Tag Archives: Dating

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

relationship algebra

(Image/Redbubble)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Many of you have heard all of this before.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was always missing the point.

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

It’s that I NEVER CONSIDERED HER AT ALL.

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

THAT is what hurt.

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

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

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

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

How dare I deny her that.

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

How Do You Feel When It’s 65 Degrees?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe you can ask them.

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

Only one way to find out.

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

(Image/John Lewis)

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

You feel a little flutter of anxiety.

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

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

Shock. Disbelief. Disoriented.

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

You hang up the phone.

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

Minutes go by. Maybe hours.

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

I can’t believe they’re gone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s one way to handle it.

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

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

The Monster Under the Bed Theory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We get to choose.

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

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

The alternative?

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

Love is a choice.

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

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

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

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

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Break Toxic Communication Habits with The STFU Method

STFU patch

(Image/The Cheap Place)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They enter this relationship voluntarily.

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

Where the Black Magic Happens

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

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

Sharing ideas. Emotions. Beliefs. Opinions.

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

Everyone is usually telling the truth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He retreats to reset.

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

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

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

The STFU Method for Connecting with Your Partner

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

I lived exactly that. Exactly.

So I know what he means.

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

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

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

I get that.

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

Nope.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I did neither of those things.

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

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

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

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

They don’t see the pain.

But they must. It’s the only way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When the People You Love Ask You for Help

That’s what this is most of the time.

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

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

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

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

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

Sad. Embarrassed. Angry. Anxious. Afraid.

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

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

Stop making it about you. Make it about them.

Comfort them. Reassure them. Support them.

Love them.

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

Shut the fuck up.

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What Being Drugged and Robbed Taught Me About Rape Culture

rape drug roofie - newsbeezer

(Image/newbeezer.com)

I’d only been conscious for a half-hour or so, and I was fighting tears because as a general rule, I don’t cry in front of my friends unless things are very, very bad.

This was close. Maybe just one ‘very.’

But one of my first and most potent thoughts was the realization that this is what women have to be mentally and emotionally vigilant against ALL THE TIME, and I’d been privileged to live more than 40 years without giving it a second thought.

Again, I can’t prove I was drugged. But it’s a theory everyone, including the police detective, seems comfortable accepting since it’s unusual for lucid people to hand over their ATM cards and mobile phones to strangers and tell them every passcode and PIN number necessary to extract and transfer the maximum amount of money.

I guess I’ll just ask you to take my word for it that I didn’t intentionally lose track of five hours, nor did I volunteer my phone and wallet to strangers.

If I couldn’t demonstrate that the theft occurred, I’d just be another asshole who lost all of his stuff after a late night in Las Vegas.

“So, you’re saying that you were out drinking with friends, and the next thing you remember is waking up in the stairwell of YOUR hotel with no shoes, no phone, and no wallet? Are you surrrrrre you didn’t just misplace your things, silly? How much did you have to drink? Can you explain who might have wanted to drug you? Can you tell me ANYTHING about the people you claim did this to you?”

These are all fair questions, objectively speaking.

My “saving grace,” if you will, is that people I don’t like very much took all of my money, and I can prove it. It lends credibility to my story.

But what about the thousands—perhaps millions—of women who have this EXACT same story, except instead of being a target for financial theft, some monster used a drug to effectively take away her free will, and then take things away from her that can’t be replaced like my stupid phone, money, and driver’s license can be?

One of the three friends I was with is a super-pretty woman about 10 or so years younger than me.

I kept thinking and saying: Thank God it was me and not her. 

I was shaken by the incident. I’m not inclined to minimize it because I know how heavy it felt for a minute, but I was honestly back to normal more or less one week later.

When women (or men) are physically violated, they lose things that can’t be put back together in a week, or ever.

I was embarrassed about this. I am embarrassed about this.

Because let’s be real. If I’m stone-cold sober instead of living it up at The Golden Nugget, this probably doesn’t happen.

