Tag Archives: Divorce

I Figured Out Who To Blame For My Divorce

man and woman pointing fingers at each other

(Image/shawnpowrie.com)

After an 18-month downward spiral of misery hallmarked by sexlessness, sleeping in separate bedrooms, and crying more than any middle-class white guy living in the United States should be allowed, my wife packed a bag and drove away with our preschooler in the backseat.

And because during those final months I felt as if I was trying harder than she was to make it work, I blamed her for ruining my life and taking half of my son’s childhood away from me.

I felt abandoned. Betrayed. Rejected.

I felt like she chose someone else over me because I wasn’t good enough.

Not rich enough. Not smart enough. Not attractive enough. Not sexy enough. Not tall enough.

Not ANYTHING enough.

Must be this tall to ride.

She moved out. And before I had time to figure out what hit me, she was with someone else.

I blamed her for breaking up our family. I blamed her for disrupting our little son’s childhood. I blamed her for the intense pain I felt in my head, chest and stomach. I blamed her for leaving me alone in a town where I didn’t have roots, but couldn’t move from.

I blamed her for ruining my entire life.

She did this to me.

The Skill of Blaming

When bad things happen in my personal life, my brain quickly creates stories to explain why those bad things are as much Not My Fault as mathematically possible.

It’s kind of incredible how instantaneously it occurs.

I’d call it a superpower, but maybe everyone does it. Also, I perceive superpowers to be tools used for good, and blame-shifting even as an involuntary subconscious process that happens before we even have time to speak or act, is not something I’d consider “good.”

I don’t have to try hard to do this.

Point to something you don’t like about me, or some aspect of my behavior or lifestyle you observe as needing improvement, and I can tell you a legit story about why it’s that way.

Only child.

Small-town Ohio.

Divorced parents.

Unforeseeable economic conditions.

ADHD.

Super-busy.

Single father.

Whatever.

Something I inherited or some limitation created by someone else can usually be blamed for whatever The Bad Thing is.

Sometimes I even catch myself saying: “That’s not meant to be an excuse; that’s the actual reason” to people to whom I’m probably just making excuses.

I’d like to think I’m being honest when I say it.

But maybe I trick myself into believing my own bullshit before I ever get to the part where I challenge my own assumptions. Maybe I sometimes move on before ever getting to the self-challenging part because I’m busy or distracted or lazy. That’s probably how a whole bunch of false beliefs and general assholery happens.

I think I might thoughtlessly do what many humans thoughtlessly do: We rationalize and believe whatever story makes us feel most comfortable.

I’ve been thinking about blame ever since another writer pointed me in the direction of this Dr. Brené Brown video on blame. It’s excellent and you should watch it in an effort to keep your assholery quotient as low as possible.

When Blame is Good

I’ve been trying to work out when blame or the act of assigning blame might be useful.

If someone is wrongly accused of a crime or even just misidentified as having caused The Bad Thing at home, school or work, it seems like a good thing to exonerate the innocent by discovering the true cause.

Similarly, bad things sometimes happen on a broader scale, like a workplace accident, airplane crash or building fire. In these situations, some type of root-cause analysis and investigation is conducted to identify the reason The Bad Thing happened.

It’s good to identify reasons. To assign “blame” correctly, because then steps can be taken to learn from any mistakes that might have contributed to The Bad Thing happening.

There are very few items on my Reasons My Life is Better Because of Divorce! list that I just invented.

But one of them is: Now that I’ve identified several ways that my incorrect beliefs and asshole behaviors contributed to my divorce, I can now be confident that I’m unlikely to repeat them.

Which is a bigger deal for people like me than you might realize.

People who smoke a pack of Marlboros every day, and pound fast-food cheeseburgers and shakes for every meal are more likely to gain weight and develop heart disease, cancer or another potentially fatal disease linked to poor nutrition.

There was a time in history not so long ago where MOST people in the world didn’t know things like that.

Figuring out what to “blame” for the sickness and death was good. It was useful. It helped us collectively make better choices moving forward.

The truth is that blame is rarely good or useful. A better word for the good kind of “blame” is Accountability.

When Blame is Bad

I’m wrong more often than I want to believe (You are too. Sorry!), but I’m pretty sure blaming other things and other people for The Bad Things we encounter is almost never good.

Brené Brown says it best in that video above that you probably didn’t watch.

She said “I’d rather something be my fault than no one’s fault. Why? Because it gives us some semblance of control.”

And that very thought is, I believe, the one that helped me get from depression and borderline-suicidalness, to the place where I can find comfort and peace that my son and his mother have someone other than me who cares about them and looks out for their wellbeing.

When my needy, bitchy, nagging, unsatisfiable and overly emotional wife left me, I was a victim, and powerless to any of her personal-life decisions (which impacted me directly because we share a child). Everything was her fault, and I was miserable and kind of wanted to die.

However.

