Category Archives: Marriage

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

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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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Taking the Wheel Vs. Destroying Our Marriages on Autopilot

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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

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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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Where to Find Solutions to Your Relationship Problems

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The best places to look for solutions — to any significant problem you may face; not just relationship problems — are in the non-obvious places.

The places you haven’t looked.

The places you wouldn’t think to look.

And that’s the rub. It’s counter-intuitive to think of things we don’t naturally or instinctively think of. It’s sort of impossible to notice or know about things we can’t see.

One relationship partner’s failure to notice something (or many things) meaningful to the other is the root cause of many strained or broken couples.

Maybe she thinks he’s a selfish asshole for not noticing, or not acknowledging a Herculean effort on her part to plan a huge family event. Or re-decorating a room in their house. Or for all that she sacrificed so that their children are well fed, perform well in school, and get to and from their extracurricular activities safely and on-time without significant interruptions to his career and work schedule.

Maybe he’s super-busy advancing his workplace skills and accomplishments because from his earliest memories, the measure of a man was directly tied to career success and his ability to provide financial security to his family both today and for the entirety of their lives. Maybe his highest priority is the long-term wellness of his wife and children, and he’s afraid of failing them every day. And maybe while he’s keeping his head down trying to better himself and his family’s circumstances, he’s blind (literally never even saw) a change to her hair or their home.

While he’s looking in one place at one thing, something is happening outside of his field of view. He doesn’t even know there’s a thing to notice.

His checked-outness feels like disrespect to her. Like only the things he does matters, and she apparently amounts to little more than a house-cleaning nanny who cooks dinner, packs lunches, and who only gets feel-good attention when he’s trying to have sex with her.

When she finally speaks up about it, or cold-shoulders his attempt to connect in the bedroom, it seems to him that it came out of left field. What did I do this time?!

When we are trying to find solutions to our problems (or to locate anything missing like our phone or car keys), we default to looking in the obvious places first. And this makes sense as one of my favorite writers Seth Godin points out when he wrote “Look in the obvious places first.”

Godin writes:

“That makes sense, because the obvious solution is obvious because we’ve learned how to solve problems like these. Your car keys are probably on your dresser, not in Santa Fe.

“Here’s the thing: if the problem is a longstanding one, if it hasn’t been solved in a while, then the places you think are obvious aren’t. Because they’ve already been tried.

“As time goes on, the most likely site of the solution is further and further away from what you would have guessed. So begin there instead. That’s the new obvious place.

“Hint: it’s probably a place that feels uncomfortable, risky or difficult.”

The answers to your questions and the fixes to your problems are probably not in any of the places in which you’ve been looking for them.

Couples have the same fight for 10, 20, even 30 years, if they make it that long.

And if one of them — so sure of themselves and certain of their correctness — hasn’t managed to convince the other, what must that signify?

That one or both of them are woefully incapable of effective communication. That one or both of them are intellectually incapable of comprehending the brilliance of the other.

Or maybe it means that two people can look at, hear, feel, or otherwise experience the same thing, and come away with differing accounts of what happened, and differing accounts of how they feel about it.

And maybe neither one is objectively correct or incorrect.

As my brilliant friend Lesli Doares, a Cary, N.C.-based marriage therapist says, if we have 10 thermometers telling us it’s 65 degrees Fahrenheit outside, we can feel secure in that objective truth: It’s 65 degrees outside.

But the answer to the all-important follow-up question that will make or break your relationships is NOT objective, even though most of us treat it like one:

Yes. It’s 65 degrees. But, is that hot or cold?

It’s Not One Event or One Thing — It’s the Accumulation of the Tiny, Unnoticed Things

I’ve long described the end of my marriage as death by a thousand paper cuts.

One paper cut isn’t a big deal. We shake it off and move on. Same for the second and third, and probably even the 100th. But maybe after a thousand, the wounds are so severe that we bleed to death and die.

Our relationships die with one or both of us asleep at the wheel.

This idea — this death-by-a-thousand-cuts concept — fascinates me. How can it be that two people agree to forsake all others and partner up for life, and pool their resources, and make children and homes and new lives together, and then half of them fail to the tune of 6,600 divorces per day in the United States alone?

How can that be? After so many decades of experience and knowledge and new generations of people? How can so many people fail at the most precious and important thing at the center of their lives?

Are we all cosmically huge assholes hell bent on mutual self-destruction?

Are we all horrible, incompetent, evil, manipulative, selfish, nasty people incapable of behaving with love and kindness?

OR.

Do the things that end us seem so inconsequential — so harmless and insignificant — that we don’t bother with them?

Do things that we encounter every day (I call them the All The Time things) escape our notice simply because our brains are biologically prone to adapt to our surroundings and routines?

In our never-ending search for comfort, we build in personal systems of routine and familiarity in our actions, our surroundings, our habits, and the people with whom we surround ourselves.

And then we become blind to what becomes constant. Like the summer-nights hum of insects or the everyday sounds of city traffic from a downtown office building. Like white noise.

What happened to cause your marriage to fall apart?

There’s rarely one thing. One event. It’s the accumulation of a million data points, and when the positive ones emerged consistently, two people fell in love and had content, healthy relationships. When the negative ones emerged consistently, things began to erode from within until the structural integrity gave way and everything collapsed.

Simon Sinek, a brilliant author and speaker, describes it from the opposite perspective — how two people fall in love, which I’d argue is simply the reverse-engineered version of how we break our relationships.

When we go to the gym once, or even twice, can we see results? No? Then it must not work! So people quit.

When we brush our teeth for two minutes a couple of times per day, does it make a measurable impact? Not particularly. Doing it once won’t fix a cavity or whiten your stained teeth. It must not work!

Sinek talks through process in the video (that I tried and failed to embed below), and it’s perfect. He discusses both love and business leadership, but the lessons are the same in either instance.

Brushing your teeth for two minutes twice per day doesn’t do anything. It doesn’t matter. UNLESS, you brush your teeth for two minutes twice per day always. It’s the consistent behavior that matters. It’s the consistent behavior that produces healthy, desirable results.

WATCH THIS, please. It’s fantastic.

Take a Closer Look at the All The Time Things

We have questions. We have pains.

So we look for answers. We try to solve our problems so our pains go away.

We look in the places we think to look.

But if the problem has been around for a long time, whatever thing or piece of information you need to achieve your desired result is elsewhere.

And just maybe, they’re hiding in plain sight in the white noise of the All The Time.

NOTE: If you would like to explore whether working with me might help you notice things that exist in your blind spots, or whether reframing your thought and communication habits in your relationship might help you have a breakthrough, please consider whether my coaching services could help you or someone you love.

