Do You Believe in Divorce?

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Do you believe in divorce?

That is a question I struggled with for a long time.

Because for me, the answer was no.

I definitely did not believe in divorce.

I believed marriage was a serious commitment, and one that once made, was made for life.  Almost two decades ago I stood in front of a group of family and friends, and spoke my vows:

For better or worse,

In good times and in bad,

Till death do us part

And when I spoke those words, I meant them.

 

Back in 2012, my wife at the time told me she “wasn’t sure if she wanted to be married anymore”, and after that day we really weren’t.  She checked out on me then, though if I’m honest with myself she had checked out on me prior to that – I just didn’t see it.

I thought I was a good husband, and a good father.  And doing it all over again, there really isn’t much I would do differently.  However I recognize now that I was probably a better father then a husband.

There’s no point trying to think back on *what* went wrong.  Realistically, I’ll never truly know.  All I know is, by the time I knew we were in trouble it was already too late.

I had already lost her.

 

2012 to 2016 was a dark period in my life.

My marriage was in shambles, and really the only thing keeping it together (on my end, I won’t pretend to speak for her) was the fact that I didn’t believe in divorce.

I saw divorce as giving up.

I saw it as breaking my commitment, and that commitment meant the world to me.

I saw divorce as a failure, and having a broken marriage made me feel like “I” had failed.

 

I believed (and still believe) that how you are when times are good tells you almost nothing about yourself or your relationship.  You don’t truly learn what you are made out of until you are challenged, until you struggle.

To me, how you respond to adversity and how you deal with those struggles shows who you truly are – both individually and as a couple.  I did not want give up, and I did not want to quit.  Not when the stakes were so high, and the future of my family depended on it.

 

So instead of giving up, I tried to look at things as an opportunity – an opportunity to identify whatever had gone wrong and make it better.  An opportunity to improve things, and have the life we believed we could have.

I put my heart and soul into trying to make things better, for everyone.  I learned as much as I could about relationships and what makes them succeed and fail.  I learned about people, about motivations.  And as I learned, I built this blog; as a way of trying to solidify ideas for myself plus share things that I wish I had known earlier (in the hopes that I could help, or at least give hope, to at least someone out there).

Nothing I did or learned helped my home situation, and ultimately the decision was made to end the marriage.

The early years were pretty good, and I will always be thankful that my children were born in what I look back on as a time of happiness.  When we ran into challenges however, we didn’t rise to the occasion.  Our marriage ran its course, and was no longer good for either of us.

Those four plus years were difficult, but I would like to think it was a period of significant growth for me personally.  Growth that will hopefully be beneficial to me as I move forward.

 

Looking back, one of the things I ask myself is why?

Why was I so against divorce?

Why did I see it as a failure, or giving up?

 

In retrospect, I realize I was looking at it wrong.

The question should never have been do I believe in divorce.  Rather, the question should have been what do I believe marriage should look like?

Saying I didn’t believe in divorce was operating from a position of fear, and that’s never a healthy place to be.

 

When I was able to re-frame the question for myself, I realized that I wasn’t actually afraid of divorce.

What I REALLY wanted was a strong marriage.

To me, a strong marriage was a marriage where two people were working together as partners.  Where they set goals together, and supported each other as individuals while also not losing sight of the importance of being a couple.  Where there was a focus on the relationship, and each person felt valued and heard by the other person.  And where a couple is comfortable discussing anything, and actively works to improve upon the things that either partner feels needs improvement.

I didn’t have that anymore.

And although I spent considerable time and effort trying to understand what had gone wrong and what we could potentially do to “make things better”, nothing changed, and I had no reason to believe it ever would.

 

I don’t want to get into who was right and who was wrong, because truly, that doesn’t matter.

Our ideas on what we wanted out of life and marriage no longer fit.

WE no longer fit.

As a result, the best thing either of could do was accept that we were not good together anymore, and let the other person go.

 

I married at 25.

I always thought of myself as someone who was fairly mature for my age, but looking back I was still just a kid.  I didn’t know very much about life, about people, or even about myself.