When my unsupported, emotionally abandoned wife who had spent several years trying her best to help me understand how my actions and attitudes were harming her and our marriage (while I repeatedly denied it and refused to change) FINALLY worked up the courage to leave the relationship in the face of sacrificing so much time with her son, and suffering the personal-life fallout of all who would judge her disapprovingly for that choice…

Everything became MY fault. 

Because—despite tricking myself and others for many years—I had been a monumentally shitty husband.

And after coming to terms emotionally with the depths of my failings, my misery turned into power.

My despair turned into hope.

Because I finally, finally, finally understood how my actions had lead me to the place I was in, and I could feel the incredible power that comes with being in control of my own life again.

And when you understand how something you did or didn’t do lead to the worst thing that ever happened to you, you get to stop being afraid of it happening again for the same reason.

We can’t fix things when we don’t even know what’s broken.

Blame blinds us to accurate diagnoses.

Brown said: “Blame is the discharging of discomfort and pain. It has an inverse relationship with accountability. Accountability is a vulnerable process.”

Similar to how The Gottman Institute has conducted incredible amounts of research and amassed huge quantities of data on which to base its relationship-counseling advice, Brown also has taken a research-based approach to helping people develop better relationship skills.

“Blaming is simply a way to discharge anger. People who blame a lot seldom have the tenacity and grit to actually hold people accountable because we spend all of our energy raging for 15 seconds and figuring out whose fault something is,” Brown said. “Blaming is very corrosive in relationships, and one of the reasons we miss our opportunities for empathy.”

And if you don’t exactly know what empathy is and why it’s important (I did not throughout the entirety my nine-year marriage), then you’ll be pleased to know it’s the one thing you can start practicing today that will literally change your life and those of everyone you interact with regularly in profound and positive ways.

Nine out of 10 doctors recommend it for curing a bad case of assholery.

When I blame other people and happenings for the bad things I experience in life, then nothing I do matters because everything good or bad that happens to me is out of my control.

The poor helpless victim that I am.

When I accept responsibility for all of my choices from an appropriate age of accountability through today, then everything I do matters because everything that happens to me is a result of something I can influence by whatever I choose next.

It’s the difference between anxiety and confidence; between despair and hope; and between a life where things just happen to us, and one where we decide what happens next.

It’s easy to blame everything on my ex-wife.

It’s hard to be accountable for everything that happened to my family.

But my most important discovery following the worst thing that ever happened to me is this: I can do hard things.

And so can you.

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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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When Your Spouse Dies and You Miss Their Dirty Socks on the Floor

dirty socks on the floor

(Image/The Livingston Post)

After her husband died unexpectedly, the dirty socks and pants she used to find thrown on the bedroom floor became something she missed.

She avoided washing his last load of laundry as long as she could. Savoring this once-annoying moment as she realized how much she would miss it.

Debbie Wilkins Baisden recounts this story and the life lesson it provided in her article “Stop Being a Butthole Wife.”

Everyone who has ever written about male-female relationships could have predicted what happened next.

Everyone in happy, peaceful marriages read it and said: “Amen, sister! Don’t sweat the small stuff!”

Wives frustrated and angry with their husbands who leave dirty laundry on the floor, and dirty dishes next to the sink said: “I know you’re sad your husband died, but that doesn’t mean we should excuse the disrespectful behavior! I’m not my husband’s maid, and he needs to respect me and pick up after himself!”

And then a guy would reply: “Why do you believe you have the right to command your husband to do things your way, or dictate the terms of your marriage when he feels differently? You’re not his mother!”

And then a married or divorced wife would reply: “The person who does all the cleaning should make the rules!”

And then a married guy would reply: “I suppose that’s what you say and feel when your husband is outside shoveling snow, or fixing the plumbing, or taking garbage to the curb! You feminists have ruined marriage!”

And then a woman would reply: “Actually, you misogynists are the ones who ruined marriage!”

And then more people would internet-scream at each other about who is responsible or to blame for their problems, the premise always being that “If only men/women would stop doing (insert ‘crime’ here), we wouldn’t have all these relationship problems!”

If I Blame Everything on Divorce, Then Nothing is Ever My Fault

That’s my life in a nutshell.

I don’t do it on purpose.

I don’t sit around thinking: This is all totally my fault, but I’ll just blame it on someone or something else for public-relations reasons and trick everyone.

But I do often catch myself blaming divorce for things.

I was popular and well-liked growing up. (Or at least, I THOUGHT I was popular and well-liked, which has the same effect on your mind and body even if it wasn’t true.)

I assumed everyone I met liked me, and I assumed everyone I would meet would like me, and that made me mostly fearless.

I made friends easily. Girls seemed to like me. Friends’ parents, teachers, and coaches all seemed to as well.

I had many friends. Both in high school and college. In two different states because my mom and dad lived in different places.

I struggled with the transition to domesticated, couples-based socializing after my girlfriend/fiancée/wife and I started our life together, and everything converted from big-group activities and parties, to small dinner parties and small-group gatherings.

