Is Monogamy Natural?

One of the big arguments/excuses/rationalizations commonly given for affairs is that monogamy is not natural.

It’s an argument that’s been around for years, and I recently saw it in the headlines when Scarlett Johansson was discussing her own failed marriage.

I don’t think it’s natural to be a monogamous person. I might be skewered for that, but I think it’s work. It’s a lot of work. And the fact that it is such work for so many people—for everyone — the fact of that proves that it is not a natural thing. It’s something I have a lot of respect for and have participated in, but I think it definitely goes against some instinct to look beyond.

Scarlett Johansson

 

I actually agree with what she’s saying here.

Yes marriages are work.  I’m not sure if being monogamous is “work”, but a marriage isn’t always easy or fun.  When you’re married you have to balance what is good for the marriage with what is good for you; and sometimes there are differences between these two things.

This is one of the big things challenges all relationships face.

Additionally, people are sexual beings.  Talking about sex and sexuality is somewhat taboo and often makes people uncomfortable; but it doesn’t change the fact that we are sexual beings.

Sexual desires are normal, and healthy even.

 

Monogamy is about committing to one person physically and emotionally, and committing to that person ONLY.

Committing to one person doesn’t mean you stop finding other people attractive though.  And yes, you may even have sexual thoughts or desires about another person.

So there is definitely some basis to the argument that monogamy is “unnatural”.

 

To that I say, so what?

 

Basic Instincts

Sexual desire is a basic human instinct.  It’s natural, and I can accept that it may be natural to (occasionally) have sexual thoughts about someone other than your partner.

But you know what else is natural?

  • Wanting stuff you don’t have
  • Getting defensive when people criticize you
  • Believing “your way” is the best way
  • Fearing what we don’t understand

 

There are lots of things that are “natural”.  But it’s a HUGE mistake to think “natural” is the same as good or desirable.  They aren’t the same thing.

When someone pisses me off, it may be natural to want to yell, scream, or punch them.  That doesn’t mean I should.

So sure, due to sexual instincts monogamy may not be natural.

Here are some other “unnatural” things:

  • Getting a job.
  • Being honest (instead of telling people what we think will make us look good or we think people will want to hear).
  • Accepting that our way isn’t always best, and different approaches can be just as good (or even better) than our own.
  • Working to find solutions to problems that work for both people instead of  focusing on what is best for ourselves.
  • Not just doing something or taking something (stealing) simply because we “want to”.
  • Trying to see things from the perspective of another person.

 

None of these things are “natural”, and none of these things are “easy” all the time.  In fact, some of them are REALLY HARD.  But they are still positive and healthy.

Unnatural things can be positive, and Just because something may seem “natural” doesn’t mean we need to act on it.

In fact, I would argue that MANY of our “natural” instincts are actually driven by greed and selfishness; which aren’t exactly positive characteristics.

Yes, we have basic/natural instincts and those instincts drive our behavior at times.  But our instincts don’t control us, and they don’t define us.  We don’t have to act on these instincts.

In fact, I believe our ability to demonstrate self-control and NOT act on our basic instincts all the time is one of the key characteristics that allow us to function in a social world.

 

Casual Sex vs. Intimate Sex

Thinking back to the idea of monogamy, I ask you – what is sex?  What does it mean to you?

Is sex just a physical act driven by a hormonal response?  Or is it something more?

I’m not sure if there is a “right” answer here, but I think “how” someone answers that question will have a direct relation to their views on monogamy.

 

Sex is a physical act, and feels good.  It makes nerve endings in certain places go crazy (in a good way).  It also causes the release of dopamine and other “feel good” hormones.

But is that all it is?

I don’t think so.  When it comes to sex (and attraction), I think there are a few other things going on.

 

Even if you are in a monogamous relationship, when our partner compliments us, tells us we “look good”, that they find us attractive or that they desire is, it feels good.

Whether it’s your partner saying it or someone else, it feels good to know others find you attractive (anyone who says otherwise is lying).

 

Someone noticing you, wanting you, and desiring you makes you feel good about yourself.  Well, unless they do it in a creepy leering way – then it probably just makes you feel self-conscious and perhaps a bit concerned for your safety.

Other than that?

Being desired makes you feel better about you (at least for a little while).

This is because sex and attraction are tied to ego; to our feelings about ourself, and our own self worth.

 

Sometimes (especially in long term relationships), our partners do a pretty shitty job of “wooing” us, and reminding us that they find us attractive and desire us.  Or maybe they still do and they still try, but because we already “have them”, it doesn’t impact us much anymore.  After all, wanting something we “don’t” have is another of our natural instincts (this is why I think understanding hedonic adaptation is key to happiness in life).

This is just a reality of long term relationships.  So we ALL need to remember that letting our partners know that we still desire them is important.  And listening and being willing to believe our partners when they tell us they still find us attractive and desire us is important too.

 

But is sex just about desire and feeling good about ourselves?  Are our egos so fragile that we actually “need” others to wants us?

Sadly, I think the answer is often yes.  And if so, what does that say about us?

 

Let’s say I go for a walk, and while out on the street I run into Scarlett Johansson.  And let’s assume she sees me, we get talking, and yeah, she finds me attractive and desirable (because she would of course).  She’s already established with her quote at the start of this post that she doesn’t think monogamy is natural, so let’s say she and I decide to have sex (hey, this is my story so I can have it play out however I want!).

I’m sure the sex would be enjoyable.  But beyond having a chance to be naked with Scarlett Johansson what have I really accomplished here?

Will I actually feel better about myself?  If so, why?

Is my life any better because I’ve now had sex with her?  I guess I could put it on my resume or something; but in reality, it wouldn’t change my life much.  And actually, even if it’s on my resume it likely wouldn’t help me land many jobs.

 

If sex is purely a physical act that feels good, then we can do it with anyone we find attractive.  When that happens, it’s all about ego.  It’s all about external validation.  Sex becomes a form of power, where having sexual power over someone or being wanted sexually is required in order to feel good about oneself.

