Tag Archives: Boundaries

3 Ways to Move Past or Protect Yourself from Rejection in Relationships and Dating

Mae West room Salvador Dali museum

This is one way to look at this art exhibit. (Image/An Epic Education)

When I wasn’t crying over my divorce and broken family, I was mostly getting dating wrong.

Must Be This Tall To Ride wasn’t about helping anyone. It wasn’t about strengthening relationships, preventing divorce, or improving ourselves.

It was simply about me being a trainwreck and amusing myself by sharing stories about it.

I had just turned 34—at the time, the oldest I’d ever been—yet found myself the least secure and most afraid that I’d ever been. Being that it came at the same time that I was also setting new personal records for being sad and angry, it was a pretty bad time.

But even at my worst, my brain is always trying to problem-solve.

I just lost my wife. My home and life are incomplete without a partner. There’s a void now. I should begin trying to fill that void, I thought.

If MBTTTR was anything, it was me chronicling what I perceived to be rejection—first from my ex-wife, and then from people I never even met on online-dating sites.

Losing half of my son’s childhood is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But my wife CHOSE that over staying with me—THAT’s how unlikable I am, I thought.

I failed at marriage—who would want me?

I have a kid—who would want to deal with that?

I don’t have as much money as that guy. I’m not as smart as that guy. I’m not as attractive as that guy.

It was one big Hey Matt, You’re Not Good Enough festival.

When I first started dating I was a teenager and in my early 20s. I was nothing but hope and confidence, youthful energy and fearlessness, as well as the most physically attractive version of myself that I’d ever be.

I was CONSTANTLY surrounded by women my age who were in similar life circumstances, both in and outside of school. Pretty much everyone around me was close to my age and single.

The possibilities were endless.

I dreamed big, chased what I wanted, and usually got it. Dating? It was mostly easy.

You Must be This Tall to Ride

I’m not very tall. (5’9”-ish.)

When I was young, I never even thought about my height beyond the basketball court. I wanted to dunk on people and it totally sucks that I never have. But outside of sports, my height wasn’t on my radar as anything that would ever matter.

But then I woke up one day divorced and 15 years older.

I didn’t feel youthful. I didn’t feel confident. I didn’t feel like I had my whole life ahead of me.

I had JUST failed at literally the most important job I’d ever had, and done the ONE THING I swore I would never do—get divorced.

I was an emotional disaster. I’d totally lost confidence in myself and was afraid of everything.

And now, this broken version of myself was tasked with finding a romantic partner in a life where I’m almost never surrounded by women my age, or in similar life circumstances like I’d been 15 years prior.

This problem is why people invented online dating—something that in my estimation is both good and bad.

When I was 19 or 20, my dating competition—not that I was ever thinking about it as any type of competition—consisted mostly of the other guys around me—and I mean, literally in my physical proximity. They were mostly people I knew and liked, and were within a few years of me, age-wise.

But as a middle-aged dude? None of that was true anymore.

I was just a few photos on the screen.

That’s what I’d been reduced to.

Some mediocre stats, underwhelming photography, and a digital poster child for cliché divorced single father red-flag-waving trainwreck.

It didn’t matter what I thought about. It didn’t matter how I felt about people—or about the world. It didn’t matter what good I had to give.

For some, the only thing that mattered was that this one dude was driving a Mercedes and was 6’3” tall. And that I didn’t. That I wasn’t.

There is ALWAYS some tall, rich, super-attractive dude. And that guy will ALWAYS be more appealing than the short, divorced, middle-class guy when you’re swiping left and right.

It was a hard pill to swallow at first.

This is how people meet now, and I can’t compete.

Rejection—the idea of not being good enough and trying to deal with it—is what this place was built on.

Must be this tall to ride.

Everyone Changes Their Mind About You After You Do

Whether they come via blog comments, emails, or in real-life conversation, I get some form of this question a lot: How do I move past rejection?

It took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out how I was going to do it. I’d finally had enough of feeling shitty.

When I first started dating and writing after divorce, every day I felt like no one would like me like they had the younger me.

And now? I don’t feel bad every day. People like me.

The question of whether I’m good enough no longer hangs over my head.

Why? Because I figured out something important about who gets to decide how much I’m worth.

I was letting OTHER people—or worse—what I THOUGHT other people might believe about me to dictate how I felt about myself.

I was letting other people decide who I was. What I was worth. How much I mattered.

People’s opinions—total strangers much of the time—had the power to dictate how good or bad I felt every day. Other people had the power to determine whether being alive today would feel good or feel horrible.

It was power that I’d given them.

You ever like a food, or a movie, or an activity, or a person, or whatever that someone else didn’t like?

Are you going to stop liking pepperoni pizza because some vegan says it’s gross?

Are you going to stop liking The Shawshank Redemption because some warm-milk drinker said they didn’t think it was a good movie?

I KNOW the things I like are awesome. I recognize that not everyone will agree. I make no value judgments about them as human beings on account of their different tastes and preferences, because I know that if I were THEM, having lived their identical life, I would share their identical tastes and preferences.

But MY stuff? The things I enjoy doing, or admire, or that inspire me somehow?

One day it occurred to me how irrelevant other people’s opinions were to me, and how they almost never influenced my likes and dislikes.

Then, everything changed.

Why would I ever let other people’s opinions affect my evaluation of myself?

3 Ways to Overcome Rejection or Fear of Rejection in Dating

1. Get serious about your personal values and boundaries.

Here are your choices, single people:

  1. Stay single, don’t date.
  2. Date casually.
  3. Date seriously, with the intention of marrying OR entering a long-term committed relationship that approximates marriage.

There are people—many people—who make getting married, or Being in a Relationship a goal. The goal is not health. The goal is not happiness. The goal isn’t about anything meaningful.

The goal is simply—Be Part of a Relationship.

When the goal is to simply NOT be single, people demonstrate the tendency to compromise their personal values and avoid enforcing their personal boundaries if it means their relationship might be in jeopardy EVEN IF it’s a shitty relationship that should have never happened in the first place.

If the long-term goal is having a sustainable committed long-term partnership with someone, why is everyone in such a damn hurry RIGHT NOW, where they’ll make a bunch of excuses for asshole behavior, because tolerating the asshole behavior somehow feels easier than having to start the dating process over again? Why is having a shitty relationship somehow better than having no relationship?

I spend a lot of time writing about divorce and how I believe men—by and large—are the biggest culprits in the typical crappy marriage and divorce story. There’s plenty of data to support this.

What I don’t spend enough time writing about (because it isn’t useful to the majority of people reading marriage and divorce-prevention content) is how I believe women—by and large—are the biggest culprits in creating the conditions for the typical marriage and divorce story to play out.

I agree that many, many, many men (and some women) seem to ‘change’ after marriage. And that their spouses feel almost duped, betrayed, and stuck when that happens.

It’s relatively easy to breakup with a boyfriend. It’s much harder to breakup with a spouse who is often a significant financial provider for a shared home, with shared bank accounts, shared vehicles, shared extended family, shared friends, and—most significantly—shared children.

Children change everything for couples, and not always in good ways. It’s easy to understand how people who have never had children before would do a crappy job of mentally guessing what the experience would be like.

But there are core needs—emotionally, psychologically, physically, spiritually—that people have. When they’re not met, something starts to hurt for the people with the unmet needs. It’s obvious to them that something is wrong.

And this is when people start compromising their principles—their self-respect—to keep their relationships intact.

I KNOW how hard that can be in marriage.

But I struggle to find reasons why it should be hard during the dating phase. Fantasizing about a happy marriage is NOT the same as actually having a happy marriage.

If someone doesn’t fulfill your core needs, you’re going to spend a lifetime feeling pain and awfulness BECAUSE of the very thing that’s supposed to help support you during life’s hardest moments.

Communicating what those core needs are effectively, and then respecting oneself enough to walk away from anyone refusing to fulfill them is the ONLY way to avoid a marriage with fundamental problems from Day 1.

Feeling rejected because someone refuses to fulfill your stated needs?

Did they really reject you, or did they just do you and your future children a huge favor?

2. Become the One Who Rejects

That sounds uglier than it’s supposed to, because none of this is rooted in superficiality.

Here’s the thing. People go on dates, and in the back of their minds, they want the person they are meeting to “pick them.” People try to say the right things, do the right things, look the right way—not because that’s necessarily the most honest and authentic and true version of themselves—but because they want this total stranger on the other side of the dinner table to give them the You’re Good Enough stamp of approval.

People do this all of the time. And then their entire emotional wellbeing is rooted in how often these strangers ‘approve’ of them.

Ugh. Sorry. Not happening.

Half of these people are assholes. Let’s start there. I don’t mean crazy, huge assholes who will do super-awful things to you. I just mean regular-sized assholes like me. Everyone’s got baggage and problems, and their own fears and insecurities.

It’s important to not let assholes with baggage and problems and fears and insecurities DETERMINE how you feel about yourself.

This isn’t a job interview where it’s only successful if the other person decides you’re good enough.

When YOU are the one who rejects, you give no effs about whether THEY think YOU are good enough. You’re spending the entire meeting working out whether you think THEY are good enough for YOU. This isn’t about judging people superficially. It’s about evaluating the relative competence and compatibility of another human being to determine whether romance and/or legit partnership would be viable.

Will it hurt a little if you end up really liking someone who DOESN’T end up really liking you back?

Totally.

And I’m sorry.

But. Serious question: How much do you want to be in a relationship with someone who literally doesn’t value you enough to want the same thing? Like, how’s that going to turn out for everyone?

I probably shouldn’t try to speak for everyone here, but I feel fairly confident 99 out of 100 will agree: Divorce or horrible breakups of long-term relationships are VASTLY shittier experiences than having some attractive stranger not like you as much you like them.

Framing things in intellectually honest ways is a huge part of dealing with perceived ‘rejection.’

Which leads to…

3. Tell Yourself the Right Story

You’re not only good enough, but you’re kind of awesome. If you’re doing a bunch of things you DON’T think are awesome, then I strongly suggest giving up those sucky things for all of the awesome alternatives.

Wake up and do things you want to do. Do things you love. Engage in people and activities that set your heart on fire.

If some rando out there doesn’t think those things you do and love are awesome or interesting, is that going to stop you from loving to do them or thinking they’re awesome?

Bad things happen every day. They happen to good people who don’t deserve it, and that is universal. If you love others then you’ll always have something to lose. And all of us will.

The longer you live, the more you lose.

It’s not a tasty beverage.

But, in the context of relationships, the conventional wisdom is that you either ARE in a relationship or that you WILL BE one day.

The most beautiful, significant, lasting relationship—the one that occurs with two people who promise to love one another forever, and mean it. Two people who bring children into the world, and teach them to be forces for good in the world, and how to love romantically, and otherwise.

THAT?

That only happens when all of the bad relationship stuff happens first. You only meet that amazing person when you’re not too busy wasting time and energy on people who can’t and won’t be that.

Dating failure IS NOT failure. Dating ‘failure’ is healthy relationship insurance.

Your mind deserves to be stimulated. It deserves peace.

Your body deserves to be wanted. It deserves satisfaction.

Your spirit deserves to be nurtured. It deserves whatever support you require on your life journey.

