The Silent Killer

A few days ago I read a great article about a guy who used Ashley Madison to research why women cheat. It’s fascinating stuff, and well worth the read.

In the article he had the following observation:

When an adulterous man is found out, there are many, many women that can get past the sex act itself.

But the real problem is where his effort has been going. As his wife sits idle, being supportive, holding down her half of the relationship, house and kids, a cheating man will put boat loads of effort into seducing the other woman: four-star restaurants and hotels, gifts, laughter, spontaneity, passion, sex.

From there, it’s a sad realization for his wife that translates to “I’m not worth the effort.” This is a fatal blow to her self-esteem and self-worth and terminal to the relationship.

I’m not worth the effort.

I think this is how relationships truly die. Sure, the discovery of things like affairs can destroy a marriage, but it’s not usually a catastrophic event like that and the same idea will apply.

Rather, it’s like death from 1000 cuts. Most failed relationships are killed slowly, over time.

And it always comes back to effort.

IfItsImportant

Action Means More Than Words

It’s easy to say “I love you”, but what matters is what you do.

How does someone know you love them? How do you show them that love, and express it to them?

Life gets busy, and people understand that. Everyone has times where they get wrapped up in work, family and whatever else life throws at them.

These sorts of things can put a drain on a relationship, but on their own they aren’t a problem.

It becomes a problem when there is a disproportionate amount of time into “me” time vs. “we” time.

Every time your partner is able to make time to do something they want to do, yet they are unable to find time for something as a couple, it adds another cut.

And over time these add up.

This sort of thing tells your partner:

hey – I can drop things to get together with the guys, or go out with the girls. I can make time to play poker with my buddies, or bury myself in my phone. I can make time to…

But you? Sorry, I see you all the time anyhow. Why should I make any effort to see you, to do things with you, or to be with you. After all, you *know* I love you.

Alone Together

If you spend enough time looking and reading you’ll find there are a lot of people out there who are unhappy with the state of their relationships. And it’s common to see an overriding sense of sadness and loneliness.

These are people IN relationships. Their partners are right there, next to them, every day.

But they still feel alone.

Common expressions are things like:

I just wanted him/her to want to be with me,
or to want to do things with me.

People want to feel wanted. They want to feel valued, and loved. And when they don’t, troubles arise.

They see their partner putting time, energy and effort into pretty much everything BUT the relationship. Each time that happens a little piece of them dies, gradually eroding their self-esteem and self-worth.

And it destroys the relationship.

Finding Balance

When hearing their partner isn’t feeling valued or wanted, the person who is not investing time in the relationship (or perhaps investing less) will often get defensive. Their response may be some variation of:

  • But we do spend time together, we see each other all the time
  • My partner is just too needy, I don’t want/need to spend every minute with them
  • It’s important to me to be able to do my own thing
  • I don’t want to do the same things they do
  • What’s the big deal? It’s not like I go out/do my own thing all that often

Or even better, they may go into attack mode and turn things around on their partner with something like:

  • So what, you are saying I should never do my own thing then?

To be clear, this has nothing to do with not wanting your partner to go out and do their own thing. Space and time away from the couple is actually healthy for a relationship, and it’s important that each person has time to themselves as an individual.

If someone wants to go and do their own thing, great. As long as what they are doing is respectful to the relationship there shouldn’t be a problem. It’s not about being with each other all the time.

However there needs to be a commensurate amount of effort put into the relationship. There needs to be a balance between “me” time and “we” time.

And no, family time or time spent doing domestic chores does not count. Family time is just that – family time. And time spent on domestic tasks is just part of co-habitation.

There needs to be time focused on being a couple. On being friends, and lovers; and both building and maintaining the connection that keeps a relationship strong.

It’s about wanting to be with each other. Wanting to do things together. Wanting to share experiences. These are the lifeblood of a relationship.

If a couple doesn’t want to do things together, then what’s the point?

Why are they together?

History isn’t enough.

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In a relationship, “Me” time is always important, and couples don’t have to have all the same interests.

The activities someone does during their me time, and even the frequency of those activities doesn’t truly matter.

It’s all about the amount of time and effort put into “me” stuff vs. the amount of time and effort put into the couple and into the relationship.

When someone can’t be bothered to make time for the relationship because they are “too busy” with life and kids, but they can make time to do the other stuff it tells the neglected partner that they aren’t worth it.

They aren’t worth the effort.

And without that effort and a sense of feeling valued the relationship will ultimately fail. Because no matter how much someone loves the other person, eventually it will be one cut too many, and even the strongest will break.

The point where we break gets closer everyday
But where do we go?
But where do we go?

I don’t want to be here anymore
I don’t want to be here anymore

I don’t want to be here anymore (be here anymore)
I know there’s nothing left worth staying for
Your paradise is something I’ve endured
See I don’t think I can fight this anymore (fight this anymore)
I’m listening with one foot out the door
But something has to die to be reborn
I don’t want to be here anymore

(We need a better way)
(We need to let go)
– Rise Against

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Honesty

honesty
Honesty.

We all want it in our relationships.

But is dishonesty ever “alright”?

It seems like a simple question at first.

Of course dishonesty is not alright – we want honesty all the time. After all, if you can’t trust someone about the little things then you can’t trust them about the big things, right?

But when you really look at it, it’s not really that straightforward.

What is dishonesty? There are three main forms of dishonesty:

  1. Lies
  2. half truths
  3. lies by omission

Some people think of honesty only in terms of lies, but it seems very clear that it’s more than that. Honesty is not only about the words you say and the actions you take.

It’s also about the things you don’t say.

You can be 100% honest in everything “you say”, while still being very secretive and deceitful. Half-truths and lies by omission are as damaging (if not more) than the things that you say.

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Intimacy vs. Autonomy

Intimacy is all about closeness, and the way to build intimacy is through the sharing of your thoughts and feelings.

