When the Light Goes Out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

Relationships can be hard.

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

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

 

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

History?

Shared material things?

A family?

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

Then there’s no point.

There’s nothing left to hold onto.

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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Establishing Boundaries

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One of the main premises behind my blog is, when it comes to relationships most of us have NO IDEA what we are doing.

Sure, we learn some simple things like the golden rule when we are kids.

Beyond that though?

What do we really learn?

Most of us don’t learn how to deal with conflict.  In fact, we’re taught that conflict is bad and something to be avoided.  Because conflict means there are problems, and problems aren’t good, right?

So most of us spend our whole lives avoiding conflict even when that means the problems we have in our relationships go unresolved (including the ones that could often easily be resolved if we would just face them).

Thing is, conflict isn’t actually bad it’s simply the collision of two differing viewpoints.  Often neither of those viewpoints is right or wrong – they are just different approaches to things.  And taking the time to understand and accept each other’s viewpoints is a part of learning to love and accept each other for who we are (instead of focusing on who we aren’t).

Sadly, we don’t learn that – no one teaches it to us.  And if/when we DO learn it it’s often through trial and error, and only after a considerable amount of pain and heartache.

Another thing we commonly don’t learn about is how to say no.

 

Giving and Taking

In my last post I talked a bit about the end of my marriage, and how one of the most important things I learned about was the importance of boundaries.

Boundaries are a difficult concept.  What exactly are they, and how do we learn them?

Unfortunately, similar to how I came to the realization that conflict was positive and healthy (when done right), learning about boundaries often involves a lot of pain and heartache too.

Growing up, my one rule on relationships was the golden rule.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  

Treat others the way you want to be treated.

I think I learned it somewhere around grade two, and it became the foundation of all relationships.

I like it when people are kind to me, so it made sense that I needed to try and be kind to them.  Being kind or nice is a good thing.  Being giving to other people is a good thing.  So it seemed clear that that was the right way to live your life.

But there was one problem here.

When you are willing to give, you will ALWAYS find people who are willing to take.

Being nice and kind is good, but unfortunately it opens you up to being taken advantage of.  And commonly we aren’t taught how to deal with being taken advantage of.

We aren’t taught how to say no.

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Learning To Say No

As children all we understand is our needs.  We want something, and we either get it or we don’t.  Hopefully we learn that we won’t always get what we want, and that’s alright.

I’m a parent, and trying to teach that can be a challenge.  There are times that my kids have tantrums (which are really just a form of trying to get control), and those tantrums can be emotionally draining.  Sometimes during those moments it can be tempting to just give in and give my child what he wants.  When we do that, part of us knows we are showing them that tantrums work.  That if they make a big enough fuss they will get what they want.  But we know that with children we NEED to say no to them because that’s how they learn.

We set down rules and we expect our children to follow them.  After all, we are the parent and they are the child, and we know those rules will benefit them in the long run, and in fact are important to their development.

For some reason we don’t do this in adult relationships (both friendships and romantic relationships).  In adult relationships, people are adults and we expect them to behave as such.  So we don’t create rules, because we don’t think we should have to.  And further, we probably don’t even know what the rules should be.

We don’t know what our own boundaries are.

We only start to learn them when they are violated.

 

We only start to understand our boundaries when someone says or does something that hurts us.  When we feel belittled, or disrespected, or even just ignored.  When we don’t feel valued, or heard.

These are the moments that we start to learn what our boundaries are.

These are the moments when we need to start to push back and say no, or say hey, you’re hurting me here.

But often we don’t.

 

For many years I didn’t know what my own boundaries were.  I didn’t learn to say no.  And I suspect I’m not alone in this.

I was taught to give, and to treat others well (how well I succeed in that is a fair question). Because of this when I was hurt by someone I loved I didn’t know what to do.  I didn’t know how to deal with it.

I saw conflict as bad, so I would just accept certain things.  Or I would make excuses for them.  Things like “oh, he/she did this – but they were having a bad day so it’s alright”.  I would let things go, rather than having them turn into a fight.  Because it wasn’t worth a fight, right?  And when you loved someone, did the little things really matter?

That’s what I believed, but I was wrong.

In allowing certain things, I was saying these things were alright.  In trying to be kind, I was enabling poor behavior.

And I wasn’t respecting myself.

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Boundaries are hard; and when you haven’t being enforcing them and you start to, people can accuse you of being selfish.  That accusation can sting, because at first it DOES feel selfish.  When you’ve spent a long time focusing more on the needs of others, trying to understand and enforce your own boundaries them and enforce them doesn’t feel right.

Saying “No” to someone isn’t easy.  Saying “hey, when you did this you hurt me” isn’t easy.

But sometimes, it’s necessary.

It’s important to remember that standing up for you isn’t selfish.  I think this sums it up well:

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To me it’s about balance.  If you always put yourself first, then yeah, you are probably selfish.

If you are in a relationship the other person HAS to be important.  Their needs have to be important to you.  It can’t ever be just about one person, both people always need to matter.

 

Discovering You

Understanding your own boundaries is about learning what your core values are.

What TRULY matters to you?  What are your NEEDS, and not just your wants (at first the line between this things can seem very blurry)?  How do you need other people to treat you and interact with you?  What do you need to feel valued, and respected?

Once you understand this, how do you go about enforcing them and ensuring they are being respected?

