Tag Archives: Health

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

(Image/Pinterest)

I never really knew my wife even though we were married for nine years and together for 13.

Not because of some crazy spy shit nor from any deliberate attempts on her part to hide her true identity from me. I didn’t really know my wife because I never invested the time, effort and energy to know her in a way that would have equipped me with the information I needed to avoid hurting her in ways I didn’t know were hurting her.

That’s the big defense in our relationships, right? “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to! I had no idea this was such a big deal to you!”

That’s the BEST version of this dynamic and it will still poison your relationships and end your marriage.

The more common version of this story involves one of us (usually the guy in a heterosexual relationship) trying to convince our partner that they’re overreacting—that it SHOULDN’T be a big deal to them. That, if they realize how insignificant the incident was, or how silly the fight is, then they can stop feeling bad about it. No one’s upset anymore! Problem solved!

That’s what I did. I tried to help my wife feel better by explaining how I felt about it, believing, I guess, that she might adopt my version of events, thereby relieving her of the inconvenient pain or anger or sadness she was feeling.

It makes sense when you’re a dipshit who has no idea that you’re a dipshit. (*points at self)

Something that frustrated me in marriage and which seems to frustrate many of the men I talk to in my coaching work is the idea that our wives are constantly “surprising” us with new complaints.

Right? Like, you’re just going about your day, minding your own business, not doing anything that seems harmful to anyone, and—BAM—she’s making the face and using the voice again.

Here we go again. What is it this time, princess?

Honestly, my wife would be hurt and/or upset by something she experienced, and my legitimate mental and physical reaction was to filter everything she was telling me through this idea of her being a petty, unfair, nagging, hyper-sensitive, overly emotional ingrate.

I thought SHE was the one making our marriage shitty. I seriously believed that.

And if you’re reading this and identifying with my wife in this story, and your blood is boiling a little bit because of what a condescending, invalidating asshole I was being BEFORE even speaking to her, I want to encourage you to consider that your partner believes that too.

I say that with zero judgment.

When you think of yourself as a smart, kind, polite person who succeeds at work, has healthy social and professional relationships, and who always got along with family members growing up, and the ONLY person who ever complains about you is your spouse (who you promised to love forever, share everything with, and who you perceive yourself to sacrifice most for), then it’s easy to mathematically arrive at this conclusion.

The sad and angry wife in this example is the statistical outlier. She’s the one who is acting radically different than the rest of his interpersonal data sample. Who am I going to believe? My own judgment plus EVERYONE I’ve ever known? Or this crazy woman trying to make me out to be the bad guy?

So please don’t interpret me as demonizing these men or myself 10 years ago. You can be legitimately decent and well-intentioned and STILL harm your spouse and marriage in your blind spots.

Good people can be bad spouses. Good people can unwittingly destroy their marriages.

And one of the ways that happens is when spouses (usually husbands) are “surprised” by their wives’ expressed sadness or anger. Over and over and over again.

How did this happen? How is it possible that she’s THIS upset about something I never even saw coming?

The Damage Happens Because You Didn’t See it Coming

When you’re a parent—or even just an adult—and you see children running in the house, or next to a swimming pool, or skateboarding in the middle of the street, the dangers are obvious to you.

You can see all the potential hazards. Like a prophet.

It’s probably not because you’re psychic. It’s probably because you’ve ran into sharp corners, or burned your hand on the stove, or cut yourself with a knife, or had some scary close calls while riding your bike in your neighborhood.

It’s the knowledge and wisdom that comes with experience and a nuanced understanding of the situation.

The same things happen in our career pursuits and favorite hobbies.

Whatever you’ve spent the most time practicing, or reading about, or thinking about, or discussing, are the things you have the most expertise on.

All of us have something.

I type fast and can usually string words together pretty efficiently. I know a lot about NFL football, Marvel movies, bourbon whiskey, video games, the newspaper industry, cooking, and poker relative to most people.

I’ve also learned an enormous amount about relationships over the past seven years, because I’ve studied them, thought about them, written about them, and talked about them more than anything else.

Whatever we do the most and have learned the most about are the things in which we develop expertise or mastery.

I had a relationship coaching client in his 70s. Married 36 years.

He was expressing frustration about hearing the same complaints from his wife for nearly 40 years. (Feel free to laugh. I sort-of did even though it’s probably more sad than funny.)

I asked him to grab a pen and paper, and in two columns, jot down the things that mattered most to his wife. One column of positive stuff. One column of negative stuff.

In other words, what are the things that affect your wife in good and bad ways? What matters most to her in a good way, and what matters most to her in a bad way? What are the things that move the needle for her, emotionally?

My client couldn’t name ONE THING. Not one. “I don’t really know, Matt.”

Well. Gee whiz.

“Respectfully, sir. You don’t know your wife.”