No one shares everything however, and we shouldn’t want them to. It’s important to balance intimacy with autonomy. Even when we are part of a relationship, we are still an individual and it’s important not to lose sight of that.

When you see your partner at the end of the day, it’s common practice to ask about their day. When we do this we don’t actually want to know everything. We aren’t looking for an itemized list of what your partner did during the day, minute by minute (at least I hope not). What we are really looking for is a summary, with maybe some of the highlights and lowlights of that day. We want to know what was important to them, and by them sharing that with us they are both maintaining and building a sense of intimacy.

It’s up to each person to determine what the “relevant” details are, and this is one of the places we get ourselves in trouble. What it relevant to one person may be different from what is relevant to another.

Let’s say you had a cheeseburger for lunch.

Now let’s say you had sex with a co-worker at lunch.

Maybe it’s just me, but these seem like they are pretty different things. Having sex with your co-worker is kind of a big deal, and sharing that knowledge would probably have a different impact on your relationship then telling your partner you had a cheeseburger.

One seems a wee bit more important in terms of relevance to your relationship than the other, and although the fallout would be considerable, I think it’s a safe bet that your partner deserves to know about the lunch sex.

But what about the cheeseburger? Is there any need to tell them about that?

Normally the answer would be no. But it comes down to context.

What if you and your partner are on a diet together, and the cheeseburger was a way of “cheating” the diet?

What if you are saving up for something and you promised to brown bag a lunch in order to save up money?

Well then perhaps the cheeseburger IS actually relevant. Maybe your partner WOULD be hurt if they knew about the cheeseburger.

honestyisintimacy

Intent

When withholding information from your partner (either through half-truths or complete omission) it comes down to intent.

WHY are you withholding information?

Is it because you truly thought it wasn’t important and it didn’t even occur to you to tell them? Is it because you want to surprise them with something? Or is it because you were feeling guilty and you didn’t want them to find out?

Sometimes people have disconnects on what “is important”, and this is an area where communication comes into play. Over time these sorts of disconnects will be sources of conflict for a couple, and this is natural and even healthy conflict.

When there are disconnects on what is important you can use them as opportunities to understand your partner better, and be a better partner to them in the future.

But if you are ever withholding information or keeping secrets out of shame or guilt, then you KNOW you have done something wrong. If this happens, any withholding is intentionally being deceptive.

Drawing the Line

Is it ever alright to intentionally be deceptive?

Sure, if you want to surprise your partner with something. It’s kind of hard to surprise them with things if you can’t keep some secrets.

But what about secrets that would hurt them?

I think there probably is a bit of a grey area here as well.

We all run into problems and issues in life. And sometimes we don’t want to share those. Sometimes we need to be able to work through things on your own.

That’s understandable to a degree. We don’t want to be the person who is alarming our partner by crying wolf every time we have concern or a fear. Sometimes we realize our fears are nothing, and it’s best not to stir the waters by raising them.

It’s important to be very careful with this though.

If these fears persist for a long time, or if they start to spill over into and affect the relationship, then they are pretty damned relevant. At that point choosing to keep them to ourselves will only ever do harm. It will break down trust, and damage the integrity of the relationship. And the longer it goes on, the more damage will be done.

Being Honest

I think being honest in a relationship doesn’t mean you are always truthful. It doesn’t mean you have to share every little thing. There are cases where you will hold things back, or even outright lie in the short term (with surprises for example).

To me it comes down to three very important things:

  • Intent
  • Empathy
  • Respect

We all choose our own actions. If we are in a relationship, then we need to think about our partners in the things that we do.

If our intent is good in the sense that we are considering our partner and being respectful towards them, we may still get ourselves in trouble if there is a disconnect between what is important to one versus the other. But those sorts of conflicts are fine.

We should never hide behind lies and partial truths or omissions out of shame or guilt though. Those sorts of things will only do long term harm.

And we should never do things that are disrespectful to our partner, or we know would hurt them if they found out. If we are doing that, then our relationships are built on a rotten foundation. And eventually, they will crumble under the weight of our own deceit.

Acting with respect, empathy and good intent is always the best approach.

The truth isn’t always easy to face; but it’s always the right answer.

we-all-need-to-know-what-it-means-to-be-honest

Under Pressure

pressure

Recently I discussed the idea that many (and perhaps most) relationship issues are not actually issues with the relationship, but are rather issues with coping skills and handling stress and pressure.

Sometimes life gets hard, and there is a sense of being “trapped” in a situation and a longing to be “free”.

Free from responsibility.

Free from expectation.

The things is, that sort of freedom is a fantasy and is not attainable. I would also argue it’s actually not even desirable.

Responsibility, pressure and expectations are part of life. We all have them and always will. Even at your most “free”, you had them.

People sometimes believe they will be happy if they can only find “freedom”, and life without responsibility and pressure.

And when life gets hard, people sometimes are willing to throw away the good parts of their life with the bad, just to have a taste of freedom – even if it’s just for a moment.

But any escapes from them are always temporary, and never real.

Your Life is Not Your Own

We are individuals. We can be who or what we want. We are free to make our own choices. In that sense, we are entirely free.

But just as throwing stones in a pond creates ripples, each and every choice we make has impacts, or consequences. And because of that, none of us are ever truly free.

Does that mean you should live for others and do that what want?

No. Not at all.

You should never live for someone else. You should always be able to tell other people “no”, and do what you want.

But those choices about what you want don’t only affect you. And it’s important to understand that when making them.

Are We Ever Truly “Free”?

Think of your late teens/early 20’s. Some people call these years “the best years of your life”.

I completely disagree with that notion, and think it’s actually pretty sad to think. If your life peaked at 18 or 20, there’s *probably* something wrong. Ideally your current years should be your best – whatever they are.

That said, those years from 18-25 are probably when you had the most freedom.

You were considered an adult. You may have been living with your parents still, or you may have been out on your own for the first time. But chances are, for the first time in your life you were making your own decisions. Your own choices.

