wife in good and bad ways? What matters most to her in a good way, and what matters most to her in a bad way? What are the things that move the needle for her, emotionally?

My client couldn’t name ONE THING. Not one. “I don’t really know, Matt.”

Well. Gee whiz.

“Respectfully, sir. You don’t know your wife.”

Imagine STUDYING poker, playing in live games twice per week, playing online several times per week, and watching several hours of it on TV.

I have poker textbooks that I would pore over. I would study the pros on TV. I would analyze every nuanced decision the best players in the world were making in an effort to be a strong player.

And it worked. I got pretty good.

Now. Imagine being a woman who—in every decision she makes, large and small—factors her husband into the equation.

What to have for dinner. When to broach certain subjects with me. What plans to make for the upcoming weekend. What gifts to get MY parents for the holidays—something that hadn’t occurred to me before she mentioned it.

There were almost no decisions my wife would make throughout the course of the day that didn’t take into account how our son and her husband would be affected by it.

Compare that to me.

I woke up, maybe worked out, drove to work, did work stuff, drove home, and then maybe I’d cook or help clean up the kitchen. One or two days per week, I’d vanish for poker night. When I was home, maybe I was playing online poker, watching a movie or TV show that I liked, or “managing” a fantasy football team.

You know. Minding my own business after a day where I went to work, cooked dinner and cleaned up the kitchen, and then sat down to watch, read, or play something.

So, that’s why I always thought it was bullshit when she’d be upset with me about something.

Because I didn’t do anything.

And I was right. I didn’t do anything. I was SURPRISED by my wife feeling upset or neglected or disrespected by something I either did or didn’t do.

Imagine if I’d given the list of things that affect my wife positively and negatively even HALF of the attention I gave to trying to master poker or win my fantasy football league.

Imagine.

Maybe, if I had a nuanced understanding of the sorts of things that caused my wife to feel pain, it would have occurred to me just how hurtful it must have been for her to see me put so much time, effort, and energy into mastering a game she had no interest in, and which took me away from her and our home several hours per week, while NEVER investing even a fraction of that same disciplined focus, effort, and energy in her. Into our marriage. Into optimizing our home life in a way that helped her feel seen, heard, respected, cherished, desired, and supported.

What if I KNEW my wife? What if I really, truly knew who she was? Her hopes and dreams. The very specific reasons why things I thought were petty or silly created pain for her. What if I—with well-practiced expertise—had developed mastery-level skills for marriage, and a comprehensive understanding of who she was and what mattered most to her?

Someone who KNOWS their spouse with the same mastery they have of their profession or favorite hobbies or whatever they’ve studied the most? That’s a person capable of anticipating his or her partner’s emotional, mental, and physical needs in real time.

Without any surprises.

The “invisible” bad shit doesn’t happen because we can anticipate it. We see the potential danger or potential mistakes and avoid them.

That’s what well-practiced, focused people who are paying attention do. They see problems before they happen and adapt for the best-possible outcome.

Imagine if you also did that for your spouse.

Imagine a life without being “surprised” with another “petty” complaint.

Imagine a partner who never complains because she or he is in a constant state of having their needs met. Of being considered. Of being validated. Of being respected. Of being loved.

I don’t know what you’re best at in life. But I’m pretty sure you were mostly shit at it when you didn’t even know what you didn’t know and were just getting started.

Maybe you’re accidentally shit at various aspects of your relationship. Maybe you’re regularly confused by your partner.

And just maybe, putting in the work of understanding and knowing things about them that you don’t currently know will mitigate much of the conflict and discomfort in your marriage.

Just maybe, when we are tuned into our partners and have expertise on the things that affect them—both good and bad—we are able to anticipate and meet their needs in real time. Without surprises. Because these things are no longer happening in our blind spots.

The pain- and conflict-producing situations are no longer sneaking up on us.

We see the sharp corners. The boiling pan on the stove. And we’re just a little more mindful and cautious.

Maybe that’s how we help prevent a lot of pain, and more effectively soothe it when it happens.

Maybe that’s how we turn frustrating, unhealthy, and disconnected relationships into ones we want to be a part of.

I didn’t know my wife. But, if I’d chosen to, I could have.

And that would have changed everything.