Imagine STUDYING poker, playing in live games twice per week, playing online several times per week, and watching several hours of it on TV.

I have poker textbooks that I would pore over. I would study the pros on TV. I would analyze every nuanced decision the best players in the world were making in an effort to be a strong player.

And it worked. I got pretty good.

Now. Imagine being a woman who—in every decision she makes, large and small—factors her husband into the equation.

What to have for dinner. When to broach certain subjects with me. What plans to make for the upcoming weekend. What gifts to get MY parents for the holidays—something that hadn’t occurred to me before she mentioned it.

There were almost no decisions my wife would make throughout the course of the day that didn’t take into account how our son and her husband would be affected by it.

Compare that to me.

I woke up, maybe worked out, drove to work, did work stuff, drove home, and then maybe I’d cook or help clean up the kitchen. One or two days per week, I’d vanish for poker night. When I was home, maybe I was playing online poker, watching a movie or TV show that I liked, or “managing” a fantasy football team.

You know. Minding my own business after a day where I went to work, cooked dinner and cleaned up the kitchen, and then sat down to watch, read, or play something.

So, that’s why I always thought it was bullshit when she’d be upset with me about something.

Because I didn’t do anything.

And I was right. I didn’t do anything. I was SURPRISED by my wife feeling upset or neglected or disrespected by something I either did or didn’t do.

Imagine if I’d given the list of things that affect my wife positively and negatively even HALF of the attention I gave to trying to master poker or win my fantasy football league.

Imagine.

Maybe, if I had a nuanced understanding of the sorts of things that caused my wife to feel pain, it would have occurred to me just how hurtful it must have been for her to see me put so much time, effort, and energy into mastering a game she had no interest in, and which took me away from her and our home several hours per week, while NEVER investing even a fraction of that same disciplined focus, effort, and energy in her. Into our marriage. Into optimizing our home life in a way that helped her feel seen, heard, respected, cherished, desired, and supported.

What if I KNEW my wife? What if I really, truly knew who she was? Her hopes and dreams. The very specific reasons why things I thought were petty or silly created pain for her. What if I—with well-practiced expertise—had developed mastery-level skills for marriage, and a comprehensive understanding of who she was and what mattered most to her?

Someone who KNOWS their spouse with the same mastery they have of their profession or favorite hobbies or whatever they’ve studied the most? That’s a person capable of anticipating his or her partner’s emotional, mental, and physical needs in real time.

Without any surprises.

The “invisible” bad shit doesn’t happen because we can anticipate it. We see the potential danger or potential mistakes and avoid them.

That’s what well-practiced, focused people who are paying attention do. They see problems before they happen and adapt for the best-possible outcome.

Imagine if you also did that for your spouse.

Imagine a life without being “surprised” with another “petty” complaint.

Imagine a partner who never complains because she or he is in a constant state of having their needs met. Of being considered. Of being validated. Of being respected. Of being loved.

I don’t know what you’re best at in life. But I’m pretty sure you were mostly shit at it when you didn’t even know what you didn’t know and were just getting started.

Maybe you’re accidentally shit at various aspects of your relationship. Maybe you’re regularly confused by your partner.

And just maybe, putting in the work of understanding and knowing things about them that you don’t currently know will mitigate much of the conflict and discomfort in your marriage.

Just maybe, when we are tuned into our partners and have expertise on the things that affect them—both good and bad—we are able to anticipate and meet their needs in real time. Without surprises. Because these things are no longer happening in our blind spots.

The pain- and conflict-producing situations are no longer sneaking up on us.

We see the sharp corners. The boiling pan on the stove. And we’re just a little more mindful and cautious.

Maybe that’s how we help prevent a lot of pain, and more effectively soothe it when it happens.

Maybe that’s how we turn frustrating, unhealthy, and disconnected relationships into ones we want to be a part of.

I didn’t know my wife. But, if I’d chosen to, I could have.

And that would have changed everything.

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Love in the Time of Coronavirus

couple with coronavirus masks

(Image/CBS46.com)

So I’ve been thinking about this virus going around. You know the one.

I’m scheduled to turn 41 later this month, and near as I can tell, this is the first real-time global health crisis during my lifetime with the potential to affect everyone.

The Covid-19 coronavirus doesn’t care how much money you have. It doesn’t care which language you speak nor what country you call home. It doesn’t care about your age or race or religious beliefs or education or politics or your sexual proclivities.

The coronavirus doesn’t appear to discriminate. If you’re a human being with a functioning respiratory system, it thinks you’re good enough.

True equality.

I’m not an expert in biology, infectious disease, nor medicine, so I don’t pretend to know where any of this is headed.

Health experts say this coronavirus doesn’t transmit as easily as the seasonal flu, but millions of people are inoculated or have built up immunity to the common flu strains, so maybe it makes sense that a virus no one has immunity to nor a vaccine for seems to be moving its way around the world rather easily.

