What Does it Mean When “The Love is Gone”?

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Love.

Love is a powerful emotion/feeling, and it can drive us to do incredible (and at times terrible) things.

When people think of “love”, the first thing they think of is usually passion or romance.  Well, sex too – but that’s usually a byproduct of passion.  Either way, it’s often perceived as an intense emotional response.  Butterflies in the stomach, and an overwhelming desire to be with that other person.

Science has shown this “romance” stage of love is just that, a stage.  It has a neurochemical basis, and usually only lasts for more than six months to two years.

When we are younger we often mistake the loss of intense feeling for the loss of love, and use that as an excuse/reason to jump to another “new” relationship where everything is exciting and fresh again.  But eventually most people realize even after the intense feeling has dissipated, strong feelings can remain.  And these new feelings can be even stronger in some ways, because they are a choice and not just a hormonal response.

When we realize this, and still CHOOSE love?  Well, that’s when we have a love that can potentially last.

The thing is, even when we are choosing love and have accepted the feelings aren’t as intense, we still expect there to be feelings.

Love is still love, right?  So shouldn’t we feel something?

We can continue to choose love, but what do we do if the feeling is gone – and there is no sign that it will ever return?

Looking at this another way, if there is only choice but no feeling, do we still have love?

What do we do when we are not in love?

 

What if a Loss of Love is Not About Love?

Personally, I don’t understand “not in love”.  To me love has always been both an emotion and a choice, and this combination allows me to actively love.  To try to show love through my actions, maybe not everyday, but as often as I can.  By showing love, and practicing love I know I won’t allow love to die.

It’s not always that simple though.

In a fantastic article on depression in relationships, John Folk-Williams talks about the impacts depression can have on the ability to “feel” love.  He writes about psychiatrist Peter Kramer, who believes loss of feeling is often a sign of deeper issues:

Kramer often works with clients who are dissatisfied with their relationships. They want to know if leaving is the best thing to do.

When he encounters someone who is convinced that the marriage is dead, he says that he always suspects depression or another mood disorder.

 

Mental Illness and Relationships

Here are two statistics for you:

  • 50% of marriages fail.
  • 25% of people will directly suffer from a mental illness.

 

At first glance these two statistics appear unrelated.  But I wonder, what would the numbers be if you could look at the marriage statistics for people with a mental illness vs. those without?

I’m not sure, but I suspect the failure rates of marriage for those with a mental illness are considerably higher than the norm; simply because they introduce additional pressures and stresses on the relationship.

Mental illness already has a lot of stigma associated with it, and this is by no means an attempt to pile anything further on it.  Rather, this is an attempt to help share some understanding for people who may be having doubts and challenges in their relationships that maybe, just maybe its not the relationship that’s at fault here.

I realize saying “don’t worry, maybe it’s not your relationship – maybe you’re actually dealing with a mental illness” isn’t exactly going to make anyone feel better.  But it is a possibility; and for those who ARE dealing with a mental illness it may be beneficial to understand that your condition may affect your ability to feel love in ways you may not have considered.

 

Impacts of Anxiety and Depression on Love

The two most common mental illnesses are Depression and Anxiety disorders; and I’ve written in the past about how anxiety disorders can damage feelings of love (for a different account on anxiety’s impacts on love check the article Daniel Smith wrote for CNN, titled Can anxiety kill your ability to love?).

The Folk-Williams article above talks about a symptom of depression called Anhedonia (although anhedonia is thought of primarily as a symptom of depression it is also found in anxiety).

A common misconception about depression is that it’s characterized be people feeling down, sad, or hopeless (for extended periods of time).  This definitely happens, but anhedonia is another characteristic of depression where sufferers often lose interest in things that they used to enjoy – activities, hobbies, spending time with friends, and even sex.

Anhedonia is a state of emotional deadness, where instead of feeling down or sad someone feels nothing.  Anhedonia can cause someone to feel as though the love is dead, or they have fallen out of love.

To those who have never experienced it this seems bizarre, but If you do a simple web search for “anhedonia and love” it’s a bit frightening to see how common this seems to be.

 

An Account of Anhedonia

Folk-Williams describes his own experiences with Anhedonia, and how it can destroy relationships as follows:

there is another dimension of depression that can lead to the idea of escape as the answer.

It’s the one that causes depressed partners to say they’re no longer in love and have never loved their partners. It’s called anhedonia, the inability to feel pleasure or interest in anything.

For me, it was a kind of deadness. Rather than an excess of painful emotion, it was the lack of pain, the lack of feeling, that was the undercurrent of all the surface turmoil. I felt no satisfaction in life.

I believed that the relationship was holding me back, that it had become hollow, empty of the intensity I longed for. I was sure that I could only find happiness and passion with someone else. It was the fantasy of the perfectly passionate mate that was a constant lure.

And later he writes:

Anhedonia is the cause of the desire to leave to find a new, more intense life. The depressed partner’s relationship feels loveless because he can hardly feel at all.

The problem is that the unaware depressive has such a high threshold of feeling that it takes extreme arousal to evoke excitement and passion. He can erupt with anger and rage because these are more violent emotions that stir him as little else does.

Kramer says that these clients often believe that they’re perfectly capable of feeling. After all, they can go out and have fun with friends. They can feel passionate with others who likely have no constraining relationships or might be seeking the same kind of escape.

But they feel good precisely because these experiences offer exceptionally high levels of stimulation. They may also turn to addictive habits like recreational drugs, drinking, gambling or pornography for the same reason.

Fantasies of escaping into a life full of new intensity seem like the perfect answer to their inner emptiness.

 

The Loss of Feeling

When someone needs intensely high levels of stimulation just to feel, it’s somewhat understandable that people will be willing to engage in risky and destructive behaviors.

One of the things Folk-Williams alludes to (but doesn’t address directly) is that this lack of feeling makes actual intimacy almost impossible.  So the type of attachment characteristic of close relationships breaks down, and sufferers often can find no arousal or attachment in their partners.  Everything becomes detached and clinical.  They know they “should” feel something, and they know they once did.  But they don’t, and they can’t change that.