You probably had a job, so you now had money to do some of the things you wanted. Maybe you were going to school, but if so it was up to you if and when you wanted to go.

Life was easy.

Your biggest concerns were whether to study, work or to go out with your friends tonight.

Your choices largely affected you.

But even then you weren’t free. You couldn’t truly do whatever you wanted.
If you wanted to go on a vacation or get something new you still needed to save for it. Or rack up credit card debt, but eventually that caught up to you.

If you were on your own you still needed to come up with money for food and rent. And if you were living with your parents, you knew that one day that would have to end.

Your choices still had impacts – it’s just that less people were impacted by them. And those impacts were more indirect.

carefree

Feeling Pressure

So where (and when) does pressure come in?

I think pressure comes in two related forms. Look at the following definitions of pressure:

– the continuous physical force exerted on or against an object by something in contact with it.
– the use of persuasion, influence, or intimidation to make someone do something.

The first definition is like responsibility. Work, mortgage, bills, parenting, our relationship. They are always there, constantly. Sure, there are weekends, and maybe a couple of weeks vacation every year. But as much as we may wish it, responsibilities don’t go away.

The second definition is like expectation. Expectation is when you feel that you need to do something, or you feel you are being measured against some sort of standard.

When you look at these concepts expectation and responsibility, pressure really comes when there is a struggle to meet one or both of them.

Expectations

While responsibility is something we all have and there is no real escape from it, expectation is a bit different.

Expectation may appear to come from others, but it is actually largely internal. Whether others expect something of you or not in many ways doesn’t matter. What really matters is what you expect from yourself, what you believe others expect of you and what you expect you should be able to do for others.

The pressure people feel from expectation comes from within. Often we “believe” that other people expect something from us, when they don’t. Or maybe they do, but not nearly to the extent that we believe they do.

Even if someone does expect something of us, that expectation has no power over us unless we also expect it of ourselves.

When we internalize this expectation, it gives us a sense of how we are being measured. And when we feel we aren’t meeting it, we experience guilt and shame as a result.

So expectation is the voice inside our head, telling us we need to do this, or that. It is the internal critic, and it is this expectation we place on our self that tells us we aren’t good enough, smart enough, or pretty/handsome enough.

Being “Free”

When the pressure of responsibility and expectation becomes too great, people break.

That’s when they feel trapped, and feel a need to be free. But when you are feeling this sort of pressure, the “freedom” you are looking for is simply an escape, and often an unhealthy one.

A few year ago a buddy of mine’s girlfriend died. They had been together for a lot of years, and had four kids together. Not long after their fourth child, things went bad. The pressure of everything got to her, and according to my buddy she talked about just wanting to “be free”. She walked out, leaving him with the kids, and ended up escaping into a world of drugs. Within six months she was dead of an overdose.

That’s a pretty extreme case, but this next one is more familiar:

Another buddy was married, and he and his wife welcomed their first child. In his mind, life was good. They had a house, cottage, and family. They both had pretty good jobs, and a great future. Then one day she told she wanted out, with no warning that there were any troubles between them. He felt blindsided, and tried getting them to counseling, but she was going through the motions. She had decided she was done before he even had a chance.

So they split up, and she went back to her “party days”. Around two years later she contacted him and told him she realized she had made a huge mistake. She wondered if it would be possible for them to try and work things out. The pressure of life had gotten to be too much for her, and she wanted to be free. But she realized that what she was chasing wasn’t real. It was simply an escape from life.

It was too late. Too much damage had been done, and he had moved on.

Pressure and Anxiety

People have different levels of stress, and we also have different ways of coping with the stresses in our life. Everyone feels pressure at some point in time, but this is accentuated for people with anxiety issues.

My buddy Gandalf is somewhat of an expert on anxiety (in my mind anyhow), and he gave me following description of how the dual pressure of responsibility and expectation affects someone with an anxiety disorder…

Most people fear failure. But when they fail most people accept something didn’t work and try a different approach. When someone has an anxiety disorder they cannot separate the failure of a task with the failure of their core being. Plus, they fear others will dislike them if they fail, especially if they value the other person’s approval. With little to no internal self-worth, their self-worth come from the people they are seeking approval from.

This makes anxiety suffers avoid responsibility, unless they can control the outcome so that it’s always a success. They pick battles that they know they’ll win before starting. But in a weird twist they also fear success, because it usually means increased responsibilities they cannot control and automatically succeed at. So the easiest path in life is to avoid responsibilities.

This is freedom, but it’s actually freedom from worrying, not responsibilities. Responsibilities cause fear, worrying, and anxiety, and all they want is for that to stop. Being unable to handle the fear of failure, the only option is to not be responsible for anything. Thus, when free of responsibilities, they are free of the anxiety that comes with it, and they are “free”.

Expectations are a subset of responsibilities. These are personal evaluations of a person by another, like a friend, family member, or coworker. They place a condition on their relationship that one tries to live up to. If the person suffering anxiety feels they are not meeting that expectation, they start to worry the other person will not like them and be angry with them. Also, if the anxiety sufferer feels they are exceeding the other person’s expectations, they want that external validation. When it’s not there, they get upset and feel like they are not appreciated.

Like responsibilities, expectations are to be avoided as well, and resentment occurs when the person suffering from anxiety feels that expectations have been placed on them by others, especially ones that they feel they cannot succeed at, or live up to. The main difference is responsibilities can usually be chosen, while expectations are usually arbitrary.

Responsibility and expectation can be hard for anyone, but when someone has anxiety feelings of guilt and shame also get mixed up in there.

Not a lot of fun.

Managing Expectations

Which brings me back to my regular topic, relationships.

Relationships inherently have both responsibility and expectations. That’s not a bad thing, but when life is hard these responsibilities and expectations can be difficult. And the pressure can take a toll on our relationships.