I used to tell people that horror films—the supernatural, or monster, or slasher types—never really scared me. Which was true. Those stories were too detached from my reality to trigger real fear outside of a cheap jump-scare.

What did ‘scare’ me, I’d say, were stories like Outbreak or The Stand, which are based on apocalyptic pandemic scenarios in which everyone who contracts the virus dies. That’s not the case here. Not even close. There are radical differences between those stories and what has been happening in coronavirus-affected communities so far.

This story doesn’t scare me (in a health way), but this story does interest me because of its We’re All in This Together quality.

In Good Times and in Bad, In Sickness and in Health

Maybe this thing dies out super-fast for reasons I’m too ignorant to anticipate or understand. I’m currently operating under the assumption this probably gets worse before it gets better. I’ll be delighted to be wrong.

My cousin married his wife this past weekend. On Leap Day, February 29. He’s rock solid. An infinitely better man than I was at his age.

The ceremony gave me another opportunity to think deeply about the promises we make to one another when we exchange marriage vows. Beautiful promises.

But perhaps beautiful promises that too few of us actually keep.

A Common Break-Up Story

That’s what my divorce was. Just your average marriage coming to its inevitable end with a husband asleep at the wheel.

When divorce is the conclusion of a particular marriage story, common themes emerge—themes which were on full display in mine.

The relationship becomes strained. Not quickly nor obviously.

Slowly. Quietly. Insidiously.

If we recognized what was happening as it was happening, most of us would course-correct, since most of us legitimately love our spouses and want our marriages to succeed.

We’re not intentionally sabotaging our most important relationships.

We’re accidentally doing it. We don’t even know it’s happening as it’s happening.

They’re not bombs and gunshots.

They’re pinpricks.

They’re paper cuts.

These tiny wounds don’t kill us instantly or even make us feel as if we’re in mortal danger. And THAT is the danger. When we don’t recognize the threat, we never make the adjustments or preparations necessary to protect ourselves or others from the potential outcomes. These tiny wounds start to bleed, and the bleed-out is so gradual that many of us don’t recognize the threat until it’s too late to stop it.

It is during this poor relationship-health phase when it’s most fragile and vulnerable that an outside force can level an unsteady house on a weakened or absent foundation.

In a 2015 article in Health magazine, Dr. Elizabeth Ochoa, a marriage counselor and chief psychologist at Mount Sinai Beth Israel hospital in New York City, pointed to seven life events that commonly lead to divorce in an already-strained relationship:

  • Illness
  • Job loss / Financial stress
  • Childbirth
  • Living apart
  • Trauma
  • Empty-nesters
  • Infidelity

If you’re me, it can even be a neat combination.

I was a shitty husband during and after my wife giving birth to our son.

Not long after, I was laid off during consecutive rounds of corporate layoffs following the 2008 recession. I was a shitty husband during that time too, but mostly I just couldn’t love and respect myself after losing my job.

And finally, just as we were getting our finances back together and I believed things were moving in a positive direction, she lost her father suddenly. Out of nowhere the day after having a wonderful dinner with her parents.

Let’s call it the Divorce Life Event Triple-Threat.

We were finished even though it took me another 18 months or so to realize it when she made the decision to leave.

Like a child, I attributed my wife’s decision to end our marriage as a selfish action stemming from her inability to manage her emotions effectively while grieving her father’s passing. I resented her for allowing her grief to “rank higher” or “be more important” than our marriage.

I didn’t know that my inability to love and respect myself and step up courageously following my layoff had eroded her trust in me and our relationship.

I didn’t realize what a betrayal she experienced in my lack of showing up for her in the months leading up to our son being born. I didn’t realize that my failure to prepare myself to really love and support her proactively, emotionally and logistically, had completely broken the trust she once had in me.

I didn’t understand how my failure to respect my wife’s feelings over my selfish desire to change them throughout thousands of these paper-cut incidents had set the stage perfectly for a major life event to wipe away everything I thought we’d built.

The Coronavirus Test Kits

I hope and pray all of you will do everything within your power to take care of yourself and those you love in your efforts to stay healthy.

But I also know—whether it’s this virus, something else, or an unpleasant combination—that life is going to throw things at you indiscriminately.

These big, stressful, life-altering happenings are a threat to the very things that helps us weather life’s most difficult, most frightening, most painful moments—our most significant relationships.

While scary headlines and unusual life adjustments cause new stresses and inconveniences, please don’t lose sight of what was most important before they happened, what will be most important as they happen, and will be most important after they happen.

Love hard, please.

Yourself. Your loved ones. And those people over there that neither of us know.

Let’s please take care of one another.

It has always been all of us in this together.

But I’m not sure I ever recognized how much until now.

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Taking the Wheel Vs. Destroying Our Marriages on Autopilot

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(Image/Forbes)

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

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

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

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

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

Habits are simply everything that we do on autopilot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that habit is:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I want people to notice themselves doing this.

