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.

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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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How to Improve your Life without Changing a Thing

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A few posts back I mentioned watching the movie Wild.  It’s about a lady whose life has hit “rock bottom”, and how she finds herself again and reboots her life by going on a hike.

I haven’t read “Eat, Pray, Love” (or seen the movie), but my understanding is that it deals with similar concepts.  There is a woman recovering from a difficult divorce, who goes on a journey to find who she is and what she’s looking for in life – joy, spirituality and love.

There are many similar stories about “transformative journeys”, where people come to a point in life where they are questioning things:

Who am I?  Why am I here?  What will make me happy?  What gives me purpose?  What do I really want out of life?  Is this all there is?  Isn’t there “more” to life?

So they embark on journeys of self-discovery; which usually involve walking away from the life they had and the life they knew, discovering *something* about themselves, and coming back a changed and hopefully more whole person.

 

In 1949, Joseph Campbell released a book called The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  He had studied mythology from different cultures, and found a common thread in most mythology is “the hero’s journey”.  In the hero’s journey, someone starts in an ordinary world, and begins a quest only after they are compelled to by some event or tragedy.  Their quest takes them to different places, and a journey of growth and awakening, until they finally return to a variation on their old life, where they are more at peace and balanced.

At its essence, the hero’s journey is a story of personal change, and growth.  And stories like Wild, or Eat, Pray, Love tap into this basic narrative.

 

Think of the questions:

Who am I?  Why am I here?  What will make me happy?  What gives me purpose?  What do I really want out of life?  Is this all there is?  Isn’t there “more” to life?

These are hard questions, and ones I think we all ask ourselves from time to time.  The hero’s journey appeals to us because at some level, we have all thought of just walking away from everything and starting over.  Or at the very least, taking a “break” from our regular life and having our own journey (come on, admit it.  I know I’ve thought it, and for the most part I like my life).

The thing is, it’s not really an option for most of us.

Most of us can’t just walk away, or even take a time out from our regular life.

We have responsibilities that make this impossible – jobs, mortgages, kids, etc.  Impossible may be a strong word, but at the very least it’s extremely difficult.  Part of the challenge is, our choices have implications – so if we just decide to walk away from our jobs, financial obligations or families; chances are we are walking away forever.  These aren’t the sort of things you can just “test out”.

 

There’s a deeper problem with the hero’s journey however.

Even if we could just walk away and go on a journey of discovery and transformation, those stories are misleading; because they tell only part of the story.  They are kind of like romance stories which end with the couple getting married.  The romance leading up to the wedding may be the exciting or romantic part, but it’s just the beginning.

Just as finding love is very different from being able to hold onto it forever, having a transformative journey and finding yourself in the short term doesn’t mean you won’t end up just as lost again in the future.

Making changes is one thing.  Sustaining them is something else.

 

I have a childhood buddy who went on his own version of the hero’s journey.

We were probably in our early 30’s at the time, and he was working a professional career.  One day I received a group email from him saying he had quit his job and was moving across the country to become a white water rafting instructor.

Ummm, alright.

He and I had gone for lunch a few months prior, and I had no idea anything like this was looming, so I assumed something must have happened.  But he was gone, and we didn’t speak for a number of years.

A few years ago I heard he was back, so we got together one night for dinner.

I had to ask – what the hell had happened?  Why did he leave?

I’m sure there were a number of factors, but one of them he told me was deep dissatisfaction with the regular 9-5 life, where you are caught in this cycle of work, eat, sleep, rinse and repeat.  He asked himself those same questions – what am I doing?  Why am I doing this?  Is this all there is?

He had no dependents, and he had always loved the outdoors.

So he left.

 

Yet here he was, back home.

Back in the same career he had walked away from.  Largely living the same life he had been living before.

I asked him – if this was a life he needed to walk away from, why was he back?  And was he happy (or at least content) now, back living his old life?

In response, he told me a bit about the past few years of his life.

