Tag Archives: Dating

The Cancer of Misunderstanding

hieroglyphics egyptian

(Image/Pinterest)

Remember when we were kids?

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

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

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

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

We were just kids.

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

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

My son is just a cute little kid.

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

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

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

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

Me: “You’re shitting me, right?”

Son: “Dad. Language.”

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

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

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

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

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

Son: “What’s a ‘crow magnum’?”

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

Son: “Yeah.”

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

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

Me: “Whatever you say, genius.”

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

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

Other people are different than us for various reasons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Undetected Cancer of Not Understanding Each Other

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

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

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

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

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

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

So we’re trying again.

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

I’m on your side. I promise.

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

The Big Secret That Shouldn’t Be a Secret

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

That’s NOT why she’s leaving us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First, we inflict pain without realizing it.

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

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

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

Don’t you see it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because THAT ends marriages. Thousands of times per day.

And I think it’s tragic.

Because it’s essentially just a big misunderstanding.

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

We can do better.

We must.

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Safety and Trust in Relationships: Those Words Don’t Mean What You Think They Mean

woman hiding under table

(Image/Crosswalk.com)

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

Safe – adj. – \ˈsāf\ — secure from threat of danger, harm, or loss

Trust – verb – \ˈtrəst\ — to commit or place in one’s care or keeping; to place confidence in, rely on; to hope or expect confidently

‘You don’t make me feel safe. I don’t feel like I can trust you anymore.’

Safety is probably more important to you than you consciously realize in any given moment.

After basic metabolic functions, like your heart beating and properly working lungs, and the most basic things needed for survival (food, water, shelter and clothing), Safety is the next thing people need to function in life.

The concept of safety, for me, tended to be rooted in physical safety. Wearing a seat belt. Not getting pistol-whipped during an armed robbery. Wearing the proper safety equipment on a construction site or in a manufacturing facility, or during a football or baseball game.

And color young-me as an ignorant sexist rube if you must, but in male-female relationships—including my marriage—I thought of safety in the context of protecting her from physical harm.

I want to sleep closest to the bedroom door.

I want to be the one to check out the strange noise in the house.

I want to be with her walking in a dimly lit parking garage at night.

I want to pay for a home-security system to deter and warn of intruders.

I want to fight and take the potential beat down to give her time to run away.

I want to take the bullet for her.

And I will never physically harm her. Ever.

And because of those things, I thought my wife (and anyone, really) should feel safe with me. I thought all of those true things made me a person who was safe to be with.

But I wasn’t. And this is in NO WAY anyone’s fault but my own—but nowhere, at any point in my upbringing, was I exposed to other ways of thinking about safety or taught the fundamental importance of making one’s girlfriend or wife feel safe and secure in those OTHER ways.

Other safety and security needs people have in addition to not being hurt or killed in an accident or act of violence include:

  • Financial security
  • Health and well-being (mental and emotional safety)

Everyone has different thresholds for what financial security looks like. I think having enough money to pay for one’s family’s needs is a concept anyone mature enough to be reading this already understands.

But on mental and emotional safety?

I failed about as hard as a person claiming ignorance possibly can.

I was mentally and emotionally abusive to my wife without realizing it because I also demonstrate classic only-child levels of self-centeredness, and I hadn’t yet learned that Marriage Isn’t For You.

But I’m not the only one.

I think many men accidentally abuse their wives’ mental and emotional health without realizing it (and it probably happens in reverse, too), and then once enough damage has been done, the couples end up having what feels like the exact same frustrating and familiar fight over and over again.

For men, it often becomes a thing we learn to deal with. It pisses us off sometimes. It certainly stresses us out and makes us feel shitty. But it tends to be a nuisance that we believe will be better after everyone calms down.

However, for many women, every one of these fights tends to slowly and systematically erode her love and respect for her husband/boyfriend, and her faith in the integrity of the relationship itself.

Over time, “lesser” incidents can trigger the arguments.

Maybe five years ago, a guy stayed out too late drinking with his friends, passed out and never told his wife or girlfriend where he was. She stayed up all night freaking out, and then they had a big fight because he thought she was overreacting.

But maybe five years later, he accidentally left his phone in the car during a two-hour business presentation in the middle of the day, and his non-responsiveness triggers that same level of concern and anger in her. And maybe he thinks it’s a gross overreaction because while reacting to an all-night drinking bender seems reasonable, freaking out because of an accidental work-related situation does not.

And once again, they have The Same Fight.

Men—boyfriends and husbands—often are so determined to defend their actions and feelings that they don’t actively listen to their upset girlfriends or wives. They HEAR them, saying words and being angry and stuff. But they don’t LISTEN. They don’t understand. They never figure out WHY their partner is saying and feeling these things.

Here’s a guy who works hard and is good at his job. He’s a good provider for his wife and children.

He never complains about his wife’s behavior. And he thinks it’s unfair that he isn’t given the same courtesy.

He would NEVER hit her. He’s a capable protector. So it makes sense to him that she should feel Safe.

He would NEVER cheat on her. He never intentionally fails to do something he says he will. He’s not a liar. He’s a good parent and guardian. He feels like a “trustworthy” person. So it makes sense to him that she should Trust him.

The Thing That Ends Relationships

After dozens, perhaps hundreds of attempts to explain what it is that upsets her, he generally responds angrily. Or tells her she’s wrong. Or tells her she’s just being emotional again. Or tells her she’s mentally unstable. Or simply walks away in frustration because he doesn’t want to fight anymore. Or maybe he’s really patient, and simply walks away confused after the conversation without fighting back, but also without ever understanding what she’s trying to communicate to him.

No matter which of those common responses occur with any given couple, each instance further weakens a wife or girlfriend’s faith in the relationship.

“He’s NEVER going to get it. I can’t trust him.”

The mistrust is not about sexual faithfulness. It’s not really even about his human integrity, assuming he is as unaware of the damage he’s causing as I believe he is. (I believe strongly that the VAST majority of husbands would never KNOWINGLY inflict pain on their wives, and I stand by that belief. I think I know an easy way to determine whether your spouse is hurting you on purpose.)

A wife or girlfriend loses trust in her husband or boyfriend after repeated attempts to explain why something hurts and requests for help in making it stop haven’t resulted in any positive outcomes nor any evidence that he wants the painful thing to stop.

Faced with feeling hurt every day for the rest of her marriage/relationship, and no evidence her committed partner is willing to be a partner in making something painful go away, she stops trusting him.

No matter how good he may be. No matter how perfect his record might be in every other part of his life.

Something hurts her. He either can’t or won’t help her. She knows because they’ve talked about it countless times with the same result.

She knows the marriage/relationship is unsustainable without trust. Its future is in doubt.

The security and well-being of her and possibly children are now in jeopardy.

And now she doesn’t feel safe.

And no matter how much he tries, a man she can’t trust to not hurt her can’t make her feel safe. In most cases, not like how her father used to.

The realization is often frightening: “I no longer believe our marriage will survive.”

I used to believe the scariest guys were the obvious assholes. The guys that punch and cheat and name-call. The drunks and addicts and reckless gamblers.

But red flags are easy enough to spot. Red flags are obvious warning signs that help people steer clear.

Real danger is what lurks undetected.

These awesome guys. Nice. Friendly. Smart. Successful. By all appearances, good men and good fathers.

The guys everyone praises as good husbands and fathers. Guys just like me.

If you leave guys like that, maybe her parents don’t approve or support the decision. Maybe her friends will judge her. Maybe when she feels most afraid than at any other time in her entire life because she doesn’t believe her marriage and family will survive, and she’s feeling guilty for not being able to make it work and how it might affect her children. And the only thing she wants and needs is support. But the ONE person she believed she could count on for the rest of her life to lift her up and care for her in such moments is the very person inflicting all of the pain, fear and anxiety.

Mistrust.

Unsafe.

Fight or flight?

She has already spent years fighting, leaving her with just one choice: Run.

I used to blame her.

But I see it all so clearly now.

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How to Be Comfortable Alone on Valentine’s Day

guy sitting alone at restaurant

Totally NOT this. I promise. (Image/Its Box Office Forums)

If I’m hospitalized or incapacitated from a car accident or emergency health problem, my ex-wife will be the first person anyone calls.