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

People get divorced.

People lose grandparents.

People’s pets die.

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

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

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

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

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

Who are you? Who am I?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Image/John Lewis)

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

You feel a little flutter of anxiety.

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

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

Shock. Disbelief. Disoriented.

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

You hang up the phone.

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

Minutes go by. Maybe hours.

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

I can’t believe they’re gone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s one way to handle it.

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

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

The Monster Under the Bed Theory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We get to choose.

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

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

The alternative?

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

Love is a choice.

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

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

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

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

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Where to Find Solutions to Your Relationship Problems

(Image/Tubefilter.com)

The best places to look for solutions — to any significant problem you may face; not just relationship problems — are in the non-obvious places.

The places you haven’t looked.

The places you wouldn’t think to look.

And that’s the rub. It’s counter-intuitive to think of things we don’t naturally or instinctively think of. It’s sort of impossible to notice or know about things we can’t see.

One relationship partner’s failure to notice something (or many things) meaningful to the other is the root cause of many strained or broken couples.

Maybe she thinks he’s a selfish asshole for not noticing, or not acknowledging a Herculean effort on her part to plan a huge family event. Or re-decorating a room in their house. Or for all that she sacrificed so that their children are well fed, perform well in school, and get to and from their extracurricular activities safely and on-time without significant interruptions to his career and work schedule.

Maybe he’s super-busy advancing his workplace skills and accomplishments because from his earliest memories, the measure of a man was directly tied to career success and his ability to provide financial security to his family both today and for the entirety of their lives. Maybe his highest priority is the long-term wellness of his wife and children, and he’s afraid of failing them every day. And maybe while he’s keeping his head down trying to better himself and his family’s circumstances, he’s blind (literally never even saw) a change to her hair or their home.

While he’s looking in one place at one thing, something is happening outside of his field of view. He doesn’t even know there’s a thing to notice.

His checked-outness feels like disrespect to her. Like only the things he does matters, and she apparently amounts to little more than a house-cleaning nanny who cooks dinner, packs lunches, and who only gets feel-good attention when he’s trying to have sex with her.

When she finally speaks up about it, or cold-shoulders his attempt to connect in the bedroom, it seems to him that it came out of left field. What did I do this time?!

When we are trying to find solutions to our problems (or to locate anything missing like our phone or car keys), we default to looking in the obvious places first. And this makes sense as one of my favorite writers Seth Godin points out when he wrote “Look in the obvious places first.”

Godin writes:

“That makes sense, because the obvious solution is obvious because we’ve learned how to solve problems like these. Your car keys are probably on your dresser, not in Santa Fe.

“Here’s the thing: if the problem is a longstanding one, if it hasn’t been solved in a while, then the places you think are obvious aren’t. Because they’ve already been tried.

“As time goes on, the most likely site of the solution is further and further away from what you would have guessed. So begin there instead. That’s the new obvious place.

“Hint: it’s probably a place that feels uncomfortable, risky or difficult.”

The answers to your questions and the fixes to your problems are probably not in any of the places in which you’ve been looking for them.

Couples have the same fight for 10, 20, even 30 years, if they make it that long.

And if one of them — so sure of themselves and certain of their correctness — hasn’t managed to convince the other, what must that signify?

That one or both of them are woefully incapable of effective communication. That one or both of them are intellectually incapable of comprehending the brilliance of the other.

Or maybe it means that two people can look at, hear, feel, or otherwise experience the same thing, and come away with differing accounts of what happened, and differing accounts of how they feel about it.

And maybe neither one is objectively correct or incorrect.

As my brilliant friend Lesli Doares, a Cary, N.C.-based marriage therapist says, if we have 10 thermometers telling us it’s 65 degrees Fahrenheit outside, we can feel secure in that objective truth: It’s 65 degrees outside.

But the answer to the all-important follow-up question that will make or break your relationships is NOT objective, even though most of us treat it like one:

Yes. It’s 65 degrees. But, is that hot or cold?

It’s Not One Event or One Thing — It’s the Accumulation of the Tiny, Unnoticed Things

I’ve long described the end of my marriage as death by a thousand paper cuts.

One paper cut isn’t a big deal. We shake it off and move on. Same for the second and third, and probably even the 100th. But maybe after a thousand, the wounds are so severe that we bleed to death and die.

Our relationships die with one or both of us asleep at the wheel.

This idea — this death-by-a-thousand-cuts concept — fascinates me. How can it be that two people agree to forsake all others and partner up for life, and pool their resources, and make children and homes and new lives together, and then half of them fail to the tune of 6,600 divorces per day in the United States alone?

How can that be? After so many decades of experience and knowledge and new generations of people? How can so many people fail at the most precious and important thing at the center of their lives?