He had been living a fairly nomadic life.  He worked as a white water rafting guide/instructor during part of the year, and when the season was done he travelled the world.  He saw all sorts of things; amazing sights and places.  Thing is, he largely saw them alone.

He would meet women, and have some companionship.  But he was never in one place for very long; so with any relationship he got into, both people knew it was a temporary thing.  And after a while, he started to feel rootless and yearn for something more.

It wasn’t just that though.

Over time he found his job as a white water rafting instructor wasn’t what he thought it would be.  He had become sick of the day to day office life and wanted to have more adventure and excitement in his life.  Yet somehow, spending his days on the rapids was no longer exciting.

It was no longer fulfilling.

I remember sitting there in the restaurant, and him looking at me and saying:

“You know, I realized that it doesn’t matter what you are doing.  Eventually, everything becomes work”.

Those words still resonate with me, and I find them very powerful.

Eventually, everything becomes work.  Everything.

 

Everything becomes work, yet here he was back doing the same work he had done before.  So I asked him, what had changed?

The realization that everything eventually becomes work made him understand he had two options.

  1. When even the adrenaline rush of riding the rapids can become routine, how can we ever expect life to remain fresh and exciting? We can’t, unless we keep changing things up.  So he could either continue changing things up every time routine started to set in, and go off on some other adventure.  But since everything becomes routine, this would apply to jobs, relationships, lifestyle, etc; and he would always be on the move.
  2. The other option was changing his approach, so that was what he did. He was able to handle going back to his old job and his old life because he changed his mental approach.  His outlook, and attitude were now different.  He accepted that life isn’t always fun, and isn’t always exciting.  He approached his job as something he may not love, but also didn’t hate.  And it was enough for him, because it allowed him to support the life he wanted.

 

If you really look at the hero’s journey, what is it about?

Is it about the quest?  The adventure?

Was the story of Wild really about going on a hike?  Was Eat, Pray, Love really about escaping to a foreign land to, umm, eat, pray and love (sorry, I told you I haven’t read it)?  Was my buddy’s journey really about white water rafting?

No, the journey (or the quest) is just a short term thing, a break from ordinary life.  That may recharge someone for a bit, but it’s temporary.

Sustained change is about the lessons we learn; it’s really about personal and spiritual growth.  It’s about letting go of who you think you want to be and the life you think you should have, and instead accepting yourself for who you are.  It’s about finding peace, and contentment, and meaning in your life as it is now.  Which doesn’t mean you can’t change or improve, but it does mean you don’t have to.

 

What can you actually change in life?

Often circumstances dictate things, and you aren’t really able to change much.  You can get a different job, but eventually it will become work.  You can find a different partner, but they will have good and bad too.

Most of us can’t walk away from our lives.  We can’t go on some incredible transformative journey or adventure.  But I think we CAN come to terms with the fact that our life IS our adventure.

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Our attitude shapes almost everything.  Our expectations shape our experiences.  And how we approach things becomes our reality.

As my buddy found, eventually everything becomes work.  Everything becomes routine.

When things become routine, its human nature for us to start taking things for granted.  And when we do that we stop seeing the good in our lives because it has become our new normal. 

Instead, we see the negative.   We see the things we feel are missing, and we focus on our flaws, and how we aren’t who we thought we would be.

 

We are the only ones who can turn that around.

We can start by accepting we won’t always be happy, and we don’t need to be.  By accepting that things will suck sometimes, and that’s alright.

Changing our outlook involves changing our focus away from what we don’t have, and instead focusing on what we do have.

To do that, we need to remind ourselves everyday about the good we have right now.  We need to start practicing active appreciation, and teach ourselves to see the beauty all around us that we have become blind to.

Real change comes from within.  And the one thing you can always change is your outlook and attitude.

Building The Foundations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

So what is the foundation of a relationship?

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

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

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

 

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

I see connection as existing on 4 different levels:

  • Physical
  • Emotional
  • Intellectual
  • Spiritual

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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When Do You Actually “Know” Someone?

