Why Counselling Fails

therapistoffice

Picture this scenario:

There’s a couple, who love each other; but one day they realize they are having problems.  Or maybe they aren’t even having problems, and instead they find themselves thinking that maybe there should be more to life.

Whatever is going on starts to put stress on their relationship, and they are starting to question if they really want this relationship any more.  Or maybe they know they still want the relationships, but not as it currently is.  They want to see some sort of changes that they believe will improve the relationship.

So, either because they think it may help or because other people are suggesting it is a good idea, they decide to see the help of a couples counselor.

 

The problem is, counselling often doesn’t work.

 

I don’t have any real hard numbers here, but from what I’ve seen only around 10% of couples show any sort of improvements in their relationship after seeing a counselor.  And for people who choose to see a counselor, around 50% of the relationships end up failing.

That 50% number is right in line with overall divorce rates, so really, what’s the point.  If seeing a counselor doesn’t really improve the success rate of relationships, it looks like it’s just a waste of time and money.

 

Why?

 

Is counselling nothing more than a waste of time and effort?  Or can it actually help relationships?

I happen to believe counselling CAN be very valuable – both individually and as a couple.  But you need to be doing it for the right reasons, and you need to go in with the right mindset.

 

 

Prevention or Cure?

The first big problem with counselling is, couples often go to a counselor WAY too late.  In fact, many counselors feel that a couple has gone to see them a year or two later than they probably should have.

In many ways this is understandable.  Our personal issues are, well, personal.  Communication is hard at the best of times, which probably the biggest reason that couples get into trouble in the first place.  Yet couples who are struggling with some sort of issues are supposed to now go to see some third party (with their partner) and talk to them about the exact issues they find it hard to talk to their partner about?

Ummm, yeah.  Not fun, or easy.  So it’s easy to see why people often opt to instead do nothing, and hope that this is something that will pass, or something they can just live with.

Except it doesn’t work that way. Ignoring things doesn’t work, and will never make things better

As the saying goes:

prevention

Yet most couples see counselling a last resort, so what may have been fairly manageable issues tend to grow and become magnified.  Resentment often sets in, and by the time people are willing to accept that it’s a big enough problem that they need to do something, there is a lot of damage that needs to be undone before any true improvements can be made.

 

Problem?  What Problem?

Another big problem with counseling is, in order for it to be effective BOTH people must want it, and see a need for it.  Unfortunately relationship issues often don’t work that way.

Commonly one person is actually pretty happy (or at least content) with the things that are a problem for the other person.  This can make it very difficult to see any real improvements, because the person who wants to see changes needs to get buy-in from someone who doesn’t see a need for any changes.

 

An important thing to remember is, a relationship involves two people and both peoples needs/wants have to matter.  If one person believes there is a problem (lets just call it an opportunity for improvement) – then guess what, there’s a problem.  The other person who doesn’t really see this as an issue can’t just convince their partner it’s not an issue, or wish it away.  Whether they like it or not, if their partner believes there is an issue then there’s a legitimate issue.

In fact, one of the WORST things they can do is try to convince their partner it’s not an issue.  By doing that, they are invalidating their partners’ feelings and beliefs (hopefully unintentionally).  And doing that will only serve to widen any gaps between a couple.

 

 

What is your Goal?

The last (and largest) problem I see with counselling is the reason people go.

See, we have this (broken) notion that unconditional love means you are being accepted “as you are”.  And being accepted for who you are means you shouldn’t have to change.

But if a couple is talking about going to counselling, generally there is a reason.  Something is not working, or could be working better.

And how is that supposed to happen without change?

I’m pretty sure a couple doesn’t expect to go to a counselor, describe their issues, and then have the counselor say something like “Sounds great, keep doing what you’ve been doing”.  That won’t address anything.  That won’t allow anything to improve.

No, couples go to counseling usually because one person is pushing them there, and on at least some level the person pushing for counseling is expecting the counselor to side with them.

They are expecting to go in and tell their story, and have the counselor “fix” their partner for them.  They want the counselor to tell their partner to change their behavior in ways that better accommodate them, and their needs.

 

And that is where I think counselling really starts to fall apart; because that’s not what it’s for.

 

To me, counseling is not about determining who’s right or wrong.  It’s not about having one person change their behavior to accommodate the other person.

It’s really about trying to understand the conflicts facing a couple, the gaps between their needs and wants, and trying to find a path forward works best for BOTH people.

And that will almost never involve change on only one side.

 

For counseling to be successful, I think both people need to be willing to face some potentially uncomfortable truths about themselves, and their roles in the problems their relationship faces.  Yeah, one person may be “more to blame” than the other, but that doesn’t really matter.  If you are looking for who’s to blame, you’re already in trouble.

What’s really more important – for things to be better, or for you to be right?  People often say they want things to be better (for both people), but really they usually want to be right.  Because accepting that they have contributed to the problems means they have to change too.

It’s easy to see how and why our partners should change to accommodate us, but looking at our own part in things?  That’s hard.  It means we may have to change some things too, and no one wants to change – because change is scary as hell.

 

 

Maintaining Relationships

If we buy a car, we understand we need to do periodic maintenance or it will break down (seriously, just try driving your car and never changing the oil.  I promise it won’t be fun).  If we buy a house we understand there is yard maintenance that needs to be done and general repair.

Hell, we understand that doing something like taking a bath or a shower on a regular basis is fairly important to personal hygiene.

Everything wears out, gets dirty or breaks down over time if you don’t maintain it.  But our relationships?  In theory they should be one of the most important things in our lives – yet most of us do a TERRIBLE job of even maintaining them (never mind growing them).