When those things happen, you are emotionally healthy.

Balanced.

When any or all of those things DON’T happen, you get knocked out of balance emotionally, and then every moment of life feels crappier than it otherwise would.

How do you get past feelings of rejection?

We tell ourselves the right stories. The correct ones.

The true ones.

No one gets to decide what we’re worth. Only us.

And are we really being rejected, or is someone showing themselves to be someone we don’t want to be with anyway?

It might seem like I’m advocating mind games. A bunch of psychobabble, or cat-poster B.S.

But what I hope it seems like is that you were standing on one side of the room looking at something, and seeing things one way, and I helped you find the other side of the room, where you discovered the exact same thing looks entirely different when you finally see it from the proper angle.

salvador dali mae west room - straight view - Pinterest

Here’s the way Salvador Dali intended you to view his tribute to actress Mae West. (Image/Pinterest)

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An Open Letter to Young People Planning to Marry Someday, Vol. 2

black and white puzzle pieces

Puzzle pieces are cool because they sort of police themselves. Even though several pieces might look like they’ll fit together, they usually don’t, and even if they do, it’s easy to spot the problem and fix it. Try to think of having strong, healthy personal boundaries just like that. When you identify your boundaries, and you enforce them, crappy incompatible puzzle pieces don’t get misplaced and mess everything up. Healthy boundaries take the mystery out of dating and good relationships. Either you fail fast, and avoid a horrible relationship, OR you progress in mostly pleasant, functional ways with a romantic partner who is a great match for the long haul. The people who are still around after you enforce your boundaries like a boss? They’re the keepers. (Image/daninicoleauthor.files.wordpress.com)

You’re not going to like this, but you probably shouldn’t marry your girlfriend or boyfriend.

Seriously.

You know how it feels safe to eat bacon cheeseburgers, drink milkshakes, or maybe even smoke something without the fear of imminently dropping dead of a heart attack or developing lung cancer?

You feel that way because you have several years ahead of you, which is awesome.

But, you’re also intellectually aware that eating bacon cheeseburgers and milkshakes for every meal and smoking a pack a day will end with you being a VERY unhealthy adult and will almost certainly rob you of several years of life.

I’m asking you to please think of your dating life in that same way.

Things that feel like no big deal right now will WRECK you in your thirties and forties. Big-time suckage.

And the only person who can protect you from those future shitty things is you. On this particular matter, you’re all you’ve got.

Because I’m capable of not concerning myself with three days from now in the interest of enjoying today, I promise that I understand that some or all of you will dismiss this friendly warning.

That’s okay.

I think maybe most people have to learn life’s most important lessons on their own. That’s how I am too. Every important lesson that stuck with me was learned the hard way.

The reason I’m even talking about this is because I got divorced about five years ago, and it was a WAY bigger deal than I ever realized divorce could be. And I say that as a child of divorced parents who lived about 400 miles apart through my formative years which made me cry a lot when I was a little kid.

Divorce was VERY hard, and I think most people don’t talk about it because they’re ashamed, or because it’s such an awkward and uncomfortable conversation to be on either side of. Divorce is COMMON. Thousands of divorces happen every day.

And common things seem NORMAL. Regular. Not weird.

And things that we think of as normal, regular and not weird don’t scare us. So we don’t protect or prepare ourselves because it never occurs to us that we should.

This is me trying to convince you that you should.

According to a couple of researchers who studied the health impact of major life events on human beings, divorce is the #2 most-stressful life event a person will ever experience.

According to the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale, divorce ranks ahead of things like going to prison, the death of a parent or child, and losing a body part in a horrific accident.

And I’m here to tell you that Holmes and Rahe weren’t playing.

You don’t want any part of it.

So when I say things that offend you a little and make both of us uncomfortable like: Your boyfriend or girlfriend who you currently feel super-in-love with is statistically likely to be your life’s greatest threat at the moment, I want you to understand why.

Let that sink in for a minute before we talk about what you can do about it.

The Boring Word You MUST Prioritize to Avoid a Crappy Adult Life

Boundaries.

When I was growing up, if someone tried to talk to me about boundaries, I would have tuned them out like when my gym teacher tried to stress the importance of stretching and eating vegetables.

I’m 17 and can do 25 more chin-ups than you, dude.

And it would make sense to me if you thought I was an asshole for disparaging your relationship that has always felt like a really good and healthy thing, and that it all seems pretty hypocritical coming from some divorced guy.

But I’m totally right about this, so I hope you’ll begrudgingly come along anyway.

Your future non-crying children who enjoy having both mom and dad living in the same house will really appreciate it.

What Boundaries Are and Why They’re Your Best Defense Against Divorce

Your parents aren’t going to like me using this example, but I think it’s probably the quickest way to cut through the bullshit, so I hope they’ll get over it.

I want you to think about being a girl in high school. A junior. Sweet 16.

I want you to imagine walking through the busy, locker-lined hallway, and as you walk by a group of guys, you hear one of them say about you: “Check out the ass on her. Oh man, I would love to tap that.”

You feel embarrassed, but you just keep moving. You kind of know who the guy is. He’s a cliché high school jock that you know is dating one of the cheerleaders. You know that he routinely harasses some of the less-popular kids in the hallway. He’s a jerk and a bully.

His comment made you feel gross, but it’s not as if you’ve never heard things like that before or even heard your guy friends say them about other girls. So, you leave it alone.

I want you to imagine that you have three rules for dating:

  1. You don’t go out with guys who have girlfriends.
  2. You don’t go out with guys whose only objective is to have sex with you.
  3. You don’t go out with cocky dickbags who intentionally bully other kids for a cheap laugh.

And now, I want you to imagine that the new semester has started and that same guy is in one of your classes. He approaches you after class one day. He smiles and asks you if you’d like to hang out sometime. At first, you’re like ewww, but you don’t say anything right away.

You look him in the eyes, studying them. You think he’s cute, and you secretly feel flattered that a popular kid wants to go out with you.

He seems nice right now. He’s so different when his friends aren’t around. Maybe I should give him a chance.

So, you say “Sure. Why not? Let’s get together soon.”

Fast-forward to your first date.

You went to the movies, or grabbed dinner somewhere. Maybe you went to a house party where someone’s parents were out of town.

And somewhere along the way, he kisses you. You like it. You kiss him back. Everything is great.

But then his hands start going to places you didn’t want them to go. “Oh man, I would love to tap that” is on repeat in your head. All of the sudden you don’t want to be there anymore.

You tell him to stop.

He finally does, but he’s got a surprised look on his face as if you’ve wronged him somehow.

“I thought we were having a good time,” he whines.

You make it clear that there’s no way that’s happening tonight.

Now he looks wounded. You’ve bruised his ego. What you don’t know is that he told a few of his friends he was going to get into your clothes tonight.

He doesn’t want to go back and have to explain to them how he failed.

Maybe he calls you a tease.

Maybe he calls you a stuck-up bitch.

Maybe he—inexplicably—calls you a slut.

Maybe he makes up a story about you to his friends, and maybe some people start talking about you at school, and maybe the entire incident is pretty horrible.

The girl in this example has good dating rules, I think. Reasonable ones designed to protect her from bad things happening.

But then, even though she had evidence that Captain Dickface was bad news, she still got caught up in a moment of weakness and rationalized why she should break her own rules just to feel good.

Then everything turned into a big shit-festival.

Because she broke her own rules.

Because she didn’t enforce her boundaries.

The girl wasn’t honest with the guy when he first approached her. Maybe she didn’t feel comfortable telling him how it really felt to hear him say that. The guy wasn’t honest with the girl about his true intentions. There are a million reasons, some noble, most not, for why he didn’t want to tell the truth. Predictably, in the end, it didn’t work out.

You might believe this scenario has little in common with married couples, but I would argue that THIS is largely why so many people end up divorced.

Not because of bullying and unwanted sexual advances, certainly.

But because of people being dishonest about their true intentions, and people failing to communicate and enforce their boundaries—probably because they’re afraid of rejection, or of being alone, or are afraid of what others might think about them.

Let’s Get Even More Real

Married adults sometimes have crappy marriages and get divorced. And you know who all of them were before they got married?

The same people who wouldn’t have liked hearing me say that they shouldn’t be marrying their boyfriend or girlfriend. They would have felt offended just like I would have, and maybe you do.

But now here they are, pissed off and resentful and full of regrets about wasting their life, hurting their kids, and being afraid of what might happen next.

And here’s the No. 1 reason that happened: They tolerated things that shouldn’t have been tolerated, they failed to communicate and/or enforce their personal boundaries, and ultimately lied to themselves and one another about what their long-term relationship with this boundary violator (or victim of our violations) would look like.

If your boyfriend or girlfriend (or better yet, someone you’ve dated a couple of times) does something that HURTS you, and after talking about it, there’s no evidence that he or she is going to stop doing that hurtful thing, you should cut them out of your life.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t forgive. Forgiveness is an awesome thing.

This doesn’t mean that all people who violate your boundaries are BAD.

Some will be good people.

They’ll just be bad marriage partners. They’re not the same thing.

I think that might be the worst part. Very good, very decent, very fun, very awesome people will violate your boundaries—either because they’re a flawed mistake-prone human being like the rest of us; or because they legitimately don’t SEE or FEEL the same negative consequence you do from something that happened.

You won’t want to cut all of them out of your life.

But please don’t marry them.

Please.

It’s okay for people to disagree. It’s okay for people who love each other to have their differences.

But it’s NEVER OKAY for the person we are considering teaming up with for the rest of our lives to HURT us.

Never, never, never.

You will accidentally be hurt in life. I don’t suggest walling yourself off from every person who wrongs you.

But I AM suggesting that your marriage will NOT succeed if you spend every day of the rest of your life with someone unwilling to honor and respect your personal boundaries.

Maybe you won’t get divorced, but you won’t like your life or your marriage.

You’ll be miserable.

Because people who have boundary issues are miserable. That’s just how it works.

How Do I Know Whether I Have a Boundary Issue?

Here’s a good start, from one of my favorite writers, Mark Manson, who uses even more bad words than I do:

“Let’s do the ‘You Might Have A Boundary Issue If…’ list so you know where you stand:

  • Do you ever feel like people take advantage of you or use your emotions for their own gain?
  • Do you ever feel like you’re constantly having to ‘save’ people close to you and fix their problems all the time?
  • Do you find yourself sucked into pointless fighting or debating regularly?
  • Do you find yourself faaaaar more invested or attracted to a person than you should be for how long you’ve known them?
  • In your relationships, does it feel like things are always either amazing or horrible with no in-between? Or perhaps you even go through the break-up/reunion pattern every few months?
  • Do you tell people how much you hate drama but seem to always be stuck in the middle of it?
  • Do you spend a lot of time defending yourself for things you believe aren’t your fault?

“If you answered ‘yes’ to even a few of the above, then you probably set and maintain poor boundaries in your relationships,” Manson wrote.

“If you answered a resounding ‘yes’ to most or all of the items above, you not only have a major boundary problem in your relationships, but you also probably have some other personal problems going on in your life.”

OMG. I Totally Have Boundary Issues. Can I Still Have a Happy Marriage?

