Tag Archives: Parenting

The 7 Life-Changing Benefits of Treating My Ex-Wife Well After Divorce

olive branch

(Image/Challies.com)

The worst day of my life wasn’t the day the divorce was finalized.

It wasn’t even the day she packed a suitcase and drove away with our little boy in the backseat while I watched from the kitchen wondering whether I might die, right then, just because I didn’t know if the human body could withstand what I was feeling.

The worst day of my life came later, when I learned that she was in a new relationship.

It wasn’t bad because I was sad.

It was bad because I was angry. Very. I think “rage” is the most precise word for what I was feeling. I didn’t understand how I could be feeling so horribly broken and miserable, and she could be investing emotionally in another person.

My pride was wounded. It seemed unfair that she could be enjoying life while I felt like dying. I was still coming to terms with my loss of parental control, and not knowing anything about this guy was making it worse. For all I knew, he was a serial child-abuser, and I was too pissed to rationally conclude that my son’s mother would not subject him to obvious harm, and I was still too shell-shocked to know what was real and what wasn’t.

I was so angry that I actually imagined something bad happening to her—this person I loved above all things—and felt nothing. No sadness. No guilt. Nothing. I was still blaming her, even though we now know how immature and foolish that was.

I still didn’t “get it” yet.

It’s hard to be angry and rational at the same time. It’s difficult to feel ragey and then make wise choices.

I now understand how crimes of passion can happen. For anyone comfortable with, or previously exposed to violence, and no children to worry about, I can conceptually grasp why that kind of person might lash out in anger, and how easy it would be for people to die in those confrontations.

But because I’ve been immensely blessed in life, I haven’t witnessed nor experienced much violence nor am I prone to behave violently. Because the adults in my life treated me with intense love and care, I’ve never had any trouble treating my young son with that same care.

Even IF I was capable of something as heinous as intentionally harming another person—let alone the mother of my son—I simply don’t do things (mindfully) that will make my son’s life worse.

That is a baseline non-negotiable core value.

And the conclusion is simple: The positive value of my son having his mother in his life—independent of my emotional state—cannot be measured.

And as time marched on, it didn’t take long for me to recognize the next logical conclusion: If my son’s mother provides him immeasurable value, doesn’t my ex-wife living her best-possible life benefit him the most?

And finally: As his father and her parenting partner, doesn’t me supporting her life as best I can—even in divorce—lend itself to me being the best father and parenting partner I can be?

Because I’m a single parent, most of the people I’ve met in a dating capacity over the past four years have also been single parents. I’ve been SHOCKED to see what massive dicks some of these guys are, and—full disclosure—it’s usually the first or only “bad” thing I learn about someone I’m dating. Fair or not, marrying and conceiving children with someone capable of THAT much assholery reflects poorly.

If you’re shitty to your former spouse and you don’t have children, I have to ask why you’re even in contact with them. If my wife and I had not been parents, I think I’d have moved far away shortly after the divorce was final and never speak to her again.

Maybe then I would have spent the rest of my life believing a false narrative I’d told myself to try to make sense of what—to me—seemed purely nonsensical.

Maybe I never would have grown, because I wouldn’t have had to.

And maybe I’d never achieve anything resembling a healthy or happy relationship, because I’d keep waiting for someone to “fit” into my life instead of knowing I must one day choose to create an entirely new life that won’t be mine, but “ours.”

If you’re shitty to your former spouse and you DO share children, then I’m forced to question who and what you are as a parent.

To have your kids suffer in order to scratch a sadistic itch to mistreat the person to whom you were once married strikes me as some of the worst kind of selfishness.

It’s fundamentally and undeniably bad for your kids to intentionally tear down their OTHER hero, and perhaps the only other person that grounds them and provides the necessary sense of safety they need just to function in life.

The benefits of, not just avoiding obvious acts of dickheadedness toward our exes, but actually treating them well, seem obvious to me. I understand that all individuals, their personal relationship experiences, and their current relationship dynamics, will vary.

I know there may be things about me or my ex-wife that gives us get-along advantages not available to everyone. And I know that if we didn’t share a child, things might be much different. But the following are very real and tangible benefits I experience regularly as a result of being good to my ex-wife.

How Being Cool to Our Exes Makes Our Lives Better

1. Reciprocated Cooperation is Very Helpful

Because my ex-wife and I treat each other kindly and respectfully, we both experience a steady dose of mutual cooperation.

Maybe one of your best friends is getting married in Mexico and asks you to be a groomsman and you have to leave the country for six days to be there, and it’s going to throw a major wrench in the pre-existing parenting schedule.

Maybe tomorrow is your child’s gym class at school or team practice afterward and you’re missing the shoes or specialty equipment they need to participate.

Maybe the holidays or a birthday or a life event is approaching where coordinating schedules and pooling financial resources makes the situation better.

That my ex-wife and I can hop on the phone or exchange texts asking one another about schedules or splitting costs or whether the other person can drop something off that our son needs for school activities changes the entire world.

If we acted possessive about who bought what for him, or blatantly refused to budge on the parenting schedule, it would mean that both me AND our son would suffer any time something unexpected happened.

Despite no longer being married, if my ex-wife and I couldn’t fundamentally count on one another, our lives would be immeasurably shittier and more-stressful than they are currently.

Communicate. Cooperate. Be helpful.

It matters.

2. I Get to Know Things I Wouldn’t and Freak Less

I care about what happens to my son. I care about his life, his whereabouts, and knowing that he’s safe. If his mother and I didn’t communicate about where he was, who he was with, and what he was doing, we’d be left to wonder and fear the worst.

As it is, when my son goes on vacation for a week, I know where he is, what he’s doing, who he’s with, and I can talk to him as much as I want.

The same, of course, is true when I take my 9-year-old out of town. His mom, always and forever, has unlimited I-Want-to-Talk-to-My-Son requests that I’ll honor. That was true even when we first separated and secretly wanted to stab each other in the face with rusty spears.

I know more about my son’s friends. More about his friends’ families.

And since I’m terrible with calendar management, I get a ton of support from my ex to get special events for school or sports on my calendar to keep me involved even on nights my son isn’t home with me.

3. Being Together Isn’t the Worst Time Ever

When we were first separated and I was harboring powerfully angry and pained emotions which probably simulated the physical sensation of hate, I DREADED being anywhere she was, or even just talking on the phone with her.

It was horrible.

Had we never made efforts to treat one another with kindness and mutual respect, every single event I’d attend as a parent might involve me feeling super-shitty. Maybe I’d even skip things my little boy wished I’d attend to avoid dealing with it.

Instead, we are often in the same place at the same time to support our son. There are likely still parents among the sports teams and extracurricular activities we’re all involved with that don’t realize we’re not married.

If our son is involved in something, most of the time, we’re both there to support him.

I think this has been HUGE for him as he’s adapted to the lifestyle change, and how he feels in any situation involving the families of him and his friends.

Which leads nicely into…

4. Our Son is Happy and Healthy

This is subjective. And I have no way of knowing how another kid with a different personality might react in an identical situation.

