Tag Archives: Psychology

Taking the Wheel Vs. Destroying Our Marriages on Autopilot

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(Image/Forbes)

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

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

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

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

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

Habits are simply everything that we do on autopilot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that habit is:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I want people to notice themselves doing this.

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

People get divorced.

People lose grandparents.

People’s pets die.

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

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

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

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

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

Who are you? Who am I?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

relationship algebra

(Image/Redbubble)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Many of you have heard all of this before.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was always missing the point.

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

It’s that I NEVER CONSIDERED HER AT ALL.

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

THAT is what hurt.

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

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

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

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

How dare I deny her that.

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

How Do You Feel When It’s 65 Degrees?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe you can ask them.

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

Only one way to find out.

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

(Image/John Lewis)

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

You feel a little flutter of anxiety.

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

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

Shock. Disbelief. Disoriented.

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

You hang up the phone.

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

Minutes go by. Maybe hours.

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

I can’t believe they’re gone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s one way to handle it.

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

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

The Monster Under the Bed Theory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We get to choose.

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

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

The alternative?

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

Love is a choice.

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

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

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

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

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Where to Find Solutions to Your Relationship Problems

(Image/Tubefilter.com)

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

The places you haven’t looked.

The places you wouldn’t think to look.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Godin writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And maybe neither one is objectively correct or incorrect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OR.

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

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

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

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

What happened to cause your marriage to fall apart?

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

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

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

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

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

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

WATCH THIS, please. It’s fantastic.

Take a Closer Look at the All The Time Things

We have questions. We have pains.

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

We look in the places we think to look.

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

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

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

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A Way to Protect Your Relationships from Political (and Other) Arguments

couple arguing

(Image/A Conscious Rethink)

Donald Trump is President of the United States in 2019.

Even for non-Americans, that fact can elicit radically different reactions.

In the United States, these opposing, often intense, emotional reactions will poison the Thanksgiving dinner conversations of many family gatherings next month. These conversations will make friends, neighbors, and co-workers angry with each other as we head toward the 2020 presidential election.

And these differences will sometimes cause division between two people who vowed to love and support each other for the rest of their lives. People who share homes, children, bank accounts, and many years of memories.

A reader sent me the following entertaining email, asking me to write about how to prevent political arguments from ruining their marriage:

I’m trying to understand how two people who have been together for 20 years, seemingly very much in love, can communicate with each other with regards to their opinions on political and world affairs.

Example. Taken from a real situation. Summed up:

Spouse brings up any topic in the news (mainstream or otherwise). The other spouse makes a comment on it that the first spouse doesn’t agree with. First spouse flips out. Of course, we’re talking about the politics of today where one person practically thinks [Donald Trump] is the Saviour, while the other one thinks he’s a con artist. One spouse believes in all the conspiracy theories and AJ videos as the be all and end all fact, while the other tries to listen with an open mind until the name calling starts. The latter spouse flips out despite trying not to, then tries to end the conversation because of tensions rising, which then turns into a yelling match between the two. One feels insulted by the hurled adjectives and names called, the other thinks their spouse needs to grow a pair and stop overeating. Feelings get hurt. Things get thrown around. Doors get slammed. People get ignored. Sleep is restless. The next few days are awkward. Finally one spouse apologizes, the other eventually forgives. One spouse says to the other that they are communicating in an overly confrontational manner, the other retorts that the other is being oversensitive. The situation repeats time and time again.

Sigh.

Weirdly, oddly enough, they can also be a very good team, where they talk to each other respectfully and clearly while working on a building/renovation project! I know… renos are usually the killers, but not with this couple.

So can you write something on how to constructively argue, even when there’s no chance they’ll agree on anything, or only on little? In a way that won’t destroy their marriage? Is it even possible?

The Art of Peaceful Relationship-Building Conversation

When I think about how I approach the art of conversation, I think of it in two parts:

  • Mindset
  • Technique

This is just what works for me. I’m not going to pretend to understand how much of this is applicable to others, given that everyone has different personalities, beliefs, life experiences, unique emotional make-ups, etc.