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Not Afraid to Step Into the Fight When We Can’t See the Light

(Author’s note: Writing and posting today nearly undermines its intended purpose. Today is not a day for my voice. It’s just the day I had the opportunity to use it. I’ve not posted in nearly three months. I don’t anticipate that kind of gap happening again. Please don’t interpret this as me trying to talk over others. Please interpret this as me encouraging others to join me in listening to everyone who must be heard. They must.)

Here’s how I come at this: I spend most of my time talking about relationship stuff. And the reason why is because when I was 4 my parents divorced and it felt really bad, followed by my own divorce at age 34 which felt even worse.

My premise is simple enough as it pertains to marriage and romantic relationships. I don’t care whether people get married. I’m not out here advocating for marriage.

But I think when two people marry, voluntarily and intentionally, that they should have WAY better odds of making it than 50 percent.

The real tragedy from my perspective is that the list of things I believe will have the greatest impact on whether relationships will be healthy and sustainable versus shitty and broken are NOT on anyone’s radar.

In other words, situations and behaviors that will determine the fate of people’s marriages and families happen while the participants are unaware of how critical and life-altering they are. People—none more than me 10+ years ago—struggle with getting outside of their own heads to seek greater understanding about how another person or other people might be experiencing something.

Our partners share thoughts and feelings with us. And instead of:

  1. Listening
  2. Validating
  3. Seeking further understanding to A. Know the people we love more fully, and B. Make sure we know what we need to know in order to actively participate in them NOT feeling this hurt or shitty in the future…

we often judge what they’re telling us. We try to evaluate whether we think they should or should not feel what they feel. We try to correct them.

This is how you make people feel invisible. Sad. Angry. Rejected. Unloved. Disrespected.

Maybe there’s a case to be made for shit relationships. Maybe there are people unlike me who perceive toxic relationships to be a positive thing for themselves and those around them.

But this is the fight I fight.

Seems Pretty Black and White to Me

As friends and professional colleagues have broached conversations with me about recent events in the United States, I heard myself saying IDENTICAL things as I do in my coaching conversations about marriage and healthy romantic relationships.

It took me a long time to embrace the idea of listening to people outside of my bubbles, echo chambers, and social circles of sameness. It took me a long time to realize I needn’t ever be afraid of my beliefs being challenged.

Truth will always, always, ALWAYS hold up to scrutiny.

Please validate people who think and feel things differently than you (if you value having healthy relationships with them and/or believe they deserve respect and decency). You needn’t ever agree with someone else. Agreement is not required.

Please seek to understand WHY people think and feel the things they think and feel. You’ll likely find that based on everything they have seen, heard, been taught, and experienced, it totally makes sense that they think and feel the things that they do.

Always search for the WHY.

People matter. Not some people. Not people who look like me. Not people who act like me. Not people who think like me.

EVERYONE.

Either everyone matters or nobody does.

When our spouses come to us and say that they feel hurt, please don’t say “Everyone hurts, you whiner. Toughen up!” and then expect afterward to have a healthy, connected, trusting relationship with them where everyone feels loved, cared for, and respected as equals. If that’s how you show up, it’s going to get bad. It just is.

Everyone in that relationship will suffer.

When our fellow citizens come to us and say “Black lives matter,” please don’t say “All lives matter, you whiner. Toughen up!” and expect afterward to have healthy, connected, trusting relationships with them where everyone feels respected as equals. That’s how many of us have been showing up. And it got bad.

I mean, for many people, it’s been bad for my entire life. I was just mostly too comfortable and too busy “not needing to worry about it” to notice most of the time.

Of course all lives matter. Just like of course your spouse isn’t always being his or her best self when trying to communicate with you about something that’s upsetting them.

Is the goal to have a healthy relationship where everyone thrives peacefully, or to win some semantics debate? It’s a choice.

When someone is screaming and fighting for justice for their fallen brother or sister killed by the actions of a public servant sworn to protect them, maybe that’s not the time to scream and fight over political points RE: Antifa, and George Soros, and about how white people sometimes suffer too, and about fucking ANYTHING that is NOT specifically: “Holy shit. I’m so sorry that happened, and I can’t imagine the horror and outrage you must be feeling right now, and I know I can’t do anything to help, but I can stand with you. You’re not alone.”