 

So yes, sexual desire is natural.  And there are lots of people out there who I would find sexually attractive and/or appealing for some reason.  But does that mean I should want/need to have sex with them?

If so, why?

To feel good about myself?  To validate my ego?

 

Sex as a physical act may feel good, but I think sex can (and should) be more than that.

A few years ago I wrote the following:

Sex is a form of communication. It’s a physical manifestation of the love, caring and compassion that you share for one another. If there are any underlying issues in your relationship, there’s a pretty good chance that there’s a bit of a breakdown in caring and compassion. When this happens the openness required for meaningful sex is likely missing (or at least somewhat hampered). You may or may not still be having sex, but without the emotional connection sex becomes purely the physical act.

Sex is different from intimacy.

Intimacy is about connection. It’s emotional, physical, and even spiritual. Sex is a form of intimacy, but it’s not intimacy. Intimacy is the little things – the touches, the smiles, and the shared looks. Intimacy is feeling loved, feeling valued, and giving that in return. Intimacy is opening up to each other, sharing hopes and dreams, and allowing yourself to be vulnerable with another person. Intimacy is about openness.

Sex in the context of intimacy is the deepest form of sharing a couple can have. You are literally giving yourself to your partner, and symbolically the two of you have joined as one. It needs to be as much about what you give as it is about what you receive.

 

I think intimate sex can only exist in a committed/monogamous relationship.  Casual sex may feel good, and may be passionate at a physical level.  And for some, they confuse this with “intimacy”.

Intimate sex is deeper though; and can only happen when you let down your walls and truly let the other person in.

 

MoreThanSex

 

There are many things that aren’t “natural” for people, but these things can still be admirable characteristics and qualities to have.  We just need to work on them, and accept that we always have choice.  We aren’t slaves to our natural instincts.

Monogamy may not be natural, but that doesn’t make it a bad thing.

Part of what makes us human, and makes us more than just animals is our ability to learn empathy; and to actually care about something larger than just us.

 

I’m not saying casual sex is necessarily a bad thing.  If that’s all you are looking for in a relationship for whatever reason (time, energy, fear of intimacy, enjoyment of being able to live life attachment free), that fine.  In that case it’s important you are upfront with the person you are with, and you find someone who has a similar approach to life.  As long as that approach works for both people, great.

But when someone wants “the life” – the safety and security that comes with a committed relationship, yet also wants to do what they want sexually; don’t use the excuse that monogamy isn’t natural.

It may not be, but a lot of what makes us human isn’t natural.

It’s a choice.

feeling of love

What is Enough?

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In my last post I discussed one of my major life/relationship philosophies; the notion that my life is not my own.  It is, but even though I am an individual my actions impact others.  Due to this I can’t just *do what I want*, I need to keep others in mind with everything I do.

One of my other major life philosophies is the concept of enough.

What is enough?

What does this even mean?

 

A few weeks back I went and saw the movie Logan (great movie by the way), and before it there was a trailer for the upcoming Fast and the Furious movie with excerpts of interviews with the directors.  In it, the directors talked about how the Fast and the Furious movies are always spectacles, and for this one they felt they needed to top the previous one.  They wanted it to be bigger and better; with more explosions and more elaborate stunts.

This idea of “bigger is better” (or “more is better”) is common in movies (particularly sequels).  And this line of thinking isn’t limited to movies, it exists everywhere in life.

If something is good, then more of that something is better, right?  We can improve anything, just by having more of it.

 

How do we know we have a “good” life?  We measure it by our happiness, right?  So it stands to reason that if we REALLY had a good life we would always be happy.  And if we’re not always happy, then something is missing.

We just need to find what that something is, and then we will be happier.

But what do we need?

More money?  A better job?  A better house?  A better body? More sex?  More friends?  More time out “having fun”?  A better lover/partner?

One of these?  Some of these?  All of these?

Will ANY of these improve the quality of our life?  Will any of them actually make us happier?

 

Personally I think our notion that you can measure quality by of life by “happiness” is broken, but the “more is better” logic tells us yes.  And who knows, maybe changing some of these things would result in improvements to our level of happiness.

If we get that raise, maybe now we can go on that trip we wanted.  Maybe we upgrade to the bigger house, or the nicer car.  If we lose that weight maybe we will feel better about ourselves.

These sorts of things do feel pretty good, at least in the moment.  But it’s always short lived.  These sorts of improvements are only temporary, because there’s a fundamental problem with “more”.

It’s doesn’t matter how much you have.  There will ALWAYS be more.

You can always make more money.  There is always a better job, a better house.  You lose those 10 pounds, and there are always other changes you can make.  Even if your partner is pretty good, there is always going to be another person out there who will be a better lover or partner.

 

Here’s the problem…

When we believe we don’t have enough, it leads to unhappiness.  Because when feel we don’t have enough, we are focused on what we DON’T have.  We are focused on what our life is “missing”.

And when we are preoccupied with what we don’t have, we are unable to be present, to actually “live” in the moment.

 

So to me, the REAL question is not about more.

The REAL question becomes, what is enough.

 

Continuous growth is unsustainable.  There is always going to be something you don’t have.  You can always have more.

At what point are you able to be content with what you already have?

To me, THAT is the key.  Being able to say “yes, there’s more.  But that’s alright because what I have is enough for me”.

My job is enough.  My house is enough.  My partner is enough.  My life is enough.

I am enough.

 

Enough is about appreciating what you have right now, today; instead of focusing on what you don’t.  To me, this should be a good thing, a positive.

But instead, believing that what you have is enough seems to be looked down upon.  There seems to be this notion that saying something is enough is about not striving to improve, or about settling.

And in today’s culture, settling seems to be one of the worst things you can do.