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I recently read an interesting post over at Lisa Arends excellent blog, lessonsfromtheendofamarriage.com, where she discusses a number of misconceptions about marriage (and relationships in general).

Her first “misconception” really got me thinking, and it’s about how long it takes to “get to know someone” before you know the relationship is solid enough to consider something like marriage.

I won’t rehash her post as you can give it a read on your own.  But I do want to explore this idea of getting to know another person, and how long it can and potentially should take; not just for marriage but also before relationships “go through milestones”.

 

First, what are some of the milestones that relationships go through?   Off the top of my head, here’s a quick list (that I’m sure is missing some important things) in an order that is probably fairly common:

  • Holding hands
  • Kissing
  • Sex
  • Spending the night together (which may or may not include sex, but let’s be honest, probably does)
  • Introductions to friends
  • First fight
  • Meeting the parents
  • Living together
  • Making major purchases together
  • Marriage

 

Notice that I didn’t include “getting to know someone” as a milestone?

I left it off because there is no event or milestone for getting to know someone.  Getting to know someone is a continuous process that will probably go on for your whole life (or at least the duration of the relationship); I don’t think it’s something you ever finish.

You can never fully know another person, because they are always growing and changing.  Hell, I don’t think you ever fully know yourself!  I’m 43 this year, and consider myself to be a pretty self-aware guy.  But even now events occur that change me, in ways both big and small.  Sometimes things happen and how I respond surprises me.  So if I can even surprise myself sometimes, it’s a pretty safe bet someone else will never be able to accurately predict everything I will do.

We are always growing, and changing.  And our partners are too.

 

If accepting that continuous growth and change means we will never fully know our partner, the question becomes when do we know them enough (for whatever the next step in our relationship is)?

Going back to my list of relationship milestones, when do we know them enough to hold hands?  For the first kiss?  To have sex?  To meet the parents?  To get married?

Does it depend on the number of days/weeks you’ve known each other?  The number of hours you’ve spent together?  The things you’ve shared?

 

Looking at these milestones I’m not convinced there’s a “right” way to do this, or a “right” timeframe.

Don’t get me wrong, there is still a fairly common flow here.  I would say in most cases, a couple will at least kiss and hold hands before having sex.  The time gap between those things could be counted in months, weeks, or it could be counted in minutes.

If you somehow are having sex before kissing or holding hands, then you’ve probably got some sort of Pretty Woman thing happening where you’ve fallen in love with a prostitute.  Probably not common, but hey – if it’s happened to you who am I to judge?

Meeting friends, parents, living together – these are all things you probably don’t do until you have a belief the relationship has a shot at lasting a while.

And marriage (for those who go down that road) is something you REALLY shouldn’t do until you feel you know the other person fairly well; and have a high degree of confidence the relationship will make it.

But looking at marriage – what’s the “right” time?  How long do you need to know someone before you can feel you know them enough to have that confidence and make that sort of decision?

A year?  Two years?  Twenty?

 

I’ve seen it recommended that you should wait one of two years before getting married, and I guess that makes sense.

But I know a couple who were engaged on their first date, and 50 years later they are still together.  I can’t say I would recommend that, and statistically the chances of success are pretty slim.  But for them it worked.

I also know a couple who dated for almost 20 years before getting married (and are still together).

I know couples who dated for the commonly recommended one to two years and are happy 20+ years later.  I know others who married after two years and divorced a few years later.

 

Here’s the thing …

Almost 50% of marriages end in divorce, and often the very characteristics that endeared people to each other as they “got to know each other” in the first place are ones that contribute significantly to the relationship falling apart.

So it’s not like there’s some magic way of measuring whether or not you know each other “enough” for things to work out.

Things sometimes go wrong.  Relationships don’t always work out.

 

So, what do you do?

It seems obvious that how well you know someone DOES matter.  But how do you best position your relationship to succeed?

 

Let’s start with you.

If you need to know someone, then it stands to reason that they also have to know you.  For this to happen I think you always need to be willing to be authentic; which means you need to be willing to be you – whoever that is.