However they can still feel the intense emotions of “new love”, so things like affairs are increasingly likely just as a way to feel.  As is sex in casual relationships or one night stands.  Those things can be felt physically, even though there is still usually little or no emotional connection.  As noted above, people may turn to substance abuse as a way of “coping” with this lack of feeling inside.

When anhedonia isn’t understood, it becomes easy to blame external things.  A sufferer is unhappy because of their job, or their weight, or their relationship.

Happiness and hope is replaced by the lure of fantasy.  A belief that things will be better IF they can only find the right thing.  If they can get the right job, get the right body, or find the right partner.

Spoiler alert here – it doesn’t work.  Finding the perfect partner is fantasy, not reality.  They don’t exist, and the people who try often end up destroying a lot of the things in their lives that are “good” in the pursuit of this fantasy.

 

Mourning Love

I write about relationships, and I write about love.  To me love is a powerful and beautiful thing, and the loss of it is always difficult.

Often love is lost and relationships fail because of little things.  We take each other for granted, we focus on the bad instead of the good, we are hurt and we refuse to let go.  All these little things often add up to growing resentment and the breakdown of love.

And when that happens, it’s tragic.

None of that however compares to the loss of love not because love is actually gone, but because someone has lost the capacity to feel it.

THAT seems incomprehensibly cruel.

Especially when the sufferer doesn’t realize what is happening, and instead of seeing it as the symptom of a problem they interpret the loss of love as the problem itself.

 

I don’t know what anhedonia feels like, and I hope I never do.  From descriptions of it and from reading others accounts of it, it seems like a terrible soul destroying thing.

But like many other aspects of mental illness, it’s something that’s not understood, and not discussed.  And I believe many, many relationships and families are needlessly lost as a result.

So if you have thought “I don’t love you anymore” or heard those words said to you, please stop to consider that maybe there’s something else going on.  Especially if you can’t understand or explain why the feeling is gone.

 

To gain a better understanding of  the struggles sufferers face daily check out the following video:

No one wants to talk about or acknowledge mental illness.  And people definitely don’t want to be labelled as having one.  But when it directly affects 25% of the population, it’s at least something to consider.

When you can’t understand something, you can’t address it.  And things can never improve.  So understanding why feelings of love may be gone can be the first step in the road to rebuilding it.

Are You and Your Partner Compatible?

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I’m a big believer in marriage, and I’m pretty sure most people go into marriage with the belief that their marriage will succeed.

Yet roughly 50% or all first marriages fail.

And in the vast majority of divorces is North America (and presumably more of the world), the reason given for the divorce is irreconcilable differences.

So, what exactly are irreconcilable differences?

Yeah, the words tell you this means the couple has differences they can’t figure out, but what does that even mean?

I tried to find a good explanation for irreconcilable differences, and at this site (a divorce law site of course) I found the following:

 

What that this means is that you and your spouse’s basic fundamental differences make it impossible to stay married. For some couples, arguments over child discipline, politics, finances, or religion are severe enough to drive a permanent wedge in the marriage. Other couples may want a divorce because they fight a lot, have personality conflicts, or simply don’t trust each other. Whatever your differences with your spouse, they must be permanent enough that your marriage has become irretrievably broken.

 

So basically, at some point in time a couple comes to a determination that they aren’t compatible, and this incompatibility is significant enough that they can’t handle being together anymore.

 

How Does Compatibility Break Down?

You know, I’ve never gone to a wedding where the couple said things like “I’m looking forward to the start of our next few years together, until we realize our differences are so significant we have to hire lawyers to break down the life we will be building together.”

Guys supposedly aren’t very good at listening though, so that could be on me.

Realistically though, when a couple gets married they believe they are compatible.  I’m pretty sure they know they have differences, but when they stand up there and pledge forever to each other, they believe they have what it takes to make it.

Yet almost 50% of marriages fail.

What the hell are we doing wrong?

How does compatible become irreconcilable?

 

I guess at least part of it is change.

People are constantly growing and evolving, so the couple who stands there and exchanges vows is likely quite a bit different from the couple who later find themselves dealing with divorce lawyers and legal fees.

They changed.

They may have believed they were compatible on the marriage day, but as the years went by they were no longer those same people.

Another problem could be they knew they had differences, but thought they could “get past” them.  On the wedding day they figured those differences weren’t a problem, but over time they were proven wrong.

Thing is, people are different, and people change.  Those two things are among the few constants in life.  So unless we are willing to accept the idea that the institute of marriage is broken (and I’m not willing to accept that), we need to figure out how we can do a better job of accepting change, and find ways to stay happy together in spite of it.

 

Accepting Influence

A little over a year ago I wrote a post called Accepting Influence, and although my thoughts on it have changed a bit in the past year I think accepting influence is probably the most important thing you can do in order to have a successful relationship.

In fact, I think accepting influence is what relationships are really all about.

A marriage isn’t just a way of sharing living expenses, or having someone there to take care of you.  A marriage is not just about having your needs fulfilled.  In fact, it’s not about a “me”, and it’s not about a “you”.

It’s about an “us”.

When two people meet, it’s often some of their shared interests that bring them together.  They have some things in common, and these common interests give them things to talk about and experiences to share.

When talking about compatibility it is often these common interests that are talked about.

Hey, we both like to travel, we both like similar foods, movies, music… whatever it is.

But no matter how similar you are, people also have differences.  AND, they change over time.

 

Accepting influence is all about learning to navigate those differences, and expanding your world so that you start to care about things you normally wouldn’t have – BECAUSE they matter to your partner!

At a superficial level this can be things like activities and hobbies.  You aren’t trying to become your partner, or force yourself into all aspects of their life.  But you ARE trying to understand them, and have more common ground to share with them.  Maybe to be able to hold a conversation with them about one of their passions, even if you don’t share it.

