Learning to Speak

Voice-header

When I look back on my first marriage, one of the things that is most disappointing is how blindsided I felt when I found out it was in trouble.  I knew my ex wasn’t really happy, and I even thought I knew the reasons; but I had no idea that one of those reasons might be me (and/or the marriage).

How does that happen?

How does a person (or couple I guess) get into a spot where one person basically wants out and the other person has no idea that is happening?  Was I some cold callous person who ignored her and only cared about myself?  I guess you would need her thoughts on that, but I sure didn’t think so.  For us to have that sort of gap in our understanding of things, the only thing I can definitively say is *something* had clearly fallen apart in communication.

The past is the past and can never be changed.  Which isn’t to say it doesn’t matter, as it absolutely does.  But the only place it really matters is in how you move forward and what you learn from it.

My goal was to learn enough to hopefully never be in that sort of position again.

 

If I never wanted to be in that spot again, it was up to me to try and understand how I got there.  It seemed surprising, because my ex and I never fought.  Like, never.  And in retrospect, maybe that was part of the problem.

Although we never fought, I can guarantee we didn’t always agree on things.  Which is to be expected, as people won’t always agree on things.  But maybe part of the problem was with how we approached those things we didn’t agree on.

I suspect we didn’t ever fight because instead of sharing how we were feeling, facing issues, and trying to work through them; we just ignored them.  Which is a fantastic idea of course, because we all know that if we ignore something for long enough it will go away (note, sarcasm intended).

That’s not to say I never raised issues.  But under the guise of picking my battles, I ignored way too much.  And many times I should have raised something, I didn’t.

 

Why didn’t I raise issues I felt should be raised?

Looking back, as embarrassing to admit as it is, it was fear.

Fear of the discomfort that it would cause.

Fear of the fight that may ensue.

Fear of the damage it could do.

 

It was WAY easier to tell myself something didn’t matter.  And there is some truth there, because often things don’t matter (the book “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff” is all about reminding us that some things don’t really matter).  But I think at some level we know when things do matter, and when they do, it’s a mistake to keep silent.

However I often kept silent.

I think part of it was because it’s natural to feel uncomfortable with conflict.  In addition I think it was because I didn’t have the personal “tools” for working on things.

 

I had a pretty good childhood, and to this day I think highly of both of my parents.  It’s not like they were perfect or anything (no one is), but I think they are people who generally did their best.  And to me, at the end of the day I think that’s the most important thing.

One thing that my childhood didn’t prepare me for however, was conflict.

See, my parents didn’t really fight or argue.  I’m sure they didn’t always get along, but either their disagreements were behind closed doors OR because I was a kid I was just oblivious to it.  Talk to anyone who knows me well and they will tell you I can be completely naive and oblivious at times, so there’s actually a good chance it’s the latter.

Beyond parents, one of the main places young people learn is at schools.  And although it may be different now, learning about conflict, our emotions and how to manage them wasn’t exactly one of the topics that was covered when I was going through the school system.  It’s something that’s extremely important, but we all just kind of figure it out on our own, at our own pace.  Whatever that pace may be.

As a result I entered young adult life (and relationships) not knowing what to do with conflict.  Not knowing how to have “difficult conversations”, and often avoiding them.

 

Not knowing what to do with conflict was only part of the problem.  The larger problem was the associations I made about conflict…

The people I knew and loved didn’t seem to argue, so in my head I interpreted that as arguing was *bad*, or a sign of problems.  And I sure didn’t want that.  Eventually I found myself in a relationship (and later marriage) with someone who was just as conflict avoidant as I was.  And without being forced to face conflict together, I didn’t build up skills at dealing with it very well.

 

To be clear, I don’t blame anyone for this.  It was how *I* shaped my beliefs about the world based on my experiences.  And I share this primarily because I suspect the way I grew to view the world is not uncommon.

It took me a long time to learn that conflict isn’t bad.  It’s actually super important, and when done right is very healthy.  Conflict is nothing more than differences plus tension.  And since we are all different, it’s natural.

Sure it can go badly as well, but that’s more around how you handle the conflict.  Conflict itself is neither good nor bad.

And communication at its core is all about how you handle that conflict.

My ex and I didn’t come into our relationship with a very good toolset for allowing us to communicate and handle conflict.  And for whatever reason, we never built those tools up.