One of the dangers of getting married when you are young is, you are both still in the process of becoming the people you will one day be.  I guess this happens at every age, but it seems especially pronounced when you marry fairly young (as you are going through so many changes).

It’s a beautiful thing when two people are able to grow together, supporting each other as they build their life.

Increasingly though, I think that’s a very difficult thing to do.

And over time if a couple doesn’t put in the day to day work of prioritizing and nurturing the relationship, it’s very easy to one day wake up and realize that they aren’t really sure who the other person is anymore.

When that happens, a couple has a decision to make.  They either use this as an opportunity to re-learn each other and see if they still want a life together.  Or they accept that their journey together has ended, and it’s now time for each of them to continue their journey’s separately.

I think that decision should never be made out of fear of divorce, or of what life will look like when they are “alone”.  Rather it should be made based on that question of what they want out of life, and if they believe they can achieve that together.

If they can’t achieve that together, divorce is not a failure.  It’s simply an acknowledgement that the relationship they once shared has run its course.

 

Divorce should never be an easy decision, and it’s not something to do lightly.  It IS a serious commitment, and I think people *should* try to work things out if possible.

Sometimes they can’t though, and that’s alright.

 

So no, I still don’t believe in divorce.

But I DO believe in marriage where two people are building a life together.  Where they are invested in the relationship, and are able to wake up and choose each other, each and every day (or at least most of them, hah).

If you don’t have that, then divorce isn’t something to fear.  Sometimes, it’s actually an act of kindness, and the best chance at a healthy future.

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Owning our Part

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I’ve got a buddy who drives me a bit crazy.  He’s a great guy, he really is; and I love him to death.

Thing is, he also happens to be a bit of a slob.

Not a slob in terms of his appearance or anything.  But, well…

…he’s kind of lazy.

And where you see it the most is he almost never cleans up after himself.  I mean, the dude will eat his food and just walk away, leaving his plate behind.

Not taking it the 10 steps to the sink.  Not putting it in the dishwasher.

He just leaves it.

 

I don’t have to live with the guy, so I guess it really shouldn’t bother me.  But it still kinda does.

I like things to be fairly tidy; and seeing plates sitting around with leftover bits of food?  Well, that’s pretty gross.

It makes me think, what the hell man – how hard is it to put your stuff away?  Why do you leave your stuff out?  Why do you think it’s alright?

 

Let me ask you a question – do you like paying bills?  It doesn’t matter which type of bill.  It could be mortgage, utilities, credit card, or any bill really.

Unless you’re weird, the answer is probably no, you don’t like paying them (and if you DO, I have a bunch that you can pay if you want).  Nah, we pay our bills because we have to.  Paying the mortgage is preferable to having the house repossessed.  Paying the utilities is better than having them cut off.  If we want the thing the bill is for, we have to pay it.

But what if you didn’t?

What if you got that bill in the mail and you never had to pay it.  What if it just paid itself?

Would you cry?  Would you complain?  Would you cry out in indignation saying “hey, I WANTED to pay that electrical bill!”

No, probably not.

Rather, you would probably think it was pretty awesome.

Maybe the first time the bill “paid itself” you would wonder how/why it was paid.  If it was a mistake you may contact the electrical company and let them know, or you may just hope they wouldn’t notice.  And if someone paid it for you, you would probably be thankful.

Thing is, over time if they just continued to pay it and you never had to you would probably start to expect it.  And eventually you would take it for granted.

 

So, back to my buddy…

He doesn’t clean up after himself, and in all the years I’ve known him he’s never had to.  He doesn’t seem to even think about it, because he gets away with it.

It’s frustrating to me, but I think it’s also human nature.

No one wants to feel like a parent to their partner.  We don’t want to feel like we are nagging them.  We want our partners to do things because they are showing consideration to us and because they recognize it’s the right thing to do, not because they have to.  But at the same time, it’s human nature to do the least amount possible.

So looking at my buddy, yes he needs to own his behaviors.  Yes it’s his “fault”.

But it’s also the fault of the person who enables him to do it.

Bear with me a moment here…

 

When “bad things” happen to us or we are hurt by the people we care about, we often struggle to understand things like how could they do that to me?  How could they hurt me?  Don’t they care?

