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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We are all Damaged

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I was recently talking with a close friend who is in the early stages of a divorce, and our discussion made me think back to a line from the first post I ever published, back in early 2014.  In it I wrote the following about learning what it meant to be a parent:

Suddenly we were parents, and it was up to us to discover what that meant.

We spent the next few years learning and I’m sure we made some mistakes along the way.  The bumps and bruises healed, and any psychological damage we did hopefully won’t surface for a few years yet (at least until he’s out of the house).

It was meant to be funny at the time, and it still kind of is (to me anyhow).  But at the same time, in the years since I wrote that I’ve come to realize there’s a lot of truth to it as well.

 

While talking things through with my buddy, one of his biggest concerns (about the divorce) is how it will impact his kids.  And really, the question is how, not if; because there WILL be impacts.  Some of those impacts will be felt immediately, with pain and confusion.  Tears, anger, withdrawal, etc.  A divorce can have impacts that cannot be predicted though.

As children, parents often shelter us from the world and make us feel safe.  Having your parents split up is often the first time that safety is really threatened, and it can be many, many years before the full impacts of that are felt.

I think these are natural concerns, and in fact I would be more concerned if he wasn’t worried about how the divorce would affect his kids.

 

This post isn’t about divorce.  Divorce just happens to be one of the many things that can happen in someone’s life that will have long lasting impacts.

Rather, it’s about how all the little things that have impacts we can’t fully understand or appreciate at the time.  Parents are always shaping our children through the things we say and do.  As parents we are models to our children, and they learn much more than we realize.  Hopefully a lot of what they learn from us is positive; but a lot of the issues they have in future life will come back to the “mistakes” that were made in raising them.

 

Attachment Theory is a psychological model that talks about how we form attachments with others; and how our relationships shape us, especially when we are hurt or feel threatened in those relationships.

Attachment theory has three attachment styles (four in some places, but the last one is just a mix of these three so I’m going to ignore it):

  1. Ambivalent Attachment.  This is characterized by a reluctance to get close to others, and a fear that your partner doesn’t love you.
  2. Avoidant Attachment.  This is characterized by problems with intimacy, holding back emotionally from the relationship (which probably contributes to the intimacy issues), and being unwilling to share feelings and emotions.
  3. Secure Attachment.  This is characterized by being comfortable sharing feelings with partners and friends, and an ability to have trusting lasting relationships.

 

I mention parenting above, because our earliest relationship is with our parents; and it is these early years that are believed to be the most important for shaping how we are able to form attachments as adults.

Which is kind of scary really.

I’m a dad, and I’ll be the first to admit that I have no freaking clue what I’m doing most of the time.  I try to do my best, as I’m sure most parents do.  Am I a “good” dad?  I would like to think so.  Yet I know I’ve made mistakes in the process.  Just as my parents did, and their parents before them.

This same dynamic has played out in our own lives.

As people we are the sum of our experiences.  Everything we have gone through up until now has impacted us in some way, and has shaped us into the person we are today.

Think about that for a moment.

How we were raised, what our parent’s relationship looked like, and also what our earliest relationships looked like.  All of these things have shaped HOW we form attachments.  I say “shaped”, because they influence it but they don’t have to control it.

 

As attachment theory says, it’s the fears, threats, and the hurts in our relationships that shape our future relationships the most.

We’ve all been hurt.  We’ve all suffered pain, and disappointment at the hands of those we love.  And these things leave marks on our lives.

If we’ve been hurt a lot, it’s understandable that we start to become more tentative around people, or build walls to protect us from being hurt again.  If we’ve been betrayed, it’s natural to start to lose trust in people, and fear these same things happening again.

All of the pain we’ve felt leads to insecurities, and we all have them.  We all have some sort of damage that we carry with us into our future relationships.

The danger here is, if we aren’t careful the damage we carry with us can poison our future relationships and end up causing the exact situation we are trying to avoid.

If you’ve been betrayed and find it difficult to trust, that lack of trust can lead you to see threat in situation that don’t warrant it; and that lack of trust can drive people away.

If you’ve been abandoned that fear of abandonment can make you hold on too tightly, pushing people away.  Or it can cause you to remain distant, preventing close attachments from developing.

There are all sorts of things we can do that sabotage our relationships; and while they may be understandable to those who know our histories that doesn’t mean they are healthy or acceptable behaviors.

The absolute worst thing you can do is say “this is just who I am”.  It’s not up to our partners to accommodate us.  To a degree they need to, but it’s also on us to try and heal ourselves, to be “better”.