Looking back, we both had terrible communication skills – though I doubt either of us realized that at the time.  And that was likely a significant factor in the failure of our marriage.

 

When my fiancé and I met, one of the things I told her was that in our relationship no topic could ever be “off the table”.  And in fact, the harder something was to talk about the more important it probably was.

I understood this at an intellectual level, but practically my skillset was still very rudimentary.  She was (and is) much better in this space than I am, and has a much easier time raising the things that need to be raised.

At first it was very difficult.  She would raise something, and I would feel that discomfort – my chest starting to tighten and the blood rushing to my ears.  Sometimes she would suggest that maybe we shouldn’t talk about things, at least not right now.  And sometimes we drop things for the moment at least to gain some space and clear our heads.  But we both realize the importance of talking things through no matter how uncomfortable they make us.

Over time, it’s gotten easier.  I am able to listen, and push back at that discomfort I feel.  And I also find it much easier to raise things that I feel need to be said.

I firmly believe that when it comes to conflict and communication, there ARE tools that you can build up over time.  They are really skills, and the more you work at them the more you can improve them.

 

As a parent, it’s very important that I try to pass this along to my children.  When I think back on how I grew up believing conflict is bad (and how that shaped me), I don’t want that for them.  I want them to understand that conflict is natural.  That it’s alright to disagree.  To be frustrated or mad at each other sometimes.  And that in those moments it’s important to be able to talk to each other.  To tell each other what we are feeling and try to get at the root of why, in a caring and respectful way.  The feelings are natural, it’s how we manage them that really matters.

 

I went almost 40 years without understanding conflict and without having tools to deal with it.  I realize I still have a long way to go and I expect I will spend the rest of my life trying to improve my skills in this area.  That’s alright though, because although it took a long time I feel like I have found my voice, and learned how to speak.

It-s-not-about-finding-your-voice-it-s-about

Why Do Guys not “Get It”?

JimCarrey

A while back I was talking to a friend of mine, and we were talking about those final sputtering gasps of relationships and how they often look the same.

Usually it looks something like this…

A couple stops doing things together, they stop having fun together, they stop having sex, and often even stop sleeping in the same bed.

The sense of “we” breaks down, and they increasingly become two people living separate lives; simply occupying the same space instead of being “a couple”.

Maybe they start fighting a lot, or maybe they just stop talking and interacting AT ALL.

 

Even still, when one person finally decides to initiate the breakup – the other person is often caught completely off guard.

 

The way the scenario was presented to me, it was the woman who was the one initiating the breakup; and the question was asked of me:

“why in the world are guys surprised when this happens?  You’re not getting along.  You’re not having sex.  Why is this a surprise?”

Yet for the person on the receiving end of the breakup, it often is.  Sometimes the other person is completely blindsided by the loss of the relationship.

 

As I thought about it, I realized it was a great question.

Why is it a surprise?

Why in the world doesn’t someone see it coming?  Especially when there are usually a significant number of signs that something is clearly wrong.

Is the person on the receiving end of the breakup stupid?

I suppose it’s possible that stupidity, ignorance or naivety plays a role here.  But often I think the issue goes a little bit deeper than that.

And I think it’s a sign of a relationship where there is very poor communication.

 

One of the biggest issues plaguing couples is an (often unspoken) belief that if your partner “knows you” then they will know what you are thinking, or be able to read your body language.

News flash – it’s not true!  People *aren’t* mind readers.  Well, I suppose some might be – and if you actually can then great, I’m not trying to downplay that ability.

But by and large?  Ummmmm… no, things don’t work that way.

When you’ve spent enough time with someone you often can make some guesses as to how they will react to events.  And you probably get pretty good at reading their body language (when you’re actually paying attention) over time.  But no, you can’t read their mind.  You don’t actually know what they are thinking – it’s just guesses.

In fact, believing people should be able to read your mind (or thinking you can read theirs) is one of the leading thinking patterns (or cognitive distortions) associated with things like anxiety and depression.  Or on a lesser scale, unhappy relationships.

So if we can accept that the person who is caught off guard on the receiving end of a breakup can’t actually read minds, and we can accept that they aren’t necessarily stupid, then maybe something else is happening here.

