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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Words Mean Nothing

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A number of years back when my personal life started falling apart, at the urging of my sister I went to see a counselor for the first time in my life.

I have to admit, I didn’t really want to go.  I had always considered myself a mentally and emotionally “strong” person, and believed I was capable of handling pretty much anything life could throw at me.

In many ways I still believe that; though I no longer equate being able to handle things with “strength” (resilience may be a better word).  The word strength suggests that when someone can’t handle things on their own they are weak, and that’s not the case.  In fact, recognizing and accepting when you can’t handle things on your own any more, and being willing to reach out for help in those situations a form of strength that often goes overlooked.

In any case, my sister was right.  I was struggling with the things going on in my life at the time, and although I wasn’t convinced it would do me much good to go talk to someone I figured it couldn’t do any harm either.  At worst I would waste some money and an hour of my life, so what did I have to lose?

I went.

Although it was over four years ago, I still remember some moments from that hour quite vividly.  There were things she said that were true, that I either didn’t want to believe or maybe wasn’t ready to believe at the time.

And the most important of those was when she looked at me and said (paraphrasing here):

When there is a disconnect between someone’s words and their actions, always trust their actions.  Anyone can “say” something; but words without actions mean nothing.

 

Back in the late 90’s I took a certificate program in computers (I previously has completed an arts degree, but found there wasn’t a lot of work for people with a Philosophy/Sociology background.  Who knew?).  At the time, Project Management was a relatively young field that looked like it would be a good career path.  One of my classmates and I talked about project management together, and felt that after we had established ourselves in the IT (Information Technology) field – probably five years in, we would do this together.

Seven or eight years into my career I remember this plan, so I called him up.

“Kev, it’s Drew.  Remember we talked about taking project management courses together?  Well, it’s been a while and I think it’s time so I’m going to sign up.  You still in?”

“Hmmm, I don’t know man.  Things are going pretty good in my job and that’s another couple years of school.  You go ahead, I think I’m out”.

So off I went on my own.

Obviously this is a flawed example.  A number of years had gone by since Kevin and I talked about doing project management together, and things had changed in both of our lives.  So it’s not like Kevin did anything wrong, or went back on his word here.

The point of this story isn’t just that his life had changed.  It’s that he was still interested in project management; it’s just that he wasn’t interested in it enough to actually DO something about it anymore.

It was no longer a priority.

It no longer really mattered.

 

I believe this happens a lot in life, both internally and externally.

Internally we have all of these “beliefs”.  Things that we say we want, or think.  And often we convince ourselves that these things are true.  We convince ourselves they are real.

But they aren’t.

Or perhaps more accurately, they aren’t real enough.  We may want these things, but not enough to put in the effort required.

It’s easy to find barriers to the things we want in life.

We don’t have enough time, or we don’t have enough money, or there’s just no opportunity.

So we tell ourselves things like “yes, I do want this, but this isn’t the right time.  I just need to do A, B or C first.  THEN I’ll be able to focus on that.”  We tell ourselves we will do it “tomorrow”.

But time passes, and tomorrow never comes.

 

When “tomorrow never comes” I think one of two things is happening.

Scenario one – we never TRULY wanted it.  Yeah, we may have wanted it – but people often want a lot of things.  Many say they want to be rich, but they want it to happen through a lottery winning or something.  They don’t actually want to put in the time and effort to grow a business, or they don’t really want to take the risks that have the greatest potential payoff.  Others say they want a “good body”, but they don’t actually want to worry about the hours required in the gym or the discipline required to monitor their eating habits.

It’s easy to want something, but do we TRULY want it?  Are we willing to put in the effort?  To make the sacrifices of our time and energy?

 

Scenario two – we may TRULY want something, but we are afraid; afraid that we would try, and fail.

And when we are scared to fail, it becomes easier to just never try.  After all if we never truly try, we can tell ourselves we haven’t actually failed.

It’s a lie of course.  But as humans we lie to ourselves all the times.  Failing because we didn’t even try is still failing, but we can tell ourselves it’s different and maybe we would have succeeded if we “had the right opportunity”.

When things don’t go the way we want the default wiring in our brain causes us to go through all sorts of steps to absolve ourselves of any responsibility.

First we deny, and say things like “well, I didn’t really want that anyway”.