That’s because, even four years after our divorce, she’s still my emergency contact.

In a reverse-scenario, I’m probably the fourth person to get an emergency call about her. Yes, I’m aware of how pathetic that sounds.

On a night where she might go out for dinner, drinks and whatever else with her boyfriend if our son wasn’t at home with her, I’ll sit alone in my kitchen writing things for a client after grabbing a takeout dinner on the drive home later.

I have no way to prove I’m not just writing this in some lame attempt to sound cool or tough, but I have exactly ZERO problems with my Valentine’s Day plans today.

I want to talk about why, because I think the things that make people feel lonely on Valentine’s Day are the same things that compel people to marry someone before they’re ready, or to ignore their partner’s behavioral red flags, or jump into a relationship super-fast after a breakup or divorce and ultimately suffer for that choice.

I remember when it wasn’t this way.

I remember how excruciating it is when your body is still learning how to operate with entire pieces of your insides missing. Crying, even though you never cry. Unable to breathe, even though you’re always breathing.

I remember.

Because Valentine’s Day is hard for a lot of people. We like to associate that feeling with single people and maybe feel sorry for them as if they’re all alone because no one will ever like them or find them worthy.

To be sure, many divorced people will be afraid of that. I was afraid of that. Maybe still am.

But I don’t think single people are the loneliest people. I think people in broken marriages, or people who are the givers in one-way relationships that just haven’t broken yet, are the loneliest people.

Being married or carrying the “In a Relationship” label DOES NOT prevent loneliness.

Connectivity to others prevents loneliness, regardless of whether you share an address or exchange bodily fluids with them.

Self-love (self-compassion and respect, not narcissism) and self-acceptance prevents loneliness.

And something else does, too: Getting used to being alone.

The Reason I’m Single

Save it, dicks. Of course not everyone finds me attractive. Of course not everyone likes me.

But that’s not why I’m single.

I’m intentionally single today in a way I wasn’t four years ago, and I want you to understand why because it matters.

I am divorced primarily because I spent years taking my wife for granted, leaning on her to do most of the heavy lifting of Life and household management, including paying our bills, coordinating our social calendars, planning holidays, developing a caretaking system for our newborn, and executing the day-to-day management of everything required of working adults with a child and a mortgage in the 21st century.

I think MOST divorce today stems from this same toxic condition.

I can’t speak for other guys. Just me.

I grew up in a small Ohio town. When we were all together for large holiday gatherings, or when I visited friends’ houses, or just my experience with my mom at home, I almost exclusively watched wives and mothers doing things like cooking, clearing the table afterward, broom-sweeping the floor, washing dishes, changing baby diapers, folding laundry, vacuuming carpet, cleaning bathrooms, etc.

I’ve heard so many men call this stuff “women’s work” and seen so many men retreat to the living-room recliner after dinner to let their wives, mothers, sisters, daughters take care of the cleanup, that I felt OFFENDED by my wife wanting me to do more housework.

I’ve had four years to think about this, and finally see it for what it is.

First, I was a baby and small child, and everyone did everything for me.

Then, I was in grade school and high school, and all I had to do was show up, get decent grades, and have fun with my friends the rest of the time. My parents did all of the heavy lifting.

Then, I was in college where even the super-rare chores were things I was doing with my best friends, usually while drinking beer or after sharing a joint.

Then, I was with my girlfriend. The same one who, 16 years later, would be my Life-emergency contact despite being divorced for four years.

In other words, every second of my existence from my earliest memory until the moment my wife walked out the door and never came back consisted of me having almost no life responsibilities other than staying alive, and a constant support system INSIDE the walls of wherever I called home.

Later, I either had my best friend or my wife under the same roof. An adult I could count on to back me up, and trust with everything I have including my favorite little human on Earth. Someone I could talk to. A living, breathing human being exchanging stories, ideas, hugs, kisses, comfort.

Then the only vinyl record I’d ever heard, the same one spinning for 33 years straight, screeched to a halt, and all that shit drove away in a white SUV with a woman I used to know behind the wheel, and the other half of my entire world sitting in the backseat.

I freaked.

Some of you remember.

I remember.

So when people are having a hard time on Valentine’s Day, I’m not inclined to tell them to suck it up because breaking on the inside feels so much worse than breaking on the outside and I learned the hard way that’s not something you can know until you, just, know.

I Vowed I’d Never Do That Again

Not to my son.

Not to my partner.

Not to myself.

Because it does feel scary sometimes. I can’t hitch my wagon to someone who I’m not EXTREMELY confident I could potentially have a life-long marriage with.

No settling. NONE.

But someone else isn’t what scares me.

I scare me. Must be this tall to ride.

I won’t be with someone just because I want something from them, including the comfort of not being alone.

So, here’s the task I’ve given myself: Get comfortable alone. Get comfortable taking care of yourself. Get self-sufficient in all of the areas you spent your life relying on others. 

Because my biggest relationship failing was that. Relying on others to take care of things for me.

And that’s not okay. Life is hard enough. We can’t expect others to carry all of our things too.

And that’s where I am today. Right now.

That’s where many single people are. They’re not unlovable or unsexable rejects. They’re not all a bunch of emotional charity cases.

They’re just walking the path for the first time without a trail guide and learning to find their own way.

Maybe all of that changes tomorrow. Or maybe in three years. Or maybe never.

In the meantime, I must arrive at a place where I have complete and total faith in myself, and where I demonstrate a strong capacity for self-care and self-sustainability.

THEN. Then I can be a good partner to someone else in a way I wasn’t in my marriage. Maybe other people are that way too.

I don’t think we can NEED someone else.

That’s a bad power dynamic, and frankly, unattractive—so we’ll have a hard time finding viable partners like that anyway.

But we can be whole all on our own.

We MUST be whole on our own.

Because I think when we’re whole all on our own, we’ll be ready to deliver on the things we talk about around here.

How to Get Comfortable With Change

We have a tendency to resist all kinds of changes because change is uncomfortable.

We struggle with loss because life changes dramatically, and it’s uncomfortable.

We feel uncomfortable behind the wheel of a strange car, or sleeping in a strange bed, or moving to a new town, or starting a new job.

But, inevitably, if we stay alive long enough, the new things become familiar.

The new things become the new normal.

And we get comfortable.

Step 1 – Breathe.

Step 2 – Do your best at whatever you’re doing.

Step 3 – Repeat.

We all want painkillers or life hacks or magic fast-forward buttons to zip us past the shit storms, and we so rarely stop to feel grateful for the opportunity to gradually adjust to things in a sustainable way. No one would ever succeed at, or be comfortable with ANYTHING if we always hit the “Easy” button every time things got hard.

And things do get hard.

So, hug.

Cry.

Scream.

But also.

Smile.

Laugh.

Hope.

Because tomorrow comes. Just by breathing.

You start the journey crying in your kitchen alone wondering when the journey will end and someone will save you.

But after enough steps, you realize the journey NEVER ends.

And that it’s you who has to save yourself.

And that you can’t save others. You can only encourage them to save themselves.

Not with heroics or anything dramatic, but by doing the simplest thing we do absent-mindedly more than 20,000 times per day and 8 million times per year.

Just breathe. Everything’s going to be okay.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

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The Power of Understanding

The Power of Understanding

On the left is what we consider “color-correct.” On the right is what someone with red-green colorblindness sees. (Image/Irv Aron’s Journal)

Person #1: “I love the way the red pomegranates, orange oranges and yellow bananas pop in this photo.”

Person #2: “What are you smoking? Everything looks muted. Dark greens and grays. Nothing is red or yellow in that photo.”

Person #1: “Are we looking at the same thing here? The colors are vibrant and beautiful. You’re crazy if you don’t think so.”

Person #2: “Whatever. You’re a moron. I know what I see.”

Couples fight a lot. We’re human. We disagree because our brains work differently than others’. But when we FIGHT, it’s mostly because we don’t understand.

And then, no matter how many different situations crop up, it seems as if the fight is always the same.

Both people believe they’re looking at the same thing, yet both people see something totally different, in much the same way people with color-correct vision perceive color differently than those with red-green colorblindness.