But as time passed and I matured, I found peace and pleasure with the ebb and flow of being married and couples-based socializing as we all began building careers and families.

Then the hits started coming around age 30.

The fight about where we should live and work.

The birth of our son.

The death of a parent.

The near-universal husband/wife clashes over money, household chores, and how we treated one another when things got rough.

It’s the slow march to divorce most people don’t see coming nor recognize as it’s happening, but it mostly looks the same for everyone in failing or failed marriages.

My wife stopped liking me.

Then, stopped loving me.

She’s not big on pretending, so I felt the change. And one day at a time, it started pecking at my insides.

Next thing I knew, I was sleeping in the guest room and freaking out.

Then, she was gone, and I freaked out harder.

Then—I don’t know. That’s now, I guess. “Then” is now. On April 1, it will be four years since my marriage ended.

It’s a big blur in my head that feels simultaneously lightning-fast and like an agonizing eternity.

I only know this: When the story began, everyone liked me, I wasn’t afraid of anything, and life was awesome. And now? I worry about people liking me. I’m afraid of all kinds of things. And life is just okay.

It’s easy to blame her for my life and feel sorry for myself.

It’s easy to blame her when she goes on vacations with her boyfriend and our old couples friends.

It’s easy to blame her when she goes on trips with our son and families of his new friends from school.

It’s easy to feel: She did this to me. She turned me into someone else, and then dumped the person she made me become.

It’s easy to blame all the hurt and shame and fear and anxiety and inconveniences and difficulties on other people.

I think if men can keep blaming feminism and “nagging wives” for ruining marriage, then men will never have to grow and change.

I think if women can keep blaming misogyny and “shitty husbands” for ruining marriage, then women will never have to grow and change.

Growth and change is hard. Like cooking when you don’t feel like it.

Maybe I’ll just order a pizza.

Maybe someone can start a peaceful-relationship delivery service. Delivering harmony and kindness to our front doors for a small fee.

Nothing Changes Unless We Do

I don’t know Debbie Wilkins Baisden. But as someone helping to popularize the term “shitty husband,” I feel uniquely qualified to guess the following:

Debbie labeling herself a “butthole wife” because she used to complain about her husband’s dirty laundry was NOT to excuse husbands who are slobs, nor to label all wives seeking thoughtfulness and respect from their husbands as “buttholes.”

Me labeling myself a “shitty husband” is NOT me taking on all of the blame for my failed marriage, nor is it to condemn all men who leave laundry on the floor or dishes by the sink as “shitty.”

It’s simply a fun writing convention to talk about where I messed up in my marriage.

Maybe my ex-wife believes she messed up sometimes. I don’t know. I know only that I’m qualified to write about my thoughts, feelings and experiences, and NOT qualified to write about anyone else’s, least of all someone with whom I disagreed with so much, that we ended a marriage with a young child involved.

EVERYTHING is Our Responsibility

Guys LOVE to come back at me with: “This is all just theory and conjecture! If guys do all the stuff you say, they’re just going to get run over by their domineering, emotional, bitchy wives!”

To which I’d reply:

Don’t marry anyone who is domineering, bitchy, or whose emotional reactions you consider intolerable.

I’m simply NOT blaming myself or men for failed marriages. Never have; never will.

I am identifying all of the ways I messed up or made decisions which led to divorce, and asking myself the question: If I hadn’t messed up, and had I made better decisions, isn’t it possible that the events leading to divorce wouldn’t have happened in the first place, and that our marriage would have thrived?

Another good question: If instead of waiting for my wife to grow and change, I proactively grew and changed, isn’t it possible my wife would have felt and responded differently? Isn’t it possible most of our fights would have never happened at all?

Single people can point fingers at certain behaviors and decide for themselves that they’re unacceptable and that they’d never be in a relationship with someone who showcased them. Single people are responsible for their own happiness. Single people are not beholden to others.

Yet, single people almost ALWAYS (to the tune of 95%) pursue long-term relationships with other people, presumably because they believe a long-term relationship will make them happy.

However, the entry fee for a relationship is trading in your Single Person card and exchanging it for a In A Relationship one.

And now, in a certain context, you don’t get to be yourself anymore.

Marriages and Relationships Aren’t Two People Doing Something Together

We talk about two people getting married. And now they’re a couple. Two different people. But a team.

It’s kind of true. But as soon as it gets hard and one person feels like the other is a bad teammate, people start looking for another team to join, or to go back to being a team of one.

But I don’t believe a marriage is two people doing something together.

I believe a marriage is ONE thing. And it’s built from two parts.

What makes an airplane fly? The wings or the engine?

Exactly.

Two different parts, which if EITHER stops functioning, the entire thing goes down.

People fight, fight, fight, fight, and fight some more because they want their spouse to admit to being wrong and acknowledge that he or she was “right.”

And people fight, fight, fight, fight, and fight that EXACT SAME FIGHT until they die or divorce because the husband’s or wife’s goal is to win the fight.