Next we blame, or justify.  “Oh, I couldn’t do that because things were too busy, and I didn’t have any money, and I…”

We tell ourselves these lies, and we convince ourselves they are true.  Because it’s a lot easier than actually facing the mirror and accepting that maybe we AREN’T the person we thought we were.  That we don’t really want to put in the work, or we are scared to fail.  That we really want life to come with an easy button.

 

Life doesn’t come with an easy button though; and sometimes things are hard.

Each person needs to make their own choices on what is ACTUALLY important to them.  And if something IS important?  They will make it happen, or at the very least they will be willing to put in effort to give them the best chance of success.

Words are easy.  They are “free”.  Effort isn’t.

If someone “says” they want something, and their actions don’t seem to support their words then the reality is for one reason or another, they don’t actually want it.  Their true values don’t match the ones they profess to have.

 

My main focus in writing is relationships, and this is where you really see this.

It’s easy to SAY you want a relationship, or you want a relationship to work.  But what are you willing to DO about it?  Are you willing to give?  To compromise?  To accept that things won’t always be easy, and that things won’t always look the way you want them to?  To accept that conflict is natural and be willing to work through that?

Do you ACTUALLY want a relationship, or do you just want the fun parts and the easy parts?  Are you just scared to be alone?

Often, I think the answer is the latter.

We DO want the relationship.  But only when it’s convenient, and when it works for us.  I think of this as wanting the perks of a relationship while still wanting to act like you are single.

That’s not the way life works.  Relationships are about two people, not just one.

feeling of love

 

The flipside of this is being in a situation where you want the relationship but the other person doesn’t really seem to want it in the same way.

This is a very painful and difficult spot to be in, and the situation where you truly need to understand that words without action mean nothing.

I hear stories from many people who feel stuck – caught in a scenario where they want their relationship to work but their partner doesn’t seem to want it, or seems to want it only on their own terms.

These people are hurting, and their partner doesn’t seem to really care.  Often they “say” they do, and they say that they want the relationship to work.  But they don’t seem interested in actually doing anything about it.  Their actions don’t seem to match their words.

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Words mean nothing, unless they are backed by action.

Your partner may profess to care about you and want you in their life, but you need to know it and feel it.

Love isn’t just a word, it’s an action; and it should be felt through the little things.  Shared looks, smiles, affection, enjoyment of time spent together.  And by making each other a priority.

When you don’t feel like a priority and love seems to be missing, it’s easy to start questioning and doubting the relationship.  And no one should ever have to question if their partner actually wants to be with them.

If one person is starting to question whether other person really wants to be there, this needs to be communicated.  The couple needs to be able to sit down and talk about the state of the relationship, and their concerns.

Their partner needs to be willing to listen, and both hear and understand what they are saying.  And once they have heard, there has to be a lot than words.  There has to be action, and visible effort.

If there isn’t?

Then they are showing what truly matters to them.  They are showing that what truly matters does not include their relationship.  And it doesn’t include you.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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Showing your “True Colors”

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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.

Sorting Things Out

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In the past I’ve written about relationship doubt and some of the things that can cause it.  Broken trust, anxiety issues, a belief that there may be someone out there who is *better* for you; all of these things can cause doubts.

Doubt is understandable but it’s also very dangerous, as belief is tied to effort.  At both a conscious or an unconscious level, the more someone doubts the less they put INTO the relationship.  As a result, if doubt is not dealt with it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, destroying the relationships.

 

In this post I want to look not only at the person having doubts, but also how it impacts the other person in the relationship.

 

 

If someone is having doubts about whether or not they really want their relationship or if it is the right one for them, there are a few things to think about.

First is the nature of the relationship.  It’s one thing to have doubts if you are casually dating, as those doubts are part of determining if it’s a relationship you actually want to commit to.  Once you have committed, things change a bit; and if you are living together, married, and/or have kids together then the complexity of the situation increases significantly.

Even in complex situations it is important to remember that a relationship involves two people.

If you are having doubts, you owe it to your partner to be honest with them.  Any problem or doubts you have affect them too – they NEED to know about it and they need to have an opportunity to be part of any solution.

 

I can understand the idea that sometimes we want to keep our thoughts to ourselves, especially when periods of doubt can be times when we don’t even really know what’s going on in our own heads.

However it’s pretty common to hear stories where one person thought that things were going pretty well, until one day they find out their partner has decided they want a divorce and they have already made up their mind.

To me, that should never, EVER happen.  Relationships are based on communication.  No one should ever be blindsided by these types of things.  If there is a problem, they have a right to know about it, and to at least have an opportunity to try and work on things; instead of being faced with a position where by the time they know it’s too late.

