How to Improve your Life without Changing a Thing

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A few posts back I mentioned watching the movie Wild.  It’s about a lady whose life has hit “rock bottom”, and how she finds herself again and reboots her life by going on a hike.

I haven’t read “Eat, Pray, Love” (or seen the movie), but my understanding is that it deals with similar concepts.  There is a woman recovering from a difficult divorce, who goes on a journey to find who she is and what she’s looking for in life – joy, spirituality and love.

There are many similar stories about “transformative journeys”, where people come to a point in life where they are questioning things:

Who am I?  Why am I here?  What will make me happy?  What gives me purpose?  What do I really want out of life?  Is this all there is?  Isn’t there “more” to life?

So they embark on journeys of self-discovery; which usually involve walking away from the life they had and the life they knew, discovering *something* about themselves, and coming back a changed and hopefully more whole person.

 

In 1949, Joseph Campbell released a book called The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  He had studied mythology from different cultures, and found a common thread in most mythology is “the hero’s journey”.  In the hero’s journey, someone starts in an ordinary world, and begins a quest only after they are compelled to by some event or tragedy.  Their quest takes them to different places, and a journey of growth and awakening, until they finally return to a variation on their old life, where they are more at peace and balanced.

At its essence, the hero’s journey is a story of personal change, and growth.  And stories like Wild, or Eat, Pray, Love tap into this basic narrative.

 

Think of the questions:

Who am I?  Why am I here?  What will make me happy?  What gives me purpose?  What do I really want out of life?  Is this all there is?  Isn’t there “more” to life?

These are hard questions, and ones I think we all ask ourselves from time to time.  The hero’s journey appeals to us because at some level, we have all thought of just walking away from everything and starting over.  Or at the very least, taking a “break” from our regular life and having our own journey (come on, admit it.  I know I’ve thought it, and for the most part I like my life).

The thing is, it’s not really an option for most of us.

Most of us can’t just walk away, or even take a time out from our regular life.

We have responsibilities that make this impossible – jobs, mortgages, kids, etc.  Impossible may be a strong word, but at the very least it’s extremely difficult.  Part of the challenge is, our choices have implications – so if we just decide to walk away from our jobs, financial obligations or families; chances are we are walking away forever.  These aren’t the sort of things you can just “test out”.

 

There’s a deeper problem with the hero’s journey however.

Even if we could just walk away and go on a journey of discovery and transformation, those stories are misleading; because they tell only part of the story.  They are kind of like romance stories which end with the couple getting married.  The romance leading up to the wedding may be the exciting or romantic part, but it’s just the beginning.

Just as finding love is very different from being able to hold onto it forever, having a transformative journey and finding yourself in the short term doesn’t mean you won’t end up just as lost again in the future.

Making changes is one thing.  Sustaining them is something else.

 

I have a childhood buddy who went on his own version of the hero’s journey.

We were probably in our early 30’s at the time, and he was working a professional career.  One day I received a group email from him saying he had quit his job and was moving across the country to become a white water rafting instructor.

Ummm, alright.

He and I had gone for lunch a few months prior, and I had no idea anything like this was looming, so I assumed something must have happened.  But he was gone, and we didn’t speak for a number of years.

A few years ago I heard he was back, so we got together one night for dinner.

I had to ask – what the hell had happened?  Why did he leave?

I’m sure there were a number of factors, but one of them he told me was deep dissatisfaction with the regular 9-5 life, where you are caught in this cycle of work, eat, sleep, rinse and repeat.  He asked himself those same questions – what am I doing?  Why am I doing this?  Is this all there is?

He had no dependents, and he had always loved the outdoors.

So he left.

 

Yet here he was, back home.

Back in the same career he had walked away from.  Largely living the same life he had been living before.

I asked him – if this was a life he needed to walk away from, why was he back?  And was he happy (or at least content) now, back living his old life?

In response, he told me a bit about the past few years of his life.

He had been living a fairly nomadic life.  He worked as a white water rafting guide/instructor during part of the year, and when the season was done he travelled the world.  He saw all sorts of things; amazing sights and places.  Thing is, he largely saw them alone.

He would meet women, and have some companionship.  But he was never in one place for very long; so with any relationship he got into, both people knew it was a temporary thing.  And after a while, he started to feel rootless and yearn for something more.

It wasn’t just that though.

Over time he found his job as a white water rafting instructor wasn’t what he thought it would be.  He had become sick of the day to day office life and wanted to have more adventure and excitement in his life.  Yet somehow, spending his days on the rapids was no longer exciting.

It was no longer fulfilling.

I remember sitting there in the restaurant, and him looking at me and saying:

“You know, I realized that it doesn’t matter what you are doing.  Eventually, everything becomes work”.

Those words still resonate with me, and I find them very powerful.

Eventually, everything becomes work.  Everything.

 

Everything becomes work, yet here he was back doing the same work he had done before.  So I asked him, what had changed?

The realization that everything eventually becomes work made him understand he had two options.