Probably not.

But I have excellent news. You can absolutely fix your boundary problem. You can fix it right now, but it will probably take some practice before you get comfortable telling people to pound sand whenever they try to take advantage of you if you’ve spent most of your life not realizing that’s what was happening.

Boundaries are about your emotional health, which might be more important than you realize.

Emotionally healthy people have and enforce strong boundaries. And ALSO, having and enforcing strong boundaries makes you emotionally healthier.

Having strong boundaries means you don’t take responsibility for other people’s crap, and you ALWAYS take responsibility for your own.

I believe we must vigilantly enforce our boundaries (and respect others’ vigilantly enforced boundaries) in order to have high-functioning, healthy, mutually beneficial, and ultimately successful, human relationships.

And what that means is, when people knowingly violate our boundaries, we need to be willing to walk away and cut them out of our lives, which is a really hard thing to do. Because sometimes it’s your spouse, or a parent, or a sibling, or an old friend, or a co-worker, or someone you share children with.

The Bottom Line

When you don’t break your own rules—when you enforce your boundaries (while honoring other people’s)—you know what happens?

ONLY emotionally healthy people with a clear understanding of how to NOT hurt one another (or tolerate hurtful behavior) ever end up together.

It reduces the probability of divorce by probably 90 percent.

When you start tolerating behaviors that your mind and body are telling you not to tolerate, a bunch of bad things happen afterward, and tend to repeat themselves until everyone is miserable and gets divorced or stops being friends.

When you NEVER tolerate behaviors that you know you shouldn’t tolerate, maybe bad things happen once, but you can be sure they will never repeat themselves.

And the people who are still around after all of that filtering? After all of those strong and courageous and confidence-building demonstrations of self-respect?

They’re the keepers.

You May Also Want to Read

An Open Letter to Young People Planning to Marry Someday, Vol. 1

An Open Letter to Young People Planning to Marry Someday, Vol. 3

An Open Letter to Young People Planning to Marry Someday, Vol. 4

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You Don’t Have to Get Married, So Maybe You Shouldn’t

Old School wedding scene

Screenshot from the movie “Old School” (Image/DreamWorks Pictures)

Frank: “Hey, I just want to thank you one last time for being here. It’s the best day ever.”

Beanie: “Don’t even start with me, Franklin, okay? You need to walk away from this ASAP.”

Frank: “What?”

Beanie: “You need to get out, Frankie. This is it. It’s now or never. You need to get out of here while you’re still single.”

Frank: “I’m not single.”

Beanie: “She’s 30 yards away. You’re single now.”

Frank: “Come on, Marissa’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”

Beanie: “Why don’t you give that six months. You don’t think that’ll change? I got a wife, kids. Do I seem like a happy guy to you, Frankie?”

Beanie: “There’s my wife. See that? Always smiling? Hi, honey. Judging, watching, ‘Look at the baby.’”

Mitch Martin: “She’s coming down the aisle, Beanie. Let it go.”

Author’s Note: I think the #1 problem in the world is how poorly humans manage their relationships. Even if you disagree, follow my logic, please. The biggest influence on whether our lives suck or are awesome is the quality of our closest relationships. For most of our lives, that’s the relationship with our spouses or long-term romantic partners. Human conflict is problematic everywhere. But when it’s two people who decided to pool resources and promised to love one another forever, and make and share children? It’s a crisis. The ripple-effect consequences know no bounds. Divorce breaks people, and then broken people break other things.

I think the #1 cause of divorce is relationship-damaging behavior by men who honestly don’t recognize it. Good men with good intentions who damage their wives’ emotional and mental health with behaviors they don’t understand to be as damaging as they are.

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

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

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

The Things We Don’t Teach Men: You Don’t Have to Get Married

I can’t prove this, but I believe almost everything we do in life is based off of us modeling the behaviors of others or doing things we believe we are “supposed” to because we think: This is how everyone does it!

Like when we stop our vehicles at red lights or “STOP” signs even though we can see that no other cars or pedestrians could be hurt or affected by us disregarding the traffic signal. Humans are creatures of behavioral habits. And many of those habits start before we can even talk, watching others around us do all the things.

I think that’s why most people get married. Because we grow up with adults who are mostly married or in some stage of dating, and that then makes us believe “Getting married is just what you do when you’re old enough!” Sprinkle in any beliefs about sex being sinful and wrong outside of marriage, and it’s not hard to see why most people make a beeline for a relationship model well known to fail painfully half of the time, and on average, spending $30,000-$40,000 between the engagement rings, wedding bands, wedding receptions and honeymoon trips just to get started.

A few key points here:

I am NOT pro-marriage (unless people plan to have children).

I am NOT anti-marriage.

What I AM is anti-divorce.

I am, I believe, a well-informed pragmatist on the subject. And I know that 95% of people WILL marry, or are planning to marry someday. That’s real-life math. Of all people ages 18 and up in the United States, 9.5 out of 10 are married, used to be married, or are planning to get married.

Thought exercise: Name something besides air, food and water that affects 9.5 out of every 10 people.

Other than cataclysmic apocalyptic things like asteroids striking earth or nuclear holocaust, there aren’t many things capable of impacting the human population as significantly as marriage does. Yet, the majority of people in positions to improve or optimize marriage, and to teach young children the things they need to know to have healthy and successful marriages, don’t seem to be talking about or thinking about any of this stuff.

We tend to not worry about cancer until we’re diagnosed with it.

We tend to not worry about marriage until we’re sobbing in the kitchen watching our wives drive away for the last time with our kids in the backseat.

The Masks We Wear Doom Our Relationships and Families

I got engaged and married sooner than I wanted to. I didn’t feel ready. But all around me, my friends and other couples we knew were getting married.

I was afraid to lose her. My fear of not being with her was bigger than my fear of getting married.

Which is all well and good. My biggest mistake was NOT being more fearful of divorce. But really, there was no way I could have known what I do today. And I never believed divorce was a realistic eventuality. My parents split when I was 4. I always said I would NEVER get divorced, and I meant it.

But I was just a kid. And you can’t know what you don’t know.

I was worried, but it wasn’t enough to scare me off. I assumed EVERYONE worried. I assumed EVERYONE doubted themselves. I assumed EVERYONE must feel this way leading up to their weddings.

The math for me was simple: I loved her and wanted to be with her, and I perceived marriage to be the only way that was going to happen.

We were married at 25.

Prior to marriage, we never had a legitimately honest and vulnerable conversation about sex. Likes, dislikes, fantasies, preferences, etc.

I blame me for this. I have some weird guilt-shame hang-ups about sex. Maybe all boys growing up in Catholic school in small, conservative Midwest towns do.

I wasn’t fully honest about things I liked and felt and wanted in the bedroom. I thought I was being a gentleman because I never wanted my wife to feel like she wasn’t good enough. And I never felt comfortable telling her all of the things I really thought about and felt, because What if she thinks I’m a weird perv and doesn’t want to be with me anymore?!?!

I never wanted to “plan” a date night or to have sex because I had this ridiculous idea in my head that all sex should be an act of passionate spontaneity.

I rarely flirted with my wife the way I did as a young single guy, or the way I can now as an old single guy.

There are several examples, I’m sure, of my wife and I not being as intentionally transparent and honest with one another as we should have out of fear of what the other might think.

The concept of being ACCEPTED is really important to a lot of people. It was always really important to me. Intellectually, I care less today. But emotionally? It still feels the same. There are people I want to like me and it’s not fun when it feels as if they don’t.

But a magical thought occurred to me over the past couple of years of dating, and once I recognized The Truth, almost everything about being single started to feel positive.

It has forever changed the way I feel about human relationships, about career opportunities, and about many significant Life events.

You DO NOT Want to Marry Someone Who Doesn’t Like the REAL You

I can’t begin to explain how powerful this realization was for me.

What am I so afraid of? That someone who is truly not a good fit, or a company that is truly not a good place for me to work, will reject me for being the most honest and real version of myself?

What is the motivation to date or marry someone, or to earn a job, where the true and authentic version of yourself is incompatible with the other person, or with the place you spend most of your time every day?

Yet, so many people put on masks and try to say things and behave in ways they believe the person they’re dating or the person interviewing them for a job wants to hear and see. So many people are afraid if someone knows the REAL us that we’ll be deemed unworthy of love or employment.

People go to great lengths for acceptance. To feel part of something with the best of intentions. What we often don’t realize until much too late is how many bad things could have been avoided if we were more courageous in sharing our innermost selves and thoughts and desires and beliefs, because the people who want THAT version of you—romantically or professionally—THOSE are the great matches with an incredibly high chance for success.

When you’re young and ignorant like I was, it feels safer to hide certain thoughts and feelings that might earn you a rejection from someone you want to like you. But when the stakes are as high as a marriage, or even a job where you will spend most of your time, there couldn’t be a more important time to be YOU.

Because you’re already good enough. Whether they like you or whether they hire you can’t and won’t change who you really are.

So we must own all the things that make us who we are.

And if we have to suffer dozens or hundreds of personal and professional heartbreaks and disappointments in order to get to our highly filtered matches? On the back end of a difficult divorce, I’m confident saying it feels worth it.

And even if it didn’t? Bad matches are bad matches, no matter how much they like you. And bad matches don’t have happy endings.

When people enforce their boundaries vigilantly while dating, ONLY people with a high probability for success will ever end up exchanging wedding vows with one another.

Your life will suck less and you will have a better chance for succeeding in your relationships if you read and behave according to this:

Please Read This:

THE MAGIC OF BOUNDARIES: DATE WELL, MARRY THE RIGHT PERSON, AND LOVE HARD FOREVER

 …

You don’t HAVE to get married. You don’t.

And even if you feel like you do, I promise you don’t want to marry someone with whom you have significant compatibility issues. Every day turns into a shit show, and you kind of want to die.

When we exercise bravery, we can embrace disappointment and those BAD things that happen because we understand that all the future good things can’t happen without these moments; then we all have the opportunity to write stories with less horror and trauma and tragedy, and with more humor and hope and happiness.

You know—all the good shit.

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Commitment Phobia: When Relationship Avoidance Isn’t Dumb

(Image/datingadvice.com)

(Image/datingadvice.com)

I have commitment issues.

The classic kind, like when it’s easy to choose between Chicken, Seafood or Vegetarian at the wedding reception or business luncheon, and hard to choose a meal when perusing massive restaurant menus.

I struggle with committing to future events on my calendar, or choosing which movie to watch, or even committing hypothetically to whether my perfect home is in a city or the peaceful countryside.

Maybe that’s why I live in the suburbs.

I think these commitment issues are unhealthy and neurotic, and do little to help me live my best-possible life.

But there are other kinds of commitment issues, and they often revolve around dating and relationships.

Because I’m single and spend a lot of time discussing relationships due to my writing here, this subject has come up a few times recently, and I think it’s important.

Men often get stereotyped as being afraid of commitment. There are several reasons why—some more noble than others.

But people—especially ones who have suffered emotional trauma from divorce or failed relationships—frequently express fear of commitment because they don’t want to ever feel that hurt again.

It makes sense to me. It’s irrational and joy-robbing, but I get it. We might die from choking or food poisoning when we eat. We might contract the flu from shaking hands with strangers. We might get killed in a car accident during our work commutes.