Maybe, just maybe

They are caught off guard because although they knew *something* was wrong, they had no idea what it was, or they had no idea how severe the issue was.

 

Going back to the common signs of a relationship in distress, I mentioned things like a couple no longer  doing things together, not really having fun anymore, not really having sex, and even not sleeping in the same bed.

Basically, a couple ceasing to be a couple.

When this happens, usually one person has pulled away or started to check out of the relationship.

Depending on what is going on in their lives, maybe the other person doesn’t notice at first.  But eventually they clue in that *something* isn’t quite right.

And I think what happens next is what will likely determine the outcome of the relationship.

 

There’s a pretty good chance shitty communication and a dislike of conflict on the part of one or both parties has gotten the couple to this point.

So chances are, the person who notices things aren’t quite right will wait it out for a bit.  After all, people and couples have good days and bad days; maybe this is just something that will pass.

Maybe they try engaging their partner a bit more.  Or maybe they actually ask them something like “hey, is everything alright?”

No one *likes* to discuss difficult things.  No one likes conflict.

But the worst thing people can do is say “yeah, things are fine” when they really aren’t.

Issues and concerns need to be out in the open, and they need to stay out in the open as long as is required to either get things resolved, come to terms with the fact that this is an issue that will always be there (and you can accept that), or realize that the nature of the issue is one which means a couple may be better apart.

People may not like to admit that last one.  But really, sometimes couples are simply not good together.  Sometimes there differences are things that they will never resolve, and if they can’t accept each other for who they are then ending a relationship is actually an act of kindness and compassion.  Time is the one thing we can never get back, so if you don’t actually WANT to be there, get out.  Don’t waste someone else’s time.

 

If someone notices that their partner is withdrawing from the relationship, yet their partner claims things are “fine” or won’t talk about it; it becomes very easy to mentally fill in the blanks and find other reasons as to why they may be withdrawing.

Perhaps they are stressed with work.  Perhaps they are unhappy with something else in their life.

There can be any number of reasons why someone can check out for a while, and often those reasons can have nothing to do with the relationship.

And if they are telling you it’s not the relationship, not being clear about the issues in a relationship, or being passive aggressive in addressing these issues?  Well, it’s easy to tell yourself it’s something else.

Maybe it’s a form of denial or wish fulfillment, but when there are signs of trouble yet your partner won’t tell you what is wrong, it’s really easy to find other reasons to explain away their behavior.

And when you start to tell yourself that the issues are due to something else, then it’s easy to feel blindsided when things completely fall apart, even when there’s ample evidence that something is wrong.

So to me, it really comes down to communication.

 

Let’s look at this another way.

When you are the person on the receiving end of a person who’s checking out of a relationship, yet they aren’t articulating to you (in a way that you understand) that there are problems, what’s really happening?

Maybe they are scared to communicate and avoiding dealing with things.

Maybe they they’ve tried communicating, but they feel they haven’t been heard.

Or maybe they’ve communicated in a way that made sense to them, but really wasn’t understood by you.

Personally, I think it’s often the latter of these.

 

I’m operating from the premise that people aren’t actually stupid (alright, some are).  I also believe most people are in the relationship because they actually “want” to be there, and DO want things to work out.

People communicate in different ways, but communication is a two way street.  It’s not just about one person describing what they are thinking or feeling.  It’s also about the other person actually understanding those things, and not just hearing the words.  Without understanding, you have a monologue – not communication.  And without actual two way communication, a couple is in a world of trouble.

communication model

In the above communication model feedback is the key piece, and if you note the arrows, it’s a two way street.  It involves two people going back and forth, as much as they need to in order to ensure the message is understood.

It’s this feedback that is often missing piece with couples.

It can be frustrating and exhausting to go back and forth ensuring you are understood.  It may result in arguments, and your partner may never fully agree with what you are saying.

But that effort to ensure there is two way communication is incredibly important.  Because think of the alternative…

  • One person speaking but not feeling heard.
  • Resentment and apathy setting in.
  • The relationship slowly breaking down as one or both people emotionally detach, until you are two people occupying the same space instead of two people sharing and building something together.

No one should ever be blindsided by the ending of a relationship.  If they are, then somewhere along the way the communication has broken down; or it was never really there in the first place.