  1. When even the adrenaline rush of riding the rapids can become routine, how can we ever expect life to remain fresh and exciting? We can’t, unless we keep changing things up.  So he could either continue changing things up every time routine started to set in, and go off on some other adventure.  But since everything becomes routine, this would apply to jobs, relationships, lifestyle, etc; and he would always be on the move.
  2. The other option was changing his approach, so that was what he did. He was able to handle going back to his old job and his old life because he changed his mental approach.  His outlook, and attitude were now different.  He accepted that life isn’t always fun, and isn’t always exciting.  He approached his job as something he may not love, but also didn’t hate.  And it was enough for him, because it allowed him to support the life he wanted.

 

If you really look at the hero’s journey, what is it about?

Is it about the quest?  The adventure?

Was the story of Wild really about going on a hike?  Was Eat, Pray, Love really about escaping to a foreign land to, umm, eat, pray and love (sorry, I told you I haven’t read it)?  Was my buddy’s journey really about white water rafting?

No, the journey (or the quest) is just a short term thing, a break from ordinary life.  That may recharge someone for a bit, but it’s temporary.

Sustained change is about the lessons we learn; it’s really about personal and spiritual growth.  It’s about letting go of who you think you want to be and the life you think you should have, and instead accepting yourself for who you are.  It’s about finding peace, and contentment, and meaning in your life as it is now.  Which doesn’t mean you can’t change or improve, but it does mean you don’t have to.

 

What can you actually change in life?

Often circumstances dictate things, and you aren’t really able to change much.  You can get a different job, but eventually it will become work.  You can find a different partner, but they will have good and bad too.

Most of us can’t walk away from our lives.  We can’t go on some incredible transformative journey or adventure.  But I think we CAN come to terms with the fact that our life IS our adventure.

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Our attitude shapes almost everything.  Our expectations shape our experiences.  And how we approach things becomes our reality.

As my buddy found, eventually everything becomes work.  Everything becomes routine.

When things become routine, its human nature for us to start taking things for granted.  And when we do that we stop seeing the good in our lives because it has become our new normal. 

Instead, we see the negative.   We see the things we feel are missing, and we focus on our flaws, and how we aren’t who we thought we would be.

 

We are the only ones who can turn that around.

We can start by accepting we won’t always be happy, and we don’t need to be.  By accepting that things will suck sometimes, and that’s alright.

Changing our outlook involves changing our focus away from what we don’t have, and instead focusing on what we do have.

To do that, we need to remind ourselves everyday about the good we have right now.  We need to start practicing active appreciation, and teach ourselves to see the beauty all around us that we have become blind to.

Real change comes from within.  And the one thing you can always change is your outlook and attitude.

When does Dating become a Relationship?

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I was out with a buddy recently and we got onto the topic of dating.

I’ve been thinking and writing about relationships for a number of years now, but my thoughts have always come from the perspective of someone who was in a long term relationship.  A struggling one perhaps, but still – as our discussion went on it became clear that they are actually two very different things.

To borrow a line from Game of Thrones; when it comes to the world of dating comes I often feel like there’s a fur clad wildling woman looking at me saying “you know nothing Drew, you know nothing”.  Not that my buddy Gandalf is a fur clad wildling woman, but hopefully you get the idea.

 

I’ll be the first to admit, I can be naive.  I’m not sure if I necessarily look at the world through rose colored glasses, but I tend to look for the best in people and I can be too trusting.  I have long underestimated how much ego can come into play (in a bad way) when people make decisions, or maybe it’s more accurate to say when people simply act without making decisions; and how people can be willing to hurt others in order to get what they want.

That said, from talking about dating with different people who have “been there” a lot more than I have, I think that although dating is different, some of the ideas and issues I have around relationships still apply.

 

While Gandalf and I were talking, the question was raised – when does dating become a relationship?

I don’t think there’s an easy answer here, and I don’t think it’s an either/or scenario.  It’s not like you are dating someone, and then after a magic number of dates or hours spent together you are now in a relationship (and no longer dating).  Rather, dating is a “form” of a relationship.  And if and when the relationships starts to become more serious, you think of it less as someone you are dating and more as someone you are in a committed relationship with.

So let’s rephrase the question as, when does dating go from a casual relationship to a more serious one?

I still think this is something that just kind of happens, and often it will happen for one person before it happens for the other.  But it’s not really a relationship until both people buy in to the idea.

It also depends on a few things.

A few years ago I wrote a post called “why and how matters more than who”.  In that post I raised the following question:

I am a huge believer in intention, and the question of why you are with your partner is perhaps the most important one you can ever ask yourself.

It’s been almost two years since I wrote that, and it was written from the perspective of someone who is in a long term relationship asking “why” they are there.  But I think that question (and much of that post actually) is very relevant to dating.

 

Why is someone dating?  What are they actually looking for?

Dating is inherently a selfish act.  It’s all about you; your needs, your wants, and what you get out of it.  That’s not a bad thing though, because really – in the early days it has to be about you.  People are looking for certain things in life; and when looking for someone to share parts of their life with they have to be approaching it in a way that works for them.

I commonly talk about how one of the struggles in relationships is finding the balance between “me” and “we”.  Dating (at least initially) is almost purely about “me”, and I’ve always thought the transition from dating to relationship starts to happen when the nature of the relationship starts to include “we”.

And I guess this is an area where I realize I had no clue (you know nothing Drew, you know nothing).  Because I always thought that a shot at “we” was part of the goal for everyone.  I thought that’s what people were looking for.  The chance to find that “someone”, who would be their someone.  To find a person to share with, to build a love with that could last forever.