That situation rarely comes up today because advanced tools and understanding in optometry detects colorblindness early.

But you can imagine the conversations people were having before it became widely known that color-blind people literally see something different than those of us blessed with the ability to see the full range of colors.

Two sane people arguing about how something right in front of them looks totally different than what the other is describing, and both thinking the other must be crazy or intentionally trying to upset them.

I think that sums up the majority of marriage and relationship arguments throughout human history.

Sometimes one person will be factually incorrect, yes.

But the marriage fights that slowly break down the emotional connection between two spouses tend not to be about things we can “prove.”

We Don’t Need to Speak the Same Language; We Need Only Accurate Translations

I can’t read nor understand any spoken language that isn’t English (not counting the 30 words I still remember from my Spanish classes).

How accurate or helpful a written document or spoken set of instructions may be can’t overcome my inability to understand them when offered in any language but the one I know.

There’s profound power in understanding what something means.

The Power of Habit

Stuff happened to you when you were a baby that you can’t remember, but the imprint those things left on you is responsible for some of the emotional triggers affecting you today.

They look and feel different for everyone. Even siblings raised by the same people in the same environment.

Moreover, we spend our lives subconsciously developing habits. Habits are very powerful. When our spouses say or do certain things, it may trigger something within us that brings out the worst in us. It’s emotional, deep-seated chemical response based on a lifetime of experiences (many of which we may have misinterpreted or misunderstood at the time!).

Charles Duhigg wrote an awesome book about habits. Here’s a quick video about the power of habits:

So, I finally understood what my wife had been saying all these years, and that fundamental shift in understanding changed EVERYTHING for me in terms of my ability to properly frame our conversations and disagreements.

It was incredibly empowering (albeit regret-inducing) to recognize reality. To be clued into the truth about colorblindness for the first time.

And I was so excited about this information that seemed so powerful and important to me that I wanted to share it with as many people as possible.

Divorce was very hard as a child to see your parents go through it, and it’s very hard as an adult — the breakage and loss we feel, and the added pain of watching our kids suffer and knowing we had a hand in it.

And FINALLY, I know something that other guys don’t know, but IF they knew, they could all change and then maybe they won’t get divorced like me.

That was what I thought and felt.

But after doing this for four years, seeing and hearing how so many relationship and divorce stories play out, and going through the human experience myself in my various family and social relationships, I’ve learned something else very important.

We Don’t Change — Our Understanding Does

I thought my new understanding would change me. I even used the word “change.” I described myself as a new person. A different person.

It’s a lot of semantics of course, but I’m not actually all that different. And I haven’t really changed despite all of my newfound understanding.

I used to believe that I could help a man understand what I know, and that if he “got it,” he could then flip a switch and magically turn into someone else who never did the things which upset his spouse.

That’s not what happens.

People don’t magically turn into other people with totally different personalities and habits, no matter how much they learn.

I used to believe that a guy would simply stop doing all of those things which started fights at home and THAT would save a marriage.

I no longer believe that.

I believe a guy — any person, really — will continue to be exactly who they are. But I believe they will occasionally be more mindful of their behaviors and reduce instances of situations which historically caused an argument.

But the real value is in the understanding.

Marriages aren’t saved by people changing everything about themselves and the chemistry that brought them together in the first place.

Marriages are saved by people who learn how to understand one another. We learn that our translators are unreliable, so we must account for things getting lost in translation. We learn that the goal of a conversation is not to win an argument, but to achieve mutual understanding.

We learn that we can look at the exact same photo as someone else and see something totally different because neither of us are wrong. Then, when we talk, we are — maybe for the first time ever — actually talking about the same things with the same frame of reference.

Because my brain and your brain are not the same.

Because all of my individual experiences, and all of yours, shaped us into people who see and feel things differently.

Because colorblindness is real.

“Oh, he’s colorblind. Of course the fruit looks different to him. He isn’t wrong. He isn’t crazy. And he hasn’t been intentionally trying to anger or hurt me all this of time after all.”

We want them to change.

But all we really need is for them to understand.

That’s when good things happen.

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Is He the One?: How to Know Whether You Should Marry Him

litmus test

(Image/Broken Bread Club)

I used to leave a drinking glass by the kitchen sink instead of putting it in the dishwasher, and then argue with my wife when she complained about it.

I wrote that story a year ago, and since, more than five million people read it on this blog, and several million more read it elsewhere.

I call it “the dishes post,” even though it’s about a lot more than dishes. When I was asked today in an email whether there was a way to know BEFORE marriage that someone who by all appearances is a good man, might be a shitty husband, I realized the dishes post also serves as an excellent marriage litmus test.

She asked: “But, I can’t help but wonder if there’s a way for a woman to know or predict that *before* getting married? Red flags are obvious (infidelity, abuse, jealousy, etc.) but what about far-less obvious stuff?”

It’s a good question. And a year ago, I wouldn’t have been brazen enough to answer it. But when millions of people read something, share it with their friends and family saying: “THIS!!! This guy gets it!!!” and guys send me private emails telling me that it helped them finally understand why he and his wife or girlfriend always have the same fight over and over again, and that I helped him save his marriage, I feel emboldened even if it’s unjustified.

The Marriage Litmus Test

It could be dishes by the sink. It could be dirty socks thrown next to the hamper. It could be pee dribble on the toilet seat. It could be muddy shoes on the floor. It could be unrinsed shaving cream and facial-hair stubble crusted to the sides of the sink basin.

It doesn’t matter what the Thing is. Everyone has different Things.

It’s the Thing He Does Which Hurts Your Feelings or Disrespects You, And Then Acts Like You’re Crazy or Wrong When You Say So.

It usually goes like this:

Behavior X = The Thing That Hurts. Sometimes there are several things.

But Behavior X does not hurt him. In other words, dirty socks on the floor might bother you, but it doesn’t bother him. Because it doesn’t bother him, he thinks it’s irrational for it to bother you.

Thus, in his mind, the simple and best solution is not for him to stop throwing socks on the floor, but for you to stop letting your irrational emotions ruin your day.

“Why are you freaking out about something so minor and petty? Just let it go, babe! It’s not a big deal! I’ll pick them up later!”

I think you probably get it. So, here’s the test:

Step 1: Identify things or behaviors your boyfriend does which hurts your feelings.

Step 2: Say so. Kindly. Patiently. Honestly.

If he gets it, and says words and adjusts behavior to demonstrate that he gets it, he passes The Marriage Litmus Test with an A+. Congratulations!

This is uncommon. More likely are the following types of responses:

1. Dismissal — Treating your concern as unimportant like shooing away a flying insect.

2. Outrage — Responding as if you’re wrong, even going so far as to blame you for finding reasons to feel angry and start fights.

3. Avoidance — Denying you the opportunity to explain yourself because “Now’s not a good time for this,” and choosing to focus his energy and attention elsewhere.

Which means The Marriage Litmus Test continues. He doesn’t know how much is at stake, just like cigarette smokers in the 1960s didn’t know that smoking caused cancer. He’s not intentionally causing harm. He’s accidentally causing harm by choosing activities he honestly doesn’t know are bad.

Patience must be maintained. If you flip shit on him during the test, the test results will be invalid, because flipping your shit is ALSO not okay, no matter how easily and automatically you might slip into lashing out angrily.

Step 3: Kindly and honestly communicate that the Dismissal/Outrage/Avoidance response ALSO hurts, just like The Thing.

And for the sake of leading by example, kindly ask when a good time might be to talk about it more with him. NOT to criticize. But to help bridge the misunderstanding because you want your partner to understand where you’re coming from, just as you want to understand his perspective. You want to spend the rest of your relationship not fighting over silly things.

If he refuses to ever talk about it because you’re being a stupid, nagging, bitchy idiot, then maybe it’s time to leave. Because, without a major shift, your relationship is doomed.

If he agrees to a later conversation, and honors that commitment, things are looking good, and he may still earn an A.

Step 4: During the conversation, follow The 4 Easy Steps For Getting Your Husband to Finally Listen to You.

Not everyone’s brains work exactly the same. It is common for two people to view the same thing totally differently, which is why you’re having the conversation in the first place. Just because two people disagree DOES NOT make one wrong and the other right. Not all disagreements have an objectively true answer, like whether chocolate tastes better than vanilla.