Validation is not about agreement. Everyone has a perspective. And the path forward is everyone listening to and understanding those other perspectives regardless of how much they agree with them.

The danger is allowing oppression to silence some of those perspectives.

That’s not what sustainable relationships are built on.

That’s not what sustainable societies are built on.

That’s not what the stars and stripes represent. And that’s why our brothers knelt.

Silently.

Peacefully.

Maybe some of us listened. But we didn’t lift a finger.

Just more silencing. Just more comfortably moving onto the next thing that was all about us.

Just more twisting the conversation into one about politics and patriotism and NFL public relations TV optics instead of the conversation peaceful protesters tried to have: “What if we collectively banded together in order to—to the best of our abilities—prevent the killings of innocent people? What if we collectively worked together to fight for civil liberties for EVERYONE?”

I struggle to understand what could be considered so unfair or unreasonable about those questions.

I can’t imagine what it must be like living in the United States in the year 2020 and fearing for your safety, or for the safety of your children, siblings, parents, neighbors, and friends because you happened to be born with skin that looks differently than mine.

And I hate the helplessness I feel—this tiny voice behind a keyboard.

I destroyed my marriage—not by actively sabotaging it, but by not paying attention to the things that actually mattered. I hurt people I loved because I chose to passively and comfortably not pay attention.

Even if I didn’t “do anything,” I allowed bad things to happen.

And I don’t want to be the kind of person who allows bad things to happen because I’m too busy being comfortable. Because I’m too busy not being black, not being female, not being gay, not being the person in the relationship feeling shit on every day.

That’s who I was in my marriage, and it’s precisely what I’ve been fighting against.

And this is exactly who I’ve been as a white guy in America. I’m not “doing anything” to cause harm. And I can keep justifying my actions or lack thereof behind that wimpy defense. Because I’m not “the problem,” I can just keep blindly, deafly, ignorantly coasting through life while others suffer. That’s a choice.

But it’s not one I want to make.

It’s not who I want to be nor who I want my son to be.

I want to listen. You MUST be heard.

I want to validate. You MUST be made whole.

And most importantly, I want to understand. Because I can’t be the kind of person who walks around with blinders on, obliviously letting my neighbors suffer while I comfortably do nothing.

My brothers can’t breathe.

My sisters can’t breathe.

I’m so sorry that I wasn’t listening to you. I’m so sorry that I wasn’t fighting for you.

If it’s not too late to earn your trust, I’m listening now.

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Love in the Time of Coronavirus

couple with coronavirus masks

(Image/CBS46.com)

So I’ve been thinking about this virus going around. You know the one.

I’m scheduled to turn 41 later this month, and near as I can tell, this is the first real-time global health crisis during my lifetime with the potential to affect everyone.

The Covid-19 coronavirus doesn’t care how much money you have. It doesn’t care which language you speak nor what country you call home. It doesn’t care about your age or race or religious beliefs or education or politics or your sexual proclivities.

The coronavirus doesn’t appear to discriminate. If you’re a human being with a functioning respiratory system, it thinks you’re good enough.

True equality.

I’m not an expert in biology, infectious disease, nor medicine, so I don’t pretend to know where any of this is headed.

Health experts say this coronavirus doesn’t transmit as easily as the seasonal flu, but millions of people are inoculated or have built up immunity to the common flu strains, so maybe it makes sense that a virus no one has immunity to nor a vaccine for seems to be moving its way around the world rather easily.

I used to tell people that horror films—the supernatural, or monster, or slasher types—never really scared me. Which was true. Those stories were too detached from my reality to trigger real fear outside of a cheap jump-scare.

What did ‘scare’ me, I’d say, were stories like Outbreak or The Stand, which are based on apocalyptic pandemic scenarios in which everyone who contracts the virus dies. That’s not the case here. Not even close. There are radical differences between those stories and what has been happening in coronavirus-affected communities so far.

This story doesn’t scare me (in a health way), but this story does interest me because of its We’re All in This Together quality.

In Good Times and in Bad, In Sickness and in Health

Maybe this thing dies out super-fast for reasons I’m too ignorant to anticipate or understand. I’m currently operating under the assumption this probably gets worse before it gets better. I’ll be delighted to be wrong.

My cousin married his wife this past weekend. On Leap Day, February 29. He’s rock solid. An infinitely better man than I was at his age.

