How to Improve your Life without Changing a Thing

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

Think of the questions:

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Ummm, alright.

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

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

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

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

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

So he left.

 

Yet here he was, back home.

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

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

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

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

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

It wasn’t just that though.

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

It was no longer fulfilling.

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

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

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

Eventually, everything becomes work.  Everything.

 

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

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

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

 

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

Is it about the quest?  The adventure?

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

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

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

 

What can you actually change in life?

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

We are the only ones who can turn that around.

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

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

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

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

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Ruled By Fear

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so I didn’t even try.

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

 

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

 

Fear of Failure

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

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

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

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

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

You’ll never know.

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

 

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

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

 

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

Meant to be.

Fate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fear of Rejection

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Accepting ourselves can be very, very hard.

We all have damage.

We all have insecurities.

We’ve all been hurt.

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

 

Facing our fears is hard.

Letting go is hard.

Embracing life and opportunities is hard.

And being vulnerable and authentic is hard.

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

 

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

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

I may be hurt.

I may fail.

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

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When Do You Actually “Know” Someone?

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

A year?  Two years?  Twenty?

 

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

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

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

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

 

Here’s the thing …

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

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

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

 

So, what do you do?

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

 

Let’s start with you.

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

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

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

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

 

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

…umm.

Not you (at least not the real you).

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

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

 

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

 

Let’s say you do everything right.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

After that, it’s up to you.

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

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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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What do you bring IN to your Relationship?

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When I hear people talk about relationships, there is a lot of talk about compatibility, and how important it is to find the right person.

Compatibility does matter (to a degree), but I think it’s much less important than most believe.

In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that the quality of your relationship often has much less to do with your partner, and a lot more to do with you.

 

I see/read/hear men and women who are “unable to find the love they want”, and they complain, saying things like “all the men I meet are X” or “all the women I meet as Y” (insert stereotype of choice for X and Y).

Sometimes we run into so many similar problems that we start to lose faith in our gender of preference completely, and start to convince ourselves our experiences are representative of all members of that gender.

Here’s a potentially uncomfortable question for you:

If you have had a number of relationships, and they all turning out badly or you are struggling to even find a relationship, what’s the one common link?

You.

 

Now, don’t misunderstand what I’m saying here.  I’m not saying that you are a terrible person, or you are unlovable or anything like that.

I simply think that anytime life isn’t working out quite the way we want it to, the WORST thing you can do is think of yourself as a victim.

How your life goes is not “just the way things are” and I don’t believe in “if it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be”.  Those ideas, and the idea that you “just need to find the right person” paint yourself as a passive participant in your own life.

Rather, I believe that life presents us with different opportunities, and it’s up to us to decide what to do with them.  We can’t control how things will turn out, but we ALWAY control our own choices, and how we respond to the events that happen to us.

So if a relationship (or life in general) isn’t working out the way we want it to I think it’s important to take a look in the mirror, and try to understand the ways you might be contributing to things.

 

If people you meet aren’t treating you the way you want, ask yourself what are you attracted to?  How are you presenting yourself (as the energy you give off influences what you are attracting)?  If you are interested in a “certain type” and things work out the same way, maybe it’s time to expand your horizons and look at something different.

Are you respecting yourself and properly enforcing your boundaries?  Do you even know what your own boundaries are?  Unfortunately, many of us don’t really know what our boundaries are.  We know when they have been violated because of how it makes us feel, but even then, we often don’t know how to enforce them.

 

Another big question you I think people need to ask is, what are you bringing IN to the relationship?

Yourself obviously, but what does that actually mean?

As people, we are the sum of our experiences – both good and bad.  The experiences shape us, and shape our expectations of what we are looking for, and how people will treat us.

What are your expectations in a relationship?  Are they realistic?  I find that one of the biggest sources of unhappiness for people is that their life hasn’t turned out quite the way they thought it would.  Frequently by all objective measures those people have a lot to be happy about, but it is the comparison to the expectations they had for live that lead to their disappointment.

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One of the things we bring with us into relationships that can often be damaging is our coping skills.

What are your coping skills?  How do you deal with conflict, or respond when things get hard?  How do you fight?  Do you shut down and pretend things are alright?  Do you get angry?  Petty?  Passive aggressive?

Lastly, what baggage/insecurities do you bring into your relationship?  We all damaged in some way, and that’s okay.  We all have our own baggage, and although that baggage can seem like it’s part of who we are, it’s up to us to deal with it.

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Part of dealing with it involves allowing our partners understand our baggage, so we need to be willing to let them in enough to understand it.  We need to be willing to tell them how we have been hurt in the past, what are triggers are, and why we feel the way we do about things.  This can be difficult, because these are often some of our most personal and sensitive memories/experiences.  However by opening up and communicating these things to our partners we are allowing them to understand us.  When someone can understand why we feel the way we do about things, it allows them to approach those triggers with empathy and care.

 

If we are not careful, our personal issues and insecurities can easily start to poison our relationships, so an important question is what are you doing about them?

If you take the approach “this is just how I am”, you are expecting the other person to accommodate you, and that’s not fair.  And they should be understanding/empathic, and try to accommodate you to a degree.  At the same time though, you need to work on your own issues (own your own sh*t as some would say).