We fear losing good things ALL THE TIME.

Poor people can lament not having money OR they can feel grateful that they don’t have something they’re afraid to lose or that makes them some kind of target.

Rich people can lament having so much to lose, being targets, and having valuable things to protect OR they can feel grateful for their wealth of resources.

It’s always about perspective.

People who can see and hear and walk could go blind and deaf and become paralyzed from the waist down. Blind, deaf and paraplegic people don’t have those fears.

Parents fear for the safety and wellbeing of their children in profound ways. People without kids rarely think about that at all.

Having something of value in our lives, whether it’s intangible human connection and love, or material possession, often brings with it the burden of being afraid to lose it.

Every moment of our lives involves some kind of tradeoff. To be irrationally afraid of scary future scenarios we totally make up in our heads seems counterproductive.

Therapy. Good discussion. Writing. Deep thinking. All are good tools for overcoming our various neuroses.

But—and I’m admittedly biased—I think there are times when “fearing” commitment is wise and prudent.

People Who Love Hard Should Be ‘Afraid’

Fear is rarely useful outside of prompting us to run from scary things like a fire, or an attacker, or like, a mountain lion or something.

“Cautious” is probably a better word.

Sometimes people tell me they’re surprised I’m still single more than three and a half years after my marriage ended.

But the truth is, I haven’t come particularly close to not being single. Some of that is circumstantial. Some of that is logistical.

But most of it?

It’s because I think I understand what it takes for two individuals to merge their lives into one thing and give it a good chance to go the distance. I think I know what people need to give because I spent a nine-year marriage NOT giving it which predictably ended in ways impossible for me to recognize in the thick of it.

And I haven’t been shy about saying that I’ve been unwilling to give it.

My parenting, life and job responsibilities, and writing pursuits are already more than I can handle. When the day comes, I’ll have to abandon or reshape some of those things in order to give what’s required.

“What’s required?”

Giving more than I take. That’s what. And until a person can do that, I don’t think they’re ready.

I don’t think I’m ready.

This last part is important to me. Because I think it’s—tragically—a big part of what destroyed my marriage and is likely affecting others’ as well.

My friend said it today. She was talking about some of these same relationship fears. She said “I love hard.”

She means she invests a lot of herself into the other person and into her relationships. In the past, that might have caused her to not maintain and enforce personal boundaries as vigilantly as she would today. And when you don’t enforce boundaries, you can find yourself miles down the road with someone and wake up one day like: “Holy shit. I guess we’re, like, boyfriend-girlfriend or whatever.”

And when you love hard in those scenarios, months turn into years, and Like turns into Love.

And when you didn’t enforce compatibility and/or behavioral boundaries early in the process, the relationship suffers, often breaks, and often hurts.

She felt the hurt. And now she’s afraid. But it’s not because she doesn’t get it that she’s afraid. It’s because she does.

I love hard. Or at least, I aspire to.

I loved my girlfriend before she was my fiancée/wife/ex-wife. And because I loved her, I didn’t understand where the fear was coming from regarding my having not proposed after just a year or so together.

We were too young to say the right words. We were too scared to tell the whole truth. She probably felt pressure to get married because some of her friends were, or maybe because of childhood expectations that it should be by a certain age. Maybe she was too afraid to say that she wanted to know whether I was going to propose, because if not, she was going to break up and find someone who would and not waste her time.

Who knows what I was afraid to say. Probably everything.

But I think I was “right”—if there is such a thing—about feeling fear and hesitancy regarding marriage proposal, or even just giving the idea of a future proposal a bunch of lip service.

When you love hard, and Love = Forever, then tell me the difference between promising a proposal and actually proposing. Tell me the difference between proposing and being married.

Divorce was never on my to-do list. I always believed Marriage = Forever.

I would never commit to someone with whom I couldn’t imagine achieving Forever with.

By virtue of BEING in the committed relationship, I was working toward that goal. And when your brain works that way and you love someone with that level of matter-of-factness, it creates the family and marriage-jeopardizing scenario of totally dismissing anyone who tells you they sometimes feel as if you don’t love them.

You start writing them off as “crazy” or “emotional.” Since you think and feel Love, maybe you don’t feel the need to show it. Maybe that seems dumb to you.

I think that’s why many people get divorced. Different interpretations of verbal and non-verbal cues. It seems too subtle to be the reason everything turns to shit. But it doesn’t make it any less true.

Relationships have phases.

“Just dating” morphs into commitment.

Committed dating evolves into engagement or cohabitation.

And engagement/cohabitation often transitions to marriage.

Do you see?

When Marriage = Forever in your mind and heart, THEN engagement ALSO = Forever. And if committed dating = engagement, then you’re left in the funny little place I, along with many who love hard, or have lost much, find themselves.

If committing to dating someone feels essentially the same as engagement, and engagement is essentially the same as marriage, then—as insane as it might sound to some—committing to dating can FEEL pretty close to promising someone Forever.

After divorce? Children? Hard-earned wisdom?

That manifests as commitment phobia. As being “afraid,” or again, “cautious.”

Maybe some people will tell you that’s irrational. That you’re being “dumb.”

But when our hearts and minds are in the right place, I don’t think so.

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The Magic of Boundaries: Date Well, Marry the Right Person, and Love Hard Forever

line in the sand

Establish boundaries. When someone knowingly crosses them? Say bye. Because life is too short. (Image/pando.com)

Yep. We’re talking about boundaries again. They’re THAT important.

Because I’m a hack writer (or possibly just because every single person on earth hasn’t read or doesn’t remember all of my posts), our conversations about boundaries are getting gray and cloudy like a sucky winter day in Cleveland.

And that’s bad. Because boundaries are magical. Like when the sun comes out during the rain and gifts you a sweet rainbow to frolic on, or how God doesn’t strike me dead when I order groceries online and an underpaid high school kid loads them in my Jeep for me curbside while elsewhere deserving people starve.

The best thing I’ve ever read on boundaries was written by Mark Manson (who coincidentally released a new book this week AND graciously agreed to a Q&A with me which you should obviously read).

For the 90 percent of you who won’t read Mark’s piece, I’m going to share a small part because it’s really important. From Mark:

“Let’s do the ‘You Might Have A Boundary Issue If…’ list so you know where you stand:

  • Do you ever feel like people take advantage of you or use your emotions for their own gain?
  • Do you ever feel like you’re constantly having to ‘save’ people close to you and fix their problems all the time?
  • Do you find yourself sucked into pointless fighting or debating regularly?
  • Do you find yourself faaaaar more invested or attracted to a person than you should be for how long you’ve known them?
  • In your relationships, does it feel like things are always either amazing or horrible with no in-between? Or perhaps you even go through the break-up/reunion pattern every few months?
  • Do you tell people how much you hate drama but seem to always be stuck in the middle of it?
  • Do you spend a lot of time defending yourself for things you believe aren’t your fault?

“If you answered ‘yes’ to even a few of the above, then you probably set and maintain poor boundaries in your relationships. If you answered a resounding ‘yes’ to most or all of the items above, you not only have a major boundary problem in your relationships, but you also probably have some other personal problems going on in your life.”

If you’re like me, you nodded your head ‘yes’ a few too many times because it hits a little too close to home, or because you remember how the younger you did all those things and maybe that’s why many shitty things happened.

Boundaries are about Emotional Health.

Emotionally healthy people have and enforce strong boundaries. And ALSO, having and enforcing strong boundaries makes you emotionally healthier.

Having strong boundaries means you don’t take responsibility for other people’s crap, and you ALWAYS take responsibility for your own.

I believe we must vigilantly enforce our boundaries (and respect others’ vigilantly enforced boundaries) in order to have high-functioning, healthy, mutually beneficial, and ultimately successful, human relationships.

And what that means is, when people knowingly violate our boundaries, we need to be willing to walk away and cut them out of our lives, which is a really hard thing to do. Because sometimes it’s your spouse, or a parent, or a sibling, or an old friend, or a co-worker, or someone you share children with.

You can’t always just walk away from people to enforce boundaries without innocents (like your kids or other family members or friends) becoming casualties of the decision.

One thing we can be sure of is that if we’re in such a spot, it’s because at some time in our past, we failed to enforce our boundaries in healthy ways, and later we suffer the consequences.

We’ll leave the family and friendship drama for another time.

For now, I’m focused exclusively on enforcing boundaries while dating. And then later, during marriage.

THESE ARE NOT THE SAME THING.

Let’s talk about why.

The Magic of Dating Boundaries

Stop me if you’ve heard this one.

Girl meets Boy. It’s all flowers and Facebook status changes and sexting and orgasms.

But then Hedonic Adaptation does what it ALWAYS does, and the lovey-dovey stuff wears off for the Boy.

Boy starts behaving differently. Communicating infrequently. Spending more time with friends or maybe other girls.

Boy’s behavior makes her feel bad. She tells her friends and her diary, but she doesn’t tell the Boy.

Eventually, things get more serious.

Meal planning, domestic housework, calendar scheduling, and sharing resources comes more into play.

Boy’s behavior forces Girl to take on lion’s share of that work because he’s totally disengaged outside of their date-ish time together.

Girl finally tells Boy that she’s upset, either because he finally asks her what’s wrong, or because she works up the courage to say something even though she’s afraid of the potential fight or making him feel smothered and pushing him away.

Boy tells her she’s delusional. That she’s imagining things. That she’s crazy. “OF COURSE I love you!” he says.

But no matter how much he tells her she’s being overly emotional or misreading the situation, she continues to feel sad and anxious about his behavior. He says her feelings aren’t real. But they damn sure FEEL real to her.

Girl keeps feeling uneasy, but she doesn’t want to break up.

Boy only gets upset WHEN she points out his behaviors that hurt her feelings, so she stops bringing them up so much, because she doesn’t like fighting, and the fear of him rejecting her or of being single again somehow outweighs the fear of his behavior hurting her feelings again.

Maybe he’ll change one day, she thinks.

Maybe she talks to her mom about it. “Oh that’s just how men are, honey,” Mom tells her while cleaning up after a weekend family meal while Dad goes to the other room to watch TV. “You see how your father is. He’s a good man. This is life. This is just the way it is.”

It seems a little depressing to Girl. But she’s already invested two or three years in the relationship, all of her girlfriends are getting married, and all of the guys do stuff to upset them once in a while.

I guess this really is just the way life is, she thinks.

Girl marries Boy.

Five to seven years later, they’re miserable because the same behavior that hurt her feelings while dating hurts even more now that he promised to love and care for her forever, but she doesn’t feel loved, nor cared for, nor emotionally safe or secure in any way.

Boy is oblivious.

Girl is stressed to the max.

Girl gets a phone call. Her mother was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer.

Girl loses her mother.

Girl breaks because losing a parent can feel impossibly hard. She feels responsible for caring for her father who doesn’t know how to cook and clean for himself. She needs to grieve but it’s hard because there’s no one else around to take care of Life Things.

Girl takes care of Life Things until she finally collapses emotionally.

Boy is absolutely zero comfort. She didn’t know it until right now—but he doesn’t feel steady like her mom did. He can’t comfort her even when he tries.