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Break Toxic Communication Habits with The STFU Method

STFU patch

(Image/The Cheap Place)

Actor and comedian Denis Leary has a bit in his hilarious 1992 stand-up act No Cure for Cancer where he jokes about developing a revolutionary new form of therapy that involves him curing his patients by angrily telling them to shut the fuck up.

Leary’s kidding. He’s telling absurd jokes to elicit laughter.

And while I use profanity infinitely less often than early-90’s Leary, it occurs to me that I have spent the past several months offering the same advice to coaching clients in slightly more polite ways.

“E=MC squared + STFU.” — Albert Einstein

I didn’t anticipate this going in, but my first full year of working one-on-one with coaching clients covering much of the same territory I’ve been writing about here for the past six years, has been emotionally triggering in surprising ways while listening to clients walk me though their personal stories of relationship conflict.

Their fights look, sound and feel just like my fights.

My male clients tell me things they say and feel. They sound just like things I used to say and feel.

My female clients tell me things they say and feel. They sound just like things my ex-wife used to say and feel.

I spend more time these days thinking about the dynamics of an argument between a man and a woman (typically husband and wife) than I did when I was doing all of the self-work needed to understand how my marriage had fallen apart.

I’ve long called this toxic communication cycle The Same Fight.

Because, no matter the subject matter or triggering incident, the ensuing fight tends to follow the same ugly patterns. It’s just the same fight over and over and over again for years until one or both of them decides to do something different—something positive, healing and reconnecting; or total withdraw which often ends in divorce.

The Same Fight isn’t unique to anyone, but couples often believe they’re the only ones dealing with it because this isn’t the stuff we talk about with our friends or at holiday gatherings. So few of us are aware that every couple who hasn’t mastered the art of healthy communication suffers from this same relationship-damaging pattern.

The sick part is that neither person is trying to hurt the other, nor are they on a personal mission to grenade the relationship or put them on the path to an eventual break-up or divorce.

Relationships have three paths. Two of the paths are shitty.

  1. A good relationship.
  2. A bad relationship that lasts forever until one of them dies.
  3. A bad relationship that ends in a break-up or divorce.

Approximately zero percent of people would intentionally enter a relationship (marriage particularly) believing that it would sour and become unhealthy.

Similarly, almost no one would knowingly behave in ways they understood to harm their partner and damage their relationship to the point of jeopardizing it.

Two people meet. They’re pretty awesome and well intentioned. They love each other. They love each other so much that they decide to forsake all others to be together in a relationship model that the majority of participants understand and intend to be a life-long commitment to one another.

They enter this relationship voluntarily.

And as everyone reading this knows, it fails more than half of the time. (All of the people who get divorced plus all of the miserable people who are still together but wish they weren’t.)

Where the Black Magic Happens

This commonly observed breakdown that’s ending thousands of marriages per day couldn’t be more insidious.

Two articulate, intelligent, good-hearted people who seriously love the other and genuinely desire a lifetime marriage, simply start speaking to one another.

Sharing ideas. Emotions. Beliefs. Opinions.

They tell stories about their day. They explain why they said or did something.

Everyone is usually telling the truth.

They talk on the phone. Via text. At the dinner table. Riding in cars together. Before bed. In the morning before work. Sitting on the sofa watching something together.

And then it happens. The black magic. The barely visible, barely noticeable poison begins to infect them, and gone unchecked, will end their good relationship, sentencing them to divorce or a life-long relationship full of stress, conflict, anxiety and pain.

The Him-and-Her Conversation That Mismanaged, Will End Your Relationship Sooner or Later

Disclaimer: This does not always break down gender lines like this. Same-sex couples experience this too, and I’ve had two male clients that were on the opposite side of this equation. It’s just like this the vast majority of the time. But you already know that.

In its simplest form, The Conversation That Ends Relationships looks like this and has a couple of variants.

Her: I’m going to share something I’m thinking about because sharing what’s in my head and heart is how I connect with others, and there’s no one I want to connect with more than my relationship partner.

“Hey babe. A thing happened and it made me feel bad, so now I’m telling you about it because you’re the person I talk to the most and I wanted to let you know what’s going on with me.”

Him: I’m not 100% in agreement with her interpretation of what happened. I’m going to offer an alternative theory and a solution to the problem so that she doesn’t have to feel bad about what happened.

He explains to her why he disagrees with her assessment of what had occurred, and frequently offers an idea for how she could ‘fix’ the problem.

Her: Why is it that every time I try to connect with my husband/boyfriend, he makes it a point to try to correct my experiences or my feelings? Why does he think I’m stupid? Why does he care so little about me that he rejects my attempts to connect with him in ways that hurt me? Why doesn’t he consider my feelings when he says and does things like this?

“Honey. It really hurts my feelings when I try to share with you things that are bothering me or that scare me, and then you trivialize them and make me feel stupid.”

Him: Oh Jesus. Here we go again. First, she’s dumping her problems on me, which is fine because I’m happy to help. But then when I do my best to offer help, she rejects it and tells me I’m being an asshole who hurts her. I’m so frustrated by this. Why doesn’t she want to solve the problem? And why am I suddenly responsible for her emotions?

His wife or girlfriend is doing what she would do with anyone she loved and felt close to and safe with. She’s sharing things—thoughts, feelings, and experiences—that are reserved only for the most important people in her life.

When he fails to appear concerned about this situation causing her to feel pain, it increases her frustration. It makes everything hurt even more because she’s carrying the bad thing alone even though she’d just tried to recruit the person she loves and is committed to, and who promised to love her always, to help her carry the bad thing too, and he was totally dismissive.

He said she was mistaken about what had actually happened, rendering her emotional reactions invalid.

Or, he said her emotions were out of line with what had happened, because if that same thing had happened to him, there’s no way he’d feel that way or act that way. Therefore, she must be overreacting. She must be being overly dramatic unnecessarily, which is bad for both of them. He doesn’t want her to feel bad, and he doesn’t want to have another problem to deal with that he perceives to be a non-issue.

Him: “Babe, can we please just agree to disagree? I wasn’t trying to upset you. I don’t know what you want me to say. You told me about something that happened. I tried my best to share ideas that might help you because I don’t want you to have to deal with those bad things, and then you turned that into me hurting you.”

Her: “I did not turn anything into you hurting me. I told you—truthfully—that when you say and do things like that, it hurts me. It scares me that whenever I tell you that I’m hurt, you make it about you, and tell me how I’m stupid for thinking and feeling these things I think and feel. How can you think so little of me? Why don’t you love me enough to want to help me not hurt anymore?”