When the airplane’s engine wins enough fights, one of the wings will fall off.

When the airplane’s wings win enough fights, the engine or engines will start to lose thrust.

And then, boom. Fiery explosions and sadness.

The intentions of critical airplane parts should be to maximize the aircraft’s performance, lest they all explode and die.

The intentions of husbands and wives should be to maximize the performance—NOT of themselves, but of the marriage as a unit.

The widowed Debbie missed picking up her husband’s annoying dirty laundry because the marriage was WAY bigger than just her, or just her feelings, or just the laundry, or just anything.

And she shared that experience because it mattered, just as I share mine.

But lost in all the noise, is purpose and meaning. The reasons WHY these stories matter. 

He’s blaming her.

She’s blaming him.

I’m blaming her, and then…

I’m blaming me.

It’s no one’s fault and everyone’s.

And it’s easy to blame, blame, blame, so we all do it some more, even when we don’t need any more blame. We’re totally good on blame now. Quota’s filled.

We need responsibility.

Accountability.

The willingness to serve a thing bigger than just ourselves.

Because that’s where true peace, happiness, love and contentment lives. Or maybe just because you fucking promised. Take your pick.

Maybe we’ll get it right someday.

Maybe even me.

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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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On a Personal Note

handwriting a letter

(Image/Corcianonline)

Hey.

I felt like writing to you, instead of another new version of the things I almost always write.

I’m sitting here debating spending $50 on a Wu-Tang Clan ugly Christmas sweater to wear to my friends’ annual (and irreverent) ugly Christmas sweater-themed party. $50 does cross my I-don’t-like-wasting-it financial threshold, and I’m currently thinking about all of the little kids who won’t receive presents or possibly even food on Christmas Day, and thinking that if I drop $50 on a Wu sweater, Jesus will send me a very disappointed text message with a stern emoji face, and my mother will zap me with lightning bolts from the sky.

I might have that backward.

Dolla dolla bills, y’all.

Okay. Moving on.

That Awkward Moment – A Divorce Story

There are probably some cool customers out there who handle every post-divorce life situation with enviable skill and grace.

I’m not one of them.

On the heels of divorce, you experience a bunch of things for the first time, with varying degrees of unpleasantness and/or emotional impact.

It’s awkward when you and your recently separated ex are both godparents to a baby girl at her baptism.

It’s awkward when you hang out with your friends without her.

It’s awkward when you see your friends hanging out with her without you on Facebook before you block the feed for self-preservation reasons.

It’s awkward when you go to parent-teacher conferences together for the first time.

It’s awkward when your little boy cries for his mother when he’s with you, or cries for you when he’s with mom.

It’s awkward when you travel alone for the first time.

It’s awkward when you go on a date for the first time.

It’s awkward when you take a date to a wedding, and your ex-wife’s aunt and uncle you were shocked to bump into are ironically seated at the table next to you.

It’s awkward when you first visit your extended family for holidays as a single adult.

It’s awkward when your ex-wife comes over that first Christmas Eve so you can both watch your son open gifts from his parents.

It’s awkward when you’re driving around town with your mom in the passenger seat who is visiting from out of town, and you randomly see your ex-wife’s vehicle, but a guy you know is driving it at 10 a.m. on a weekend morning.

It’s awkward when your son goes on vacation with his mom’s family and you discover that guy is going too.

It’s awkward when you pick up or drop off your son at his mom’s house and that guy’s shoes are by the door even though he’s not there.

It’s awkward when you pick up or drop off your son at his mom’s house and that guy is there, clearly totally at-home.

It’s awkward when you hear him call her “Babe.”

And it’s a little-bit awkward when the three of you start attending your child’s extracurriculars together.

I arrived at the gym about 10 minutes before tip-off for my son’s weekend basketball game. His mom and her boyfriend were already sitting there. As the people were positioned around them, sitting next to him and not my ex-wife was the sensible move.

Aside from that regretful and/or jealous tinge we bury way down deep, I don’t have any problem sitting next to him. He’s an excellent guy and I have no reason to treat him with anything other than kindness and respect. He’s good to my son and his mom. He’s smart. Polite. Treats people around him well.

Those things matter.

At some point during the game, I caught out of my peripheral his hand reaching over to caress hers. I was surprised to discover it made me want to set myself on fire.

After the game, a bunch of parents were milling around the hall outside the locker rooms waiting for the kids to come out.

That’s when a dad whose son played for the opposing team randomly approached my ex-wife’s boyfriend because they’d gone to high school together.

I wasn’t at all surprised to discover wanting to set myself on fire when everyone was meeting each other and exchanging small-world pleasantries while I stepped a few extra feet away before being miraculously saved seconds later by a hug from a little boy happy to see his dad. Like magic—the I-don’t-really-matter feeling disappeared.

We bleed and scar and heal. We grow—wiser, tougher.

We become okay. Not fake-okay, but actually okay.