 

Counselling is often seen as a last resort for couples who are searching for how to “save” their relationship, or make it better.  And often even when we do go, it’s more about how we can make the relationship better for us than it is about how to make life better as a couple.

 

So what is your goal?  Do you truly want to grow old with your partner?  If so, wouldn’t it maybe be a good idea to try and make your relationship the best it can be – for both of you?

If so, putting in effort and working on your relationship a little be every day may go a long way towards keeping it strong.  Trying to truly listen to your partner, and acknowledge when problems exist (even when it doesn’t seem like a problem for you) and show willingness to work on them may also help.

Sometimes it’s hard to work through things together.  Sometimes we do need a bit of help – and that shouldn’t be something to be embarrassed about or ashamed of.

Divorce rates continue to hover around 50%.  And success rates for couples who seek counselling are also believed to be around 50%.

But if you could quantify the success rates for couples who are able to put ego aside and really focus on doing what’s best for “us” instead of what’s best for “me”, I’m confident the numbers would be considerably higher.

Is It Better To Be Single?

guys-drinking-bar-rotator

A while ago I was out with a buddy, and while we were eating he looked at me and asked “do you ever miss being single?”

That’s a pretty loaded question, so I had to get a bit of clarification on what he meant.  He wasn’t talking about dating, or looking for other women.  He was talking about simply being able to do what we were doing – being able to go out and grab some food with a buddy.  To not have to worry about kids, or when he needs to be home, or feeling guilty about leaving his wife alone with the kids while he goes takes time for himself.

Looking at it that way, do I miss being single?

Truthfully?

Of course I do.  But maybe it’s better to say that I miss certain aspects of it.

 

The Traditional Path

Growing up many of us follow the template:

  • Finish high school
  • Get a post-secondary education
  • Start a career
  • Date, with the hopes of finding that someone you want to build a life with
  • Get married
  • Raise a family

We follow the template because we see it.  It’s been modeled to us our whole lives – from parents, grandparents, friends, the media, etc.  And although people may not say it explicitly, at least at a subconscious level we are taught that this is “the best way”, or “the right way” to live.

Is it TRULY the best way to live?

Personally I like the template, but divorce rates (that continue to hover around 50% for first marriages) would seem indicate that it’s not necessarily an easy way to live.

So best?  Who knows.

At the very least, I can say it’s not the only way to live.

 

Different “Ways” To Live

There are other ways to life your life.

Some choose to remain single (with no relationship).

For people who do, I suppose you can question if they actually want to be single or if they have just resigned themselves to it.

I suspect it’s probably a mix of both.  Really, for the people who are married I wonder how many actually want to be married and how many are simply scared to be alone.  In any case, remaining single is a viable choice, and is the one that provides the greatest amount of personal freedom.

You may never actually be able to do whatever you want, but your choices impact less people when it’s just you.

 

Others may stay single yet date casually.  I guess this is way of trying to have some of the benefits of a relationship without the expectations commitment brings.

 

Then you have others who are in exclusive relationships, but have no interest in marriage or even living together.  I know a guy who’s been with his girlfriend for a few years now.  Both are divorced, have their own kids, and love each other.  But they still value living independently, and their relationship is mainly characterized by getting together a few nights a week and vacationing together periodically.

According to him this approach helps reduce the effects of taking each other for granted (hedonic adaptation), because they only see each other when they want to.

Personally I don’t get it, but hey, it seems to work for them.

 

For each of these approaches you can also add a variation – with kids and without.  If you’re raising a family together, I would think that probably works best for all involved if you are living under one roof.  But kids bring with them a whole other set of challenges.

Really, the life of a married couple with no kids generally looks VERY different from the life of a married couple with kids.  And even comparing couples with kids, the number of kids and their ages can have big impacts on what the couple’s lives look like.

 

Choosing a Path

So what approach is best?  To stay single (and not date)?  Date casually?  Get married?  Have kids?  Not have kids?

There’s no right or wrong answer here.

  • If you stay single you have the greatest control over your own life.  And although you may not have a “partner”, you probably have friends, family, coworkers, etc to provide much of the connection that people often look for in a relationship.
  • If you date casually, your relationship life is probably more “exciting” (speculating here, as I really wouldn’t know).  The early phase of a relationship is often referred to as the discovery phase, or the passion phase.  It’s a phase that can’t last though, so having a number of new relationships ensures you are always having new experiences.
  • If you are in a long term committed relationship where you are living with that person/married, you will have a partner in life, and someone to share experiences and “grow old” with.
  • If you have children, you have the experience of truly developing and shaping another life to be the best it can be.  And there is a certain level of pride and joy in being a parent that is difficult to articulate, and can only be understood by someone who is a parent.

 

Each approach to life is different.  They each have a number of strengths; but there are also a number of challenges and struggles inherent to each approach.

There is no perfect approach that can give you the good without the bad.  Being a parent has some incredible and rewarding moments.  But man, it also involves a lot of sacrifice and challenges.  Getting married and having a partner in life can be great, but it can also be very difficult.

Each choice involves making some sort of sacrifice, and giving up something else.  It’s part of the trade off.

 

Grass is Greener Syndrome

Where we get ourselves in trouble is when we start comparing, or looking at “the road not chosen”.

When times are good, we don’t even think about our choices (which sadly means we actually taking them for granted and not appreciating the good in them).

When times get hard though?  Well, during those times the sacrifices and challenges or our chosen road often stand out.  And it’s easy to start to question if it’s worth it.

 

Imagine you have chosen one road, and you find yourself talking to someone who has chosen another.  It’s really easy to look at their life and see primarily the good parts.  The freedoms they have that are different from yours, the sacrifices you make that they don’t seem to have to make.