When someone doesn’t share their doubts, those doubts tend to grow and deepen.  And when that happens a distance will form, as the person with the doubts will naturally tend to withdraw and detach themselves from the relationship.

Some people may claim that their partner knew there were issues.  They had to, because they obviously saw the changes in behavior.

Well yeah, maybe.  I’m sure they did know something was up.  But unless it was communicated to them they had no way of understanding the severity of the doubt.  Relationships go through ups and downs all the time, frequently someone thinks they are just going through a down time – and then one day they wake up to find they are facing a divorce they never saw coming.

doubtpoisons

 

Time to Figure Things Out

Relationships change, things happen, and sometimes people question whether the life they have is really the one they want.  When it happens it sucks for everyone involved, but it’s part of life.

And when this happens, the person with doubts often wants some time and space to “figure things out”.  I get that.  It’s understandable that they can’t be fully engaged in a relationship if they aren’t sure they want it anymore.  And depending on the source of those doubts, I think most people’s partners will try to be understanding and give them a bit of time.

Here’s the problem though – a (committed) relationship isn’t a part time gig.  It’s not the sort of thing where you can just take a sabbatical, and come back when/if you decide that yeah, you are actually committed to it.

There has to be some empathy and understanding on both sides, but people need to find a way to continue the relationship even during this time.

If they can’t?  If they really need to “take a break”?

In my mind, that is what separation is for.

It is completely unfair and selfish for someone to expect to be able to “stay” in the relationship that they aren’t committed to it anymore.  People can’t just pick and choose the parts they feel like dealing with (usually the security of home, and family) while checking out on the parts they don’t want to deal with (usually emotional and physical intimacy).

To the best of their ability they need to find a way to do both.

 

In these situations the person with the doubts often wants time to figure things out in their own way, at their own pace.  They want their partner to give them time and space with no pressure.  To wait for them.

In a way there is something romantic about the notion of waiting for someone.

It brings to mind stories of WWII, where soldiers would go off to war and their girlfriends would promise to wait for them.  And the joy they would have when they were finally reunited.

This is different though.

In those cases the relationship was separated by circumstance; and the person waiting believed they would be coming back.

In the case of someone having doubts, why should the other person wait?  They are essentially being told that the person they love is “no longer sure if they want to be with them”.

Think about that for a moment.

No longer sure.

So they love someone and have committed to them, but that person isn’t sure they want things anymore.  Instead of being committed to getting through anything together, the person they love sees them as simply an option – not a priority.

Yet they are expected to just put their life on hold and wait, in the hopes that maybe their partner will continue to choose them.

And if they don’t?

Then that time spent waiting was time wasted.  Time of their life they will never get back.

 

You Can Never Go Home Again

Doubts happen, and as noted there can be all sorts of reasons that aren’t even directly related to the relationship.  Identity issues, depression, anxiety – all of these can cause doubt.  And sometimes those doubts will never go away.

But you need to identify the real cause of the doubt and actively fight back against it.  Because when someone checks out of a relationship because of those doubts they fundamentally alter the relationship forever.

Once you have been made to feel like an option, things are never the same again.  They can still be good, or even great.  But that magic of knowing that you will always be there for each other no matter what life throws at you?

Once that has been broken it’s gone forever.

 

I recently read a blog written by someone who’s partner had checked out on the relationship, and he wasn’t sure what to do.  One of the commenters told him that he should use this time to show his wife how much he loves her, because (in her words) “women like to be chased”.

Sorry, I can’t disagree with this more.

Maybe he had been taking his partner for granted and that was contributing to her doubts.  If so, and those doubts made him realize he had been taking them her for granted (sadly something that is natural in relationships), that’s one thing.  Then he should use this as a wake up call, and adjust his behavior appropriately.

We all want to feel valued, and appreciated (that applies to women and men).  But “chasing” accomplishes nothing.  Someone has to be there because they want to be there – not because they like the thrill of being chased.

It’s like an addict chasing the next high.  If someone is only there when they are being chased, how long will it be until they check out and are gone again?

No, if someone needs that thrill and that rush, then I would say let them go.

 

 

All sorts of things can cause doubt, and at times they can be crushing.  But if you are in a relationship the worst thing you can do is keep it to yourself.

It may seem like a deeply personal thing but it doesn’t just affect one person, so both people have to be involved.  The doubts may originate with one person, but both people need to be part of the solution.