Communication isn’t always easy, but some things are worth fighting for.  And if you want your relationship to last, communication needs to be built so that both people know they are being heard.

Prevention vs. Cure

ZenBalanceHeader

During my recent tour of China, one of the things I did was go to a hospital that does traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).

At the hospital a doctor came out and gave our group a short talk on the ideas behind TCM, and coming from the world of western medicine it seems pretty bizarre.

I’m probably going to mess this up completely, but as an overview the premise is that the human body has 5 main elements – wood, fire, earth, metal and water; and that each of these elements is related to an organ in the body.  The kidney represents water, the liver is wood, the heart is fire, the spleen earth, and the lungs are metal.

Why, who knows?  That’s just how it works.

But the key to health in the Chinese model is that it’s important for us to maintain a balance between these elements, and when we don’t, bad things happen.  Similar to rock/paper/scissors, there is a relationship between the elements, so an imbalance in one vs. the others will cause specific effects.

After the overview, they had doctors come in and assess us.  The approach is to look at our tongues and hands, and then based on whatever it is they are looking for they prescribe herbal remedies that are supposed to help alleviate any imbalances in our body.

It was pretty interesting stuff.

the-five-elements

My biggest takeaways from traditional Chinese medicine were as follows:

  • Balance is important to a properly functioning system, and when things get out of balance bad things happen.
  • Prevention is better than cure.

Whether you believe in traditional Chinese medicine or not, these two points seem painfully obvious.  And really I think they apply to virtually everything in life.

Balance is important.  And prevention is better than cure.

 

 

As people, we have (at least) four different sides to ourselves.  There’s the physical – our bodies.  We also have our emotional state, and our intellectual.  And then there’s our spiritual side.  I’m not going to delve into religion here, but whether your spiritual side is manifested through religion or not, I think you can look at your spiritual side as your connection to yourself, and/or the world around you.  The idea that there is “something more”.

It’s important to nurture and take care of all these different sides of ourselves.  And I believe the more we are able to find balance between these different sides, the healthier we are as a person.

 

In addition to trying to find balance between these states as a person, we should also strive to find that balance in our relationships.

Often a relationship starts with physical attraction, leading people to start to get to know one another.  As they learn more about each other person, attraction and connection will hopefully start to happen on additional levels.  Emotionally, intellectually, and even spiritually.

There can be different depths of connection for the different areas.

For example, two people may have an incredible physical connection.  And that may be fun, for a while at least.  But if that’s all there is, it’s unlikely to sustain a relationship over a long period of time.

A couple needs to be able and willing to explore and connect with each other on all levels.  Sharing beliefs, ideas, thoughts, feelings.  And striving to accept and understand each other for who they are.

Some people wall themselves off, either because they’ve never learned how to open up to another person or because they are trying to protect themselves from being hurt.  Ultimately doing just hurts the relationship, as you can’t have closeness without vulnerability.

Finding balance in relationship is important.  Between being an individual and part of a couple; and between the different levels of connection.  The goal in relationships should never be just building connection initially, but also continuing to grow and maintain this connection over a long period of time.

And I think this is where couples often get into trouble.

 

Prevention is better than cure.

At some level we all know this.

When rot or decay has infected something, that rot needs to be cut out before it spreads and does further damage.  So preventing rot in the first place should always be the preferable approach.

Yet time and again couples struggle to build resilience into their relationships.  Couples build the relationship, and once they have it they act like the work is done.  They stop doing the little things.  They stop putting in the effort.  And they stop trying.

 

It’s an easy trap to fall into.  After all, life gets busy.

Most of life is mundane – jobs, chores, bills.  All these little things eat away at our time, and prevent us from focusing on our partners.  There are countless little things which on their own are perfectly valid reasons for not putting effort into our relationship.

As one-offs that should be fine, and understandable even.  But when it continues to happen over time, it becomes a pattern.  And that pattern clearly tells the other person:

“This relationship doesn’t matter to me”.

“You don’t matter to me”.

If we aren’t making our relationship a priority in our lives, why should we be shocked when we realize our relationship is in crisis?

MakingTimeForWhatMatters

 

 

What does prevention look like in a relationship?

Taking a page out of traditional Chinese medicine, I think it comes back to balance.  Maybe not between wood, fire, earth, metal and water; but between the different parts of our life.