Remember though – two people can go out who have chosen different roads, and talk.  And each can head home envious of the others life.

The grass isn’t really greener on the other side.  It’s just a bit different.  With both strengths and weaknesses – just like the life we have now.

 

Going back to the start, do I miss being single?  Sure, sometimes.  I would be lying if I said otherwise.  I also sometimes miss the freedom from my life before I was a parent.

Hell, I miss the days I lived at my parents – where I had no job (beyond my paper route), no responsibilities or bills, and not a care in the world.  Did I appreciate that life at the time?  Of course not – because that life was just what I knew.

And that’s the sad part.

Often you don’t appreciate the things you have until they are gone.  We shouldn’t HAVE to lose things before we can appreciate them.  We should be able to take time out every day, and be truly grateful for the things we DO have.

If we could do that, maybe the bad times wouldn’t feel so overwhelming.  Maybe we wouldn’t get to the point where we are looking longingly at the road not taken.

 

So instead of looking at what we don’t have and what we are missing, perhaps we should be trying to remember and appreciate the strengths of the road we have chosen.  And focusing on making it the best life it can be.

justNeedToWaterIt

 

 

When Roots Run Deep

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One of my earliest memories of moving out from my parents and into my own place is of buying a plant.

I’m not sure if it was actually my first plant (as people may have given me some previously), but it was the first one that I bought.  I had stopped at the mall on the way home from school, and there were some tables set up with a couple of old ladies selling things as part of some church fund raiser.

I was initially drawn to the table for the baking (because really, who doesn’t love cookies), but while there I also bought a small fig tree.

When I bought the plant, it was a twig with a few leaves on it.  I loved that little tree, and it came to represent a change in my apartment.  This little touch of green added some life to my apartment, and as I changed apartments a few times over the next few years it was one of my constants.  It continued to thrive and grow, eventually hitting around 4 or 5 feet tall.

Wherever I was, this tree helped me feel that my apartment wasn’t just a little concrete box that I rented.  Instead, it was my home.

 

 

I live in a diverse climate with four distinct seasons.  Our summers tend to be sunny and hot.  Our winters on the other hand, well, they’re pretty damned cold.

Unfortunately one of my many moves in those years happened during winter; and even the trip from apartment to moving vehicle back to new apartment is not kind on plants.

Over the next few days my fig tree dropped all of its leaves, until there was nothing left but branches.  And then, even they started to wither and die.

I was pretty upset.  Most things to me are just that – “things”, and easily replaceable.  But this tree had come to mean more.

My roommate told me it was dead and said I should just throw it out.  But for some reason I didn’t (I’m still not sure why, likely just stubbornness on my part).  I continued to water it, and as branches died I trimmed them down.

Then one day I saw green again.

The tree as it was had died.  It was gone, and wasn’t coming back.  But from the roots a small shoot had come up.

Above ground the tree had died.  But the roots were still alive, and were strong enough to support new life.

 

 

I believe this happens in relationships all the time.

Long term relationships are difficult for a number of reasons, but hedonic adaptation is probably the biggest killer of all.  It’s human nature for the good in our lives to become our new normal, and when this happens we start taking the good for granted and instead start seeing the flaws.

If you think of the relationship as a living entity (such as a tree), it’s very common for people to stop putting in the effort that nurtures growth.  We put all this effort into building the relationship, but once we actually have it we feel safe, and we stop putting the effort in.

Instead we neglect the relationship and put our energies into other things.  The kids, our jobs, our hobbies, our friends, maintaining a household.  All these things are important, and “have to be done”, and with a crunch on time our relationships are the most common casualty.

feeling of love

We stop putting in effort.  Then one day we find ourselves both surprised and hurt to find that our relationship has “died”.

The passion is gone.

The love is gone.

The simple enjoyment of being around each other is gone.

We find ourselves asking, is this all there is?  Is this what marriage really looks like?

Some resign themselves to this, believing this is just what happens over time.  Others withdraw even further into individual pursuits, not realizing they are just making things worse and laying a foundation for potential affairs (on one or both sides).  Others accept that things the relationship has run its course, and split up.

 

I don’t believe any of those options ever has to be the outcome of a struggling relationship.  Loveless relationships aren’t just what happens over time.  You should always be able to find enjoyment and joy at continuing to build your relationship with your partner.  No matter how things are, they can always be improved.

 

 

My old fig tree IS dead.  It’s gone.

But I was able to bring it back to life (In fact, that’s a picture of it at the top).

Because under the surface the roots were still alive, and from those roots a new tree has grown.

This new tree is not the same as the old one, and that’s alright.

It may not be the same, but that doesn’t make it any less beautiful.

It’s been over 15 years since my fig tree “died”, but the new one is vibrant and thriving.

 

 

When relationships “fail”, rebuilding it is often the hardest choice.

Because in order to rebuild, you need to believe that it can be beautiful again.  And depending on what you’ve been through, that can be very hard to do.  It becomes almost impossible however, if you are unable to let go of your visions of how it used to be.

Truly, it will never be the same.

But it doesn’t have to be.

The question is, is there still life in the roots of the relationship?  Do both people still care, and are they willing to put in effort?

If so, a new relationships can be built.

 

When a couple is able to put aside hurt, ego, and still choose each other, the new relationship they build can be even stronger than the one they had before.

 

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Living with Guilt

Guilt-Pain

I’m a big believer in personal accountability, and feel it’s often missing today.  Too often people are looking to blame, and while that’s and easy road to take it’s also completely non-productive because blaming doesn’t allow us to grow, or change.