I thought that was what love was actually about.

 

Thing is, that’s not always the case.

Not everyone sees dating as something that could potentially develop into a relationship.  People approach dating for different reasons.

For some (especially coming out of a long term relationship) dating IS the goal.  They just want to meet different people, and feel attractive again.  Maybe they’re looking for someone to just do different things with.  Maybe they’re just looking for sex/hook ups.  Maybe they’re using dating as a way to forget – to try and get over someone.

But they aren’t interested in a “we”, they don’t want something where there’s any sort of commitment or “feelings” involved.

Someone’s reasons for dating will impact how they approach it, so WHY someone is dating (or in a relationship) is pretty damned important. 

And ideally these reasons are known to the other person – because there can be a lot of potential for hurt feelings when people are on different pages.  If one person is hoping to find the love of their life while the other person is just looking for sex, someone will likely end up being hurt.

But often people aren’t up front about what they are looking for.  And to be fair, maybe they don’t even know.  I do think it’s important to understand for yourself at least what you are looking for.  You may not fully understand what you want, but if you have no idea of what you are looking for how will you even know when you find it?

 

Back to the question about when dating becomes a relationship (casual to more serious), I guess this begs the question of what exactly a relationship is.  And really, that will mean different things to different people.

As I said above, I see the transition from dating to relationship happening when the nature of the relationship starts to include “we”.  When you starting thinking of the other person as part of an “us” – even if it’s just a potential “us”.

When two people are dating each other exclusively, I think you already have the early stage of a relationship.  That doesn’t mean you are committed, and it doesn’t mean it will ever develop into anything more.  It DOES however mean that you are willing to give it a chance and see where it goes.

Commitment isn’t all or nothing, it’s fairly fluid and can strengthen (or fade) over time.  Hell, you don’t need to look any further than any broken relationship or marriage to know that commitment is not binding.  Saying you are in a relationship with someone doesn’t mean you are going to marry them.  It just means that you are interested in THEM, and want to learn more.  It means you don’t care who else may be out there, because right now – they are enough.

 

The question about when dating has gone from a casual thing to something more takes on additional importance when you are older, especially when you have come out of a long term relationship or marriage.

A friend of mine made the observation many people make the following mistake:

They miss the relationship they had, and so they try to recreate elements of the marriage/relationships they had.  The level of closeness, knowledge and familiarity.  So they rush things.

I had never thought about that, but I think it’s true.  We don’t realize how long it took to build that knowledge and familiarity.  It took being with that other person and sharing their life and experiences, over an extended period of time.  You can’t recreate that overnight.  You can’t rush it, and you shouldn’t try to.

Along this lines, a buddy of mine told me that when he started dating he was looking for a future wife, and he had to get out of that mindset, because you never know where dating is going to go so you need to just take it one day at a time.

I largely agree with that, because you can’t force anything.  You can’t make something into something it’s not – it needs to grow naturally, and organically.

At the same time it goes back to the initial question of intention; of “why”?  Are you dating for fun?  Or because you are ultimately looking for something long term?  Only you can know that answer.  And that answer should impact how you approach dating.

 

As my buddy found, when dating someone you can’t approach them as a future wife/husband.  That’s not fair to anyone, especially when you don’t even know them yet.  However, if you know you are one day looking for a long term partner, then seeing them as a potential long term partner isn’t a bad thing.  When you know what you want, it becomes easier to decide if the person you are with matches what you are looking for.  That doesn’t mean they necessarily are what you are looking for (or you are what they are looking for); but as you continue to learn them you can continue to discover that.

“Why” matters.

 

For me, the question becomes “do I like this person”?  Is this a person I want to continue to see, learn, and share time and experiences with?  Do I look forward to seeing them? And do they in turn look forward to seeing me?

As long as the answer is yes, then it doesn’t really matter what you call it.

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Ruled By Fear

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When I was younger I wanted to be a physiotherapist.  Actually, before that I wanted to be a comic book artist, and before that I wanted to be an animal trainer (come on, you KNOW that would be awesome).  But in late high school I started thinking seriously about a career, and physio was what I wanted.

I was serious about it too.  In grade 12 I volunteered at a physio clinic in order to better understand what was involved, and as I saw it in action I knew it was something I would not only enjoy, but would also be good at.

So off I went to university, and in my first year I took all the prerequisites for Physiotherapy.  To get into Physio you need to apply to the faculty, and due to a limited number of spots available every year there was an interview process to get in.  I was confident I had a shot if I could get to the interview stage; but only the applicants with the top marks received interviews.

My marks were good, but not good enough.  And I tried for two years before coming to accept maybe physio wasn’t going to happen for me.

One day I was talking to someone about it, and they suggested I apply at different schools (out of town) as I would have a much better chance to get in.  That idea had never occurred to me, but even after hearing about it I never even tried.  I DID want to get into physio, but I was also an 18-19 year old kid who had never been away from home.  The reality was, I didn’t even consider trying to get into school somewhere else.  That wasn’t an option to me at the time.

Although I didn’t see it, my fear of being away from home, my friends and my family was greater than my desire to get into Physiotherapy school.

And so I didn’t even try.

I didn’t think of it as fear, but at some level that’s what it was.  I wanted something – I really did.  But I didn’t want it enough to make the take a chance, and to do what needed to be done to pursue that dream.