Him: “Right. It’s always my fault. Because nothing I do or have done provides sufficient evidence that I love you and want to spend the rest of my life with you. It’s awesome how no matter what I do or say, and no matter how many changes I make, you continue to find new things about me that are such a disappointment to you. I’m sorry I’m such a scourge on your life by being faithful to you, and giving everything I have financially and emotionally to you. I gave up my old life to be with you but that wasn’t enough, apparently. In order for you to actually be loved, I need to always agree with everything you think and feel, and never share anything I actually believe since being honest about what I think equates to me not loving you. Got it.”

She feels shitty. Her connection attempt failed, and worse, now she feels pushed away even further by him. She feels rejected and unloved.

He feels shitty. His honest efforts to help his wife were rejected, and moreover, he was reminded once again that she thinks he’s a bad husband and that her life is harder and worse for having married him. He feels rejected and unloved.

He retreats to reset.

His retreat feels like him running away and abandoning her to stew in her pain alone in the dark.

I can’t win, he thinks. Everything I do is the wrong thing. Nothing I do is ever good enough for her.

I’m so alone, she thinks. I married someone who refuses to acknowledge that I’m hurt or help me to not hurt anymore.

The STFU Method for Connecting with Your Partner

My guy clients mostly all ask the same thing: “Matt. I know she’s in pain. And I don’t want her to hurt. But I don’t understand this. I don’t understand what I’m supposed to say or do. It’s like, if I don’t agree with her, I’m hurting her. Which is bullshit. Why am I not allowed to have my own, independent thoughts and feelings?”

I lived exactly that. Exactly.

So I know what he means.

And I know how frustrating it is to see your wife either sad or angry and continuing to withdraw further and further away from the woman you married.

This is how two people—two good, well-intentioned people—accidentally extinguish the love they once shared. This is how two people slowly, incrementally, insidiously add tiny bits of damage to one another repeatedly until there’s so much hurt and resentment piled up after years of it, that the entire relationship comes to a standstill until that pile of hurt is finally dealt with.

“What do I do, Matt? Any time I try to explain my side, I’m accused of being defensive and that I never listen to her. I DO listen to her. I just disagree with her.”

I get that.

Believing that what I was doing was disagreeing with my wife, and being consistently baffled by what I interpreted as my wife demanding I agree with her.

Nope.

She didn’t need me to agree. And she definitely didn’t need me to try to fix anything for her.

She needed her husband to be one of the people in her life who genuinely cared when she was experiencing pain.

Someone willing to help shoulder the load during life’s difficult moments. Not abandon her to figure it out for herself because “It’s not my problem and you don’t want my help anyway.” You don’t help by offering solutions. You help by demonstrating that it matters to you that she’s hurt.

When someone is in pain and you love them, an appropriate action is to show concern and support. Not scorn, mockery, dismissal or abandonment.

My wife needed her husband to be someone who worked in partnership with her to modify behaviors that would reduce or eliminate hurt.

My wife felt pain, and I was in a position to contribute positively by:

  1. Showing loving concern and support.
  2. Mindfully adjusting things I said or did if they could help heal wounds or stop bad things from happening.

But I did neither of those things.

I wasn’t trying to be an asshole. Seriously.

I wasn’t trying to be a shitty husband. I loved the woman intensely.

And that’s how all of my male clients feel too.

They’re trying to be good guys and good husbands, and repeatedly are told that their version of love and support aren’t good enough for her.

They don’t see the pain.

But they must. It’s the only way.

She hurts. And you’re in a position to offer loving emotional support, which is one half, and you’re also in position to literally reduce instances of her being hurt.

It’s easy enough, in theory. It’s just extremely difficult in practice, because you must mindfully stop reacting and responding in the same ways you’ve been doing your entire life.

Her: “This bad thing happened and it hurt me.”

Him: Instead of worrying about whether I agree that something bad happened, and instead of worrying about whether she SHOULD be hurt by that thing, maybe the most loving and supportive thing I can do for her right now, is behave EXACTLY HOW I BEHAVE whenever she feels bad because of something that I do easily recognize and understand.

“I understand why you feel that way. I’m sorry that happened because you didn’t deserve it and I never want you to feel pain. I’m here in whatever way helps the most.”

If the bad thing that happened and is hurting her is being attributed to something he did or didn’t do, the STFU Method primarily entails NOT trying to explain how she misunderstood or misinterpreted or otherwise made some kind of mistake that renders her feelings about it ‘wrong.’

“I understand why you feel that way. I’m sorry that happened because you don’t deserve to feel that. Because I never want you to feel pain, I really want to understand how this happened—whatever I’m missing—because I’m here in whatever way helps the most. Always.”

When the People You Love Ask You for Help

That’s what this is most of the time.

It’s not nagging. It’s not complaining. It’s not criticizing. It’s not picking on anyone.

Usually, it’s someone feeling hurt and vulnerable asking their partner to help them not feel that way anymore.

It’s not ‘wrong,’ to share your honest thoughts and feelings in return.

It just so happens that doing so is statistically correlated with shitty relationships and ugly divorce.

If you’re stuck in this cycle, I implore you to reframe what your partner is doing, and instead of making judgments about whether it’s right or wrong for your partner to feel a certain way, PLEASE accept on faith that they DO feel whatever bad thing they say they’re feeling.

Sad. Embarrassed. Angry. Anxious. Afraid.

And rather than offering all of the reasons why they are incorrect for feeling the way that they feel, either because you interpret the situation differently, or believe that emotion is an overreaction to what’s happening, just love them.

Listen to them. Try hard to understand them. Ask questions if you have to.

Stop making it about you. Make it about them.

Comfort them. Reassure them. Support them.

Love them.

And if you must, try using Dr. Leary’s radical form of therapy.

Shut the fuck up.

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A Way to Protect Your Relationships from Political (and Other) Arguments

couple arguing

(Image/A Conscious Rethink)

Donald Trump is President of the United States in 2019.

Even for non-Americans, that fact can elicit radically different reactions.

In the United States, these opposing, often intense, emotional reactions will poison the Thanksgiving dinner conversations of many family gatherings next month. These conversations will make friends, neighbors, and co-workers angry with each other as we head toward the 2020 presidential election.

And these differences will sometimes cause division between two people who vowed to love and support each other for the rest of their lives. People who share homes, children, bank accounts, and many years of memories.

A reader sent me the following entertaining email, asking me to write about how to prevent political arguments from ruining their marriage:

I’m trying to understand how two people who have been together for 20 years, seemingly very much in love, can communicate with each other with regards to their opinions on political and world affairs.