And I’m reminded that women sometimes blame themselves, or are victim-blamed by investigators, attorneys, or people they turned to for support after enduring an unimaginable horror.

“So you were wearing a low-cut cocktail dress and heels? Not exactly the image of purity, is it?”

“Oh, you agreed to go to a bedroom with him, but you DIDN’T agree to have sex with him? Hmmmm.”

“So you were drinking alcohol and now you’re saying your memories are fuzzy so someone had to have drugged you? Tell me again how much you had to drink before this alleged ‘drugging’ occurred.”

I used to wonder why a large percentage of rape victims reportedly never file a police report.

I don’t wonder about that anymore.

The #1 Lesson I Learned From Being Drugged and Robbed

The most important takeaway from this incident has nothing to do with me. I’ll certainly be more careful in the future when I’m out in similar environments.

It’s now much easier to understand why some women (especially when alone) are standoff-ish or cold when strange men try to strike up conversations with them at a bar or store or wherever.

You don’t have to look hard to find stories from ego-wounded men who felt mistreated and rejected by a woman he was attracted to, interested in, and worked up the courage to talk to.

Those stories help fuel the so-called Men’s Rights movement. Of these “bitchy,” “judgy,” “self-righteous,” “stuck-up,” women who reject the well-intentioned advances of men who wanted to talk to them or buy them a drink.

Maybe some of these women are actually mean. It’s not awesome to be mean, but it’s a choice. A legal one.

But what if they’re not? What if what we’re interpreting as ‘mean,’ is something else?

One of the most important skills we can have as humans—particularly in our closest interpersonal relationships—is the ability to identify and understand the OTHER true versions of the story we just experienced.

Is that an insanely reckless and inconsiderate asshole weaving in and out of traffic, endangering everyone around him with no regard for others?

Or is he rushing his deathly ill child, or pregnant wife who has gone into labor to the nearest hospital?

Context always, always, always shifts the perspective or prism through which we look at things. Context provides understanding. It provides accurate interpretation and meaning.

Simple context can make an extremely painful incident something that doesn’t hurt at all.

Ohhhhhhh. THAT is why they did that! I would have done the exact same thing if I was in the same situation. I wish I wouldn’t have jumped to conclusions and felt so bad about that. I wish I would have asked better questions before thoughtlessly reacting.

These are the ideas my clients and I discuss regularly in our coaching calls.

These are the ideas that help different individuals, different political groups, different religious denominations, different races, different cultures, and people practicing different lifestyles co-exist without being insufferable cocks that no one likes to one another.

Life, once again, has gifted me with an evolved perspective. With a more accurate lens through which to view social interactions from both my point-of-view, and others’.

I’m grateful to be alive.

I’m grateful for the short turnaround time recovering from an extremely troubling incident.

And I’m grateful for the opportunity to once again grow into a wiser more-evolved person with a greater sense of empathy and understanding for a scary thing that millions of women, and surely a lot of men too, have suffered through, and that I’ve been largely blind to, because I had the unearned luxury of being so.

Here’s to fighting the fights that need fought.

And to supporting those fighting those fights. Publicly and loudly.

And privately, silently, from the shadows.

Much love to all.

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How to Respond to Your Emotional Spouse Without Making Things Worse

mirroring and building rapport with others

(Image/cristianobaraghini.it)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Emotional Intelligence Litmus Test

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Imagine it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The winning players, coaches, and fans are happy.

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

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

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

Same event. Different reactions.

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

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

Our relationship problems are subtle. Nuanced.

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

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

Good news: We can do hard things.

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Must Women Leave Men to Get Them to Change?

Learning the hard way flowchart (Image/David Colarusso)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Answer is Not Either Or

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

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

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

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

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

I didn’t have me to talk to.

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

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

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

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

The Right Words, the Right Way, the Right Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Would You Have Changed if She Had Not Left You?

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

But I can’t be sure that’s true.

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

You can’t know what you don’t know.