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I believe taking a hard looking in the mirror, and trying to understand what you bring in to a relationship is very important to the health of any relationship; as it allows you to understand how you contribute in both positive and negative ways.

Understanding your own role in something gives you a degree of power.  Because you can’t change other people, at best you can influence them.  However you are always capable of recognizing parts of yourself you may not like, and working to improve them.

Saying “this is just the way I am” is just as much of a cop out as “I just need to find the right person”.

It’s more accurate to say “this is just the way I am – right now”.  But it doesn’t have to be the way you are tomorrow. 

 

I opened with the idea that the quality of your relationship often has much less to do with your partner, and a lot more to do with you.

What you are interested in, the energy you give off, how you enforce your boundaries, how you cope, and how you deal with your own baggage.  These are all things that influence the success of your relationships, and they all come from you.  And you are the only person who can change these things.

So instead of “I just need to find the right person” maybe a big part of thing is “I just need to BE the right person”.  I’m not suggesting you should ever change for someone else.  But you are never a victim, and you can always strive to be the best version of you.

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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.

 

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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.

What is Marriage?

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For a few years now I’ve been writing about relationships, and marriage.  I consider myself “pro-marriage”, and a lot of my writing (in my mind at least) has been about trying to help others make their marriages into the best marriages they can be.

But one thing I’ve realized recently is, I don’t actually give a crap about marriage.

Wha?

Wait a second, what am I saying here?

As of right now I’m up to almost 150 posts over almost three years of writing; mostly about love, relationships, and how I believe long term monogamous relationships can and should be this wonderful thing; and how we can all strive to take what we have and make it better.

Isn’t marriage kind of the culmination of that ideal?  And if so, shouldn’t I be all “rah-rah” pro-marriage?

Well, yes and no.

Let me explain…

 

I do believe in marriage, very deeply.  But to me marriage isn’t about a piece of paper, or a title.  It’s not about being someone’s husband or wife, and it’s definitely not to give “legitimacy” to children that come from the union of two people.

Instead, marriage is a symbol.

And it’s a symbol of a RELATIONSHIP; a symbol that a relationship has reached a certain level of depth of caring, compassion, and commitment that a couple is now willing to make a promise to each other that they will be there to support each other and be there for each other for the rest of their lives.

 

Marriage is supposed to be about the relationship.  But for some reason, over the long term people often lose sight of that.  The relationship comes to be seen as a “given”.  After all, you’re already married – so what else is there to do?

Btw, that’s probably the worst line of thinking ever, and one that kills MANY relationships.

But even so, we often do it.  And instead of being about love and the relationship, the marriage comes to represent all the “other” stuff.  The house, the chores, the bills, the kids.  All the stuff that is part of the grind of regular day to day life starts to become associated with the marriage, even when that was NEVER what the marriage was initially supposed to be about.

 

Rather than a celebration of love, a marriage becomes associated with the mundane.  And when people start to lose sight of what brought them together in the first place, problems start to set in.

That’s when connection and communication starts to break down.  And where resentment and apathy can start to set in.  That’s where disillusionment with marriage can start to set in, and a couple will often start to drift apart.

To prevent this, they need to be able to go back to what brought them together in the first place.  They need to find the love and the connection again.  And they need to focus on the RELATIONSHIP instead of the marriage.

If they can’t?

Well, I’m going to steal my own words from a post from almost two years ago:

Let’s say you meet someone and fall in love with them, but they don’t feel the same way. Is that a relationship? No. You may love them and accept them for who they are. You may think of them all the time and have pictures of them in your house, wallet, at work whatever. But if they don’t feel the same way about you, then that’s just creepy (and probably puts you at risk of a restraining order).

If you believe you are in a relationship but the other person sees you as one of the many people they are dating, sorry, again it’s not a relationships.

It doesn’t become a relationship until they return the love, and there is an acknowledgement that the two of you share something together and you are committed to each other. So although love may be unconditional, relationships aren’t. Relationships do have expectations, and some degree of reciprocity is required.

Lets take this idea one step further….

Let’s say you are in a relationship, and the other person checks out emotionally. They stop doing the little things, they stop showing you that they care. You become two people, effectively living individual lives. If that happens, are you in a relationship? It doesn’t matter if there’s a piece of paper saying you are married, or you are living together. Even if one person still loves the other with all their heart, the relationship has effectively ended.

Relationships require reciprocity. They are about intent, and effort.

So I ask the question – if the relationship has died, what’s the point of the marriage? 

Why stay?

Either work on the marriage, and get back to a place where the relationship is at the heart of it; or get out.

 

Personally I don’t care about marriage as a piece of paper or a contract.  When people lose sight of the relationship and marriage has come to represent the routines of day to day life, I don’t see the point in continuing it.

Because to me, that’s not what it is.

When people are married, vows are usually spoken.  And if those vows are not being actively practiced, then the marriage is broken.

Commitment doesn’t just mean someone is “staying” in the marriage.  They have to be living it.  Staying in it without practicing the vows is just a waste of everyone’s time.

But when people ARE living it?

When the marriage continues to represent the love and the relationship that brought people together?  And when the marriage is a symbol of that active commitment and love?

Then I think marriage is one of the most beautiful things there is.