Are we all cosmically huge assholes hell bent on mutual self-destruction?

Are we all horrible, incompetent, evil, manipulative, selfish, nasty people incapable of behaving with love and kindness?

OR.

Do the things that end us seem so inconsequential — so harmless and insignificant — that we don’t bother with them?

Do things that we encounter every day (I call them the All The Time things) escape our notice simply because our brains are biologically prone to adapt to our surroundings and routines?

In our never-ending search for comfort, we build in personal systems of routine and familiarity in our actions, our surroundings, our habits, and the people with whom we surround ourselves.

And then we become blind to what becomes constant. Like the summer-nights hum of insects or the everyday sounds of city traffic from a downtown office building. Like white noise.

What happened to cause your marriage to fall apart?

There’s rarely one thing. One event. It’s the accumulation of a million data points, and when the positive ones emerged consistently, two people fell in love and had content, healthy relationships. When the negative ones emerged consistently, things began to erode from within until the structural integrity gave way and everything collapsed.

Simon Sinek, a brilliant author and speaker, describes it from the opposite perspective — how two people fall in love, which I’d argue is simply the reverse-engineered version of how we break our relationships.

When we go to the gym once, or even twice, can we see results? No? Then it must not work! So people quit.

When we brush our teeth for two minutes a couple of times per day, does it make a measurable impact? Not particularly. Doing it once won’t fix a cavity or whiten your stained teeth. It must not work!

Sinek talks through process in the video (that I tried and failed to embed below), and it’s perfect. He discusses both love and business leadership, but the lessons are the same in either instance.

Brushing your teeth for two minutes twice per day doesn’t do anything. It doesn’t matter. UNLESS, you brush your teeth for two minutes twice per day always. It’s the consistent behavior that matters. It’s the consistent behavior that produces healthy, desirable results.

WATCH THIS, please. It’s fantastic.

Take a Closer Look at the All The Time Things

We have questions. We have pains.

So we look for answers. We try to solve our problems so our pains go away.

We look in the places we think to look.

But if the problem has been around for a long time, whatever thing or piece of information you need to achieve your desired result is elsewhere.

And just maybe, they’re hiding in plain sight in the white noise of the All The Time.

NOTE: If you would like to explore whether working with me might help you notice things that exist in your blind spots, or whether reframing your thought and communication habits in your relationship might help you have a breakthrough, please consider whether my coaching services could help you or someone you love.

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The Art of Getting to Tomorrow When Everything’s Wrong

(Image/iStock)

It was exactly like those initial weeks after divorce.

I couldn’t describe what was wrong. None of my feelings made sense to me. Intellectually, I thought my body was overreacting. But our insides—all the invisible stuff that makes us, us—have a funny way of not always doing what our brains think they should.

I was robbed on a work trip to Las Vegas. They took my phone, the cash I had on me, and my shoes. I learned after visiting my bank once I got back home that they had cleaned out my checking account through a series of ATM withdraws and Venmo transfers.

I can’t prove that I was drugged. But given that one minute I was with friends listening to a cheesy Vegas cover band before leaving to use the restroom—and the very next thing I remember is waking up five hours Iater in a hotel stairwell several miles away, and apparently providing strangers with the private banking information and phone passcodes they needed to clean me out financially—I’m continuing to operate under that theory.

At the end of the day, some dickbags took my phone, wallet/money, and a pair of shoes.

People have been killed for less.

From a certain perspective, you could say I’m lucky to be alive, and that I’m fortunate to have ended up at my hotel, even if it was in a dingy metal and concrete emergency stairwell.

So why do I feel this thing I don’t have a name for?

On the surface, it’s a ridiculous comparison, right?

Divorce is hugely disruptive. Your person leaves you. Your entire life changes overnight, forever.

This was NOT that.

So why? Why is it feeling the same?

Divorce was my first encounter with inner brokenness. Things were dark and heavy and ugly and painful and scary and broken, and there was nowhere to run.

That was its defining characteristic. That you took it with you everywhere, no matter what. It greeted you in the morning. It sat on your chest as you tried to fall back asleep in the middle of the night. It sat next to you while you were driving around. It poked you and asked you to pay attention to it while you were trying to watch movies or sports. It inserted itself in your conversations with friends and family while you were just trying to have a good time like you always had.

It built and built and built until the only thing left to do was cry like a child.

And you kept waiting for it to go away, but every time you looked in the mirror, you could still see it hiding behind the dead eyes of the stranger in your reflection.

I don’t know what to call this feeling or how to categorize it.

So, I’ve always just called it being “broken.” I was once a certain way. Something that felt normal and right. And then suddenly I was something else. I was a different way, and everything about it sucked more than the old way that I’d gotten used to for 34 years.

Finding my way back from that is one of the most significant things I’ve ever done. It’s perhaps my greatest personal achievement, because I didn’t know the human body could do that, and I didn’t know whether there was any coming back from it.