I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

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

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

It’s a choice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moving Toward Each Other vs. Moving Away From Each Other

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

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

A visual aid:

I <——> I

Connected.

A month later.

I <————————————> I

Drifted apart a little.

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

I <–> I

Boom.

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

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

On the brink.

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

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

Doing nothing is a death sentence.

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

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

This is why six-second hugs are significant.

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

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

His mother was very disappointed in his word choices.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forget to hug.

Forget to nurture.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love is a choice.

Please choose it.

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How the Color Purple is Harming Your Relationships

(Image/Science)

Pop quiz: If your relationship problems are decreasing mathematically and your romantic partner is observably adjusting his or her behavior in an honest attempt to connect with you emotionally, but your brain and subsequent emotions are telling you otherwise, is your relationship actually improving?

But Matt! What a silly question! If my partner were lovingly changing their behavior for my benefit and the benefit of our relationship, my mind and heart would NEVER tell me otherwise!

Awww. It’s cute because I would have totally said that too before learning about the Blue Dot Effect.

It occurred to me only after learning about the Blue Dot Effect that sometimes it doesn’t matter whether there is objective, measurable improvement. Our brains will sometimes invent new negatives to replace the ones that went away.

Simply put: Even though the world is measurably the best it’s ever been (longest life expectancy, best health care, most material wealth, most educated, most freedoms, most mobile, most access to information in human history), everyone feels shitty and complains to each other about it on social media when they’re not too busy bragging about the awesome new thing they just acquired or did to earn street cred with all of the people they went to high school with.

It’s largely the premise of Mark Manson’s new book Everything is F*cked: A Book About Hope. (It’s good.) Manson is among my favorite writers because he tries to do what I try to do, only more effectively and his focus extends beyond romantic relationships.

What is the Blue Dot Effect?

It was Manson’s book which introduced me to the Blue Dot Effect, but writer Sam Brinson had written about it a year ago not long after a group of scientists published their findings on “Prevalence-induced concept change in human judgment” in the June 19, 2018 issue of Science.

The conclusion of the study was simple: When humans are on the lookout for something, like bad behavior or threats, when instances of that bad behavior or those threats lessen, people will expand their definition of “bad behavior” or “threats” to include things they wouldn’t have previously.

From Brinson’s Medium article “The Psychology of Finding What You’re Looking For”:

“The researchers ran several experiments, most of which involved participants identifying blue dots from a series that ranged in color from ‘very blue’ to ‘very purple.’ After some time, the number of blue dots would reduce, and the participants would react by selecting as blue dots those they had previously considered purple — their category of ‘blue’ expanded as the number of examples of blue decreased.”

Brinson continues:

“In further experiments, the researchers found the same effect when participants had to identify aggressive faces from a group that ranged from ‘very threatening’ to ‘not very threatening,’ and again when separating unethical research proposals from ethical ones.

“When increasing the number of blue dots instead of reducing them, the effect reverses — what had previously counted as blue suddenly gets left out. What’s more, the researchers also found the effect to occur when people were told they were doing it, and even when those people were paid to not fall into the trap.”

Important note, Brinson points out:

“This experiment seems to prove that we are incapable of making our concepts rigid, and must give in to ebbing and flowing. It should be noted, however, that this effect occurred when people were looking for instances of the concept — the blue category expanded as people sought to find blue dots, neutral faces became threatening when people were on a mission to find threatening faces.

“People in normal circumstances, who aren’t actively looking to label certain things, might not be as susceptible to the same concept shifts. If I remain indifferent to acts of aggression and acts of kindness, even if the frequency of either act changes, will I be more likely to recognize that change or to alter my definition?”

What This Means for Your Relationships

What this means is, if you’ve identified a pattern of behavior in your relationship partner that you don’t like—like a wife who feels disrespected and unloved because of an incomplete house chore or display of forgetfulness from her husband; or like a husband who feels disrespected and unloved because he perceives EVERY attempt by his wife to communicate with him about her feelings as an unprovoked and unfair attack on his character—you’re likely to find instances of your husband/wife/boyfriend/girlfriend doing the same old bullshit things they always did even if they are legitimately doing things ‘better’ per previous conversations and agreements between the two of you.

