Focusing on the Present

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I was recently talking to a friend about relationships.

Yeah, I know, I really need another topic.  Basketball season starts in a month though, so either the posts will start to drop off a bit or they will start to have more references to the NBA.  But I digress…

In any case, this friend made an interesting comment.  She said that sometimes “we are in relationships to get the result we want, instead of just enjoying the person in the relationship.

This really struck me.

 

Initially when I heard this I kind of went, yeah – so?  I mean, you obviously need to be enjoying the person in the relationship or you wouldn’t be there.  But at the same time, don’t you have to have a goal in mind?  Don’t you need to see yourself as working towards the goal you want?  And don’t you need to have a vision of what “success” looks like in order for you to know if you are there?

I’ve often heard that people who are successful (in various aspects of life) are ones who often have spent time imagining and visualizing situations.  They *know* what they want, and can picture it in their heads.  It’s clear to them, and because of this they are able to look at where they are at any point in time and make decisions based on whether or not they believe those decisions will get them closer to that goal.

 

This approach has always made sense to me.

I think a reasonably clear vision of what you are striving towards combined with a “belief” that you can achieve that vision is key to almost anything in life.  I’ve writen about belief in the past, and just a few weeks ago wrote the following (for part of my site synopsis):

I believe in the power of positive thinking.  I’m not suggesting anyone can just “wish” something to happen, because life doesn’t work that way.  But positive thinking IS important, because you need to believe in something in order to put in effort.  Believing in something may not mean you will succeed, but it will give you the best chance.  A negative mindset makes you unable to facilitate positive change in your life, because when you don’t believe you can change, you have already failed.

 

Looking at those words, they still feel right to me.  And I do think they fit, even in the case of relationships.  However, maybe there is a degree of caution required here.

Let’s take this back to basketball for a moment (because really, EVERYTHING goes back to basketball).

I would love to play in the NBA.

Yeah, I suppose there may be a limited market for 6’2” inside players in their 40’s who have lost much of their athleticism.  Still, it *could* happen.  The upcoming mens league season could start, and it’s possible that I would see NBA scouts in the bleachers who are there to see me.

No?

Fine.  Crush my dreams then.

Success in basketball is relatively easy to measure.  You have two opposing teams, and at the end of a game the team with the most points has won.  Over the course of a season you have a win/loss record that shows how you have done during the year, and at the end of the season one team walks away with the title.

However that’s only one way to measure success.

There’s also another way to measure success, and it has nothing to do with the numbers, wins or losses.

How well do you play together?  How well do the people on the team get along?  How well do you handle losing together (because you aren’t going to win all the time)?  Are these people you are happy hanging out with after the game?

That’s a very different measure of success, and I would argue it’s the more important one.

 

Obviously relationships are different from basketball.  But if I go back to that opening line “we are in relationships to get the result we want, instead of just enjoying the person in the relationship” I think maybe a lot of the same concepts apply.

Yes, it’s still important to have goals.  It’s still important to have a vision of what you ultimately want, and what success looks like to you.  But ultimately the most important thing is probably how well do you get along?  How much do you enjoy being around each other, spending time together and sharing experiences?  Do you think about that other person, and look forward to seeing them?

The longer term vision is still important to understand, because you get into trouble if one person ultimately looking for marriage and the other person isn’t.  However once that’s been discussed, maybe it’s best to leave that in the future and just try to enjoy the present.  In fact, if you don’t it’s entirely possible that thinking too much about the future can damage the present.

Which would be a shame.  Because although we all presumably want a future, the present is all we really have.

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When does Dating become a Relationship?

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I was out with a buddy recently and we got onto the topic of dating.

I’ve been thinking and writing about relationships for a number of years now, but my thoughts have always come from the perspective of someone who was in a long term relationship.  A struggling one perhaps, but still – as our discussion went on it became clear that they are actually two very different things.

To borrow a line from Game of Thrones; when it comes to the world of dating I often feel like there’s a fur clad wildling woman looking at me saying “you know nothing Drew, you know nothing”.  Not that my buddy Gandalf is a fur clad wildling woman, but hopefully you get the idea.