At a deeper level this is something as important as love languages.  Couples don’t always share the same love languages – the things that make one person feel loved and valued don’t necessarily match their partners.  But it’s important to try and understand what matters to your partner and give them what they need to feel loved – even (and perhaps especially) when it doesn’t match your own.

This is a form of accepting influence.  Really, it’s about saying to your partner YOU matter to me.  I care about you.

On the flip side, refusing to accept influence is kind of like saying “Sure I care about you and your needs – as long as they line up with mine”.

Relationships shouldn’t be just about your needs.  You should derive happiness from seeing your partner happy and from contributing to that happiness, even when it doesn’t line up with something you personally need.

What if the happiness of your partner doesn’t matter to you?  Well, if that’s the case you probably shouldn’t be in a relationship.

 

Building Compatibility

The reason given for most divorces is “irreconcilable differences”.  Aka “we weren’t compatible anymore”.

However compatibility doesn’t just happen, it’s something you build into the relationship every day.  Every time you accept influence from your partner by putting their needs at the same level as your own and trying to do things for them, you are building compatibility.

And every time you put me ahead of we, you are building in incompatibility.  I’m not saying you should do everything together or never have time to yourself, as individual time and space is important to the health of a relationship.  But the needs of your partner should always matter.

 

When people cite irreconcilable differences, I think what they are REALLY saying is “I was no longer willing to work with you and try to meet your needs.  I was no longer willing to try and find a solution that works for both of us.”

Personal boundaries are good, and are a healthy part of relationships.  When those personal boundaries collide however, often the inability to find a solution together is more a testament to one or both sides wanting things their way.  To putting me before we.

Sure, they want to get to forever and they want the happy ending.  But they want it on their terms, and aren’t willing to move their position to meet their partner and find a place where both people can be happy.

And if you are in a relationship for you?  Then you’ve already failed.

 

Successful relationships aren’t about you, and they aren’t about me.  In successful relationships there is a recognition that both you and me matter, and the only way to do that is by putting we first.

If requires communication, negotiation, and accepting influence.

I think it’s best summed up by a line in this article:

Compatibility is an achievement of love; it must not be its precondition.

We start with a certain degree of compatibility, but after that it doesn’t just happen on it’s own.  It’s up to us to maintain it, and it’s up to us to build it.

So irreconcilable differences doesn’t mean there was an inherent problem with the couple. A lack of compatibility really means the couple couldn’t, or wouldn’t, build it in.

Avoiding Life

AvoidanceHeader

Over the last few years I’ve spent a lot of time trying to grow and improve as a person.  I would like to think I understand certain things a bit better, but for the most part I haven’t really changed that much.  There have been some changes I suppose, but they are largely small tweaks and refinements.

Really, the “new” me isn’t that different from the “old” me.

There is however one area where my outlook has changed considerably, and that’s in how I look at and approach conflict.

 

Conflict has become an area of interest for me, and it’s something I’ve written about in the past.  A few years ago I viewed conflict as a bad thing.  It was a sign that something was wrong.  And that’s bad, right?  Well, if that’s right then the absence of conflict must be a good thing.

That was how I viewed the world.

And that’s a viewpoint I’ve come to believe was completely wrong (like, totally and completely wrong).

 

You Aren’t Me And I’m Not You

Each person is an individual, with their own wants, needs and interests.  And this uniqueness is a part of our beauty.  However, because we have differences there are times our differences will collide.

My new(ish) viewpoint on conflict is that it is a natural and unavoidable part of any relationship.  Conflict is simply the collision of our differences and can actually be a very positive thing; as the process of learning to accept each other and work together in spite of these differences (because let’s face it, they aren’t going away) is the key to a healthy relationship.

So although there can be issues in how we “deal” with conflict, conflict itself isn’t bad.

 

Problem?  What Problem?

Currently I’m back in school, taking courses that will in theory help advance my career; and if not at least keep me somewhat current.  And one of the courses I’m taking has a section on conflict.

Reading over the course materials, I came across the following:

Of all the issues that people tend to avoid, managing conflict ranks at the top of the list, along with public speaking and swimming with sharks.

Most people see conflict as indicative of a problem because disagreement feels uncomfortable and threatening.

When there’s no open conflict we can carry on as though things are all right even if, really, we know they aren’t.

 

It’s the last line that really stands out to me – open conflict is the key.  If there is no  open conflict we all can carry on as though things are alright even when we know they aren’t.

People can be kind of stupid at times.  For whatever reason, sometimes we don’t see things that are right in front of our faces.

Sometimes its ignorance, or we misjudge the severity of something.  Or maybe we simply lack the context to truly understand what we are seeing.  For example I have a buddy that almost died from a heart attack a few years back, when he thought he had the flu.  That stuff happens, and is largely understandable.

It’s a VERY different scenario though when there is a problem and we KNOW it.  But we pretend it isn’t there.  When we ACT as though things are fine as long as we aren’t talking about it, and it’s not out in the open.

That approach is very destructive, to everyone involved.

 

When to Deal with Issues?

Conflict isn’t fun, and I think it’s safe to say most people don’t want to deal with it.

Imagine you’re at home and you notice a drip in your bathroom faucet.  Let’s imagine the progression of this problem faucet looks something like this (with some sort of time lapse between steps):

  1. We see the faucet dripping for the first time.
  2. We realize the faucet is still dripping over a period of time.
  3. We notice the drip is getting worse.
  4. Instead of a drip, we see that there is now a steady stream of water coming out of the faucet
  5. We notice that the room underneath the bathroom has water stains in on the ceiling.
  6. We notice that there is water streaming down the walls of our house.
  7. Sections of the ceiling below start to crumble and collapse
  8. We can no longer open the bathroom door, because the flow of water has gotten so strong that the water pressure is holding the door closed

Let’s face it, problems suck.  However although we don’t want to, most of us recognize that there comes a point in time when we HAVE to deal with them.