Just turn on a television, open a magazine, or listen to the radio.  Within a few minutes, you will probably see or hear something telling you how amazing you are.  How special you are, and how you deserve the best.  After all, YOU are special – You aren’t like everyone else.  You should stand out, not fit in.  So if you don’t have the best, you are settling.  And you could or should have had more.  This same approach is used in marketing to make you want to get the best for your partner, or your children.  Aren’t they special too?  Don’t you want the best for them?  Don’t THEY deserve it?

Of COURSE your kids should have the best.  Of COURSE your partner should have the best.

But here’s a secret…

 

I am not special.

You are not special.

Sorry, it’s true.  We are all just people.

Regular people, going about our regular lives and doing regular things.  Most of us get up in the morning and go to work at jobs that aren’t glamorous but allow us to live our lives.  We cook our meals, do our laundry, clean our living spaces.  We pay our bills, and hope that at the end of the day there’s enough money and/or energy left over for us to take some time out and do something special for ourselves.

This is reality for most of us, and that should be alright.

 

 

I’m not saying that no matter what you have, it should be enough for you.  I’m not saying people shouldn’t want more out of life.

Sometimes you DON’T have enough money, and it’s damned hard to get by.  Maybe your family HAS outgrown your house, or your vehicle.

And sometimes your partner IS an asshole, and you DO deserve someone who will treat you better (and in turn allow you to treat them better).

 

It’s not bad to want more, or different.

But what I AM saying is more doesn’t necessarily make things better.

 

Ask yourself this – if what you have today isn’t making you happy, why in the world would you think that more would make it better?

 

Life is multi-faceted, and there is balance to be found in everything.  There are many areas in life where we can change, and improve.  And for each of these areas we need to figure out what enough looks like for ourselves.

 

Maybe you DO need that six figure salary.  Maybe you DO need that big vacation every year.

Enough for me may not be the same as enough for you.  And that’s alright.

Each person needs to define that for themselves, and doing so involves looking inward.  It involves truly understanding ourselves, and our boundaries.  It also involves understanding the difference between need and want, and in today’s world I think we often confuse that.

More isn’t better.  And it won’t make us happier.  And actually, sometimes it’s the scarcity of something that makes us appreciate even more when we do have it.

 

When I look at my life, there are a ton of things I would *love* to do.  I love travelling, and would be happy to do more of it.  I wish I could eat out more, or at least at some of the places I know are outside of my price range.  I wish I had more free time to just slack off, and do some things for me.

But then I ask myself, what REALLY matters?  What are my REAL priorities?

My children.  My family.  The people who actually matter in my life, and who I matter to.

I know what love looks like, and I know what caring looks like.  And I know what it means to me.

When look at my life I can truthfully say I like what I see.  And I know that for me at least, it’s enough.

Your Life is Not Your Own

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One of the biggest things that shapes my world view is a belief that my life is not my own.

In some ways, that statement seems completely nonsensical.  Because of course my life is my own.  I mean, if it’s not mine then whose is it?

Am I not an individual?

Don’t I make my own choices?

When I get up in the morning, I decide how my day looks.

I can go into work, or I can call in sick.  If I go to work, I decide how hard I want to work during the day.  I choose what I want to eat – I can eat pizza pops and candy all day if I want.  I can flirt with co-workers, come in to the office drunk or high, and pick up prostitutes.  Hell, I can head into my bosses office and defecate on her desk if I really wanted.

I have those choices.  I have that *power* (if you can call it that).

Based on all of the above it seems obvious that my life is my own, and I can do with it whatever I want.

 

Thing is, although I COULD do whatever I want, I don’t (fine – I’ve probably had days that I ate nothing but candy and pizza pops, but they’re rare.  Never more than once a week).

Generally there is some thought process behind my choices; and 99% of the time this involves weighing my choices against my core values.  Values that tell me doing things like flirting with co-workers, coming into the office drunk or high, picking up prostitutes and defecating on my bosses desk are BAD decisions.

I can’t say that I’ve ever wanted to do any of those things, but even if I did, they are choices that would potentially have long term implications on my life.  And these implications don’t just affect MY life, but also the lives of the people around me.  The people I care about.

See, my life isn’t just about me.  My actions may be my own, but they impact other people.

 

I’m a father, and virtually EVERY decision I make has the potential to shape the lives of my children.  Some decisions can radically affect their futures, but even for smaller decisions I need to model behavior to them that shows them how I believe they should live their lives.

In my mind, when I became a parent I gave up the right to focus primarily on me.

 

Even without children, the same rules apply in relationships.  It’s one thing if all you want is to casually date.  Casual dating is all about you, and what you get out of it.  It’s the easy part – the “fun” without any responsibility.  You see someone only when you want, and on your terms.  You can focus on what you get out of that “relationship” and not actually care about the other person (side note, I don’t consider casual dating an actual relationship).  And if they don’t like that?  Too bad for them, you can move on and find someone else.

That approach to relationships works for some, but most people want more out of their relationships.  Most people want at least some commitment from the other person.  For that person to be faithful to them; and maybe to start building something with them.  I think most of us like the idea of growing old *with* someone, and sharing our life with them.

For that to happen, things need to change.  It can’t just be about you anymore.  Relationships are about both people, and both people matter.  Both need to feel valued, and heard.  And for that to happen, the other persons needs/wants have to matter just as much as our own.

In a relationship, your actions are still your own.  You are still an individual, and you can choose to do whatever you want.  But your decisions impact your partner, and as a result you need to take your partner into account in the things you do.

You can still choose to do whatever you want, and not take your partner into account.  But if you do that you are not respecting that other person, and you are not respecting the relationship.

 

relationshipandsingle

 

Even if I don’t have children and I’m not in a relationship, I would still contend my life is not just about me.  I still have parents, siblings and friends.  I still have co-workers who rely on me.

There are ALWAYS people who are impacted by my actions and my decisions.

That doesn’t mean I have to live my life for those people.  That doesn’t mean I *can’t* do what I want.  But it DOES mean I should take them into account, and realize that my decisions may affect those people adversely.