But You Do Come Back

And it’s happening again.

This robbery thing broke me again for a few days. It happened last Friday. Yesterday was the first day I felt like myself again. It was the first day I was brave enough to have calls with coaching clients.

I was shaken—not just by the incident—but by the idea that I was once again feeling things in the invisible places with no means of fixing it, and nowhere to run away from it.

Feeling 80-percent regular yesterday felt like winning the lottery.

I still have no money, no mobile banking ability, and no driver’s license. But at least I get to be me again.

I’m so grateful it only took a week.

How to Recover from Divorce and Other Trauma in 3 Steps

I’d written it before, and I recognized this was an opportunity for me to try to practice things I’d preached.

When everything is very bad, we’re simply trying to survive. To return to a sense of normalcy.

I reminded myself there was no Skip or Fast-Forward button to push. That the only way anywhere sustainable is the long way.

I remembered that I only had one job. Just one.

Breathe.

My only job was to breathe. Just one more breath. Once I’d completed that task, my only mission was to do that again.

One more breath.

When you breath enough times today, tomorrow always comes.

And after enough tomorrows come, you find yourself further down the trail—finally a safe distance from the shitty, life-wrecking thing you were trying to escape.

Or maybe more accurately, you carried the shitty, life-wrecking thing with you as you continued down the trail, but you finally made peace with the idea of setting it down and moving forward without it.

I don’t pretend to know.

I just think there’s something important about breathing when it’s difficult to do anything else.

To recover from bad things, the three steps are:

  1. Breathe.
  2. Love yourself.
  3. Repeat.

I repeated it like a mantra six and a half years ago when I didn’t know whether I’d wake up the next day, or whether I even wanted to if there was no hope of that feeling going away.

Just breathe. Everything’s going to be okay.

It never happened as fast as I wanted it to. There are no hacks. No cheat codes. No magical workarounds.

There’s just the long way through. Never easy, but always simple.

Breathe. Just one more time.

I’ve breathed millions of times in my life with zero awareness that I was doing so.

So if I do it on purpose? If I try hard? I’m confident I can always take one more.

And after breathing enough times, you get to be you again. You get to wake up tomorrow where the best thing that ever happens to you might happen.

Tomorrow is a gift waiting to be opened.

When you’re ready.

Breathe.

You will be.

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How to Respond to Your Emotional Spouse Without Making Things Worse

mirroring and building rapport with others

(Image/cristianobaraghini.it)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Emotional Intelligence Litmus Test

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Imagine it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The winning players, coaches, and fans are happy.

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

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

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

Same event. Different reactions.

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

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

Our relationship problems are subtle. Nuanced.

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

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

Good news: We can do hard things.

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Must Women Leave Men to Get Them to Change?

Learning the hard way flowchart (Image/David Colarusso)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Answer is Not Either Or

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

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

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

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

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

I didn’t have me to talk to.

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

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

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

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

The Right Words, the Right Way, the Right Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Would You Have Changed if She Had Not Left You?

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

But I can’t be sure that’s true.

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

You can’t know what you don’t know.

I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

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

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

It’s a choice.

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

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The 2,000 Reasons I’m Glad I Didn’t Die Last Night

Compass photo by Aron Visuals

(Image/Aron Visuals)

There haven’t been many days when I’ve wanted to die. Maybe zero.

I felt really bad for a long time after my marriage ended, and I sort of stopped caring. I figured being dead might hurt less.

A little boy and you guys gave me reasons to dust myself off and keep trying every day.

There aren’t many days when I actually thought that I was going to die, even though I’ve probably almost died a bunch of times.

Three of those times stand out above the rest. One was the first day of my life when the docs and nurses told my parents to expect the worst. I don’t remember this, of course, but I’ve heard the story so many times that it feels like I do. Another was a three-wheeler ATV accident when I was a teenager where a little safety bar sticking out from behind the seat probably saved me.

And the third happened last night while driving home from a concert with my 11-year-old in the passenger seat.

I assume I’m not the only one who feels this really surreal feeling when my brain realizes that something bad is about to go down. It’s all happening so fast that you don’t have time to be afraid, so there’s no fear or anxiety, just real-time acceptance that the bad thing is happening, and you just sort of hope things will be okay on the other side, knowing it’s out of your hands.

My son was dozing off in the seat next to me even though the new Volbeat album was playing pretty loudly.

I had just changed lanes from the right lane to the center lane of a three-lane highway at about 70 miles per hour to pass a large semi hauling gasoline, and then exit for home about a mile later.

That’s when a white SUV passed quickly on my left and started merging into the center lane right where we were. I probably said a bad word. A collision with either the merging, speeding vehicle on my left OR the massive fuel tanker on my right seemed like they would end poorly, but I was pretty sure one or both of those things was about to happen.

