When Do You Actually “Know” Someone?

GettingToKnowOneAnotherHeader

 

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.

FeelingofLoveAsChoice

When the Light Goes Out

Dark_Room_header

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.

beggingnoend.jpg

What do you bring IN to your Relationship?

BringInHeader

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.

fantasyquote2

 

 

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.

CracksInEverything

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).

HealYourself

 

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.

RightOrWrongPerson

Establishing Boundaries

boundaryHeader

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

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

Beyond that though?

What do we really learn?

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

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

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

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

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

 

Giving and Taking

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

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

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

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

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

Treat others the way you want to be treated.

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

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

But there was one problem here.

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

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

We aren’t taught how to say no.

Boundaries3

 

 

Learning To Say No

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

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

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

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

We don’t know what our own boundaries are.

We only start to learn them when they are violated.

 

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

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

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

But often we don’t.

 

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

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

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

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

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

And I wasn’t respecting myself.

Boundaries4

 

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

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

But sometimes, it’s necessary.

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

selfish

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

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

 

Discovering You

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.

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

When this happens you face a difficult decision.

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

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

Both people need to be respected.

Both people need to be valued, and heard.

Both peoples boundaries matter.

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

 

Boundaries1

Showing your “True Colors”

true_colors_header

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Patterns of Behavior 

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

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

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

Does that make me a bad person?

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

All or Nothing Thinking 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

Impacts on Relationships

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

 Seeing Shades of Grey

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

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

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

 

Life isn’t all or nothing.

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

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

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

 

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

How The Primal Brain Damages Relationships

Before I became a parent, I had a vision of the type of parent I wanted to be.

I thought I would be someone who would talk “to” his kids –not down to them.

I would treat them like “people”, with kindness and respect.  They were small people, sure; but they were still people.

Because of this I figured I wouldn’t need to raise my voice or yell, and I definitely wouldn’t ever do anything like spank them.  Instead, I would be patient.  I would explain things to them, and use reason when dealing with them.

Ha.

Man was I ever naive.

Nice idea in theory, but in practice?  It doesn’t necessarily work.

 

See, kids are still learning how to interact with the world around them, and they are just learning about their own emotions.

Sometimes kids (mine included) will have tantrums.  And experience has shown me that during time of high emotion (such as during the heat of a tantrum) there is no reasoning.  There is no logic.

In those moments, they are simply REACTING, and are completely out of control.

After the moment has passed and they have calmed down, THEN I can talk to them.  That is when they will be able to actually hear me, and reason will kinda/sorta/maybe work.

In a heightened emotional state though, reason has no chance.

 

 

I see this a lot in life.

Times where people do things and make choices that leave me dumbfounded.  Often I’m left wondering “what the hell are they thinking?”

And that’s just it.

Sometimes people aren’t thinking.

Sometimes people WILL made decisions that are absolutely TERRIBLE, and have long term ramifications that seem so obvious I can’t understand HOW people could possibly make the decisions they do.

But maybe in those moments people aren’t actually thinking.  Maybe in those moments they are just reacting, and aren’t actually CAPABLE of understanding the implications of their choices.

 

The Primal Brain

Now, a bit of a disclaimer here.  Usually my posts have a fair bit of research to them, and I have facts to support what I’m saying.

For this one, I’m kinda flying by the seat of my pants and throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks.  So hopefully this makes sense to someone other than me.  Maybe there is data to back it up, maybe not; but it still “feels” right to me.

I first started thinking about this stuff when reading up on anxiety, and the fight or flight response.

The fight or flight response is something we’ve all probably experienced at one point in time or another.  It occurs when you are in a situation that you feel threatened, or uneasy, and it’s largely a physiological response.  Biology takes over, and (as the name implies) a person gets ready to either stand and fight or run away.  It’s a survival mechanism that is built into our DNA.

I’ve seen this described as being part of the primal, lizard, or reptilian brain.  And it’s described as follows (from brainupfl.org):

Our most primitive piece of brain anatomy is responsible for basic functions (i.e. breathing, heatbeat) and primal instincts (i.e. survival, dominance, mating).

 

Think about this for a moment:

Survival, dominance, mating.

All of these things are kind of important, and they are also things that often get people in a TON of trouble!!!

In each of these areas, you hear stories where people sometimes do things that they never believed they were capable of – sometimes for good, but usually for bad.  And when these things happen, those who know them look at these people and struggle with reconciling the action with the person.

Abuse, affairs, murder even.  The term “crimes of passion” is used to describe actions someone took because of a strong sudden impulse, but was not premeditated.

In these cases, I think the primal brain is at work.

To be clear, I don’t think the idea of people reacting to the primal brain means they aren’t responsible for their choices.  They still are – ALWAYS.

But this does highlight the importance of people being more responsible for their own emotional state (more on this below…).