Of course this means you actually have to have some idea of who you are (which isn’t always the case).  Are you self-aware?  Are you accepting of yourself and your faults, and are you willing to let someone else see them?

A common paradox in relationships is we want to be accepted for who we are, yet at the same time we are afraid of being rejected for who we are.  So we often try to be who we think the other person wants us to be.

Some people will play a role and try to become someone else.  Other will be themselves, but will be careful about which sides of themselves they show – hiding the parts that they don’t feel will be accepted.

 

In the short term, these strategies may work.  But if they do, what have you really accomplished?  You’ve succeeded in convincing someone to like…

…umm.

Not you (at least not the real you).

Help me understand, how exactly is this a good thing?

Because eventually the real you will surface.  And if your partner doesn’t like the real you once they see you, then all you’ve done is waste time.

 

So being always being true to you is the best approach.  And if someone doesn’t accept you for who you are?  Then they probably aren’t someone you want to be with anyhow.  That doesn’t mean you should never change – because change in the form of self-growth is a positive thing.  But any changes you make need to be because you want them, or see a need for them yourself.

 

Let’s say you do everything right.

You accept yourself for who you are and go into a relationship being honest and authentic.  That’s great, and is (in my opinion) the best and healthiest way to approach things.

But YOU are only half of the equation – and you have no control over how the other person is approaching things.  For the best relationship to occur, both people need to be honest, authentic, self-aware, and willing to be vulnerable.

When that does happen and two people are being authentic and are willing to let each other in, I think you can know each other well enough to know if things can work pretty quickly.  Within a few days you can get a pretty good sense of each other’s core character and value.  Within weeks, you should have a strong idea if the two of you are compatible.

And within a few months you should start to see if there are any “red flags”, showing that perhaps the other person isn’t being as authentic as you think they are – because it’s hard to keep a mask up over extended periods of time.

 

Looking at relationships, what are the things that actually matter?

  • Are your core values aligned?
  • Do your personalities complement each other?
  • Do you accept that a relationships is about more than just you?
  • Are your love languages in alignment with your partners, and if not are you willing love your partner in the way they need to be loved?
  • Do you know enough about each other’s hopes and dreams that you can see the two of you growing, building and sharing together?
  • Are you both willing to accept that periodic issues in relationships are normal, and are you willing to deal with them when they occur?
  • Are you both self-aware – willing to accept that you each have faults and willing to take responsibility for your own contributions to the relationship?

 

If you can answer yes to at least most of those, then I think you have a pretty solid foundation and everything else should be pretty easy.

 

Thinking back to the question of when do you know each other enough; it doesn’t matter what the milestone is – whether it’s holding hands, living together or getting married there will always be risk involved in taking that “next step”.

But there is no magic timeline.  What works for one couple may not work for another.  I believe that if both people are self-aware, authentic and open with each other, they will quickly know enough about each other to know with a high level of accuracy if the relationship can work or not.  When things feel natural and easy, you know that it’s a good fit no matter how long it’s been.

After that, it’s up to you.

Because the success of a relationships is less about how well you know each other than it is about how well you accept that you will need to grow together and choose to continue to choose each other each and every day.

FeelingofLoveAsChoice

Words Mean Nothing

Empty-Words

A number of years back when my personal life started falling apart, at the urging of my sister I went to see a counselor for the first time in my life.

I have to admit, I didn’t really want to go.  I had always considered myself a mentally and emotionally “strong” person, and believed I was capable of handling pretty much anything life could throw at me.

In many ways I still believe that; though I no longer equate being able to handle things with “strength” (resilience may be a better word).  The word strength suggests that when someone can’t handle things on their own they are weak, and that’s not the case.  In fact, recognizing and accepting when you can’t handle things on your own any more, and being willing to reach out for help in those situations a form of strength that often goes overlooked.