 

In life, we are often ruled by our fears.  We fear failure, and we fear rejection.  And these fears often end up shaping our behaviors and decisions.

 

Fear of Failure

When we fear failure, there are a few different ways it can manifest.

The most obvious one is removing ourselves from a situation, and not even trying.  When you don’t even try, it may be because you’ve convinced yourself in advance that you were going to fail – so why bother when you know how it will end up.

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Not trying may also be so you can convince yourself you didn’t fail.  I’m sure we’ve all seen and heard people say something like “I would have done X, if not for Y”.  Things like I would have been a professional musician if not for my mom and dad needing my help, or I would have been a doctor if I didn’t have kids, or any number of things.

When you don’t try it’s easy to lie to yourself and tell yourself these things.

Maybe it’s true and you would have been X; then again, maybe not.

You’ll never know.

The “what if” game is a wasted exercise, because no matter what you think may have happened – it didn’t.  You made the choices you made.  And life worked out the way it worked out.

 

Sometimes people do put in some effort, but fear of failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  They don’t believe they can succeed, so they sabotage themselves by putting in minimal effort.

Then, when things don’t work out they tell themselves “see, I knew it wasn’t going to work out.”  Not accepting that the way they approached it was a significant contributor to how things ended up.

 

When this happens, one of the lies people tell themselves is if it didn’t work out it wasn’t meant to be.

Meant to be.

Fate.

To me that’s a cop out.  “It wasn’t meant to be” turns us into victims, and absolves us of any responsibility for the course of our life.

Things work out sometimes, and other times they don’t.  But if it’s all about “meant to be” then why are we here?  “Meant to be” turns us into nothing more than observers, it means we are passive participants in our own lives; and I can’t accept that.

Rather, I think life presents us with opportunities, and it’s up to us to determine what we want to do them.

Sometimes we pass those opportunities by, maybe because we are scared we will fail or we feel we aren’t ready.

Life doesn’t care if we’re scared – it doesn’t care if we think we’re ready.  Opportunities arise, and we need to decide what to do with them.

Sometimes we embrace those opportunities and give them our all.  And sometimes we still fail.

When that happens it can hurt like hell.  But if it’s something that mattered to us and something we believed in, at least we know that we’ve tried.

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Fear of Rejection

I’ve written a lot about authenticity in relationships, and about how important it is to just “be yourself”, whoever that is.  And I DO believe that being authentic and vulnerable in a relationship is key to both happiness and long term success.

But one thing I tend to gloss over when writing about authenticity is how hard that is to do sometimes.

See, we all have egos and want to be liked and accepted.  And rejection hurts.

 

Fear of rejection can lead us to hide parts of ourselves, or even to pretend to be something we are not.

We probably all do this to a degree, because we want to impress and we want to be accepted.  And in the early days of a relationship it’s somewhat understandable.

It’s a paradox, where we need to feel accepted in order to feel emotionally safe with the other person.  At the same time, we need to be vulnerable and let our partners in in order to feel accepted and safe.

So usually in the early days it can be a gradual process of sharing and revealing ourselves.  Ultimately we need to let the other person in though, as much as we can.

Similar to how not trying out of fear of failure can CAUSE us to fail, holding back out of fear of rejection will limit the closeness in our relationships and ensure we will never be accepted for who we are.  After all, our partner can’t ever fully accept us if we won’t let them truly see us.

When that happens, that’s not a failure of the relationship.  That’s a failure within ourselves.  Because often, when a fear of rejection is causing us to hold back (or try to be someone we’re not), it’s because we have not accepted ourselves.

 

Accepting ourselves can be very, very hard.

We all have damage.

We all have insecurities.

We’ve all been hurt.

When that happens it’s very easy to build walls around ourselves in order to “protect” ourselves from further hurt.  It doesn’t work though, because our fears just hold us back from the life we really want.

 

Facing our fears is hard.

Letting go is hard.

Embracing life and opportunities is hard.

And being vulnerable and authentic is hard.

Each of these things comes at a cost, but the cost of not doing so is even higher.

 

We all have fears, of failure and of rejection.  You have them, and I have them.  And we all need to address them in the way that seems right for us.

For me, I don’t want to let fear hold me back.  When life presents me with opportunities, I don’t want my fears to cause me to pass them by.  If it’s something I believe in, I want to embrace it.  I want to be the authentic me, and take a chance.

I may be hurt.

I may fail.

But whether I succeed or fail at something, for the things that matter I want to be able to face the mirror at the end of the day and tell myself I gave it my all.

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Building The Foundations

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A number of years ago I built a house.  Alright, fine – I paid someone to build it for me, but you get what I mean.  I didn’t know much about construction at the time, but I learned a lot and I remember the process well.

First the foundation was poured, and in some ways this initial step was the most important part – because the foundation is needed to support everything that comes after.  The foundation bears the weight of the whole house, so it needs to be strong and it needs to be stable.

After the foundation the frame went up, and once that frame was in place you could really get a sense of what the house was going to look like, but you didn’t know all the details.

This frame was sealed, and it acted as a support for the functional parts; the electrical, the plumbing, the venting.   After that other things went in; the insulation, walls, paint, fixtures and all the finishing touches.

The process of building the house took some time, around 6 months; and then I got possession of it.