Mindset #1 – Respect for Others

First and foremost, if I’m having a conversation with the potential for emotional volatility, then it means I’m probably talking to someone I know pretty well. I don’t often engage in emotionally charged conversations with strangers, but even when I do, I treat them the same.

The No. 1 most-important thing I do to succeed at having peaceful, productive conversations is that I value my relationship with the person I’m talking to more than I value trying to “win” a conversation with them.

If you respect your own beliefs and the image of your moral/intellectual superiority more than you value other people, then you are probably going to have a lot of conflict in your conversations and relationships. I used to believe everything I thought and felt was super-legit, which meant anyone opposing any of my super-legit thoughts and feelings must be wrong. That made me kind-of an asshole, and is ultimately the root cause of my divorce.

Mindset #2 – Humility and Curiosity

I’ve been wrong about so many things in my 40 years, that it’s not all that hard to consider that I might have something to learn from someone else.

EVEN IF they don’t have anything to teach me about the subject matter we’re discussing, it’s still an opportunity for me to leverage curiosity to better understand THEM.

In the context of our romantic relationships and closest interpersonal relationships, demonstrating authentic curiosity about what they believe, what they feel, and why, will almost always increase the connection between the two of you rather than move you further apart.

Mindset #3 – Mutually Arrive at Truth

In the event of a disagreement, instead of two people flexing their imagined superiority over one another, what if both people always worked cooperatively to mutually arrive at truth together?

In instances where things can be proven or tested, why not work together to prove or test ideas? Let the truth win.

And where there is no objective truth, it’s an opportunity to understand how another person can look at the same situation as you and come to a different conclusion. Idea and belief diversity is GOOD. If something you believe is true can’t hold up to honest scrutiny, then—maybe it’s not actually true and it’s time to consider a better belief?

Mindset #4 – If You Were Me, and I Was You, and We Were Them

I used to think the things I believed strongly were conclusions I came to thoughtfully and sensibly, which put me in a perma-mindset to shut myself off from opposing viewpoints.

Which is super-ignorant and bullshitty.

Choose any person in the world. There are more than 7 billion of them. And then go through the following thought exercise asking:

  • What if I was born to their parents?
  • What if I grew up in the same town, at the same time, around the same people, doing the same things, and being taught all of the same stuff?
  • If instead of being born into my life, I was born into theirs, wouldn’t I believe all of the same things they do? Wouldn’t I be saying and doing all of the same things they are?
  • In light of that truth, doesn’t acting like all of my shit is better than everyone else’s shit make me a huge dumbass who no emotionally healthy person should want to be around?

You disagree with other people who practice different religions, who vote for different politicians, and who like different kinds of music than you. Sometimes those are strangers.

Sometimes it’s the person you chose to love and honor all the days of your life.

You might think this is extreme, but I don’t (and my opinions are awesome!):

Taken to its logical conclusion, there are only two ways to approach the idea of people believing different things, some of which oppose the beliefs of others.

  1. A group of people who believe the same stuff bands together, convinces a bunch of other people to join them, and then proceeds to eliminate all of the people who oppose their beliefs through violence, slavery, imprisonment, or oppressive laws. The groups willing to go furthest in their quest for imperialistic dominance over the rest of the world get to make the most rules.
  2. We all agree that people are going to believe different things—and that it totally makes sense for them to—and then we all choose to not be insufferable cocks about it.

Technique

If you and I are having a potentially sensitive conversation, I’m going to prioritize you knowing that I care infinitely more about you, my friend, than I care about convincing you that things I believe are somehow better than things you believe.

My goals are two-fold:

  1. To understand what you think and feel—and WHY—because understanding that stuff will undoubtedly give me important context that explains how you came to believe something different than I do. Knowing that will make me smarter and wiser, and allow me to know you better.
  2. To explain what I believe—and WHY—because I’m always confident that I can tell the story of my beliefs in ways that another person can understand. I don’t require that person’s agreement. But I do crave that person’s understanding, and it’s my job to help them understand how or why I might believe something in opposition of something they believe.