But the sucker punches and awkward moments don’t stop ‘til they stop.

Maybe they will someday.

The Importance of Mattering

I’ve spent the past three and a half years writing about divorce and marriage and relationships. I did it at the beginning because I needed to get the emotional vomit out of my system. And then I kept doing it because it appeared to be helping some people. That was a big deal to me.

You know? A reason for existing?

A husband and father has purpose.

But some divorced asshole is just another cliché statistic most people don’t want to hang out with lest they contract the Divorce AIDS by proxy.

I’m half-joking.

My little boy remains my purpose. But let’s be honest—mom is the better parent by every measurable standard outside of my genetic advantage in the Involved Fathers Help Children Thrive space.

I know this isn’t unique to me. When she walked out that door, so did a bunch of the purpose I had—without being mindful of it—felt throughout our relationship and marriage.

This is something I didn’t learn as a child—but quickly realized once I was the last person living at home: Our lives MUST be lived for things greater than ourselves.

I was a well-documented shitty husband.

But I loved the woman and cared about many things simply because I was married to her. When good things happened, or I experienced successes, or I received good news or learned something interesting, only a small part of the experience felt good on its own. The good part was sharing the good thing with her.

The craving—something damn close to need—for her respect, her validation, her pleasure, her praise, her love was strong.

I think most husbands feel that in profound ways.

Which does a couple of things:

  1. Helps explain why we feel so mind- and heart-fucked when she moves out and starts seeing someone else.
  2. Makes us incredibly dense assholes for all of the times we blatantly disregard our wives’ expressed wishes because—hell, I don’t even know why—because it’s inconvenient in the 20 minutes we’re living in right that moment?

We’re going on four straight years of self-reflection on all this, and I still can’t explain it.

This Has Given Me Purpose

This has given me a thing to do. A thing that provides value for some people. Where people sometimes say: “Matt. You’re doing something special and important and you matter.”

I want to be doing it for all of the selfless reasons that matter to humanity-at-large, but I’d be lying if I didn’t acknowledge the selfish desire I have to feel like something I do matters.

Everyone has varying degrees of psychological and emotional needs. Super-healthy, functional people with great relationships manage them effectively.

The rest of us just fumble about in the dark, unfairly mother-effing all of the innocent inanimate objects when we hurt ourselves tripping over them.

The Two Ways to Help People

I’ve struggled for a long time with the idea that I didn’t know how to help people in struggling marriages or just trying to get through the day while going through a divorce.

I watched my parents split and grew up with divorced parents as my life narrative.

Then, about 30 years later, after a lifetime of assuring everyone around me I’d never get divorced, I got divorced.

You know the expression “eat crow”? Well, it’s not crow. It’s a giant feces pile composed of digested crow. A big pile that’s not all the way gone.

I don’t write about it much anymore for the same reason most people only share positive-storytelling things on social media. I’m ashamed of it. I don’t want you to know. I don’t want my family to know. I don’t want my friends to know.

Divorce is the dominant theme of my entire life story.

It begs the question: “What does this moron know about how to have healthy relationships and good marriages?”

I get it. I’d wonder the same thing.

I want very much to be able to offer specific actions a person could take to fix his or her marriage.

But I don’t know what to do either. And even if I did, the you-love-another-totally-unpredictable-human-being X-factor will always rule out the possibility for relationship instruction manuals.

I mostly just know what NOT to do. Sometimes that helps people.

“There are two ways to help people in this world: 1) give them specific, tangible advice on what they should do to fix their problems, and 2) normalize their suffering to simply remind them that they are not as alone or as hopeless as they think they are,” wrote Mark Manson in his latest post “6 Books That Make You Less of a Horrible Person.”

“Often what we need the most is not more ‘tools’ and ‘tips’ to get through our hardest hours. What we need is someone who simply understands our pain, and is able to clearly and beautifully articulate that it will one day be OK again.”

I am embarrassed about the basketball-game story I shared. It seems immature and petty to feel as I did. I don’t like that I felt those things. And I don’t like you knowing that after all of this time, things can still cut. I can still bleed.

I think everybody bleeds.

And I think the reason to talk about it is so other people who also are bleeding or feeling shitty or feeling afraid or sad or ashamed can feel: “That happens to me too. It’s nice to know I’m not the only one.”

In the end, I think that’s how I might be able to help someone. I think that’s how I might be able to help myself.

I don’t really know anything. I can’t provide great wisdom or teach any valuable life skills.

But I think—sometimes—I can help a person feel like they’re not the only one.

I hope that can be enough.

Looking Toward 2017 and New Things

Holy shit, right?

2017.

That’s insane. I’ll turn 38 in March. Maybe other things will happen also. We’ll find out.

This blog will need to evolve.

I would like to convert it into a multi-contributor platform with other writers willing to bleed on the page a little.

I’d also like to introduce a new feature of some kind, and audio and/or video content seems like the obvious evolution.