I was now the proud owner of a new house, and when I first moved in it was pretty awe inspiring.

Getting possession of the house wasn’t the end though, and in some ways it was just the beginning.

 

Houses require maintenance.  Little things, like vacuuming, cleaning and changing furnace filters.  I’ve heard you are supposed to dust sometimes too, though that’s one that I have a tendency to neglect forget.

And beyond the regular day to day maintenance, there are other things that need to be done.  Over time things break down and need to be fixed or replaced.  Walls get damaged and periodically need to be patched and painted.

And sometimes, you just want some changes.  So maybe you do some renovations, which can be anything from repainting to tearing down walls and restricting rooms.

Really, there are always things you CAN do; it’s just a matter of how much time and energy you want to spend.

 

In many ways, I think you can compare the construction and maintenance of a house to building a relationship.

In the early days, you are laying your foundation.  And that foundation will support everything that comes after.

So what is the foundation of a relationship?

To me, at the foundation of a relationship you need to have trust, and shared core values.  Core values may not match 100%, but you need to have an understanding and acceptance of each other’s core values.

In order to understand each other’s core values, you also need to have vulnerability and open communication.  So communication is probably also a foundational element in a relationship.  Unfortunately communication happens to be one of the biggest problems in relationships.  Communication is hard, and it doesn’t just happen – we don’t learn healthy communication naturally.

Instead, it’s common to believe that our way is the “right way”, become critical of anyone who doesn’t agree with us, and take criticism as a negative thing instead of as a way to improve.  But communication is a skill, and for those who are willing to put ego aside and be self-aware, it is something that can always improve over time.

 

If trust, core values and communication are the foundations of a relationship; then I think connection is the framework that everything else hangs off of.

I see connection as existing on 4 different levels:

  • Physical
  • Emotional
  • Intellectual
  • Spiritual

Not all couples are able to connect on all of these levels, and for those that they do connect on, some types of connection may be stronger than others.  For example, some relationships may have a strong physical connection, but nothing else.  That may seem fun for a little while, but personally I think a relationship needs connection on multiple levels in order to succeed.

Also, connection isn’t a fixed thing, and the strength of it will change over time.  Sometimes you will feel very connected to your partner, and other times you won’t.  That’s fine, and is normal.

To me, connection is what love is all about.  Like communication though, it doesn’t just happen.  Connection requires you to be vulnerable, and be willing to let the other person in.  It requires to you be willing to share yourself with someone, and to in turn listen to and truly be interested in them.

When people talk about falling out of love, or loving someone but no longer being “in love” with them, I think they are actually talking about the loss of connection.

And what I think people often overlook is, connection requires consistent effort over time.  It requires you to make them a priority in your life, always.

 

Going back to my house analogy, you can have a great foundation and you can have a great framework.  Your house can initially be beautiful when you move into it, but that’s not enough.

Over time things will wear down and get damaged.  Sometimes it’s the regular wear and tear that comes with the passage of time; and other times it’s an accident or an incident.  Things happen, and nothing stays new forever.

Just as you need to maintain your house you need to maintain your relationship.  You need to put in effort to keep it strong, and keep it thriving.  We are always evolving, so you need to be able to accept that change will happen over time, and try to change together when you can, and accept each other for who we continue to evolve to be.

Connection and love will fade and die over time if you neglect it.  It’s important to understand that your feelings towards your partner are not their responsibility.  Yes, it’s important that they put effort in, and they try to treat you well.  And when they do, it makes it easier to love them and feel connected to them.

But feelings of love for your partner are YOUR responsibility.  It’s up to you to try to see them for who they are, instead of who they aren’t.  It’s up to you to look at the good in them, instead of focusing on their flaws.  And it’s up to you to wake up and choose them, each and every day.

 

Healthy, strong relationships require a strong foundation; and should be built on trust, shared values and communication.  Just building the relationship isn’t enough though, you need to continue to make your partner a priority, and continue to put in effort each and every day.

Relationships aren’t always easy.  They have good days, and bad days; and sometimes those bad days can last for an extended period of time.

It’s easy to get along when things are going well, but during the hard times cracks will show.  When that happens, a strong foundation can help ensure you make it through.

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When Do You Actually “Know” Someone?

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I recently read an interesting post over at Lisa Arends excellent blog, lessonsfromtheendofamarriage.com, where she discusses a number of misconceptions about marriage (and relationships in general).

Her first “misconception” really got me thinking, and it’s about how long it takes to “get to know someone” before you know the relationship is solid enough to consider something like marriage.

I won’t rehash her post as you can give it a read on your own.  But I do want to explore this idea of getting to know another person, and how long it can and potentially should take; not just for marriage but also before relationships “go through milestones”.

 

First, what are some of the milestones that relationships go through?   Off the top of my head, here’s a quick list (that I’m sure is missing some important things) in an order that is probably fairly common:

  • Holding hands
  • Kissing
  • Sex
  • Spending the night together (which may or may not include sex, but let’s be honest, probably does)
  • Introductions to friends
  • First fight
  • Meeting the parents
  • Living together
  • Making major purchases together
  • Marriage

 

Notice that I didn’t include “getting to know someone” as a milestone?

I left it off because there is no event or milestone for getting to know someone.  Getting to know someone is a continuous process that will probably go on for your whole life (or at least the duration of the relationship); I don’t think it’s something you ever finish.