To me, accountability is all about accepting responsibility for those things that you should be/are actually responsible for, and only those things; no more, and no less.

Accountability doesn’t always come easily though, and there are a number of mental processes that we go through before truly accepting responsibility and becoming accountable.

I’ve written about this process before, but for a recap the idea is as follows:

 

Some sort of stressor occurs (an issue, and argument, a disappointment, whatever it is); and when this happens our primal brain kicks in and goes through a series of steps to determine how to deal with this stressor.

This process starts with Denial, and then moves to Blame, Justification, Shame/Obligation, and only after that does it move to Responsibility.

The first three, denial, blame and justification are easy to explain. In these, rather than taking any sort of ownership we are deflecting the issue away from us. In denial there is no problem. In blame the problem is seen, but it’s not “my” problem, it’s someone else’s. And in justification I only partially accept that it’s my problem. I am saying that yes, it’s my problem – but there are a number of reasons as to “why” it happened (and these reasons somehow absolve me of any blame).

What I’m interested in today is the next mode – when we operate out of guilt or obligation.

 

Operating out of Guilt

In many ways acting from a state of shame or obligation is worse than denial, blame or justification. When you do any of those, you are deflecting an issue away from yourself.  With shame or obligation though, you are doing something but you feel as though you are being compelled to do it by some external force.

It’s almost as though your choice to do something is being made under duress.  You aren’t doing it because you want to, or because you believe it’s the right thing to do.  You are doing it because of a fear of consequence.

With guilt and obligation the consequence we are trying to escape is usually other people’s perception.  Saying I need to do this because so and so expects me to is really saying I need to do this or I will disappoint so and so.  And really, that’s a crappy reason to do something.

When this happens you are liable to build up resentment that you “have to” do something, and you are also liable to build up resentment for the person that you are trying to not disappoint.

Doing something from a state of shame or obligation is fine when done occasionally, but if it is a common state for you then are liable to give up or quit.

 

Guilt and Shame

Brene Brown (a prominent writer who has researched shame and guilt) says:

I believe that guilt is adaptive and helpful – it’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort.

I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.

I don’t believe shame is helpful or productive. In fact, I think shame is much more likely to be the source of destructive, hurtful behavior than the solution or cure. I think the fear of disconnection can make us dangerous.

Brene Brown

 

According to her guilt is positive, and is a way of telling yourself “I have done something bad”.  Shame is negative, because instead of just believing we have done something bad, we start to believe that we are bad as a result.

With shame, it’s like we have internalized the action and believe it comes to represent who we are.  So shame starts to touch on self worth, and feelings of adequacy.

 

I think I understand what she’s saying about guilt and shame, but there is one problem with the idea that guilt is positive.

If guilt occurs when you are doing something that you know is wrong, then it’s dependent on what you have been taught.

Unfortunately, right and wrong aren’t that straightforward.

 

The Problems with Guilt

There are some “big” things I suspect most will agree on.  Killing others is bad.  Stealing from others is bad.  Hurting other people is bad (though we seems to have a lot less of an issue with hurting people emotionally than we do physically).  Those are fairly obvious.

Guilt is tied to morals though, and morals can get very murky.

LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) rights are in the news a lot these days, and many LGBT people struggle a lot in their early years because they are taught that the way they feel is not normal.  There is a lot of guilt and shame that has to be overcome in order to accept who they are.

Going beyond LGBT issues, anything to do with sexuality is often a HUGE source of guilt and shame for people, and most of us struggle with feelings of embarrassment when the topic comes up.  Why?  It’s a natural act, and none of us would even be here today without sex.  But we are taught that it is “adult stuff”, and therefore taboo; so many people struggle with accepting that they are sexual beings.

 

Another area where people struggle with what they have been taught is emotions.

Men are often looked as emotional Neanderthals, and sadly we often are.  To me, this is an example of misdirected guilt.

Little boys (and girls, but more commonly boys) are often taught they are supposed to be “strong”, and that crying is for “sissies”.  This causes them to try and hold negative emotions in, and over time feelings of sadness will make boys feel guilty.  Holding things in can lead to suppressing emotions, and can cause people to start to disassociate themselves from emotions in general.

Emotions are natural responses to external stimuli.  Yet they are often suppressed, or associated with guilt – simply because of what someone has been taught.

 

An additional problem with guilt is that it is often rooted in comparison, or perception instead of in reality.  Often guilt is related to not wanting to disappoint another person.  Yet the feelings of guilt are based on our own interpretation of how the other person would feel about us; and that interpretation is often completely flawed.  It’s something that WE project.  So it really comes from us more than from the other person.

 

Lastly there is the subjective side of guilt.  Look at some of the areas that are often considered major conflict areas in relationships:

  • Money
  • Sex
  • Work
  • Children and Parenting
  • Chores

In each of these areas, conflicts are usually because each person has different ideas about what is right and what is wrong.  The problem is, there IS no right way or wrong way to deal with any of those topics.  It’s easy to believe that our way is the right way – after all, it’s what we know.  But when we insist on things being our way (because it’s better), we are saying that our partners approach is inferior to ours.  And that can cause feelings of guilt (and shame) in our partner.

 

Letting Go of Guilt

The way I see it, guilt does have some value.  As Brene Brown has said, guilt provides us with psychological discomfort when we do something that goes against our values.  Essentially it’s our conscience saying “hey, should you really be doing this” or “c’mon, you KNOW you shouldn’t have done that”.  That side of guilt can be helpful, as it can help guide us to make better choices in the future.

It’s important though to remember our understanding of right and wrong is based on what we have been taught, and due to this I think it’s always valuable to question our beliefs and be willing to adjust them as needed.