And it’s not always because your partner is a huge, selfish asshole who will never change.

Sometimes, it’s simply because things you used to be cool with are now things you’ve labeled unacceptable. Things that were once benign are now painful. Things that were once just humans being humans are now relationship killers.

This tendency to find negatives even when things are improving around us is NOT a weapon for narcissists to wield in another mind-game argument where they invalidate their partner’s expressed feelings and try to convince them that the things they think and feel aren’t real.

It’s merely another opportunity for self-reflection and personal growth. An opportunity to check your own biases and bullshit at the door.

Human behavior is messy. Human emotion and mental health is messy.

It’s HARD to be an adult.

And that’s why finding someone to walk side-by-side with for the rest of our lives is such a beautiful thing. Sometimes we need to be lifted up. Sometimes we need to be reminded that we’re not the only ones who are afraid or unsure of what to do next. Sometimes we need to be forgiven.

The people who promised to love us, and who we promised to love in return, deserve our best. They deserve our most generous thoughts and assumptions. They deserve our most humble and compassionate responses. They deserve our focus and energy and effort to remind them that we’ve got their back.

That they are respected, appreciated, and cherished.

That they are good enough, honored, and supported.

Sometimes, they show up as purple dots and we should lovingly and compassionately remind them they’re kind of being dicks when they do.

Other times, the people who promised to love us forever are showing up as blue dots, and because we are imperfect creatures, we think that dot is purple. We’re LOOKING FOR purple. And we treat those purple-dotting sonsofbitches accordingly.

But really, that dot is blue. Our person showed up just as they’d promised. It feels like they failed us, but really we’re failing them.

And we don’t have to.

We can do better.

We must.

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Would You Leave Your Spouse Over Dirty Dishes?: A Lesson on Conflict Management

(Image/HuffPost)

We pulled into our parking space in Florida’s version of the “happiest place on earth,” and all of my insides were knotted up.

In my left pocket was the most expensive thing I’d ever bought—a pretty pear-shaped diamond engagement ring I’d been secretly paying off for months.

This felt like the place. Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. She loved Disney. This felt like the time. The Fourth of July. She loved fireworks.

I wasn’t tense because I was planning a surprise marriage proposal. I was tense because we were fighting over whether the song playing on the radio was Duran Duran. (Shazam didn’t exist in 2003.)

It was. The song was “Hungry Like the Wolf.” I knew it. She didn’t. She told me I was wrong. I knew I wasn’t. So we had a little fight and probably said dickhead things to one another.

It wasn’t that weird for us to have a little spat and be temporarily mad about something silly. We never fought about anything “important,” as far as I could tell. Just “dumb stuff.”

Everything’s totally fine, I thought.

While the fireworks lit up the night sky above Cinderella’s castle, I slipped the ring on her finger and she said yes.

Ten years later, she divorced me because I left dishes by the sink.

I can’t remember whether Duran Duran was playing in the background while she drove away for the last time.

The Important Difference Between the Two Types of Relationship Conflict

As recently as this week, someone commented on the dishes article that went viral in January 2016, minimizing the significance of dirty dishes and encouraging people to learn how to let go of “the little things” in an effort to avoid conflict and have healthy relationships.

While I appreciate the spirit of his comment and those of the hundreds of other people also touting the merits of “letting it go,” as a happy-marriage philosophy, I respectfully believe they all share the same toxic mental condition that ailed me throughout my marriage.

It’s a diseased belief called I Know That What I Believe is Right, Therefore Anyone Who Believes Something Else is Wrong.

That’s the belief that ends every doomed relationship, and is more or less responsible for starting every major conflict—including the deadliest wars—in human history.

My favorite writer Mark Manson categorizes conflict into two categories:

1. Conflict of Preference, and

2. Conflict of Values.

A Conflict of Preference is liking rap music more than country music, or tacos more than sweet potatoes, or attending a symphony orchestra performance more than off-roading in a lifted pickup truck.