Chocolate tastes better to me. Others prefer vanilla. The reasons are unique to each individual.

The trick is to understand what HURTS your boyfriend. So many guys mask their pains for fear of losing their Man Cards that sometimes their girlfriends don’t actually know what hurts them.

And it’s truly this simple:

Thing That Hurts Guy = Guy Hurting

And in EXACTLY that same way…

Boyfriend Behavior Being Discussed = Girlfriend Hurting

Each instance of the behavior caused a paper cut. And it just kept happening. Paper cuts. They don’t kill you. But it really hurts and is totally debilitating to get them over and over and over again. And ultimately, too many cuts becomes a fatal wound.

The Test Results

Even though a paper cut won’t kill me, I’m not going to choose a relationship with someone who repeatedly cuts me with paper, even after I point out that it’s happening.

My partner may accidentally give me a paper cut thoughtlessly. If she demonstrates clear remorse and pledges to stop, I will respond differently than if she says: “Toughen up, pussy. They’re just paper cuts.”

Everyone will have a different pain tolerance and threshold, as well as different reasons (they might have children together, for example) for grading the Marriage Litmus Test on a curve.

In the end, it’s up to each person to establish their personal boundaries and to enforce them. People who don’t communicate and enforce their boundaries are doomed to a life of other people making them miserable.

In the end, a guy who doesn’t “get it” or refuses to try will make a shitty husband, even if he’s a good guy in other areas.

He’ll just keep on cutting you with paper. Maybe not on purpose. But eventually, through negligence.

In the end, a guy who believes there’s a clear winner in the Chocolate vs. Vanilla debate, and that anyone who doesn’t agree with his opinion is wrong, will ultimately prove to be an insufferable asshole and shitty husband who will purposefully or inadvertently teach your kids to be insufferable assholes.

But just maybe, once your boyfriend understands that something that doesn’t hurt him and that he never intended to be harmful CAN STILL HURT YOU, and it registers with him how dangerous and abusive it is when people suffer that way, everything will change.

He may still paper-cut you accidentally now and then. But when you say so kindly, the moment won’t turn into another fight.

It will turn into a moment that brings you closer together.

Because he knows what he didn’t before, and because he’s a good guy, he’s going to try hard to not hurt you.

And because you know that when you do feel hurt, it will be safe to tell him, and you can trust he will always have your best interests (and those of your future family) at heart.

Sometimes, he’ll disappoint you. And it will hurt. Maybe one day that pain will be replaced by gratitude for avoiding a toxic marriage.

But sometimes, he’ll surprise you. In a good way. Because he passed the Marriage Litmus Test.

Because you found the one for you.

And that’s where Happily Ever After — at least the real-life, non-fairytale version — begins.

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How to Determine Your Worth as a Person

Sotheby's art auction London

What’s it worth? Everyone gets to decide for themselves. Just like we do about ourselves. (Image/Art Market Monitor)

Let’s pretend I possess the world’s largest diamond collection.

Because diamonds have high market value, I would be “worth” a lot of money.

But why are diamonds valuable? They’re stones. Like the ones we skip across ponds or kick to the side of the trail.

Simple supply and demand, which I understood but didn’t actually get in high school economics class.

When many people want something not readily available, prices go up. “Value” goes up. It’s why there are empty seats at every Cleveland Indians regular season game, but you have to pay double or triple for standing-room only tickets for playoff games.

Diamonds are rocks. They’re extremely valuable as precious stones coveted by high-end jewelers and gem collectors. But they’re just rocks.

Just like paper money or treasury bonds or gold coins, diamonds aren’t worth anything during disasters or in a post-apocalyptic society. Diamonds are useful for looking pretty (and cutting things; but mostly just looking pretty).

Water, for example, is a much more useful substance than diamonds. Water provides life-sustaining support to plant and animal life. Our bodies are primarily composed of water. Water is fundamental to Life being a thing.

Without diamonds, everyone just buys ruby and emerald engagement rings.

Without water, everything dies and turns into a Sandbox of Horribleness.

Sometimes called the Diamond-Water Paradox, diamonds and water best demonstrate the contradiction of water having MUCH more usefulness and intrinsic value than diamonds, but most of us dump water out on the ground or down sink drains every day.

And diamonds are among our highest-valued financial possessions.

The Paradox of Value, it’s called.

So, you tell me: What has greater value? Diamonds or water?

Value—What Something is Worth—Is Purely Subjective

In other words, you get to decide.

Listen, water is totally more valuable than diamonds. Right? Right.

But if the Diamond Fairy and Water Fairy both show up at my house offering me a bucket of their finest offerings, I’m telling the Water Fairy to go kick rocks.

If I was dying of thirst in an ocean of desert sand, I’d probably make a different choice.

A longtime reader went through a recent break-up, she said in her email. She said it was the second break-up that ended with her walking away and feeling as if the guys weren’t fighting for her or their relationship.

That made her feel shitty.

She said this: “Please just tell me—am I worth something? I’m so lonely and sad. I ask myself, ‘What is wrong with me that I’m not being valued?’ It’s so hard.”

I get it.

I put on a pretty good show because I’m not the crying lame-ass I was four years ago when the sky was falling at home. Because I’m “healed” now, I probably seem less pathetic and “okay” to casual observers.

But when I realized what my wife was choosing over being married to me, and what she was sacrificing as far as her time with her son as part of that choice, I got to feel the full brunt of hardcore human rejection for the first time in life.

It blew ass.

And I’m still…recovering? Coping? Coming to terms with myself?

I don’t know.

I just know that I now understand what it looks and feels like to let other people influence how we feel about ourselves.

If she’s choosing THAT, how much can I really be worth?

Other People Don’t Get to Decide

I had a problem with this idea for most of my life.

And it’s not the first time I’ve written about it.

Because football is wildly popular, nationally televised, and generates billions of dollars in advertising, merchandise and ticket sales; I thought it was reasonable to tell my wife she was wrong when she preferred something else.

If she liked some derpy, cliché-riddled romantic comedy better than some spectacularly awesome movie I liked, I would use some metric to “prove” my favorite was more valuable than hers (if they contradicted each other), like the number of positive movie reviews or a big box-office haul.

Let me be clear—I wasn’t trying to “win.” I was trying to convince her to like all of the same things as me because it was super-inconvenient that we mostly didn’t like the same things, and I wanted to change that without me having to become an accomplished ballroom dancer or snow skier.

It didn’t work.

I’m not sure why, but I think it’s because people like different things, and telling someone their opinions and preferences are “wrong” generally doesn’t make people magically change all of their personal tastes.

But…Why?

The 4 Kinds of Value

There might be more variations. I don’t know.

But I believe it looks like this:

1. Intrinsic Value – the concept of something having worth “in itself” or “in its own right.”

I believe human beings have intrinsic value. When people have intrinsic value, we don’t rape, murder, steal, injure, defraud, defame, or otherwise harm them. As a general rule. So I think it’s a nice belief.

2. Market Value – a constantantly fluctuating metric based primarily on supply and demand.

3. Personal Value to Other People

4. Personal Value to Me

So…

What’s Your Worth?

If you believe what I believe, you have intrinsic value by virtue of being a living, breathing human being.

Your market value depends ENTIRELY on context. If you are the world’s best computer programmer, you’re going to be the coolest and most “valuable” person in the room at your next conference or hackathon, but maybe you suck at other things, like long-distance swim races, or building a deck, or training K-9 unit police dogs.

Your personal value to other people?

I care about what others think of me. More than I should. Even strangers. But when I get really intentional and thoughtful about it, I inevitably come to the conclusion that no one else’s opinions matter.

Some people eat cabbage and sauerkraut and canned spinach on purpose.

Some people think chocolate tastes bad.

Some people think ultra-tight skinny jeans look good on men.

If disagreeing with them is wrong, I don’t want to be right.

I can only conclude: If the concept of VALUE is purely subjective, then only an individual can determine her or his own worth; and others’ opinions (or possibly just what we mistakenly think they are) are unreliable and irrelevant data points in the equation.

I know it hurts when you break up.

I know it hurts when people you like don’t seem to like you back.