The focus is on what has happened to us.  And when we are hurt, it’s easy and even sensible to blame the person who hurt us.

The harder question is what did you do to contribute to the situation?

This isn’t a popular question, especially when people are hurting.  And in asking it in the past, I’ve even been accused of victim blaming.  I don’t see it that way though.

Trying to understand how you have contributed to something is not the same as taking blame for it.  People are responsible for their own choices and behaviors.

I am never *responsible* for someone else’s choices.  That’s on them.

So when someone has done something, whatever it is, it was their choice.

However that doesn’t mean I haven’t contributed to the situation in some way.

 

Let’s say your relationship is breaking down – does it really matter who’s fault it is?

I don’t think so.

It may be 50/50.  Or it could be 90% your partners fault and 10% yours.

Ultimately you have no control over what the other person has done.  The only thing you have control over is you.  Your actions, your response.

The only thing you can actually change is your part in things.

So be willing to recognize and own your own part.  Owning your part is very different from taking the blame for someone elses part.  That’s on them, and only they can own it.

Some people won’t own their own part.  Instead, they will blame others for their own actions and their own choices.  Saying things like “you made me do this”, or “I did this because you did that”.

 

When we blame others for the bad things in our life (and ignore our own part in things), what are we doing?

We are making ourselves victims.

And we are giving that other person control over us.

That doesn’t help us at all – blaming others keeps us trapped, or at least makes us feel trapped; when in reality we always have choices.

Even if our only choice sometimes is to walk away.

 

When do we learn?  When do we grow?

We grow when we struggle.  We grow when we fail.

We don’t grow when things are easy, and when our life is going down the happy path.

As I said, owning our part in things does NOT mean we are taking ownership of someone else’s choices.  It does not mean we are taking the blame for the things they have done.

It means we are accepting that our choices are our own, taking ownership of those choices, and realizing we have the power to make different choices in the future.

It means seeing how we may have contributed to the situations we are in, and looking for ways that we can change that moving forward.

 

Facing our own role in things is difficult.  It forces us to take a long hard look at ourselves, and sometimes what we see will make us uncomfortable.

This isn’t a bad thing though.  Rather, being uncomfortable with something about ourselves is often a sign that we’re on the right track.

And it’s a sign that we are ready to grow.

Be aware of your own bullshit

An Open Letter to Cheaters

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Based on everything I know, people who cheat REALLY don’t get what they have done.  Yeah, some say they do – they may cry and say they are sorry, but they DON’T GET IT.

They don’t get the damage they have done and the pain they have caused.  They don’t understand how their actions have fundamentally changed the world for the person they have cheated on.  They don’t understand the pain and loneliness, and how this one revelation can completely change everything.  Everything you believed about your partner is called into question.  Every memory becomes tainted.

You find yourself questioning – if they were capable of cheating on you, how well did you actually know them?  If they were able to lie and hide this, what else was a lie?  What is/was real?  Was anything real?

It’s kind of like the movie the Matrix, where Keanu Reeves was going about his daily life and he knew something was wrong, but couldn’t figure out what.   Then he eventually found out his life was a lie and he was really hooked up to a machine; and his whole world changed.

Finding out your partner has been cheating on you can be THAT level of a fundamental shift in your understanding of things.  You may have known that things weren’t as good as they could be (though sometimes people have no idea), then suddenly your world becomes broken and things don’t make sense anymore.

 

Cheaters don’t get this.  They can’t.

Because if they DID get it?

Then they wouldn’t have been able to cheat in the first place.

 

A Breakdown of Trust

Now, I won’t pretend the above is a blanket statement that applies to all cases.

I don’t believe all affairs are created equal.

An emotional affair with an anonymous person over the internet is different from a drunken one night stand.  And both of those are different from long term affairs where someone is leading a double life and hiding their activities from their partner.  There are a lot of different things that can happen, and different “severities” of affairs if you will.

Additionally, I believe that while the person who cheats is ALWAYS wrong, that doesn’t mean the person who was cheated on is necessarily in the right (to be clear, they are NEVER at fault for the cheating.  They’ve likely contributed to the decline in the relationship that contributes to the cheating, sure.  But cheating is always a choice made by the person who does it).