When we are under pressure, hopefully our partner will be understanding and try to help alleviate some of that pressure. But when the pressure persists for extended periods, then it’s important to try and understand it.

When you are feeling pressured, trapped and in need of an escape make sure you ask yourself the right questions. Is it really the relationship? Often relationships are blamed for pressure because stress spills over into them, making them an easy target.

Maybe the pressure is actually coming from responsibility.

If so, we taking too much on? Are there ways we can lessen the load, or are the responsibilities we face part of normal everyday life?

If our responsibilities can’t change, then we have to look at expectations. Expectations normally come from within. What is your inner critic telling you? Working to silence (or at least reduce) the internal critic is one of the most effective ways of managing stress.

Actively work on managing your stress and your internal critic. Your physical and mental well being will thank you for it, and so will your relationship.

Escape With Each Other

Hug

In my last post I presented the idea that relationship issues are frequently (and perhaps usually) not actually issues with the relationship. Rather, they are issues with stress management.

I think it’s safe to say the following is true:

  1. people have different amounts of stress in their lives
  2. we are different in how well we manage the stresses we do have
  3. some ways of coping with those stresses are healthier than others

We all have stress in our lives, and studies show just how damaging stress is. It’s extremely bad for your own health, and it’s also extremely bad for relationships. In fact, high stress jobs tend to also be associated with high divorce rates.

So stress management is pretty important for both your own health and the health of your relationship. We all have things we do to de-stress. Ways to escape, however temporarily, from the stresses of life.

My idea in my previous post was that over time, in our heads our partner comes to represent our stress. We start to incorrectly see them as the source of our stress instead of seeing them as someone who is dealing with the same (or at least similar) stresses as us at the same time.

In a healthy relationship, our partner is our shelter in the storm of life. They are the first person we go to in order to let go, or relax. So once we’ve started to associate them with the stresses of life, our relationships get into trouble.

It is often said that bad relationships cause stress. That may be true, but stress doesn’t only happen in “bad relationships”. People can have relationships that have all the ingredients to be amazing, but they can still be destroyed by stress.

Allowing Escapism

In my last post I talked about escaping from stress, and how many forms of escapism are unhealthy ways of dealing with stress. For example, I believe this sense of escapism is actually one of the leading causes of affairs. But there are also healthy forms of escapism.

One reader (bac4sccr) made the following comment:

I believe the trick (I am no expert though) is to allow the escapism. You may think I am crazy but if it is allowed you can get away from the stresses of life. The catch is can you do the escapism together as a couple. Zombiedrew2 already used sex as an example of escapism. I agree that it can be used but it cannot be the only form. It could be weekly dates where you are not allowed to talk about money or kids or your car breaking down. You do something with your partner to escape. You associate this escapism (positive) with your spouse and then your relationship grows because you associate it and your partner with positive thoughts and feelings.

I absolutely love this comment, and wanted to expand on it a bit – stealing some of my reply to his comment.

As a side note, many thanks for the people who write in and leave comments. I try to respond to every comment I get, and feel it is the interaction between bloggers and readers that really drives a site. If you have any thoughts on any of my posts I encourage you to write in. I am always interested in different ideas and insights, and believe we can learn a lot from each other as well as provide a bit of support for each other at the same time. Plus when you comment (or even just hit the “like” button) it lets me know someone is actually reading – which is always nice.

Back on topic, I think escaping together is probably the lifeblood of a relationship. And it’s also the area that MOST couples fail.

Miserably.

Escaping Alone

The hardest part of a relationship is balancing the “me” and the “we”. It’s not healthy to completely lose yourself in your relationship, but at the same time you don’t want to be roommates who simply share bills and sleep in the same bed.

It’s important that you maintain the couple. You should never use the excuse of there being “not enough time”, because it’s pretty damned important. Important enough that you need to MAKE time. And when you actually do have time, you need to let go of the distractions of life. Turn towards each other and focus on each other.

Yeah, you still need to do things as an individual. It’s important to have time to yourself, away from your partner. But when most or all of your escape time is as a “me”, here’s what happens…

Your escape time is when you can let go of the stress of life. So when your escape time is usually on your own (or at least away from your partner) at a subconscious level you start to associate the feelings of being relaxed, and being free from stress with the times that you are away from your partner.

If you had already started to associate the stresses of life with your partner, this just deepens it.

And if those stresses have led you to have any doubts about your relationship? Well, this will just “prove” those doubts to you.

I think this happens to couples with kids more than couples without, and there’s a reason for it that is at once sad and ironic.

Kids are awesome, but they require a lot of care and attention. Often it can be hard to find care, so one parent ends up home with the kids while the other is off having “me” time. So they are able to relax on their own.

Why?

Because they actually trust their partner with the kids.

They can relax because they know that their partner will take care of the kids. This sense of trust allows them to relax. But if they only relax when they are away from their partner, over time that negative association is made.

Hmm, I have fun and I can relax on my own. But when I’m with my partner I’m stressed and can’t relax. Shouldn’t I feel differently? Maybe this indicates a problem in our relationship? Maybe I’m better off on my own?

Yeah, when it comes to the health of the relationship that’s not really a good association to make.

Trends in Divorce

Divorces can happen to couples at any time, and for any number of reasons. But if you look at stats on divorces you will see that there are a few trends, and times in life and marriage where they happen more frequently.

The first group are marriages last less than two years. Chances are those are couples who were simply a bad match, and they couldn’t get along.

The next group is probably in their late 30’s to early 40’s. They are hitting midlife, and are probably at one of the hardest stages in life for dealing with the stresses of “day to day” life. This is when people are most likely to have young kids and tighter cash flow. But it’s also when they are most likely to question “is this it” about their relationship and life in general. If your marriage is going to fall apart, chances are this is when it happens.

And the last is after the kids have grown up and moved out. This couple was probably in trouble when they hit group 2, but due to the kids they were able to hold on and get by. Suddenly they look at each other and realize they have grown apart and the only thing they had in common over the past 15-20 years was the kids. Some stay in the marriage and live largely independent lives. Probably because they’ve invested so much time and they don’t want to start over.