So a huge element of guilt is really about identity, and self-acceptance.  If you accept yourself, love yourself and believe in yourself then it really doesn’t matter what other people think.  If you KNOW you are making good decisions, and are doing the right thing then what is there to feel guilty about?

Are you worries about disappointing parents?  Disappointing your partner?  Realistically, if you can honestly say you accept yourself, and try to do the right thing (balancing your needs with the needs of others) than any disappointment on their part is their issue – not yours.

 

I don’t understand doing things out of guilt or obligation.  If you REALLY don’t want to do something, then don’t do it.

Don’t get me wrong, we all have times that we need to do things we don’t really want to do.  That’s part of life, and part of being an adult.  But doing something you don’t want really want to because it needs to be done is doing it from a position of responsibility.

If someone finds themselves continually doing things out of guilt or obligation, then it seems there is at least some part of a person that believes they should be doing this.  Either that or they have been taught to believe something they don’t truly agree with.

So question things.

Accept yourself.

Accept that “your” way isn’t necessarily the “right” way.

Accept that others won’t always agree with you, and that’s alright.

 

When you do that, if you accept that sometimes things have to be done (even though you don’t want to) then approach them from a position of responsibility.  If you determine that it’s not something you should have to do, then don’t do it.

If you do that knowing you have done the right thing for you, then you can let go of guilt.

Doing What You Want

Oscillating

In life, we are individuals first and foremost.  And as individuals, we are able to do anything we want.

Other people can suggest things to us, and they may have a level of influence over us; but we ultimately control our own choices and actions.  No one can force us to do anything we don’t want to do.

So my question is should we ever have to do anything we don’t want to do?

 

At first glance, the answer seems obvious:

No, of course not.

If you don’t want to do something, why in the world would you do it?  Right?

Unfortunately things aren’t that simple.

 

Your Life is Not Your Own.

We are individuals.  And yes, we CAN do what we want.  But we do not live in a vacuum.

Our choices and decisions impact others.  If you are in a relationship, or have children; your actions often have a significant impact on those people (whether you like it or not).

There’s no escaping this.  Even if we are single, living on our own and fully independent – there are still going to be times that our actions impact others.  Maybe it’s co-workers, or neighbors, or even just friends.

So no, I don’t think it’s fair to say that someone can ever just do what they want.  Short of removing ourselves from civilization, moving to an isolated island and returning to a hunter/gatherer lifestyle, our actions ALWAYS impact others.

 

Most of us don’t want to live on an island by ourselves though.  We are social creatures, and we all crave social connection.

Actually, even if we WERE on an island by ourselves we would still desire/need connection.  In the movie Castaway, Tom Hanks was stranded for years, and the only thing that kept him sane was having his volleyball buddy Wilson to talk to (for those that haven’t seen it, Wilson actually was a volleyball).  Yeah it was a fictional movie, but it struck a chord because people are social animals – I suspect that’s why solitary confinement is considered a form of punishment.

So we seek out connection.  We look for people who we can talk to and listen to.  People who make us feel valued, seen, and heard.

And for many of us, this is what leads us to look for a partner in life.  Someone to build a life with, and someone we can envision one day “growing old” with.

 

Building a Relationship

Looking at romantic relationships (marriage/partner), one of the unwritten rules is that the other person has to matter to you.  Your choices affect them, and their choices affect you.

That doesn’t necessarily mean you need to change anything about the way you live or the choices you make.  After all, for the relationship to work you still need to be you and your partner needs to be able to accept you as such.

Being in a relationship doesn’t mean you aren’t an individual anymore, but it does mean you are more than just an individual.

Because of this you need to keep in mind how your choices will impact your partner.  Relationships require caring, empathy, and accepting influence.  And taking your partner into account is part of that.

 

This brings me back to my initial question:

Should we ever have to do anything we don’t want to do?

If your partner wants you to do something and you don’t want to do it, should you be willing to do it for them?  Or do you just say I don’t want to, or that’s not my thing?

It’s a difficult question.

 

Clearly that depends on what it is, and on the perceived expectation from your partner.

If your partner wants you to be their getaway driver for a bank heist, then it’s pretty easy to just say no.  If they want you to have an orgy with the neighbor and a goat, again, pretty easy to say no.

But what if it’s a fairly reasonable request?

 

Let’s say your partner loves opera and wants you to join them, but you don’t like it.  Should you go with them?  How about if you are planning a vacation and struggling to find a place you both want to go, or even just trying to pick a movie to see?

Are relationships only about finding a person with similar interests, and then only doing things together that you both enjoy?  Or are there time that you should do things you may not really be interested in doing?

 

In my opinion, for a relationship to be successful there HAS to be give and take.  You need to be able to go outside your comfort zone and do things with your partner that isn’t necessarily your thing.  If I go to the opera with my partner (and I don’t enjoy opera), it has nothing to do with opera.  Instead, it’s about sharing moments and experiences with your partner that are important to them.  You aren’t showing interest in opera – you are showing interest in your partner.

It doesn’t mean you should have to go with them all the time.  But sharing moments that are important to them is about accepting influence from them.  In some ways you can think of it as investing in your relationship, and in your future.

 

 

Doing Your Own Thing

In relationships, the balance between individual and part of a couple can be hard, and there are often conflicting messages.

Sometimes you hear things like “happiness is found in doing things for others”.  Other times you hear things like “there’s nothing selfish about putting yourself first, taking care of yourself and making yourself a priority”.

So which is it?  Is it best to do things for others all the time or should you just look out for yourself?