Example. Taken from a real situation. Summed up:

Spouse brings up any topic in the news (mainstream or otherwise). The other spouse makes a comment on it that the first spouse doesn’t agree with. First spouse flips out. Of course, we’re talking about the politics of today where one person practically thinks [Donald Trump] is the Saviour, while the other one thinks he’s a con artist. One spouse believes in all the conspiracy theories and AJ videos as the be all and end all fact, while the other tries to listen with an open mind until the name calling starts. The latter spouse flips out despite trying not to, then tries to end the conversation because of tensions rising, which then turns into a yelling match between the two. One feels insulted by the hurled adjectives and names called, the other thinks their spouse needs to grow a pair and stop overeating. Feelings get hurt. Things get thrown around. Doors get slammed. People get ignored. Sleep is restless. The next few days are awkward. Finally one spouse apologizes, the other eventually forgives. One spouse says to the other that they are communicating in an overly confrontational manner, the other retorts that the other is being oversensitive. The situation repeats time and time again.

Sigh.

Weirdly, oddly enough, they can also be a very good team, where they talk to each other respectfully and clearly while working on a building/renovation project! I know… renos are usually the killers, but not with this couple.

So can you write something on how to constructively argue, even when there’s no chance they’ll agree on anything, or only on little? In a way that won’t destroy their marriage? Is it even possible?

The Art of Peaceful Relationship-Building Conversation

When I think about how I approach the art of conversation, I think of it in two parts:

  • Mindset
  • Technique

This is just what works for me. I’m not going to pretend to understand how much of this is applicable to others, given that everyone has different personalities, beliefs, life experiences, unique emotional make-ups, etc.

Mindset #1 – Respect for Others

First and foremost, if I’m having a conversation with the potential for emotional volatility, then it means I’m probably talking to someone I know pretty well. I don’t often engage in emotionally charged conversations with strangers, but even when I do, I treat them the same.

The No. 1 most-important thing I do to succeed at having peaceful, productive conversations is that I value my relationship with the person I’m talking to more than I value trying to “win” a conversation with them.

If you respect your own beliefs and the image of your moral/intellectual superiority more than you value other people, then you are probably going to have a lot of conflict in your conversations and relationships. I used to believe everything I thought and felt was super-legit, which meant anyone opposing any of my super-legit thoughts and feelings must be wrong. That made me kind-of an asshole, and is ultimately the root cause of my divorce.

Mindset #2 – Humility and Curiosity

I’ve been wrong about so many things in my 40 years, that it’s not all that hard to consider that I might have something to learn from someone else.

EVEN IF they don’t have anything to teach me about the subject matter we’re discussing, it’s still an opportunity for me to leverage curiosity to better understand THEM.

In the context of our romantic relationships and closest interpersonal relationships, demonstrating authentic curiosity about what they believe, what they feel, and why, will almost always increase the connection between the two of you rather than move you further apart.

Mindset #3 – Mutually Arrive at Truth

In the event of a disagreement, instead of two people flexing their imagined superiority over one another, what if both people always worked cooperatively to mutually arrive at truth together?

In instances where things can be proven or tested, why not work together to prove or test ideas? Let the truth win.

And where there is no objective truth, it’s an opportunity to understand how another person can look at the same situation as you and come to a different conclusion. Idea and belief diversity is GOOD. If something you believe is true can’t hold up to honest scrutiny, then—maybe it’s not actually true and it’s time to consider a better belief?

Mindset #4 – If You Were Me, and I Was You, and We Were Them

I used to think the things I believed strongly were conclusions I came to thoughtfully and sensibly, which put me in a perma-mindset to shut myself off from opposing viewpoints.

Which is super-ignorant and bullshitty.

Choose any person in the world. There are more than 7 billion of them. And then go through the following thought exercise asking:

  • What if I was born to their parents?
  • What if I grew up in the same town, at the same time, around the same people, doing the same things, and being taught all of the same stuff?
  • If instead of being born into my life, I was born into theirs, wouldn’t I believe all of the same things they do? Wouldn’t I be saying and doing all of the same things they are?
  • In light of that truth, doesn’t acting like all of my shit is better than everyone else’s shit make me a huge dumbass who no emotionally healthy person should want to be around?

You disagree with other people who practice different religions, who vote for different politicians, and who like different kinds of music than you. Sometimes those are strangers.

Sometimes it’s the person you chose to love and honor all the days of your life.

You might think this is extreme, but I don’t (and my opinions are awesome!):

Taken to its logical conclusion, there are only two ways to approach the idea of people believing different things, some of which oppose the beliefs of others.

  1. A group of people who believe the same stuff bands together, convinces a bunch of other people to join them, and then proceeds to eliminate all of the people who oppose their beliefs through violence, slavery, imprisonment, or oppressive laws. The groups willing to go furthest in their quest for imperialistic dominance over the rest of the world get to make the most rules.
  2. We all agree that people are going to believe different things—and that it totally makes sense for them to—and then we all choose to not be insufferable cocks about it.

Technique

If you and I are having a potentially sensitive conversation, I’m going to prioritize you knowing that I care infinitely more about you, my friend, than I care about convincing you that things I believe are somehow better than things you believe.

My goals are two-fold:

  1. To understand what you think and feel—and WHY—because understanding that stuff will undoubtedly give me important context that explains how you came to believe something different than I do. Knowing that will make me smarter and wiser, and allow me to know you better.
  2. To explain what I believe—and WHY—because I’m always confident that I can tell the story of my beliefs in ways that another person can understand. I don’t require that person’s agreement. But I do crave that person’s understanding, and it’s my job to help them understand how or why I might believe something in opposition of something they believe.

Because those are my goals, I don’t use words nor tones of voice that indicate I think they’re pond scum with moronic opinions or that I’m some brilliant idea master who has life all figured out.

I am constantly reassuring throughout a potentially divisive conversation that I’m not arguing against the other person or claiming I know best.

I’m simply trying to effectively explain what I believe and why, trusting that people will sometimes agree with my conclusions. At minimum, they will understand how I arrived at them.

Things get more complicated surrounding topics like religion and politics, which is why they’ve not been considered polite dinner conversation for the entirety of my life.

Religion is a super-belief.

If someone believes in an all-powerful creator, and that there is an ETERNAL afterlife waiting for all of us, and that doing/believing good or correct things will get you to the good place to spend eternity, and that doing/believing bad or incorrect things will result in you being damned to an eternity of painful terror and punishment, then I think it’s sensible for that person to freak the eff out whenever societal conditions threaten the eternal salvation prospects for them and their children.

If you believed unconditionally that certain activities would cause your kids to spend eternity (really think about what that word means) under unimaginably horrible circumstances—then maybe you’d flip shit over things their teachers were teaching them, or about things they see and hear on TV or social media too.