 

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

I think this idea of the primal brain and certain instinctual behaviors being able to override logic and reason (and the ability to think through consequences) is supported by Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Maslow’s hierarchy is an idea about human motivation and personal growth.  In it he breaks down different levels of needs, with the fundamental ones at the bottom and the “higher level” needs at the top.  One of the primary ideas is that we need to be in a position where our lower level needs are being met before we can move up the hierarchy to the higher level needs.

maslow-pyramid

 

Taking a look at the bottom level (or basic needs) you have things needed for survival, followed by a need for safety and security.  And although it’s not depicted on the chart I have here, often sexual instinct is seen as a need that sits at the level of basic needs.

Psychological needs such as love and intimacy are next, which means they can’t be met until our physiological and safety needs are met.

This makes a ton of sense.

Love and intimacy is based on trust, and when issues occur in relationships that break down trust usually the sense of intimacy soon breaks down as well.

 

Coping Mechanisms

Any regular readers will know that I talk a lot about coping mechanisms.

Over the past few years I’ve come to believe that the coping mechanisms each individual brings to the table are probably the most important things that contribute to the success and longevity of the relationship.

So what are coping mechanisms?

Well, here’s my take on it…

Our coping mechanisms are the default behaviors we exhibit when confronted with threat or conflict.  These behaviors are our automatic responses, and are probably a combination of nature and nurture.  Although there may be an inherent component to them, they are also learned behaviors.

Going back the Fight or Flight response, I think everyone’s coping mechanisms fall someone on a spectrum, where we have aggression and anger (fight) on one side of the scale, and we have withdrawing or shutting down (flight) on the other end of the spectrum.

BOTH of these approaches are TERRIBLE for both individual health and for relationships.

The way I see it, both extremes of fight and flight are responses of the primal brain.  In both scenarios, someone is simply reacting to a situation, and during those moments they are incapable of reason, logic, or thinking of consequences.

But these responses aren’t either/or, they sit on a spectrum.

So a goal we should ALL have is to work on our coping mechanisms.  We should work on regaining control, and not letting our primal brain take over.

If we are someone who reacts with anger when things go wrong, we need to learn to control that.  If we are someone who shuts down and withdraws when times are hard, we need to learn to work with other people and stop retreating into ourselves.

 

As kids, we are learning the world around us and learning to manage our feelings and emotions.  And sadly, some of us don’t really learn that very well.

But the key word here is learn.

Shutting down and withdrawing, or becoming aggressive and angry in the face of perceived threat or challenge is never the answer.  We should always strive to find a way to push back the primal brain and respond with reason.  Because caring, compassion and empathy are all higher level functions; and they require us to be able to stay in control

Our coping mechanisms, no matter how broken, can always be improved.

And in many cases our very relationships depend on it.

Living in Fantasy Land

fantasyheader

Growing up I read a lot of books, and my genre of choice was fantasy.

Castles, knights, dragons, elves, dwarves, creatures like trolls/orcs/goblins etc; quests for mystical objects to save the world from some impending doom or evil.

I love that stuff.

For me, the fantasy genre was a way to escape into a world that was completely different from the one I knew.  There was nobility, intrigue, betrayal, redemption.  And there was usually the romantic notion of good triumphing over evil.

 

In the fantasy world, everything people did had a purpose.  You don’t see a lot of people doing things like eating, going to the bathroom, cleaning up the yard, or paying the bills.  They don’t even really talk about their day.  But when they do, it’s known as “character development”.

In the world of fantasy, things are always exciting!!!

(Alright, I know.  In Lord of the Rings the characters do a lot of walking.  And I mean A LOT.  But hey, they had to cross all of Middle Earth and it’s not like they had cars or anything.  So even all that walking was done with a noble purpose in mind).

 

The main draw of the fantasy world is, it’s just that.  Fantasy.  It’s not real.  It’s an escape.

When we read about knights and dragons, it’s pretty clear that this is just a make believe world.  Same as the world of superheroes, science fiction, and Disney princesses.

It’s less clear when the fantasy world more closely resembles that of real life.  TV shows, movies, books.  Often they are set in “the real world”, but they are just as separated from real life as the world of Fantasy.

And problems can occur when fantasy starts to interfere with real life.

 

 

Romantic Love

I write about relationships, and with that I truly believe in love, romance, and all the stuff that comes with that.

But I completely reject the way love is often portrayed.

True love.  The One.  Two people’s eyes meeting across a crowded room, and they know they will be together forever.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m a romantic so I understand the appeal of that stuff.  But it’s a load of crap, and I think it does a lot of damage to people’s understandings of real, healthy relationships.

fantasyquote2

 

Let’s look at dating, and love.

Love is supposed to be altruistic.  It’s about genuinely caring about another person, and being able to (at times) put their needs and wants first.  It’s about being part of something that’s bigger than you.

In the dating world on the other hand, you see a selfish form of love.  When you first meet someone, do you REALLY care about them?  Umm, no.  Dating is primarily about what YOU want, and how you can find someone who will be able to satisfy YOUR needs and wants.  Sure, you give to the other person.  But that giving isn’t done freely, it’s done because of what we get out of it.  Either it makes us feel good to give, or we are expecting something in return.

In the dating world, you (usually) aren’t even YOU.  Instead, you are portraying a version of you.  And usually, you are putting forth what you believe to be the best version of you, or the version that you think the other person will be most interested in.