We need to try and be self-aware and look at ourselves.  Try to understand what we are bringing into our relationships that is causing harm.  Because it’s only when we recognize and accept that damage that we can start to change it.

It’s a lot easier said than done though.

 

I’ve always thought of myself as someone who is fairly self-aware and emotionally healthy.  I realize I’m affected by my experiences and I think I understand what my own insecurities are.

Yet even still I have times that I catch myself doing things and/or saying things that at some level I *know* are counterproductive to what I want.  I know these things are self-defeating, but like turning your head to watch the scene of an accident, it’s hard to stop.

I’ve written many times that I don’t believe in “meant to be”.  I believe life presents us with opportunities, and it’s up to us to determine what we want to do with them.  So it’s especially frustrating when we do things that undermine those opportunities when they are presented.  When we don’t give ourselves the best chance to succeed.

 

One of my current favorite bands is Editors, and in their song Bones they have the following line:

In the end all you can hope for
Is the love you felt to equal the pain you’ve gone through

I think there’s a lot of truth there.  As I said, we’ve all been hurt.  We’ve all been disappointed.  We are all damaged in some way.

But it’s up to us to recognize that damage, and accept that it’s part of us.  And while it may be part of our past, it doesn’t have to shape our future.

A Beautiful Love Story

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A few days ago I was talking to my sister.  Among the many topics we discussed was the death of my Grandmother; how near the end she thought my father was her husband (who had been gone for over 20 years), and how she told him she was glad to see him because she believed that he had come to take her with him.

Honestly, in some ways that doesn’t even seem real.  It seems like something out of a Nicholas Sparks novel or something.

But it happened.

That moment was at once sad and beautiful for me; the thought that near the end, someone’s thoughts would be with their husband/wife, and that they would find peace in the prospect of being reunited with that person.   To me it spoke of a love and a bond that has survived for over 70 years.

And for many, that sort of love seems to be reserved for Hollywood movies and romance novels.

 

It got me wondering what their relationship was like when they were alive.

The truth is I have no idea.

My Grandfather has been gone for over 20 years; passing away while I was in university.  I didn’t really see them interact much, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say I didn’t really pay attention to their interactions at the time.  This may sound terrible, but back then I’m not sure if I really saw my grandparents (or parents for that matter) as real people, I saw them primarily through the roles they played in my life.

However although they were my grandparents they were also real people, and real people have problems.

They have highs, and lows.  They have successes, and suffer disappointments.  Real people tend to get short with each other when they are feeling stressed, and will sometimes say things they later regret.

So I’ll guess they had problems, both individually and as a couple.  I’ll guess they had moments where they didn’t like each other very much.  They may even have had moments where they wondered if they made a mistake, and if there was something different, and better out there.

I don’t really know though.

All I know is, a few days before my grandfather died I sat at the table with them in their kitchen, and they talked about their life together.  I also know my grandmother was in pain when my grandfather passed away.  And I know she seemed happy at the prospect of being reunited with him when she was dying.

 

What is a beautiful love story?

What does it look like to you?

 

It is about meeting your prince/princess charming, who will “complete you”, always love you, never hurt you, and will make your life wonderful?

That isn’t real.  And is more about looking for someone to fill a hole inside you than it is about love.

Is it about meeting someone who will make your heart beat faster, where you can’t stop thinking about them and you want to be with them every waking moment?

That’s something that’s not sustainable, and is more about hormones and infatuation than it is about love.

Is it about traveling the world with someone, and having them shower you with gifts?

That’s about lifestyle, and money, and has little to do with love.

 

No, to me a beautiful love story looks a bit different from what you see in the movies.

To me a beautiful love story is about two people who share values and have a shared vision of the type of relationship they are looking for.  And as they learn each other, they realize that they want share that vision with each other.

It’s about two people who meet and (over time) are willing to let their defenses down with each other; and to be authentic and vulnerable with each other.  People who may still want the other person to like them, but see no need to pretend to be something they are not in order to achieve that.  People who are willing to share their insecurities with each other, and know that although their partner may always push them to try to improve and be the best version of themselves, they are also able to accept them for who they are.

It’s about two people who have individual hopes and dreams, but also have shared goals.  So they share the things they can while also supporting each other for the things they can’t share.  Where one person gets joy not just from having their own needs and wants met, but also by being there to support their partner.

 

Real life isn’t like the movies.  It’s often mundane, and day to day life is often routine.  It can also be messy, as sickness and tragedy can strike at any time.