A Conflict of Values is belief in God versus atheism as a guiding life principle, the intention to have children versus not reproducing, or behaving charitably or greedily.

Preference is “I like Rocky Road ice cream more than strawberry ice cream!”

Values are literally WHAT WE ARE. “Our values are constantly reflected in the way we choose to behave,” Manson wrote in Who the F*ck Am I?: The Ultimate Guide to Personal Values (which is the best thing I’ve read on the subject of personal values).

It’s silly to fight ugly and end up divorced over Conflict of Preference.

It’s tragic—but possibly healthy—to end relationships in which there are an irreconcilable Conflict of Values. (Though I have some challenging questions for you about WTF you were thinking when you said “I do.”)

But what about when we can’t tell the difference?

It requires high-level mindfulness and self-awareness. And it takes both relationship partners valuing their relationship more than their individual feelings (until it can be determined whether those feelings are a result of preferential differences, or value differences).

I think many people get divorced because they have difficulty identifying whether conflict is a matter of preferences or values.

And I think many people believe my article She Divorced Me Because I Left Dishes by the Sink is stupid because they confuse my ex-wife’s and my differing preferences for where to set a used drinking glass as NOT being about values.

It was totally about values. Values, masquerading as something that didn’t matter.

It’s Not About the Dishes

Everyone who cries foul at my ex-wife after reading the dishes article is hyperfocused on the relative merits of setting a drinking glass by the sink.

After all, children are starving in Africa. Someone at work was diagnosed with cancer. The family on the news lost their home in the hurricane.

It’s easy to point at the glass as a minor thing. It’s easy to point to that glass and convince yourself that anyone who makes a big deal out of it has misplaced priorities and probably some emotional problems.

It’s easy to say those thoughts out loud when your spouse is irritating you because she seems to be suggesting once again that something you do is making her life worse. And it’s easy to feel angry when you feel as if all of your shortcomings are being highlighted while all of your contributions and virtues are ignored.

Why isn’t anything I do good enough for her?

Where to set the dish is a Conflict of Preference. But the way in which we treat our marriage partner is a Value.

Most of the time when relationship fights like this crop up over disagreements which might seem minor from the outside looking in, the injured party isn’t feeling hurt because of this one thing. The injured party is feeling hurt because, for them, this incident is another reminder that they’re married to someone who believes that their own thoughts, feelings, and beliefs are more valuable—that they matter more—than their spouse’s.

I can’t relate to someone who cares whether a drinking glass is sitting by the sink.

But I can totally relate to someone who feels hurt, disrespected, or disregarded because of someone refusing to thoughtfully consider our thoughts, ideas, emotional experiences, etc.

You ever have a good idea at work? One that would make things better for the company, the customer, or the employees? And then when you bring that idea to the table, it gets ignored, or discounted, or otherwise rejected by some self-important anal-retentive?

I bet you have.

It’s shitty. But I can accept self-important anal-retentives doing asshole things.

I find it infinitely less acceptable for someone who vowed to love and honor me as their partner for life to do that.

When romantic partners (too often the men in male-female relationships) dispute, challenge, reject, insult, minimize, invalidate the expressed experiences of the other, they are communicating the following:

  • My beliefs are true; yours are false
  • What I feel is right; what you feel is wrong
  • What I think matters more than what you think
  • Because you’re wrong, and I’m right, I’m never going to change my behavior
  • You say that this hurts, but I don’t feel hurt by it so you must be crazy. I’m not going to help you stop hurting because you’re wrong for hurting.

And the day I realized that I would never agree to marry or remain married to someone who said that or treated me that way is the day I made peace with my wife leaving me.

The day I realized THAT was what I had been saying to my wife every time we argued about glasses by the sink or fucking Duran Duran songs, was the day I realized that she did the right thing by leaving, and then I started writing the Shitty Husband letters. She owed it to her mental and emotional health to wake up every day and not have someone who had promised to love and honor her forever tell her over and over again that her real-life experiences weren’t worth my time and attention and effort.