 

Pretending I’m an individual who can do what they want without realizing my actions impact others is self-absorption.  Thinking we are special, and we can do what we want because the regular rules of life don’t apply to us is entitlement.

In reality we ALL have moments of self-absorption or entitlement.  It’s just a question of how often do we do these things, and how do we respond when we’ve realized what we’ve done?

To me, I am in control of my own life.  I make my own decisions, and I do my best to deal with the impacts of those decisions.  And I do that recognizing that while I control my own life, it impacts others.  So I need to take others into account.

And in that regard, I accept that my life is not my own.

Establishing Boundaries

boundaryHeader

One of the main premises behind my blog is, when it comes to relationships most of us have NO IDEA what we are doing.

Sure, we learn some simple things like the golden rule when we are kids.

Beyond that though?

What do we really learn?

Most of us don’t learn how to deal with conflict.  In fact, we’re taught that conflict is bad and something to be avoided.  Because conflict means there are problems, and problems aren’t good, right?

So most of us spend our whole lives avoiding conflict even when that means the problems we have in our relationships go unresolved (including the ones that could often easily be resolved if we would just face them).

Thing is, conflict isn’t actually bad it’s simply the collision of two differing viewpoints.  Often neither of those viewpoints is right or wrong – they are just different approaches to things.  And taking the time to understand and accept each other’s viewpoints is a part of learning to love and accept each other for who we are (instead of focusing on who we aren’t).

Sadly, we don’t learn that – no one teaches it to us.  And if/when we DO learn it it’s often through trial and error, and only after a considerable amount of pain and heartache.

Another thing we commonly don’t learn about is how to say no.

 

Giving and Taking

In my last post I talked a bit about the end of my marriage, and how one of the most important things I learned about was the importance of boundaries.

Boundaries are a difficult concept.  What exactly are they, and how do we learn them?

Unfortunately, similar to how I came to the realization that conflict was positive and healthy (when done right), learning about boundaries often involves a lot of pain and heartache too.

Growing up, my one rule on relationships was the golden rule.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  

Treat others the way you want to be treated.

I think I learned it somewhere around grade two, and it became the foundation of all relationships.

I like it when people are kind to me, so it made sense that I needed to try and be kind to them.  Being kind or nice is a good thing.  Being giving to other people is a good thing.  So it seemed clear that that was the right way to live your life.

But there was one problem here.

When you are willing to give, you will ALWAYS find people who are willing to take.

Being nice and kind is good, but unfortunately it opens you up to being taken advantage of.  And commonly we aren’t taught how to deal with being taken advantage of.

We aren’t taught how to say no.

Boundaries3

 

 

Learning To Say No

As children all we understand is our needs.  We want something, and we either get it or we don’t.  Hopefully we learn that we won’t always get what we want, and that’s alright.

I’m a parent, and trying to teach that can be a challenge.  There are times that my kids have tantrums (which are really just a form of trying to get control), and those tantrums can be emotionally draining.  Sometimes during those moments it can be tempting to just give in and give my child what he wants.  When we do that, part of us knows we are showing them that tantrums work.  That if they make a big enough fuss they will get what they want.  But we know that with children we NEED to say no to them because that’s how they learn.

We set down rules and we expect our children to follow them.  After all, we are the parent and they are the child, and we know those rules will benefit them in the long run, and in fact are important to their development.

For some reason we don’t do this in adult relationships (both friendships and romantic relationships).  In adult relationships, people are adults and we expect them to behave as such.  So we don’t create rules, because we don’t think we should have to.  And further, we probably don’t even know what the rules should be.

We don’t know what our own boundaries are.

We only start to learn them when they are violated.

 

We only start to understand our boundaries when someone says or does something that hurts us.  When we feel belittled, or disrespected, or even just ignored.  When we don’t feel valued, or heard.

These are the moments that we start to learn what our boundaries are.

These are the moments when we need to start to push back and say no, or say hey, you’re hurting me here.

But often we don’t.

 

For many years I didn’t know what my own boundaries were.  I didn’t learn to say no.  And I suspect I’m not alone in this.

I was taught to give, and to treat others well (how well I succeed in that is a fair question). Because of this when I was hurt by someone I loved I didn’t know what to do.  I didn’t know how to deal with it.

I saw conflict as bad, so I would just accept certain things.  Or I would make excuses for them.  Things like “oh, he/she did this – but they were having a bad day so it’s alright”.  I would let things go, rather than having them turn into a fight.  Because it wasn’t worth a fight, right?  And when you loved someone, did the little things really matter?

That’s what I believed, but I was wrong.

In allowing certain things, I was saying these things were alright.  In trying to be kind, I was enabling poor behavior.

And I wasn’t respecting myself.

Boundaries4

 

Boundaries are hard; and when you haven’t being enforcing them and you start to, people can accuse you of being selfish.  That accusation can sting, because at first it DOES feel selfish.  When you’ve spent a long time focusing more on the needs of others, trying to understand and enforce your own boundaries them and enforce them doesn’t feel right.

Saying “No” to someone isn’t easy.  Saying “hey, when you did this you hurt me” isn’t easy.

But sometimes, it’s necessary.

It’s important to remember that standing up for you isn’t selfish.  I think this sums it up well:

selfish

To me it’s about balance.  If you always put yourself first, then yeah, you are probably selfish.

If you are in a relationship the other person HAS to be important.  Their needs have to be important to you.  It can’t ever be just about one person, both people always need to matter.

 

Discovering You

Understanding your own boundaries is about learning what your core values are.

What TRULY matters to you?  What are your NEEDS, and not just your wants (at first the line between this things can seem very blurry)?  How do you need other people to treat you and interact with you?  What do you need to feel valued, and respected?

Once you understand this, how do you go about enforcing them and ensuring they are being respected?

I think understanding this is a long process, and is part of our own personal journey.  It’s part of defining who exactly we are as a person, and I don’t think we learn this easily.