I know it hurts when people seem to value a relationship less than you.

But I also know that girlfriends, boyfriends, wives, husbands, friends, strangers nor anyone nor anything else on earth gets to decide what you’re worth.

What she’s worth.

What he’s worth.

What I’m worth.

You do.

I do.

Diamonds or water?

We decide.

I can’t tell you what to believe. But I can encourage you to decide that you matter, since your opinion is the only one that counts.

 

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She Divorced Me Because I Was Nicer to Strangers Than I Was to Her

couple fighting in public

(Image/Bao Moi)

I was usually nicer to strangers than I was to my wife.

People I didn’t know and would never see again. I treated them with patience, courtesy and politeness.

But the person who lived in the same house, gave birth to my son, and did more for me than anyone else? I often didn’t extend those same courtesies to her.

While I was oblivious to most of my missteps as a husband, I was fully aware of this—something I’ve noticed about myself from childhood: I sometimes treat total strangers better than the people I love most.

From age 5 on, I lived with my mom nine months out of the year. I lived with my dad, who lived hundreds of miles away, the other three months (school breaks).

I was observably nicer to my dad than my mom.

Throughout my relationship with my wife, she would point out instances when she felt I was being mean, or impatient, or thoughtless toward her, and that it hurt her feelings because as she was feeling that way, she could see me being kind, patient and thoughtful toward others, even strangers. She wondered why I couldn’t treat her that way, too.

My defense was always something like: “I LOVE you. I married you. Everything I have is yours,” arguing that should somehow earn me the benefit of the doubt.

I don’t know why I did that, felt that, or thought that.

I have a little boy in third grade who I love in ways I don’t know how to articulate. He’s my favorite everything.

But sometimes, I’m kind of a dick to him, and I hate it.

When he gets crumbs on the floor, or makes some mistake that is probably super-standard for little boys in third grade, or otherwise “fails” whatever expectations I have for him in a given moment, I sometimes respond with anger and a little harshness.

Sometimes I imagine if the last words I ever said to him were angry or prick-ish, and then I died in a car accident or something.

I almost feel like crying when I mentally put myself there.

I was nicer to other adults than I was to my parents.

I was nicer to other people than I was to my wife.

I was and am sometimes nicer to other children than I was or am to my son.

We know that we love the people we love. But the people we love only know we love them when they see, hear and feel evidence of that love. They don’t just psychically or magically feel good because of our thoughts and intentions.

When we are nicer to others than we are to them, they can begin to question whether we actually do love them.

I don’t know what that does to a parent when their child treats others better than them as I’m still in My Dad Can Do No Wrong Land, which will surely go away in the next couple of years. Not looking forward to finding out what that’s like.

Bad things happen to children who feel unloved and unaccepted by their parents.

And bad things happen to people who feel unloved, unwanted or rejected by their spouses.

All because we sometimes treat strangers better than people we love.

As Always, You’re Not the Only One

The term is “selfobject.” And you and I have “selfobject needs” and when these needs go unfulfilled, we lose our sense of self, feel shittier about our lives, treat ourselves and other people worse, and inadvertently damage all of our relationships, including our marriages.

Psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut figured this out and coined the term in the mid-twentieth century, and therapist F. Diane Barth illustrated it with examples from one of her married-couple clients in her excellent article “Why It’s Easier to be Kind to Strangers Than Our Partners” which I discovered by typing almost that exact phrase into Google.

“At some point in every relationship, partners, parents, siblings, friends, and even children provide psychological and emotional functions for us that we cannot provide for ourselves.”

Most people—even non-parents—can probably relate to married couple Bob and Ann.

The couple struggled for years to conceive a child.

When they finally did, they welcomed a colicky newborn into the world who cried nonstop every night for a long time.

The first thing that happened was all of the happy things they’d imagined in their heads about starting a family looked and felt quite different in real life. It was supposed to be amazing and feel good. But mostly it was exhausting and felt bad.

Bob and Ann both are stressing out, big-time.

Ann feels like a crappy mother.

Bob feels helpless but tries anyway by offering suggestions. The suggestions anger Ann. She cries and lets him know how much harder he’s making it on her.

He withdraws. She feels abandoned.

This is totally NOT how I thought this would go, they think.

Stress is hard on marriage and relationships even when the stress is good, like moving into a new house, taking a new job, or bringing a new child home.

“It is also common not to have compassion for one another during these times, even though it would seem that it would be exactly the most useful emotion in the moment,” Barth writes. “Why is it that we can be compassionate and kind to friends, relatives and even strangers in ways that we cannot muster for our loved ones?

“The answer is in part found in the meaning of compassion itself. One of the keys to compassion is empathy, which author and speaker Brené Brown defines as the ability to take another person’s perspective, to understand and appreciate what they are feeling. We expect our loved ones to do exactly this for us. Ann expected Bob to appreciate how badly she was feeling about herself as a mother, for instance. She also needed him to recognize how hard she was trying and to tell her that she was not a bad mother simply because her baby was not being soothed.

“But, as happens in relationships, Bob also had needs. In particular, he needed Ann to help him feel okay about himself as a partner. He needed to believe that she would know how to soothe their baby. And he desperately wanted her to let him know that they were going to be the family he had imagined they were.”

Kohut said people require “selfobject needs” to be met just like they need oxygen to breathe, from birth to death.

Kohut explained that humans use the RESPONSES of certain others—our romantic partners or parents or children or friends, etc.—to help us maintain a healthy, balanced, positive, stable sense of self.

In other words, we make those closest to us an actual part of ourselves, and those people provide important psychological and emotional functions for us that we can’t give ourselves.

We literally rely on loved-ones’ behavior to guide our beliefs about ourselves, and to know the person we believe ourselves to be and see in the mirror while brushing our teeth.

And when those others stop providing the responses we’re conditioned to expect, or that we grew accustomed to, we’re not really ourselves anymore. We stop being the person we thought we were.

And when people in marriages or romantic relationships of any kind become someone else, everything tends to break.

But you know that already.

Because it’s not just you. And it’s not just me. And that often makes us feel better to know we’re not in this alone.

But I don’t really feel that way about this, because it’s another in a LONG and distinguished list of things that cause divorce that WOULDN’T cause divorce if we were simply aware of it before it happened, or as it was happening.

I’m aware of many areas of my life that could use improvement. Sometimes, I take steps to make things better. Sometimes, I let bad habits continue to make my life worse and erode my relationships.

Even when I understand that my words and actions are accidentally hurting someone I love and care about, I still sometimes say or do those things thoughtlessly.

Maybe that will always be.

Or maybe some habits are simply harder to break, and I’ll get there one day.

I didn’t know how to make my wife feel loved.

I don’t know if I would know how to make her feel loved now.

I only know that a bunch of bad things happened because I was unaware of how my words and actions made her feel, and then everything got sick and died.

But you can’t treat an illness that you can’t diagnose.

And maybe now that we’ve identified it, we can do things better.

You deserve it.

And so do all the people who matter most.

If we can treat total strangers with kindness, using polite language and thoughtful action, I think we might be able to do the same for our spouses.

And since I don’t have one of those, I’m going to have to count on you find out.

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5 Sales and Writing Secrets That Could Save Your Marriage (and Make Your Relationships Thrive)

telling a secret

(Image/We Share Pics)

Couples struggle in relationships because they don’t know how to talk to each other.

There are other reasons. But that’s the biggest.

Maybe I’m the only one, but nuanced, intangible things like “feelings” and “communication” and “psychology” never pulled much weight with me growing up, or even in my 20s.

Feelings?! Those are for girls!

Communication?! What’s there to talk about?! Everyone is basically the same!

Psychology?! That’s pseudo-science! Can’t we talk about something that matters, like football or movies?!

Yes, I was/am an idiot.

Those very accurate (if ignorant) thoughts and internal monologues explain why I’m divorced.

It’s worth repeating: If your marriage is miserable and broken, the reason is because you don’t know how to talk to each other.

Sure, you both have personal and collective problems outside of the communication spectrum, but two people pulling in the same direction who understand how to exchange healthy and productive dialogue about them will actually grow closer while overcoming the hardships together.