 

I’ll be the first to admit, I can be naive.  I’m not sure if I necessarily look at the world through rose colored glasses, but I tend to look for the best in people and I can be too trusting.  I have long underestimated how much ego can come into play (in a bad way) when people make decisions, or maybe it’s more accurate to say when people simply act without making decisions; and how people can be willing to hurt others in order to get what they want.

That said, from talking about dating with different people who have “been there” a lot more than I have, I think that although dating is different, some of the ideas and issues I have around relationships still apply.

 

While Gandalf and I were talking, the question was raised – when does dating become a relationship?

I don’t think there’s an easy answer here, and I don’t think it’s an either/or scenario.  It’s not like you are dating someone, and then after a magic number of dates or hours spent together you are now in a relationship (and no longer dating).  Rather, dating is a “form” of a relationship.  And if and when the relationships starts to become more serious, you think of it less as someone you are dating and more as someone you are in a committed relationship with.

So let’s rephrase the question as, when does dating go from a casual relationship to a more serious one?

I still think this is something that just kind of happens, and often it will happen for one person before it happens for the other.  But it’s not really a relationship until both people buy in to the idea.

It also depends on a few things.

A few years ago I wrote a post called “why and how matters more than who”.  In that post I raised the following question:

I am a huge believer in intention, and the question of why you are with your partner is perhaps the most important one you can ever ask yourself.

It’s been almost two years since I wrote that, and it was written from the perspective of someone who is in a long term relationship asking “why” they are there.  But I think that question (and much of that post actually) is very relevant to dating.

 

Why is someone dating?  What are they actually looking for?

Dating is inherently a selfish act.  It’s all about you; your needs, your wants, and what you get out of it.  That’s not a bad thing though, because really – in the early days it has to be about you.  People are looking for certain things in life; and when looking for someone to share parts of their life with they have to be approaching it in a way that works for them.

I commonly talk about how one of the struggles in relationships is finding the balance between “me” and “we”.  Dating (at least initially) is almost purely about “me”, and I’ve always thought the transition from dating to relationship starts to happen when the nature of the relationship starts to include “we”.

And I guess this is an area where I realize I had no clue (you know nothing Drew, you know nothing).  Because I always thought that a shot at “we” was part of the goal for everyone.  I thought that’s what people were looking for.  The chance to find that “someone”, who would be their someone.  To find a person to share with, to build a love with that could last forever.

I thought that was what love was actually about.

 

Thing is, that’s not always the case.

Not everyone sees dating as something that could potentially develop into a relationship.  People approach dating for different reasons.

For some (especially coming out of a long term relationship) dating IS the goal.  They just want to meet different people, and feel attractive again.  Maybe they’re looking for someone to just do different things with.  Maybe they’re just looking for sex/hook ups.  Maybe they’re using dating as a way to forget – to try and get over someone.

But they aren’t interested in a “we”, they don’t want something where there’s any sort of commitment or “feelings” involved.

Someone’s reasons for dating will impact how they approach it, so WHY someone is dating (or in a relationship) is pretty damned important. 

And ideally these reasons are known to the other person – because there can be a lot of potential for hurt feelings when people are on different pages.  If one person is hoping to find the love of their life while the other person is just looking for sex, someone will likely end up being hurt.

But often people aren’t up front about what they are looking for.  And to be fair, maybe they don’t even know.  I do think it’s important to understand (for yourself at least) what you are looking for.  You may not fully understand what you want, but if you have no idea of what you are looking for how will you even know when you find it?

 

Back to the question about when dating becomes a relationship (casual to more serious), I guess this begs the question of what exactly a relationship is.  And really, that will mean different things to different people.

As I said above, I see the transition from dating to relationship happening when the nature of the relationship starts to include “we”.  When you starting thinking of the other person as part of an “us” – even if it’s just a potential “us”.

When two people are dating each other exclusively, I think you already have the early stage of a relationship.  That doesn’t mean you are committed, and it doesn’t mean it will ever develop into anything more.  It DOES however mean you are willing to give it a chance and see where it goes.

Commitment isn’t all or nothing, it’s fairly fluid and can strengthen (or fade) over time.  Hell, you don’t need to look any further than any broken relationship or marriage to know that commitment is not binding.  Saying you are in a relationship with someone doesn’t mean you are going to marry them.  It just means that you are interested in THEM, and want to learn more.  It means you don’t care who else may be out there, because right now – they are enough.