So affairs can be nuanced, and complex.

 

But they all have one thing in common – a complete and total destruction of trust.  And this is kind of a significant problem, because trust is the foundation relationships are built upon.

So when that is gone, there’s a good chance it will tear down everything else with it.

Your relationship may not have been perfect (obviously it wasn’t, or you wouldn’t have cheated), but chances are even if your partner knew there were issues, they had NO IDEA how bad you felt things were.  They probably thought you were fairly solid as a couple, and you should have been able to work though whatever problems existed.

If nothing else, they trusted you with their heart.

Relationships may be hard at times, but they REALLY don’t have many rules.  Love each other, and be willing to show it.  Try to communicate with each other.  And don’t be selfish – don’t put yourself first all the time, your partner needs to matter too.

If you’ve cheated on your partner, regardless of your reason you have to understand you have broken pretty much every relationships rule there is.

 

Why Did you Cheat?

There’s very little in this world that is black and white; but affairs are one of the few things that are almost universally accepted as wrong.

Something you need to understand is, why?

Why did you do it?  

What in your values allowed you to justify having an affair?

 

This is an extremely important question to be able to answer to yourself honestly.

 

I can understand people being unhappy in their relationship.  I can understand people falling out of love.  I can understand feeling stuck, and wanting some excitement in your life.

There may have been any number of reasons why you felt you would find yourself happier in another relationship.  And they may be completely valid and understandable.

But none of them will answer the most important question of all:

If you were that unhappy why didn’t you leave your existing relationship first? 

If you can’t look hard at yourself and truly answer that question of WHY (even if only to yourself), then you are likely at risk of doing the exact same thing again.  Not saying you will, but it will always be a risk if you don’t truly know why.

When caught, some people will show genuine remorse and make promises that it will never happen again.  And often I suspect they mean it – at least in the moment.  But then it happens again.  Or, if it doesn’t happen it’s mostly because someone is scared of the consequences of getting caught again, and not because they really saw what they did as wrong.

It’s crazy to me, but through this blog I have talked to a number of people who have cheated.  And one of the common things I have heard is they are sorry for hurting their partner but they aren’t sorry for the affair!!!  The regret is mostly for the damage done and the consequences they have suffered.  But they really don’t regret the cheating, or breaking their vows.

I believe serial cheaters tend to be people who have never taken a hard look at themselves and tried to understand how their values became so broken that they were able to do what they wanted and not care enough about their partner to think of how their actions could impact them.

 

When someone has cheated, I think one of two things has happened.

Scenario one, they are people who always put themselves first and think the regular rules of relationships shouldn’t have to apply to them.  In their minds, they are special and feel entitled to do whatever they want to achieve their own “happiness”.  They believe they deserve to be able to do what they want, when they want, and not have to worry about the consequences of their actions and how it impacts others.  Because of course, they are the ones who matter.

These people are true narcissists, people who don’t actually care about anyone but themselves.  So if the opportunity was there?  Sure, why not.  They either don’t really see what they are doing as wrong, or maybe they do and they simply don’t care.

 

Another scenario is someone was unhappy and feeling emotionally dead – often due to something like depression or unresolved grief.  Their emotionally dead state made them start to believe there was something wrong with their relationship, and to believe they have fallen out of love.  While in this emotional state someone started to give them the type of attention they felt they were missing – and they liked how it made them feel.  One thing leads to another, and before they realize what has happened they are in an affair.

These types of affairs often stem from a state of anhedonia, and become like an addiction the person can’t give up.  When someone talks about how their affair allows them to “feel alive again”, often the person who is cheating is dealing with underlying issues with depression or something similar.

These people do realize they are doing damage, and will go through periods of guilt and shame for their actions.  They may even start to hate themselves for what they are doing.  But like an alcoholic with a bottle, they find themselves unable to stop.

In both cases, the cheater likely has underlying issues that need to be faced, and resolved before that person will ever be able to have a healthy relationship.

 

What Now?

It’s always important to understand the “why”, but if you are someone who already HAS cheated and is trying to hold onto your relationship, what do you do?