Holding On

I guess my point in all this is that you start a relationship because you saw something in each other once.

Something wonderful.

Something beautiful.

Something you wanted to hold onto, forever.

But a lot of us screw things up. We lose the very things that brought us together, and we don’t realize it until things are in a bad spot – and for many it’s too late.

And when it fails, often it wasn’t the relationship that was the problem. It was the stress of daily life, and the fact that instead of tackling it together stress caused us to retreat into ourselves and focus more on being an individual.

Finding time as a couple and making it a priority is the ONLY way out in my opinion. But to do that you need to recognize the difference between relationship stresses and life stresses. The life stresses are ones you are both experiencing at the same time, and changing the relationship won’t make them any better.

So yeah, you will need to escape sometimes.

But do it together.

Focus on each other, and always make time to connect (or reconnect if need).

Remember that you are supposed to be each others shelters from life. When times are hard, don’t turn away from your partner.

Turn towards each other, and just love each other.

Asking the Right Questions

asking-right-question

I suspect everyone has gone to see a doctor at one point in time or another.

Let’s say you hurt your hand somehow, and it’s bothering you enough that you decide to see a doctor. What happens?

Does the doctor put your arm in a cast? Does he/she send you straight to surgery to amputate your hand? Do they remove your liver?

You know, while they may ultimately give you a cast or amputate the hand (your liver is probably safe), it’s a pretty safe bet that those (fairly drastic) measures aren’t where they start.

Instead, they start with something simple.

A question.

They start by asking why you are there – what is bothering you? Then they ask a series of questions related to your reason for coming in. Maybe they ask when the hand started hurting, and they may ask you to try moving it in different ways while describing any sensations.

I hear complaints sometimes that doctors don’t always “get it right”. But really, if you think about what they have to do I suspect their job is quite difficult.

People go to them with a list of symptoms, and based on these symptoms the doctor has to determine what the underlying issue *could* be. Sometimes there are multiple potential issues matching the symptom list, so they ask additional questions to try and narrow things down; to ultimately find the actual cause of the problem.

What does the doctor base their decision on?

They base it on knowledge gained through years of schooling and experience. We go to them because we trust that they have built up sufficient skills to help us. And if they haven’t, hopefully they refer us to someone who is better qualified.

When we have problems, it’s important that we turn to the right sources. In the example above, the “problem” was a sore hand. For a sore hand do you call an auto mechanic? A gynecologist? No, you need to turn to someone who has knowledge and expertise in the problem area. Even skilled professionals sometimes make mistakes. But by turning to an “expert” we better position ourselves for the best results.

Dealing with Problems

The human body is a pretty complicated thing. But at least it’s tangible. At least you can point to an area that “seems” to be the problem (though due to the interconnected nature of things, sometimes that is actually just a symptom and the real problem lies somewhere else).

When we are dealing with feelings and emotions though, things get much more complicated.

We all have problems and issues that we deal with, and often our hallmark of “good health” is our level of happiness. If we’re happy then things must be going well. And when we aren’t, well then that indicates some sort of issue – right?

Things like issues with anger management or chronic unhappiness let us know that something is not right in our life. So we try to figure things out, or “get by” on our own.

And that’s where we go wrong.

The thing is, we are terrible judges of our own problems because we are too close to them. We can’t see past the emotion of our involvement in order to see clearly. And because of this frequently we can’t see the difference between a symptom and the actual problem.

Sometimes we really have a splinter, and we end up doing makeshift surgery on ourselves – amputating the arm and the liver instead.

One of the areas this manifest itself the most is with relationships. Our relationships are some of the central things in our lives, so if we aren’t happy it’s easy to look at the relationships for what is wrong. All relationships have problems, so once you start looking it’s usually pretty easy to find something.

But a question you need to ask is, is the relationship issue the actual problem? Or is the relationships issue actually a symptom of something else?

Looking for Help

For most of us, there are a few people in our lives that we are able to turn to when we need to open up and talk about our problem. Ideally our partner is the person we open up to the most, and beyond that it’s usually close friends or family.

It’s great to have sounding boards, and often these people can provide a different perspective and help ground us. Even then you need to remember that they only have your side of the story, and only have what you give them.

If we go in to a doctor and say “I’m sore”, but aren’t able to (or won’t) tell them where it hurts, when it started or what it feels like, they really don’t have much to go on.

Here’s a larger issue though…

…these people have only their own personal experiences to draw upon, and this colors their ability to give you advice. Even if they have been through something similar, it doesn’t matter. Every person is different. Every situation is different. What worked for them or what was best for them isn’t necessarily what is best for you.

Shopping for Answers

Sometimes when there is a problem people have come to conclusions about what is wrong and what they need to do, but a part of them is scared to act. After all, what if they are wrong?

So they turn to others for their “opinions”. But those opinions don’t really matter, because they are really looking for opinions that match their own.

They could get multiple opinions that aren’t what they want to hear, and those are ignored. But when an opinion matches the one they want? Then it provides validation that they were right (that sort of thinking reminds me of this scene from the Lego Movie).
When you have already decided what the appropriate answer is, all the questions in the world don’t really matter.

Starting Fresh

A buddy of mine was recently divorced, and he’s loving being single again. He had been married a number of years and had a family.

When I asked him what he’s enjoying the most, he says it’s the freedom and the time to himself. He doesn’t have to answer to anyone, and has been able to pick up some new hobbies.

Well, except for when he has his kids. When he has his kids, his week revolves around them and he has no time to himself to do his new hobbies.

Oh yeah, and he’s started dating again so during his *me* weeks he has to make time to fit in his new girlfriend.

It makes me wonder, is that new freedom real or is it just an illusion? Was it really the marriage that was the problem?

Maybe.