Further, I think not understanding it or enforcing it is a large part of why many people find themselves in unhealthy relationships.

Often marriages or long term relationships start in our twenties, before we really know who we are yet.  We don’t know our boundaries, and we don’t know how to enforce them.

If we are lucky, we have sufficient communication skills that we are able to grow together as a couple.  Learning who we are, establishing and communicating boundaries and, and continuing to accept and still love each other as we grow.

Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.

In learning yourself and your boundaries you may find that your partner doesn’t respect them, and isn’t interested in doing so.

When this happens you face a difficult decision.

Because sometimes, as difficult as it may be the only way to respect yourself is to accept that the relationship you are in no longer works.

Relationships require reciprocity.  And if someone is unable to respect your boundaries, then they don’t respect you.  At that point you need to ask, does that person really want to share their life with you or are they primarily interested in having someone take care of them and meet their needs?

Both people need to be respected.

Both people need to be valued, and heard.

Both peoples boundaries matter.

If they don’t?  Then it’s not a relationship.

 

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Relationship Limbo

Cracked clay landscape in the Atacama desert.

One of the main premises of my blog is, although each relationship is unique there are often common problems and issues affecting many of us.

So by looking at those “common problems”, in theory there will be many people out there who will be able to relate to what I’m trying to say.  Some of what I write is from experience while some is from things I have read or even just from personal observation.  But in my writing I try to look at things in terms of ideas, or beliefs.  I try not to write about me or my experiences directly.

 

In that regard, today’s post is a bit different.

Like many, my marriage was challenged; and that became the flashpoint event that caused me to turn to writing.

When I found out my wife was unhappy in our marriage; I wanted to understand, and to make things better.  I knew there was a lot of good, and I believed that if we could go back and find that good our life could be great again and we could have the “forever” we once promised each other.

So I fought for us.

I tried to grow to be a better person, and in that regard I would like to think I’ve succeeded.  But even though I grew personally, I still failed and our marriage failed.

Today I hope to share lessons I learned, painfully.

Every situation is different and what is right for me isn’t necessarily what is right for others, so everyone needs to judge for themselves what is right in their own situation.

But for me, these are “truths” I wish I had learned earlier.

 

My story

A number of years ago my wife told me she was no longer happy in our marriage.  She didn’t feel she loved me anymore, questioned if she ever “truly” loved me, and wasn’t sure if she wanted to be married anymore.  I’ll guess she felt that way for a while, but it was over 4 years ago when she finally told me those things.

“Why” doesn’t really matter, and honestly I don’t actually know if she or I will ever really understand it.

I was caught off guard, as I hadn’t seen it coming.  To me, marriage was forever.  We had been together a long time and had a young family; so I didn’t want her to do anything rash.

I wanted to understand what was wrong, thinking if we could identify the problems we could improve them.  After all, isn’t that what you do?  Try to be there for each other and try to be better?

She told me she didn’t want “us” anymore, and further she didn’t even want to try because “what was the point”.  She had never communicated this to me before, but apparently for her she had been feeling this way for a while.

I was able to convince her to stay, but it was only ever in body.

She never seemed to buy in to the notion we could still be happy, and she never seemed to *want it* the way I did.

It felt like a self-fulfilling prophecy.  She wasn’t sure she wanted to be married anymore, so her effort was sporadic, and never sustained.  And not putting in consistent effort undermined our ability to ever improve.

She wasn’t sure if she wanted to be married anymore, and after that day we really never were.

I continued to love her, but she didn’t seem to love me back.  Instead, we were in this limbo state where we were a bit more than roommates who co-parent, but not really a couple.  Any passion she once had for me or for us had long been gone.

In that situation, it was a struggle to remain positive and stay strong, holding on to hope things would get better.  But I tried.

Occasionally things would improve for a day or two; sometimes even weeks at a time.  During these moments I would feel connected again, and get a glimpse of what our life once was and what I felt it could be again.

But these moments were always fleeting, then her body language would change and the walls would come back up.  Emotional walls, where I could feel her holding back.  She either didn’t love me, was unable to express it, or didn’t believe she should have to.  But in the end it amounted to the same – my perception had been one of a number of years in a relationship where my love was not returned.

 

John Gottman (Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work) said a successful marriage needs 5 positive interactions for every negative interaction.  I disagree.  Tension and negative interactions may be bad; but apathy is worse. Living in limbo, without expressions of love and affection was a slow death, and in some ways I think a major issue or incident would have been better.

 

Limbo

Limbo is defined as:

“an uncertain period of awaiting a decision or resolution; an intermediate state or condition”.

And that’s what my life had become.

A life where I was married, but not.  I was with someone who wouldn’t commit to me, but was also unable to let me go.

In those early months and years, I thought I was doing the right thing.  I stayed with her, and accepted the lack of reciprocation of my love.

I told myself she just needed time.  I knew what we had, and I knew how great our life could be.  So all I had to do was stay positive and I would be able to get her to come back to me.  I could be the light that would bring her out of whatever dark place she was in.

So I waited.

I had visions of those romantic stories where people are separated by circumstance, and eventually they are reunited in their love.

I told myself that would be us.

One day she would see me again with fresh eyes, and she would love me again.  I even imagined us one day renewing our vows together.

I was an idiot.

 

What I failed to see was, this was different.  We weren’t separated by circumstance, this was choice.  This was someone who knew me, and knew everything about me.  She had every opportunity to be there and to choose me.  But she wouldn’t, or couldn’t.

She was a priority to me, but for her I wasn’t a priority anymore.  For whatever reason, I was just an option.  She wanted time to “figure stuff out”, to figure out what she wanted out of life.

And while she figured stuff out I was supposed to sit there and wait; and be there IF and when she decided she wanted us again, no matter how long that took.

option

 

In staying with her I thought I was doing “the right thing” for us and our family.  I thought I was respecting my vows, and being there for her in good times and in bad.  After all, marriage was supposed to be for life.