 

The question about when dating has gone from a casual thing to something more takes on additional importance when you are older, especially when you have come out of a long term relationship or marriage.

A friend of mine made the observation many people make the following mistake:

They miss the relationship they had, and so they try to recreate elements of the marriage/relationships they had.  The level of closeness, knowledge and familiarity.  So they rush things.

I had never thought about that, but I think it’s true.  We don’t realize how long it took to build that knowledge and familiarity.  It took being with that other person and sharing their life and experiences over an extended period of time.  You can’t recreate that overnight.  You can’t rush it, and you shouldn’t try to.

Along this lines, a buddy of mine told me that when he started dating he was looking for a future wife, and he had to get out of that mindset, because you never know where dating is going to go so you need to just take it one day at a time.

I largely agree with that, because you can’t force anything.  You can’t make something into something it’s not – it needs to grow naturally, and organically.

At the same time it goes back to the initial question of intention; of “why”?  Are you dating for fun?  Or because you are ultimately looking for something long term?  Only you can know that answer.  And that answer should impact how you approach dating.

 

As my buddy found, when dating someone you can’t approach them as a future wife/husband.  That’s not fair to anyone, especially when you don’t even know them yet.  However, if you know you are one day looking for a long term partner, then seeing them as a potential long term partner isn’t a bad thing.  When you know what you want, it becomes easier to decide if the person you are with matches what you are looking for.  That doesn’t mean they necessarily are what you are looking for (or you are what they are looking for); but as you continue to learn them you can continue to discover that.

“Why” matters.

 

For me, the question becomes “do I like this person”?  Is this a person I want to continue to see, learn, and share time and experiences with?  Do I look forward to seeing them? And do they in turn look forward to seeing me?

As long as the answer is yes, then it doesn’t really matter what you call it.

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Building The Foundations

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A number of years ago I built a house.  Alright, fine – I paid someone to build it for me, but you get what I mean.  I didn’t know much about construction at the time, but I learned a lot and I remember the process well.

First the foundation was poured, and in some ways this initial step was the most important part – because the foundation is needed to support everything that comes after.  The foundation bears the weight of the whole house, so it needs to be strong and it needs to be stable.

After the foundation the frame went up, and once that frame was in place you could really get a sense of what the house was going to look like, but you didn’t know all the details.

This frame was sealed, and it acted as a support for the functional parts; the electrical, the plumbing, the venting.   After that other things went in; the insulation, walls, paint, fixtures and all the finishing touches.

The process of building the house took some time, around 6 months; and then I got possession of it.

I was now the proud owner of a new house, and when I first moved in it was pretty awe inspiring.

Getting possession of the house wasn’t the end though, and in some ways it was just the beginning.

 

Houses require maintenance.  Little things, like vacuuming, cleaning and changing furnace filters.  I’ve heard you are supposed to dust sometimes too, though that’s one that I have a tendency to neglect forget.

And beyond the regular day to day maintenance, there are other things that need to be done.  Over time things break down and need to be fixed or replaced.  Walls get damaged and periodically need to be patched and painted.

And sometimes, you just want some changes.  So maybe you do some renovations, which can be anything from repainting to tearing down walls and restricting rooms.

Really, there are always things you CAN do; it’s just a matter of how much time and energy you want to spend.

 

In many ways, I think you can compare the construction and maintenance of a house to building a relationship.

In the early days, you are laying your foundation.  And that foundation will support everything that comes after.

So what is the foundation of a relationship?

To me, at the foundation of a relationship you need to have trust, and shared core values.  Core values may not match 100%, but you need to have an understanding and acceptance of each other’s core values.

In order to understand each other’s core values, you also need to have vulnerability and open communication.  So communication is probably also a foundational element in a relationship.  Unfortunately communication happens to be one of the biggest problems in relationships.  Communication is hard, and it doesn’t just happen – we don’t learn healthy communication naturally.

Instead, it’s common to believe that our way is the “right way”, become critical of anyone who doesn’t agree with us, and take criticism as a negative thing instead of as a way to improve.  But communication is a skill, and for those who are willing to put ego aside and be self-aware, it is something that can always improve over time.