But perhaps it was actually the sense of responsibility that came from going to work everyday and coming home to a wife and children who both put demands on his time.

Maybe he just needed to find a way to carve out a bit more time for himself. Marriage and families definitely restrict you. You aren’t “free” to do what you want. But maybe he could have found a way to get a bit of balance back in his life.

My worry is, if/when he hits the point where he’s either married or living with someone again he will find himself back in the same spot he was in before. And he’ll have broken up his family in the process.

For many people, there is often a sense of relief after a separation or divorce. A sense that “yeah, I made the right decision. I’m happier now”. And that sense really comes from the nature of changing up a stagnant situation.

Often within six months to two years though, people find that their “new” situation is really no better than the old one. Some parts are better, and others worse.

The grass isn’t greener on the other side. Both sides have patches of green and patches of brown. But unfortunately the grass often looks greener from afar, and it’s not until you actually get there that you realize it’s only green where you water it.

Keep an Open Mind

When trying to understand our problems, one of the most important things is being able to keep an open mind. It’s easy to have an idea of what is wrong and then latch onto that. But is it the problem? Or it is a symptom?

Depending on the nature of the problem you are dealing with, the consequences of mistaking a symptom for a problem can be considerable.

When dealing with issues that can have serious implications (such as issues with long term relationships or when kids are involved), I would definitely recommend looking into professional counseling services when possible.

Not all counselors are good, and even the goods ones aren’t always a good match for a couple or individual.

But it’s always a shame when someone mistook a symptom for a problem, and amputated an arm when they really had a splinter.

Is This All There Is?

Driving off

Is this all there is? This is a question everyone asks themselves eventually.

Is the life I have right now the one I want?

Is there more to life?

Growing up, we have a bit of a romanticized notion of what “being an adult” will be, and what life will look like.

We will be free. We won’t have to live under the rules of our parents. We won’t have to go to school every day. We will be adults – we will be our own person and be able to live our lives how we want!!!

And then we get there.

Once out “on our own” we need a place to live, and we need to eat. So we get a job. Maybe we find one we like, and maybe we just find one that will pay us. But that’s alright, because it pays enough of the bills to let us get by. If we want more “stuff”, we need a better job.

But the job is just a job. Sure we may make some friends at work, but our job is just there to help us finance our life; and our life is the important part.

In our personal life we have friends and family. Often we have a spouse or a partner, and maybe we have kids. THOSE are a greater source of happiness than our job.

But our friends and family have their own lives too. And as much as we may love our spouse and kids, they can be sources of stress and conflict almost as much as they are sources of joy.

We live our lives, and although there may be a lot of joy, life becomes routine. We need to work to pay the bills, and hopefully put away a bit of money to be able to go on a vacation once in a while. Or get a nicer car, or a nicer house.

So we find ourselves in this cycle, going through the motions of life day after day, month after month, and year after year.

Eventually though, *something* triggers you to take a look at your life.

And you come to the realization that being an adult is not what you expected. Careers aren’t what we expected. Marriage is not what you expected. And being a parent is not what you expected.

And you find yourself asking, is this it?

Is this all there is?

Midlife “Crisis”

I think this stage of taking a hard look at your life is what is often referred to as a midlife crisis.

As a kid, I thought a midlife crisis was a bit of a joke. When I heard the term I had visions of an older guy who would divorce his wife, get a sports car and a girlfriend at least 10 years younger (probably a yoga instructor).

It was the sort of thing you saw in movies and on TV, but I didn’t think it really happened.

Of course as a kid I also thought that marriages lasted forever, people would always love their partners and affairs only happened in soap operas. Ha!!!

Now that I’m at midlife myself I read peoples stories on blogs, and I look around at friends and acquaintances and I see that midlife crisis is actually quite real.

It’s just not quite what I thought, and the idea of the sports car and the yoga instructor isn’t often that accurate.

More commonly, instead of a “crisis” people have a period of midlife reflection and transformation.

Sure, some people respond badly, act selfishly and do some really stupid things (and those are the ones we most frequently hear about). But that doesn’t have to be what it’s about.

And in fact, this period in life can also be very healthy.

What Causes Midlife Crisis?

If midlife crisis is a period of reflection and transformation, what causes it?

I think mid-life crisis is really about recognition of our own mortality. It happens anywhere from some ones late 30’s to early 50’s (around “mid”-life). And if you hear enough stories you start to see that there is usually some sort of trigger.

The person going through it often has lost someone close to them, or perhaps they or someone close to them has been impacted by a serious illness.

Sometimes the trigger is just age, and with it the realization that statistically their time on this earth is moving into its second half; and we are closer to our death than our birth.

Why do People Handle it Differently?

To me, the biggest question is why do people handle it so differently? At this time of reflection, some people don’t seem affected at all. Others take stock of their lives and decide to take up a new hobby. And then we have those who dump their partner, buy a sports car and start dating the yoga instructor.

It’s clear that not all approaches are equal, and some have much more significant long term repercussions than others.

Each person is doing what seems right to them at the time, but in the cases that are “newsworthy” to friends and loved ones it often seems like they are watching a car crash. They are watching a loved one engage in what appear to be self-destructive actions and decisions.

So what causes this difference in behavior?

I think it’s primarily due to two things:

  • The size of the gap between where you hoped/wanted to be and where you feel you are
  • The degree of control you feel you have had over how you got to your current situation

The first one seems obvious. You sit back and look at your life, and it’s not what you expected. Maybe a big part of that is due to a romanticized notion of what life “should” look like, but if your life doesn’t look like the one you wanted and you believe that your time is running out, it makes sense to want to make changes.

I think the second reason is actually MUCH more important though.

I write about relationships, but the main underlying theme in my writing is choice and accountability. I feel that choice, and the belief that you have the ability to make choices is one of the biggest keys to happiness.

When I hear stories about midlife crisis, the people who make the biggest changes are usually people who have been living the life they thought they “had” to, or the life they felt was expected of them. Commonly they didn’t assert themselves, and instead just went with the flow.