But the reality is, I wasn’t doing the right thing.

I wasn’t respecting myself.

By allowing us to stay in this limbo state where I wanted things but she didn’t, I was enabling this.  I was saying “this is alright, it’s okay for you to feel this way.  It’s okay for you to treat me this way”.

It wasn’t.

 

I needed her to make a decision.

I needed her to recommit to us.  To work on improving whatever was wrong, and to choose me, each and every day.

And if she couldn’t, I needed her to let me go.

 

limbo2

 

Establishing Boundaries

What does a relationship mean to you?  What do you need from your partner?  What behaviors from them are acceptable, and what aren’t?

I don’t think most of us know that.  I don’t think we understand what those things mean to us.

I know I didn’t.

I believed I loved someone, and she loved me, and that should be enough.  With that, everything else would just fall into place.

But I was wrong.

 

Living in limbo was difficult, but the one positive is it allowed me to try and understand those things.  I didn’t just mope at how sad my home life had become.  I took the time to understand who I really am, and what I need out of life and love.

There are things we want, and there are things we need.  Learning what these are is part of understanding ourselves, and establishing our own boundaries.  And once we’ve established them, we need to enforce them.

But nothing is either/or.  Everything exists on a spectrum.

Love, affection, kindness.

All of these things exist on a sliding scale.  Some days you will have more, other days less.

You can always have more, but at what point do you have enough?

 

My broken marriage was an awful experience, but it allowed me to learned what enough looks like for me.  I’ve learned what things I need, and what things I can’t and won’t do without ever again.

 

Finite Resources

In the investment world, people talk about how property is one of the safest investments you can make because there’s a finite amount of it.

And that’s true.

 

But there’s another thing there’s a finite amount of.

Time.

We have a finite amount of time on this earth, and each day should be precious.  Things aren’t always easy, they aren’t always fun, and that’s alright.  Getting through the hard times with someone you love is part of what makes a couple stronger.

But you have to believe in what you are doing.  You have to WANT it – even when it’s hard.  And if you DON’T want it?  That’s when you fail.

 

When things start to fall apart, it doesn’t mean you need to bail right away (if people did, I doubt ANY marriage would last).  When you have history together, it’s always good to give things a bit of time to turn around.

So the question becomes, when things aren’t working how long do you hold on?

I think that’s a question there’s no right answer for.  Initially I told myself I was going to give things 6 months.  That became a year, and then two.  Eventually we hit four years in this limbo state, where we were more roommates that co-parented then we were a couple.

And other than a handful of little moments, there was no real sign we would ever be able to find middle ground which would allow us to both be happy.

If we were actively working on things together, that time would have been an investment in a better future.  That’s not what happened though.  She just wanted more and more time to “figure things out”.  Her way.  At her pace.

Me, and my needs ceased to matter.  And I never got the sense that she actually wanted US.  She would “say” she wanted us, but her actions never reflected her words.

And as time passed, nothing changed.

 

Maybe it would have come had I waited another year.  Another 6 months?  Another week?  Who knows.

That’s the thing, you never know.  You can only ask yourself if you’ve done “enough”.  To that I can definitely look my children in the eye and tell them yes.  Their daddy did everything he could to keep his family together and hold on to his dream of forever.

But my best wasn’t enough.

I’ve learned you can’t make someone else love you.  And you can’t make someone else want something they no longer want.

But you CAN make it clear that certain things aren’t acceptable, and that you matter too.  You CAN stand up for yourself, and what you need out of life.

 

To the woman who was once my wife, and anyone out there in the same situation I say:

No one is entitled to a relationship.  If someone isn’t sure about what they want, they need to make a choice.

Commit, or get out.  Don’t hold people lives hostage because of your own uncertainty.

Because time wasted is time you will never get back.

 

Time-decides-your-life.jpg

Showing your “True Colors”

true_colors_header

I’ve been blogging for around 3 years now, and in addition to writing I try to follow a number of blogs.

One of the blogs I follow regularly is another relationship blog, written by a guy who went through a divorce a number of years back.  His divorce broke him; so he started writing about all the things he did both consciously and unconsciously that ultimately led to the breakdown of his marriage and his divorce.

It’s refreshing, and self-aware.  Like myself, the guy who writes it seems to believe most relationships can be improved by looking inward at the things you are doing as a person, and BEING BETTER.  And a big part of being better is gaining an awareness of what often goes wrong and trying to better understand and accept the other person.

Anyhow, his blog seems pretty successful, and has a really active community in the comments section.  Great group of people by and large, but like any “family” it sure has its own dysfunctions.  And a few months back the comments section broke down.

A new reader came along with a very different set of beliefs compared to most readers.  Beliefs that were frequently offensive and hurtful to others.  These comments started to disturb what had been a pretty happy/healthy commenting community, and many (myself included actually) became upset that this one commenter was, for a lack of a better term, poisoning the comments.

Some asked for this commenter to be banned, or at least something to be done.  But nothing was, and things became worse for a while.

Eventually, when multiple requests to do something to improve the comments section were ignored, one readers suggested that by not doing anything the author of the blog was “showing his true colors.”

Communication can be difficult and frustrating at times; so I can’t say exactly what was meant by that.  But my interpretation of that assertion was, in writing his blog the author talked about things like equality and improving relationships between men and women.  However by allowing dysfunction in the comments section he was showing inconsistency with this.  So perhaps the reality was, he really didn’t care.

This post really has nothing to do with the issue with the comments section story.  Similar to how my last post opened up with a story about renewing a mortgage, and then went on to actually be about how people can place differing values on the same thing; that’s just a backdrop to a larger idea (or at least that’s my intent).  And that’s the idea that in life, there are always nuances.  And things are rarely as straightforward as they may seem.

 

Patterns of Behavior 

I like to think I am a good person.  I have a strong moral compass, and I try to live my life with integrity.  Truly, I try to do “the right thing”, whatever that is.  And I would *like* to think I’m a fairly empathetic person, who does his best to think through the consequences of his actions before he does them.