You can never fully know another person, because they are always growing and changing.  Hell, I don’t think you ever fully know yourself!  I’m 43 this year, and consider myself to be a pretty self-aware guy.  But even now events occur that change me, in ways both big and small.  Sometimes things happen and how I respond surprises me.  So if I can even surprise myself sometimes, it’s a pretty safe bet someone else will never be able to accurately predict everything I will do.

We are always growing, and changing.  And our partners are too.

 

If accepting that continuous growth and change means we will never fully know our partner, the question becomes when do we know them enough (for whatever the next step in our relationship is)?

Going back to my list of relationship milestones, when do we know them enough to hold hands?  For the first kiss?  To have sex?  To meet the parents?  To get married?

Does it depend on the number of days/weeks you’ve known each other?  The number of hours you’ve spent together?  The things you’ve shared?

 

Looking at these milestones I’m not convinced there’s a “right” way to do this, or a “right” timeframe.

Don’t get me wrong, there is still a fairly common flow here.  I would say in most cases, a couple will at least kiss and hold hands before having sex.  The time gap between those things could be counted in months, weeks, or it could be counted in minutes.

If you somehow are having sex before kissing or holding hands, then you’ve probably got some sort of Pretty Woman thing happening where you’ve fallen in love with a prostitute.  Probably not common, but hey – if it’s happened to you who am I to judge?

Meeting friends, parents, living together – these are all things you probably don’t do until you have a belief the relationship has a shot at lasting a while.

And marriage (for those who go down that road) is something you REALLY shouldn’t do until you feel you know the other person fairly well; and have a high degree of confidence the relationship will make it.

But looking at marriage – what’s the “right” time?  How long do you need to know someone before you can feel you know them enough to have that confidence and make that sort of decision?

A year?  Two years?  Twenty?

 

I’ve seen it recommended that you should wait one of two years before getting married, and I guess that makes sense.

But I know a couple who were engaged on their first date, and 50 years later they are still together.  I can’t say I would recommend that, and statistically the chances of success are pretty slim.  But for them it worked.

I also know a couple who dated for almost 20 years before getting married (and are still together).

I know couples who dated for the commonly recommended one to two years and are happy 20+ years later.  I know others who married after two years and divorced a few years later.

 

Here’s the thing …

Almost 50% of marriages end in divorce, and often the very characteristics that endeared people to each other as they “got to know each other” in the first place are ones that contribute significantly to the relationship falling apart.

So it’s not like there’s some magic way of measuring whether or not you know each other “enough” for things to work out.

Things sometimes go wrong.  Relationships don’t always work out.

 

So, what do you do?

It seems obvious that how well you know someone DOES matter.  But how do you best position your relationship to succeed?

 

Let’s start with you.

If you need to know someone, then it stands to reason that they also have to know you.  For this to happen I think you always need to be willing to be authentic; which means you need to be willing to be you – whoever that is.

Of course this means you actually have to have some idea of who you are (which isn’t always the case).  Are you self-aware?  Are you accepting of yourself and your faults, and are you willing to let someone else see them?

A common paradox in relationships is we want to be accepted for who we are, yet at the same time we are afraid of being rejected for who we are.  So we often try to be who we think the other person wants us to be.

Some people will play a role and try to become someone else.  Other will be themselves, but will be careful about which sides of themselves they show – hiding the parts that they don’t feel will be accepted.

 

In the short term, these strategies may work.  But if they do, what have you really accomplished?  You’ve succeeded in convincing someone to like…

…umm.

Not you (at least not the real you).

Help me understand, how exactly is this a good thing?

Because eventually the real you will surface.  And if your partner doesn’t like the real you once they see you, then all you’ve done is waste time.

 

So being always being true to you is the best approach.  And if someone doesn’t accept you for who you are?  Then they probably aren’t someone you want to be with anyhow.  That doesn’t mean you should never change – because change in the form of self-growth is a positive thing.  But any changes you make need to be because you want them, or see a need for them yourself.

 

Let’s say you do everything right.

You accept yourself for who you are and go into a relationship being honest and authentic.  That’s great, and is (in my opinion) the best and healthiest way to approach things.

But YOU are only half of the equation – and you have no control over how the other person is approaching things.  For the best relationship to occur, both people need to be honest, authentic, self-aware, and willing to be vulnerable.

When that does happen and two people are being authentic and are willing to let each other in, I think you can know each other well enough to know if things can work pretty quickly.  Within a few days you can get a pretty good sense of each other’s core character and value.  Within weeks, you should have a strong idea if the two of you are compatible.

And within a few months you should start to see if there are any “red flags”, showing that perhaps the other person isn’t being as authentic as you think they are – because it’s hard to keep a mask up over extended periods of time.

 

Looking at relationships, what are the things that actually matter?

  • Are your core values aligned?
  • Do your personalities complement each other?
  • Do you accept that a relationships is about more than just you?
  • Are your love languages in alignment with your partners, and if not are you willing love your partner in the way they need to be loved?
  • Do you know enough about each other’s hopes and dreams that you can see the two of you growing, building and sharing together?
  • Are you both willing to accept that periodic issues in relationships are normal, and are you willing to deal with them when they occur?
  • Are you both self-aware – willing to accept that you each have faults and willing to take responsibility for your own contributions to the relationship?