So in my love story people aren’t always happy, and they understand they don’t need to be.  There are moments of joy, happiness, pain, disappointment, anger and sadness.  There are times when one person will have to support the other, times where a couple will disagree, and times when they aren’t sure if they are going to make it.

But in my love story, people realize love doesn’t just happen.  They realize it can be lost if it’s not nurtured.  They realize that not only are we responsible for making love and affection a part of our everyday interactions, but we are also responsible for maintaining our feelings of love towards our partner.

In my love story each person focuses on who their partner is, instead of worrying about who they aren’t.  And each person continues to choose the other, and continues to reach out to each other with love, each and ever day.

 

That’s my love story.

It may not be the stuff of Hollywood movies or romance novels.

But that doesn’t make it any less beautiful.

 

And if I can find that?

Then maybe I will have found someone who (hopefully a long time from now) will miss me when I am gone, and will find peace in the prospect of one day being reunited with me.

Because that type of love is a love that endures.

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Ruled By Fear

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When I was younger I wanted to be a physiotherapist.  Actually, before that I wanted to be a comic book artist, and before that I wanted to be an animal trainer (come on, you KNOW that would be awesome).  But in late high school I started thinking seriously about a career, and physio was what I wanted.

I was serious about it too.  In grade 12 I volunteered at a physio clinic in order to better understand what was involved, and as I saw it in action I knew it was something I would not only enjoy, but would also be good at.

So off I went to university, and in my first year I took all the prerequisites for Physiotherapy.  To get into Physio you need to apply to the faculty, and due to a limited number of spots available every year there was an interview process to get in.  I was confident I had a shot if I could get to the interview stage; but only the applicants with the top marks received interviews.

My marks were good, but not good enough.  And I tried for two years before coming to accept maybe physio wasn’t going to happen for me.

One day I was talking to someone about it, and they suggested I apply at different schools (out of town) as I would have a much better chance to get in.  That idea had never occurred to me, but even after hearing about it I never even tried.  I DID want to get into physio, but I was also an 18-19 year old kid who had never been away from home.  The reality was, I didn’t even consider trying to get into school somewhere else.  That wasn’t an option to me at the time.

Although I didn’t see it, my fear of being away from home, my friends and my family was greater than my desire to get into Physiotherapy school.

And so I didn’t even try.

I didn’t think of it as fear, but at some level that’s what it was.  I wanted something – I really did.  But I didn’t want it enough to make the take a chance, and to do what needed to be done to pursue that dream.

 

In life, we are often ruled by our fears.  We fear failure, and we fear rejection.  And these fears often end up shaping our behaviors and decisions.

 

Fear of Failure

When we fear failure, there are a few different ways it can manifest.

The most obvious one is removing ourselves from a situation, and not even trying.  When you don’t even try, it may be because you’ve convinced yourself in advance that you were going to fail – so why bother when you know how it will end up.

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Not trying may also be so you can convince yourself you didn’t fail.  I’m sure we’ve all seen and heard people say something like “I would have done X, if not for Y”.  Things like I would have been a professional musician if not for my mom and dad needing my help, or I would have been a doctor if I didn’t have kids, or any number of things.

When you don’t try it’s easy to lie to yourself and tell yourself these things.

Maybe it’s true and you would have been X; then again, maybe not.

You’ll never know.

The “what if” game is a wasted exercise, because no matter what you think may have happened – it didn’t.  You made the choices you made.  And life worked out the way it worked out.

 

Sometimes people do put in some effort, but fear of failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  They don’t believe they can succeed, so they sabotage themselves by putting in minimal effort.

Then, when things don’t work out they tell themselves “see, I knew it wasn’t going to work out.”  Not accepting that the way they approached it was a significant contributor to how things ended up.

 

When this happens, one of the lies people tell themselves is if it didn’t work out it wasn’t meant to be.

Meant to be.

Fate.

To me that’s a cop out.  “It wasn’t meant to be” turns us into victims, and absolves us of any responsibility for the course of our life.

Things work out sometimes, and other times they don’t.  But if it’s all about “meant to be” then why are we here?  “Meant to be” turns us into nothing more than observers, it means we are passive participants in our own lives; and I can’t accept that.

Rather, I think life presents us with opportunities, and it’s up to us to determine what we want to do them.

Sometimes we pass those opportunities by, maybe because we are scared we will fail or we feel we aren’t ready.

Life doesn’t care if we’re scared – it doesn’t care if we think we’re ready.  Opportunities arise, and we need to decide what to do with them.