The ceremony gave me another opportunity to think deeply about the promises we make to one another when we exchange marriage vows. Beautiful promises.

But perhaps beautiful promises that too few of us actually keep.

A Common Break-Up Story

That’s what my divorce was. Just your average marriage coming to its inevitable end with a husband asleep at the wheel.

When divorce is the conclusion of a particular marriage story, common themes emerge—themes which were on full display in mine.

The relationship becomes strained. Not quickly nor obviously.

Slowly. Quietly. Insidiously.

If we recognized what was happening as it was happening, most of us would course-correct, since most of us legitimately love our spouses and want our marriages to succeed.

We’re not intentionally sabotaging our most important relationships.

We’re accidentally doing it. We don’t even know it’s happening as it’s happening.

They’re not bombs and gunshots.

They’re pinpricks.

They’re paper cuts.

These tiny wounds don’t kill us instantly or even make us feel as if we’re in mortal danger. And THAT is the danger. When we don’t recognize the threat, we never make the adjustments or preparations necessary to protect ourselves or others from the potential outcomes. These tiny wounds start to bleed, and the bleed-out is so gradual that many of us don’t recognize the threat until it’s too late to stop it.

It is during this poor relationship-health phase when it’s most fragile and vulnerable that an outside force can level an unsteady house on a weakened or absent foundation.

In a 2015 article in Health magazine, Dr. Elizabeth Ochoa, a marriage counselor and chief psychologist at Mount Sinai Beth Israel hospital in New York City, pointed to seven life events that commonly lead to divorce in an already-strained relationship:

  • Illness
  • Job loss / Financial stress
  • Childbirth
  • Living apart
  • Trauma
  • Empty-nesters
  • Infidelity

If you’re me, it can even be a neat combination.

I was a shitty husband during and after my wife giving birth to our son.

Not long after, I was laid off during consecutive rounds of corporate layoffs following the 2008 recession. I was a shitty husband during that time too, but mostly I just couldn’t love and respect myself after losing my job.

And finally, just as we were getting our finances back together and I believed things were moving in a positive direction, she lost her father suddenly. Out of nowhere the day after having a wonderful dinner with her parents.

Let’s call it the Divorce Life Event Triple-Threat.

We were finished even though it took me another 18 months or so to realize it when she made the decision to leave.

Like a child, I attributed my wife’s decision to end our marriage as a selfish action stemming from her inability to manage her emotions effectively while grieving her father’s passing. I resented her for allowing her grief to “rank higher” or “be more important” than our marriage.

I didn’t know that my inability to love and respect myself and step up courageously following my layoff had eroded her trust in me and our relationship.

I didn’t realize what a betrayal she experienced in my lack of showing up for her in the months leading up to our son being born. I didn’t realize that my failure to prepare myself to really love and support her proactively, emotionally and logistically, had completely broken the trust she once had in me.

I didn’t understand how my failure to respect my wife’s feelings over my selfish desire to change them throughout thousands of these paper-cut incidents had set the stage perfectly for a major life event to wipe away everything I thought we’d built.

The Coronavirus Test Kits

I hope and pray all of you will do everything within your power to take care of yourself and those you love in your efforts to stay healthy.

But I also know—whether it’s this virus, something else, or an unpleasant combination—that life is going to throw things at you indiscriminately.

These big, stressful, life-altering happenings are a threat to the very things that helps us weather life’s most difficult, most frightening, most painful moments—our most significant relationships.

While scary headlines and unusual life adjustments cause new stresses and inconveniences, please don’t lose sight of what was most important before they happened, what will be most important as they happen, and will be most important after they happen.

Love hard, please.

Yourself. Your loved ones. And those people over there that neither of us know.

Let’s please take care of one another.

It has always been all of us in this together.

But I’m not sure I ever recognized how much until now.

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Taking the Wheel Vs. Destroying Our Marriages on Autopilot

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(Image/Forbes)

The word ‘habits’—at least for me—conjures images of working out or smoking or biting my fingernails.

People talk about developing good study habits or good work habits as a means of succeeding in school or in their career pursuits.

I never thought about habits as having any bearing on my marriage or any of my interpersonal relationships.