But I feel really confident saying that if you speak or behave in any way that is hostile or otherwise shitty to your ex-spouse, your perceptive children WILL know it and feel stressed and generally uncomfortable any time you’re all together, or even just in phone-call situations.

I think being intentionally shitty to your ex is—in many ways—being intentionally shitty to your children.

5. You Preserve Important Friendships

Divorce breaks things and severs relationships. Has always been true. Will always be true.

Friends will pick sides.

Others will try their best to maintain healthy friendships with both of you with varying success.

If you want to make sure you lose even more people in your inner circle, go ahead and be overtly evil and shitty to your ex just because you’re angry with them.

The good friends will keep their distance.

Anyone encouraging you to be an asshole to someone they once called a friend is probably not the caliber of human being you really want in your inner circle.

6. You’re Not a Messy, Walking Contradiction

Don’t act like you didn’t love—or don’t still currently love—your ex-spouse. It’s a lie and you can’t trick yourself no matter how much we’d all like to.

If you want to live a balanced, healthy life where things aren’t constantly shitty and dysfunctional, it’s important that your actions reflect your true values and feelings. When you dislike someone but act like you like them, it becomes this gross, slimy, fake and all-around inauthentic display that most healthy people can identify right away (and if you’re the kind of person who can trick people effectively, you might have bigger problems than trying to get along with an ex.)

You’re always going to feel, just, off, if you spend your life doing things that don’t reflect your true feelings and intentions.

So. Just own it. You loved, and to some extent, still love the person you chose to marry and have children with.

And every time you speak or behave in ways that don’t align with these true, honest, authentic thoughts and feelings inside you, you’re going to continue to feel a little listless and unhinged.

Identify truth. Whatever is real. Then honor that with the things we think, do and say.

Life’s never fun when you’re constantly struggling to find steady ground or sure footing.

Find balance by being the REAL YOU.

7. You Get to be You Again by Healing Much Faster

If you want to know what a depressed, almost-suicidal and totally fucked-up human being looks like, just go check out this blog’s 2013-2014 archived content.

They say time heals all wounds. And maybe it does. But my divorce could easily be a lifelong prison sentence if I chose to be super-involved in my son’s life AND a massive d-hole to his mother at the same time.

Every day might not suck, but ALMOST every day would if we hadn’t let go of all that pent-up anger.

I can’t speak for her, but I was broken. I say that a lot so maybe it’s lost its meaning. But I hope not, because it’s real and it matters.

I was broken.

My insides died and I wasn’t even the same person anymore. For a long time.

It was agonizing and miserable and I wouldn’t wish that experience on anyone.

Life can be so much harder than I’d ever known. And now I do know. During the dark days, the ones where I didn’t know whether I’d survive or whether I wanted to, I realized that no amount of money, no career success, no material possession—no nothing—could have saved me from that darkness.

It follows you around to tuck you into bed at night, and greet you when you wake. It’s in the shower, in the car, keeping you company at parties and at holiday gatherings. It distracts you while you try to work and taunts you when you can’t.

That was when I figured out that I’d spent more than 30 years prioritizing the wrong things, and that moving forward, my life needed to be about never feeling that way again, and helping my son and others avoid a similar fate.

The fear and anger and self-pity fed the darkness.

The accountability and introspection and self-reflection drowned it in light.

And in that light I found some truths. About me. About life. About the woman I’ll remain tied to for life despite our marriage ending.

And now I get to be me again.

Stronger. Smarter. Wiser.

More confident. More courageous. Less afraid.

Happy and hopeful.

In the truth, I found meaning. In the meaning, I found forgiveness. And in the forgiveness, I found love.

It looks nothing like the love we’d promised each other standing on that alter, young and ignorant.

But I’m pretty sure it can be enough.

In fact, I think it already is.

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Don’t Overthink It: To Live Better and Feel Happy, Have More Fun

happy face

“Fun is good,” Dr. Seuss is quoted as saying on the internet, so I can’t be entirely sure it’s true.
But even if it’s not, I could just quote myself saying it right now: “Fun is good.” – Matt
Because honestly, we need to be having more of it. Yes, even you. (Image/download-wallpaper.net)

Do you ever find yourself in situations where you’re supposed to be having fun and feeling good, but you’re not and you don’t?

Not only is what you’re doing NOT fun, but there’s the bonus element of suckage resulting from your unmet expectations and ensuing disappointment.

There are countless reasons why something we expected to be good turned out to be bad. Maybe we’re having a fight with our spouse or partner and now the party we attended with them isn’t fun. Maybe we have a chronic injury and the pain we feel on long runs or bike rides sucks the joy out of a previously positive experience. Maybe we’re doing something alone, but we discover that we only feel good or happy when we’re doing it with other people. (Giggity.)

How much I like or don’t like something tends to be influenced heavily by my expectations leading into it. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to not hype things up in my head so much, and have discovered many more pleasant surprises along the way as a result. I like pleasant surprises.

But something else has also happened as I’ve gotten older—I’ve had less fun.

I don’t think people want to admit that.

I think we feel guilty and ashamed when we take an honest, no-bullshit assessment of our lives and conclude: I don’t enjoy life as much as I used to.

Maybe we think it sounds shitty to admit that since we’re married or in committed relationships and we don’t understand why the most important relationship in our adult lives doesn’t deliver more personal happiness. Maybe we’re afraid to admit to ourselves or anyone else how much of our lives we sacrificed to promise forever to someone else, only to feel much more disappointed than we ever acknowledge.

Shouldn’t my relationship deliver more joy and satisfaction than it does?

Maybe we think it sounds shitty to admit that since we have kids and we love them so intensely. Shouldn’t I feel happier and have more fun as a parent than I do?

Maybe we’re embarrassed that no matter how much wealth, real estate, or career advancements we earn, we still sometimes feel a yearning when we’re laying still in the dark with nothing to drown out our most honest inner thoughts.

I’ve achieved and acquired so many things I believed would make me happy, but the truth is, back when I was just a poor kid playing backyard football in a small town no one’s ever heard of, I felt HAPPIER and had MORE FUN than I do now.

And once again, our unmet expectations take a poke at our insides, making the corners of our mouths just a little bit heavier. It’s harder to find our smiles when we find ourselves once again asking: WTF happened to my life? Why do I feel so unfulfilled?

Maybe it’s Just Me

I don’t mean to sound as if I assume your life sucks and that you feel depressed all the time.

I don’t feel depressed all the time.

My life doesn’t suck.

BUT. There’s no question that I don’t have as much fun as I used to.

And that dear friends—I believe—is the answer to the riddle.

Everyone’s Fun Looks Different, So Trust Yourself, Not What Others Say

I can sit for five or six hours in a poker tournament folding 90 percent of my hands and have fun.

My ex-wife thought that sounded dreadful. Even some of my fellow poker enthusiasts can’t stand the idea of folding so many hands. (Bonus Life Tip: That’s how you win poker tournaments—folding the vast majority of the time.)

Some people love crocheting. Or bowling. Or gardening. Or painting tin soldiers. Or reading biographies. Or watercolor painting.