 

First off, you have to TRULY want the relationship, and you need to be able to say WHY you still want your relationship.  You cheated, so you can’t have wanted it that badly at the time.  What is different?  Why do you want it now?

Your answer can’t be that you are scared of losing it, losing your family, or being alone.  Wanting something and being scared to lose it are two VERY different things.  And unless you TRULY want it, you are never going to be capable of putting in the work required to (potentially) save it.

Even if you do truly want it, you need to accept that there is a very good chance you are going to lose it.  That’s just the reality.  You’ve broken every rule of relationships, and actions have consequences.

Anyone trying to decide if they want to stay with you now will be struggling with the fact that commitment seems to mean something very different to you than it does to them.  The cheating has happened.  It can’t be changed now, but trust is destroyed and that will color the future if it’s not rebuilt.  And only you can rebuild it.

This isn’t the sort of thing you ignore.  It’s not the sort of thing that you say “sorry” and then move on as if it has never happened.

 

I’ve spoken with people who are trying to rebuild/hold onto their marriages after an affair, and the healing process is a slow and difficult one.  It will likely take years, and realistically if the relationship IS salvaged, it will never be the same.

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Understanding that, here are a few tips for anyone who is hoping to hold onto their marriage.

First, it HAS to be over.  There can’t be contact with that person ever again.  If you think you can either keep it going, or even just be friends with that person in the future then you are proving you REALLY don’t get what you have done (not to mention you are a sh*tty person).

Likewise, trust with you ever being alone in the future with members of your gender of preference is probably gone.  You have cheated, and it’s now up to YOU to make this better.

You need to sell your partner on why they should stay with you.  And you need to understand that you’ve already shown yourself to be dishonest, so this selling job will take a very long time.

It will take consistent effort, probably for the rest of your life.

 

You need to own your actions.  No blaming, no rationalizing, and no minimizing.

Don’t say you made a mistake.  You may be still telling yourself it was a mistake as a way of rationalizing it to yourself, but it wasn’t a mistake – it was a choice.  And even if someone is willing to buy into the idea that an affair can be a mistake, that only applies if you did it once.  When you continue it and see that person a second time, it becomes a pattern of choices.  And another word for a pattern of choices is behavior.

So no, it wasn’t a mistake.  Here’s what it really was – an opportunity.

You saw an opportunity to live outside the “rules” of your primary relationship.  To do what you wanted, even at the expense of your partner or any promises you may have made to them.  And you did it because you thought you could get away with it.

Sometimes when they are caught, cheaters will say things like “I never stopped loving you” or “I never meant to hurt you”.  For someone on the receiving end, it’s pretty incomprehensible to understand how cheating is an act of love, or to think that you could cheat without realizing you would hurt them.

You didn’t just hurt them, you destroyed their world.

And to hear you “never meant to” just proves what they have likely believed all along.  You didn’t mean to, because you were never even thinking about them.  You were never even considering them, their emotions, or the damage you would do.

You were only ever thinking about yourself.

 

Here’s something you need to understand – the cheating isn’t the actual problem here.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s a pretty big f*cking deal.  The REAL issue is the lying.  The deception.  The double life.  The time, energy and effort that was put into another relationship instead of being put into the primary relationship.

More than the cheating, it’s this deceit that will likely tear your relationship/marriage apart.

And there’s only one way past that.

You’ve been dishonest and broken trust, and it’s time for that to stop.

A common thing for cheaters to do is to downplay what they have done, figuring the less their partner knows the better.  Or perhaps figuring that although they are now caught, they will only own up to the things that they have actually been caught in.

You partner is going to want, and even NEED to know things that you probably don’t want to tell them.  And you know that the truth is going to hurt them, and likely push them even further away.

But the truth is the ONLY way out.

Because relationships are built on trust, and that trust is already broken.  So if you EVER want to repair it, you need to start with truth – no matter how difficult it is.

If they want to know the truth, you need to tell them.  All of it.

Yes, they may cry, they may scream, and they may leave.

Better to leave knowing the truth though, then to try to rebuild a relationship on a rotten foundation.