Yeah, we probably all have jobs to do.  And there is always *stuff* that needs to be done.  Groceries, laundry, cooking, cleaning, bills, etc.  For those who are parents, there is also the time spent on kids.  And these things have to be balanced with having time for yourself and for maintaining friendships.

But there also has to always be time for your relationship.  To not only maintain it, but hopefully to continue to grow it, and continue to learn each other as you change and grow over time.

 

I think prevention means taking time out every day and being present, in the moment, with each other.  Taking that time to try and stay connected with each other on all levels – physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual.

It is about staying curious about each other, and interested in continuous growth both as individuals and as a couple.

It’s about showing your partner that no matter what else is happening in life, they matter to you.

 

Pink lotus blossoms or water lily flowers blooming on pond

I think the above graphic illustrates this need for balance well.  Physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual – these different levels of connection are all related.  You can’t neglect some parts of a relationship and not expect the other parts to suffer as well.

 

So don’t wait until there are issues in your relationship until you remember to show your partner that they matter to you.  When you neglect it, sometimes it’s too late for “a cure”.

Instead, focus on prevention; and make each other a priority each and every day.

Cheating to “Stay In” a Marriage

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I came across a fascinating article on CNN.com this morning, on infidelity by women and some of the reasons why they cheat.

It’s definitely worth a read, but for a quick overview it talks about how there has been a 40% rise in the number of women who admit they have had affairs in the last 27 years; while the incidence of affairs for men has stayed fairly static during the same time span.

In looking at reasons, the article cites things from feelings of resentment due to a disparity in the amount of labor that goes into maintaining the life and the marriage, to basically boredom in the marriage because marriage has turned out to be something very different from what they expected it to be.

 

I’ve been writing about these things for years, so nothing in there really surprised me.

But at the same time, reading the article kind of pissed me off.

ESPECIALLY when it talks about people who were able to admit that they had a pretty good life.  They had a good friendship with their husbands, they had built a life together, had a family with children that they were raising together.  Really they had a lot of things, but at the same time they felt that there was some need that wasn’t being met inside the marriage, so they started going outside of the marriage to try and fill that need.

As the article stated:

In an earlier generation, this might have taken the form of separation or divorce, but now, it seemed, more and more women were unwilling to abandon the marriages and families they’d built over years or decades. They were also unwilling to bear the stigma of a publicly open marriage or to go through the effort of negotiating such a complex arrangement.

These women were turning to infidelity not as a way to explode a marriage, but as a way to stay in it.

 

Turning to infidelity not as a way to explode a marriage, but as a way to stay in it?

Give me a f*cking break.

The narcissism of that statement is mind boggling to me.  And sadly, I know that many people buy into that exact line of thinking as a way to rationalize their own behavior to themselves.

Let me phrase that idea in a slightly different way…

Hmmm, I “like” my husband.  I like the life/lifestyle we’ve built.  I want my kids to grow up in a home with both parents full time.  But there’s something missing, and I want more.  At the same time, I’m not willing to give up what I’ve built in order to go take a chance at trying to find something more.  So I’ll just try to keep what I’ve built, and go do whatever I want on the side.  After all, I “deserve” to be happy.

It’s a load of crap, it’s selfish, and it’s driven purely by ego.  I’ve heard some people use the excuse that they are doing it (“staying” in a marriage where they are checked out) “for their kids” but that’s another cop out.  It really amounts to:

I want this.

I deserve this.

I’m entitled to this.

I want to have my cake, and eat it too.

These sentiments seem to be on the rise.  And they are sentiments that are all about you.

 

Yes, people can look out for themselves.  And doing so isn’t necessarily a bad thing (in fact, sometimes you need to).

Here’s the thing about life though – you don’t get to pick and choose the things that work for you while ignoring and avoiding the things that don’t.

Perfection doesn’t exist.  EVERYTHING comes with both good AND bad, and as individuals it’s up to us to choose things where we believe the good makes the bad worthwhile.  We need to try and find something that is enough for us.

I’m a parent, and there are times that it’s very rewarding but there are also times that it’s extremely challenging.  I can’t just be there for the good stuff, and the fun stuff.  In fact I would argue that the challenging times are often the times that are most important to my children.  Those are the times where they need me the most, and HOW I respond to them in those moments has the biggest impact.  They may not be easy times for me personally, but they’re pretty damned important.