I knew we were going to have a high-speed highway accident.

I hit the brakes hard and moved as close to the semi as I could. Maybe he saw what was happening and drifted a little to give me room. All I know is I left an epic trail of fishtailing rubber down the center lane of the highway I drive several times per week, I didn’t hear the expected crunch of metal on metal from either the left or the right, and then—miraculously—no one smoked us from behind which could have sent us in any number of directions to some unknown fate.

It happened too fast to really feel anything.

“Did we just almost get in a car accident, dad?”

“Yeah bud. A bad one, I think. Are you okay?”

“Yeah. Are you okay?”

“I’m having a little moment, but yeah, I think so. Did you feel us hit anything?”

“No.”

“That’s insane. I don’t understand how we didn’t hit something. I was sure we were going to. I guess I did a good job.”

“You did do a good job, dad. We’re both okay.”

[Update: The other driver DID hit us. I have a fancy dent in my driver’s side front fender to show for it, and no means of making the other driver’s insurance company pay for it. I hadn’t had a clear view of that front fender until after writing this. Garbage. On the flip side, the vehicle repair costs are insignificant measured against the gratitude I feel for my son’s safety, and both of us still being here.]

2,000 Days Later

It was about six years—about 2,000 or so days—ago when I used to drive down this same stretch of road imagining a large truck driving in the opposite direction crossing over center and just insta-taking me out in a freak accident. I remember thinking: Do your worst. I don’t fucking care.

Back when I didn’t really know how to smile anymore.

Back when it felt impossible to focus on what was in front of me.

Back when it felt hard to breathe.

My son and I were driving home from an Imagine Dragons concert when I felt certain we were going to be involved in the worst vehicular accident of my life.

The most poignant part of the evening came when Imagine Dragons frontman Dan Reynolds intro’d a song talking specifically to kids in the audience about mental health and depression, speaking about the cultural stigma attached to opening up about depression, or about seeking therapy. He was sharing his story to normalize the idea that you can be the lead singer for one of the most popular rock bands in the world, and still need help.

And that that doesn’t make you weak. It makes you strong.

It doesn’t make you broken. It makes you wise.

“Life is ALWAYS worth living,” he said, before they started playing again in what turned out to be the most visually impressive musical performance I’ve ever seen.

Imagine Dragons - Pro Football Hall of Fame - MF

It was pretty rad. (Image/Matthew Fray)

The almost-accident shook me. Down in the places we can’t see and mostly don’t talk about.

Presumably because the little person I’m most alive for was right there with me.

And it dawned on me this morning how unsettling it was to think about family and friends—including you guys (if word ever even got to you)—that I was just gone without so much as a goodbye note telling you how much you matter.

How much this matters.

How much life matters.

What Might 2,000 More Days Bring?

Sometimes my coaching work brings me people who were in the same dark place I was 2,000 days ago.

People who are legitimately asking themselves the question: Why am I even getting up today? What is the point of all of this?

The answer to that question is different for everyone. But 2,000 days later, I’m more confident than ever that there’s ALWAYS an answer. There’s always a reason.

Interpret that with as much or as little spirituality as you want. The answer stands either way.

These past 2,000 days represent about one-fifth of my 40 years—about 20%, and I can’t remember the first 2,000, so it’s really more like 25%.

That number shocks me.

You make the decision to breathe. When everything hurts. You make the decision to get to tomorrow, whatever may come. You don’t have to do it 2,000 times. You just have to do it one more time. We can always do things one more time.

Heavy things become lighter to carry. Sometimes because we set a bunch of it down and leave it behind us. But mostly because we become stronger.

Ugly things become beautiful. Not because things we used to hate become things we love. But because we would be so much less capable had we not endured the difficult human trial.

Darkness becomes light. Which is a choice. To light up the darkness. One you feel prepared to make after wandering around in the dark for a while and deciding it sucks enough to do something else.

Every day that we wake up offers the possibility of being the best day of our lives. Every single day. I don’t always remember to, but I choose hope.

I don’t know how close I actually came to dying last night. Maybe it doesn’t matter since it eventually happens to all of us, and time is never on our side. We are not promised tomorrow, and never have been.

But it felt like a thing in the moment. I was shook. Still am. I’ve been in lots of things, and this one was different.

It made me want to hug my son. I’m so glad you’re here.

It made me want to write to you. I’m so glad you’re here.

It made me realize that I’m not the same person I was 2,000 days ago, and that I won’t be the same person in 2,000 more.

And neither will you.

But who will we be?

Decisions, decisions.

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Adding Spice to Your Love Life Through Routine and Predictability

“We almost died like 15 times throughout this movie, Sandra. We should totally go home and do it.” – Keanu Reeves (Image/whodatedwho.com)

Have you ever been an audience member during a speaking presentation or concert where the audience is asked to do something to participate—like share something to the group, or clap, or sing? You remember that feeling?