And now they don’t want to do that anymore. Instead, they decide to live the life they “want” to live – usually acting very impulsively and with little thought about consequences. It’s at once a rebellion and an assertion of individuality; a way of taking control of their own life – with either very little thought given to the damage being done in the process or a belief that they have “sacrificed” for long enough and they don’t want to anymore.

I truly believe this element of choice and control is much more important than the actual gap between where someone is and where they want to be.

If the gap is large but it’s a result of your own choices? Well, there’s no one to blame but yourself. You may not have what you want but you’ve done the best with what you had.

If you feel that you have been living the live that was expected of you though?

People can have what from all outward appearances are great lives. Great families, jobs, partners that truly care about them and support them. It doesn’t matter how “great” a persons life is though if they don’t feel they “choose it”.

No matter how much good there is, if they feel they have been living the life that others expected of them then it lays the groundwork for considerable resentment.

What is the Crisis?

When this midlife time of reflection becomes a crisis, there are a few common areas. These include the following:

Loss of Identity

This is probably the biggest one. In life we play a number of different roles. And in the process of growing and changing it’s easy to find that in all the roles we have “lost ourselves”.

We have become the parent, the partner, the co-worker, the child. We are all these different things to different people. But who are we?

I think we are the sum of all these things. Each of them makes up a part of us that is part of who we truly are.

When there is a sense of lost identity, maybe people never actually knew who they really were. This realization can be painful, but also powerful.

And midlife becomes a time of finding yourself again, and perhaps finally accepting yourself for who you are, instead of looking at who you are not.

Loss of Freedom

At midlife people often talk about “wanting to be free”. There is often sadness at lost youth, and a yearning for the freedom that came with it.

But the sad truth is, as much as we may try there is no going back. We were “free” because we were kids. We had adults to take care of us and look after us.

Once you are an adult? Freedom doesn’t really exist – at least not in the way it did when we were kids. You pretty much have to go to work. You have to have shelter, you have to eat. If you have kids, you have to take care of them. And if you want a relationship, you have to put effort in.

All of these things definitely DO put restrictions on you.

You absolutely CAN choose to walk away from those restrictions, and some do. Some hit a point that they find the stress too high and they just walk away one or all of these parts of their lives – their partner, their job, and even their children.

However when people do that they are looking for a freedom that they will never truly find. And that type of freedom not only comes at great cost, but is also usually not quite what someone expects.

Feeling Stuck

Another issue that can cause midlife to be a time of crisis is the sense of being “stuck”. Life has become mundane and routine. You feel like you are just going through the motions. Alive, but not truly living.

The advertising world tells us that “normal” is bad. It tells us that we are special, we aren’t like all the “other people”. We deserve more.

Then we look over and see the kids. And the mortgage. And the bills. And the pile of laundry.

And over time a sense of sadness and hopelessness builds, which in time can turn to depression.

I think this is probably the leading cause of affairs and divorce. People are looking for some sort of change to shake them out of the rut they are in, and finding comfort in the arms of another is an easy (and temporary) way out. People who have affairs often say that they wanted “to feel alive again”, and that they had lost that feeling.

Affairs are a quick fix though, and they don’t address the underlying issues. I talk about this as it applies to relationships in Losing the Spark. But even individually we all need goals. We need things to strive towards (both individually and as a couple) in order to allow us to get through day to day life.

Truthfully, we all could probably do with a bit more excitement our lives. But it doesn’t just happen, we need to build it in.

A Time for Change

Midlife is a time for reflection. Even if you have been living the life you felt you had to, or the one you felt was expected of you – sometimes when you take a good look at it you realize hey, it’s not so bad.

Maybe there are a few changes you can make, a few goals to pursue, a bit of improvement in communication with people you care about.

And sometimes improving a few little things can make a world of difference. We don’t necessarily have to wipe the board clean and start our life over again.

Last year I hit 40. Mid-life.

There was a bit of turmoil in my life at the time, but I can truly say I never entertained thoughts of the sports car and the yoga instructor.

I did reflect on my life, and I do on a fairly regular basis. But every time I do, I come to the same conclusions.

Yes, life could have been different. There are any number of choices I made which, had I chosen differently would have resulted in a different “me” today.

But I have no regrets. All of my choices were mine, and all of them helped shape me into the person I am today.

And honestly? I like me. Hell, I love me.

And I love my life.

My life is not perfect and it never will be. And things won’t always work out the way I want. But I have a lot of things to be thankful for.

And I ALWAYS have choice.

Others matter to me, and I care about their opinions. They may even influence some of my choices in the way I live my life. But they were still my choices.

I can always choose to improve the things I don’t like, accept them as they are, or change them.

And so can you.

Killing with Kindness

smilingApple

Best intentions.

Ideally when we act, we are acting with best intentions. But sometimes our best intentions don’t work out the way we had hoped. Sometimes the question of “best for who” can be raised, as there can be conflicting interests. And sometimes our understanding of what is best is skewed.

I see two different ways that we can inadvertently do harm with best intentions. First is trying to do (or help) too much, and the second is by trying to avoid conflict and never saying “no”.

Becoming a Parent

I first started to understand the complexity behind intentions and motivations when I became a parent. As a parent, we have a few different roles.

One of those roles is to provide for our children. We provide them with a safe environment. A home full of love and caring. It’s easy to get caught up in being a provider and try to provide every “thing” and every opportunity for our children.

It’s easy to understand why we do it though. Maybe we want to give our children an opportunity we always wanted but never had; and so it becomes important to us to ensure our children have those opportunities.

Because we love our children we try to give them everything and do everything for them. But in the process, we are doing considerable harm.

Attachment Theory

A while back I wrote about attachment theory. One of the main ideas behind attachment theory is that healthy attachment is all about establishing boundaries.