If you spent your entire life being name-called, shunned, judged, mocked, and being told that God HATES you because of who you love and feel naturally attracted to by certain religious groups, maybe it would be really easy to question the goodness of such a group. Maybe it would be really easy to reject ideas they were trying to get everyone to believe, since people who believe those things hurt you, and have always hurt you.

And so we must choose: people or beliefs?

In a life that’s taught me the undeniable value of human connection, I have chosen to value my connections with people over my personal beliefs.

I’ve yet to see that strategy yield poor results.

In the end, some people are going to think Donald Trump is awesome, and some people are going to think he’s a massive d-bag. Others may think he sucks big-time, but still believe he’s the best option for president. And others still may think he’s a rad dude, but that there are better candidates to serve as the U.S. president.

These debates will take place at kitchen tables, on 24/7 cable news shows, around office water coolers, in internet forums, and in a bunch of other places.

When we find ourselves near or involved in one, we can choose to care more about our beliefs, or we can choose to care more about the people with whom we’re discussing those beliefs.

One way breeds conflict and broken relationships. In marriage, it breeds resentment and contributes to divorce.

The other way cultivates peace and brings people closer together. In marriage, it brings couples together and fortifies the love and respect two people have and feel for one another.

Good news—you’re free to choose whichever way you want.

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How to Respond to Your Emotional Spouse Without Making Things Worse

mirroring and building rapport with others

(Image/cristianobaraghini.it)

More often than not, when my wife reacted emotionally to anything—something I said or did; something on TV; something that happened at work, whatever—my gut reaction was to think of her response as an overreaction.

This was not me intentionally trying to demean or disrespect her. This was my honest, natural, and I believed—objective—reaction to whatever she was saying or doing that I perceived to be disproportionate to whatever triggered the emotional response.

I was using commonplace, relationship-killing invalidation methods, but I wasn’t doing so maliciously. Never.

I don’t like injustice. So if my wife told me a story about how a co-worker or client had upset her earlier in the day, and I agreed with the offending co-worker or client, I would say so. I was sharing my honest opinions and feelings, and believed that happy, healthy marriages were built on such things.

When my wife would act pissy because I wasn’t taking her side, I was once again appalled by the notion that my wife would rather me dishonestly side with her than share my actual beliefs.

Lastly, I felt protective of my wife. Loved her and wanted her to be the best, healthiest, smartest, most balanced person she could be. I felt morally and lovingly obligated to point out that I thought many of these situations were beneath her.

Babe. You are very smart. You are very talented. You are very decent. I wish you wouldn’t let these inconsequential things negatively affect how you feel. If you learn to see them as minor nuisances rather than these big, day-ruining things, then moving forward you will have more good days and feel happy.

I believed these were honest thoughts and feelings, and that sharing them with my wife was not only appropriate, but that I was offering her a path to feeling more peace and joy in her life.

But then, of course, in all of my blind ignorance, my marriage continued to slowly—very slowly—deteriorate, one dinner or car-ride conversation like this at a time, until it felt like my wife hated me, and we spent more than a year sleeping in separate bedrooms until she finally ended it for good.

The entire time, me thinking she was emotionally broken—that her internal calibration was misaligned—and that once she made a few subtle adjustments, she would feel better, and then we could get back to having that marriage we both believed we were signing up for.

The Emotional Intelligence Litmus Test

If you’ve read this far, and you are in 100-percent lockstep philosophical agreement with how I processed and responded to my wife sharing her emotions with me during our marriage, then I think it’s safe to assume you have a lot of conflict in your romantic relationships.

If you agree with my good-hearted, well-intentioned approach to supporting my wife in my now-failed marriage, or are married to (or dating) someone who behaves as I did, I bet you have The Same Fight, which produce the same toxic feelings of stress and anxiety, tones of voice, and emotionally unpleasant results over and over again. I assume you are incredibly frustrated with your failure to make progress in these conversations, because you are stuck in this conflict cycle that won’t stop repeating itself.

Most of us are familiar with the Intelligence Quotient, or IQ, but fewer of us, it seems, are familiar with the Emotional Quotient, or EQ—the measure of a person’s emotional intelligence.

While IQ can help you solve advanced math theorems or learn a foreign language, it’s EQ that will determine the quality and fate of your romantic and interpersonal relationships.

Here’s a Mind Tool for Connecting with Your Emotional Partner and Ending the Fight Cycle

This is not exclusively a male behavior—this attempt to “correct” or “adjust” someone else’s emotional reactions—but it’s most typically seen in men, which is why we have the stereotype of men frustrated by their overly emotional wives or girlfriends.

The majority of my male coaching clients report feeling this same sense of helplessness with their wives.

“Suddenly, she’s mad about something again, and I don’t even know what I did wrong. It’s like nothing I do is ever good enough for her.”

Right now, some of you guys are nodding. I am too. This is exactly how I felt when I was married. Like I could never win. And I didn’t understand why my efforts to help my wife feel better only seemed to make her feel worse.

Men in this scenario have an opportunity (responsibility?) to adjust their response habits to their relationship partners during these conversations and situations, and many will discover that by doing so, these emotionally volatile, conflict-heavy discussions will lessen in both frequency and severity, leading to two partners increasing their connection and moving closer together instead of drifting further apart.

Here’s where I was getting it wrong, and where you (or your partner) may also be getting it wrong.

When my wife started reacting emotionally to something, my first reaction was to evaluate the situation and determine whether I would react the same way to that same scenario. I was very good at empathizing with people whenever I recognized that I would feel just like them if I had gone through what they had.

But my wife would typically react to things in ways that I would not.

And my VERY FIRST ACTION was to decide that her reaction was disproportionate to whatever had happened. Another way to say that is that my very first move was to determine that my wife was wrong, incorrect, mistaken, misinformed, ignorant, crazy, or emotionally weak to be acting the way she was.

Imagine that every time you told your spouse that something made you mad, sad, or hurt, they told you were wrong—that you either didn’t know how you really felt because you were confused, or that you were incorrect for feeling as you did. That you’re too dumb to know that none of that stuff matters.

Imagine that when you told them that THEY were saying or doing things that resulted in you feeling shitty, that they DEFENDED and JUSTIFIED their actions, all but ensuring that in the future—both short-term and long-term—you could count on feeling shitty because of your partner’s actions over and over again.

What they did wasn’t bad or wrong! YOUR feelings and opinions are what’s bad and wrong! So you just go ahead and fix whatever is wrong with your brain and body chemistry, and then you won’t have to feel bad anymore!

Imagine it.

When a person tells you that something you did or said caused them pain, and then you respond in ways that essentially promise you will repeat that pain-causing behavior because you don’t think there’s anything wrong with it? It makes perfect sense for that person to hurriedly remove you from their life.