Because those are my goals, I don’t use words nor tones of voice that indicate I think they’re pond scum with moronic opinions or that I’m some brilliant idea master who has life all figured out.

I am constantly reassuring throughout a potentially divisive conversation that I’m not arguing against the other person or claiming I know best.

I’m simply trying to effectively explain what I believe and why, trusting that people will sometimes agree with my conclusions. At minimum, they will understand how I arrived at them.

Things get more complicated surrounding topics like religion and politics, which is why they’ve not been considered polite dinner conversation for the entirety of my life.

Religion is a super-belief.

If someone believes in an all-powerful creator, and that there is an ETERNAL afterlife waiting for all of us, and that doing/believing good or correct things will get you to the good place to spend eternity, and that doing/believing bad or incorrect things will result in you being damned to an eternity of painful terror and punishment, then I think it’s sensible for that person to freak the eff out whenever societal conditions threaten the eternal salvation prospects for them and their children.

If you believed unconditionally that certain activities would cause your kids to spend eternity (really think about what that word means) under unimaginably horrible circumstances—then maybe you’d flip shit over things their teachers were teaching them, or about things they see and hear on TV or social media too.

If you spent your entire life being name-called, shunned, judged, mocked, and being told that God HATES you because of who you love and feel naturally attracted to by certain religious groups, maybe it would be really easy to question the goodness of such a group. Maybe it would be really easy to reject ideas they were trying to get everyone to believe, since people who believe those things hurt you, and have always hurt you.

And so we must choose: people or beliefs?

In a life that’s taught me the undeniable value of human connection, I have chosen to value my connections with people over my personal beliefs.

I’ve yet to see that strategy yield poor results.

In the end, some people are going to think Donald Trump is awesome, and some people are going to think he’s a massive d-bag. Others may think he sucks big-time, but still believe he’s the best option for president. And others still may think he’s a rad dude, but that there are better candidates to serve as the U.S. president.

These debates will take place at kitchen tables, on 24/7 cable news shows, around office water coolers, in internet forums, and in a bunch of other places.

When we find ourselves near or involved in one, we can choose to care more about our beliefs, or we can choose to care more about the people with whom we’re discussing those beliefs.

One way breeds conflict and broken relationships. In marriage, it breeds resentment and contributes to divorce.

The other way cultivates peace and brings people closer together. In marriage, it brings couples together and fortifies the love and respect two people have and feel for one another.

Good news—you’re free to choose whichever way you want.

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How to Respond to Your Emotional Spouse Without Making Things Worse

mirroring and building rapport with others

(Image/cristianobaraghini.it)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Emotional Intelligence Litmus Test

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Imagine it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The winning players, coaches, and fans are happy.

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

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

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

Same event. Different reactions.

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

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

Our relationship problems are subtle. Nuanced.

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

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

Good news: We can do hard things.

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Must Women Leave Men to Get Them to Change?

Learning the hard way flowchart (Image/David Colarusso)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Answer is Not Either Or

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

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

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

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

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

I didn’t have me to talk to.

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

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

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

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

The Right Words, the Right Way, the Right Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Would You Have Changed if She Had Not Left You?

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

But I can’t be sure that’s true.

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

You can’t know what you don’t know.

I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

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

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

It’s a choice.

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

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How to Change Your Shitty Husband

Change Ahead by Ed Myers

Image/”Change Ahead” artwork by Ed Myers

“I fucking hated you,” she said.

“I hated you because you’re the guy who made a damn name for himself because he was a self-proclaimed ‘shitty’ husband, which he was. The adoration and praise you would get from women for telling the damn truth about your ignorance in your relationship nauseated me.”

Today would have been my 15th wedding anniversary. If I wasn’t divorced.

Instead, it’s the sixth anniversary that isn’t.

Things changed. I changed, even though the angry reader might not think that’s worth anything.

“Just asking for you to evaluate me based on today instead of yesterday,” I replied.

“I can’t evaluate you based on today,” the reader said. “You don’t understand—I might as well be your wife. I am every woman whose husband prioritized himself or things over his wife. I am every woman who worked her ass off to helper her husband heal only to be met with his criticism, judgment, or dismissal.