 

If trust, core values and communication are the foundations of a relationship; then I think connection is the framework that everything else hangs off of.

I see connection as existing on 4 different levels:

  • Physical
  • Emotional
  • Intellectual
  • Spiritual

Not all couples are able to connect on all of these levels, and for those that they do connect on, some types of connection may be stronger than others.  For example, some relationships may have a strong physical connection, but nothing else.  That may seem fun for a little while, but personally I think a relationship needs connection on multiple levels in order to succeed.

Also, connection isn’t a fixed thing, and the strength of it will change over time.  Sometimes you will feel very connected to your partner, and other times you won’t.  That’s fine, and is normal.

To me, connection is what love is all about.  Like communication though, it doesn’t just happen.  Connection requires you to be vulnerable, and be willing to let the other person in.  It requires to you be willing to share yourself with someone, and to in turn listen to and truly be interested in them.

When people talk about falling out of love, or loving someone but no longer being “in love” with them, I think they are actually talking about the loss of connection.

And what I think people often overlook is, connection requires consistent effort over time.  It requires you to make them a priority in your life, always.

 

Going back to my house analogy, you can have a great foundation and you can have a great framework.  Your house can initially be beautiful when you move into it, but that’s not enough.

Over time things will wear down and get damaged.  Sometimes it’s the regular wear and tear that comes with the passage of time; and other times it’s an accident or an incident.  Things happen, and nothing stays new forever.

Just as you need to maintain your house you need to maintain your relationship.  You need to put in effort to keep it strong, and keep it thriving.  We are always evolving, so you need to be able to accept that change will happen over time, and try to change together when you can, and accept each other for who we continue to evolve to be.

Connection and love will fade and die over time if you neglect it.  It’s important to understand that your feelings towards your partner are not their responsibility.  Yes, it’s important that they put effort in, and they try to treat you well.  And when they do, it makes it easier to love them and feel connected to them.

But feelings of love for your partner are YOUR responsibility.  It’s up to you to try to see them for who they are, instead of who they aren’t.  It’s up to you to look at the good in them, instead of focusing on their flaws.  And it’s up to you to wake up and choose them, each and every day.

 

Healthy, strong relationships require a strong foundation; and should be built on trust, shared values and communication.  Just building the relationship isn’t enough though, you need to continue to make your partner a priority, and continue to put in effort each and every day.

Relationships aren’t always easy.  They have good days, and bad days; and sometimes those bad days can last for an extended period of time.

It’s easy to get along when things are going well, but during the hard times cracks will show.  When that happens, a strong foundation can help ensure you make it through.

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When the Light Goes Out

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A while back I was at a buddy’s birthday party.  It was for a guy I’ve known for a long time, but our friendship is more casual than it is close.  We share some interests, and we talk those things; but I don’t really know him on a deeper level.

Often friendships and relationships are like this.  We have a small window into that other person; maybe through work, through seeing each other in our neighborhoods, or through some sort of social setting.

We probably know bits and pieces of their personal life.  Maybe they have a picture of their family on their desk, or they talk about their weekend and mention their wife, their husband, their parents, their kids.  And over time these things help us build a picture of who we believe them to be.

If we connect with them through social media, we probably get a bit more of a view into their lives.  We see pictures of vacations and special events.  At some level we realize that they choose which pictures of their lives they want to show to the world, and that the window we see through social media is not an accurate picture of their lives (rather it’s a sanitized version, showing the “good times”).  Even still, this window allows them to become more “real”, and not just someone we see at work, or while out for a walk in the neighborhood.

Sometimes in a social setting I will take moments to sit back and observe, and to watch people’s interactions and their body language.

At that party I watched my buddy and his wife for a bit, and honestly, what I saw was beautiful.

This is a couple that has been together for around 20 years, and has teenage children together.  Yet when I watched them, there was a tenderness in their interactions – little touches and signs of affection when they were together.  Smiles, and shared looks when they were apart and would see each other across the room.  When they would make eye contact you could see a light in both of their eyes, a light that was meant only for each other.

I don’t know much about their relationship.  I’m sure they have their struggles and their bad days.  I’m sure they argue and fight just like anyone else.  But based on watching their interactions I have no doubt that after 20 years they are still very much in love.