In any case, my sister was right.  I was struggling with the things going on in my life at the time, and although I wasn’t convinced it would do me much good to go talk to someone I figured it couldn’t do any harm either.  At worst I would waste some money and an hour of my life, so what did I have to lose?

I went.

Although it was over four years ago, I still remember some moments from that hour quite vividly.  There were things she said that were true, that I either didn’t want to believe or maybe wasn’t ready to believe at the time.

And the most important of those was when she looked at me and said (paraphrasing here):

When there is a disconnect between someone’s words and their actions, always trust their actions.  Anyone can “say” something; but words without actions mean nothing.

 

Back in the late 90’s I took a certificate program in computers (I previously has completed an arts degree, but found there wasn’t a lot of work for people with a Philosophy/Sociology background.  Who knew?).  At the time, Project Management was a relatively young field that looked like it would be a good career path.  One of my classmates and I talked about project management together, and felt that after we had established ourselves in the IT (Information Technology) field – probably five years in, we would do this together.

Seven or eight years into my career I remember this plan, so I called him up.

“Kev, it’s Drew.  Remember we talked about taking project management courses together?  Well, it’s been a while and I think it’s time so I’m going to sign up.  You still in?”

“Hmmm, I don’t know man.  Things are going pretty good in my job and that’s another couple years of school.  You go ahead, I think I’m out”.

So off I went on my own.

Obviously this is a flawed example.  A number of years had gone by since Kevin and I talked about doing project management together, and things had changed in both of our lives.  So it’s not like Kevin did anything wrong, or went back on his word here.

The point of this story isn’t just that his life had changed.  It’s that he was still interested in project management; it’s just that he wasn’t interested in it enough to actually DO something about it anymore.

It was no longer a priority.

It no longer really mattered.

 

I believe this happens a lot in life, both internally and externally.

Internally we have all of these “beliefs”.  Things that we say we want, or think.  And often we convince ourselves that these things are true.  We convince ourselves they are real.

But they aren’t.

Or perhaps more accurately, they aren’t real enough.  We may want these things, but not enough to put in the effort required.

It’s easy to find barriers to the things we want in life.

We don’t have enough time, or we don’t have enough money, or there’s just no opportunity.

So we tell ourselves things like “yes, I do want this, but this isn’t the right time.  I just need to do A, B or C first.  THEN I’ll be able to focus on that.”  We tell ourselves we will do it “tomorrow”.

But time passes, and tomorrow never comes.

 

When “tomorrow never comes” I think one of two things is happening.

Scenario one – we never TRULY wanted it.  Yeah, we may have wanted it – but people often want a lot of things.  Many say they want to be rich, but they want it to happen through a lottery winning or something.  They don’t actually want to put in the time and effort to grow a business, or they don’t really want to take the risks that have the greatest potential payoff.  Others say they want a “good body”, but they don’t actually want to worry about the hours required in the gym or the discipline required to monitor their eating habits.

It’s easy to want something, but do we TRULY want it?  Are we willing to put in the effort?  To make the sacrifices of our time and energy?

 

Scenario two – we may TRULY want something, but we are afraid; afraid that we would try, and fail.

And when we are scared to fail, it becomes easier to just never try.  After all if we never truly try, we can tell ourselves we haven’t actually failed.

It’s a lie of course.  But as humans we lie to ourselves all the times.  Failing because we didn’t even try is still failing, but we can tell ourselves it’s different and maybe we would have succeeded if we “had the right opportunity”.

When things don’t go the way we want the default wiring in our brain causes us to go through all sorts of steps to absolve ourselves of any responsibility.

First we deny, and say things like “well, I didn’t really want that anyway”.

Next we blame, or justify.  “Oh, I couldn’t do that because things were too busy, and I didn’t have any money, and I…”

We tell ourselves these lies, and we convince ourselves they are true.  Because it’s a lot easier than actually facing the mirror and accepting that maybe we AREN’T the person we thought we were.  That we don’t really want to put in the work, or we are scared to fail.  That we really want life to come with an easy button.