As young children everything is about us, and our needs. When we don’t believe our needs are being met we respond with stress, anxiety and fear. As babies this may be crying, as toddlers it becomes tantrums.

With healthy attachment children learn that needs not being met doesn’t indicate a lack of care or love. Further, they learn that not all needs will be met, and that’s alright.

In unhealthy attachment however, not having their needs met continues to result in stress, anxiety and fear.

Any parent knows that kids can be masters at manipulation. As parents we try setting boundaries, and our children continually push them. They push while exploring and trying to understand the world around them. As parents we need to get them to understand and accept “no”. But have them understand that “no” doesn’t mean we love them any less.

When we fail to establish boundaries, we are actually crippling our children. We are teaching them that they can do whatever they want, and that rules either don’t matter or only apply sometimes. By doing this, we are giving them a sense of entitlement.

Provider and Teacher

In addition to being a provider for our children we are also teachers; and this is the harder role. It’s relatively easy to provide food and put a roof over our children’s heads. It’s MUCH harder to teach.

Think about how you learn. You learn by failing. By making mistakes, seeing where things went wrong, and trying something different next time.

As a parent, the hardest thing to do is watch your child fail. So sometimes we try to make decisions for them. We try to prevent them from making the same mistakes we may have made.

But our children need to learn on their own.

This is where boundaries come in. We need to set boundaries, but let our children explore and learn within those boundaries. We need to be able to watch them fail. We need to know when to let them pick themselves up and when to help them. And that’s a VERY hard balance, and a difficult thing to do.
It hurts to watch your child fail, so sometimes we try and help them to prevent them from failing. We are doing it because we care, but we do too much.

doingtoomuch

This conflicts with our role as a teacher. As a teacher, our real role is to prepare our children for life on their own. To mold them into independent beings, who can make the right choices when they need to. But when we do too much, instead of “helping” our children we are creating dependence.

Adulthood

Societally we have this notion of adulthood. People reach some magical age (18 or 21) where they are now “legally adults”, and they are now deemed responsible. This doesn’t mean we actually ARE responsible (look at college life for ample proof of that), it simply means we are now responsible for our own decisions.

We start relationships, maybe even start a family of our own. And hey, we’re adults, so we’ve got everything figured out now. But in many ways not much has changed since we were children. In many cases we are still that child pushing boundaries in order to understand the world around us and our place in it.

Dealing with Conflict

I’ve touched on this in the past, but one of the biggest failings we have in our development is most people grow up with the notion that conflict is bad (I know I did). A logical conclusion that can be made is, if the presence of conflict is bad, then avoiding conflict means things are good – right?

Yeah, not so much.

Because we want to avoid conflict, we fail to establish boundaries in our relationships. Your partner is doing something that hurts you, and often we don’t want to say anything. It’s “not a big deal”, so we let it go in order to avoid conflict. And in the process we set ourselves up for larger, more serious conflicts in the future.

I’ve got a buddy who is really into sports. He has a wife and a young family, but most of the year he’s out 3-4 nights a week with his buddies playing various sports and then going for drinks after. According to him she’s fine with that. I’ve often wondered, is she really fine with that? Or does she just not want to say no?

If I were her I think I’d be more than just a wee bit resentful.

Establishing Boundaries

Establishing boundaries in relationships is difficult. I think part of the reason we don’t want to do it is because we don’t feel we should have to. Our partners should “know” when they are pushing boundaries too far. They should “know” when they are hurting us. But honestly, unless we say something they probably don’t.

It makes me think of contract negotiations in sports. Often you hear about players who are horribly overpaid. When you think about it though, who’s fault is that? I would argue it’s the fault of the person paying them (team owners). Players may often overvalue their worth, but the owner has to be the one to agree to it. They can always say no, or offer less. If a player is offered more than they are worth, of course they will accept it.

Relationships are the same. Just as the authors of books need editors, sometimes we need our partners to reel us in and keep us in line. Sometimes our partners need to tell us “no”, or say “you can choose to do that, but be aware that I’m not fine with it”.

For my buddy who’s out almost every night, maybe his wife IS fine with it. I’m sure she’s fine with him going out once a week, maybe even twice. Supporting your partner in their interests is important. But I would guess she would also like some help at home, and some additional time spent with her husband.

He probably started with one or two nights, and then added more. And if she never said anything, he probably thought the silence was consent. He pushed boundaries, and she never established where they were.

My guess? This turns into a significant issue for them sometime in the future. And he’ll be stunned, because he always thought she was fine with it.

My buddies scenario is just an example, but I think we all run into cases like this. We want to be “the good partner”. We want to be supportive. We also want to avoid conflict. So we put ourselves in situations where we give and give. We want our partners to establish boundaries on their own, and usually they do. But we are all different, so where they establish the boundary may be different from where we believe it should be.

When this happens, instead of being resentful with our partners we need to take a look at ourselves. We need to learn to say “no”. To say “hey, I matter here too”. I like to think the best of people, and I believe that in most relationships both partners truly do love each other. So done right, I think most partners will understand and adjust their behavior accordingly.

Being an adult doesn’t mean we have things figured out. Relationships are complex, and we should always be growing and learning. Just as a parent plays a dual role of provider and teacher, in a way we do the same in our relationships.

A common complaint I see is that relationships become one sided. One person feels they are giving and giving while the other person just takes. That’s not a relationship.

For the person who feels they are “giving”, ask yourself what are you asking for in return? Are you allowing yourself to be taken advantage of? Kindness and caring doesn’t mean always doing something for the other person and not asking for anything for yourself in return.

It’s not about being petty and withholding stuff until you get what you want (that’s about power and control, and is bad news). It’s simply knowing your value and saying “I’m worth your time. I’m worth your attention. My needs matter in this relationship too.”

Your partner matters, and you matter. For the relationship to be successful and happy you need to find a balance where both people feel valued and appreciated. And establishing boundaries is essential to that, and to happy relationships.