But is has occurred to me recently—as I continue to work on myself, and as I continue to work with people trying to rebuild trust in their relationships and communicate more effectively with their partners—that habits more or less affect everything that I do. Everything that all of us do.

The word ‘habits’ isn’t reserved for the things I think about whenever I read or hear it being used.

Habits are simply everything that we do on autopilot.

Tying our shoes. Getting in and out of our vehicles. The way we squeeze toothpaste and brush our teeth.

We don’t notice our habits because they’re all of the things that happen while we’re not paying attention. They don’t require our focus or intentionality. They don’t require any extra-effort. They just happen.

“A habit is a behavior that has been repeated enough times to become automatic,” writes author James Clear, in Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones.

Newsflash: If you’re in a relationship strained by conflict, mistrust, and what you perceive to be a lot of miscommunication or misunderstandings, then it’s a pretty safe bet that your habitual thoughts and actions—the ones you never think about or even notice—are the thoughts and actions fueling the relationship dysfunction.

The alternative is to believe that the two of you are intentionally sabotaging one another and the relationship.

And if you believe that either you or your partner is mindfully trying to destroy your relationship or cause suffering, then I’ll sleep okay at night encouraging you to GTFO ASAP.

Maybe Thinking About Habits Can Help Us Show Up More Effectively in Our Relationships

I love the way Clear explains habits, and I love the way he breaks down simply the science of behavior change—the science of turning behavior that we DO have to concentrate on and grind through into autopilot actions that we do without having to think about them.

What if we can identify beliefs and quick-trigger reactions we are having on autopilot that are harming our relationships, and what if we can replace them with new autopilot behaviors that actually do some good?

One of those habits, which helped destroy my marriage, and which is currently destroying others is a nasty little habit that seems particularly difficult for people to get a grip on, and that’s because it’s NOT a ‘bad’ habit in the vast majority of our human relationships. This isn’t a behavior that universally damages human relationships. It’s simply a behavior that commonly damages long-term monogamous relationships.

And that habit is:

When our partner shares their feelings with us, instead of responding in a way that acknowledges and respects their stated emotional experience, we dedicate our focus to evaluating whether we believe they SHOULD feel that way.

This is not a specifically male trait, but in my experience it most commonly shows up with the guys in heterosexual relationships, just as it did in mine.

Most guys admit to me that they don’t respond to their wife or girlfriend’s expressed feelings, but instead invest their energy in one of three invalidating ways that pretty much always destroy relationships:

  1. They dispute the facts of the story their partner just told, thus their partner’s feelings are invalid.
  2. They agree with the facts of the story, but believe their partner is overreacting or being too sensitive about it. Her feelings are wrong. Thus, invalid.
  3. If the thing that upset his partner was the result of something she says that he did, he defends his actions by explaining why he did it. He justifies what happened because he had good reason to do it, he says. Thus, his partner’s feelings are invalid.

No matter what, his partner’s feelings aren’t important. They never win. They never are treated with value or respect. They’re never factors for him in what he does next.

And THAT will end your relationship after it happens enough times.

But in our friendships and professional relationships no one else complains about us doing this.

So when we are called out for lack of respect or care from our significant other, we treat them as if they are the ones with the problem.

“Literally zero other people have a problem with who I am. Just you. Just the person I love and to whom I committed the rest of my life. Would you PLEASE chill the F out? You’d be doing us both a favor.”

I want people to notice themselves doing this.

I want people to notice how instead of someone we love saying “I’m hurt,” and then us reacting with the requisite amount of love, concern, and support one might expect when someone is injured or grieving or otherwise suffering, we instead prioritize EVALUATING whether their emotional response is, in our opinion, appropriate.

People get divorced.

People lose grandparents.

People’s pets die.

Maybe we show up for others when those things happen to them. Maybe we don’t.

People stress about an upcoming test at school or a pending job interview.

People feel hurt because they perceive their in-laws to mistreat them at family gatherings.

People are afraid of being diagnosed with an illness or disease.

Maybe we show up for others when those things happen to them. Maybe we don’t.

Who are you? Who am I?

In many ways, we’re the sum of our habits.

“Your identity emerges out of your habits,” Clear writes. “Every action is a vote for the type of person you wish to become.”

It’s not so much about what we do as it is about who we are. Though, what we do defines who we are. And who we are will influence what we do.