 

 

To me, that’s what relationships are all about.  It’s about that energy between two people, and that light they get in their eyes when they see each other or even just think or talk about each other.

That connection is what relationships are all about, and are what LOVE is all about.

It may not always be the passionate desire of new relationships, but there always has to be desire in the sense that you still WANT to see the other person and to spend time with them.

 

Relationships can be hard.

They start about the couple, about learning each other and sharing and building something together.  Something where the two of you are more, or better together than you are apart.

Over time though, relationships often break down into resentment and apathy.  When that happens, and the connection has broken down a couple often feels more alone together than they do when they are apart.  And often a part of them knows what they have lost, and mourns for that, but they don’t know how to find it again.

 

When you look at your partner and there is no light in your eyes, or there is light in your eyes but all you see are dead eyes in return, then what do you have left?

History?

Shared material things?

A family?

I’ll admit family is a tough one.  But I have never believed in staying together for the sake of the children.  I think that does more harm than good to everyone, including the children.  If you want to use the children as a reason to actively rebuild, great.  But if you (or your partner) don’t TRULY want the relationship anymore?

Then there’s no point.

There’s nothing left to hold onto.

 

When there is no light left in your eyes, it’s time to let go.

Because once you are at that point, it’s almost impossible to turn things around.

 

The trick is to not get there, and for that to happen you need to understand that long term love doesn’t happen by chance.  It’s a choice, that we can nurture.  It’s built into your interactions each and every day.  The looks, the touches, the signs of affection.  It comes from wanting to be there, and waking up and actively CHOOSING your partner, each and every day.  From celebrating them for their strengths and appreciating what they ARE, instead of focusing on what they are not.

Life will always get busy.  There will always be times that it’s hard.  But you need to always prioritize each other as must as you can.  And be there to support each other, and promote growth both individually and as a couple.

I think you can ensure connection never fades with three simple (though not always easy) steps:

  1. Actively love each other – each and every day.  No one should ever have to question if their partner loves them.  They should see it, and feel it through the little things.  Looks, touches, and signs of affection.  I don’t care if you are newly dating or married for 50 years, these should never go away.
  2. Don’t be selfish.  It’s easy to get caught up in ourselves and all the things going on in our world; and there are times when we will need to put ourselves first.  That’s alright.  But it shouldn’t be a pattern, and it shouldn’t happen over an extended period.  Relationships are a balance between “we” and “me”.  And if the focus is usually me, then maybe you shouldn’t be there.
  3. Communicate.  This is probably the hardest part.  As humans we are always always interpreting things through the filters of our own experiences, so misunderstanding is always a risk.  So communication is the most important skill you can ever learn.  When you are with your partner, if there are things that are difficult to talk about or you don’t want to talk about; then those are probably the things you NEED to talk about the most.  Don’t keep things in.  Be willing to grow, and learn each other, each and every day.

 

In relationships, connection is the most important thing there is.  But it doesn’t just happen.

Working on it, and growing it (or at least maintaining it) is the key to keeping your relationship alive.  You need to look forward to seeing each other, in both the exciting times and the quiet moments.  You need to WANT to be there, to see each other and support each other even when times are hard.

You need to keep that light in your eyes alive, by actively choosing each other each and every day.

Because when that light goes out, then you really have nothing left.

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What do you bring IN to your Relationship?

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

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

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

 

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

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

Here’s a potentially uncomfortable question for you:

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

You.

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

Yourself obviously, but what does that actually mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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Relationship Limbo

Cracked clay landscape in the Atacama desert.

One of the main premises of my blog is, although each relationship is unique there are often common problems and issues affecting many of us.

So by looking at those “common problems”, in theory there will be many people out there who will be able to relate to what I’m trying to say.  Some of what I write is from experience while some is from things I have read or even just from personal observation.  But in my writing I try to look at things in terms of ideas, or beliefs.  I try not to write about me or my experiences directly.

 

In that regard, today’s post is a bit different.

Like many, my marriage was challenged; and that became the flashpoint event that caused me to turn to writing.