Doubt can destroy relationships but it doesn’t have to.  In fact love can be strongest when it can accept those doubts and continue to thrive in spite of them.

DoubtingLove

What Do You Remember?

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The first time I experienced death, it was the passing of my Grandfather.

My phone rang late at night/early in the morning, and my brother give me the news.  My Grandfather hadn’t been well, but it still came as a shock to me.  My brother lived close at the time, so he picked me up we went to my Grandparents house to be with the family.

I remember seeing my Grandmother when I came in, and not really knowing what to say.  I just gave her a hug and told her I was sorry.

It’s been over 20 years, but I still remember a lot of details of that night.  And it’s not just that night, I also remember other details of that time in my life.

For example I remember what music I was listening to at that time in my life, and there is a song from that time that I have come to associate with his passing.  Whenever I hear that song now, I think of my Grandfather.

 

Remembering Experiences

Memory is an interesting thing.  When I look back on my life there are all sorts of moments that stand out in some way.  I remember a lot of “firsts”, and other significant occasions.

Like my Grandfathers death, they aren’t all happy moments.  Some are happy, some are sad, fun, or silly.  Hell, some are moments that I wish I could forget.

The one thing these moments have in common is that they all had an impact on me in one way or another.

 

Now, contrast this with the things we don’t remember.

What are those?

That’s a trick question I guess, asking you to think of the things you don’t remember.  But what we don’t remember is the mundane.  I mean, can you tell me what you had for dinner a month ago today?  I doubt it – unless a month ago today was a special day like a birthday or an anniversary (and even then I doubt it).

We don’t remember cleaning the house, grocery shopping, doing the laundry or putting gas in the car.  These things are important and need to be done; but they don’t impact us.

The routine moments of life tend to blur one into the next, and during those moments we’re kind of on autopilot.

That’s not to say these impactful moments are necessarily any better, or more important than the routine moments of our lives.  But they stay with us when the other moments don’t.

 

“Firsts”

Why is this important?

It’s important because memories and experiences matter.

When a couple meets, they share all sorts of firsts.  Their first date, their first kiss, meeting each other’s families and friends for the first time, the first time they have sex, the birth of a child, etc.

All of these moments matter, and as a couple builds a life together they are also building shared experience.

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Over time though many couples find themselves in a rut, where life has become nothing more than routine.  Routine is important, and necessary; but when this happens it can make it seem like all they have left is shared history; and memories of the time when things were better and happier.

(Interestingly memory can be faulty, and our brain can rewrite our past in order to justify our present – but that’s another post for another day)

Often a big part of the problem is they have stopped sharing these impactful moments.  Life becomes all about nothing more work, kids, and maintaining a household.

With all these competing needs and limited time, they stop nurturing and growing the relationship.  After all, they already have each other right?  They’re already committed to each other, so why MAKE time for the relationship when there is another event to bring the kids to, or another load of laundry to be done.

But when the relationship stops being a focus, they stop building meaningful moments “as a couple” together.

Somewhere along the way, what started as comfortable familiarity turns into apathy, and eventually a recognition that the spark has been lost.  This realization that the spark is gone is a painful one, and can lead to questioning what it means to the relationship.

 

Pulling Away

Failing relationships are often characterized by two people who still love each other, but no longer know how to connect with each other on a deeper level.

And when couples find themselves in this rut, they often make a big mistake.  They each desperately crave the connection they “used to have” with each other.  But they don’t know how to get it back, and that hurts.  So in response to that pain, they shut down and withdraw.

They stop building meaningful moments together, because they have stopped engaging each other.  And without continuing to grow their relationship, all that is left is memory of “when times were better”.  And without effort, they are virtually guaranteeing the relationship will not succeed.

 

Building in Experience

I think this notion of remembering experiences is important to keeping your relationship alive.  And these moments don’t have to be big, elaborate or expensive.  We remember “firsts”, so add some novelty.  Take a class together, try something you’ve never tried.  Whether you like it or end up hating it, it’s still an experience you are sharing together.

Life can’t be just about work, kids, domestic chores (with some time taken out to watch TV).  Sure that stuff matters, but for the health of your relationship, you need to spend time on it.  And if you’re too busy, you need to make time

I’ve said before you can have anything, just not everything.  There are limits to the amount of time, energy and money we have.  We can’t have everything, so we need to focus our priorities on what’s truly important.  If we want our relationships to last, that should be reflected in the amount of energy we put into them.