No one can tell you what feels fun. It’s our job to try things and then evaluate as fairly and honestly as possible how pleasurable of an experience each thing was.

In a life where more and more demands are being placed on us from family and career responsibilities, and an increasingly more-connected world also means more distractions, the FIRST things most of us sacrifice to make room for these demands are the things that bring us pleasure.

We are continually being forced to cut out more and more of the things we do simply because we like them. And normally, productivity and accomplishment provides a sense of satisfaction. But almost inevitably, mandatory tasks always start to feel burdensome.

Nothing but divorce has ever depressed me more than the day I realized that I wake up every weekday, drive to work, and do something I wouldn’t necessarily be doing if I didn’t need the income, before going home only to wake up and do the same thing again the following day.

It’s still true right now.

I exchange the vast majority of my (non-sleeping) life for a paycheck.

Why?

(This is the depressing part.)

So I can have enough money to stay alive (food, water, clothing, health care), have shelter (mortgage), and afford transportation (car payment).

In a life with a finite amount of time, I question the wisdom in exchanging the majority of my life experiences simply to have a house to sleep in, stuff to store there, and a vehicle to drive me back and forth to the job.

To deal with this, I pursue several other things (including the writing I do here, and the speaking I hope to do in the future) in my limited spare time to have hope that I can wake up every day feeling more fulfilled and as if how I’m spending my time has more purpose and value.

But that’s a personal problem.

What all of us are ultimately pursuing is CONTENTMENT. And some people, who are either super-fortunate to have been born that way, or are models of practicing intentional gratitude, DO actually feel content to live in their homes and their towns and go to work every day.

They are rich in home life. In friends and family (or super-content to be mostly alone and reclusive—and for those wired for that—that’s great too). They are thankful for what they have and aren’t slaves to The Disease of More.

But we don’t have time for platitudes.

We’re not going to tell depressed people to “chin up.”

We’re not going to tell happy people how lucky they are that they don’t suffer as others do.

We’re not going to tell people that they’re wrong because of their likes and dislikes.

In the interest of self-care and supporting those we care about most, it’s critical that we make time to engage in activities that give us life and energy.

It makes us better romantic partners.

It makes us better parents.

It makes us better friends.

It makes us better members of the workforce.

It makes us better human beings.

The Importance of Discovering Our Happy Places

Kids instinctively do their favorite things in whatever moments and environments they’re in, given whatever resources are available.

Children don’t know all of their favorite things because they spend a lifetime discovering them. Some are given a narrow view of the world and limited opportunities because of whatever circumstances they’re born into, and others are introduced to unlimited possibility and have rich life experiences that are the result of substantial financial resources, or resourceful and supportive parents and adult role models.

Some kids are told that they can’t do certain things. Over and over again. Because their parents or siblings or friends or teachers roll their eyes at these childhood dreams and say very adult things like “Well, young lady. That sounds great, but how are you going to make money doing that?”, or “Well, young man. I’m sure you’d make a fine [insert dream-big idea here] but you don’t have the skills, knowledge, money, talent, geography, etc. Maybe you should think of something more realistic like being an assistant restaurant manager, or a third-shift foreman at the local factory.”

Even if you were supported as children, you can still hear and feel all of the naysayers every time you’re vulnerable enough to share an idea that makes you feel alive on the inside.

And then those closest to us tell us we’re silly and impractical, or otherwise leave the impression that we’re not good enough.

Husbands and wives have divorced, and children have gone years without speaking to their parents, for less.

The most fortunate of us can make a sustainable living doing things we love. (I am paid decently, mostly to write things. It’s a miracle, and I STILL complain because I don’t like bosses and rules, and occasionally demonstrate a gratitude problem.)

But often we invest time in activities that don’t pay us back with money. Social clubs. Hobbies. Parties. Travel. Volunteerism. Sports. Art. Whatever.

We do these things because we feel pleasure when we do them.

Sometimes it’s one thing. Sometimes it’s many things. Maybe some people can’t think of ANYTHING (outside of sex, drugs and alcohol) that they do simply for the enjoyment and fulfillment of doing it.

But you must.

And you must encourage your partners and children to do the same.

We place so much value on the acquisition of money and material goods, to the point where adults believe they’re happy when they’ve gotten enough money to buy the thing they’ve spent years believing “When I FINALLY have that magical thing, I’m going to feel successful and happy. THEN, I’ll know I’ve made it,” only to inevitably discover that the feeling is fleeting and then The Disease of More rears its ugly head once again.

I think goals are amazing.

I think wanting things and experiences and money is more than okay. I want them too.

But along the way, we forget to pursue happiness and joy ON the journey.

We forget to have fun. The kind of fun that’s OURS. Maybe other people like it. Maybe they don’t. But we must do things that light that fire of happiness within us.

It’s a feeling.

And the real magic of knowing that feeling is that once we identify it (which is easy as an unfulfilled adult because it feels so radically different from the rest of existence), we can begin to recognize it in other parts of our lives.

With our spouses or romantic partners.

With our children.

With our co-workers.

We begin to recognize the set of conditions that produces that feeling of fun and energy and enthusiasm. The one that makes us feel like the best version of ourselves.

It’s pretty cliché and platitudey for me to offer some bullshit like: “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” or “Before you can love someone else, you must first love yourself.”

So I’ll leave that to the Instagram quote writers.

But in a life where our relationships with our romantic partners are THE #1 FACTOR in the quality of our life and health, and half of all marriages fail, I don’t think we can afford to ignore the importance of injecting fun into our lives.

It’s NOT selfish to pursue fun if that fun gives you the energy you need to be the best romantic partner and parent possible.

It’s UNSELFISH and important to encourage your partner to take some time to do things they need to do to find their happy place (which may or may not involve dwarf cowboys). If we need to step up and take something off of their plate so that they have the time to pursue THEIR passion, I think we’ll discover incalculable dividends.

We’re broken.

Messy.

Imbalanced and unsteady.

Amidst the chaos Life throws our way, one of the ways we can achieve balance and sure footing is to call timeouts for fun.

No agenda.

Just to be in the moment, or be with the people with whom fun spontaneously happens.

We forget to play.

We confuse acquisition, advancement and long-term goals as the happiness-delivering payoff to justify all the miserable drudgery we subject ourselves to while our most important relationships fail, and we feel ourselves slip further and further away from the US we remember from long ago.

When things just felt better.

When we were happy.

When life was fun.

It can’t and won’t look the same as it did back then. But if we invest less in feeling like failures for our lives looking and feeling differently than our little-kid dreams imagined, and more in simply pouring our minds and hearts into the things that fill our souls?

Maybe our children accidentally learn how to live better by watching us live better, and maybe our marriages and personal relationships thrive.

Because we’re no longer living for tomorrow.

But once again, just like when we were kids, we’re alive today.

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The Fastest Way to Stop Feeling Angry: How a Dying Child Changed the World

father hugging children

(Image/penneylaw.com)

“I hate you, dad!” he yelled from his bedroom. “You always want me to do things how you would do them, and I don’t want to! I’ll never be like you! You’re the worst dad ever!”