The challenge is, both of these are true.  Looking out for yourself may SEEM selfish, but in some ways it’s not.  YOU MATTER!!!  Your needs, your wants and your desires are important.  They need to matter, whether you are in a relationship or not.

Once in a relationship however, the other person needs to matter too.  And when needs and wants conflict, it can’t just be about you.

Relationships aren’t just about getting your way, and doing what you want.  They don’t only apply when both people’s needs/wants happen to line up.

 

If you don’t want to do something and feel you shouldn’t have to do anything you don’t want, then that’s fine.  That’s an individual choice that you can make.

But if someone in a relationship feels they should be able to do whatever they want without taking into account how it will impact their partner, then that’s not a relationship.

They are looking for someone to be there on their terms only, and to care of their needs.  What they really want is to pick and choose the parts of the relationship that work for them.

In that situation there isn’t much accepting influence, caring or empathy.

And without that, there isn’t much love.

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Doing the “Right Thing”

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A little while back someone at my work was fired for theft.  I’m sure this sort of thing happens all the time everywhere in the world, but I was still a bit shocked by it.  I work for a pretty good company (benefits, wages, environment), so I didn’t understand why someone would put their job at risk; especially when this guy lost his job over theft of an item worth around $25.  I mean, really?

I was talking this over with one of my co-workers, telling her I didn’t understand why someone would do it, especially when this will now be attached to his employment record and can impact his future.  My co-workers response was that this guy simply figured he wouldn’t get caught.

 

The Fable of Gyges Ring

This situation made me think of The Fable of Gyges Ring, from Plato’s Republic.  Just to be clear, I don’t normally go around reading things like Plato.  I HAD to read it for school years ago (but have to admit it was actually pretty good).  The Republic presents Plato’s ideas on justice and morality, and the part I remember the most is the fable of Gyges Ring.

In this story a shepherd finds a ring that makes him invisible and somehow this invisibility means the shepherd can take actions without consequences.  Ummm, invisibility means no consequences?  That seems like a bit of a stretch (and perhaps inspiration for Tolkien).  But hey, the story was written over 2000 years ago so I guess we’ll have to cut it some slack.

Anyhow, with his newfound power the shepherd seduces the queen, kills the king and takes over the kingdom (because of course, that’s what we would all do if there were no consequences, right?)

Now here’s the interesting part.  In discussing this tale, Plato theorized that if two of these rings existed, and one was found by a “just” man and the other by an unjust man, the ability to do what he wanted without consequence would cause the just man to become corrupted.

His suggestion was, it’s really only consequences that keep us in line and at our core we are all unjust.

 

What is Justice?

Are we inherently unjust?  And what exactly does that even mean?

Merriam Webster defines justice as “the process or result of using laws to fairly judge and punish crimes and criminals”.

I’ll acknowledge that sometimes there is a disconnect between law and justice, but for the moment let’s accept that law is an attempt at placing rules around what is “right” or “moral”, and setting consequences for the violation of those rules.

Based on that, is Plato right?  Is it really only the threat of consequences that keeps us in line and makes us act in a moral way?

Without consequences will people really just do whatever they want?

 

Learning Right From Wrong

In some ways I think Plato was right.  After all, I do think we are born selfish.  If you think about it, as infants all we understand is our own needs and other people are basically vehicles for this need fulfillment.

As a parent, my experience has been that right and wrong needs to be taught.

Children initially don’t understand why they can’t just do what they want, or take something they want.  They need to learn about boundaries, and ownership.  They need to learn the concept of exchange.  Hell, even empathy seems to be something that is largely learned.

I may wish my children would just “understand” right and wrong, but they don’t.  And while learning this, consequences are a practical way of helping them understand why they need to do the right thing.

Eventually I think people have to get to a point where we are no longer doing something to avoid consequences.  Instead, they need to do something because they have come to believe it’s the right thing to do.

There’s a distinction between these two things (avoiding consequences vs. doing what we believe is right); and although it may seem subtle I believe it’s extremely important.

When we are doing something because we believe it’s the right thing to do, we have internalized that value.  It has become part of our belief set.

At that point, the consequences from other people for violating that value aren’t important anymore.  Because overriding any fear of what other people will think is the betrayal of our own core valuesThe disappointment in ourselves far outweighs any concern about being caught.

After all, we can hide things from others – but not from ourselves.

 

Integrity

Which brings me to one of my favorite topics – integrity.

Integrity is all about how we live our lives.  It’s about whether we actually live the values that we profess.

It’s really easy to SAY things.  But to walk the talk, and to do it consistently?  That’s a lot harder.

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Now, I’m not trying to push my sense of morality on anyone here.

I readily acknowledge no one is perfect.  We all have a darker side to us.  We all have moments that we do things we later regret.  We are all sometimes petty, selfish, stupid, ignorant – whatever.

Having integrity doesn’t mean you never do those things.  Instead, it’s about how frequently do we stick to our values, and how badly do we stray from them when we don’t.

And because we know we ARE going to screw up sometimes, an important element of integrity is accountability.  When we screw up (and yes, it’s a WHEN and not an IF) how do we handle it?  Do we try to hide it?  Do we blame?  Justify?  Or do we own it, accept any consequences from our actions and then try to use the moment as an opportunity for growth?

 

Shared Values

In relationships, it’s important to find someone with whom you share similar values.  And I think a mistake people often make is they don’t actually get to know who their partner really is.  Instead, they just assume their partner shares a lot of the same beliefs.

Unfortunately, the world isn’t black and white and right and wrong can at times be subjective.  So when it comes to core values, simply assuming someone shares them can often lead to disappointment.