Sometimes we embrace those opportunities and give them our all.  And sometimes we still fail.

When that happens it can hurt like hell.  But if it’s something that mattered to us and something we believed in, at least we know that we’ve tried.

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Fear of Rejection

I’ve written a lot about authenticity in relationships, and about how important it is to just “be yourself”, whoever that is.  And I DO believe that being authentic and vulnerable in a relationship is key to both happiness and long term success.

But one thing I tend to gloss over when writing about authenticity is how hard that is to do sometimes.

See, we all have egos and want to be liked and accepted.  And rejection hurts.

 

Fear of rejection can lead us to hide parts of ourselves, or even to pretend to be something we are not.

We probably all do this to a degree, because we want to impress and we want to be accepted.  And in the early days of a relationship it’s somewhat understandable.

It’s a paradox, where we need to feel accepted in order to feel emotionally safe with the other person.  At the same time, we need to be vulnerable and let our partners in in order to feel accepted and safe.

So usually in the early days it can be a gradual process of sharing and revealing ourselves.  Ultimately we need to let the other person in though, as much as we can.

Similar to how not trying out of fear of failure can CAUSE us to fail, holding back out of fear of rejection will limit the closeness in our relationships and ensure we will never be accepted for who we are.  After all, our partner can’t ever fully accept us if we won’t let them truly see us.

When that happens, that’s not a failure of the relationship.  That’s a failure within ourselves.  Because often, when a fear of rejection is causing us to hold back (or try to be someone we’re not), it’s because we have not accepted ourselves.

 

Accepting ourselves can be very, very hard.

We all have damage.

We all have insecurities.

We’ve all been hurt.

When that happens it’s very easy to build walls around ourselves in order to “protect” ourselves from further hurt.  It doesn’t work though, because our fears just hold us back from the life we really want.

 

Facing our fears is hard.

Letting go is hard.

Embracing life and opportunities is hard.

And being vulnerable and authentic is hard.

Each of these things comes at a cost, but the cost of not doing so is even higher.

 

We all have fears, of failure and of rejection.  You have them, and I have them.  And we all need to address them in the way that seems right for us.

For me, I don’t want to let fear hold me back.  When life presents me with opportunities, I don’t want my fears to cause me to pass them by.  If it’s something I believe in, I want to embrace it.  I want to be the authentic me, and take a chance.

I may be hurt.

I may fail.

But whether I succeed or fail at something, for the things that matter I want to be able to face the mirror at the end of the day and tell myself I gave it my all.

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What is Enough?

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In my last post I discussed one of my major life/relationship philosophies; the notion that my life is not my own.  It is, but even though I am an individual my actions impact others.  Due to this I can’t just *do what I want*, I need to keep others in mind with everything I do.

One of my other major life philosophies is the concept of enough.

What is enough?

What does this even mean?

 

A few weeks back I went and saw the movie Logan (great movie by the way), and before it there was a trailer for the upcoming Fast and the Furious movie with excerpts of interviews with the directors.  In it, the directors talked about how the Fast and the Furious movies are always spectacles, and for this one they felt they needed to top the previous one.  They wanted it to be bigger and better; with more explosions and more elaborate stunts.

This idea of “bigger is better” (or “more is better”) is common in movies (particularly sequels).  And this line of thinking isn’t limited to movies, it exists everywhere in life.

If something is good, then more of that something is better, right?  We can improve anything, just by having more of it.

 

How do we know we have a “good” life?  We measure it by our happiness, right?  So it stands to reason that if we REALLY had a good life we would always be happy.  And if we’re not always happy, then something is missing.

We just need to find what that something is, and then we will be happier.

But what do we need?

More money?  A better job?  A better house?  A better body? More sex?  More friends?  More time out “having fun”?  A better lover/partner?

One of these?  Some of these?  All of these?

Will ANY of these improve the quality of our life?  Will any of them actually make us happier?

 

Personally I think our notion that you can measure quality by of life by “happiness” is broken, but the “more is better” logic tells us yes.  And who knows, maybe changing some of these things would result in improvements to our level of happiness.

If we get that raise, maybe now we can go on that trip we wanted.  Maybe we upgrade to the bigger house, or the nicer car.  If we lose that weight maybe we will feel better about ourselves.

These sorts of things do feel pretty good, at least in the moment.  But it’s always short lived.  These sorts of improvements are only temporary, because there’s a fundamental problem with “more”.

It’s doesn’t matter how much you have.  There will ALWAYS be more.