Because I’m occasionally shy, I’m going to ease my way into it by doing simple blog-post readings of posts new and old using Facebook’s new Facebook Audio feature. (You can follow the Facebook page here.)

That might be fun.

I’m looking forward to trying it out and seeing what you think.

In the meantime, it’s Christmas again. They come so fast anymore. For the first time in my life, Hanukkah coincides with Christmas. I’m not sure why that’s cool, but it seems so.

No matter what you celebrate, I hope you have a very happy and blessed holiday season, and to my Christmas compadres, a very merry and beautiful and connection-building and relationship-healing Christmas with loved ones.

Thank you so much for giving your valuable time and attention to this place. It means the world.

We have another opportunity to light up the darkness. Please do.

Do good things.

Cheers, you.

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We Can’t Always Get What We Want, But if We Try Sometimes…

maslows-hierarchy-of-needs-by-angela-duncan

Everyone needs a few things. If you deny help to your partner in their pursuits, or become an obstacle, then your relationship will inevitably suck or end. (Image/Angela Duncan)

You and outside forces are engaged in a never-ending dance—working in harmony, or against each other—to motivate your spouse or partner to stay with you or leave you.

While I never thought of my marriage as any sort of Gotcha!-trap for my wife, it’s pretty clear upon reflection that my behavior frequently conveyed the belief she would never leave and that I had no power nor responsibility to influence her decisions or motivate her to choose me and our marriage over other options.

Maybe it’s because I grew up Catholic and didn’t see much divorce.

Maybe it’s because I was ignorant and oblivious.

Or maybe it’s because I was a stupid asshole.

It has become clear to me in the years following the 2013 divorce that ended my nine-year marriage that my wife needed things in life (whether or not I agreed with her conclusions) and that my job—my solemn duty as her husband—was to help her acquire or achieve those things, even if those things were as simple as more attention, more respect and more empathy.

Our opinions regarding others’ needs have little impact on their behaviors and choices. If THEY believe they need something, they will pursue those needs with or without us.

We can accept that and thrive, even if it means exerting more energy and giving more of ourselves to others.

Or we can reject it, and learn the hard way in our failed relationships (even when we mask the truth and convince others—and sometimes ourselves—things are okay even when they’re not).

What Do Our Partners Need? What Do We Need?

People need things.

We can debate semantics surrounding the word “need,” like whether electricity or indoor plumbing or Wi-Fi or sex or vehicles qualify. But if you’ll grant me some latitude on using that word, it will help very much.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow famously published his hierarchy of human needs in 1943.

It’s normally presented in pyramid form like this:

hierarchy-of-human-needs-pyramid-image-by-huriata

Image/Huriata

In reverse pyramid-stacking order, people need:

1. Physiological (Basic Needs)

We need air, water, food, clothes and shelter.

Typically, if any of those are missing, we don’t care very much about family drama, the economy, or The Walking Dead season finale.

2. Safety

We need to feel safe.

If lions and bears are chasing us, or someone is pointing a gun at us, or we are diagnosed with a life-changing or threatening disease, or the financial markets crash and we lose all of our money, or terrorists detonate bombs in random public places, we lose our ability to feel safe.

Stress and anxiety consume us, and we are stuck on the second rung of the Life Needs ladder until the feelings of safety return.

3. Love/Belonging

We need to feel loved and/or as if we belong to a tribe.

Humans have such a profound need to feel loved and part of something that they will often sacrifice personal safety to cling to physically/sexually/mentally abusive parents, caregivers and romantic partners in their pursuit of feeling loved and connected to others they identify as being “like them.”

4. Esteem

We need to feel respected and accepted.

We crave professional success, mastery of a hobby, accumulation of wealth, victory in competition, as well as fame and recognition in a constant pursuit of feeling respected by others.

Maslow called this craving for the approval of others the Lower form of Esteem.

Because we can NEVER feel respected and accepted until we respect and accept ourselves. Self-respect is the Higher form of Esteem, Maslow said.

5. Self-Actualization/Transcendence

We need to achieve whatever our individual or collective potential is, and accomplish whatever we are capable of accomplishing in order to live and die without shame and regret.

As you move up the five-step pyramid from Basic Needs for staying alive to more mind- and heart-based needs, you will notice the group sizes getting smaller and smaller.

That’s because we must not just understand, but master, a level of human need before we are able to move on to the next. Maybe people for many reasons live their entire lives without feeling loved, without respecting themselves, and never really feeling safe or comfortable in their own skin.

Also, let the record show you can regress and fall down a peg or two.

Because I’ve lived many years succeeding in the #4 Esteem space, and now I mostly stumble around back in #2 (an apt bathroom metaphor) trying to figure out what the hell is wrong with me and whether I’m even capable of pulling myself out of the sewage-like post-divorce shit bog to achieve a satisfying life for myself and those I love.

‘Is My Marriage/Relationship Suffering Because ACTUAL Needs Aren’t Being Met?’

Yep.