We should not allow people to hurt us after they refuse to stop doing something we have repeatedly asked them to stop doing. Those people should not be granted permission to continue torpedoing our lives.

It’s this inclination to match or compare how we would react to certain events that creates conflict with our partners.

I ask my coaching clients who report this conflict pattern in their relationships to cut that shit out, stat.

Instead of matching or comparing their predicted reaction to an identical scenario, I ask them to reverse-engineer it.

I ask them to match or compare their current emotional state to that of their partner’s.

Psychologists call it emotional mirroring. I’m not asking people to intentionally make themselves feel sad or angry. I’m simply asking them to swap out the thing they’re currently comparing for something else that will foster positive emotional connectivity, which is often what’s missing in conflict-heavy relationships.

It’s not useful to waste the time debating the merits of whether they SHOULD feel as they feel. They DO feel as they feel.

Deal in reality. And an effective emotionally intelligent response to someone in pain, or who feels sad or angry, is to match or compare YOUR emotions to THEIRS.

They’re sad. Should they be sad? WHO CARES? They ARE sad. What makes you sad? What happened the last time you were sad? What behaviors and words are consistent with what feels appropriate when you’re in that state?

They’re angry. Should they be angry? Doesn’t matter. They ARE angry. What makes you angry? Can you remember the last time you were really angry and your entire body felt shitty? What could your wife or friend or whoever have said or done to help?

Trying to correct someone else’s emotions is a recipe for DESTROYING your relationship with them.

Instead, attempt to evoke that same emotion. Notice how they feel. Communicate that you understand that they’re feeling that, and that you know it sucks. Communicate that what they think and feel MATTERS, because THEY matter. Communicate that you’re there to be whatever version of a support system they need to get through whatever is happening.

If it’s something you said or did to trigger those feelings, DO NOT attempt to defend or justify whatever happened. Do not double down on the thing that’s causing all of this suck. Seek to understand both WHAT and WHY something hurt. Communicate that you want to be their teammate—their partner—in cooperatively finding new ways to say and do things so that the shitty thing doesn’t repeat itself.

After a competitive sporting event like a football game, all of the viewers, fans, and participants have WILDLY different reactions.

The winning players, coaches, and fans are happy.

The losing players, coaches, and fans are sad or angry.

Some neutral viewers didn’t experience any emotion at all.

You can see the lunacy in any of those people acting as if others should share their identical emotional reaction, yes? OF COURSE losing players and fans are typically going to feel shittier than winning players and fans.

Same event. Different reactions.

Just as contextually, all of those different reactions make sense when you understand things from their perspective, we’ll discover that people reacting emotionally to something in ways that might be foreign or surprising to us ALSO have a very sensible, understandable reason for responding that way.

If you’re interested in loving, living with, sleeping with, sharing resources with, this other human being who behaves differently than you would, I think you’ll find it incredibly useful to seek out those reasons for this surprising reaction. That’s information you’ll be able to use to NOT say and do things that lead to your partner (or anyone you care about) feeling hurt and mistreated.

Our relationship problems are subtle. Nuanced.

And the adjustments we must make in our minds and hearts are equally subtle and nuanced.

It’s not hard because it’s especially difficult to do any of this stuff. It’s hard because we frequently struggle to notice, to see, to recognize these moments for what they are.

Good news: We can do hard things.

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Must Women Leave Men to Get Them to Change?

Learning the hard way flowchart (Image/David Colarusso)

“Would you have changed if she had not left you?”

Within an hour of answering this exact question in the comments of How to Change Your Shitty Husband, someone else sent an email asking the same question, and whether I’d written an article about it before.

I have answered this question many times—but I think thoughtlessly and too cynically. Maybe because I thought the question was actually about me. Maybe sometimes it is.

Wives and girlfriends, I think, are mostly asking this because they’re trying to decide whether there’s hope for their partner to experience the same emotional intelligence evolution that I did WITHOUT going through divorce, since divorce sucks more than shitty drivers trying to kill you and your 11-year-old at highway speeds.

People frequently ask whether my wife had to divorce me in order for me to make the changes that I did, and it’s easy to say yes.

For me, under my specific life circumstances, it’s easy to efficiently and truthfully say that it took the pain of losing my family to motivate me since to learn all that I have about human relationships.

But that’s a dangerously simplistic answer AND eliminates the opportunity for me to humble-brag about my coaching work with husbands and boyfriends, which sometimes results in clients demonstrating vastly improved emotional intelligence and relationship habits. You know, without all of the limp-wiener sobbing and vomit parties that accompanies the dark and scary early days of divorce when you’re still trying to decide each day whether you want to continue breathing and feeling things. (Or maybe that was just me.)

 

The Answer is Not Either Or

It’s not a binary choice. It’s much more than just one or the other. There are other possibilities to consider beyond whether to divorce/break up, or remain in a toxic relationship.

There’s nothing particularly special about me or the coaching work that I do. It’s unique, I suppose, in that only I can be me, and only I can think and speak the way I think and speak. People frequently reach out to me because of articles I’ve written which they say explains their relationship to them in ways that make sense where other self-help content had failed to connect or resonate.

I’m not for everyone. But I am for those people. The people who speak my language and think and feel kind of like how I think and feel. Those are the people I can help via coaching.

For other people, different coaches, or therapists, or marriage counselors, or even just some great books might be what can help them the most.

Like figuring out how to fine-tune your specific relationship with your specific partner by tailoring your behavioral and communication habits to THEIR individual needs in order to achieve balance and peace, so too should you use the tools and resources best suited to helping you succeed.

I didn’t have me to talk to.

But I think Now Me could have helped Then Me because I know how to say things in ways that make sense to me. My ex-wife did NOT know how to say things in ways that made sense to me. She said things in ways that made sense to her, and I was too ignorant and immature to put in the work necessary to help both of us learn how to say and do things in the ways that made sense to one another.

People don’t divorce on the reg because all these people who were once madly in love and super-connected to one another suddenly disagree about every possible thing.

People divorce because they don’t know how to explain what’s wrong from the OTHER person’s point of view. Unless you can clearly explain your spouse’s argument or feelings in a way that makes them say “Yes! You totally get it! That’s exactly right!” then it’s safe to conclude you STILL don’t get it.

It’s not your failure to understand it that will get you divorced as much as your stubborn unwillingness to legitimately TRY to understand. That usually ends with your spouse concluding (sensibly) that you don’t care enough about them for them to justify investing the rest of their lives in your relationship, which to them, feels bad every day.