If the relationships is always taking the hit because other stuff gets in the way, it should be no surprise when it starts to struggle.  As the saying goes, garbage in garbage out.  What you get out of something is directly correlated to what you put into it.

So show that.  Don’t let your relationship become nothing more than a memory of better times.  Make your relationship a priority.  Take time out each day to let all the distractions and busyness of life fade away, and focus on each other.

And never stop building experiences together.

 

 

What Does it Mean When “The Love is Gone”?

hopefails

Love.

Love is a powerful emotion/feeling, and it can drive us to do incredible (and at times terrible) things.

When people think of “love”, the first thing they think of is usually passion or romance.  Well, sex too – but that’s usually a byproduct of passion.  Either way, it’s often perceived as an intense emotional response.  Butterflies in the stomach, and an overwhelming desire to be with that other person.

Science has shown this “romance” stage of love is just that, a stage.  It has a neurochemical basis, and usually only lasts for more than six months to two years.

When we are younger we often mistake the loss of intense feeling for the loss of love, and use that as an excuse/reason to jump to another “new” relationship where everything is exciting and fresh again.  But eventually most people realize even after the intense feeling has dissipated, strong feelings can remain.  And these new feelings can be even stronger in some ways, because they are a choice and not just a hormonal response.

When we realize this, and still CHOOSE love?  Well, that’s when we have a love that can potentially last.

The thing is, even when we are choosing love and have accepted the feelings aren’t as intense, we still expect there to be feelings.

Love is still love, right?  So shouldn’t we feel something?

We can continue to choose love, but what do we do if the feeling is gone – and there is no sign that it will ever return?

Looking at this another way, if there is only choice but no feeling, do we still have love?

What do we do when we are not in love?

 

What if a Loss of Love is Not About Love?

Personally, I don’t understand “not in love”.  To me love has always been both an emotion and a choice, and this combination allows me to actively love.  To try to show love through my actions, maybe not everyday, but as often as I can.  By showing love, and practicing love I know I won’t allow love to die.

It’s not always that simple though.

In a fantastic article on depression in relationships, John Folk-Williams talks about the impacts depression can have on the ability to “feel” love.  He writes about psychiatrist Peter Kramer, who believes loss of feeling is often a sign of deeper issues:

Kramer often works with clients who are dissatisfied with their relationships. They want to know if leaving is the best thing to do.

When he encounters someone who is convinced that the marriage is dead, he says that he always suspects depression or another mood disorder.

 

Mental Illness and Relationships

Here are two statistics for you:

  • 50% of marriages fail.
  • 25% of people will directly suffer from a mental illness.

 

At first glance these two statistics appear unrelated.  But I wonder, what would the numbers be if you could look at the marriage statistics for people with a mental illness vs. those without?

I’m not sure, but I suspect the failure rates of marriage for those with a mental illness are considerably higher than the norm; simply because they introduce additional pressures and stresses on the relationship.

Mental illness already has a lot of stigma associated with it, and this is by no means an attempt to pile anything further on it.  Rather, this is an attempt to help share some understanding for people who may be having doubts and challenges in their relationships that maybe, just maybe its not the relationship that’s at fault here.

I realize saying “don’t worry, maybe it’s not your relationship – maybe you’re actually dealing with a mental illness” isn’t exactly going to make anyone feel better.  But it is a possibility; and for those who ARE dealing with a mental illness it may be beneficial to understand that your condition may affect your ability to feel love in ways you may not have considered.

 

Impacts of Anxiety and Depression on Love

The two most common mental illnesses are Depression and Anxiety disorders; and I’ve written in the past about how anxiety disorders can damage feelings of love (for a different account on anxiety’s impacts on love check the article Daniel Smith wrote for CNN, titled Can anxiety kill your ability to love?).

The Folk-Williams article above talks about a symptom of depression called Anhedonia (although anhedonia is thought of primarily as a symptom of depression it is also found in anxiety).

A common misconception about depression is that it’s characterized be people feeling down, sad, or hopeless (for extended periods of time).  This definitely happens, but anhedonia is another characteristic of depression where sufferers often lose interest in things that they used to enjoy – activities, hobbies, spending time with friends, and even sex.

Anhedonia is a state of emotional deadness, where instead of feeling down or sad someone feels nothing.  Anhedonia can cause someone to feel as though the love is dead, or they have fallen out of love.