 

Life doesn’t come with an easy button though; and sometimes things are hard.

Each person needs to make their own choices on what is ACTUALLY important to them.  And if something IS important?  They will make it happen, or at the very least they will be willing to put in effort to give them the best chance of success.

Words are easy.  They are “free”.  Effort isn’t.

If someone “says” they want something, and their actions don’t seem to support their words then the reality is for one reason or another, they don’t actually want it.  Their true values don’t match the ones they profess to have.

 

My main focus in writing is relationships, and this is where you really see this.

It’s easy to SAY you want a relationship, or you want a relationship to work.  But what are you willing to DO about it?  Are you willing to give?  To compromise?  To accept that things won’t always be easy, and that things won’t always look the way you want them to?  To accept that conflict is natural and be willing to work through that?

Do you ACTUALLY want a relationship, or do you just want the fun parts and the easy parts?  Are you just scared to be alone?

Often, I think the answer is the latter.

We DO want the relationship.  But only when it’s convenient, and when it works for us.  I think of this as wanting the perks of a relationship while still wanting to act like you are single.

That’s not the way life works.  Relationships are about two people, not just one.

feeling of love

 

The flipside of this is being in a situation where you want the relationship but the other person doesn’t really seem to want it in the same way.

This is a very painful and difficult spot to be in, and the situation where you truly need to understand that words without action mean nothing.

I hear stories from many people who feel stuck – caught in a scenario where they want their relationship to work but their partner doesn’t seem to want it, or seems to want it only on their own terms.

These people are hurting, and their partner doesn’t seem to really care.  Often they “say” they do, and they say that they want the relationship to work.  But they don’t seem interested in actually doing anything about it.  Their actions don’t seem to match their words.

worthit

 

Words mean nothing, unless they are backed by action.

Your partner may profess to care about you and want you in their life, but you need to know it and feel it.

Love isn’t just a word, it’s an action; and it should be felt through the little things.  Shared looks, smiles, affection, enjoyment of time spent together.  And by making each other a priority.

When you don’t feel like a priority and love seems to be missing, it’s easy to start questioning and doubting the relationship.  And no one should ever have to question if their partner actually wants to be with them.

If one person is starting to question whether other person really wants to be there, this needs to be communicated.  The couple needs to be able to sit down and talk about the state of the relationship, and their concerns.

Their partner needs to be willing to listen, and both hear and understand what they are saying.  And once they have heard, there has to be a lot than words.  There has to be action, and visible effort.

If there isn’t?

Then they are showing what truly matters to them.  They are showing that what truly matters does not include their relationship.  And it doesn’t include you.

 

time-decides-your-life

The Identity Gap

success-a

Identity is a big topic for me in my writing.  Who are you?  Who am I?  How well do we really understand ourselves as a person, and perhaps more importantly, how well do we accept ourselves?

Along this lines, one idea I’ve had rolling around in my head for a while is the idea of an “identity gap”.

To me, an identity gap is the gap between who we ARE and who we WANT TO BE.

 

Related to my post on fantasy, we all have an idealized version of self; this picture of who we wish we were, and how we wish our life looked.  This ideal is related to our dreams, and may be influenced by the things we see around us or the expectations that were placed on us growing up.

 

However this is just an ideal, and I don’t think ANYONE is their idealized version of “self”.  And for that matter, I don’t think anyone ever achieves it.

This concept of an identity gap has huge implications for the level of happiness a person has in their life.  And I think this happiness is directly related to three questions:

  1. How big is the gap between who you want to be and who you are?
  2. Do you accept that your idealized version of self is simply an ideal, and not reality?
  3. What are you doing to improve yourself and close the gap between who you are and who you want to be?

 

What is your Ideal Self?

This is a tough question to answer.  But I guess another way of look at it is, when you were a teenager who did you think you would be?  What did you think it actually meant to be an adult?

This is an area where man oh man, I think a lot of us screw up something fierce.

On one hand, we have all these adults all around us modelling what life as an adult looks like.  So you would think we would actually learn something from that.