I have a pretty good career, and there are some parts of my job that I really enjoy.  There are also parts of my job that kind of suck.  I can’t just do the stuff I enjoy and ignore the rest.

Well, I could.

But I would be pretty delusional to think I could do so while still holding onto my job.

 

And that’s exactly what this mindset is about.

It’s delusional.

It’s about focusing on me, and what I want in the moment.

 

The article is about women’s affairs, but I don’t want to give the impression that this is a mindset that is unique to women, because it’s not.  In fact, when the article talks about the 40% increase in affairs by women it’s probably because they are catching up to men in the frequency of affairs.

Look, I’m all for equality.

But I don’t care if men have been doing it for years, of if lots of people cheat.

That doesn’t make it alright.

 

I think this increase in focusing on “self” is a social problem (if you see it as a problem, which I do), where people have increasingly put themselves and their immediate needs and wants at the center of everything.  Where people believe they have a “right” to happiness, and they believe they should be able to “have it all”.

It’s a broken mindset.

 

The article mentions that people often have needs that were not being met inside their marriage, so they choose to go outside the marriage to get them fulfilled.

Yes, people have needs.

Yes, couples have problems and sometimes marriages and relationships aren’t very fulfilling.

However I’ve always believe that when faced with a problem in life you have three choices:

  1. Accept the problem as it is (in which case it’s a want, and not a need)
  2. Try to make the problem better (bring something that is unacceptable up to an acceptable level)
  3. Decide it is truly a problem, and the current situation is unacceptable

Comparing this approach to unmet needs in a marriage, if you are able to accept your situation because you realize it’s a want, but not a need, then good for you.

However that’s probably not a great option, because if you’re unhappy then probably something is wrong, and it would be good to have positive change.

So option two becomes working on the problem.  This involves communicating it, and being open to the possibility of positive change.

And I think this is where things really fall apart for most couples.

One person is convinced that they have communicated their need/want, while it reality their partner really doesn’t get it.  Then to make things worse, the frustrated person ends up closing the door to positive change, because they believe they have tried and are not being heard.  When that happens, once the other person does get it, it’s too late.  Because their partner is no longer willing to accept their efforts.

This is likely where many affairs come in.

But affairs are a cowards way out.

If it truly is a need, and it is truly an unacceptable situation then the real solution here is option 3.

If the current situation is so bad, get out.

It doesn’t matter if you have a nice lifestyle, family, friends, kids, or if it will be hard on your own.  If your needs aren’t being met to the point that you want to cheat, get out.

If the benefits of lifestyle, family, friends, kids, whatever are worth staying for, then don’t cheat.

It’s called integrity.

 

Your actions don’t just impact you.

Make choices, and make ones that are right for you.

But understand consequences.

Understand who will be impacted by your choices.  And then, after weighing those things make the choice that’s best for you.

 

I have no problems with someone leaving an unhappy marriage.

But I have huge problems with someone thinking they can just do what they want to pursue their own needs/wants without caring about how it impacts their partner.

Part of the beauty of marriage is having someone to be with you, to share experiences, and to grow old with.

So tell me, why in the world would you ever want to grow old with someone who has so little respect for you that they are willing to cheat on you?  Why would you want to share your life with them? 

Because that’s sure not love.

  • Accept things
  • Work to improve things
  • Or walk away

Each of those choices I can accept.  Each involves courage.

But cheating, and then rationalizing it to yourself as “a way to stay IN the marriage”?

That’s not a marriage I would want any part of.

Establishing Boundaries

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

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

Beyond that though?

What do we really learn?

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

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

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

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

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

 

Giving and Taking

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

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

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

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

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

Treat others the way you want to be treated.

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

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

But there was one problem here.

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

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

We aren’t taught how to say no.

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Learning To Say No

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

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

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

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

We don’t know what our own boundaries are.

We only start to learn them when they are violated.

 

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

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

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

But often we don’t.

 

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

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

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

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

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

And I wasn’t respecting myself.

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

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

But sometimes, it’s necessary.

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

selfish

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

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

 

Discovering You

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.

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

When this happens you face a difficult decision.