We are good spouses—loving and supportive partners—when we behave as loving and supportive spouses do.

Each time we show up in a way that communicates: You matter. I love you. You, and our marriage, matter more than my opinions or my comfort at any given time, and now my actions demonstrate that I believe that… we are voting for the kind of person we want to be.

When we repeat the process of being the kind of person we want to be enough times, a ‘habit’ forms.

On autopilot, we are showing up for the people we love.

And then it’s no longer about trying to change or about trying to be someone or something we don’t currently believe that we are.

A habit is a behavior that has been repeated enough times to become automatic.

“The real reasons habits matter is not because they can get you better results (although they can do that),” Clear says, “but because they can change your beliefs about yourself.”

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The Idea That Would Have Saved My Marriage and Might Save Yours

relationship algebra

(Image/Redbubble)

The reasons more than half of all romantic relationships (including marriage) fail are not obvious to most people.

If you need proof, just ask your current or former relationship partner to share their beliefs about what you experience—good and bad—in your relationship, (or your reasons for wanting to leave your former partner).

I’m willing to bet that eight—probably nine—times out of 10, their answer will fall well short of accurately describing your experiences, highlighting all of the ways they don’t quite understand what matters to you, and what doesn’t.

Unless you can tell the story of your marriage (or any romantic relationship) challenges in a way that results in your partner nodding their head and saying: “Yes. That is exactly right. That is exactly how I feel,” then you can safely dismiss the idea that you know and understand your partner well enough to avoid conflict and communicate effectively.

So, if you’re in the kind of relationship where either you or your partner cannot accurately describe your emotional experiences on a day-to-day basis, when you read this next sentence that might seem too obvious to take seriously, I hope you’ll dig just a little bit deeper before moving on because this is the idea that would have saved my marriage.

“I want to feel like the person I married considers me when they make decisions.”

I frequently did not consider how my decisions, words, and actions affected my wife, and after several painful years of being on the receiving end of that lack of consideration, she chose to leave.

Many of you have heard all of this before.

How I used to leave a dish by the sink and then treat my wife as if she was wrong or crazy for elevating it to a marriage problem.

How I used to leave a pair of jeans on a piece of furniture in our bedroom. Jeans that weren’t dirty enough to throw in the laundry. She hated it and asked me not to. I treated her as if she was wrong or crazy for always needing HER preferences to win over mine.

How I would sometimes make jokes at her expense in front of our friends and then defend it because I wasn’t trying to hurt her feelings. I treated her as if she was emotionally weak when she would mention it later. As if she was wrong or crazy for reacting to what I perceived to be harmless jokes in ways that I would not.

My wife was married to a man who frequently made decisions that would directly or inadvertently affect her—sometimes in substantially negative ways.

And my defense was that it was an accident. That I didn’t mean to.

And I FOUGHT for that recognition. I really believed that things were never as bad as she made them out to be. I’m a good guy! I seriously love you! I’m NEVER trying to hurt or upset you!

And she always acted like that didn’t matter, and I always acted like she was unfair.

I was always missing the point.

It’s not that I considered my wife, and made a decision that hurt or inconvenienced or disrespected her afterward.

It’s that I NEVER CONSIDERED HER AT ALL.

I made decisions where my wife wasn’t even a factor in the math equation my brain used to decide something.

THAT is what hurt.

That my wife was seemingly so inconsequential to me—so unworthy of my care and concern—that I would blindly or thoughtlessly make decisions without factoring in how she might be affected or how she might feel about it.

Underneath EVERY one of these little arguments that I believed were such a waste of time—that I was in such a hurry to end—I always focused on whatever disagreement we were having. I was always so perplexed and offended by how she could be making such a big deal out of whatever the next “little thing” was, that I never recognized the idea that would have saved my marriage and family.

My wife wanted to feel loved. Cherished. Respected. Desired.

My wife wanted her husband to believe and act as if she was worthy of being considered—that she was important enough for me to remember to include in my decisions, no matter how inconsequential I might have believed them to be.

How dare I deny her that.

I always had it coming. My inevitable comeuppance. I was simply too blind and ignorant and stubborn to know it.

How Do You Feel When It’s 65 Degrees?