A marriage is NOT a promise to endure neglect and abuse for the rest of your life.

A marriage is a promise to work cooperatively to mutually thrive for the rest of your life, and is currently the most successful model in human history for reproducing and raising healthy, socially adjusted children.

When someone refuses to cooperate to that end, then the marriage ceases to be a marriage.

It’s easy to miss because, after all, it’s just a stupid glass by the sink.

Or, is it?

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How to Comfort (and Not Comfort) Someone Going Through a Divorce

(Image/Upsplash)

Only two kinds of people could help me feel better during my first year of coping with, adjusting to, and healing from my divorce.

The first kind of person was a friend or family member who knew me before I was married. My relationship with them lived independent of my marriage. My identity—for them—wasn’t intertwined with me being married.

My ex-wife and I were together about 13 years in total, married for nine. And the majority of people in my daily adult life met me and knew me as her husband or us as a couple. So when I spent time with them as a frightened, depressed, embarrassed divorced guy during those initial weeks and months, being with them only amplified all of my fear, sadness, and shame—through no fault of their own.

People who knew me BEFORE I was married had a personal relationship with me as an individual. Was I still ashamed, sad, and afraid? Yes. But one of the biggest parts of healing after divorce is readjusting from a WE to a ME. From an Us to being an individual again. It doesn’t happen overnight.

It hurts when everything feels wrong. It’s hard to not feel like yourself. But O.G. friends and family make you feel like yourself automatically because it’s not weird or different to be an individual with them.

The second kind of person who could help me was someone who had experienced divorce or an ultra-significant breakup of a long-term relationship where the emotional and logistical loss is essentially the same.

The second kind of person could be a total stranger, but if they knew what I knew, being with them and talking with them was more cathartic than some of my best friends and other people who loved me could ever be.

People who understood—I mean, really got it down in their core—were people whose lived experiences were similar to mine. And people with shared life experiences are best equipped to offer one another the thing people in crisis need: empathy.

Let’s roll with a good, old-fashioned Do’s and Don’ts (<— that can’t be grammatically correct) list.

Let’s start with the Don’ts.

Things You Should Never Do or Say to Someone Getting Divorced

1. Don’t say “You’re going to be fine! Divorce is the best thing that ever happened to [insert you or whoever here].”

Not all marriages, divorces, families, nor the humans that comprise those things are the same. Divorce IS totally great for people who escaped abusive situations, or for people who WANTED the divorce, or for people who don’t have children and profited from the situation.

For some people, divorce doesn’t make them a social pariah in their neighborhoods, families, churches, social groups, workplace, etc. But for others, it does. For others, they’re mostly sad because of their children. And for others still, divorce was literally the #1 thing in their entire lives they didn’t want to have happen.

Dismissing it as some rad thing they’ll grow to appreciate later makes you a tone-deaf asshole.

[Side Note: You can learn how to be less of an asshole in life and relationships here.]

2. Don’t say “You know what you need? To get laid,” or try to manufacture a party or night out at the bars where that happens.

I promise that sexual beings will have sex when they feel like it. So you don’t need to encourage them, unless YOU are someone they are potentially sexually attracted to and feel like propositioning them.

Few things in life have insulted me more than when a few guys I knew thought me hooking up with some drunken rando at a bar would be beneficial or somehow right things that were wrong.

Does copious amounts of alcohol-driven euphoria and intense orgasmic ecstasy generally feel good? Sure. If you eliminate anything mental, emotional, or spiritual from the conversation, yes. But when people are suffering from divorce, the problem IS mental, emotional, and spiritual. Tying one on and climaxing a few times (or probably just once) with someone you’re never going to see again is infinitely more likely to make someone feel worse than better. Please encourage your loved ones to NOT do that.