I was getting a divorce the last time I lost my breath while standing still.

The little person I love most in the world is about to turn 9.

He had refused to follow some simple instructions, said something dickheaded, so I sent my only child to his room to think about it for a while and threatened to cancel his upcoming birthday plans if he didn’t leave the door closed.

I’m sure I did it wrong.

He got angry and yelled a bunch of unkind things from behind his door that I’d never heard him say before.

It feels sometimes like he’s all I have. He’s the only person who gets everything I have to give. My entire life literally revolves around his wellbeing and needs.

I hate you, dad, he’d said.

That left a mark.

I’m pretty sure Maria McNamara never said something like that to her parents. And I’m pretty sure her parents—Ed and Megan—never sent her to her room for being a little shit-machine.

Maybe that would have happened at 17. Maybe after dad told her: “You’re not walking out of this house looking like that, young lady,” or after mom told her: “Don’t tell me what I can and can’t do with your phone, Maria. We love you and if we have to read your texts to understand what’s going on in your life and keep you safe, that’s exactly what we’re going to do.”

Probably not, though.

maria mcnamara - prayers from maria

Maria McNamara (Image/Prayers From Maria)

Look at that cute freaking face. That’s the face of a future class president, or the girl who won’t let others feel left out and who always stands up for the kids getting picked on, and then credits her parents for instilling good values and setting a great example.

Maria McNamara would be 17 today, enjoying her final high school summer break before senior year. She’d be getting her senior photos taken pretty soon. Maybe she’d have a boyfriend.

Maria died when she was 7.

One day, everything was normal and her parents probably felt frustrated with her and maybe occasionally used frustrated-parent tones with her. And then the next day doctors told them their baby girl had a cancerous brain tumor and would die within a year’s time.

“We knew on that day that our lives had changed forever and that we would never be the same again,” Megan McNamara wrote.

[NOTE: If you want to quit reading or are in a hurry, please at least scroll quickly to the bottom of this post to learn about a child killer we can identify AND do something about.]

I often wonder how much I’m getting wrong as father.

He’s my only child.

I wonder how verbalizing my frustration with certain things he does or doesn’t do might harm him. There’s a happy medium somewhere between not sweating the small stuff and providing adequate parental guidance.

I replay moments in my head and wonder to what extent he maybe feels like I’m too critical of him, or somehow disappointed in him.

I write a blog with a name symbolically rooted in the powerful human desire to feel adequate and accepted—to feel like we’re “enough.” If I foster feelings of inadequacy in my little boy, shame on me. He must always know he’s enough. I hope I can figure out how to always make him feel so.

What if I died today?, I wonder sometimes.

Maybe my heart will stop suddenly in my sleep. Maybe I’ll get T-boned at an intersection by a high-speed driver who never saw the light. Maybe I’ll be in the wrong place at the wrong time and get killed in an armed robbery.

What will my son feel and believe about himself because of these moments?

I don’t know.

But I do know that if I knew today was my last day with him, I certainly wouldn’t be wasting time on anger or sending him to his room.

I know that if I knew today was my last day with my son, he would never feel like I’m being hard on him. He would never feel anything except all of the intense and unconditional love I have for him.

In a life where ANYTHING can and does happen, one wonders how we so easily lose perspective on The Things That Matter.

Whoever you would want to see and talk to. Wherever you would want to be. Whatever activity you would want to be doing. In our final hours.

Those are the things that matter.

How easily we forget.

Little Maria had a brain tumor called a glioma. It is the second-deadliest form of cancer in children.

Her dad and mom, Ed and Megan, searched desperately for a way to save Maria. What they discovered was that cancer research focused on glioma prevention or recovery was virtually non-existent.

They then spent the next 14 months feeling unimaginable things—they and their three other children.

“In the course of the 14 months from Maria’s diagnosis, we watched her go from having balance issues, double vision, sleeping excessively and vomiting to bouncing back almost completely to normal after radiation in what is known as the ‘false hope’ stage,” Megan McNamara wrote. “From there the tumor began to grow back and eventually rob her of everything a child loves to do. She endured horrendous debilitating headaches. Eventually eating, swallowing and breathing became difficult. She watched as her body slowly began to shut down. I wasn’t even able to hug her tightly as it caused too much pain. As she saw herself becoming worse, Maria would tell us ‘I think we should go back to St. Jude’s.’ We had to tell her that St. Jude’s could no longer do anything for her anymore.”

How Little Maria Spent Her Final Days

She didn’t feel sorry for herself nor spend time praying for herself.

She spent her final days intent on praying for other children and other families battling cancer.

“Through it all, Maria showed tremendous character and dignity. Her strength, her courage and, most of all, her faith, left marks on our souls that have changed us forever,” her mom wrote. “She never thought of herself. Instead she chose to pray for all children suffering from cancer and their families. She prayed that the doctors would find a way to help them. She is our hero and her fight became our inspiration. Her prayers became our mission.”

Lighting Up the Darkness

People sometimes say “Everything happens for a reason,” and I don’t like it for the very reason that sometimes little kids get cancer, and I’m sorry, but I’m not okay with attaching concepts like Fate or Purpose to Maria’s death and the agony felt by her parents and siblings.

But I also understand that THIS is why people say that.

The suffering endured by Maria and her family provided an opportunity for a tiny person with a giant heart to inspire those around her.

And now we have Prayers From Maria – Children’s Glioma Cancer Foundation, dedicated to funding global research into the causes, prevention, treatments and cure for these childhood brain tumors.

 

Why I’m Writing About This and Why it Matters So Much to Me

I know a guy.

He is easily among the best and most-inspiring people I know. He has become a personally significant mentor and friend. He owns a web-design firm with a few business partners. They are amazing people doing amazing work. Their company’s stated mission and purpose is “to help humans flourish.”

Not to maximize profit (though they run a fine business). But simply to—as a business—lift people up.

Their remarkable team walks that walk on and off the clock. My personal admiration for them knows no bounds.

They are donating a bunch of their time, talents and money to Prayers From Maria.

They didn’t stick their hands out asking my consulting partners and I, or anyone else, to help offset their costs. They said simply that this is an amazing organization doing difference-making work and invited us to be a part of helping people who need and deserve it.

I feel honored to be asked, and would have wanted to help them EVEN IF the cause didn’t matter to me.

But I’m a father. This matters to me.

I think about how fast my son is growing. Too fast.

I think about how I’m not promised tomorrow, or even five minutes from now.

How everything can change at any moment.

How truly, humbly, grateful I feel right now to have a healthy little boy.

How grateful I feel to have another opportunity to hug his precious face and see about mindfully adjusting how I communicate with him. About mindfully adjusting how I choose to think and act today with this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

To be here.

Right now.

Soon it will be time to go hug my son.

Almost 9 years old. Who’s luckier than me?

Maybe you. I hope you feel this too. The thing that replaces hurt and anger when we see things from another perspective.

Thank you for being you, Maria McNamara. For all you gave. And all you continue to.

Do Something Amazing Today

I don’t feel good asking you for things. If I ever get a book finished, I’ll surely be spamming you with pleas to purchase five copies.