WHERE we draw that line differs from person to person.  For example, some people will get on an issue as soon as they see the first sign of trouble.

Personally, I would find that exhausting.  I would rather wait a bit to determine if it was an actual (recurring) problem.  If something happens once and then not again?  Well, it might not be worth worrying about.

Thing is, when small problems aren’t addressed in time they have a tendency to grow into much larger issues.  I would like to think though that most people wouldn’t allow the leaky faucet to get to step 8.  Hopefully somewhere between step 2 and step 5, people will accept that there is an issue and be willing to put in whatever work is necessary to address it.

 

Avoidance

Unfortunately some don’t accept that issues need to be dealt with – ever.  In fact some people will walk around their house in rubber boots with a diving mask and snorkel insisting that there’s no problem and everything is alright; as the faucets are pouring water and their house is rotting and crumbling around them.

In psychology this is known as Avoidance.

Psychology Dictionary defines avoidance as:

the practice or an instance of keeping away from particular situations, activities, environments, individuals, things, or subjects of thought because of either (a) the anticipated negative consequences of such or (b) the anticipated anxious or painful feelings associated with those things or events. Psychology explains avoidance in several ways: as a means of coping- as a response to fear or shame- and as a principal component in anxiety disorders.

 

Avoidant people are masters at pretending that things are fine, because as long as they don’t acknowledge a problem openly they can tell themselves everything is alright.

Thing is, avoidance brings with it a slew of problems.  Stealing another section from my course materials:

There is one main reason to engage in conflict, and that’s to reach a resolution. Without resolution, conflict merely becomes an opportunity to recycle old arguments, disagreements and opinions: nothing moves forward, feelings get stirred up and reinforced.

 

By denying problems and refusing to deal with them avoidant people actually make things worse.

They allow small problems to grow, and ensure there is never a resolution.  Nothing ever moves forward, and they end up stuck.

 

Misdirected Effort

One of my sons hates cleaning his room.  And when I ask him to, it always turns into a big production.  He talks about how he doesn’t want to, and how he thinks “it’s not that bad anyhow”.  Then he complains about how much time and effort it would take to clean it.

Usually it turns into some sort of power struggle where he refuses, and I’m forced to come up with some sort of consequence for not doing it as a way of getting him to clean it.

When he finally gets to cleaning it, I’m always struck by the fact that he will have spent WAY more time arguing over and fighting against cleaning his room than it actually took him.  He expends all this energy “refusing” to clean his room.  And if he would just DO it, a lot less time and energy would be wasted.

He’s 9, and I’m optimistic/hopeful that this is just a stage he’ll grow out of.

 

In many ways, his behavior is similar to avoidance.

An avoidant person will expend a tremendous amount of effort ignoring a problem, pretending it’s not there, and refusing to deal with it.

And to a non-avoidant person faced with this, often it feels as though the issue at hand (whatever it is) is actually resolvable.  And likely could have been easily resolved with considerably LESS effort than there seems to be spent ignoring the problem and maintaining a (broken) status quo.

It’s like they are trying to talk to someone while the other person is walking around with their hands over their ears chanting “la la la la la, not listening”.

 

Relationships with avoidant people can be difficult, because couples often get stuck with issues that often seem normal, or manageable.  However because the avoidant partner won’t acknowledge the issue they are unable to move forward and improve.

So every leaky faucet has the potential to cause the whole relationship to crumble down around them.

And let’s face it, we all have leaky faucets.

 

Admitting to issues in your relationship is never easy, but if you don’t you can never, EVER resolve them.  And you can never improve.

For any avoidant people, I ask you this – what is your goal?  What is more important to you?

Is it more important to create the illusion of a perfect relationship and not have to deal with issues (even when you know that the issues are there)?

Or it is more important to have the best relationship you can?

 

A while back I read an article on couples counselors, and in it the counselors talked about how their ability to help a couple is often hampered because couples frequently come to them YEARS later than they should have.  I suspect this is often due to avoidance, where a couple is refusing to deal with their faucets until the relationship is crumbling around them.

People can talk about priorities, but actions are much more important than words.  So if someone “says” they want their relationship to be better but they refuse to work to improve it?  Well, they are showing that they find the pain of a broken relationship to be less than the pain of trying to work on things.  THAT shows true priority.

And if pretending things are good even when you know they are not is more important that improving, remember that if the rot sets in too deeply there will be no way to pretend any more.

 

 

Conflict comes from differences and differences are just part of who we are.  Having a relationship with another person means there WILL be conflict.  And accepting that conflict as normal allows you to deal with it proactively, and make your relationship the best it can be.

Strength in a relationship isn’t built through the absence of conflict, it’s built through encountering obstacles and getting through them together.  So although we should never want conflict, we should always see it as an opportunity to improve on where we are.

A perfect relationship will never exist, no matter how much you pretend it does.  But your relationship CAN always get stronger.

IF you accept that there are issues.

IF you accept that conflict is an opportunity for improvement.

And IF you are willing to face your issues and work on them.

If you can do those things?  Then your relationship will never be perfect, but it will be as strong as you make it.

The “Secret” to Happiness

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Have you ever received a raise?

Let’s say you get a $1200 raise. Not bad, right? Well if you’re paid twice a month that’s around $50 per cheque before deductions; so let’s say it’s an extra $30 per pay period.

It’s an increase, but it’s not really that much. It’s not like you’ll be buying a new car or taking that vacation you wanted with an additional $30 every few weeks.

Now let’s change this up a bit and imagine you received a 10k raise. That would probably turn into around a $250-$300 increase per pay period, which is fairly significant. When that happens, you definitely notice it.

At first.

Here’s the thing. After a few months (and at most a year) you won’t even notice the increase; no matter how big the increase is.

 

This happens in all aspects of life. We get that new car we’ve been wanting and there are all these new features we didn’t have before. We get that new house, and it has more space or more rooms.

The new stuff is pretty cool, and pretty great.

But over a fairly short period of time, it stops being new. We become used to it. And it becomes our new “normal”.