My friend, Cary, N.C.-based couples therapist Lesli Doares, said to me in a recent podcast interview that we can objectively know that it’s 65 degrees outside. (That’s 18.333 degrees Celsius, all of you non-U.S. folk.)

Everyone can agree that it’s 65 degrees when we see 10 different thermometers telling us that it’s 65.

Where couples get in trouble (any two people or groups, really) is when discussing whether 65 degrees is warm or cold.

It’s common for two people to experience air temperature (and literally everything else) differently.

It’s common for one person to feel comfortable in 65 degrees while another person could feel chilly—uncomfortably so—in those air temps.

Something I’ve spent a lot of time discussing with coaching clients recently is this 65-degree framework for thinking about how we can more effectively consider our partner’s experiences when we make decisions.

For example, can we adjust the temperature? Or, could we choose to go somewhere warmer than 65 degrees on our partner’s behalf?

If we must or agree to go somewhere that’s 65 degrees, how might we consider our partner’s experience beforehand?

Could we communicate ahead of time that it will be 65 degrees when we get there so that they can factor it into their clothing choices? Can we acknowledge that we are aware that it’s a temperature that’s uncomfortable for them and that that matters to us? Could we offer any support or assistance to help them be more comfortable in 65 degrees?

Might we grab a sweatshirt or jacket for them? An extra blanket? Might we sit near a heat source, or somewhere out of the wind?

We are so good at being stuck inside of our own heads and bodies. We are so good at defaulting to all of our beliefs and opinions being ‘normal’ or ‘good’ or ‘correct,’ and we are often blind to how things we never considered impact others because those same conditions don’t impact us or cause us any pain or discomfort.

This happens all of the time, every day, in our beliefs and conversations that extend well beyond our romantic relationships. But that’s a conversation for another time.

Do you ever make quick, thoughtless decisions that your spouse or relationship partner indicates is an inconvenience or pain point for them?

Like me, are you quick to dismiss them, because you ‘know’ just how unimportant those minor inconveniences truly are?

And if so, is it possible that these “little things” aren’t the actual problem in your relationship?

Could it be that what our loved ones actually crave is to be considered in our decision-making? To be worthy, in our minds and hearts, of always being important enough to include in our calculations—no matter how deceptively minor or inconsequential we might believe these calculations to be?

Maybe you can ask them.

And just maybe, having that conversation can change your life and relationship in beautiful and meaningful ways.

Only one way to find out.

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Save Your Marriage Using the Monster-Under-the-Bed Theory

(Image/John Lewis)

Imagine getting a phone call. You answer. A stranger on the other end of the line identifies his or herself as a law enforcement agent.

You feel a little flutter of anxiety.

The law enforcement official names someone you love dearly. Maybe it’s the name of a family member.

“There’s been an accident. I’m so sorry. Would you be willing to come downtown to identify the body?”

Shock. Disbelief. Disoriented.

Maybe the most unspeakably painful feeling that you didn’t know your mind and body could experience without dying.

You hang up the phone.

Maybe everything’s in slow motion. Surreal. Or maybe you rush into action because you’re the kind of person who functions well in emergencies, even when you’re falling apart on the inside.

Minutes go by. Maybe hours.

Maybe you text or call others to share the tragic news.

I can’t believe they’re gone.

You arrive at the morgue. They take you to a back room where you’ll identify the body for the coroner or medical examiner. You’re a mental and emotional wreck.

They pull back the sheet. You stare down at the face and motionless body of someone you can’t imagine living without, your worst fears realized.

And then this person jumps off the table: “SURPRISE! You can’t get rid of me that easily!” and all of the morgue workers and cops laugh and laugh and laugh and point at you while you try to process what just happened.

‘Dad, I’m scared. There’s a monster under my bed.’

It doesn’t matter that someone you loved dearly hadn’t really died, and had pulled the sickest, most-savage prank imaginable. Your brain and body still experienced the situation as if you’d lost someone precious to you.

Your mental and emotional reactions were consistent with the tragedy actually having happened.

Sometimes, little kids believe a monster could be hiding under their beds.