I’m trying to save whatever goodwill I’ve earned for that.

But some things are bigger than me and more important than how comfortable I feel.

Right now, there’s a father somewhere who is about my age who has a son about 8 or 9 years old. Like me. But instead of getting ready to celebrate his birthday, he’s saying goodbye. Helpless. Trying to be strong for his wife and family. Trying to keep it together at work.

Right now, there’s a little boy out there around my son’s age who will grow up to be a father himself. And one of his kids is going to be diagnosed with a brain tumor.

Today, that diagnosis would be a death sentence.

But tomorrow, it doesn’t have to be.

Please join me in helping people save the lives of children and give hope to their parents.

There is no amount too small to give.

Thank you so much for reading this and doing something meaningful for other people today.

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Do You Love Your Spouse Enough?: The Uncomfortable Truth About Who Should Rank #1 Among Our Spouses, Children & Parents

Who's #1?

(Image/The Bullvine)

Where does your spouse or romantic partner rank in your life?

Take all the time you need to think before answering. Just don’t be a lying doucheface when you make your list.

Ever have your wife ask you to fold a basket of laundry or clean up after dinner, and you said you would but really you just ended up playing video games all night? Unless it was a legit one-time incident, don’t rank your spouse ahead of video games on your list.

Ever have your husband ask you to not complain about him to your mother or discuss intimate details of your private sex life with your friends? Unless you did so as part of consulting those you trust for marital wisdom, don’t rank your spouse ahead of gossiping with your friends, mom, or whoever.

I think many—perhaps most—people have other things and people ranked ahead of their spouses. They won’t say it. But they don’t have to. You can see what people do.

Ranking anything ahead of your spouse is the most surefire way I know to create mistrust and instability in a marriage which often leads to divorce and almost always unhappiness for everyone involved.

Here’s how I think many married guys would publically rank their Life Things (I’m intentionally leaving Faith out of the conversation as it often proves to be an unproductive and distracting argument starter – though I think it’s fair to note that I’ve never heard of a divorce resulting from two people putting their God and faith first in their marriage):

  1. Marital Family
  2. Family of Origin
  3. Job
  4. Friends
  5. Favorite Hobby or Lifestyle Activity

But here’s how I think many married guys actually prioritize their Life Things, according to their actions:

  1. Favorite Hobby or Lifestyle Activity
  2. Job
  3. Friends
  4. Family of Origin
  5. Marital Family

I work hard at not blaming my ex-wife for our divorce. I get more blog comments and private messages encouraging me to start putting more blame on her than I’d prefer. Each and every message like that tends to signify that someone doesn’t understand what it means to accept personal responsibility, which means they’re going to feel like a victim every time something bad happens for their rest of their lives until they learn how to flip that around.

But there are thousands of wives reading here too, and several have asked for help understanding what kinds of wifely behavior can destroy a marriage.

And for me, it was THIS.

I feel like my wife prioritized her family of origin over our marriage. Later, she doubled-down by giving 95% of herself to our son when it was just the three of us. I thought I was being noble by not calling that one out. ALSO, I’d already screwed up so badly at being a husband by that point, that there’s no intellectually honest or fair way to predict how she might have been after childbirth had I been a kick-ass husband leading up to becoming parents.

What About the Kids? Shouldn’t They Come First?

Nope. They shouldn’t. And, as a father who loves his little boy more than anything else on this planet, I struggle writing that.

It twists my insides a little. That’s usually how I know something is true — when it feels uncomfortable and inconvenient.

Prioritizing anyone or anything over your wife or husband is the most surefire way I know to destroy your family.

In marriage, either your spouse is #1, or you’re doing it wrong.

I say that without judgment. I’m divorced largely because I prioritized all kinds of bullshit ahead of my wife and our relationship.

I offer it only as a thought exercise, because I think MOST married people put at least something ahead of their marriage.

And yes, that includes our children. And yes, that includes our parents and families of origin. And yes, that idea makes me uncomfortable.

But it’s still true.

“WAIT. Matt. Are you seriously saying we should choose our husbands and wives over our children? I can ALMOST understand the parents thing. But the kids? My kids come first no matter what!”

Do they really?

When we teach our children that they are the most important things in life, and that if they want our attention they’re going to get it, and that if they need something it is magically done for them, and that the marriage between mom and dad isn’t the top priority, what happens?

Bad news: You end up getting someone like me. (Sorry mom.)

You raise kids who grow up believing they’re uniquely special even though they’re not.

You raise kids who lack self-sufficiency and grow up expecting their partners to do things for them that their parents used to.

You raise kids who have no idea what a loving, high-functioning, healthy, mutually respectful marriage looks like. A marriage between two people who truly cherish one another and maintain their romantic and sexual spark through MINDFUL INTENTION and channeling energy into the human being they promised to love, honor and serve for the rest of their lives.

The Adam and Eve bible story famously depicts the first marriage. In the story, you’ll find the word “cleave” which describes what we’re supposed to do to our spouse.

The word “cleave” means “to adhere to, stick to, or join with.” I think it’s reasonable to assume the spiritual text is promoting a metaphorical bond of unity between them beyond promoting the literal act of inserting a penis into a vagina, but surely we can celebrate both the figurative and literal in this particular instance.

Don’t Marry Until You’re Ready to Make Her/Him #1

You’ll be doing your girlfriend or boyfriend, their family and friends, and any children or pets you may one day share a HUGE favor by doing this.

Please remember: You don’t have to get married, and maybe you shouldn’t.

If your parents or siblings mean more to you than your partner, and you feel inside as if you’d choose them over the person you’re considering marrying, then DO NOT get married.

If your job or your friends or the fun things you like to do mean more to you than your partner, DO NOT get married.

And *big swallow*, if your children mean more to you than your partner, and you believe catering to their needs at the expense of your partner’s is the right thing to do, then I think your marriage is a ticking time bomb. (NOTE: I’m writing specifically about married moms and dads who made babies together. I think it’s both fair and proper for divorced or otherwise single parents to prioritize their children over people they’re dating when there’s still uncertainty about whether marriage is in the future.)

Physician Danielle Teller, in “How American Parenting is Killing the American Marriage,” wrote, “Children who are raised to believe that they are the center of the universe have a tough time when their special status erodes as they approach adulthood. Most troubling of all, couples who live entirely child-centric lives can lose touch with one another to the point where they have nothing left to say to one another when the kids leave home… Is it surprising that divorce rates are rising fastest for new empty nesters?”

You’re born to your parents. They and any siblings are all you know and love.

Family by birth. Love tends to be part of the package.

When you’re older, and your offspring are born, you are all they know and love. You’re their everything. And the intense love we feel for our children is something beyond description.

But still. Family by birth. And again, the love is easy. We tend to not need reminders to feel love for our kids.

But our spouse. THAT is a particularly unique and special relationship. That’s not inherited. Love is not some pre-packaged thing that comes along with dating or marriage like it does with being born into a family or having kids of your own.

Your spouse is someone you CHOOSE. Out of every human being—billions of them—you choose that person.