You need things. And she or he needs things too. And when one or both of you need things, you (often involuntarily) will pursue them.

And the simple truth is this: When we are obstacles to our spouses’/partners’ pursuit of needs, or when we neglect to fulfill any of their needs required of their partners, then we are complicit in our partners’ decisions to pursue those needs elsewhere.

No, guys. That doesn’t mean it’s cool to cheat on your wife or girlfriend because she won’t agree to threesomes, or to jerk off to internet porn at the expense of sex with your wife because you claim she doesn’t satisfy superficial sexual “needs.”

No, ladies. That doesn’t mean it’s cool to have an affair with Greg at work, or Brad at the gym because the attention they provide satisfies your feel-good emotional needs.

But I think it DOES mean that we should all be super-intentional about discovering our partner’s needs (not what WE think they are, but what THEY think they are) and commit to helping them achieve their personal five levels to become their best-possible selves.

Either that, or communicate quickly and clearly that we’re unwilling to so they can pursue a great life without us deliberately holding them down.

Your Marriage is Dying Because You Don’t or Won’t Trust Each Other

I always honed in on infidelity when discussing the word “trust” in relationships.

That always seemed like a big deal. To be loyal and trustworthy. I also believed there was merit in being a “trustworthy” financial partner and co-parent.

I figured: I don’t cheat, I don’t physically abuse, I don’t gamble away all of our money, I’m not an addict, and I’m not a threat to abandon her or our children. I’m trustworthy!

But that’s not the equation for Trust.

The equation is:

Safety + Belonging + Mattering = TRUST

That’s according to Christine Comaford who writes about neuroscience and business leadership.

There’s a problem, of course: Our faulty brains.

While amazing and miraculous, they’re also totally unreliable. If we all bought our brains at The Brain Store, most of us would have returned them already for ones we hoped would work better. Not that I’d be able to find the receipt.

Comaford helps business executives understand that their employees NEED things. Fundamental, primitive things. And that no matter how unimpressed the employer may be with those “needs,” a failure to help employees achieve them (at home for personal reasons, or at work for professional ones) will always keep employees and business teams underperforming, or inadvertently motivating people to seek work-oriented need fulfillment elsewhere.

The parallels to our marriages and personal relationships are obvious.

“So as a leader, and as a human, you must identify whether it is safety and or belonging and or mattering that is most important to the people in your life… and then do everything you can to satisfy that subterranean subconscious need,” Comaford wrote in this Forbes piece on human motivation.

“Safety + belonging + mattering = TRUST.

“This means leaders must behave in ways that make employees feel that they are safe, that they belong, and that they matter. Doing so will help shift them out of their fear-driven Critter State (where all decisions are based on what they perceive will help them survive) and into their Smart State (where they can innovate, collaborate, feel emotionally engaged, and move the company forward).”

The People You Love Need Things

And they will pursue them—again, regardless of whether you agree with their “need” list.

People are programmed to crave and pursue their needs.

The concept of meeting the needs of our spouses/romantic partners/families isn’t new to me.

But until I applied the concept of basic fundamental human need and motivation to my own failed marriage, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen so clearly how one must aid his or her loved ones in their individual pursuits up the five-level Life Need Pyramid or, at the very least, avoid being an obstacle.

My wife needed things and stated them. I either didn’t believe her or chose not to act because I disagreed with her priorities.

But our marriage WAS a priority to me, even if my behavior failed to demonstrate that.

And I think if I’d understood that NOT being an active participant in my wife’s climb up the Life Need Pyramid would stamp my divorce certificate, I might have made different and better choices.

And I think if I’d made different and better choices, I’d be enjoying the upper levels of the Pyramid, instead of the damp and musty basement.

And I think everyone who makes different and better choices gets to reach that top-floor penthouse where genuine peace and contentment live.

Where life is LIFE. Joyful. Uplifting. Satisfying.

Where energy is abundant, and we collectively give more to pulling people up, up, up to the top floors with us.

Where we’re living for something greater than ourselves.

I think maybe that’s where fear, shame and self-loathing go to die.

I think maybe that’s what it means to really live.

And I think the view’s probably pretty nice up there.

And if we try sometimes, we just might find, we get what we need.

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The Strangers We Live With: Maybe Birth Control, Food & Aging Dooms Our Relationships

sinkhole

Sinkholes open without warning, sometimes destroying things and killing people. I think body chemistry might work that way, too. (Image/CNN)

Even the most-honest people lie sometimes.

When we love or even just like someone, the last thing we want to tell them is that we don’t like their new haircut, or that the meal they just prepared for us tastes gross, or that their ass totally looks fat in those jeans.

Maybe that’s not a “lie.” When you’re trying to protect someone’s feelings. Or maybe it is, but it’s not bad due to its noble intentions.

Or maybe a lie is a lie, and it’s ultimately bad no matter how well-intentioned it is because dishonesty is NEVER better than honesty. I don’t think we’ll ever know because humans are never going to collectively start telling the whole truth.