Because we don’t believe it’s possible that a monster could be hiding under the child’s bed, sometimes we flippantly wave off the child’s concerns. Maybe we tell them to not be silly—that their feelings are ridiculous. Maybe we tell them casually that there’s nothing to be afraid of and close their bedroom door because we’re in a hurry to run off and do something else. Maybe they cry and we get even more impatient. “What are you, a baby? Toughen up. There’s nothing to cry about, but if you keep this up, I’ll give you something to cry about.”

And that’s one way to handle it.

I’m not here to judge anyone’s parenting styles, or to act as if I’m some saint who has never failed his son. I’m confident I’ve failed him plenty.

But I think most of us can agree that there is a loving and compassionate way to respond to this child in a way that will help to build an environment of safety and trust in that relationship, and that the examples shared above are not it.

The Monster Under the Bed Theory

I mentioned this scenario in a recent podcast interview with therapist Lesli Doares, and then it came up again in a couple of recent client coaching sessions.

And the more I thought about it and talked about it, the more I liked it as a framework for having conversations about how we respond to our romantic partners. I am NOT comparing — not even a little bit—an adult relationship partner to a child who might be exhibiting “irrational fears.”

I am, however, comparing the other partner in the scenario to the Monster Under the Bed parent.

When people tell us about something that is affecting them — something that might be making them sad, or afraid, or angry, or some other bad thing — we have a choice to make about how we respond.

I submit that an effective and healthy way to respond to a child who is afraid — who is experiencing very real, actual fear, independent of how little we understand why, and regardless of how irrational we think it might be — is to sit or kneel down next to them.

“Hey. I am so sorry that you feel afraid right now. You know, I’ve been afraid before too. Many times. It feels really bad to be scared.

“I’m here. I wish I could take your fear away, but I don’t know how. I only know how to promise you that you’re not alone. I love you so much, and no matter what, I never want you to feel alone. When bad things happen to you, they happen to me too. Okay?

“I’m pretty sure there are no monsters hiding under your bed. If it’s okay with you, I’m going to turn on the lights and check for you, and then when you feel ready, we can both look together if you want. Then, if you’re confident that the coast is clear and that we don’t have any monsters sneaking around here, maybe you’ll feel good enough and safe enough to fall asleep.”

You can love your kids and still treat them like their thoughts and feelings are stupid and unimportant. I get it. Everything we understand to be true tells us that there’s no way there’s an actual monster hiding under the bed, and maybe it feels really frustrating that someone you love doesn’t have the same experiences or the same frame of reference which might cause them to behave differently than you would in similar circumstances.

It doesn’t matter that when your seemingly sadistic family member or friend played the morgue prank on you, they weren’t actually dead. You believed that they died, and while you believed it, your entire world was crumbling.

It doesn’t matter how insane it seems to an adult that a child might believe there’s a monster under their bed. That child is still feeling exactly how it would feel if there WAS a scary monster under their bed.

It doesn’t matter how confused you are about why your spouse or romantic partner might feel as they do nor does it matter how irrational you consider their reasons to be. That person you promised to love and cherish is feeling actual pain. Actual sadness. Actual anger. Actual fear.

You don’t HAVE to do the super-thoughtful parent thing and comfort the child who is afraid of the monster under their bed as described above in order to be a person who loves their children.

It’s not a right-or-wrong thing. It’s not a good-or-bad thing.

I would argue simply that one way is an effective strategy for building an environment of safety and trust in a relationship built to be healthy and last a lifetime, and that the less-compassionate, more-dickish “There’s nothing to cry about! Stop being a baby!” version is more likely to produce strained, unhealthy relationships in the future.

We get to choose.

You don’t HAVE to do the super-thoughtful and loving spouse thing when your partner communicates to you a pain or fear they’re experiencing. I don’t think about it as being right or wrong, or good or bad.

I would argue simply that one way is an effective strategy for nurturing a healthy and loving and mutually beneficial relationship built to last a lifetime.

The alternative?

Strained, unhealthy, feel-bad, conflict-heavy relationships that don’t last.

Love is a choice.

We can choose to be the kind of people who close the bedroom doors and tell our kids to shut up and stop being wimpy and afraid.

Or we can be the kind of people who sit down and listen. Who seek to understand. Who choose to care about things sometimes simply because the people we love care about them.

We can’t prevent all injury. We can’t prevent others from feeling sad or afraid.

But we can make sure that when they’re hurt, or sad, or afraid, that they know they’re not alone.

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