Here’s a little rule of thumb I have.  If someone does something “bad”, and you are shocked because it seems so out of character for them – that’s probably a good thing.  It means they either don’t do things like that often or they just rarely get caught (I’m a glass is half full kind of guy, so I’ll take it to mean they don’t do things like that very often).

If they do something and you find yourself going “sigh, again?”, then maybe that’s just who they are (or more accurately who they CHOOSE to be).  And in that case, you’ve got to ask yourself if that’s a person you really want to be with.

Of course, WHAT they do is also pretty significant.

If someone is “mostly” awesome, but oh yeah they also happen to be a serial killer?  That MAY be a problem for you.

Or maybe not, after all different people have their own boundaries on what’s acceptable and what’s not.

Murderer/sex offender/drug dealer are fairly universally accepted as “deal breakers” for relationships.

For many, finding out their partner is an adulterer/cheater is also a deal breaker (though many who believe that find things are a bit more murky than expected when actually faced with that situation).

 

To me, affairs show a complete lack of integrity.  I see them as the ultimate selfish act, as they are all about choosing “me” at the expense of “we”.

I understand the conditions that lead to affairs.  I understand when a couple is struggling, when someone feels unhappy in their relationship and/or with themselves.  I understand that having other people show interest in you feels good, and when in a bad spot mentally/emotionally people want more of that feeling.  I understand the dopamine rush that comes with new relationships, and the sense of freedom that comes with being able to do what you want, and not have to worry about the restrictions that come with relationships.

When you hear stories of people who have affairs, there are a lot of things they are feeling and a lot of reasons they do what they do.  And I think I kinda/sorta get that.

Even still, I KNOW I would never have an affair (even if I had Gyges ring allowing me to escape consequences).

Because if you truly care about and respect the person you are with, an affair is completely disrespectful to that person.  So I would NEVER do that to someone else.

And beyond that what I would be doing to someone else, I simply think that it’s wrong.  And I know I could never live with ME if I were to do that.

 

Being You

I guess that’s the point of doing the right thing.  It’s not about someone else.  It’s not about consequences, and what other people would think if they found out.

It’s about you.

It’s about what you truly believe, and what beliefs you are willing to stand up for.

In the past while I’ve written about being authentic, and being true to yourself.  Well, integrity and doing the right thing is a huge part of that.

Not saying one thing, yet doing another.  Not hiding parts of yourself and presenting a different version of yourself to different audiences.  Not denying fault, blaming or rationalizing your actions when you screw up.

But knowing who you are, and owning your choices and actions.  Being who you are in all aspects of your life, and living a life you believe in.

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Happiness is Overrated

asian young Couple not talking after  fight  in living roomThere seems to be a huge focus on happiness these days, specifically in relationships.

I’m at an age now where a lot of long term relationships/marriages are failing, or people are starting new relationships (after their marriage has failed).  And in these failed relationships, unhappiness is almost always cited as the main reason.

I hear things like:

  • I just want to be happy
  • Everyone deserves to be happy
  • Lifes too short to not be happy
  • I’m happy now (in the new relationship)

This focus on happiness worries me a bit, and in fact I think happiness is kind of a dangerous and even subversive concept.  And although I understand what people are getting at, I think they’re often missing the point.

Of course people “want to be happy”.  Really, does anyone actually go around and claim the opposite?  Unless you’re Grumpy from the seven dwarves, I don’t think anyone really wants to be unhappy (though I will admit there are some people who almost seem to thrive off negativity).

Yes, there are different emotions and generally the positive emotions are seen as preferable experiences to negative emotions (which is probably why some are classified as positive and others as negative).

I totally get all that.

Here’s my problem – what exactly is happiness?

Do you know?  Because I sure don’t; and I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about this stuff.  I do however know that happiness is more than just a feeling.  Further no one is always happy, and even when someone IS happy, they aren’t going to be happy in every aspect of their life.

Happiness is not like a light switch that is “on” or “off”.  You can be happy at home, but not in your job.  Or happy when you get a bit of down time, but feel overwhelmed when faced with all the things that need to be done as part of domestic life.

Happiness is complex, and the aspects and levels of it aren’t consistent over time.

 

“Unhappy” Relationships

So what does this really mean to relationships?

When people leave (or thinking about leaving) a relationship because “they aren’t happy”, I don’t think it’s really about happiness.

Instead, I think it’s about conflict that a couple has been unable to resolve.

Over time, unresolved conflict creates an environment of hurt, and likely resentment.  That in turn creates tension in the relationship, as one or both members feel their needs aren’t being met and they aren’t being heard.  A few posts ago I talked about connection, and a big component of connection is feeling valued, heard, and seen.  So if you feel you aren’t being heard, this will cause the connection to break down.

Over time this leads to a perpetual state of tension within the relationship, which is emotionally draining.

With broken connection and a state of tension, a couple will have a harder time finding joy even in the good parts of the relationship and instead will often focus more on the problems as they become magnified.

And THIS will result in…

(ready for it?)

…unhappiness.

 

I know what you’re thinking –“but ZombieDrew, isn’t that the same thing?  Doesn’t it still boil down to the couple being unhappy?

Nope, and the distinction here is really important.

 

First, it’s important to remember that having conflict doesn’t mean you have a bad relationship.  It means you’re normal.  Conflict is as unavoidable as death and taxes, and is a byproduct of two different people building a life together.  You won’t always agree and you won’t always get along, and that’s alright.

Another important thing is unhappiness isn’t the problem, it’s a SYMPTOM of a different (and truly, a larger) problem.

And understanding that?  THAT really matters.

Because you can’t solve a symptom, you can’t solve unhappy.  You need to understand the actual problem.  And if you can understand the actual problem, THEN you can do something about it!!!