It is a love as rich and powerful as we have for our parents and children, but it’s one that is grown. Something purely voluntary.

Love is a choice we must make every day.

More and more, people are coming to understand this, but often when their marriage is in shambles and their trying to figure out why, or in the aftermath of a painful divorce.

I didn’t know what marriage REALLY was when I asked her to marry me, or when I said “I do.” The proof was in the pudding.

If more people entered marriage committed to this idea of putting their spouse first, and why it’s such an important mindset, I think a lot more marriages would go the distance because they’d never deteriorate to begin with.

You honor your parents when you put your spouse first. You comfort them because they know you’re safe and secure, and that their grandchildren are well cared for.

You honor your children when you put your spouse first. You teach them that they are, in fact, NOT the center of the universe and that the best way to live is to be aware of other people’s needs. You teach them what marriage is supposed to look like. You provide a safe and unbreakable home. You provide a lifelong foundation from which to build their futures.

You honor yourself when you put your spouse first. Because you are living for something greater than yourself and are less likely to die alone with herpes on your mouth.

Your parents will pass one day. It will be hard. You’ll carry on because your spouse is always first and he or she will carry you through the grief and transition. You will provide the same support for her or him.

Your children will move out one day. It will be hard. You’ll carry on because your spouse is always first and he or she will carry you through the major life adjustment. You will provide the same support for her or him.

And there you’ll be. In the future. Waking up every day seeking purpose and adventure.

And when we have spent the years putting our spouse first, we won’t have to look very hard to find either.

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

woman hiding under table

(Image/Crosswalk.com)

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I want to sleep closest to the bedroom door.

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

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

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

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

I want to take the bullet for her.

And I will never physically harm her. Ever.

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

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

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

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

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

But on mental and emotional safety?

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

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

But I’m not the only one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And once again, they have The Same Fight.

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

[NOTE: I felt like I cracked a secret life code when I grasped this idea for the first time. I have to credit the book “How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It” for putting me on the right path. Maybe it can help you or your partner, too.]

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

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

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

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

The Thing That Ends Relationships

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now she doesn’t feel safe.

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

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

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

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

Real danger is what lurks undetected.

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

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

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

Mistrust.

Unsafe.

Fight or flight?

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

I used to blame her.

But I see it all so clearly now.

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The Things We Don’t Teach Men (And How It Ruins Everything)

father holding baby son

(Image/abc.net.au)

The world fails men.

We fail everyone, but we fail men in particular. And that failure leads to a countless number of men—some incredibly smart, talented, strong, brave, and decent men—achieving positions of influence where they inevitably perpetuate the cycle of collectively failing men, and by proxy, all of the women and children in their sphere of influence.

Husbands.

Fathers.

Big brothers.

Best friends.

Business leaders.

Celebrity influencers.

Politicians.

Coaches.

Educators.

Commanding officers.

Group leaders.

Classmates.

Teammates and tribesmen.

What men in these positions think, believe, do, feel and say affects countless people—the ripple effects of which can last for centuries.

Many of these guys are amazingly virtuous. Many are trying their best every day to live according to the values instilled in them. They’re simply following the examples of their male role models from their youth.

These aren’t evil men Muahahaha-ing and fist-bumping a bunch of other sadistic D-holes in the secret back room of their private male-only clubs. I mean, some are, but those dipshits aren’t hard to spot, nor are their crimes dangerously undetectable.

What is so dangerous about the world failing men is that we’ve created billions of very decent human beings who unknowingly walk around every day trying their God’s-honest best, but are accidentally napalming their homes and closest relationships.

It’s a problem.

Your Life Will Be Measured by Your Family and Friends—Not All That Other Stuff

Life is essentially a contest to see who can have the most people say truthful, authentically nice things about us at our funerals.

Men are taught that status is everything. It’s reinforced by women, because women are often attracted to high-status men. It’s reinforced by children, because children’s lives can often benefit in observable ways (financially and socially) from high-status fathers.

Men pursue wealth. Men pursue fame. Men pursue physical attractiveness. Men pursue business ventures, athletic competitions and hobbies where they succeed. Men pursue sexual conquests. Men pursue the accumulation of material possessions. Men pursue all of this shit that doesn’t mean a damn thing to ANYONE the second the doctor tells them they have terminal cancer, or discover their wife having an affair, or try to digest their child’s suicide note.

What men really want is to have PURPOSE.

And all of those aforementioned “successes” have a legitimate purpose in our personal lives. I’m not trying to trivialize success in personal ventures. It matters to all of us.

I’m only saying that most of us coast through much of life unaware of this obvious truth:

The #1 influence on how good our lives are is the quality of our human relationships.

No amount of money, possessions, career success, trophies on the shelf, notches on the bed post, nor fame can provide the peace and contentment we all crave down deep inside.

Fear. Sadness. Pain. Anxiety. Anger. Stress. Grief. Shame.

These are the mortal enemies of all of us, but surely for men.

When we put the people we care about, live near, and work with, first—selfless love, humble leadership, principle above profit—the only Life currency that actually matters starts to accumulate.

And then when we do that enough, more people will cry and share funny stories at our funerals instead of not give a crap we croaked because they kind of thought we were assholes anyway.

Most of What We Believe About Marriage and Relationships Is Wrong

It’s not our fault.

All we have to go in is our parents, who either divorced, or fumbled through marriage hiding most of the hard stuff from us because no one taught them any of this either.

Our marriages or long-term relationships (or lack thereof) ultimately prove to be the biggest influencers on our day-to-day lives. If our relationships are shitty, our lives are shitty.

Many men believe if they make money or experience personal success somehow, and showcase attractive characteristics while being generally nice and not cheating on their partners, that THAT is being a good husband and/or father.

Men think that being a good man automatically defaults them to “good husband” or “good father,” if they are married or have children. I thought the same thing.

But it’s a dirty lie we accidentally tell ourselves.

Good men can be colossally shitty husbands. You can have all the character and professional skills in the world and still demonstrate gross incompetence as a husband and father.

You can be a genius and still not know how to design and build skyscrapers or working space shuttles.

You can be a brilliant musician and still not know how to play several instruments.

You can be a GREAT guy and absolutely destroy your wife, causing her to cry for months and years before she eventually has an affair and/or files for divorce.

Men Have Done, and Will Do, Great Things

For all of the bad things men have done and will do in the future, guys are still pretty awesome.

For every horrible story you can tell me with a man at its center, I can share dozens more about guys who did great things—brave warriors, courageous leaders, wise teachers, loving husbands and fathers, genius inventors, inspiring artists, disciplined athletes, and brilliant thinkers who helped shape and change the world in positive ways with better ideas.

I still get the occasional note accusing me of man-bashing and betraying my own gender. The last thing I want to be is someone adding to the negativity.

What I’d like to be is a teacher because I think there are men out there who I’m capable of helping, even though I’ve always felt like an asshole trying. As if I somehow know more about life or relationships or anything than any other guys out there.

What’s worse than some know-it-all jerkoff acting like he knows more than you, or is in any way better than you?