Girl rejects Boy. Boy feels sorry for himself. One or both of them seek comfort in the arms and privates of someone they’re not married to.

Very bad things happen.

More breakage.

Mid-life misery ensues.

And even though it’s not her fault, it is her responsibility.

This happened because she didn’t enforce her personal boundaries while dating.

Enforce Your Boundaries Vigilantly

I work in marketing.

It’s a complete waste of time and damaging to marketing programs to try to sell products and services to people unlikely to want or need them.

You don’t want to open a fishing bait shop in the middle of the desert. You want to open one by waters used for fishing.

You don’t want to sell “Make America Great Again” hats at Hillary Clinton political rallies. You want to sell them to fans of her political rival.

For marketing programs to succeed, we must target customers intelligently.

And so it goes in dating.

I’ve written repeatedly that I think people should vigilantly enforce their boundaries while dating.

That doesn’t mean you cut somebody off the first time they upset you. No one would EVER stay together if that was the case.

But what if Girl made different choices in the above example? What if, when Boy started exhibiting behaviors she was uncomfortable with, she simply communicated that to him?

What if she said: “Hey. I really care about you and want to see where this can go, but you need to know that I felt really crappy when X happened earlier. Maybe I’m misunderstanding, or getting something wrong. But I have plenty of things in Life that hurt and will hurt me in the future. The person I’m going to spend the rest of my life with WILL NOT be one of them if I can do anything about it. I just want you to know that what happened crosses a hardline boundary with me”?

One of three things happen afterward.

  1. He can act like he usually does and try to explain to her how she’s wrong and her feelings are stupid, and then she can walk away toward a future where she gives someone else a shot to demonstrate actual love and respect.
  2. He can promise to try harder and fail. She avoids a sad divorce later.
  3. He can promise to try harder and succeed. They have a healthy marriage.

When people enforce their boundaries vigilantly while dating, ONLY people with a high probability for success will ever end up exchanging wedding vows with one another.

Will there be a shit-ton more break-ups? Absolutely. But explain to me what the problem is. If all of the people destined for divorce or shitty marriages don’t end up getting married, how does that make the world a worse place?

Exchanging Vows is Something Else

In the ideal scenario where everyone is making good Life choices, two assholes incapable of healthy marriage don’t end up marrying each other in the first place.

That means boundary enforcement during marriage rarely rises to the level of causing divorce. Two people vigilantly enforcing their dating boundaries are WELL PREPARED for the kinds of unselfishness and communication necessary to thrive.

But we don’t live in an ideal world. And no one owns a kick-ass DeLorean time machine. And that means many of us find ourselves in shitty relationships where the criteria for being willing to walk away from the relationship can’t be the same as that of the unattached dater with options.

There’s a fundamental difference between two people who are dating, and two people who are married.

When you’re dating, you can dump someone over something petty like how loud they chew their food, or the fact that they root for a sports team you hate. When you’re dating, you’re allowed to have any personal boundaries you want. It does NOT matter what someone else thinks is reasonable. You are not beholden to anyone.

You are free to create or eliminate any boundary you want, for any reason, at any time.

The important thing is that when someone crosses your line and inflicts pain, that when they KNOW they did, they exhibit remorse and a desire to avoid causing future pain.

If they dismiss what you’re saying and feeling, indicating this shitty thing will continue to happen over and over again? We should walk away.

Our marriage boundaries shouldn’t be superficial.

And our vigilance should be limited to major vow-breaking violations, and not just a fight over what to put on the TV that night or whether you’re going to attend the family get-together next weekend.

And that’s because when we get married, we vow—VOW—to love generously. Forever.

We promise to sacrifice. To give more than we take. To forgive. To lift up the other when they’ve fallen. To choose love each and every day regardless of how inconvenient it might feel.

That’s what it means when we say “I do.”

Our marriages are shit today because the younger, dumber versions of ourselves didn’t know what we didn’t know. And now we have some hard choices to make. Choose to love, even though it isn’t easy? Or divorce, even though it isn’t easy?

Life is HARD.

Not easy.

And there are no judgments here. People need to do what they need to do. People need to make mistakes and figure things out. That’s how human beings learned that fire and water—two amazing, life-giving things—can also kill us.

Marriages rooted in poor boundary enforcement will be difficult and dysfunctional. Most will fail.

But the conversation about boundary enforcement changes between people who are dating and people who are married.

We enforce boundaries while dating IN ORDER TO achieve a healthy and successful relationship.

And in marriage?

We love hard. Not because we feel like it every day. Because we choose it every day.

We choose it today. And then tomorrow. And then the next day.

And when our partners do the same in return, Forever happens.

Rarely easy.

Often worth it.

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Having the Same Goals Won’t Save Your Relationship

hands slipping part

(Image/singleblackmale.org)

An unexpected phone call changed everything.

I was in the middle of failing to learn how to speak Spanish effectively when my dad handed me the house phone.

“Hello?”

She spoke.

Oh man. It’s her.

I hadn’t talked to her in six months, and even though we’d known each other for a few years, we didn’t know each other particularly well.

After a lifetime in Ohio like me, she was moving to Florida with friends, she said. She had just graduated from the same university where I had another year of classwork before I’d get my degree.

Something was telling her she needed to see me before she left. You know — a feeling. Just like in the movies.

Dad reluctantly agreed to a stranger he had never met flying into town and staying with us for a few days that set the direction for the rest of my life.

The family loved her. My friends loved her.

I loved her.

She canceled her planned move to Florida, knowing I was planning to move there a year later. She would wait.

I instantly stopped living like a single 21-year-old. I would wait.

We had the same goals.

And for the first time in my young life, I was pretty sure I had found someone with whom I wanted to chase them with forever.

An Unmatched Pace Will Cause Just as Much Distance as Misalignment

I think alignment between two people is a prerequisite to them having a successful relationship.

Two people must want the same things in life for them to have a functional, mutually beneficial partnership.

We can generically call them “goals.”

But what I really mean is that two people must achieve alignment with their values (and honor one another’s boundaries) to have any chance of making it.

I think people need to share core beliefs about life (especially if they are raising children together), otherwise I think their lives will suck. Painfully.

I think people need to honor their partner’s honestly communicated boundaries, and I think people need to enforce (that means, being willing to walk away) their own well-communicated boundaries when they are violated.

When you Share Values and Enforce Boundaries, you achieve Alignment.

And that shit’s important.

Here’s what happens when two things are off by just one degree, according to Antone Roundy’s blog post about achieving alignment in business:

“I’ve been thinking lately about the big differences little things make.

“Consider this. If you’re going somewhere and you’re off course by just one degree, after one foot, you’ll miss your target by 0.2 inches. Trivial, right? But what about as you get farther out?

  • After 100 yards, you’ll be off by 5.2 feet. Not huge, but noticeable.
  • After a mile, you’ll be off by 92.2 feet. One degree is starting to make a difference.
  • After traveling from San Francisco to L.A., you’ll be off by 6 miles.
  • If you were trying to get from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., you’d end up on the other side of Baltimore, 42.6 miles away.
  • Traveling around the globe from Washington, DC, you’d miss by 435 miles and end up in Boston.
  • In a rocket going to the moon, you’d be 4,169 miles off (nearly twice the diameter of the moon).
  • Going to the sun, you’d miss by over 1.6 million miles (nearly twice the diameter of the sun).
  • Traveling to the nearest star, you’d be off course by over 441 billion miles (120 times the distance from the earth to Pluto, or 4,745 times the distance from Earth to the sun).

“Over time, a mere one-degree error in course makes a huge difference!”

Going the Same Direction Doesn’t Mean You’ll Arrive Together

My wife and I always wanted the same things. Sure, there were times we had competing interests and personal things take us in opposite directions, but never far enough that our hands couldn’t reach out and grab the others’.

However, we had a catastrophic problem with pacing.

She didn’t enforce her boundaries strongly enough when I was an asshole.

And I didn’t enforce my boundaries strongly enough when she wanted to me to keep up with her — for me — unsustainable running pace.

As serendipitous and magical as it all felt having her call me out of nowhere that one night and change all of her life plans to give us a shot at Forever, I was still just a kid in his early 20s trying to figure it all out.

She wanted to leave Florida faster than me.

She wanted to get engaged and married faster than me.

And she wanted to do a bunch of little life things, which added up to Huge Life Things, at different speeds than me.

She’d get her way sometimes because I’d reluctantly agree. I’d get my way sometimes because she’d reluctantly agree. And rarely, if ever, were we feeling the simple joy of doing something for someone we loved.

Rarely, if ever, were we giving more than we take with a grateful and unselfish servant’s heart.

We were shoveling coal to keep the steam train moving, but not without a lot of resentment and questioning of whether the effort was worth it.

Throughout our lives and relationships, we grow and evolve as Life introduces All The Things to us at whatever pace it chooses. New opportunities, major life events like having children, illness, financial hardships or windfalls, and a million others.

Sometimes we’ll want this and that. Sometimes we’ll want this and that in a certain timeframe.

Sometimes they’ll want this and that. Sometimes they’ll want this and that in a certain timeframe.

Sometimes that will work out for everyone.

Sometimes it won’t.

The question then becomes: Do I want this and that more than I want my relationship? Or, a much better and unselfish one: For the benefit of my Marriage which I want more than This And That, am I willing to give what is required to help my partner achieve their This And Thats?

Alignment matters. Am I willing to continue in that same direction?

Pacing matters. Am I willing to speed up or slow down so my hand stays connected to their’s?

Simply having the same goals won’t save your relationship.

Only love will.

And only you can decide which direction you’ll move and how much effort you’re willing to exert to keep walking hand in hand.

Because, love? It’s not a feeling.

Love is a choice.

…..

AUTHOR’S NOTE: One of my favorite writers is a guy named Mark Manson. He has written some of my favorite pieces on Values here, and on Boundaries here. They’re awesome.

Mark’s new book, “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck” is being released tomorrow much to the chagrin of everyone who hates profane language more than they hate learning how to embrace discomfort for the sake of growth

Mark agreed to do a short Q&A with me as part of his book launch, which I’m super-flattered about.

I’ll be sharing that tomorrow. Bad language will be involved.

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My Story is Your Story—Even When it’s Not

(Image/churchleaders.com)

(Image/churchleaders.com)

Imagine this: A magical alternative universe where total strangers randomly being in your house isn’t as scary or bizarre as it would actually be. (Because it’s the only way the next few paragraphs make any sense.)

And now imagine a stranger (who isn’t scary) in your house doing things your small child often does: Carelessly peeing on your toilet. Spitting globs of toothpaste in your sink without adequately rinsing the basin. Leaving toys or whatever scattered all over the living room floor. And NO MATTER HOW MANY FREAKING TIMES YOU’VE TOLD HIM, he doesn’t remember to eat over his plate, leaving 47 million crumbs on and around his seat at the table. Or maybe he puts his fingers on the house and car windows, or he gives you a little mouthy elementary-school sass that kind of makes you want to dropkick him.

If some dude off the street does that, I’ll secretly want to embed a golf club in his face, and might actually take a swing if that dumb bastard leaves another trail of crusted toothpaste in the bathroom sink that requires a power sander to clean.