“I am every woman who sacrificed for the wellbeing of the family until she realized that she’s wasting away to nothing and no one was going to notice.

“I might as well be your wife—because you might as well be my husband. Can’t erase the pain of being mistreated, as much as I would like to.”

I didn’t make a name for myself. I’m just the guy a handful of people know about who learned how to see that which was previously invisible, and now people want to know the secret.

Men afraid of losing their wives or girlfriends ask me to work with them because they want to learn how to see it too.

Women afraid of being forced into the same situation I forced my wife into—having to choose between mental and emotional health, and divorce—ask me to work with them or to at least help them understand how they can help their husbands or boyfriends to learn what I’ve learned.

People don’t care about me, necessarily. They care because sometimes things I write or say about my failed marriage sounds just like what is happening in their marriage.

People are just trying to save their families. Their lives.

People will do anything to save those things.

 

‘How Do I Get My Husband to Change?’

That’s the million-dollar question. The one I’ve gotten the most in various forms over the past six years of writing here.

Seth Godin, perhaps the world’s thought leader in the field of marketing, wrote:

“People don’t change. (Unless they want to.) Humans are unique in their ability to willingly change. We can change our attitude, our appearance and our skillset.

“But only when we want to.

“The hard part, then, isn’t the changing it.

“It’s the wanting it.”

The answer is you DON’T get your husband to change.

Your husband either will or won’t change in any number of ways for the rest of his life, and most if not all of those changes will come about because of his desire for them to.

“Why didn’t you get it when you were married?” people ask me. “Why did she have to leave you for you to get it?”

Because I didn’t want to change until it hurt.

It’s common for people to be surprised by the idea that I didn’t know that I was a shitty husband, while I was being one during my nine-year marriage. People, I think, struggle to believe it, because it seems so obvious to them.

The English language seems obvious to me. Driving in the right lane (as opposed to the left as they do in the United Kingdom and Ireland) seems obvious to me. Wearing shoes in buildings seems obvious to me (as opposed to removing them as they commonly do in Japan).

There are 7.7 billion people in the world, and each of us has our own version of ‘normal.’ And this is the source of all human conflict, from schoolyard arguments, to political disagreements, to marriage fights, to terrorist attacks, all the way up to wars between nations.

Always.

The nature of conflict is one person or group believing they are right, while another person or group is wrong.

That’s all relationship fights are. Sometimes, these are fact-based arguments that can be settled quickly.

Usually they’re not, which is why long-term committed relationships fail more than half the time.

I Changed Because I Wanted to Change

I changed because I thought I was going to die, and I knew I never wanted to feel that hurt and broken again.

I changed because I was motivated to protect myself and my son—and later, others—from the negative consequences of my previous thought and behavior patterns.

I didn’t change when my wife asked me to because I didn’t want to, and because I didn’t know it mattered. I’m not going to hear that EVERYTHING your spouse tells you is a thing you accept as gospel. Something they say either feels important and credible to you, or it doesn’t. And then you respond accordingly in a very natural, organic way.

Husbands don’t dismiss, judge, contradict, or otherwise invalidate their wives as part of some master-planned strategy from the playbook we were all handed in Patriarchy School.

Husbands do these things because they have no idea—absolutely NONE—that what they’re doing amounts to literally abusing and neglecting their wives, and certainly not that after it happens enough times, the marriage and family are going to fall apart when it’s super emotionally, and financially, and logistically inconvenient to do so.

I tried to help my wife solve her work and social problems when she’d talk to me about them. I thought I was being helpful, but I was accidentally, blindly, being an insensitive prick, and a bad emotional partner.

I treated my wife just like I treated EVERYONE I loved the most. I’d use playful banter to mock and tease when the situation seemed to call for it. My wife didn’t like it. Sarcasm pointed her direction caused unique invisible pains due to things she’d encountered years before I knew her. These weren’t ideas that I was intellectually mature enough to grasp. I just knew that sarcasm was fun, and all my best friends and I laughed at and with each other constantly because of it. Laughing and fun are GOOD things. Thus, my wife was ‘wrong,’ and I was right.

