Category Archives: Marriage

Are You Afraid When the Elevator Doors Open?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two Things Can Be True at the Same Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Safety and trust can be restored.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Image/Big Think)

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

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

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

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

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

Now I think I get it.

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

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

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

Making Everything About You, Part I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What I did was put my energy into defending myself.

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

Or.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Making Everything About You, Part II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then there’s us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The way we speak. The way we think.

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

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

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

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

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An Open Letter to Shitty Husbands, Vol. 15

(Image/Shutterstock)

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

“You mean, he lies to you?” I reply.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you like my new haircut?”

“How do I look in these new jeans?”

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

“Do you think my sister is pretty?”

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

“What do you think of this new recipe?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Will he get mad at me again?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s often not what people see and hear.

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

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

You May Also Want to Read:

An Open Letter to Shitty Husbands, Vol. 1

An Open Letter to Shitty Husbands, Vol. 2

An Open Letter to Shitty Husbands, Vol. 3

An Open Letter to Shitty Husbands, Vol. 4

An Open Letter to Shitty Husbands, Vol. 5

An Open Letter to Shitty Husbands, Vol. 6

An Open Letter to Shitty Husbands, Vol. 7

An Open Letter to Shitty Husbands, Vol. 8

An Open Letter to Shitty Husbands, Vol. 9

An Open Letter to Shitty Husbands, Vol. 10

An Open Letter to Shitty Husbands, Vol. 11

An Open Letter to Shitty Husbands, Vol. 12

An Open Letter to Shitty Husbands, Vol. 13

An Open Letter to Shitty Husbands, Vol. 14

…..

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The Two Reoccurring Moments That Destroy Trust in Relationships

(Image/Clearway Community Solar)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or.

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

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

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

One person is simply begging to be seen and heard.

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

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

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

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

He’s doing the work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is love in action.

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

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

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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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(Image/Forbes)

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

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

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

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

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

Habits are simply everything that we do on autopilot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that habit is:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I want people to notice themselves doing this.

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

People get divorced.

People lose grandparents.

People’s pets die.

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

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

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

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

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

Who are you? Who am I?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

relationship algebra

(Image/Redbubble)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Many of you have heard all of this before.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was always missing the point.

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

It’s that I NEVER CONSIDERED HER AT ALL.

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

THAT is what hurt.

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

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

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

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

How dare I deny her that.

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

How Do You Feel When It’s 65 Degrees?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe you can ask them.

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

Only one way to find out.

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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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