If someone I kind of knew or was renting a room to did it, I might ask them to go away or find another place to live.

But if my little offspring—the absolute love of my life and my greatest earthly source of pride and joy—does it for the thousandth time? I’ll be frustrated with him for 10 seconds, remind him how easy it is to be less messy, and soon after, be laughing about whatever thing we move on to because he’s my favorite.

I think it’s relevant and noteworthy that three different people could do IDENTICAL things, and I’d react three different ways to each: one, I would hug and love unconditionally; the second, I would evict; and the third, I would face-punt.

All of which strike me as reasonable responses to the occasionally thoughtless, make-you-want-to-tear-out-your-hair-and-drink-excessively behaviors of my young grade schooler.

I have a few points, none of which are currently obvious:

1. Marriages Break Because Neglectful Spouses Devolve From Loved One, to Roommate, to Stranger You Want to Face-Punt

Sure, I love, care for, and am super-quick to forgive my young son in all his youthful innocence and cute-facedness. But what if he shows up in his 20s or 30s, pees all over the toilet, and repeatedly drops food and whatever all over the floor no matter how many times I’ve asked him to respect this seemingly reasonable sanitation policy? Maybe I’ll stop inviting him to dinner. Or maybe I’ll visit his house and pee all over his bathroom after brushing my teeth and leaving nasty toothpaste-saliva drippings in his sink.

If our expectations for our children’s behavior and respect for our instruction can change over time, is it unreasonable for a spouse to expect the same from her or his partner as their relationship evolves and grows through time?

A common marriage complaint from husbands is that their wives happiness is always a moving target. That nothing they do is ever good enough. I remember feeling that way, too.

A common marriage complaint I hear or read from frustrated wives is that her husband is “childish.” She doesn’t mean that he goofs off all the time and laughs hysterically at dick and fart jokes even though that could also be true, but that he never grows out of being the little boy who pees on the toilet or gets crumbs all over the floor during dinner. That could be literal, if she married someone with slob-like tendencies, or it could be metaphorical in the sense that he so rarely demonstrates thoughtfulness about things like housework or dinner plans or the schedules of others in the family.

It’s a dynamic that tends to be okay while dating and early in the marriage, but as the other We’re Gonna Get Divorced dominoes begin to fall, cleaning pee off the toilet rim—or worse, the seat—graduates from gross annoyance to murder motive.

She starts to feel like his mother, her sexual attraction for him dies, and then a bunch of other bad things start to happen.

2. Nothing is One-Size-Fits All

I often write in generalities because writing in specific absolutes, covering EVERY angle of EVERY topic would lead to 97-million-word posts that only my mom would read. There simply aren’t enough hours in a day to write or read about every possible scenario. So, when I write that Husbands Do This, or Wives Do That, or Men Often Think This, or Women Often Feel That, I’m doing so for brevity reasons, and I’m totally aware that almost NOTHING applies to everyone.

I was criticized recently by someone who interprets my writing as A. Blaming Men for Marriage Failure, B. Acting Like a Know-It-All Who Tries to Speak for All Men, and C. Never Holding Women Responsible for Their Role in Failing Marriages.

I don’t blame men. I even said so on the radio once.

I also don’t necessarily think it’s men’s fault—all these common relationship shortcomings we accidentally display—but I think it is our responsibility to right whatever wrongs we can as soon as we’re aware of them.

And I do believe there are specific things women can collectively do to improve relationships.

I think everyone who makes mistakes, should own them, and everyone with the power to make something better, should.

Which brings me to…

3. While I Write For Others, the Stories Are Mostly About Me

I’m just some guy.

There is nothing particularly noteworthy or special about me which is EXACTLY why the relationship conversations we have here matter.

If I was some super-unique case study or obvious outlier, it would be easy to dismiss.

But that’s not what I am, nor what my marriage was.

My marriage was THE Common Modern Divorce Story. And that should scare the shit out of everyone.

Because it’s really hard to see it coming.

What’s the “common” divorce story? It’s two good, well-intentioned people with an honest desire to marry and promise one another forever, only to discover 5-10 years later that their marriage has become joyless, stressful, unsteady and on the brink of failure, and neither person can really explain how or why they got there.

They spent 5-10 years having the exact same fight, because neither could ever figure out the right combination of words or the right behavioral response to their conflict.

And after it happened enough times, one or both of them became so angry, sad and emotionally exhausted that the agony of divorce looked like the better choice than the status quo.

And then more kids grow up a little bit sad and a little bit confused and never see the way marriage is SUPPOSED to be.

And then more people remarry thinking their ex was the problem, only to discover they brought their own baggage to the new relationship, and that the new person has some too, and that they’ve seen this movie before.

And then more things break, and it just keeps happening over and over again, and not very many people ever slow down long enough amid all the pain and dysfunction to just stop.

To just breathe.

To just look inside and ask the hard questions. The ones that makes us squirm years later, and maybe forever.

What have I done to cause this?

What could I have done better?

What choices can I make to be better tomorrow than I was yesterday, so nothing like this ever happens again?

I don’t blame men. I blame me.

And women certainly aren’t guilt-free. I promise to start pointing fingers right after I wake up awesome and perfect every day.

In the meantime, I think being an adult is hard, and I think we all get a little confused when things hurt more than we knew was possible, or when we’re missing too much information, or when we feel Life falling apart because adulthood is unsteady in ways many of us never imagined.

Back when we were young and innocent.

Back when we were getting crumbs and toothpaste spittle everywhere, and the fortunate among us were hugged and forgiven instead of beaten and abused.

Back when we were happy and hopeful, as the fortunate among us can be once again.

If only we’re willing to own our crimes and pay our penance.

Because it’s not them. It’s us.

It’s not you. It’s me.

We worry about what we can control, and try to make a difference when and where we can.

Maybe people won’t always get it. But maybe it can still matter.

Because everyone loves a good redemption story.

And somewhere beneath all the humanity, I think everyone has one to tell.

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How to Have a Good-Enough Relationship

(Image/theodesseyonline.com)

(Image/theodesseyonline.com)

“What *is* enough?” she asked.

Fair question, I thought, since I’d just written a list of things that WERE NOT enough, without offering any thoughts on what is. In Diagnosing Relationship Failure is not for the Self-Assured, I listed a litany of conditions that are great for relationship health, but which I think are things people (often men) use to “Yeah, but… !” their partners during arguments. I know how pathetic it is because it’s how I used to think.

EXAMPLE: Husband works late without communicating it to his wife, who came home for the day and spent two hours preparing a meal for their “date night” while the kids were with grandma. Husband forgot because he has a brain like mine, or he simply decided that a project on deadline was more important than making it to dinner with his wife.

Wife: “It would have been helpful if you’d told me about your busy work day BEFORE I spent two hours making all this. It really hurts that you didn’t bother letting me know you’d be late. This is so typical of the things you do that show me how you don’t respect me or this marriage.”

Husband: “Wait a damn minute. What about that new car sitting in the driveway we’re shelling out more money for precisely because I respect your job and that you needed a new one? It’s not like I was trying to ruin your night. I just forgot. I wasn’t out boozing with my friends. I was earning money so that we can live in this house and help our kids go to college!”

Wife: “You forgot because you don’t value our relationship. You only remember things that matter to you.”

Husband: “Things that matter to me?! [Insert spoken list in Asshole Voice® detailing all of the sacrifices he feels he makes on her behalf.] Talk about being ungrateful! Stop treating me like I blow all of our money on gambling like your brother, or shove you into furniture like Jim does to Lisa.”

I used to do it all the time, even if I didn’t always speak the words.

I thought because I was a nice, friendly person who didn’t have addiction issues, wasn’t physically abusive, wasn’t engaged in criminal activity, wasn’t a threat to abandon our family, was educated and employed, and contributed financially to things she cared about which I didn’t, that I was—by default—a good husband.

I thought because I wasn’t what I envisioned a bad husband to be, that I couldn’t be one. As if bad-husband behavior could ONLY be whatever I defined it to be.

Want to get divorced and/or be a life-long asshole?

Tell people you hurt that you’re NOT actually hurting them no matter what they say, or that YOUR definition of what something is or is not is the only true metric by which to measure Life Things.

You are wrong. A LOT. About many things. Life gets so much better when you stop treating those around you as if their individual life experiences are incorrect figments of their imaginations.

In the aforementioned post, I wrote:

“Being nice isn’t enough.

“Being friendly isn’t enough.

“Having good intentions isn’t enough.

“Being a reliable financial partner isn’t enough.

“Avoiding criminal activity or substance abuse isn’t enough.

“Not cheating isn’t enough.

“Being home every night isn’t enough.

“Not being verbally, sexually, or physically abusive isn’t enough.

“Avoiding pornography and/or ogling attractive people in public isn’t enough.

“Not sucking as much as that other husband or wife you know isn’t enough.

“Being a good parent isn’t enough.

“The hopes and dreams you think you share aren’t enough.

“A fatal flaw or shortcoming or too-small-to-notice crack or untightened bolt flies easily undetected when things appear to be functioning—maybe even well.

“But the truth is the truth, no matter what you want to believe.

“Believing you are a good spouse DOES NOT make you a good spouse (just as someone else telling you what you are doesn’t necessarily make it so).”

To which I was asked: “What *is* enough?”

‘Enough’ is Whatever Two People Agree To

If one person disagrees, it’s not enough.

That means it will change between any two people. That means it won’t always seem reasonable to everyone.

“Enough” is what a husband or wife agrees is enough. Nothing more, nothing less.

I’ve had three jobs since graduating college.

In my first job, I could come and go as I please, and didn’t have to tell anyone why or where I was going or anything. That was enough.

In my second and third jobs, I’m generally expected to be in the building between certain hours every day.

In my first job, I could wear whatever I wanted. I wore shorts and jeans all the time (it was in Florida), except when I had a high-level meeting to attend.

In my second job, we had casual days every Friday.

In my third job, we only have casual days once per month, with some randoms thrown in.

You will have your own personal opinion about those schedule and dress-code policies, and you are entitled to it.

If you start a company today, you can establish whatever rule makes the most sense to you. There’s no right or wrong. There’s just the way it is, and then people get to decide whether they’ll put up with it. It’s something that’s agreed upon upfront.

If I wore shorts and jeans every day, or came to and left my office without telling anyone in my current job, it wouldn’t take me very long to get fired. Maybe a couple of weeks, tops.

Even though that EXACT behavior was totally okay and part of the cultural norm in my job 15 years ago.

There is no universal Enough.

Just because your partner thinks it’s fine to snort coke and shoot whiskey in front of your school-aged kids DOES NOT mean you have to think it’s okay.

And just because your partner insists on home-schooling your future kids because he or she doesn’t want them exposed to kids saying bad words and talking about sex in junior high or middle school DOES NOT mean you have to agree that that’s the best way to raise them.

LONG, LONG, LONG before we marry, we are supposed to outline our values. We communicate them VERY clearly through our words and actions. If you don’t, there’s a good chance much of your life sucks.

Every day of our lives we have boundaries. Boundaries on what we will tolerate in terms of how we are treated, or in terms of what we are willing to be associated with, or in terms of what we are willing to subject children to.