These are the same types of thought processes and blind spots that everyone has. Everyone’s blind spots are just different.

Just like everyone’s family customs, and traffic laws, and native tongues are different depending on where they’re from and what they’ve experienced.

What Does That Change Look Like?

Because it’s a little bit semantics, right?

Am I REALLY a different person? Not entirely. My personality is more or less the same. My likes and dislikes are more or less the same. Many of my habits and base chemical emotional reactions to various circumstances are the same.

What is different is my ability to INTENTIONALLY seek and find what I was previously blind to and not looking for.

I’ve changed the way I think. Drastically.

Seven years ago, if someone wrote me a note that said they “fucking hated me,” it would have made me very sad, angry, or both.

Today, it makes me nothing. The woman doesn’t hate me. She doesn’t know the first thing about what it’s like to be me or to be around me, no matter how much I try to explain it on these pages.

She’s hurt. Badly. Just like I was when my wife chose to leave.

No one has a monopoly on pain.

I was the problem in my marriage, but that doesn’t mean I still didn’t suffer mentally and emotionally as victims do. When my wife left, and I still didn’t understand why. In my reality, I was being abandoned and betrayed, and it wasn’t until years later when I finally realized: Holy shit. She totally did the right thing by divorcing me, did I finally achieve the mental and emotional maturity needed to navigate all of this messy human stuff that most of us struggle with.

Change isn’t wholesale change. It’s modification. Enhancement. Evolution.

Change means “to make different.”

You don’t have to give up who you are to be the person your romantic partner or children might need you to be.

You just have to decide you want to know and do things you didn’t previously know or do. Like learning a new language.

It’s very difficult. Particularly as an adult. Because, whether you’re writing, reading, speaking, or listening, nearly everything about the process is fundamentally new, different, unrecognizable, and uncomfortable.

Our brains crave the comfort of efficiently and effectively communicating the way we always have, because “it just works.”

To become fluent in that new language, you have to WANT it.

When life is comfortable, and nothing hurts, and there’s not just misunderstanding, but a literal blindness to how ones thoughts and actions adversely affect others? Who would choose uncomfortable change, and why?

We choose to restrict our diets and exercise when we WANT (health, strength, endurance, physical attractiveness, skill, etc.) what those uncomfortable sacrifices will give us.

People change when they understand the tradeoff involved. People change when they realize what’s at stake.

I realized what was at stake when she drove away with our son in the back seat, and then I sobbed in my kitchen and threw up over and over again in the sink next to which I usually set that drinking glass.

I realized how I was responsible for so much of what had gone wrong when I finally committed to understanding WHY my marriage had failed, which I did because I needed that knowledge to feel secure that it wouldn’t happen again.

People change, but only when they want to. So it’s not about the changing it. It’s about the wanting to.

In this case, 15 years too late.

The reader used the word “hated.” Past tense. So maybe not anymore. Change.

She continued.

“And yet, your divorce taught you something. Something important about yourself, but also your wife. Some men never bother to look,” she said.

“The adoration and praise you would get from women for telling the damn truth about your ignorance in your relationship nauseated me.

“Then you wrote this—which is my damn story.

“The jury is still out.”

Indeed, it is. Such is life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moving Toward Each Other vs. Moving Away From Each Other

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

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

A visual aid:

I <——> I

Connected.

A month later.

I <————————————> I

Drifted apart a little.

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

I <–> I

Boom.

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

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

On the brink.

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

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

Doing nothing is a death sentence.

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

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

This is why six-second hugs are significant.

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

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

His mother was very disappointed in his word choices.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forget to hug.

Forget to nurture.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love is a choice.

Please choose it.

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How the Color Purple is Harming Your Relationships

(Image/Science)

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is the Blue Dot Effect?

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

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

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

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

Brinson continues:

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

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

Important note, Brinson points out:

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

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

What This Means for Your Relationships

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s HARD to be an adult.

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

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

That they are respected, appreciated, and cherished.

That they are good enough, honored, and supported.

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

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

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

And we don’t have to.

We can do better.

We must.

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