 

The Search for Happiness

My issue with people leaving relationships because they are unhappy (or searching for happiness) is that often they don’t really know WHY they were unhappy.  They stopped at the symptom, the feeling.

They knew they were “having problems”, and found themselves in a situation where they were unhappy for so long they believed the only way out was to leave the relationship.

They want to be happy again (after all, everyone “deserves” to be happy, life is too short to not be happy, blah blah blah).  So they leave, in order to find that feeling again.

(Actually often they go in search of the feeling before leaving the relationships, having emotional and or physical affairs that provide the “feeling” of happiness, which only solidifies their belief that there was something wrong with the relationship they are/were in.  But that’s a topic for another day.)

In any case, pursuit of a feeling leaves them looking for something they will likely never find.

 

Building Relationships

One of the big fallacies of relationships is that you just need to find the right person.  I absolutely hate this thinking, because it absolves people of responsibility in relationships.

Oh, our relationship failed because he/she wasn’t the right person.  I just need to find someone more compatible.

Sorry, that’s a load of crap.  Don’t get me wrong, there is an element of compatibility involved in relationships (though I believe it’s a much smaller factor than most people would think).

But here’s the thing – relationships are a skill.  And like any other skill, we can always improve the skill side of a relationship.  No matter how bad (or good) your relationship is right now, it can get better.

And THAT should be good news.

The catch is, you need to be willing to work to develop that skill.  And both parties need to be willing to do this.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be equal (no relationships are), but both people need to be trying.  And if they are?  Then ANY issue can be improved upon.

Notice I didn’t say fixed, some things can’t be fixed.  But all problems can get better.

 

Believing Change Can Happen

Its really important to believe that all problems can get better, because sometimes a couple DOES look at why they are having issues, they start to understand the problems; and then they give up.  They feel overwhelmed by the issues and take the attitude that they are “too big to fix”, or they can’t be changed because “this is just the way I am”.  And as a result they don’t really try.

This approach of quitting without really trying is called Learned Helplessness, and unfortunately it is a common approach for people who struggle with conflict resolution, people with mental health issues, as well as people who just aren’t very happy.

It’s a belief that someone has no control over the situation they are in, so why bother trying.  But it’s a broken thinking pattern, because people ALWAYS have control over their own choices and their own actions.  As I said, ANY issue can be improved.  But you have to be willing to put in the work.

learnedHelplessness

 

Going back to the “unhappy relationship”, this is almost always a question of conflict resolution.  Problems can’t be ignored, avoidance never works.  And you are NEVER helpless to make change.

It’s may seem easier at first to ignore things and avoid them, because dealing with things has an emotional cost.  But avoidance is a short sighted approach, because nothing gets resolved and the long term emotional costs of trying to deal with things when they’ve hit a critical mass are always higher later.

Plus, even when you are “avoiding” issues, they are always there.  These issues find ways to come out, normally through passive aggressive behavior by one or both parties, and that will only deepen the environment of hurt and resentment (making things worse).

 

The way out of this mess is through communication.  REAL communication.

When people talk about communication being the key to successful relationships, they aren’t just referring to talking.  Communication is about actually listening, trying to understand each other, and dealing with conflict in ways that are beneficial to the team.

If you aren’t actively working on making things better, then you aren’t really communicating.

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Happiness is Mostly About You

One thing I don’t like about this focus on happiness is, it’s an individual act.  It’s a focus on what a relationship does (or doesn’t do) for YOU.  While that is obviously important, I personally don’t think any relationship can thrive if that’s the focus.

Relationships should never just be about what one person is getting out of it. Both people’s needs and wants have to be respected and valued, even when they don’t completely match up. There has to be compromise.

For relationships to be successful the focus needs to shift from what the relationship does for me to what it does for us.  It needs to be a partnership that is mutually beneficial; and where people are just as interested in what they can add to it as what they get out of it.

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Communicating and building your relationships skills is difficult, because it can’t just be about you.  It requires facing the mirror and accepting your own part in the relationship issues.  It also requires truly letting go of past hurts and resentment in order to move forward.

But although these skills are difficult to build, they are the most important skills you will ever build in your lifetime.  They are worth the effort, and worth the stumbles that will happen along the way.

In my mind, as long as both partners are showing consistent effort towards building them, and being conscious about sliding back into avoidance and passive aggressive behavior, ANY relationship can not only succeed, but thrive.

 

Built to Last?

Happiness is a feeling, and feelings come and go.

Healthy relationships on the other hand have a number of components to them; pleasure, joy, appreciation and contentment.

And importantly, an acceptance that negative emotions are normal, and that conflict is a natural and even needed part of trying to grow both individually and as a couple.

Sometimes happiness is missing, and that should be alright.  Because if you can communicate, and resolve conflicts together without holding on to anger and resentment you will always find it again.  In fact it’s working through these difficult times that ultimately brings a couple closer.

 

So when people leave a relationship because they aren’t happy, I think it’s a cop out.  An excuse.

I understand leaving the relationship because you had communication issues and unresolved conflicts that were creating a toxic environment, and you reached a point that you gave up hope that things would ever improve.

I even understand leaving a relationship because you realized that addressing the issues was scary, and you weren’t prepared to do the work to make things better.

At least those reasons are honest.

They involve a level of self-awareness, and a realization that there is no magic wand or perfect person out there.  That those issues will still come up again, and will need to be addressed in the future or they could happen again.

 

But simply saying it’s because you were unhappy without understanding why, and chasing that feeling?  That simply sets you up to repeat the same mistakes again, and all but guarantees more unhappiness in your future.

 

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