Marrying or even seriously dating someone with conflicting values is a recipe for disaster. Always.

Marrying or even seriously dating someone who repeatedly violates your well-communicated boundaries is next-level foolish. Always.

We communicate our values.

We ENFORCE our boundaries. And, (this is really important) we walk the hell away once they are violated by someone who KNEW they were doing so.

I don’t care if that’s cheating, or speaking profanely, or leaving a dirty glass by the sink.

A boundary can be anything we determine it to be. It doesn’t matter whether it seems reasonable to the other person, but we damn sure better communicate those boundaries BEFORE exchanging “I promise to love you forever!” vows with them.

Have a boundary. Enforce it dutifully.

That process organically filters out the crap.

What’s enough? You decide. And in a marriage WE decide. Two of us—together.

With all due respect to the vast majority of humanity, discovering major value differences between you and your partner, or experiencing a blatant lack of respect for your personal boundaries AFTER marriage is a clear sign [* insert southern-twang voice*] you done effed up.

What is enough?

An honest and transparent person who communicates their wants and needs to someone they are dating, and then in love with, and then committed to; and their partner providing the same thing in return.

Simply because they love each other.

Preferably more than they love themselves.

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Bad News: You Two Probably Shouldn’t Be Dating

caution you're doing it wrong

(Image/amaninthegap.blogspot.com)

Your relationship is probably doomed.

I’m sorry, but it’s true. I’m just playing the percentages.

Half of all marriages will fall apart. It’s a huge bummer but it’s been true for so long that unless a critical mass of people in the future take to heart some of the ideas here, there’s every reason to assume that will continue.

Additionally, what percentage of pre-marriage/unmarried relationships won’t work out? Maybe 80, or even 90 percent? Who knows? A damn lot.

So. Like I said: Your relationship is probably doomed.

Maybe I’m Not Doing It Wrong After All

Tiffany asked:

My question is less about the marriage part and more about the singlehood part. I epically failed at the dating game in my younger years long before epic fail was even a phrase. I am oh so much better at it now, NOT! I have no game or swagger, I’m just me. I’m just real but I guess being real is a complete turn off in this reality-tv, instant gratification society. So my question is, now what? Now what are we divorcee’s supposed to do? Online dating did not exist the last time I was single and neither did texting. We thought our cell phones were smart until Apple raised the IQ bar. Now, there seem to be dating rules that no one has shared with me and once I become privy to what they might be, they change. It seems the sea of fishes are now depleted of sea horses but teaming with sharks. If nice guys finish last, WHERE ARE THEY? In my experience, the divorced, single men in our age bracket are either reliving their 20 something frat boy days or trying to experience that lifestyle they never had. It’s exhaustingly frustrating! I feel as if the first line of the online dating profile I don’t have should read “Hi, I am a strong woman of character, value and self-respect. I’m sorry but I will not be selling my body or soul to the lowest bidder with cheesy lines, free cocktails, Netflix and a ‘chill’.”

I feel like when I go on a first date with someone (which has not happened in over a year because I gave up) I should introduce myself as, “Hi, I’m Tiffany. I’m a real person with thoughts, ideas and feelings not just a pin cushion. It’s nice to meet you.” The guy would turn around and run I’m sure lol. I also have two kids which translates to leprosy I’m finding out. Refer back to the previous statement of reliving one’s 20s and the idea of being a grown man that doesn’t shy away from responsibility is just gone. Maybe they are just too overwhelmed with their own responsibility to think about any more…..Maybe they just don’t know how to tread down this road just like me….Maybe I’m giving them too much benefit of the doubt…Maybe they’ve always been irresponsible and that’s why they’re divorced….Maybe I should stop driving myself crazy with all the maybe’s.
BUT I JUST DON’T GET IT!!!
So please, if you have any thoughts as to why divorced men seem to only want friends with benefits or casual, please clue me in.
Also, the separate problem of divorced men who may be looking for something real, but not seeing me, only the fact that I have kids.

I used to think I was horrible at dating (post-divorce, specifically), and even felt a little bit ashamed of it. But that’s because I was comparing the QUANTITY of my dates to what I perceived to be others’ experiences, and now I’ve come to believe it’s actually the low-boundary, unfiltered attitude toward dating that is causing most of these problems in the first place.

I now think I was accidentally awesome, and believe today that I’m a competent dater in a very deliberate way.

There are two reasons people date:

1. Because they desire companionship and/or sex, casually or otherwise.

2. Because they’re looking for a suitable partner for a long-term relationship and/or marriage.

If casual relationships are the goal, then I think a relaxed attitude about dating is an appropriate disposition.

But if you’re genuinely looking for a compatible long-term partner with the intention of spending FOREVER with them, then I think getting hardcore with your intentions, your boundaries, and your stated expectations are CRITICALLY IMPORTANT to your success and emotional wellbeing.

An intentionally casual dater can date another intentionally casual dater, and have a positive experience.

An intentionally casual dater dating someone looking for love can lead to a lot of bad things happening if neither are honest with one another.

A person looking for love and long-term commitment can date someone else looking for love and long-term commitment, and it can go a million different ways. A lot of people believe if they end up married, that the meeting and dating exercise was a success. But that’s not true. It’s only a success if they actually make it to forever.

This is where most of us get it wrong.

Because I write here and some people pay attention, people in my personal life sometimes irrationally believe that makes me the go-to person for relationship questions. Ignoring how flawed that thinking is, I do my best to listen and provide the honest feedback they seek.

One of my friends liked a guy. He was the first guy she really liked in a long time. They met on an online dating site. They started seeing each other regularly. But to her displeasure, he was non-committal. He remained engaged in online-dating activities and was presumably seeing other people.

She wanted my advice. I didn’t think the solution was complicated.

“What should I do?” she asked.

“Only you can decide what you’re willing to tolerate,” I said. “The first thing I would do is decide exactly what you want and what your intentions are. Do you want him to be your committed boyfriend, or don’t you? Are you okay with him logging onto online dating sites and dating other people, or aren’t you? Once you know what you want, those are your boundaries. Then you clearly and honestly communicate those boundaries to him. Then—the hardest part—you ENFORCE those boundaries. You need to be willing to walk away if he doesn’t respect them,” I said.

“Isn’t it too soon for that?” she said. She didn’t want to seem “crazy” or “possessive,” she said.

She was afraid that being honest would cause him to reject her.

“I don’t want to seem insensitive about this, but if your relationship is going to fail, you WANT it to fail fast. Be honest about what you want. If he’s unwilling to give you what you want, or honor your feelings, or he runs away, isn’t that all you really need to know about him in terms of your long-term compatibility?” I said.

Maybe she thought really wanting him to be a certain kind of guy would magically transform him into that person. Like The Secret.

She never had the conversation with him. A couple weeks later, he cancelled plans with her for the third or fourth time, then she ended it, and they haven’t talked to one another since.

The entire scene felt insane to me. THIS is a major reason so many people end up divorced, I thought.

Why Does Dating Suck?

Because people don’t establish strong-enough boundaries for who they date.

Because people aren’t willing to be vulnerable and choose honesty when expressing who they really are on the inside, and what they really want.

And then sooner or later, it all crashes and burns because two people with different values and different expectations and different goals tried to force it using rainbow wishes and unicorn dreams, blaming culture, circumstances and everything but the person standing in the mirror for willingly participating in the madness.

Being a victim of con-artistry is the ONLY honest excuse for crushing heartache in the dating game.

Sure, rejection hurts, when one honest person doesn’t reciprocate the same emotional investment as another honest person. But, A. Don’t you WANT to be with someone who wants you back?, and B. How is that not an infinitely better result than investing years and/or marriage with someone who ultimately rejects you because you never really knew each other in the first place?

I can’t emphasize this belief enough: Every failure-to-launch relationship is a GREAT thing that eliminates wasted time, gives us critical life experience, and ultimately opens the door for people to find legitimately awesome and compatible romantic partners.

I know everyone’s in a big hurry all the time. But as mom always said: Life is what happens when we’re busy making other plans.

This is how dating goes when you’re from a small Midwestern town in the United States (maybe it’s a lot different in big cities and other cultures): You go to school in kindergarten, and for the next 13 years, you’re almost exclusively surrounded by “people like you,” which I’m loosely defining as single people with similar values, similar life experiences, similar educational opportunities, similar financial prospects, and similar long-term goals and expectations.

There’s no such thing as classmates or even two random students at the same school who don’t share several common interests and cultural similarities, relative to how varied our experiences and worldviews can be as single—divorced, widowed, or never-married—adults.

Unless you’re someone who moved around a lot during your school years (which must come with its own social-development issues and challenges), you’re typically 18 at the earliest before you meet a potential romantic interest with a radically divergent cultural background or value system.

I think exposure to other beliefs, cultures and customs is extremely important for people to figure out who we are. Diversity is critical for us to be able to ask the right questions during our formative and explorative years.

But I’m not sure I believe diversity to be particularly useful in marriage or committed long-term relationships (especially those involving children—more on that in a minute).

How Dating is Like Business

As an internet marketing professional, my job is, in a very generic sense, to generate as much web traffic as possible to pages containing products or services I hope to sell to as many visitors as possible.

Let’s pretend I own a company that sells exclusively men’s t-shirts which read: “Donald Trump Has Very Specific and Credible Plans for America, Excellent Hair, and Should Be President of the World.” And now my job is to sell as many of these stylish and in-demand shirts as possible.

quizzical baby

(Image/mums-corner.com)

Let’s pretend I’m going to try to sell these shirts using targeted online advertising and email marketing (because I magically have access to everyone’s email address), and I have to decide how to wisely spend my email marketing and advertising budget.

And finally, let’s pretend I decide to target the following groups of people for my men’s Trump shirt sales initiative: Registered Democrats who voted for President Obama in the 2012 election, Women who live in Poland, and everyone on Hillary Clinton’s F.B.I.-seized private email server.

I probably wouldn’t have much luck selling Trump shirts to those groups.

There is something in business called a Marketing Qualified Lead (MQL). A shirtless man carrying a 12-pack of Natural Light at a Trump rally might be an MQL for one of these Trump shirts. A Hispanic Los Angeles resident with a Bernie Sanders yard sign would not be.

I think many daters look for love and marriage using the I’m Trying to Sell Trump Shirts to Sanders Supporters strategy.

Online Dating Can Actually Help With This

Online dating sites allow you to establish parameters to weed out people with incompatible or unattractive traits. This is really helpful for women who receive more attention on dating sites than they can handle and for men with strong boundaries, selective tastes and specific preferences.

It’s probably bad for all of the low-boundary people who care more about feeling liked and accepted than they do about actually having healthy and successful relationships.

Maybe people are lonely and afraid they’ll be alone forever. I remember feeling that way.

Maybe people are worried about what friends and coworkers think. Maybe they want to “keep up” with their ex who has already moved on with someone new. Maybe people are trying to have sex more often than never. Maybe they’re trying to find a financial partner, or just someone to binge-watch Netflix with them.

I don’t know.

I just know that a frightening amount of people voluntarily enter relationships with people who don’t share their values, and subject themselves to all kinds of abuse or dysfunction afterward, and it often seems as if it’s because they’re more afraid of being alone than they are of being mistreated or suffering a horrible break-up.