The Right Words, the Right Way, the Right Time

The 5 Love Languages is a simple, profound, and useful way to frame relationship communication and behavior, which is why the book’s author Dr. Gary Chapman has more money than really good bank robbers.

There are five common ways in which people receive love—meaning when people do these things to or for them, they literally feel loved. What most of us do is show our love to others in the way that makes sense to us—in the way WE feel loved. But whenever OUR love language doesn’t align with our romantic partner’s love language (and vice versa), things can get super-hairy like the Elephant Exhibit at the Jimmy John’s Wildlife Preserve.

For many people, the simple adjustment to using words and behavior tailored to their partner’s specific love language can revolutionize the way two people communicate with and connect to one another.

This same principle can be applied to any kind of human connection or communication challenge.

We find answers to our problems when we ask the right questions.

There is a way THAT person learns things, hears things, feels things. It’s probably different than the way you and I learn, hear, and feel stuff.

So to get through to them, it’s our job to understand HOW things get through to them, and then using behavior and communication methods consistent with the way the other person absorbs new information.

Would You Have Changed if She Had Not Left You?

It’s easy to say no. It’s easy to say my wife had to leave me for me to hurt badly enough in order to motivate me to learn WHY, thus developing the emotional intelligence and empathy necessary to learn how be less of an asshole in life and relationships.

But I can’t be sure that’s true.

I might even say I AM sure that I would have changed if I’d had the requisite amount of information I needed back when I needed it.

You can’t know what you don’t know.

I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

The key difference between me now versus me then, is then I believed I knew a lot, and now I’m pretty committed to never assuming I KNOW things. If I ‘know’ things, I can’t learn. If I ‘know’ things, I won’t ask good questions. If I ‘know’ things, I’ll be wrong the exact same amount as I always am, but a much bigger asshole along the way.

We just need the right people, the right conditions, and partners willing and able to speak the language and use the vocabulary that we understand.

It’s a choice.

And no matter which side of the broken-translator crisis you live on, I hope you’ll choose it.

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Adding Spice to Your Love Life Through Routine and Predictability

“We almost died like 15 times throughout this movie, Sandra. We should totally go home and do it.” – Keanu Reeves (Image/whodatedwho.com)

Have you ever been an audience member during a speaking presentation or concert where the audience is asked to do something to participate—like share something to the group, or clap, or sing? You remember that feeling?

Yeah, you do.

I’ve always hated that shit. It triggers whatever big red Discomfort Button that lives in the invisible parts of me, and every time it gets pushed, the loudspeaker in my brain yells, “Everyone is looking at you and judging you and thinking that you’re a stupid asshole!”

It’s irrational. I know it’s silly and unnecessary to think and feel that way. I’m intellectually aware that it’s unhealthy, that hardly anyone is paying attention to me, ever, and if they are, they give zero effs what I’m doing, because they’re too busy worrying about themselves if they’re neurotic like me, or not having a care in the world if they’ve achieved a higher level of mental and emotional maturity than I have.

At 40, I get this in ways I did not in my teens and twenties. But lifelong habits are hard to break, so this is still the default mental and emotional experience whenever I’m in those situations.

Public displays of affection (unless I quiet that internal loudspeaker with the requisite amount of alcohol) trigger those same thoughts and feelings.

My ex-wife used to playfully make fun of me for it, but I think it also made her feel bad. If she grabbed my hand while we were walking together, I’d tense up a little, hold it for just a bit, give it a quick double-squeeze which was SUPPOSED to communicate: “I really do love you! I swear!” but which I’m pretty sure communicated: “It’s sweet that you want to hold my hand, but I care more about what OTHER people think of me/us than I care about you feeling connected and cared for in our relationship! So piss off with the hand-holding, babe!”

Can you imagine? Caring more about what strangers you’ve never met, and probably never will, might think about you for holding your wife’s hand or kissing her?

It’s some next-level dickbag stuff. Life tip: Care more about the emotional wellbeing of the people you love than you do about the neurotic stories you conjure up in your own brain regarding what strangers might think.

Simply, one of those things matters and has genuine relevance to your life, and the other does not.

Romantic Spontaneity vs. ‘Boring’ Routines

If you’re guessing that because I operated that way about hand-holding and any other form of public affection, that I also resisted forced romantic and/or intimate encounters because they didn’t seem ‘authentic’ due to their inherent lack of spontaneity, you’re a fabulous guesser.

Reminder: My wife totally divorced me six years ago, and in my estimation, made an appropriate choice to preserve what was left of her mental/emotional health.

This irrational thing I was doing inside my own head inevitably led to countless situations in which repeated attempts by my wife to connect with me were rejected. Several times per year for more than a dozen years.

Romance and sexual desire doesn’t always manifest in the daily hum-drum routines of the average married couple who spent a long day at work and are maybe caring for kids and pets throughout the mornings and evenings the way it does between two super-attractive Hollywood actors who just survived a dramatic near-death experience in the movies.

I guess I thought that’s what was supposed to happen.

Leveraging the Power of Habit to Increase Emotional Connection with our Partners

I was reminded of how egregiously I failed my wife while watching a recent Mindvalley video featuring Jon and Missy Butcher, called 9 Daily Habits That Will Help You Lead An Extraordinary Life.

Here’s a couple married 25 years, and instead of them complaining about one another to anyone who will listen like most of the 25-year couples I’ve encountered, these two take a walk together every single day, as a daily check-in.

While most of us are busy holding in our frustrations so they can spew out in an undisciplined way at what usually ends up being the most inopportune times, Jon and Missy plan a time each day to unload all of that crap to one another. A daily appointment with one another to listen to each other about the things they experienced earlier in the day, good and bad. This is what it looks like to intentionally move toward one another instead of allowing the natural drift-apart to occur by being too busy with everything else.

And then, once per week, the couple has an overnight date night. Maybe at home. Maybe somewhere else. But every single week, Friday night overnight, no matter where they are, belongs to them, and arrangements are made for everything else in their lives (children, pets, work) to be cared for.

This is their Connection Ritual.

This is what it means to water your own lawn so that your own grass ALWAYS looks greener and better than whatever is on the other side of the fence.

Having a good marriage or a quality, connected romantic relationship of any kind, I think, is a lot like getting in good physical shape. A select few don’t have to work very hard to look and feel great. But most of us do.

And despite the efforts of many magic diet and supplement salespeople, there are no shortcuts to being our best selves physically.

You just do the work. It’s really hard at the beginning. Inertia is always the greatest obstacle. Something new is always more difficult to accomplish than something routine. Our first week of work is always more challenging and intimidating than our 18th month on the job. We move every day. We are mindful about what we consume. The more healthy choices we make, the more our health and wellness benefits from those choices.