And the other person is doing the same.

You are exchanging carefully constructed facades, which have elements of the “real people” underneath.  But there is a lot that is left hidden, or unsaid.

Dating may have elements of a deeper relationship.  But like Fantasy it’s only a part of it, it’s not based on reality.

In a perfect world, as you get to know each other better you come to value the other person as more than just a vehicle for your needs.  You come to understand them, and genuinely care about them.  And eventually, you start to think of the relationship with them as something larger than use yourself.  You are contributing to something, and building something.  You are still “you”, but you are now also part of an “us”.

 

Romance stories and movies usually depict the early stages of relationships.  The excitement, the passion and the romance.  And often they end with the couple finally “making it” (usually after going their separate ways after a misunderstanding, and then at the last minute realizing they do belong together after all).

Romance stories usually end with the wedding.  Really though, that’s where “easy” stops and the real work begins.

 

When Life Gets in the Way

Life is mostly routine.  We work, pay bills, shop for groceries, prepare meals, do yard work, etc.  All of this is stuff we “have” to do, and there’s nothing particularly exciting or romantic about it.  But really, this is where most of our energy gets spent.  Add kids to the mix, and often it seems there’s little time left to focus on being lovers and being a couple.  So people settle into patterns, and what may have started as passionate love becomes a love based more on comfort and familiarity.

Love based on comfort and familiarity isn’t a bad thing.  At the same time though, romance doesn’t have to die.  In fact, it should NEVER die.  But it will change, and unless a couple works at it they will end up waking up one day and finding they are more roommates than a couple.

Romance doesn’t just happen.  Passion doesn’t just happen.

In the early days it’s there because it’s new, we are learning each other, and we are putting energy into it.  When we stop putting in, it fades.  And it’s not the responsibility of one person to keep things “alive”.  Both people in a relationship need to be willing to put the effort in, and prioritize being lovers.

 

Finding Passion again – the WRONG way!!!

A while back I interviewed a guy who cheated on his wife, and posted the story of his affair.  I’ve talked to a number of people and read a number of stories about affairs, and often the story is similar.

People get caught up in the “routine” side of life and find themselves longing for the “old days”.  They find themselves missing the early stages of love – the passionate side.  And they convince themselves that is “real” love, and they will never be able to find it again with their current partner.  They feel “dead inside”, so they start to look elsewhere in order to feel alive again.

In talking about his affair, he wrote:

I was lonely and dying for attention, which is what led me to look for it elsewhere. I did not do this looking for an affair, but just some attention that validated I was worth something. Then I met the other woman (OW), one thing led to another until I was in a full blown affair.

 

Affair are like a return to the world of dating, and it’s important to note that they are not real life. Rather, they are a way to escape from the pressures and stresses of real life.

Just like an alcoholic turning to drink, or an addict turning to a chemical high, affairs are a way to escape from reality.  Affair partners meet up in secret, and it’s all about need fulfillment.

There’s no real responsibility; no worrying about mortgages, bills or the kids.  Rather, the relationship with the affair partner is like being on a constant vacation.

Really, they are an “easy way out”.   Instead of actually facing and dealing with problems within a relationship, or accepting that the problems within a relationship are significant enough that the relationship should end; an affair is a way for someone to “have it both ways”.  They are able to pick and choose the parts of the relationship they want to deal with in their primary relationship, and then find the parts that are missing elsewhere.

Of course, they also destroy lives and do a tremendous amount of damage to everyone involved.

They are also not sustainable. 

Eventually, if the affair partners see each other enough the “vacation” will end.  Real life will start to intrude, with issues and responsibilities.  When this happens the carefully constructed facades crumble, and the real person beneath starts to show.  A real person, who has real problems just like anyone else.  And when this becomes apparent, the appeal of the affair is often broken.

It was euphoria when were together and agony when we were apart. This is what fed the illusion that it was such a great “relationship”. The reality was, it was just fantasy land and as I began to see her with everyday problems like us, the less and less I wanted to be with her.  I think I was finally really realizing what I had done. I was seeing that the OW was really just fantasy land and none of it was real.

 

fantasyquote1

When the fantasy of the affair was broken and reality hit, he found himself trying to understand “why” he did it.  Why he felt such chemistry and passion with his affair partner but not with his wife.  And his answer was simple:

It is a funny question to me now. What did she see that my wife didn’t? I can answer it without a problem. She saw someone who had an interest in them. Who made them feel attractive and interesting. So she never saw me, she saw what I was giving her. So the real question I should have been asking myself was not “What did she see that my wife didn’t?” but “What I am giving her that I am not giving my wife?”

 

He had chemistry and passion not because of anything special about his affair partner.  No, it was there because of what he put into the relationship.  Time, energy, and effort.  He put that in to his time with his affair partner, and this led to the passion he had been missing.

 

Fantasy land is just that.  Fantasy.  It’s great as an escape, but it’s important to remember that it is not real life.  And it’s an escape that should only ever occur within the mind.

When the lines start to blur between fantasy and reality, often many lives are affected.

And no matter how great the fantasy world may seem, eventually reality always comes crashing down.