 

If you can answer yes to at least most of those, then I think you have a pretty solid foundation and everything else should be pretty easy.

 

Thinking back to the question of when do you know each other enough; it doesn’t matter what the milestone is – whether it’s holding hands, living together or getting married there will always be risk involved in taking that “next step”.

But there is no magic timeline.  What works for one couple may not work for another.  I believe that if both people are self-aware, authentic and open with each other, they will quickly know enough about each other to know with a high level of accuracy if the relationship can work or not.  When things feel natural and easy, you know that it’s a good fit no matter how long it’s been.

After that, it’s up to you.

Because the success of a relationships is less about how well you know each other than it is about how well you accept that you will need to grow together and choose to continue to choose each other each and every day.

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Dealing with Grief

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I recently watched the movie Wild, with Reese Witherspoon.

I guess it’s supposed to be a positive/inspirational movie about someones personal growth when they hit a difficult time in their life.  And in some ways I guess it is, but it’s also pretty messed up.

The movie is based on a true story, and it’s about (Spoiler alert!) a woman whose life falls apart while she’s dealing with grief over the death of her mother.  It cause her to shut down, and go down a very self-destructive road, destroying her marriage and her life with drugs and promiscuous sex, until she finally hits rock bottom and decides to reboot her life by going on a hike down the Pacific Crest Trail (with no prior outdoors experience).

 

One of the things the movie drives home is that grief can really mess people up.  And while grieving, people will often do some crazy, self-destructive things.  This doesn’t just happen in movies though, you see this in the real world too.

There are so many stories where someone suffers some sort of a personal tragedy – maybe a loved (parent, child, close friend) dies or gets a serious illness, maybe THEY get a serious illness.  And in response to the situation, sometimes a person just (for a lack of a better term) “breaks”.

They shut down, retreat into themselves, stop caring, and stop “feeling” – becoming numb to the world around them (or some combination of these things).  They become like the walking dead, going through the motions of life but not really being engaged in it anymore.

During these times of grief, it’s not uncommon to hear about people falling prey to addictions (or just addictive behaviors) such as drugs, alcohol, affairs, gambling or any number of issues; as a way of “dealing” or coping with their grief.

 

Why does this happen?

I think this quote sums it up pretty well:

GriefQuote

 

Think about this for a moment…

The story wasn’t finished.

 

Why wasn’t it finished?

Because we weren’t ready.

We thought we would have more opportunities.

And we thought the story would have a different ending.

 

Grief is about loss we weren’t prepared for, where we are left feeling helpless and powerless to change things.

And I think maybe this sense of helplessness is where grief is strongest.

Helplessness.

A lack of control.

A feeling that it doesn’t matter what you do, you can’t change anything, and you can’t make things any better.

 

Elisabeth Kubler Ross defined the 5 stages of grief (a series of emotional steps people will experience while dealing with grief) as:

  1. Denial – refusing to accept that something is actually happening, and clinging to the hope that maybe it’s a mistake.
  2. Anger – accepting that something has happened, but lashing out because it shouldn’t have happened, or it isn’t fair.
  3. Bargaining – a way of trying to avoid the grief.  A promise (often internal) of changes that would be made if only this problem would “go away”.
  4. Depression – accepting that this has happened (there’s no denying or bargaining), but despairing at what it means and at the sense of loss that comes with it.
  5. Acceptance – coming to terms with the event.  Fully accepting that is has happened, and cannot be changed.  And realizing that life will move on – maybe not in the way you once expected, but that things will still be alright.

 

I think when grief causes people to break, they are stuck somewhere in those first four stages.  To them, the story wasn’t finished and they are unable to accept that.  They are unable to cope with the pain and the sense of loss, so they don’t actually deal with it.

Instead, they shut down to insulate themselves from that pain – often acting in a self-destructive fashion in order to escape from it.

However no one can escape forever.

Eventually all things need to be faced.

 

The final stage of grief is Acceptance; and I think acceptance is when we finally realize that yes, the story actually WAS finished.  It just didn’t end the way we thought it would.

Life doesn’t always work out the way you want it to, and not all stories have a happy ending. 

And maybe that’s alright. 

 

Because in life, what can you actually control?

The reality is, we control almost nothing.

Through our own efforts and actions we can exert a degree of influence on the things around us.  But we can’t change anything.  We can’t force people or events conform to the way we want.

Bad things happen to good people sometimes.  And sometimes people do terrible things and don’t face consequences.  Sometimes things don’t make sense, and there is no “reason”.

Sometimes things just happen, and all we can really do is try to manage the fallout.

And we do that through the things we CAN control.  The primary thing we can control being our own responses to the events that occur in our lives.

We control our own choices.

Our own actions.

Our own responses.

And really, that’s about it.

 

We can’t control how other people will treat us, or what they will do.  We can’t control external events.

When we try to, it’s understandable that we will feel powerless – because we are powerless to control these things.

Instead of feeling powerless over our lack of control though, I find it freeing.

We can influence thing, but not control them.  The ONLY thing we can control is our own actions and responses.  Accepting that and focusing on these actions and responses is a form of power.

For me, it allows me to understand that life can’t be fit into a box.  I may have ideas on where my life is going, but those ideas are only how things look right now.  Things happen, and things change.