And so it is with our relationships. They are what the participants mindfully choose for them to be. When two people wake up every day making the choice to choose one another, and prioritizing one another over everything else, our connections grow. Our love flourishes. Our relationships thrive.

And when you derpy-derp around like I did with your fingers crossed that everything will work out without having to give anything or do anything uncomfortable to achieve it?

I think it’s telling that I don’t even have to say it.

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Drifting Apart: How Bad Things Happen Even When it Feels Like Nothing Happened

Did you almost cry but pretend like you weren’t because crying over a volleyball feels REALLY stupid when you watched our boy Tom lose his only friend in the movie “Cast Away”? Whatever. That’s what I did. (Image/newsmov.biz)

I almost wrote something outrageous about how Galileo Galilei’s and Isaac Newton’s first law of motion was effing up relationships.

The first law of motion—also called the “law of inertia”—states that a body or object at rest remains at rest, and that a body or object in motion continues to move at a constant velocity unless acted upon by an external force.

Or, in regular-speak: If shit doesn’t happen, nothing changes. At least that’s how I always thought about it. If I set a lamp on a bedroom nightstand and never touch it, the expectation is that the lamp will sit still—right there—forever.

Applying that to my marriage, I believed stillness—inactivity or uneventfulness such as going several days or weeks without an argument or negative incident—while not necessarily a positive, was at worst—a non-event. Harmless. Benign. Safe.

If my wife was watching something on HGTV in the living room, and I was watching basketball in the basement rec room, NOTHING was happening. Thus, in my brain, nothing bad happened.

I was going to quibble immaturely with Galileo and Newton. I was going to say that their laws of motion don’t apply to movement within our human relationships.

But then I realized I was the one getting it wrong (shock).

The laws of motion absolutely apply to our relationships. My mistake was thinking of the people in the relationship as being still.

If they were still—then nothing happening would be totally harmless.

But they’re not still. In our relationships, we are not at rest. We are CONSTANTLY adrift, and in my estimation, slow drifting away from one another when we don’t have a strong tether. It’s only now occurring to me how apt the metaphor “tying the knot” is.

And since a body in motion continues to move at a constant velocity unless acted upon by an external force, two people doing nothing AREN’T sitting still. They’re drifting apart at a constant velocity until someone does something about it.

Moving Toward Each Other vs. Moving Away From Each Other

This was the running theme of both of my coaching calls yesterday.

While we’re busy at work, distracted by our personal stresses, tasks, hopes, and dreams. While we’re busy simply trying to stay alive, do a good job at work, keep our bills paid, etc., we are drifting away from our romantic partner.

A visual aid:

I <——> I

Connected.

A month later.

I <————————————> I

Drifted apart a little.

Three months later after a great vacation, a nice anniversary dinner and gift exchange, mind-bending orgasms, and a job promotion for one of them which alleviated financial stress.

I <–> I

Boom.

Four years later after a new baby, a blown anniversary by the husband because ANOTHER promotion made him super-busy and away from home a lot, five consecutive months without sex, and quiet avoidance of one another at home.

I <—————————————————————————————————————————> I

On the brink.

If they continue to avoid the growing distance between them, they will continue to drift away from one another. The further they distance themselves, the weaker their connection—their bond—becomes, which then makes it vulnerable to outside forces. (Traumatic illness, a death in the family, sexual affairs, etc.)

Every Day—Every Conversation, Every Moment—is an Opportunity to Move Closer to One Another or Further Apart

Doing nothing is a death sentence.

Because when we do nothing, we are NOT sitting still, biding our time waiting for something to happen. While we wait, we move apart. And I think couples—often men—are unaware of this drift that’s constantly occurring.

This is why focused, connected, mindful, present dinner conversations are so important.

This is why six-second hugs are significant.

This is why planning activities to do together—often and intentionally—is fundamental to the health of the relationship.

And most notably, THIS is why being competitive with one another—trying to WIN debate points in your next emotion-fueled fight with one another is, as Galileo famously said: “totally fucking stupid.”

His mother was very disappointed in his word choices.

The Objective is to Connect—Not to Teardown or Dominate Your Partner

We are always moving away from each other. Always. So we need to row our little boats against the current back toward each other. Tie knots. Tether ourselves to one another. Anchor ourselves to one another.

The goal of an emotional conversation with your partner can be to try to win debate points with them, while you essentially shove them further away from you. Or, maybe the goal of an emotional conversation with your partner can simply be to decrease the distance between you two.

Maybe the merits of right vs. wrong—the value of being “correct”—is a big, fat zero when it comes to your relationship.

Maybe the only thing you should be measuring is the gap between you, and constantly fighting to move toward the other.

Just maybe, that shift alone would change everything for you.

When you wake up in the morning, you can make the choice to connect. A kind word. A thoughtful action.

When you’re sitting at the office, or hiking in the park, or waiting for the doctor’s appointment, or standing in line at the grocery store, you can make the choice to connect. Maybe I can text her right now to let her know how important and beautiful she is. Maybe I can remind her today and every other day, how grateful I am for her to choose me and sacrifice for me.

When we’re tired after a long day at work, or irritated by our unsympathetic children, or in the middle of something at home—maybe we can strengthen our capacity for awareness, for patience, for mental discipline.

Maybe we can NOTICE the things in our lives that are All The Time. The stuff we look past. Forget to feel grateful for.

Forget to hug.

Forget to nurture.

Forget to love—not the feeling. We think and feel love, and forget that other people don’t always know that we think and feel it. We forget to love—the action. They NEVER misunderstand love the action.

We forget every day to prioritize that which matters most to us.

It’s so hard to be a person and juggle all of the things.

We grew up with no one but ourselves to care for and our parents and guardians did most of the heavy lifting. It takes work—guts and work—to show up every day for the unpleasantness of adulthood.

And it’s even harder to be that person when caught up in the vortex of life and dysfunctional relationships, and trying to put our families and jobs ahead of our personal wellness, and then wonder why we don’t have anything left to give our marriages when it feels like our spouse thinks we’re constantly letting them down anyway.

But it’s almost impossible when no one sees you. When everything you live for and invest in every day—your reason for living—goes unnoticed by the people who matter most. If it doesn’t physically kill us, it kills all of the invisible parts.

This is why relationships are a thing. This is why marriage brings beauty and value and enrichment to people’s lives when it’s done well.

Because all of this shit is hard, but we can do it when we have people in our corner, lifting us up, and helping us carry things when our piles get too high.

The inevitability of doing nothing—of inertia—is a broken relationship. The inevitability is broken people.

When we’re not moving toward one another, we’re moving away.

Love is a choice.

Please choose it.

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