But you know what?  Sometimes I hurt people.  And sometimes it’s a lot.  In fact, even for the people I care about the most, I PROMISE I will hurt them.

I hurt people in different ways too.  Sometimes by something I do, and sometimes by something I don’t do.  Sometimes I do things that get interpreted in ways I never meant.

Does that make me a bad person?

 

If I do 50 “good” things and 5 “bad” ones, do those bad ones show “the truth” about me?  Do they show that I’m actually a bad person?  That my “good” actions were just a show?

Yeah, I’ll acknowledge there are differing degrees of what good and bad are.  So yes, I suppose it’s possible that one bad action (particularly in the case of extreme behaviors, which again is subjective) can completely undo the good.  But by and large, I say no.

 

In statistical analysis, there is the concept of outliers.  Outliers are values that “stand out from other values in a set of data”, because they are aberrations in some way.

We are all going to have good days and bad days.  We are all going to do things that hurt others sometimes.

What REALLY matters is not each discrete individual action.  A bad action is a bad action.  A bad choice is a bad choice.

What matters is the PATTERN OF BEHAVIOR, and it is these patterns that speak to a person’s true character.  How you consistently act is a much more accurate measure of who you are than any specific action.

 

All or Nothing Thinking 

Cognitive distortions are broken thinking patterns that are often found in mental illnesses and mood disorders.  They are commonly found in anxiety disorders and depression, and are also believed to be part of why it’s so hard to break the cycle of anxiety and depression – these thinking patterns reinforce negative thoughts and emotions, “feeding” the issue (as an aside, one of the most effective ways to deal with/manage depression and anxiety is cognitive behavior therapy, which is intended to rewire the brain to correct these thinking patterns).

There are a number of different cognitive disorders found in anxiety and depression, and perhaps the most damaging is Splitting, or All or Nothing Thinking.

 

All or Nothing Thinking is kind of self-explanatory.  It is a form of thinking where we look at things in extremes, or as black and white.  You are a success, or a failure.  Someone loves you, or they hate you.  Something is perfect, or it is broken.

To be clear, we ALL fall into this sort of thinking once in a while (so when I reference the “comments” situation at the top I am in NO way suggesting anyone there is mentally ill).  But although we all do this sometimes, this type of thinking becomes a HUGE problem when it becomes a common or default form of thinking, or a pattern of behavior.

 

A while back I talked about the primal brain, and how the primal brain overrides reason and logic.  Well one of the big issues with all or nothing thinking is that it’s rooted in emotions, and normally extreme emotions.  It’s part of the automatic fight or flight response that you generally see with depression and anxiety.

 

Impacts on Relationships

Hopefully it’s clear that an automatic form of thinking, which overrides rationality and is rooted in extreme emotions is unhealthy.  But just in case it’s not, here’s a common way it impacts relationships:

In the early days of relationships, we all have a tendency to idealize our partners.  We see them as we want to see them (not as they actually are), and are often blind to their flaws.

This is normal, and science has shown that in the early days of love, brain chemicals are actually altered, contributing to this.

Eventually though (generally between 6 months and 2 years), this altered chemical state goes back to normal and we are able to see the person more clearly.  Normally we see a few rough edges, but are still able to accept the other person for who they are.

With all or nothing thinking however, these “flaws” often become proof that “something is wrong with the relationship”.  And if something is wrong, then this person is not “the one”.

 

All or nothing thinking has a perfectionist view of relationships; where there is a belief that if you can just find the right person, everything will be perfect and you will be happy forever.

But no one is perfect, and not being perfect doesn’t mean someone is a failure.  A relationship isn’t good or bad, rather it will have good and bad elements.

 

Popular dating site eharmony even talks about this thinking pattern and what it can mean to relationships:

Rather than seeing people as having both positives and negatives, overly critical people hold their romantic partners to an unrealistic expectation of having no faults whatsoever. Sadly, this type of “all-or-nothing” behavior can repeat over and over in one relationship after another until a person realizes that they themselves are the problem.

 

Basically, all or nothing thinking does a lot of damage to relationship.

 

And in addition to doing damage, it also makes is so people fall into a sense of hopelessness and a belief that things can never get better.

I’ve talked about loss of hope before and how destructive it is to improving a relationship.  With all or nothing thinking, the mere existence of problems shows that the relationship is flawed.  And if it can’t be perfect, what’s the point?

It makes it hard to see or appreciate incremental improvements, as the relationship is all or nothing.

 

 Seeing Shades of Grey

All or nothing thinking puts tremendous strain on relationships.  And unfortunately, people who suffer from it usually don’t even realize that their way of thinking is unusual and damaging.  It’s a thinking pattern, so for them, that’s their reality – or just who they are.

A question to ask yourself is, do you often think in terms of extremes?  Do you get caught up in thinking that things have to be perfect, and if they aren’t they are ruined?  Do you give up on things easily because you “know” you can’t do them, or you feel they are impossible?  Do you think in terms of “always”, or “never”, “terrible” or “awful”?

If those sorts of thoughts are common, you may deal with all or nothing thinking.  And it may be doing a lot of harm to your relationships, and your personal life in general.

 

Life isn’t all or nothing.

You can love some parts of your life and not others, and still have an amazing life.

You can be terrible at something, but still be able to improve it.

Your partner can love you, but still be a bit of a jerk sometimes.

 

And nothing in life can ever get better, until you can accept that it doesn’t have to be perfect.

Maybe It Didn’t Mean That Much, But It Meant Everything To Me

empty-swing

A number of years ago I was in the process of trying to renew my mortgage for the first time.

When I bought my house I had assumed the mortgage from the person I bought it from, so I didn’t really have any choice at the time.  But now that mortgage was coming due, and I had the freedom to go with whoever I wanted.

This was new waters for me, and I didn’t really know how to approach it.