Once something has become our new norm, we start to notice flaws we didn’t see at first (or flaws that didn’t seem important).  And more importantly, we stop appreciating the positives these new things have provided.

This is part of the human condition. We are hard-wired to take the positive things in our life for granted.

 

Hedonic Adaptation

I’ve been writing about happiness being negatively impacted by taking things for granted for a long time now, but it’s only recently that I found out there is a name for it. This phenomenon is known as Hedonic Adaptation (thanks Matt for pointing me to this).

Here’s a brief description from Wikipedia:

The hedonic treadmill, also known as hedonic adaptation, is the observed tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes. According to this theory, as a person makes more money, expectations and desires rise in tandem, which results in no permanent gain in happiness.

Most of my writing is about relationships, and the implications of this for relationships are HUGE. I’ve often challenged the concept of soul mates, or “the one”. It’s a terrible concept that removes any personal accountability for building and maintaining healthy working relationships. After all, when things get tough why would you want to work on things? And why would you look at your own role in the breakdown of a relationship? It’s easier just to tell ourselves that this other person wasn’t the right one for us.

Hedonic adaptation tells us it doesn’t matter how amazing the person we find is. They can be “a perfect match” for us, and it STILL won’t matter. Because no matter how great they are, after a while that greatness will simply be the norm.

When you see it day after day, year after year is ceases to have any impacts on us. It will just be who they are, and we will stop seeing and appreciating the good.

Thing is, everyone has at least some flaws. And when we stop seeing and appreciating the good those flaws start to stand out.

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Making Comparisons

This becomes an even bigger issue when it’s coupled this with another problem with human nature – comparison.

As people, we have an inability to judge something based on its own merits. Instead, we judge the value of something by comparing it to a similar item.

And when comparing, we almost always compare the flaws of the thing we are comparing to those characteristics in something else. But when we do this, due to hedonic adaptation we aren’t also comparing the positives, because we no longer see them.

 

I’ve got a pretty good career, and a pretty good job. It’s not what I initially wanted, but it provides a reasonably good life for my family without requiring long hours or high levels of stress.

Sometimes though I compare myself to others, to people I’ve known through school or through work. I see people I’ve known over the years that seem to have greater levels of career success then me, and in many cases they are people who aren’t any better than me.

In those moments I often feel like a failure, and question what I’ve done wrong.

In a vacuum, I have a lot to be grateful for. It’s only through comparison that I start to feel like things are lacking, or feel like a failure.

These moments usually pass quickly, because am aware that I am doing this, and I realize I am making selective comparisons.

First, there are different measurements of success. And looking selectively at someone’s title or salary doesn’t take into account all the other factors that I have no visibility on.

Secondly, in those moments I am picking and choosing WHO I compare myself to. There are a lot of people out there who I have known that haven’t had the same level of success I have had. During my personal self-pity parties I conveniently exclude those people from my comparisons, and only look at those people I perceive as doing better than me.

Falling Out of Love

I recently asked someone about the concept of falling out of love with your partner, and what was described to me was a perfect example of these concepts.

We meet someone, and there’s a pretty good chance there are good qualities that draw us to them. Over time though, things break down and we are left feeling tired, frustrated and not feeling valued. These items on their own cause the relationship to break down, and resentment to start to grow.

When the relationship has hit this stage, hedonic adaptation is one of the big culprits. Chances are, the good qualities of the other person haven’t really gone away. They are still there, but we no longer see them. Instead all we see is the flaws, and the problems. And when those flaws are no longer being offset by good (because we no longer see the good), it’s easy to question is it still worth it?

I don’t think that alone is usually the killer though. The REAL killer is once we add comparison.

In the description of falling out of love, a comment was made that when the relationship has hit a bad spot you start to think something like “maybe I should have married my college sweetheart instead”. Sometimes the comparison is to an old relationship. Sometimes you hear positive stories about things other people’s partners are doing (oh look, they just went on a trip, or had a romantic night out) and that creates a perception that other people’s partners are better than your own. Or sometimes you meet someone that “seems to have more in common with you” and start focusing your energy there (while reducing the effort in your relationship) because it makes you feel more alive.

None of these are positive, productive, or realistic (especially the last one). In all cases, you are comparing the issues and flaws of your current partner to strengths of someone else, while simultaneously ignoring the good parts of your partner that you have taken for granted and not seeing the flaws of the other person.

They are broken comparisons, rigged to make our partners look even worse than they really are.

What This Means for Happiness

So what does all this mean, and what does it have to do with happiness? Well, hopefully that’s fairly clear.

There’s no real surefire way to “be happy”, and we shouldn’t want that anyhow. I have always seen happiness as a journey, and not a destination. To me it’s not something we can achieve.  Rather, it’s a byproduct of the way we live and our outlook on life. And on any journey there will good and bad, happiness and sadness. Joy and pain.

But although we can’t make ourselves happy, human nature will cause us to do things that will minimize our potential happiness.
Hedonic adaptation tells us that over time the good in our life becomes our norm, and when that happens we stop seeing the good and we take it for granted.

Being aware of this phenomenon allows us to guard against it. And to guard against it we need to try to approach life with more of a sense of appreciation. We should regularly take stock of the good in our life, and the good qualities of our partner. When we do this, the flaws (which will always be there) often don’t seem as bad.

The second thing we can guard against is making comparisons. Stop comparing our partners to someone else (past relationships and potential partners) and stop comparing ourselves to other people.

The way we make comparisons is broken. We tend to only make comparisons when we see flaws in the thing we are comparing (ourselves or our partners), and we tend to compare those flaws (while overlooking the good) to an imaginary state that is usually only focused on the good in the other thing.

Hedonic adaptation and comparison can be fatal to us appreciating what we have in the here and now, and understanding them allows us to reduce their effects, maximizing our happiness. So the secret to happiness isn’t so much about searching for happiness. Instead it’s about not losing the happiness we already have.