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

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

Both people need to be respected.

Both people need to be valued, and heard.

Both peoples boundaries matter.

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

 

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I Promise to Hurt You

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In my writing, I generally try to have a positive look at relationships and marriage.  I’m a big believer that marriage can be a great thing, while acknowledging that often it ends up not being all that it can and should be.

With that, todays headline may seem like an error at first.  But it’s not.

Yeah, I am intentionally saying “I promise TO hurt you” (instead of I promise NOT to hurt you).  And no, I’m not talking about hurting someone in the “50 Shades of Grey” sense.

I’m talking about actually hurting someone.  Not physically, but emotionally or mentally.  And I’m not saying I may hurt you.  I’m saying I will – and so will you.

So what am I talking about here?

 

Vulnerability

Who can hurt you?

If you’re talking physically anyone can hurt you.  Periodically people will bump into me with their carts when I’m out shopping, and it hurts.  I play basketball, and sometimes guys will hit me with an elbow or a knee, and yeah, that hurts too.  Hell, my kids will sometime hit me with random toys while playing.

Those kinds of hurts?  Those are just things that happen.  Generally people say sorry (hopefully), bruises heal, and you move on.

But who can REALLY hurt you – the kind of hurt that lingers long after the physical hurt has healed?

The people who can really hurt you the people who are closest to you; the people who love you.  The people you never expect it from; parents, siblings, friends, children and most importantly your partner.

Why?

Because we care about and trust these people.  We believe they value us and want what is best for us.  We allow ourselves to be vulnerable with them, and as a result we open ourselves up to potentially be hurt.

 

Being Human

I consider myself a fairly good guy.  Based on my belief set I try to do “the right thing”, and when I screw up I try to take accountability for my own actions.

I try, I really do.

But I still screw up sometimes.

I have days where I’m frustrated and I inadvertently take it out on those around me.  I have times that I think I’m being funny, but in reality I’m being hurtful.  I have days that I can be self-absorbed, and not pay enough attention to those around me.

I know these things happen, and I know that when they do they hurt those around me – those who I profess to love the most.

And I don’t think I’m alone in this.

In turn, I can guarantee that I’ve been hurt badly by those who I care about the most.  My parents, my siblings, my wife.

It happens with my friends too, but that happens less frequently.  Why?  Honestly, it’s because I see them a lot less.

When you are around people a lot, they have more opportunities to see you at your worst.

 

A Higher Standard

Interestingly, I’ve been hurt by my kids too; but it tends to sting less because they are just kids, and I figure they don’t know any better.  To me those “teaching moments”, on how you need to be conscious of how you treat other people.

Here’s the thing though, at some level I hold those closest to me to a higher standard.  Subconsciously I figure that because they care about me, they should know better and they should DO better.  So when they hurt me, it shows they don’t care.

 

I think we all do this in relationships to some degree.  We hold our partners to a higher standard, and when they hurt us it slowly erodes the trust we have in them.  And as the trust erodes, so is our willingness to be vulnerable.  After all, someone can’t hurt us if we don’t let them in.

I’ve heard it said that relationships rarely die because of some big event.  Instead, it’s usually the death of a thousand cuts – a thousand times that someone has hurts us, and we don’t want to let them do that anymore.

 

Accepting Hurt

The obvious solution to preserve our relationships is for us to stop hurting each other.  To always be conscious of what we say, and what we do.  To always be considerate and take our partner into account with everything we do.

But that’s a pipe dream.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s a goal, and one we should all aspire to.  Thing is, we all have bad days.  We all have moments we wish we could take back.

That doesn’t excuse bad behavior, and it shouldn’t be a pattern.  But maybe we need to accept that sometimes our partners WILL hurt us.

And when it happens, we communicate it.  Maybe not right in the moment, but we tell them “hey, when you did this it hurt me”.  And then we let it go.

Because holding on to hurt allows it to grow.  That allows it to break down trust, break down vulnerability, and break down relationships.

 

I would never tell someone I promise not to hurt them, because I know that’s a promise I would not be able to keep.

Instead I would promise people that I would not intentionally hurt them.  And when I do hurt them, I want to know about it, and I want to be held accountable for it.

I can never change the past.  But I can always do my best to prevent the past from poisoning the future.

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.

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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.

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