On the other hand, we have tv shows, and advertising telling us how amazing we are, and how special we are, and how we “deserve the best”.

I’m not sure about this, but I suspect that even when all the evidence around us is telling us life as an adult is pretty mundane, there’s also a part of that expects life to look like a beer commercial.

 

I don’t think many teenagers/college students take a look at their parents and say “yup, that’s who I’m going to be when I grow up”.

For some reason we think we are different, and special, so of course our life will be different.  We will set goals, and achieve all of our wildest dreams.

 

A few posts back used a line I found:

What screws us up most in life is the picture in our head of how it’s supposed to be.

That line seems simple at first, but it’s also one of the most profound things I’ve ever read.

How things are “supposed to be”.

What life is “supposed” to look like.

What “love” is supposed to look like.

Who we are “supposed” to be.

 

I’m reminder of a scene from movie Boyhood.  It’s kind of a bizarre film, as it doesn’t really follow a traditional mold; but it’s also really powerful.  It was filmed over 12 years, and during the film you actually see the characters age and grow up.

In it Patricia Arquette starts out as a young mother with little education.  And during the 12 years of the film her children grow up, she is married and divorced twice, and gains an education and becomes a college professor (I think).

Late in the film there’s a scene where her son is leaving for college and she breaks down.  She reflects on all the things that have happened in her life, all the things she has done and accomplished.  And then she says:

I just thought there would be more.

 

I just thought there would be more.

Life hasn’t matched up to the picture she had in her head.  There was an identity gap, and when comparing reality to ideal, life ended up being a disappointment.

 

I think this happens often.

For some reason we expect “more”.  And real life isn’t able to measure up.

In our society right now, depression rates are up.  Anxiety rates are up.  People talk about happiness as if it’s this magical thing that they can achieve.  This goal in life that will make everything better.

So how do we make this better?

 

An Ideal is a Dream

I think one of the first things we need to do is accept that our ideal is simply something to strive towards, and not something we are likely to ever achieve.

And that’s alright.

We are all just “regular” people.  We aren’t any better than anyone else, and we do not deserve special treatment.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t have goals – because we should.  We need them, as goals give us something to strive towards.

Instead of just looking at our imaginary end state, we need to be able to set small milestones or goals, and celebrate the little successes we have along the way.

Because sometimes our ideal isn’t actually realistic.

So we shouldn’t measure our success in life against it’s end state.  We need to be able to look at where we are now, and appreciate it each and every day.

 

How are you Trying to Improve?

Let’s say I want to make a fence.  What do I need to do?

Does it help me to wake up everyday, look in my yard and think “man, I wish I had a fence”?

Ummm, no so much.

How about if I buy some wood and some screws, and put them in my yard and just leave them there?

I suppose that gets me a bit closer, but again, it’s not very helpful.

 

Instead, a few things need to happen.

  • First I need to understand where I am today.
  • Next I need to understand where I want to be.
  • Then I need a plan to get from point A to point B.
  • Lastly (and perhaps most importantly) I need initiative. I need to be willing to do something about it.

 

So everything starts with accepting yourself for who you are TODAY.

We all have strengths and weaknesses, good sides and bad sides.  And until we accept ourselves for who we are today (warts and all), we can never move forward or improve.  We are never able to live in the present moment, and able to appreciate the life we DO have.

When people are focused on their identity gap, they are focused on who they are not instead of who they are. And when THAT is the focus?  If someone is focused on what they are missing or who they are not, I don’t think they will ever be happy.  Because it doesn’t matter how much you improve, you can always get better.  And people who are focused on what they are not are unable to live in the moment and appreciate the things they DO have.

So any improvements need to first start with self acceptance.

changeparadox

 

Once you have accepted who you are today, you are now in a position to better understand the gap between where you are and where you want to be.

Ironically, once you have accepted yourself it may not matter as much.

Because although we can always be “more”, when we have accepted ourselves we know we are “enough”.