When I found out my wife was unhappy in our marriage; I wanted to understand, and to make things better.  I knew there was a lot of good, and I believed that if we could go back and find that good our life could be great again and we could have the “forever” we once promised each other.

So I fought for us.

I tried to grow to be a better person, and in that regard I would like to think I’ve succeeded.  But even though I grew personally, I still failed and our marriage failed.

Today I hope to share lessons I learned, painfully.

Every situation is different and what is right for me isn’t necessarily what is right for others, so everyone needs to judge for themselves what is right in their own situation.

But for me, these are “truths” I wish I had learned earlier.

 

My story

A number of years ago my wife told me she was no longer happy in our marriage.  She didn’t feel she loved me anymore, questioned if she ever “truly” loved me, and wasn’t sure if she wanted to be married anymore.  I’ll guess she felt that way for a while, but it was over 4 years ago when she finally told me those things.

“Why” doesn’t really matter, and honestly I don’t actually know if she or I will ever really understand it.

I was caught off guard, as I hadn’t seen it coming.  To me, marriage was forever.  We had been together a long time and had a young family; so I didn’t want her to do anything rash.

I wanted to understand what was wrong, thinking if we could identify the problems we could improve them.  After all, isn’t that what you do?  Try to be there for each other and try to be better?

She told me she didn’t want “us” anymore, and further she didn’t even want to try because “what was the point”.  She had never communicated this to me before, but apparently for her she had been feeling this way for a while.

I was able to convince her to stay, but it was only ever in body.

She never seemed to buy in to the notion we could still be happy, and she never seemed to *want it* the way I did.

It felt like a self-fulfilling prophecy.  She wasn’t sure she wanted to be married anymore, so her effort was sporadic, and never sustained.  And not putting in consistent effort undermined our ability to ever improve.

She wasn’t sure if she wanted to be married anymore, and after that day we really never were.

I continued to love her, but she didn’t seem to love me back.  Instead, we were in this limbo state where we were a bit more than roommates who co-parent, but not really a couple.  Any passion she once had for me or for us had long been gone.

In that situation, it was a struggle to remain positive and stay strong, holding on to hope things would get better.  But I tried.

Occasionally things would improve for a day or two; sometimes even weeks at a time.  During these moments I would feel connected again, and get a glimpse of what our life once was and what I felt it could be again.

But these moments were always fleeting, then her body language would change and the walls would come back up.  Emotional walls, where I could feel her holding back.  She either didn’t love me, was unable to express it, or didn’t believe she should have to.  But in the end it amounted to the same – my perception had been one of a number of years in a relationship where my love was not returned.

 

John Gottman (Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work) said a successful marriage needs 5 positive interactions for every negative interaction.  I disagree.  Tension and negative interactions may be bad; but apathy is worse. Living in limbo, without expressions of love and affection was a slow death, and in some ways I think a major issue or incident would have been better.

 

Limbo

Limbo is defined as:

“an uncertain period of awaiting a decision or resolution; an intermediate state or condition”.

And that’s what my life had become.

A life where I was married, but not.  I was with someone who wouldn’t commit to me, but was also unable to let me go.

In those early months and years, I thought I was doing the right thing.  I stayed with her, and accepted the lack of reciprocation of my love.

I told myself she just needed time.  I knew what we had, and I knew how great our life could be.  So all I had to do was stay positive and I would be able to get her to come back to me.  I could be the light that would bring her out of whatever dark place she was in.

So I waited.

I had visions of those romantic stories where people are separated by circumstance, and eventually they are reunited in their love.

I told myself that would be us.

One day she would see me again with fresh eyes, and she would love me again.  I even imagined us one day renewing our vows together.

I was an idiot.

 

What I failed to see was, this was different.  We weren’t separated by circumstance, this was choice.  This was someone who knew me, and knew everything about me.  She had every opportunity to be there and to choose me.  But she wouldn’t, or couldn’t.

She was a priority to me, but for her I wasn’t a priority anymore.  For whatever reason, I was just an option.  She wanted time to “figure stuff out”, to figure out what she wanted out of life.

And while she figured stuff out I was supposed to sit there and wait; and be there IF and when she decided she wanted us again, no matter how long that took.

option

 

In staying with her I thought I was doing “the right thing” for us and our family.  I thought I was respecting my vows, and being there for her in good times and in bad.  After all, marriage was supposed to be for life.