So, maybe we’ll never really know why attraction went away and they left. Or why we chose someone else. Or why love died. Or whether love and attraction were ever present in the first place.

Maybe everyone has a secret they’ll never tell. And maybe being afraid of everyone, or even just one person, discovering that secret will keep us “lying” our entire lives.

Maybe those lies—or rather undiscovered truths—will prevent us from ever “solving” the problems that harm or end our relationships, sometimes ruining our lives.

Maybe we never really know someone all the way.

And, just maybe, even if we do know someone all the way, they don’t always stay the person we’ve gotten to know.

And, just maybe, we don’t always stay the person we think we’ve gotten to know.

And, just maybe, when you can no longer recognize yourself in the mirror, all bets are off.

Why Do So Many Relationships Go Bad?

Let the record show that until proven otherwise, I maintain the stance that Shitty Husbandry (which is mostly accidental) is the No. 1 cause of failed marriages and divorce.

But there’s something else that happens to people which we’ve rarely, if ever, discussed here. All humans are affected by changing hormone levels and body chemistry at different points in our lives for various reasons. And while I’m no science whiz, I’m reasonably confident in saying that, when you change something’s literal chemistry, that thing always changes into another thing.

You don’t even have to change the actual building blocks to change something into something else.

Mix carbon and oxygen so that there are two units of oxygen for every unit of carbon, and you get carbon dioxide (CO2), which is our friend, and used by trees and grass to produce breathable air.

By simply reducing by half the amount of oxygen in the equation, you create carbon monoxide (CO). And if you don’t know, that shit will kill you.

The difference between Life and Death.

All because you changed the amount of one of just two basic ingredients.

Which begs the questions, I think:

Can changes in our hormone levels—our literal body chemistry—turn us into entirely different people?

Isn’t it possible that we all change into different people who sometimes transition into people unattracted to, or incompatible with our partners?

Isn’t it possible that we all change into different people, and that sometimes, our partners don’t like nor are attracted to the new and different versions of us?

Isn’t it possible that we all end up living with strangers or discovering them in our reflections, and that when one or both members of a marriage change into someone else, it strains the relationship in ways difficult or impossible to properly repair?

Maybe Hormones are the Sinkholes of Relationships

Let me just say this: Sinkholes are bullshit.

There are a lot of things to be afraid of in life. Natural disasters and disease and mortal enemies and other things. And most responsible people take precautionary measures to avoid these things when possible, which is how the human race has survived to this point.

But sometimes, you’re just sleeping in your bedroom at night, and then the ground gives way beneath your home, and your house falls down into the planet, and then you die.

It’s pretty much the least-fair thing I can think of. And the thing I am theoretically most afraid of due to its fundamental randomness. I can’t even trust the ground I stand on.

And maybe hormones are just like that.

One time, the person I loved most and knew best in the world had a baby and then everything about her body chemistry changed for a while afterward, and then later still, everything about Us got sick and died.

And when We died, I don’t think either of us were still the same person who met at that college party 15 years earlier.

Many things affect hormones.

The birth-control pill, in particular, interests me because it has been demonstrated to take away a biological tool women use to choose partners—smell. Pheromone detection via the olfactory system. It’s a thing, I guess.

According to this article in The Telegraph (U.K.): “…the Pill could stop women picking up these important genetic clues because it alters hormones which make the body think it is pregnant. While that stops women getting pregnant it also means they would rather be surrounded by close family members, and so are more attracted to people who are genetically similar. And for choosing a partner, that is dreadful.”

Pregnancy and child birth, menopause, and menstrual cycles all affect women’s bodies in chemistry-changing ways.

Most forms of contraception (about 60-ish%) affect hormone levels as well.

Estrogen, progresterone, testosterone, adrenaline and cortisol are some relatively well-known hormones. Leptin and ghrelin are some appetite-related lesser-known ones.

We all have all of these hormones. But as the levels of one or many increase or decrease, we literally become different versions of ourselves.

Different versions who tend to be shitty at the things that keep marriages thriving, or even simply afloat.

The food we eat matters.

Men today have significantly lower testosterone levels than our fathers and grandfathers. Some of the pesticides used to grow much of our food has high estrogen levels, which many in the science community point to as an explanation.

The food supply would affect women equally, on top of the previously mentioned changes.

Lifestyle factors like sleep, poor nutrition and a lack of exercise all affect us as well.

Sinkholes scare me. And they’re a bullshit, unfair wrinkle in our collective efforts to not die.

Hormones? They’re just like that.

Affecting all of us indiscriminately.

Turning people into someone else.

Turning lovers into strangers.

Turning Life into Death.

And maybe if everyone keeps on hiding the changes we feel because of this or that, maybe we’re all doomed to end up living with strangers.

Even when we live alone.

…..

(Update: Edited to correct nonsense scientific claim that trees and grass produced carbon dioxide rather than oxygen, because we don’t live on Venus.)

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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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