Because I can promise you one thing.

If they give you another chance and you continue to hide things and lie?  After they have tried to forgive and tried to rebuild, if they find out you were hiding things and not being honest?

Well, the trust that needs to be rebuilt will be shattered again.  And once you have broken it a few times, there won’t be any more chances, and there won’t be any going back.

 

Actions have consequences.  And if you’ve chosen to cheat, you will need to live with yours.

 

What is more important to you – Commitment or Personal Happiness?

I was talking to my brother in law earlier today, and we were talking about the fun filled topic of divorce.  I mentioned how sometimes it feels like the legal system penalizes people for doing the right thing, and he made a comment about how the right thing is actually subjective.

I asked him what he meant, and he said:

It comes down to your core values.

If your core values tell you commitment is more important than personal happiness, then you are more likely to stay and work on a relationship that is struggling.

If your core values tell you personal happiness is more important, then a struggling relationship means it’s time to move on.

Divorce can be a bad thing or a good thing, it just depends on your core values.

 

This really hit me.

For years now, I’ve been writing about relationships.  And from the beginning, one of my main premises has been that one of the fundamental struggles in relationships is finding a balance between “me” and “we”.

There has to be a balance between these.

 

Too much “we” and you risk losing sight of who you are.  And this is often a big issue, especially with parents.

I’ve talked to so many people who have kids and then put their own interests on the backburner.  Life becomes all about the family, and there is very little time/opportunity to be “you”.  As much as people love their children, when the kids get a bit older there is often a of sense of relief when people are able to start doing some things for themselves again.  Of course this is a prime time for divorce, because if there has been too much focus on the family and not enough on the couple, this is a time that a husband and wife will look at each other and realize they don’t really have anything in common anymore.  They have the kids, and that’s it.  Some are able to rediscover each other and “fall in love” all over again, while others just decide it’s better to move on separately.

 

On the other side of the equation you have couples who focus too much on “me”.  When they do this, they are often two people living completely separate lives, and their relationship is more like being roommates – living under the same roof and sharing bills.

 

I have always subscribed to the notion that although a balance between “me” and “we” is important, for a healthy relationship it is always better to have the pendulum swing slightly towards “we”.  To me, relationships are all about connection between two people.  That connection ideally will exist on many levels; physical, emotional, intellectual and even spiritual.  And I don’t really see how this connection can happen when your focus is on yourself first.

For me, my core values have always told me that “we” is more important that “me”. 

Don’t misunderstand this, I’m not suggesting that “I” am not important in a relationship, because I clearly am.  But the notion of sacrifice for the relationships has never really been a challenge for me.  It’s never been a struggle, because it simply fit with what I believed.

Due to this, when I would see people who were focused more on themselves and what they get out of thing, I have never been able to understand it.  It just seems selfish to me, and really, it is.

To me, selfish is wrong.  It’s the wrong way to be, and the wrong way to live life.

Here’s the thing though, one of my other beliefs about relationships is that often there are different approaches to doing the same thing, and one isn’t necessarily any better or worse than the other.  My way is just my way, and part of having a healthy relationship is learning to understand and accept your partner for who they are.  To accept their way as valid, even if it’s not my own.

 

This is where today’s conversation really hit me.  Maybe I’ve been a hypocrite here.  Maybe what I consider selfish isn’t really wrong.  Maybe it’s just different, and wrong for me.  Maybe it’s just a difference in core values.

 

If so, then maybe a lot of the struggles people have in relationships are actually simply a collision of core values.

I’ve always believed that conflict between couples is actually a positive thing, because it’s how you learn each other and are able to grow to understand and accept each other.

I still think that’s true, but when the conflict is due to a collision of core values?  Well, in that case a couple probably is in quite a bit of trouble.  Because while you can often accept differences between people, differences in core values are significantly more problematic.

 

Commitment and personal happiness are two concepts that should both be important in a relationship, but they are also concepts that can sometimes conflict.  So the question becomes, when it comes to core values which one is actually MORE important to you?

Because answering that question for yourself and then understanding how your partner would answer that question may have a lot to do with the nature of the conflicts you face.

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.

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.