Burning sensations while peeing? Traffic jams when you’re in a hurry? That whiny cartoon kid, Caillou?

Pretty sure that’s the entire list.

I’m not on any one group’s side. I’m on EVERYONE’S side. Men are going to have a lot to do with humanity’s future turnaround when the tenets of good relationships become common knowledge instead of the annoyingly huge secret they seem to be today.

Sometimes I Can Help, So I Must

I’m not better nor smarter than you. I’m probably worse and dumber.

But I might still be able to help.

Maybe not you. Maybe not your partner. Maybe not your friends nor family. But someone, probably.

I hit a couple of quasi-significant personal milestones recently.

I turned 38 about a week and a half ago.

We never feel as old as we are, right? That number doesn’t seem as significant to me as it did when my parents were my age. But 38-year-olds can know things. I’ve been eligible for the U.S. presidency for three years now.

Also, April 1 marked four years since my marriage ended. Four years that I have spent dissecting my failed relationship from every angle I could think of, and always asking: What could I have done differently that would have led to a happier result for my wife, son, friends and extended family?

If my divorce was someone else’s fault, then that means it’s a lottery. Dumb luck. It means I am a helpless slave and victim to the passing whims and fancies of whoever I date or marry, and have absolutely no control over what happens to me or my young son.

But if I’m responsible—and I am responsible—then there’s hope. I don’t have to be afraid of it happening again.

My marriage ending was the worst thing that ever happened to me. There is no close second-place thing. Yesterday morning while I was dropping my son off at school, he told me he doesn’t like Mondays because no matter which of his parents he just spent a fun weekend with, he knows he’s probably not going to see them again until Wednesday evening and that it makes him sad.

I’ve been thinking about that ever since. What that child has to carry because of me.

He’s in third grade, so he hasn’t asked me any hard questions yet. But he probably will someday.

That’s when he’ll realize that his father failed his mother, and by proxy, him. That I made his life shittier than necessary because I too often made things about me when they needed to be about them—him and his mom.

When we put others first, our lives are satisfying and filled with meaning.

When we put ourselves first, we damage others—often without realizing it—and that damage can change the trajectory of our lives and of those closest to us. And then we inadvertantly damage ourselves.

It can ruin us. Poison us. Break us.

Broken people raising broken children.

Broken fathers raising broken sons.

Broken men raising broken boys and girls who don’t always learn how to be whole again. Girls who may never learn what it’s supposed to look and feel like when a husband loves a wife. Boys who may never learn what it looks like to love and serve our families, to lead humbly, and how the rewards of unbreakable marriage and family is much greater than the short-term highs of their individual pursuits.

Boys and girls become the new men and women.

And then they don’t teach their sons the things they needed to know. So the boys grow up repeating the sins of their fathers.

Not because they’re bad. Just because they didn’t know better. Because their parents didn’t know. And their grandparents didn’t know. And neither did anyone else.

Marriage is difficult, and everyone “knows” it just like we know that fire can burn us.

Still we often learn the hard way while our relationships crumble around us just like we can only feel the intense pain of severe burning in the middle of the fire.

And too often, for a long time afterward.

NOTE: Some may cover familiar territory but the next several posts will cover topics I believe are The Things We Don’t Teach Men. The things we aren’t teaching people. Things that are critical to couples and families not breaking from within on account of a bunch of good people who just didn’t know better. Yes, it’s a huge pile of broad generalizations. But as the emails from guys “like me” continue to come in, I am always struck by how similar all the stories are. Time to talk more about it.

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

couple fighting in public

(Image/Bao Moi)

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

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

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

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

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

I was observably nicer to my dad than my mom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Always, You’re Not the Only One

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

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

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

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

The couple struggled for years to conceive a child.

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

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

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

Ann feels like a crappy mother.

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

He withdraws. She feels abandoned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But you know that already.

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

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

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

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

Maybe that will always be.

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

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

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

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

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

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

You deserve it.

And so do all the people who matter most.

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

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

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

telling a secret

(Image/We Share Pics)

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

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

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

Feelings?! Those are for girls!

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

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

Yes, I was/am an idiot.

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

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

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

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

Maybe my professional life can be a source of inspiration.

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

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

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

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

I can only remember how it felt.

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

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

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

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

That’s what I’m talking about.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right. I used to believe that, too.

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

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

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

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

1. Pay Attention to Timing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Use the Right Words

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

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

Specific word choice matters.

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

What words have a positive impact on your partner?

What words have a negative impact on them?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pro Tip: That shit doesn’t work.

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

5. Make three positive comments for every negative statement

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

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

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

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

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

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

Less hate. More love.

Less anger. More forgiveness.

Less stress and anxiety. More peace.

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

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

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

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

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

Of the people we love.

Only one way to find out.

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What Screws Us Up Most in Life

Little girl looking into a telescope in the mountains

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

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

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

The house is different. The plan was to move.

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

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

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

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

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

She said yes.

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

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

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

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

Things like movies and books taught me this.

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

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

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

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

Maybe everyone does this.

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

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

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

This Isn’t Where I Thought I’d Be

Divorce changed everything.

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

Everything in the very beginning is a blur.

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

I had just turned 34 when Everything became Something Else.

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

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

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

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

A void.

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

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

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

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

But then Real Life happened.

The clock ticks.

The calendar pages flip.

The seasons change.

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

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

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

And then you wake up, and it’s today.

Divorced and Single Four Holiday Seasons Later

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

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

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

But that’s not where things are.

That’s not Real Life.

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

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

But I’m not even sure that’s right.

That suggests fear. And I’m not afraid.

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

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

I don’t know.

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

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

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

I wouldn’t know.

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

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

Or did it?

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

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

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

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

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

Or that she didn’t fall ill.

Or that she never ran away or went missing.

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

Or that her family never lost her precious life.

Or that my son never lost his little sister.

And that we never had to sob over that too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About regrets. And triumphs.

About fear. And hope.

We’d all show up, and just be.

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

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

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

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

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The Thing Divorced Parents Fear Most

lost child

After divorce, you’re not always there to hold their hand. (Image/The Coverage)

When people experience divorce, several life changes happen at once, often compounding an already-excruciating time for those involved.

First, your partner is gone. Maybe you feel rejected. Maybe you feel guilt.

The entire ebb and flow of your life turns upside down. Everything feels different. You either live in the place you shared with them which now feels lifeless and empty, or you live in a brand-new place which can be a difficult adjustment under the best circumstances.

Some percentage of life tasks once performed by your partner aren’t getting done. You—literally—have more to do every day, even if you were the one doing most of the heavy lifting. Since I wasn’t, everything from vacuuming, dusting, laundry and bathroom cleaning to kitchen cleaning, opening mail, bill paying and keeping track of Life things on the calendar were added to the These Things Need Done pile. Life got harder.

You often lose in-law family members and friends overnight. Maybe they miss you. Maybe they don’t. Maybe you’ll never know.

Your money situation can be affected. Sometimes majorly. Sometimes it scares you.

Sometimes single adulthood produces life and social challenges in the dating and partnership arenas.