I found this nicely stated on psychologytoday.com:

Human beings spend a lot of time trying to figure out what will make them happy, but not nearly enough time trying to hang on to the happiness they already have. In a way, this is like focusing all your energy on making more money, without giving any thought to what you’ll do with the money you’ve already earned. The key to wealth, like the key to happiness, is to not only look for new opportunities, but to make the most of the ones you’ve been given.

Letting Go

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When feelings are gone, how do you (and your partner) convince yourself to like one another again?

This question was posed to me recently by a buddy, it’s a loaded one.

He’s married, and longs for the “old days” when there was love and passion and the time they had together was special.

He and his wife have been together for many years, and one day he woke up and realized things weren’t the same. They were friends, and companions; and although there was a lot of good in the relationship still, his feelings for her just weren’t there anymore.

This lack of “feeling” led him to question what was wrong, and to start distancing himself from her (which in turn just increased tension in the relationship). He felt they had become a couple who were just going through the motions of day to day life; and although he felt it *could* get better, his heart wasn’t really in it.

And that recognition hurt.

I wish I could help him, I really do.

I wish there was a surefire answer that could solve his problems and make him fall in love with his wife again (and she with him if she’s feeling the same way).

Of course if I knew the answer to his problem, it’s a pretty safe bet I wouldn’t be writing this blog anymore. Or maybe I would be but it would look a lot more professional, and be full of product placement for my “revitalize your marriage with these quick steps” self-help program.

How Do We Get There?

My buddy’s problem isn’t unusual. He’s in a spot I think many, many people find themselves in. And often these people wish things were different, but don’t know what to do. They don’t necessarily want out of the relationship. But they aren’t happy in the spot that they are in, and they don’t know how to make it better.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few years thinking and writing about this type of thing, and although there is no “one size fits all” explanation for how people get there I think there are some common patterns that emerge.

Unrealistic view of love

I believe part of the problem comes from an unrealistic view of love. Love as depicted in the movies/media is all about passion; and when people remember back to the “old days” there’s a pretty good chance they are remembering those passionate times.

Here’s the thing though – excitement is based on unpredictability. When you are still learning each other there’s naturally more of a sense of excitement, because everything is new. One of the strengths of long term relationships is a sense of security, of knowing the other person will be there. There is comfort in knowing the other person completely, but comfort often comes at the cost of excitement.

That’s not to say anyone should ever accept the loss of passion. It should never completely go away in long term relationships, but it changes. And it’s up to both people to keep it alive.

More than a Feeling

Related to the above point, another problem people face is searching for a feeling.

I’ve always hated this one, because to me thinking of love as a feeling is saying that love is a passive thing. It’s something that just happens to us (or doesn’t). So if it fades, you are left feeling lost. After all, what can you do if you have no control over it?

I’ve never viewed love as just a feeling. Yeah you start with feelings, but it’s your actions that determine how well your love will be sustained. It helps when you partner is kind, caring and shows affection. But ultimately, staying in love is your own responsibility. Love isn’t passive, and keeping it alive is based on our actions.

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Learning to Love

I’m a big believer in continuous improvement, and I think that’s another area where people get love wrong. Love isn’t just a feeling or a choice. It’s also a skill. We may have some inherent capacity to love, but we can always improve on it. We can always strive to understand each other better, and learn new ways to show and express that love to each other.

Learning to love each other is important, and we should never think that because we’ve been together for a while, we “get it”.

When I think back to what I though “love” was at 18, 20, 25, I’m struck by how little I understood it. I’m not saying I get it now, but I definitely have a better understanding of love now than I did a few years ago. And most importantly, I accept that I still have a lot to learn, and I can be better tomorrow than I am today.

Making Time

A huge issue relationships face is taking each other for granted. I think every couple probably goes through this, and some never get out of it.

Repeat the following after me:

Your relationship is important.

Seriously, it should be. And if it isn’t, why are you in one? Yet couples continually find ways to take their relationship (and each other) for granted. And we do this by not spending enough time on it, and not making it a priority.

Life will always get busy. There are always other stresses that can get in the way of taking time to focus on each other if you let them. And because they know their partner “will always be there”, many couples let their relationship slide while other things take precedence.

And then they end up surprised and saddened when they start to realize the connection has broken down. I mean, really? What do you expect?

If your relationship is truly important to you, show it. Make it a priority and put in a bit of time each and every day.

Not Accepting Each Other

In my mind, a relationship should be a partnership. Both people should feel valued, and appreciated, and feel like they are contributing to something larger then themselves.

But behind the scenes there are often power struggles. People often need to be right, or to have things work “their way”. After all, their way is clearly the best. So they put their opinions and beliefs above those of their partner.

Here’s the thing though – we’re all different. We all have different backgrounds and experiences. And what works for one person necessarily work for the other.
It’s possible for two people to walk away from the same experience with completely different understandings of it, and when that happens it’s also possible that both people are right.

Power and control have no place in a relationship, and insisting things need to be a certain way is guaranteed to cause conflict.

All of these issues contribute to couples finding themselves in a bad spot. And like my buddy, many one day wake up and ask themselves what went wrong, and where the love they once felt has gone.

Where Do We Go From Here?

One of my core beliefs is we are the sum of our experiences. If your relationship is currently in a bad spot, it is there because of whatever has come before.

Maybe you’re hurting. Maybe you’ve felt ignored and not valued for a long time. Maybe bad things have happened – apathy, cruelty, cheating, whatever.

No matter what the past is, if you want to move forward you need to let go.

lettingGo

When people talk about letting go they often talk about letting go of the relationship. Walking away, and starting fresh.

That’s one option. And truly, sometimes it’s the best one.

But it’s not the only one.

Accepting Who You Are Today

My buddy longs for the old days, when he and his wife were younger and everything was better. He needs to accept that those days are gone. Things will never be the same as they were when they first met. He’s not the person he was then, and neither is his wife. They are the people they are now, today. A little older, and perhaps a little more disillusioned.