Yeah, you do.

I’ve always hated that shit. It triggers whatever big red Discomfort Button that lives in the invisible parts of me, and every time it gets pushed, the loudspeaker in my brain yells, “Everyone is looking at you and judging you and thinking that you’re a stupid asshole!”

It’s irrational. I know it’s silly and unnecessary to think and feel that way. I’m intellectually aware that it’s unhealthy, that hardly anyone is paying attention to me, ever, and if they are, they give zero effs what I’m doing, because they’re too busy worrying about themselves if they’re neurotic like me, or not having a care in the world if they’ve achieved a higher level of mental and emotional maturity than I have.

At 40, I get this in ways I did not in my teens and twenties. But lifelong habits are hard to break, so this is still the default mental and emotional experience whenever I’m in those situations.

Public displays of affection (unless I quiet that internal loudspeaker with the requisite amount of alcohol) trigger those same thoughts and feelings.

My ex-wife used to playfully make fun of me for it, but I think it also made her feel bad. If she grabbed my hand while we were walking together, I’d tense up a little, hold it for just a bit, give it a quick double-squeeze which was SUPPOSED to communicate: “I really do love you! I swear!” but which I’m pretty sure communicated: “It’s sweet that you want to hold my hand, but I care more about what OTHER people think of me/us than I care about you feeling connected and cared for in our relationship! So piss off with the hand-holding, babe!”

Can you imagine? Caring more about what strangers you’ve never met, and probably never will, might think about you for holding your wife’s hand or kissing her?

It’s some next-level dickbag stuff. Life tip: Care more about the emotional wellbeing of the people you love than you do about the neurotic stories you conjure up in your own brain regarding what strangers might think.

Simply, one of those things matters and has genuine relevance to your life, and the other does not.

Romantic Spontaneity vs. ‘Boring’ Routines

If you’re guessing that because I operated that way about hand-holding and any other form of public affection, that I also resisted forced romantic and/or intimate encounters because they didn’t seem ‘authentic’ due to their inherent lack of spontaneity, you’re a fabulous guesser.

Reminder: My wife totally divorced me six years ago, and in my estimation, made an appropriate choice to preserve what was left of her mental/emotional health.

This irrational thing I was doing inside my own head inevitably led to countless situations in which repeated attempts by my wife to connect with me were rejected. Several times per year for more than a dozen years.

Romance and sexual desire doesn’t always manifest in the daily hum-drum routines of the average married couple who spent a long day at work and are maybe caring for kids and pets throughout the mornings and evenings the way it does between two super-attractive Hollywood actors who just survived a dramatic near-death experience in the movies.

I guess I thought that’s what was supposed to happen.

Leveraging the Power of Habit to Increase Emotional Connection with our Partners

I was reminded of how egregiously I failed my wife while watching a recent Mindvalley video featuring Jon and Missy Butcher, called 9 Daily Habits That Will Help You Lead An Extraordinary Life.

Here’s a couple married 25 years, and instead of them complaining about one another to anyone who will listen like most of the 25-year couples I’ve encountered, these two take a walk together every single day, as a daily check-in.

While most of us are busy holding in our frustrations so they can spew out in an undisciplined way at what usually ends up being the most inopportune times, Jon and Missy plan a time each day to unload all of that crap to one another. A daily appointment with one another to listen to each other about the things they experienced earlier in the day, good and bad. This is what it looks like to intentionally move toward one another instead of allowing the natural drift-apart to occur by being too busy with everything else.

And then, once per week, the couple has an overnight date night. Maybe at home. Maybe somewhere else. But every single week, Friday night overnight, no matter where they are, belongs to them, and arrangements are made for everything else in their lives (children, pets, work) to be cared for.

This is their Connection Ritual.

This is what it means to water your own lawn so that your own grass ALWAYS looks greener and better than whatever is on the other side of the fence.

Having a good marriage or a quality, connected romantic relationship of any kind, I think, is a lot like getting in good physical shape. A select few don’t have to work very hard to look and feel great. But most of us do.

And despite the efforts of many magic diet and supplement salespeople, there are no shortcuts to being our best selves physically.

You just do the work. It’s really hard at the beginning. Inertia is always the greatest obstacle. Something new is always more difficult to accomplish than something routine. Our first week of work is always more challenging and intimidating than our 18th month on the job. We move every day. We are mindful about what we consume. The more healthy choices we make, the more our health and wellness benefits from those choices.

And so it is with our relationships. They are what the participants mindfully choose for them to be. When two people wake up every day making the choice to choose one another, and prioritizing one another over everything else, our connections grow. Our love flourishes. Our relationships thrive.

And when you derpy-derp around like I did with your fingers crossed that everything will work out without having to give anything or do anything uncomfortable to achieve it?

I think it’s telling that I don’t even have to say it.

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