Single Parents Must Use Stringent Filters to Find MQLs

I don’t think people are discriminating enough, and I think that’s why dating is so frustrating for people, and why so many relationships fail. I think vigilant discernment while dating is extremely critical for single or divorced parents, and any young people who intend to have children someday.

People who look different can have great relationships.

People with differing interests can have great relationships.

People with diverse life experiences can have great relationships.

People from different places can have great relationships.

People with varying personality types can have great relationships.

But, people with DIFFERENT VALUES? I have yet to see evidence that two people with conflicting core values can succeed, particularly when they share children, or are raising them together.

Dating often sucks because people aren’t honest with themselves, and then they make it worse by not being honest with those they date.

If you don’t know who you are and what your values are, YOU HAVE NO CHANCE.

If you haven’t identified your personal boundaries, or aren’t willing to vigilantly enforce them, you’re going to experience a heavy dose of frustration and heartache.

If you do it my way, you’re not going to go out on many dates, and you may often feel frustrated by what seems like a frightening lack of options. The temptation can be great to go out with people simply because you find them attractive and they’re interested.

But I implore people to be deliberate with their intentions, and be courageous enough to share their honest expectations, values and feelings with the people they’re getting to know.

Divorce is A LOT scarier than a relative stranger deciding not to date us anymore.

It bears repeating: If we’re evaluating whether that person across from us is an appropriate choice for a long-term or lifetime commitment, should we REALLY be afraid of how they might react to something honest and true about us?

Can we achieve forever with someone who doesn’t want the real us?

It’s not fun or easy. It won’t always feel good. It’s the furthest thing from sexy.

But it’s the first real step on the path to reducing divorce.

Or, more appropriately, the first real step on the journey to Forever.

SIDE NOTE: I finally have a Facebook page for this blog. It would be awesome to connect with you there. I’ll understand if you don’t want to, because mehhhhhhh.

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The Truth About Love You Might Not Accept

"The Vagabond/Prodigal Son" by Hieronymus Bosch

“The Vagabond/Prodigal Son” by Hieronymus Bosch

There was a wealthy farmer with two sons.

The younger son, dissatisfied with his boring life, went to his dad and asked for his inheritance early. The request was demanding and entitled. It would have been interpreted at the time a little bit like he wished his father was already dead.

Then the young man, armed with a lot of money, left home, abandoned his family and their business, traveled far and wide, and lived lavishly.

Fancy clothes. Expensive meals. Wild parties. Lots of sex.

He did that every day until he ran out of money right around the time the economy tanked and weather patterns decimated regional crop farming. Widespread famine took hold.

The rich, entitled kid had nothing left. No real friends. No viable job prospects. And now there was a food-shortage crisis, so he couldn’t find food.

With no other options, he would have to return home, tail tucked between his legs, and beg his father to let him come back. He didn’t expect a warm welcome. He was going to ask his dad to hire him as a farmhand to work the land, and sleep in one of the barns with the farm animals.

But to the young man’s surprise, that’s not how it went down. When his father heard word that his wayward son had come home, he dropped everything and sprinted to him.

Instead of admonishing him for being so selfish, foolish and irresponsible, he hugged him tight with tears of joy, expressing his love and gratitude for his safe return.

Instead of punishing him for abandoning the family and his responsibilities to waste a small fortune on excessive living, he threw a massive party to celebrate his child’s return.

The older brother was pissed. While his idiot brother was out burning money on wine and prostitutes, he had stayed home and dutifully tended to the family business and was an all-around respectful and obedient son.

No one ever threw me a party for doing the right thing!, he thought.

He went up to his dad and said what most of us would: “Umm. Dad. This is total bullshit. I’ve been right here doing all the right things all these years while that douchebag was off wasting his entire fortune on drunken orgasms. Then he comes home, and we treat him like the conquering hero? Where’s my party, dad? Where’s my ‘Atta Boy?”

The father understood his elder son’s frustration, but said simply: “Celebrating your brother’s return is the right thing to do. We thought he was dead. But here he is, alive. He was lost. And now he’s been found.”

Anyone even loosely familiar with the bible knows that story. It’s the parable of the Prodigal Son—a story about redemption. My favorite kind. It’s supposed to symbolize the endless mercy of God, personified biblically as a loving father.

But it’s also the best story I know which addresses the thing we need to talk about, because I think maybe a lot of people don’t know what it really means. And I think maybe that lack of understanding is ruining their marriages; their relationships with children and parents, with siblings, with friends, with neighbors, with co-workers, and everyone else:

Unconditional love.

Because We Care What Others Think, We Do Stuff

It’s uncomfortable to admit. We all want to believe we’re so courageous and unique and authentic. We all want to believe the decisions we make are for us because we’re genuinely pursuing whatever it is our hearts and minds compel us to chase in life.

But that’s bullshit, and we all know it.

We do things to win the approval of our parents. You didn’t go to medical school at Dartmouth because you wanted to go to Dartmouth or become a doctor. You did it because your grandfather did that, and then your dad did it, and if you don’t do it, you’ll always be the person who tarnished the family legacy, and you were afraid of the shame and possible rejection.

We do things so that other kids in school will accept us. You dated Lauren because she was hot and you wanted to look cool to the other guys, not because there was some legitimate emotional connection. You avoided playing in the band, not because you didn’t love music, but because you didn’t want your football teammates calling you a “band nerd.”

You didn’t drink beer because you actually liked it. Cherry Coke and Dr. Pepper always tasted better. You did it because you wanted to fit in.

We still do this as adults. All the time.

It affects our choices about the houses we live in and the cars we drive. It influences the clothes we wear. Who we hang out with. How we treat our friends.

We worry about our children’s behavior sometimes, not because we’re ACTUALLY worried about the long-term impact on our children’s lives (most of the dumb stuff they do will have almost no bearing on how their lives turn out, and are in fact necessary experiences from which to learn important life lessons), but because we worry about what other parents might think about us as that kid’s parents.

We do and feel many things for no other reason than we invest in other people’s perception of us. The most interesting part of that is, we don’t really know what another person thinks of us. So we project our personal feelings on others, and essentially guess what they think will make us look attractive or smart or funny or successful or whatever. And then we try to display that ideal image as much as possible. We do so in an attempt to win favor with those around us for whatever conscious or subconscious reasons we have. So we ultimately end up living a huge percentage of our lives in the service of others who probably don’t care, and even if they do, we don’t know what they actually believe anyway unless we take off the masks and build legitimately authentic relationships with them.

We’re always pretending a little.

I don’t think that makes us phonies. I think it just makes us humans who haven’t yet asked ourselves the right questions, nor answered them correctly.

If we had, we wouldn’t be driven by fear.

Learning to Enjoy Dating After Divorce

Okay. “Enjoy” is an overstatement. Dating after divorce generally blows.

But there’s one aspect of it I’ve learned to love: I don’t give one iota of a shit what the girl I’m meeting thinks of me.

Let me clarify: Of course I want to be liked. I prefer the feeling of someone liking and desiring me MUCH more than the feeling of non-interest or rejection.

But because dysfunctional relationships, emotionally inconvenient breakups, nor God forbid, another divorce, aren’t thing I want; and because I learned the hard way that wearing masks and shutting out partners from our innermost thoughts and feelings we’re too scared and insecure to share for fear of rejection is a proven path to relationship failure; I’ve developed a taste for courageous honesty. Frankly, it isn’t all that courageous anymore because I’m no longer afraid to share it.

If I tell the girl on the other side of the dinner table something honest about myself and she doesn’t want me because of that honest thing, how was a relationship ever going to work out in the first place? Why would I WANT to be with someone who only liked the fake version of me?

Men have been lying to women to get them into bed for as long as people have had the ability to communicate. (I can’t prove that. I’m just certain it’s true. Cro-Magnon Man was totally grunt-lying to cave chicks about the size of that last bear he killed.)

But if the goal is something with staying power and long-term sustainability, doing the thing most guys do in high school and college to look cool or high-status to girls we meet, is pointless. It amounts to little more than trying to impress them and win their superficial approval. Even if we succeed, it provides no value to our future selves or our current or future children.

Dishonesty—even in the form of not disclosing those two or three things you don’t like sharing with others because you’re afraid they’ll run away or think less of you—WILL break your relationship. And the longer the relationship goes, the greater the pain will be.

So, we choose honesty.

I’m divorced, and largely responsible for it.

I have a young son.

I have ADHD and it sometimes strains my relationships and can affect other parts of my life, professionally and financially.

I’m a child of divorce.

I’m totally middle class but genuinely work hard to be more.

I’m not the kind of dude who can fix your overheated engine on the side of the road, or build you a shelter with my imaginary knife I always carry with me if we get lost in the jungle before I go kill our dinner.

This, this, and this is wrong with me.

I believe X, Y and Z even though it might make you uncomfortable and not want me.

After you take off the mask and share THE REAL YOU with someone? Those who want you, admire you, crave your companionship, enjoy your company; and want to be friends with you, invite you to parties, introduce you to their family and professional network, and think you’re the kind of person who could positively influence their children…

THOSE are the people with whom you build long-lasting, meaningful relationships in whatever capacity you choose.

THOSE are the people who love you, not because of what you do for them, or how you make them look to the people in their lives whose approval they seek, but because they really, just, love YOU.

Mark Manson’s “Maybe You Don’t Know What Love Is” got my wheels turning about this. In it, he writes:

“If you want to remove or repair the conditional relationships in your life and have strong unconditional relationships, you are going to have to piss some people off. What I mean is that you have to stop accepting people’s conditions. And you have to let go of your own.

“This invariably involves telling someone close to you “no” in the exact situation they want to hear it the least. It will cause drama. A shit-storm of drama in many cases. After all, what you are doing is you are taking somebody who has been using parts of you to make themselves feel better and denying their ability to do so. Their reaction will be angry and they will blame you. They will say a lot of mean things about you.

“But don’t become discouraged. This sort of reaction is just further proof of the conditions on the relationship. A real honest love is willing to respect and accept something it doesn’t want to hear. A conditional love will fight back.

“But this drama is necessary. Because one of two things will emerge from it. Either the person will be unable to let go of their conditions and they will therefore remove themselves from your life (which, ultimately, is a good thing in most cases). Or, the person will be forced to appreciate you unconditionally, to love you in spite of the inconveniences you may pose to themselves or their self-esteem.”

Life is difficult. It’s not easy even though we all wonder: Why not?! Relationships are difficult because they require energy and maintenance. Everyone wants love to be a feeling flowing from an eternal spring of easyness like infatuation and lust, two reasonably bullshit feelings exposed as frauds by how short-lived they are.

But not love.

Because love isn’t bullshit. Maybe love “the feeling,” is. But not real love. Not love “the choice.”

It’s the one you wake up and choose to give because you love without expectation of getting something in return. It’s unconditional. You don’t love because of what the person does for you. You don’t love because of how they make you feel about yourself. You don’t love because of the opportunities they provide you.

You just love. Without agenda.

Just because.

Maybe that’s how things come back from the dead.

Maybe that’s how something sacred and lost gets found.

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