If you’re a parent, the situation with your children tends to emerge as the most-difficult component. It’s hard to lose your time with them. Kids grow so fast anyway. My son was in preschool when my time with him reduced by half.

It didn’t take me long to realize: if he’s a kid for another 14 years, that means I just lost SEVEN years with my son.

What would you trade for seven more years with ANYONE you love? Maybe everything.

There’s a long list of things negatively affected by divorce. But what I perceive to be the worst thing is something I rarely see discussed: The loss of any and all control of what happens to your children—the very people for which you live and breathe—when they’re not with you.

When Life Beats You Into Submission

When James Bond gets captured, we always know he’s going to pull off some rad-007 super-spy escape to get out of whatever situation he’s in.

In more tragic fiction stories, the bad guys sometimes catch up to and overpower our heroes. In some stories, those heroes may die or suffer enormous loss.

It’s often hard to watch or read. When the hero gets taken down from a fight he or she couldn’t have possibly won. Somewhere along the way, the characters realize, as we do: there’s no escape.

I like to say I don’t believe in unsolvable problems. That there’s ALWAYS a solution, or at least a way to make something or a situation substantially better.

But with kids after divorce? [*massive exhale noise*]

It can feel like there’s no escape. Not that you want to. But the reality of divorce and custody law and, I imagine, most of our moral compasses, gives us no obvious solutions.

That’s what makes it hard.

Some people are crappy spouses, but amazing parents. They “deserve” to be divorced because of their substandard efforts or behavior in marriage. And without going too far down the semantics and “Yeah, but” rabbit hole, it can be argued that amazing parents NEVER “deserve” to lose their children, even just sometimes. Certainly, children don’t deserve to lose parents.

As an advocate of personal responsibility, I think married parents should be intellectually capable of understanding that what’s best for their children is to always love the other parent in mind, heart, word and action, but I also know how murky the waters get and how gray the areas get when emotionally damaged humans start doing what emotionally damaged humans do.

Under the very best of divorced circumstances—where two adults communicate frequently, never undermine one another or use their children as pawns to inflict pain, and who truly demonstrate a commitment to putting children first—(which I’m insanely blessed to experience in my life) it’s STILL super-hard.

And there are so many levels to that. You worry about their physical health and safety. You worry about whatever undeserved emotional and psychological baggage they’re taking on from your past or present failings.

Mothers’ hearts break while driving away from screaming, outstretched-armed infants too young to verbally communicate or understand why mommy is leaving them. Mothers who stress over their children eating unhealthy meals, not brushing their teeth before bed, or being left unattended for long periods of time by partying, video-game-playing, or otherwise inattentive, fathers.

Fathers’ hearts break while looking at vacation photos of their children posted on social media while a bunch of people who used to be inner-circle friends and family Like and Favorite and Comment on Facebook and Instagram: “Everyone looks so happy! Love this!” Fathers who stress over their children’s unknown neighbors, or trying to match the level of domestic care their kids might experience at mom’s, or seeing another man experience father-child moments with their kids while attending baseball games or riding bikes and probably other things we’ll never hear about.

That’s when things are optimal.

When they’re not?

The other parent’s girlfriend or boyfriend might present some kind of threat to your child’s wellbeing. Perhaps in some obvious and specifically terrifying ways, or perhaps in more subtle mind- and heart-damaging ways you can only imagine.

I know of one 10-year-old girl and 7-year-old brother who text their dad (a guy I believe to be a decent man and fiercely loving father) every time a strange man emerges from mommy’s bedroom. The last number I heard was 6.

Maybe those new boyfriends or girlfriends are criminals. Abusers. Addicts. Maybe they’re psychotic. Moronic. Cruel.

Maybe they’ll teach your kids that what they’ve been taught about faith, or politics, or personal interests are “wrong” or “stupid” or not as good as some other thing.

Maybe they’ll tell your kids about things you do and spin them in ugly ways in an effort to make them think less of you.

Maybe they’ll make up lies to make them afraid of you or not want to see you at all.

In the United States, we have a legal system that mostly—but not always—helps people navigate these situations, but even then, they’re brutally expensive, emotionally exhausting, and even when things go your way, you STILL end up facing the tragic reality of your child’s other parent being someone you (and maybe even your children) can’t trust to take care of them in ways you perceive to be best for them.

Right or wrong, if your heart’s in the right place, it’s all a bit more than human beings are equipped to handle.

The Thing About Control

Maybe there’s a really wise approach to feeling out of control. Maybe there are obvious choices to make, and when we do, everything gets to be okay afterward.

Even though I feel truly blessed to share parenting with someone who I perceive to do virtually everything “right,” and who loves our son with the same passion and fierce loyalty any parent could want, I STILL experience this loss of control we’d all ideally like to have over the things that mean most to us, and affect us most deeply.

One of my friends texted me about a month ago: “May I request a future post about HOW TO COPE WITH A DOUCHEBAG dating your ex-wife and constantly hanging with your kid?”

My friend is solid people. But while I’m inclined to trust his judgment that his ex-wife’s boyfriend demonstrates legitimate douchebaggery, I can’t be 100-percent sure his feelings aren’t comprised the same as most of us are when we talk and think about our exes.

Regardless, this is an important thing.

It’s profoundly important when children are truly at risk.

It’s pretty damn important when children are being damaged in some ways, even if only accidentally.

And as part of the Macro Divorce Conversation, this needs acknowledgement and its day in the sun.

It’s hard to lose control of anything that impacts our lives.

It’s CRUSHING to lose control of things that directly impact our children’s wellbeing.

Maybe We’re Never Actually In Control

I wish I had an answer for how to cope, JBD.

But I don’t. I just…don’t.

I might die on my drive home today.

We can’t control whether our hearts will beat five seconds from now.

And I think that means we can’t control most things. Some people accept the lack of control as fundamental to the human experience. Others have faith that God’s in control, which helps eliminate fear.

Maybe the best we can do is influence.

We can use brute force and later pay the legal and human consequences.

We can use the legal system and maybe after spending a bunch of money, something gets better somehow.

We can fight back, trying to do things that might affect our exes as much as we feel affected.

Maybe some of that serves the purpose of helping our kids. Probably not.

Or.

Maybe we can accept responsibility for the role we played in creating the situation. Maybe we can accept responsibility for choosing life partnership and/or procreation with someone capable of not putting our child’s welfare above other things.

Or.

Maybe we can work on being the kind of people who make this spinning rock a better place to be. Maybe we can work on being people who light up the darkness.

And.

Maybe we can WANT and actively work for good things to happen to our exes, if for no other reason than to give our children the best lives possible.

Maybe we can pray for their hearts and minds. Maybe we can wish good things for them. Maybe we can say nice things to and about them. Maybe we can support them. Maybe we can help them. Maybe we can work on redeeming ourselves in our shared-parenting relationships by walking a higher path than we did on our marches toward divorce.

And just maybe, when we love that hard, walls come down and connections form.

Just maybe, our children thrive even under less-than-ideal circumstances.

Because life feels extra-difficult when we try to control everything only to discover we’re never really in control.

Maybe when we love hard enough, we won’t feel like we have to.

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