That’s not to say he needs to accept the emotional disconnect between them and say it’s just part of getting older. They can rebuild closeness and connection. But it’s only when they accept their current reality that they can truly move forward.

Letting Go of Past Hurts

A big part of moving forward is allowing your past to remain in the past. Couples go through a lot of different things, and often they hurt each other very badly, and do things that break down trust. Sometimes those things cause relationships to fail, and I totally understand that.

But if someone truly wants the relationship to work out, no matter has happened they need to let it go. Holding onto anger and resentment will never allow a couple to heal, and move forward.

Think of your past hurt like a physical wound. The human body is an amazing thing, and left alone it will try to heal. Over time it will form a scab, and eventually that scab will fall away leaving a scar as a reminder of what happened.

Holding onto anger and resentment is like picking at the scab. When you pick at it, it can never truly heal. And worse, the constant irritation can cause the wound to fester and become infected, making the problem worse.

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Letting People Back In

A while back I came across an interesting study that found one of the biggest roadblocks for couples in trying to rebuild their relationship came not from a lack of effort or desire to rebuild. Rather, it came from an unwillingness to recognize and trust genuine attempts at rebuilding.

When you’ve been hurt, it’s natural to try and protect yourself from being hurt again. And if your trust has been broken, rebuilding that trust is something that takes time. But putting up walls and not letting your partner back in ensures that any attempts to improve the relationship will fail.

Accepting Differences

Another way to let go is to accepting that you (and your partner) are both different, and that’s alright. Your partner will likely have traits you don’t like, and they will likely do things differently than you would.

Maybe you’re a neat freak and they are a slob (to you). Maybe they like to live for today while you like to plan for the future. There are countless ways that people are different.

Accepting differences is about letting go of control. Accepting that “your way” is not the only way, and that different doesn’t mean less or worse. In fact sometimes differences are complementary, and accepting them can allow each of you to grow in different ways.

Holding On by Letting Go

My buddy believes he has lost the feelings of love for his wife. My guess is, he probably still loves her but his love is buried under feelings of hurt, resentment and neglect that have built up over years.

He needs to decide if he wants to make it work, or if he wants to move on. Every situation is different, and there is no right or wrong answer. Well, other than waffling forever and trying to avoid making a decision – that’s not fair to anyone.
If he decides he truly wants the relationship to work, then he’ll have let go in order to give it a fair chance.

For anyone in a bad spot, the past may be what brought you to where you are today and there may be a lot of hurt. But to truly move forward you need to let go.

The past can’t be changed. Learn from the past, but don’t let it define your present.

What Do You Want?

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Every day businesses undertake projects that are intended to guide and shape their futures. Considerable effort is put into these projects – countless person hours and dollars.
But studies show that these projects often fail. And for those that don’t fail, a relatively small percentage can truly be considered a success.

Most projects fall into this “other” category where they aren’t outright failures; but they didn’t really achieve what they had set out to do. For these projects, their success is measured in relative terms.

Because of the costs involved, a lot of time and effort has been spent trying to understand this problem.

Why do projects not have a higher level of success? Is it due to shortcomings in the people involved? Is it the approach organizations take? And what can we do to try and improve the level of success in the future.

Often the failure of projects can be boiled down to one basic problem:

The business didn’t know what it wanted, or what it was trying to accomplish. It had a pretty good idea of what it wanted; but it didn’t truly understand its own needs, or requirements.

What exactly is a “Requirement”?

A requirement can be thought of as an action or property that something must have in order to have perceived value.

This definition of a requirement came from a business book. But really, it applies to anything.

When you buy a car you expect certain things from it. There’s an assumption that at the very least you will be able to start, stop and steer a car. If it doesn’t meet these criteria, then it doesn’t perform the activities we expect and therefore you wouldn’t buy it (it doesn’t have perceived value).

Of course you may buy a broken car as a hobby project or as a collector. But if either of those are your intent then you come in with a specific set of requirements for what you are looking for.

Going back to the business world, it is estimated that as much as 60% of (business) problems come from incorrectly identifying requirements. From not truly knowing what it is that a business wants, or is trying to accomplish.

See, businesses often don’t actually know what they want. And to actually achieve success in getting to what you want, having a *pretty good idea* isn’t nearly enough.

Can You Describe What You Want?

Not knowing what you want is a common business problem, but it’s also a common people problem.

I see this as something we all face, in all aspects of our lives. And like business projects, this is probably one of the main causes of failure people have in their personal relationships.

Not knowing what you want happens in a few different ways.

First, like businesses people often only have a general idea of what they want but they don’t really understand the specifics of it.  To a degree this is understandable, but it makes it very difficult to know if something has actually achieved its requirements. How can we determine if something is successful if we don’t even know the criteria we are measuring something against?

In relationships people often use “happiness” as their measure of success, and I constantly see/hear things like “I just want to be happy”, or “people deserve to be happy”.

Fair enough. But what does that mean?

Saying you want happiness is like saying you want to go on vacation somewhere; and then jumping in your car and driving randomly figuring you’ll see where you end up. You could do it, and it might even be kind of fun. You’ll definitely end up “somewhere” and will probably have some new experiences along the way (of course, some of them may be experiences you later wish you never had).

Something like happiness can be elusive if you don’t know what it means to you.  People seem to figure they will know it when they find it; but that’s kind of like driving randomly without a map and expecting to get where you want.

It *may* happen. But if it does it’s probably more luck than anything.

One problem is, it’s very difficult to say what constitutes happiness.  It’s not status, beauty or wealth – as many who seem to have everything are miserable while many who seem to have nothing profess to be happy. And it’s not just something you can “feel”, as there are a number of things and conditions that can make people depressed and struggle with the feeling of happiness.

So chasing happiness doesn’t work.

But you can have other things you want out of life. You can try to accomplish things for yourself, and for those around you (such as wanting to support your loved ones in the things they do).