You can always make more money.  There is always a better job, a better house.  You lose those 10 pounds, and there are always other changes you can make.  Even if your partner is pretty good, there is always going to be another person out there who will be a better lover or partner.

 

Here’s the problem…

When we believe we don’t have enough, it leads to unhappiness.  Because when feel we don’t have enough, we are focused on what we DON’T have.  We are focused on what our life is “missing”.

And when we are preoccupied with what we don’t have, we are unable to be present, to actually “live” in the moment.

 

So to me, the REAL question is not about more.

The REAL question becomes, what is enough.

 

Continuous growth is unsustainable.  There is always going to be something you don’t have.  You can always have more.

At what point are you able to be content with what you already have?

To me, THAT is the key.  Being able to say “yes, there’s more.  But that’s alright because what I have is enough for me”.

My job is enough.  My house is enough.  My partner is enough.  My life is enough.

I am enough.

 

Enough is about appreciating what you have right now, today; instead of focusing on what you don’t.  To me, this should be a good thing, a positive.

But instead, believing that what you have is enough seems to be looked down upon.  There seems to be this notion that saying something is enough is about not striving to improve, or about settling.

And in today’s culture, settling seems to be one of the worst things you can do.

Just turn on a television, open a magazine, or listen to the radio.  Within a few minutes, you will probably see or hear something telling you how amazing you are.  How special you are, and how you deserve the best.  After all, YOU are special – You aren’t like everyone else.  You should stand out, not fit in.  So if you don’t have the best, you are settling.  And you could or should have had more.  This same approach is used in marketing to make you want to get the best for your partner, or your children.  Aren’t they special too?  Don’t you want the best for them?  Don’t THEY deserve it?

Of COURSE your kids should have the best.  Of COURSE your partner should have the best.

But here’s a secret…

 

I am not special.

You are not special.

Sorry, it’s true.  We are all just people.

Regular people, going about our regular lives and doing regular things.  Most of us get up in the morning and go to work at jobs that aren’t glamorous but allow us to live our lives.  We cook our meals, do our laundry, clean our living spaces.  We pay our bills, and hope that at the end of the day there’s enough money and/or energy left over for us to take some time out and do something special for ourselves.

This is reality for most of us, and that should be alright.

 

 

I’m not saying that no matter what you have, it should be enough for you.  I’m not saying people shouldn’t want more out of life.

Sometimes you DON’T have enough money, and it’s damned hard to get by.  Maybe your family HAS outgrown your house, or your vehicle.

And sometimes your partner IS an asshole, and you DO deserve someone who will treat you better (and in turn allow you to treat them better).

 

It’s not bad to want more, or different.

But what I AM saying is more doesn’t necessarily make things better.

 

Ask yourself this – if what you have today isn’t making you happy, why in the world would you think that more would make it better?

 

Life is multi-faceted, and there is balance to be found in everything.  There are many areas in life where we can change, and improve.  And for each of these areas we need to figure out what enough looks like for ourselves.

 

Maybe you DO need that six figure salary.  Maybe you DO need that big vacation every year.

Enough for me may not be the same as enough for you.  And that’s alright.

Each person needs to define that for themselves, and doing so involves looking inward.  It involves truly understanding ourselves, and our boundaries.  It also involves understanding the difference between need and want, and in today’s world I think we often confuse that.

More isn’t better.  And it won’t make us happier.  And actually, sometimes it’s the scarcity of something that makes us appreciate even more when we do have it.

 

When I look at my life, there are a ton of things I would *love* to do.  I love travelling, and would be happy to do more of it.  I wish I could eat out more, or at least at some of the places I know are outside of my price range.  I wish I had more free time to just slack off, and do some things for me.

But then I ask myself, what REALLY matters?  What are my REAL priorities?

My children.  My family.  The people who actually matter in my life, and who I matter to.

I know what love looks like, and I know what caring looks like.  And I know what it means to me.

When look at my life I can truthfully say I like what I see.  And I know that for me at least, it’s enough.

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.

 

Time-decides-your-life.jpg

How The Primal Brain Damages Relationships

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

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

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

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

Ha.

Man was I ever naive.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

I see this a lot in life.

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

And that’s just it.

Sometimes people aren’t thinking.

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

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

 

The Primal Brain

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Think about this for a moment:

Survival, dominance, mating.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

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

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

maslow-pyramid

 

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

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

This makes a ton of sense.

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

 

Coping Mechanisms

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

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

So what are coping mechanisms?

Well, here’s my take on it…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

But the key word here is learn.

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

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

And in many cases our very relationships depend on it.