The future of our closest and most-treasured, most-meaningful relationships depends on us figuring this out. I say “us,” because I’m totally in the boat, too. A lifetime of bad habits and emotional triggers can only be broken and reprogrammed with new, better habits and thoughtful situational response.

Maybe my professional life can be a source of inspiration.

If Words and Sales Techniques Influence People to Buy Things, Could They Also Affect Behavior in Relationships? 

“They may forget what you said — but they will never forget how you made them feel.” — Carl W. Buehner

From dating through our divorce, my wife and I were together for 12 years.

Maybe it’s because we’re creeping up on four years since our separation and my memory isn’t what it used to be, but I can’t remember the specific words, tone of voice, timing and circumstances of any of our verbal spats.

I can only remember how it felt.

I was angry. Confused. Frustrated. Arrogant. Defensive. Ashamed.

Like most couples, we mostly had the same fight over and over again. A few details change, but it’s always The Same Fight®, with the same themes and argument patterns.

The Same Fight doesn’t always scare you when it’s happening because you’re used to having it. But The Same Fight is what infects hearts, breaks couples and destroys families.

People pay attention to, and try to change or fix things that scare them. Have you heard or lived the story of the husband who seems disengaged from his wife and marriage, but has a complete meltdown and goes into desperate Super-Husband Mode after his wife says she wants a divorce, causing “WTF???” reactions from a wife who felt ignored, unwanted and unloved for years?

That’s what I’m talking about.

Those men fighting for their marriages and families when it’s too little, too late are guys who would have made different choices all along had they only FELT what they now feel in their frightened desperation.

It’s the marketing and advertising industry’s most potent weapon — human emotion.

Coca-Cola is the world’s most recognized brand and, I believe, the top-selling beverage in every country on Earth where it’s sold except Scotland (where I believe it’s #2). Coke is last on the list of companies that need more brand awareness. Yet they spend a kajillion dollars every year on people-oriented or “feely” marketing campaigns and advertisements because they want people to feel good when they think about, or drink, Coke.

And this is a company selling a product that’s not particularly good for us.

I think maybe we should try to be more like Coke in our relationships, except what we are offering IS actually good for people. With due respect to the fine people at Coca-Cola, strong relationships and stable, cohesive families actually will change the world.

“But, Matt!!! Advertising and marketing stuff doesn’t work on me!!!”

Right. I used to believe that, too.

And maybe it’s true. I can’t prove nor promise that certain word choices will influence an individual person to take a desired action. But I CAN prove and promise that certain word choices influence people.

When I’m not blogging about what a shitty husband I was, I’m writing marketing content designed to influence people to buy or sign up for something. I see a lot of data. I read a lot about strategy for improving results.

And yesterday, for the first time, I asked myself the question: Couldn’t these ideas just as easily apply to our interpersonal relationships?

5 Sales and Marketing Tricks You Can Use to Improve Communication with Relationship Partners (and Everyone Else)

1. Pay Attention to Timing

It’s hard to sell Christmas gifts in April. It’s hard to sell swimwear to cold-weather residents during winter. It’s often impossible to sell things during a crisis.

For example, Sept. 12, 2001 was probably a bad day to launch a new mattress and bedding sale in New York City.

But more subtle than that in the marketing world is time-of-day engagement metrics for things like email open rates or social media posts and ads.

MANY more people will open an email at 9 a.m. Monday than at 4:30 p.m. on Friday, just as many more people will see and engage with a Facebook post or advertisement at lunchtime or 7 p.m. on a weeknight than most other times (though it varies by demographic – young people stay up longer, for example).

All that to say: Maybe dumping criticisms or complaints on people during their busy workdays, or making requests or demands of others right when they walk in the door from a long day at work or at home with small children (and we have no idea what they’ve been through) isn’t the most effective timing nor best idea.

2. Chemistry is NOT Pseudo-Science. Smile and Hug More.

I’m not a biologist or any other kind of doctor, but I’ve read about dopamine enough to know it’s one of, if not the, most influential chemical our body produces to give us feelings of happiness.

Smiling is measurably the highest positive emotional gesture we make. It makes others AND ourselves feel better. And it’s a non-verbal cue which connects us to others and signals that we mean them no harm.

Additionally, HUG. For at least SIX SECONDS. Not strangers, necessarily because that might be weird. But your spouse, for sure. After six seconds, the body releases all of these excellent chemicals, including dopamine, which makes everyone’s lives better.

You might not feel like smiling or hugging. You also might not feel like brushing your teeth, or going to the doctor, or replacing your vehicle’s tires. But you do it because it’s important.

Smiling and hugging (and the chemicals they release) are IMPORTANT.

Side note: When you are text-messaging, non-verbal cues AND tone of voice are absent. Stop discussing important things via text. Pick up the phone, or save the important stuff for later.

3. Use the Right Words

Effective marketing and sales copy is customer-focused. It either educates or entertains. Customers DO NOT care about companies. Customers care about how companies’ products and services can solve their problems or otherwise improve their lives.

A thoughtful copywriter always asks: “How does this make you feel?” rather than “Which message do you want to send?”

Specific word choice matters.

You, Because, Free, Instantly and New are the five most-persuasive words in the English language, according to data analysis of advertising and marketing copy. Using those words has a measureable impact on the number of people who will open an email or click something online.

What words have a positive impact on your partner?

What words have a negative impact on them?

Don’t know? Ask. Or pay attention to what words (and actions) soothe them or make them happy, as well as those that upset them. Keep track! Talk about them!

How is it that I know which words will help me improve my email marketing campaigns, but don’t know which specific words made my wife hurt or feel good?

No need to overthink that one. I was an asshole.

4. Talk No Longer Than 30 Seconds at a Time During Conversation

Brevity is critical in marketing. And while I’m decent executing it as a marketer, I’m fairly horrible in conversation (and writing blog posts, *ahem*).

I am the KING of the never-ending monologue because of the way my brain processes new ideas and keeps triggering new thoughts while I’m talking, but also because my dad used to monologue-lecture me. I can remember ALL of the things I did which earned the lectures, but none of the lessons dad tried to teach me.

I used to use a lot of words while trying to convince my wife she was wrong to be mad at me or on the wrong side of an argument.

Pro Tip: That shit doesn’t work.

“Sometimes we speak beyond what someone is able to listen to. What the research shows is that the human brain can really only hold on to four things at a time, so if you go on and on for five or 10 minutes trying to argue a point, the person will only remember a very small part of that,” said neurologist Andrew Newberg, co-author of “Words Can Change Your Brain.” “We developed compassionate communication with the idea of having several goals, and one of them is to speak briefly, meaning that you speak one or two sentences, maybe 30 seconds worth or so, because that’s really what the human brain can take in and absorb.”

5. Make three positive comments for every negative statement

Newberg’s research also suggests that negative arguments have a very detrimental effect to our brain. We need to pay particular attention to not let them take over and work against them by using the 3-to-1 ratio:

“When you get into a dialogue with somebody to discuss any particular issue, a three-to-one ratio is a relatively good benchmark to think about; you wind up creating the opportunity for a more constructive dialogue and hopefully a better resolution,” Newberg said.

In marketing, positive messages work better when consumers have time to ponder purchase decisions. (Your partner totally has time to ponder.)

And negative marketing messages work better when there are deadlines because people generally demonstrate a fear of missing out and want to avoid negative outcomes.

Both positive AND negative statements should be used in our personal relationships to communicate thoughts and feelings.

But, for best results, we must counterbalance the fear- and anxiety-producing ones by using much more positive and hope-inspiring words.

Less hate. More love.

Less anger. More forgiveness.

Less stress and anxiety. More peace.

No tricks or scams. No lies or deception. Just authentic, thoughtful word choice and message delivery.

What we say, where we say it, when we say it, why we say it, and how we say it all dictates whether our messages are heard, understood, and properly digested.

Though our behavior often suggests otherwise, our closest relationships are the most precious and important things in life.

Sales and marketing people. Writers. They’re not for everyone.

But in the realm of HOW to communicate effectively — maybe doing things as they do would go a long way toward inspiring change in the feelings and behaviors of the people we live and work with.

Of the people we love.

Only one way to find out.