But I have always been a very loyal person – to family, friends, and even the businesses I deal with.  So I went to the bank I had been dealing with since I was a child.

I worked with my banker for a few weeks, understanding how mortgages worked and ensuring I was getting a competitive rate; until finally I was ready to sign my first mortgage.

I tried getting a hold of my banker one day to say “alright, let’s do this.  Sign me up and let me know what you need from me”.  She wasn’t there, so I left a message on her phone.

The next morning she called me back, apologizing for not getting back to me earlier.  And also to tell me that she could no longer honor the rate we had discussed because it had gone up overnight.

I was confused.

I had given the verbal “let’s do this” BEFORE the rates had gone up.  There had been no out of office message for her, so in my opinion I had done my part.

She told me her hands were tied, so I asked to talk to her manager – convinced that when I explained what happened, the manager would extend the rate we had previously agreed upon.

Yeah, not so much.

The manager came told me rates had changed, end of story.  I explained my side, that in my opinion this was an issue on the banks end and not mine, and I was essentially told too bad.

Then, the manager tried explaining to me that the rate change wasn’t really that large.  And over the length of the mortgage the difference would only end up costing me around $500.

Hmm, only around $500.  Fair enough.  So I asked him, since $500 wasn’t such a big deal would HE be willing to pay it to me or have the bank cover it?  After all, $500 likely means a lot less to a bank than it does to a kid in his early 20’s.

He told me no that was not what he meant; and that the bank could do nothing further to help me.

So I moved my business elsewhere, and I have never been back.

 

In my bank story above, my issue wasn’t really with the bank making a mistake.  Don’t get me wrong, that upset me and was an inconvenience to me.  Rather, the issue was with the lack of accountability.  And worse, the attempt on the part of the bank to minimize it.  To try and tell me “yeah, the rates have changed – but it’s not really going to impact you that much”.

It may not have mattered much to THEM, but it meant a lot to me.

 

I see this all the time.  In life, and in relationships

A while back I wrote a post on accountability, and doing the right thing.  And one of the main points I was trying to make is that “doing the right thing” isn’t about being perfect.

We ALL screw up sometime.

Rather, it’s about how often we screw up, and more importantly how we respond and try to address problems when they occur.

Accountability is about saying “I’ve got this”, or “although it wasn’t my intention, I can see how I’ve hurt you”.  And then taking the next step and SHOWING the other person HOW WE WILL MAKE THIS BETTER both now and in the future.

And it needs to be through actions, not just words.

 

Here’s a scenario for you:

One person does something.  It doesn’t really matter what it is, so let’s just call it “X”, and their partner is hurt by it.

But when they find out their partner is hurt they say something like, “hey you are overreacting.  I don’t see what the problem is here”.  Or “I don’t know why you are reacting this way; I didn’t actually mean to hurt you”.

I’m pretty sure we have all both done this and been on the receiving end of it.  And although it can often be legitimate (to the person saying it), it is also a way of invalidating the feelings of the other person.

 

Here’s the thing.

I can’t tell you what matters to you.  I can only tell you what matters to me.  And although I may not understand WHY you feel the way you do, that doesn’t make it any less real to you.

Of course this can become hugely complicated by thing like mood disorders or even just peoples insecurities, but the fact remains – one person cannot dictate another person’s reality.

 

A few posts back I talked about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  In it, there are different levels of needs that people have.  These needs stack, and the lower level needs must be met before we are in a position to have our higher needs met.

maslow-pyramid

Well, at the bottom we have physiological and safety needs.  Food, shelter, security.  Basically we need to feel safe.  But it’s important to understand safety isn’t just about physical safety, it’s also emotional safety.  And if we don’t feel safe we are unable to move to the higher level which includes love.

Think about this for a moment…

Your ability to feel love for someone is impacted by how safe you feel around them.

So what are we doing when we minimize our partners feelings simply because we don’t understand them?  When we try to force them to conform to how WE feel they should think?  Or when we blame them for our own actions?

When we do those things we are impeding their ability to feel safe with us.  And in the process we are damaging the connection that allows love to exist.

 

This is where empathy and emotional intelligence comes in.

In a relationship, our goal should NEVER be to have someone else meet our needs.  The relationship needs to be about more than just the individuals.

For that to happen we need to strive to understand each other.  To accept that we are different, and we see things differently – and that is alright.

We WON’T always agree.  We WILL hurt each other at times.

And that’s part of what it means to be two different people.

But instead of allowing those moments to pull us apart, we need to be able to use them as opportunities for growth.  Opportunities to further our understanding of each other, so that we are better able to support each other in the future.

That’s not to say there isn’t room for improvement.

Frequently our conflict points are caused by our personal issues and insecurities, and we owe it to both our partner and ourselves to grow as a person; to identify and improve our personal issues.  Trying to grow as a person, while in a supportive relationship should only help strengthen the bond between two people.

But relationships need to be places of mutual understanding and acceptance.  They always need to be places of safety for us – physically and emotionally.

And that cannot happen if we are always made to feel that we are wrong, that our feelings don’t matter, or that we are to blame for our partners actions and emotional state.

 

Sometimes this can’t happen.  Sometimes we are unable or unwilling to accept our partner as they are.  Maybe we feel it’s a one sided relationship where we are constantly expected to accommodate them but they will not accommodate us.  Maybe our partners insecurities put so much stress on the relationship that we can’t accept things any more.  Or maybe we feel that the actually ARE wrong, and as a result we are unwilling to accept them.

We all probably feel these things sometimes.  But when it has become common it is likely the sign of deeper issues.  Maybe your fundamental values are different.  And as a result maybe the two of you simply aren’t good for each other anymore.

Things happen, and people change.

To stay together and have a healthy and strong relationship you need to be able to accept each other for who they are.  You need to be able to communicate and continue trying to understand each other as you grow both individually and as a couple.

And if something matters to one, even if the other person doesn’t understand it, it has to matter to both.