To those who have never experienced it this seems bizarre, but If you do a simple web search for “anhedonia and love” it’s a bit frightening to see how common this seems to be.

 

An Account of Anhedonia

Folk-Williams describes his own experiences with Anhedonia, and how it can destroy relationships as follows:

there is another dimension of depression that can lead to the idea of escape as the answer.

It’s the one that causes depressed partners to say they’re no longer in love and have never loved their partners. It’s called anhedonia, the inability to feel pleasure or interest in anything.

For me, it was a kind of deadness. Rather than an excess of painful emotion, it was the lack of pain, the lack of feeling, that was the undercurrent of all the surface turmoil. I felt no satisfaction in life.

I believed that the relationship was holding me back, that it had become hollow, empty of the intensity I longed for. I was sure that I could only find happiness and passion with someone else. It was the fantasy of the perfectly passionate mate that was a constant lure.

And later he writes:

Anhedonia is the cause of the desire to leave to find a new, more intense life. The depressed partner’s relationship feels loveless because he can hardly feel at all.

The problem is that the unaware depressive has such a high threshold of feeling that it takes extreme arousal to evoke excitement and passion. He can erupt with anger and rage because these are more violent emotions that stir him as little else does.

Kramer says that these clients often believe that they’re perfectly capable of feeling. After all, they can go out and have fun with friends. They can feel passionate with others who likely have no constraining relationships or might be seeking the same kind of escape.

But they feel good precisely because these experiences offer exceptionally high levels of stimulation. They may also turn to addictive habits like recreational drugs, drinking, gambling or pornography for the same reason.

Fantasies of escaping into a life full of new intensity seem like the perfect answer to their inner emptiness.

 

The Loss of Feeling

When someone needs intensely high levels of stimulation just to feel, it’s somewhat understandable that people will be willing to engage in risky and destructive behaviors.

One of the things Folk-Williams alludes to (but doesn’t address directly) is that this lack of feeling makes actual intimacy almost impossible.  So the type of attachment characteristic of close relationships breaks down, and sufferers often can find no arousal or attachment in their partners.  Everything becomes detached and clinical.  They know they “should” feel something, and they know they once did.  But they don’t, and they can’t change that.

However they can still feel the intense emotions of “new love”, so things like affairs are increasingly likely just as a way to feel.  As is sex in casual relationships or one night stands.  Those things can be felt physically, even though there is still usually little or no emotional connection.  As noted above, people may turn to substance abuse as a way of “coping” with this lack of feeling inside.

When anhedonia isn’t understood, it becomes easy to blame external things.  A sufferer is unhappy because of their job, or their weight, or their relationship.

Happiness and hope is replaced by the lure of fantasy.  A belief that things will be better IF they can only find the right thing.  If they can get the right job, get the right body, or find the right partner.

Spoiler alert here – it doesn’t work.  Finding the perfect partner is fantasy, not reality.  They don’t exist, and the people who try often end up destroying a lot of the things in their lives that are “good” in the pursuit of this fantasy.

 

Mourning Love

I write about relationships, and I write about love.  To me love is a powerful and beautiful thing, and the loss of it is always difficult.

Often love is lost and relationships fail because of little things.  We take each other for granted, we focus on the bad instead of the good, we are hurt and we refuse to let go.  All these little things often add up to growing resentment and the breakdown of love.

And when that happens, it’s tragic.

None of that however compares to the loss of love not because love is actually gone, but because someone has lost the capacity to feel it.

THAT seems incomprehensibly cruel.

Especially when the sufferer doesn’t realize what is happening, and instead of seeing it as the symptom of a problem they interpret the loss of love as the problem itself.

 

I don’t know what anhedonia feels like, and I hope I never do.  From descriptions of it and from reading others accounts of it, it seems like a terrible soul destroying thing.

But like many other aspects of mental illness, it’s something that’s not understood, and not discussed.  And I believe many, many relationships and families are needlessly lost as a result.

So if you have thought “I don’t love you anymore” or heard those words said to you, please stop to consider that maybe there’s something else going on.  Especially if you can’t understand or explain why the feeling is gone.

 

To gain a better understanding of  the struggles sufferers face daily check out the following video:

No one wants to talk about or acknowledge mental illness.  And people definitely don’t want to be labelled as having one.  But when it directly affects 25% of the population, it’s at least something to consider.

When you can’t understand something, you can’t address it.  And things can never improve.  So understanding why feelings of love may be gone can be the first step in the road to rebuilding it.