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What Screws Us Up Most in Life

Little girl looking into a telescope in the mountains

Maybe she’d be super-into space. (Image/Telescope Guide)

There’s at least one missing child. A beautiful little thing I would love intensely. Maybe this would be the first holidays where she was old enough to be excited about a visit from Santa. Maybe she looks like her mom.

Of course, maybe she’s not a girl at all. Maybe my third grader has a little brother instead. Three little boys, even if one of us is disguised as an almost-40-year-old.

The house is different. The plan was to move.

Thanksgiving and Christmas Day plans are different too. What was supposed to be busy and filled with family will be something else.

Maybe my imaginary daughter or son would have just been disappointed anyway.

I always had an idea in my head about what Life would look like. It never occurred to me it would be anything but that. But then Real Life happened.

We’d always talked about two kids. But after abandoning my wife in the hospital five hours after she delivered our son via emergency C-section, and then leaving the creation and management of baby logistics to her throughout most of our first year as parents, I think I sapped her desire to go through anything like that again.

I once asked her if I was the reason she chose not to have more children.

She said yes.

‘What screws us up most in life is the picture in our head of how it’s supposed to be.’

I read that yesterday in MBTTTR commenter Drew’s excellent blog post about marital affairs.

This is a Life Thing I had picked up on when I was still young. I always said: “Expectations are everything.”

And what I mean by that is, my enjoyment or disappointment in something—or rather, my initial perception of something’s quality—was based entirely on my expectations prior to the experience.

Things like movies and books taught me this.

I can go to the theater to see two movies of approximately equal quality, say Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and Avatar; or I can listen to two new albums for the first time—say AWOLNATION’s Run and Brian Fallon’s Painkillers—and my feelings about all of them are predicated entirely on what I thought heading in.

I thought Avatar was going to be the greatest achievement in cinematic history. It didn’t achieve that for me. The Force Awakens met my expectations entirely. Both movies, in my estimation, are of equal quality, but I like Force Awakens quite a bit more, and I think that’s why.

Same with AWOL and Brian Fallon. I expected to like the AWOL album. And I did.

I didn’t have any expectations whatsoever for Brian Fallon (front man for The Gaslight Anthem). And that album kicks ass. I don’t know whether I think it’s better than AWOL’s or not. But BECAUSE it was an out-of-nowhere pleasant surprise for me, I have a major fondness for it.

Maybe everyone does this.

Maybe I’m a little extreme. Or maybe some people are much better at accurately predicting their emotional responses to things, and maybe those people have much happier and healthier relationships and lives as a result.

I only know that pretty much all of my life experiences are impacted greatly by whether Real Life meets, exceeds, or falls short of, my prior expectations.

This has implications for my human relationships I’ve yet to wrap my head around.

This Isn’t Where I Thought I’d Be

Divorce changed everything.

That’s a MAJOR reset-button push when you don’t see it coming, or are in denial about its inevitability once a certain amount of breakage and ugliness has poisoned the marriage.

Everything in the very beginning is a blur.

When everything is broken on the inside of you, the world looks skewed and it’s impossible to tell whether what you’re seeing is wrong because it’s actually wrong, or because your brain’s Reality Calibration is busted.

I had just turned 34 when Everything became Something Else.

After a lifetime of companionship and/or reliable care from loving and responsible adults, I woke up to silence and a reflection in the mirror I hardly recognized.

Everything felt unsteady and out of balance, and even now, I can’t be sure how much of that to attribute to the psychological and emotional trauma of ending a nine-year marriage and losing half of my son’s childhood, and how much was simply the radical change in environment.

Where there used to be a person making noise in the house—Being a mom. Eating dinner with me. Talking on the phone. Watching TV. Walking around.

Where there used to be life and conversation and full calendars and partnership and the pitter-pattering of little feet and the stability and reliability and comfort that comes from waking up to This Is Normal And Right… there was nothing.

A void.

I was obsessed with dating at first. Not actually doing it, per se because I wasn’t very good at it and it all felt so, just, off. Wrong.

But at age 34 the ticking clock was louder than I’d realized. And I felt like filling the new void in my life quickly should be a priority.

After all, I was clearly the kind of guy who got married and lived that kind of life. Which meant, I faced the monumental task of finding someone who fit what is probably an impossible list of criteria, that I then loved along with any children she might have, and was loved by her (as would my son be), and felt secure enough in all of that to get married again.

When you’ve never been single and divorced before, it’s easy to imagine that happening in a three- to five-year window (which I did).

But then Real Life happened.

The clock ticks.

The calendar pages flip.

The seasons change.

You mark another line higher on the wall where you measure your child’s height.

You tell him to put on a pair of pants only to discover they no longer fit.

One Christmas turns into two, and then three with a fourth fast-approaching.

And then you wake up, and it’s today.

Divorced and Single Four Holiday Seasons Later

There was a part of me during the early days of this blog that believed I’d eventually have a relationship to tell you about.

Not all the nitty-gritty. I keep too much private for that.

But at least a birds-eye view of giving Round 2 a genuine shot while armed with what I believe I’ve learned about life and love and relationships. I thought maybe that would help people. I thought maybe that would help me.

But that’s not where things are.

That’s not Real Life.

In actuality, I’m just a guy who read a crap-ton of New Zealand travel guides so I can tell you all about the country, but I’ve never actually forked over the money nor invested the time to experience it myself.

(That was a metaphor. I haven’t actually read a bunch of New Zealand travel guides.)

But I’m not even sure that’s right.

That suggests fear. And I’m not afraid.

I guess I feel more like the tired old man coaching basketball (even though I certainly don’t think of myself as a “coach,” or that I’m qualified to instruct others in any way). I know what good basketball is supposed to look like, but am not inclined to get back out on the floor to play in any games.

Maybe I feel too tired. Or too old. Or too busy.

I don’t know.

I also don’t know whether to feel good, bad or indifferent about it.

As in all things, there’s some good and some bad.

But I’m learning to have fewer expectations. Less disappointment, you know? Maybe less joy, too.

I wouldn’t know.

I’m trying to remember what my daughter’s name would have been. The one I never had.

Julianne? Julie Anne? A J-name that stopped mattering the second I held my son.

Or did it?

I think about that little girl a lot. The one who never was.

And the family that isn’t. The one I used to know. And the one I’d imagined with them. And the one I was forced to imagine for a reimagined world.

But I wish I would stop. Because in The Way Things Are vs. The Way They Should Be, I’m not sure we’re always smart enough to know the difference.

And with these little ones involved, real or imagined, how much can we afford to get disillusioned by reality falling short of what we’d expected or hoped for?

Thank God she didn’t die after birth or from miscarriage.

Or that she didn’t fall ill.

Or that she never ran away or went missing.

Or that the courts never said I couldn’t see her.

Or that her family never lost her precious life.

Or that my son never lost his little sister.

And that we never had to sob over that too.

Maybe I don’t make it to today, had that not been the case.

But there’s still a bit of tragedy in Never Was.

And I can’t help but wonder sometimes about an alternative life where I chose other options and turned to different Choose Your Own Adventure pages with entirely different outcomes.

Because that would have been cute, right? Watching the Thanksgiving Day parade? Showing her massive balloons? Reminding my eldest to be kind to his sister? Putting up the Christmas tree and watching her face as we plugged in the lights for the first time?

I’d have liked that, even if the real-life version would have gone an entirely different way.

I’d have especially liked the part where I told her about that first night in the hospital where I stayed awake all night holding her so mommy could sleep.

Many years later, we’d teach older children how things that seem innocuous in a moment can redefine everything in the future.

We’d talk about having expectations. About the bad. And the good.

About regrets. And triumphs.

About fear. And hope.

We’d all show up, and just be.

Because that’s everything, really. Showing up. Being present. And being invested.

The reason my life is as it is today is virtually 100% because I failed to show up because I was too ignorant to know I was supposed to, too irresponsible to actually do it, or too selfish to actually want to.

It’s not always Life and Death, but maybe just Life and Never Was.

But sometimes, it’s hard to tell the difference.

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Can Male Attractiveness and Good Husbandry Coexist?

black father and son

Does this guy automatically stop being attractive to his wife because he proves reliable and safe during their marriage? (Image/Breaking Brown)

When I was a kid, I liked big two-story houses with full basements better than other home designs.