But the reality is, I wasn’t doing the right thing.

I wasn’t respecting myself.

By allowing us to stay in this limbo state where I wanted things but she didn’t, I was enabling this.  I was saying “this is alright, it’s okay for you to feel this way.  It’s okay for you to treat me this way”.

It wasn’t.

 

I needed her to make a decision.

I needed her to recommit to us.  To work on improving whatever was wrong, and to choose me, each and every day.

And if she couldn’t, I needed her to let me go.

 

limbo2

 

Establishing Boundaries

What does a relationship mean to you?  What do you need from your partner?  What behaviors from them are acceptable, and what aren’t?

I don’t think most of us know that.  I don’t think we understand what those things mean to us.

I know I didn’t.

I believed I loved someone, and she loved me, and that should be enough.  With that, everything else would just fall into place.

But I was wrong.

 

Living in limbo was difficult, but the one positive is it allowed me to try and understand those things.  I didn’t just mope at how sad my home life had become.  I took the time to understand who I really am, and what I need out of life and love.

There are things we want, and there are things we need.  Learning what these are is part of understanding ourselves, and establishing our own boundaries.  And once we’ve established them, we need to enforce them.

But nothing is either/or.  Everything exists on a spectrum.

Love, affection, kindness.

All of these things exist on a sliding scale.  Some days you will have more, other days less.

You can always have more, but at what point do you have enough?

 

My broken marriage was an awful experience, but it allowed me to learned what enough looks like for me.  I’ve learned what things I need, and what things I can’t and won’t do without ever again.

 

Finite Resources

In the investment world, people talk about how property is one of the safest investments you can make because there’s a finite amount of it.

And that’s true.

 

But there’s another thing there’s a finite amount of.

Time.

We have a finite amount of time on this earth, and each day should be precious.  Things aren’t always easy, they aren’t always fun, and that’s alright.  Getting through the hard times with someone you love is part of what makes a couple stronger.

But you have to believe in what you are doing.  You have to WANT it – even when it’s hard.  And if you DON’T want it?  That’s when you fail.

 

When things start to fall apart, it doesn’t mean you need to bail right away (if people did, I doubt ANY marriage would last).  When you have history together, it’s always good to give things a bit of time to turn around.

So the question becomes, when things aren’t working how long do you hold on?

I think that’s a question there’s no right answer for.  Initially I told myself I was going to give things 6 months.  That became a year, and then two.  Eventually we hit four years in this limbo state, where we were more roommates that co-parented then we were a couple.

And other than a handful of little moments, there was no real sign we would ever be able to find middle ground which would allow us to both be happy.

If we were actively working on things together, that time would have been an investment in a better future.  That’s not what happened though.  She just wanted more and more time to “figure things out”.  Her way.  At her pace.

Me, and my needs ceased to matter.  And I never got the sense that she actually wanted US.  She would “say” she wanted us, but her actions never reflected her words.

And as time passed, nothing changed.

 

Maybe it would have come had I waited another year.  Another 6 months?  Another week?  Who knows.

That’s the thing, you never know.  You can only ask yourself if you’ve done “enough”.  To that I can definitely look my children in the eye and tell them yes.  Their daddy did everything he could to keep his family together and hold on to his dream of forever.

But my best wasn’t enough.

I’ve learned you can’t make someone else love you.  And you can’t make someone else want something they no longer want.

But you CAN make it clear that certain things aren’t acceptable, and that you matter too.  You CAN stand up for yourself, and what you need out of life.

 

To the woman who was once my wife, and anyone out there in the same situation I say:

No one is entitled to a relationship.  If someone isn’t sure about what they want, they need to make a choice.

Commit, or get out.  Don’t hold people lives hostage because of your own uncertainty.

Because time wasted is time you will never get back.

 

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What is Marriage?

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

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

Wha?

Wait a second, what am I saying here?

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

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

Well, yes and no.

Let me explain…

 

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

Instead, marriage is a symbol.

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

If they can’t?

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

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

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

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

Lets take this idea one step further….

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

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

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

Why stay?

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

 

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

Because to me, that’s not what it is.

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

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

But when people ARE living it?

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

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