So maybe the most important thing we can do is learn to be resilient.  To accept that some things are beyond our control, and to adapt accordingly – directing our energies towards those things we CAN control.

 

Grief happens when we believe the story wasn’t finished.  But if we are able to let go, we can see that our own personal story is always being written.  And it’s up to us to be open to new roads, and to be willing to see where they take us.

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When the Light Goes Out

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A while back I was at a buddy’s birthday party.  It was for a guy I’ve known for a long time, but our friendship is more casual than it is close.  We share some interests, and we talk those things; but I don’t really know him on a deeper level.

Often friendships and relationships are like this.  We have a small window into that other person; maybe through work, through seeing each other in our neighborhoods, or through some sort of social setting.

We probably know bits and pieces of their personal life.  Maybe they have a picture of their family on their desk, or they talk about their weekend and mention their wife, their husband, their parents, their kids.  And over time these things help us build a picture of who we believe them to be.

If we connect with them through social media, we probably get a bit more of a view into their lives.  We see pictures of vacations and special events.  At some level we realize that they choose which pictures of their lives they want to show to the world, and that the window we see through social media is not an accurate picture of their lives (rather it’s a sanitized version, showing the “good times”).  Even still, this window allows them to become more “real”, and not just someone we see at work, or while out for a walk in the neighborhood.

Sometimes in a social setting I will take moments to sit back and observe, and to watch people’s interactions and their body language.

At that party I watched my buddy and his wife for a bit, and honestly, what I saw was beautiful.

This is a couple that has been together for around 20 years, and has teenage children together.  Yet when I watched them, there was a tenderness in their interactions – little touches and signs of affection when they were together.  Smiles, and shared looks when they were apart and would see each other across the room.  When they would make eye contact you could see a light in both of their eyes, a light that was meant only for each other.

I don’t know much about their relationship.  I’m sure they have their struggles and their bad days.  I’m sure they argue and fight just like anyone else.  But based on watching their interactions I have no doubt that after 20 years they are still very much in love.

 

 

To me, that’s what relationships are all about.  It’s about that energy between two people, and that light they get in their eyes when they see each other or even just think or talk about each other.

That connection is what relationships are all about, and are what LOVE is all about.

It may not always be the passionate desire of new relationships, but there always has to be desire in the sense that you still WANT to see the other person and to spend time with them.

 

Relationships can be hard.

They start about the couple, about learning each other and sharing and building something together.  Something where the two of you are more, or better together than you are apart.

Over time though, relationships often break down into resentment and apathy.  When that happens, and the connection has broken down a couple often feels more alone together than they do when they are apart.  And often a part of them knows what they have lost, and mourns for that, but they don’t know how to find it again.

 

When you look at your partner and there is no light in your eyes, or there is light in your eyes but all you see are dead eyes in return, then what do you have left?

History?

Shared material things?

A family?

I’ll admit family is a tough one.  But I have never believed in staying together for the sake of the children.  I think that does more harm than good to everyone, including the children.  If you want to use the children as a reason to actively rebuild, great.  But if you (or your partner) don’t TRULY want the relationship anymore?

Then there’s no point.

There’s nothing left to hold onto.

 

When there is no light left in your eyes, it’s time to let go.

Because once you are at that point, it’s almost impossible to turn things around.

 

The trick is to not get there, and for that to happen you need to understand that long term love doesn’t happen by chance.  It’s a choice, that we can nurture.  It’s built into your interactions each and every day.  The looks, the touches, the signs of affection.  It comes from wanting to be there, and waking up and actively CHOOSING your partner, each and every day.  From celebrating them for their strengths and appreciating what they ARE, instead of focusing on what they are not.

Life will always get busy.  There will always be times that it’s hard.  But you need to always prioritize each other as must as you can.  And be there to support each other, and promote growth both individually and as a couple.

I think you can ensure connection never fades with three simple (though not always easy) steps:

  1. Actively love each other – each and every day.  No one should ever have to question if their partner loves them.  They should see it, and feel it through the little things.  Looks, touches, and signs of affection.  I don’t care if you are newly dating or married for 50 years, these should never go away.
  2. Don’t be selfish.  It’s easy to get caught up in ourselves and all the things going on in our world; and there are times when we will need to put ourselves first.  That’s alright.  But it shouldn’t be a pattern, and it shouldn’t happen over an extended period.  Relationships are a balance between “we” and “me”.  And if the focus is usually me, then maybe you shouldn’t be there.
  3. Communicate.  This is probably the hardest part.  As humans we are always always interpreting things through the filters of our own experiences, so misunderstanding is always a risk.  So communication is the most important skill you can ever learn.  When you are with your partner, if there are things that are difficult to talk about or you don’t want to talk about; then those are probably the things you NEED to talk about the most.  Don’t keep things in.  Be willing to grow, and learn each other, each and every day.

 

In relationships, connection is the most important thing there is.  But it doesn’t just happen.

Working on it, and growing it (or at least maintaining it) is the key to keeping your relationship alive.  You need to look forward to seeing each other, in both the exciting times and the quiet moments.  You need to WANT to be there, to see each other and support each other even when times are hard.

You need to keep that light in your eyes alive, by actively choosing each other each and every day.

Because when that light goes out, then you really have nothing left.

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