Three stories of living space seemed better than just one. Having a basement seemed better than not having one.

Thirty years later, I’ve spent several thousands of dollars on waterproofing a basement, and walking up and down two flights of stairs to take laundry to and from my laundry room to the second-floor bedrooms. And I’ve also spent time in coastal Florida, witnessing the many benefits of one-story, ranch-style living.

Now I’m less certain which style of home I prefer.

I’ve long known that, with virtually every choice we make, we are sacrificing something to acquire another thing. There’s always a tradeoff.

But I didn’t always know how little true objectivity existed in the world. Even the most intelligent and skilled among us committed to the idea of measuring things objectively can’t really do it.

The closest we can come is to say that A is better than B when judged or measured by (insert metric of choice here). But that baseline metric? Even THAT was created by the subjective judgment of people along the way.

It can be a little headache-inducing if you travel too far down the rabbit hole, but I think this phenomenal (subjective!) answer on Quora does an amazing job of breaking it down.

What’s better?

Chocolate or vanilla?

Country or rap music?

Biggie or Pac?

Butter or margarine?

Winter or summer?

The color green or the color purple?

Some people like pulp in their orange juice while others do not. Some people like eating escargot while others do not. Some people like to be defecated on during sex. Neat. Sounds not-awesome to me. I can only assume most people prefer not being, um, dumped on.

In life and love, many things are subjective. Attractiveness—sexual or otherwise—is subjective.

We forget constantly that our personal experiences and worldviews are not Absolute Truth for everyone else, because to us, we have to use our imaginations (which are totally unreliable tools for predicting things) to try to put ourselves in the circumstances and mindset of others.

On the whole, humans are pretty shitty at doing that as demonstrated by the politics-related unrest happening today, and also by all 794 kajillion instances of human arguments/fights/wars/breakups/abuses/crimes/attacks that happened in the past five seconds.

All of that to say: Attraction is a subjective metric.

But despite its subjectivity, there’s evidence that some physical, behavioral and status-related traits in men are commonly considered more attractive to women than others.

A discussion took place yesterday in the comments of my last post and got me thinking about what I perceive to make a man more attractive to women in general, acknowledging there’s no accounting for individual tastes.

The Optimized Man

“I disagree with the premise that women go seeking other women because men don’t provide the things we need. The more sensitive, the more feminine a man becomes the less attractive he is,” insanitybytes said.

Human conversation, especially typewritten, can be funny. A single sentence can be interpreted several ways by different people.

I spend A LOT of time on this blog talking about how I believe men have to make MAJOR strides toward understanding why their wives are unhappy in their marriages, and then altering their behavior accordingly, if marriage is to ever return to a place where every wedding guest doesn’t secretly wonder: Are they going to be among the half who don’t make it?

Here’s something I’ve never felt, thought or said.

I’ve NEVER said that men should be more feminine. (Which—let’s be honest—is also a subjective qualification.)

From a personality standpoint, one might say that men and women should try their best to be most like whatever they were at the height of their mutual attraction.

I do not want men to change who they are. Every human has an equal amount of inherent value. I don’t have a lot of love for murderers, rapists, terrorists, hate groups, child molesters, etc., but—ideally—everyone who doesn’t present a clear and present danger to others would be recognized for their inherent value, and not put on a pedestal nor rejected based on each of our arbitrary standards.

But whatever. We’re all just a bunch of people with our own set of arbitrary standards, and when you line them all up next to each other, you can find patterns.

As a digital marketing professional, I know from very large data samples that certain people will behave on the internet in certain ways—whether that be responding to an email subject line, or clicking a link, or ordering a product.

As a random dude writing about relationship stuff, I THINK I know from personal and anecdotal evidence that most women commonly find certain male traits or behaviors attractive.

The Physically Attractive Man

  • is tall
  • has a symmetrical face
  • has a body-fat percentage around 12% (meaning you can be lean or stocky or somewhere in the middle, so long as your muscle-to-body fat ratio isn’t too far off whatever your 12% looks like)
  • wears clothes that fit (also a status cue)
  • has a deep voice

The Behaviorally Attractive Man

  • passionately pursues his personal goals
  • has a healthy and active social life where people are drawn to him
  • demonstrates confidence in the majority of life situations
  • showcases follow-through; his actions match his words
  • possesses leadership qualities
  • pursues physical health and fitness
  • has a sense of humor

The Status-Based Attractive Man

  • has the financial resources to acquire or experience the things people value, OR demonstrates the intellectual capacity to achieve it in the future
  • has a high-status position among friends, or at work, or in whatever groups or organizations he’s involved with

I’m sure I’m forgetting several. But really, it’s a silly exercise.

A sensitive, reliable, eager-beaver husband type may bore the hell out of many young, single women, but seem like a breath of fresh air to someone suffering at the hands of an aggressive and abusive dickhead.

But I don’t think we should confuse reliable, loyal or sensitive traits as feminine any more than we then we should consider promiscuity and betrayal as masculine ones.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. In all things.

And I believe that many traits we generically and thoughtlessly label “masculine” are considered attractive by the general female population.

I think men (if appealing to women is a value they possess) should aspire to demonstrate as many of these attractive “masculine” traits as possible, and develop healthy self-acceptance and confidence surrounding any that his genetics prevent him from having.

But there’s a second component to all this, and I think it’s important.

Marriage.

The Attractive Married Man

I can only conclude that a married woman is attracted to the man she chooses to marry. However her personal ranking and value system works that out.

Our conversations about marriage here are not about people who marry for what I consider atypical reasons (money or young trophy wives or citizenship or cultural arrangements).

Our conversations here are about MOST people. The 80-90 percent who get married with the intention of having a committed partnership and/or family that lasts their lifetime.

How does THAT guy remain attractive to his wife in the face of her natural biological urges and the unfortunate realities of hedonic adaptation?

I think the baseline characteristics listed above should be pursued and maintained for life. Those things = attractiveness.

But a person can possess all of those things and become unattractive to someone if they represent any kind of threat to them, their children, or general wellbeing. It happens when a person brings harm to another.

People we consider beautiful literally STOP being attractive to us for many reasons, but I think Making Us Feel Shitty is probably No. 1 on that list.

And mislabeling behaviors like:

  • Listening to our spouse
  • Empathy for their pain
  • Respect for their thoughts and opinions
  • Helping with housework and parenting tasks even if our fathers and grandfathers didn’t
  • Occasionally choosing to invest time in our spouse’s interests over our own for the sake of togetherness…

Well. I guess I believe it perpetuates the Man Card problem that got us here in the first place.

A man should be strong. In all the ways.

A man should pursue “success.” However he defines it.

A man should be confident.

A man should lead.

A man should pursue good health.

A man SHOULD be “manly” in whatever ways his genetic makeup allows.

I have never, and will never, say that men should be more feminine in an effort to make their wives happy or succeed in their marriages. And I never will.

But most men simply do not know about the things they do thoughtlessly that cause significant emotional damage to their wives.

We can argue all day about whether women SHOULD be hurt by whatever those actions might be, and whether women should be equally responsible for adjusting their reactions to particular behaviors.

But the reality is that common male behaviors HURT wives.

Hurt wives become unattracted to their husbands. Unattracted wives’ behavior makes husbands unattracted to their wives.

And that’s when all the marriage-breaking shit happens. While everyone is all emotionally beat up and messy and volatile and imbalanced and without the support of the person they’ve long relied on and felt closest to.

Dudes acting “girly” won’t fix it. If this blog conveys emasculating men, then I’ve done a shitty job of writing it, or people have done a shitty job of interpreting it.

Perhaps a bit of both.

Men are men. Women are women. They often like one another and exchange I-Promise-To-Love-You-Forever Vows and make children together.

And so long as this human song and dance continues to happen, I think it’s in the world’s best interest that we make it as successful as possible.

A bunch of “Nancy-boy sissies” won’t help anything.

But a bunch of attractive men learning how to meet the emotional needs of their wives and avoiding the relationship spiral which results when men do not?

Like the people we’re attracted to, and the stuff that makes us attractive to them, I think that’s a world worth pursuing.

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