To truly be happy in life and in love, you need to have a pretty good idea of what you are looking for.  And you need to be able to articulate those things.  Because if you can’t, how will you ever know if you find them?

 

A second problem is that sometimes people believe they know what they want. But once they get it, they realize it’s not actually what they were looking for.

This happens all the time, and I think it is an important and valuable experience. It happens when people think they understand their problem, while in reality they have come up with a possible solution. And it turns out not to be the solution to the right problem.

There are countless stories where someone wasn’t happy, and they attribute this unhappiness to *something*.  Maybe their job, or their appearance, or their relationship, or…

…the list can go on.

So they change things. And often find they aren’t any happier. In fact, sometimes they are even less happy, because they threw out one of the positives in their life in an attempt to find what was wrong.

When this happens, they thought they knew the solution to their problem.  But they were searching for a solution to a problem they didn’t truly understand.

Knowing Yourself

I titled this post “What Do You Want?”

We all have things we want out of life and love; and if we don’t, we should. But often, we aren’t really sure what those things are.  And when we do, it’s sometimes viewed as a negative thing.

It’s easy to say you have goals in life.  But love involves two people (generally). So wanting something out of love means that you actually have expectations of the other person.

And this can cause resentment.

Often I see people saying things like:

Why can’t someone just love me without expecting anything in return?

We seem to live in a world that thinks it’s bad to expect things from people. There are all sorts of sayings like “the best way to avoid disappointment is to not expect anything from anyone”, or “true love begins when nothing is looked for in return.” I understand the sentiment behind these sorts of statements, but feel it is a dangerous way of thinking.

Love has expectations. To me that’s a simple truth.

If it didn’t, people could marry and be happy with anyone, and clearly that’s not the case. Somehow it’s alright to say that people can have standards, but expectations are “bad”. Is there really a difference?  Expectation is an important aspect of any healthy relationship, as they are simply a way of articulating your requirements – the actions and properties you feel you need as part of the relationship.

Of course it is important that expectations are realistic, and there is a difference between expectations and entitlement.

We all have things we need from our friends, our families, our careers, and yes – even our partners.  And understanding yourself and what you want is extremely important for your own happiness.

Often the people who are chronically unhappy are people who just kind of slide through life, rarely making decisions, and rarely having goals. They’re like the person driving randomly, hoping to find a place to end up.

Personally, I don’t want to be happy. I mean I do, but I don’t see it as a goal.  Happiness is really part of an experience, or a process.  But the journey is the important part.

There are things I want out of life, and out of love, and I have expectations for all the people I care about. My parents, siblings, friends, children, and my partner. And I think it’s only fair that they in turn have expectations of me. But most importantly, I have expectations of myself.

The people in my life won’t always be able to meet my expectations, so yes at times I will be disappointed in them. And I’m sure there will be times that they will be disappointed in me.

That’s life though.

I won’t always be happy, and that’s alright. When I’m not, it’s not necessarily a reflection on the quality of my life, or of the people around me.

Instead of happiness, I want a life where I can be both happy and sad. Joyful, and angry. Curious and afraid. I want to live a life that combines the mundane aspects of day to day life with the bigger experiences, those moments you look back on and remember.

Sadness is part of that. So is anger, hurt and disappointment.  I’m not saying I look forward to them, but I accept them as part of my journey.

In the end, all I hope is that the good moments outweigh the bad.

A New Beginning

2016 is almost here – the start of a new year.

Often, this changing of the calendar year is seen as a clean slate and a time for change. People make new years resolutions (often around exercise and diet). This will be the year that they get in better shape, take that course, quit smoking/drinking, get that promotion or find that special someone. Whatever it is, this will be the year that things change, with the perception that these changes will bring improvements in their life.

And people do make changes.

For a while.

For many years I was a regular at a local gym, and the first few weeks after new years were the busiest times of year. The number of attendees would jump by 20-30% in those first few weeks, and then would start to taper off again. And by February the new group of “regulars” looked pretty similar to the group that was there before the new year began.

See, making changes is easy.

Sustaining them on the other hand? Now that’s another story.

Real, sustainable change requires commitment, dedication, and effort. But as much as people often talk about wanting changes, we don’t want to have to work for it. We’re looking for instant gratification. The easy button, and magic wand solutions. We are looking for the best of both worlds – ways to get the changes we want without having to sacrifice or change what we do now.

The thing is, why are we actually looking for change? Will those changes really improve our life? Will they really make us happier?

I won’t deny that many changes have benefits. For example, getting into better shape is generally a good thing. Often though, we don’t really need to make changes. Often what we are actually looking for is right there in front of us and has been the whole time. We have just become blind to it.

What we really need isn’t always change, but a change in perspective.

I’ve told this story before, but there are two events I can point to in my life that changed my perspective.

When I was in my early 20’s I spent a month in a poor country, staying with people who lived there. That month, I realized just how much I truly had back home, not only in terms of material items but also in terms of opportunity. Growing up middle class in Canada I knew there were some that were better off than me, and others that were worse off. But my life was my norm, and because of that I never appreciated it. Taking that trip allowed me to see my world in a new light.

Another moment was one of the first walks in the neighborhood that I took my first child on when we was learning to walk. It took us around an hour just to make it a few houses away, as he was fascinated by everything around him. Cracks in the sidewalk, bugs, the texture of trees and grass. Everything was new and magical for him. And allowing him to explore while doing that walk at his speed allowed me to appreciate just how much beauty I failed to notice each and every day.

January 1st does mark a new year. And it can be a time for change.

But instead of just making changes to ourselves and those things around us, also think about the things we already have. The world we know is our norm, and it’s very easy to take for granted.

So try to slow down, and see your existing world with new eyes. See the good and the beauty in what you already have instead of focusing on flaws and the things that are missing. When we are more appreciative and thankful for what we have, we are more satisfied in life.

To any readers out there, I wish you a happy close to 2015 and a wonderful start to the new year.

No matter where you are and what your situation, it is a magical world – if we let it be.