3. Don’t say mean things about their ex as a method of offering support.

If you’re just talking out of your ass and don’t really mean it, then you’re being a ridiculous asshole and telling your friend/family member/colleague that they were stupid to marry and share resources (and possibly children) with such a substandard human being. You’re tearing down and verbally desecrating the good, sacred, beautiful thing the sufferer is grieving the loss of, and you’re doing it from a place of nonsense where you don’t actually know or believe what you’re saying.

And if you ACTUALLY do mean it and believe it? Then you’re doing those same things intentionally. Don’t.

Things You Should Say or Do For Someone Going Through a Divorce

1. Make yourself available to listen. Not to speak. Just to be there.

Make yourself available to share space with them and be prepared to do nothing except sit there, still, listening. If you have lived a similar experience, it will be easy to respond in affirming, supportive ways. If you have not, there’s NOTHING you can say to make it better, but you BEING THERE is making it better. That’s the gift you’re giving, and it’s a powerful one.

The greatest lesson I learned from my divorce (or rather my reflections on my failed marriage) is that we MUST—if we desire a happy, healthy, peaceful, mutually beneficial relationship—allow people to care about whatever they care about. Maybe that’s horse racing, maybe it’s knitting, maybe it’s yoga, maybe it’s I just got divorced and I feel like I want to die. Everyone has their own unique list of things that are meaningful to them, whether it be something deeply personal and emotional, or something mentally stimulating like a hobby or entertainment pursuit.

One of the most valuable things we can give someone is the gift of respecting, honoring, sharing interest in the things that matter to them. There is no agenda. There is no natural interest or pleasure, necessarily. Just a very basic: That person really cares about this. I really care about them. So I’m going to behave as if I care about this too out of love and respect for them.

That applies to all relationships, no matter what. It’s also particularly useful when supporting someone who is grieving a loss and trying to heal a personal trauma.

2. Encourage them to take all the time they need.

Don’t abandon them or stop inviting them to social get-togethers because they’re not “over” their divorce or break-up as fast as you would like, because you feel like they’re not as fun as they used to be.

If you’re truly interested in helping them heal, then remind them that there’s no blueprint or How-To manual for any of this.

I have had a variety of coaching clients talk to me about feelings of shame stemming from their swirling intense emotions, or from their impatience with themselves for feeling like they haven’t moved on.

And I always remind them that divorce is hard, and if they weren’t totally freaking out I’d be way more worried about them—especially if they’ve lost time with, and influence over, their children’s lives. It’s NORMAL to spaz out big-time when your entire life is disrupted and you lose things that are most precious and meaningful to you. It’s all of the people who bounce back in a day or two that scare the shit out of me.

Remind them that it’s hard and they’re responding in a way totally consistent with something excruciatingly difficult. Encourage them to be patient with themselves. Encourage them to be kind to themselves. Our primary job as people moving past something difficult is to breathe. To stay alive for one more minute, one more hour, one more day, one more week, one more month, one more year.

When you do that long enough, you eventually arrive at a year, month, week, day, hour, or moment where everything is okay. Where you get to be you again.

Where something amazingly good and beautiful happens. Something that could have, and would have, never happened unless every day before that one had happened exactly as it did.

People deserve to have something to look forward to. And when we stay alive long enough, that moment inevitably arrives.

To stay alive, all that’s required is that we keep breathing. Kindly, remind them.

There is nothing we can specifically do to heal the individual trauma suffered by another.

We can simply be the friend or supportive family member/colleague that creates an environment where grieving people can heal on their own terms.

You don’t need to fix anyone. You shouldn’t try to save anyone.

Just love them. No matter what. And, if they choose healthy things, time will do what time always does.

It’s simple, but it’s not easy.

It almost seems as if nothing happens, but everything happens.

If we’re not careful, it can sound trite. Maybe even cheap. But it’s true and important, and I like to remind people as often as possible in the most empathetic and encouraging way I can, and I would encourage you to remind everyone that you care about:

Just breathe.

Everything is going to be okay.

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