I think understanding this is a long process, and is part of our own personal journey.  It’s part of defining who exactly we are as a person, and I don’t think we learn this easily.

Further, I think not understanding it or enforcing it is a large part of why many people find themselves in unhealthy relationships.

Often marriages or long term relationships start in our twenties, before we really know who we are yet.  We don’t know our boundaries, and we don’t know how to enforce them.

If we are lucky, we have sufficient communication skills that we are able to grow together as a couple.  Learning who we are, establishing and communicating boundaries and, and continuing to accept and still love each other as we grow.

Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.

In learning yourself and your boundaries you may find that your partner doesn’t respect them, and isn’t interested in doing so.

When this happens you face a difficult decision.

Because sometimes, as difficult as it may be the only way to respect yourself is to accept that the relationship you are in no longer works.

Relationships require reciprocity.  And if someone is unable to respect your boundaries, then they don’t respect you.  At that point you need to ask, does that person really want to share their life with you or are they primarily interested in having someone take care of them and meet their needs?

Both people need to be respected.

Both people need to be valued, and heard.

Both peoples boundaries matter.

If they don’t?  Then it’s not a relationship.

 

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How The Primal Brain Damages Relationships

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

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

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

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

Ha.

Man was I ever naive.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

I see this a lot in life.

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

And that’s just it.

Sometimes people aren’t thinking.

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

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

 

The Primal Brain

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Think about this for a moment:

Survival, dominance, mating.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

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

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

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

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

This makes a ton of sense.

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

 

Coping Mechanisms

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

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

So what are coping mechanisms?

Well, here’s my take on it…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

But the key word here is learn.

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

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

And in many cases our very relationships depend on it.

Living in Fantasy Land

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Growing up I read a lot of books, and my genre of choice was fantasy.

Castles, knights, dragons, elves, dwarves, creatures like trolls/orcs/goblins etc; quests for mystical objects to save the world from some impending doom or evil.

I love that stuff.

For me, the fantasy genre was a way to escape into a world that was completely different from the one I knew.  There was nobility, intrigue, betrayal, redemption.  And there was usually the romantic notion of good triumphing over evil.

 

In the fantasy world, everything people did had a purpose.  You don’t see a lot of people doing things like eating, going to the bathroom, cleaning up the yard, or paying the bills.  They don’t even really talk about their day.  But when they do, it’s known as “character development”.

In the world of fantasy, things are always exciting!!!

(Alright, I know.  In Lord of the Rings the characters do a lot of walking.  And I mean A LOT.  But hey, they had to cross all of Middle Earth and it’s not like they had cars or anything.  So even all that walking was done with a noble purpose in mind).

 

The main draw of the fantasy world is, it’s just that.  Fantasy.  It’s not real.  It’s an escape.

When we read about knights and dragons, it’s pretty clear that this is just a make believe world.  Same as the world of superheroes, science fiction, and Disney princesses.

It’s less clear when the fantasy world more closely resembles that of real life.  TV shows, movies, books.  Often they are set in “the real world”, but they are just as separated from real life as the world of Fantasy.

And problems can occur when fantasy starts to interfere with real life.

 

 

Romantic Love

I write about relationships, and with that I truly believe in love, romance, and all the stuff that comes with that.

But I completely reject the way love is often portrayed.

True love.  The One.  Two people’s eyes meeting across a crowded room, and they know they will be together forever.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m a romantic so I understand the appeal of that stuff.  But it’s a load of crap, and I think it does a lot of damage to people’s understandings of real, healthy relationships.

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Let’s look at dating, and love.

Love is supposed to be altruistic.  It’s about genuinely caring about another person, and being able to (at times) put their needs and wants first.  It’s about being part of something that’s bigger than you.

In the dating world on the other hand, you see a selfish form of love.  When you first meet someone, do you REALLY care about them?  Umm, no.  Dating is primarily about what YOU want, and how you can find someone who will be able to satisfy YOUR needs and wants.  Sure, you give to the other person.  But that giving isn’t done freely, it’s done because of what we get out of it.  Either it makes us feel good to give, or we are expecting something in return.

In the dating world, you (usually) aren’t even YOU.  Instead, you are portraying a version of you.  And usually, you are putting forth what you believe to be the best version of you, or the version that you think the other person will be most interested in.

And the other person is doing the same.

You are exchanging carefully constructed facades, which have elements of the “real people” underneath.  But there is a lot that is left hidden, or unsaid.

Dating may have elements of a deeper relationship.  But like Fantasy it’s only a part of it, it’s not based on reality.

In a perfect world, as you get to know each other better you come to value the other person as more than just a vehicle for your needs.  You come to understand them, and genuinely care about them.  And eventually, you start to think of the relationship with them as something larger than use yourself.  You are contributing to something, and building something.  You are still “you”, but you are now also part of an “us”.

 

Romance stories and movies usually depict the early stages of relationships.  The excitement, the passion and the romance.  And often they end with the couple finally “making it” (usually after going their separate ways after a misunderstanding, and then at the last minute realizing they do belong together after all).

Romance stories usually end with the wedding.  Really though, that’s where “easy” stops and the real work begins.

 

When Life Gets in the Way

Life is mostly routine.  We work, pay bills, shop for groceries, prepare meals, do yard work, etc.  All of this is stuff we “have” to do, and there’s nothing particularly exciting or romantic about it.  But really, this is where most of our energy gets spent.  Add kids to the mix, and often it seems there’s little time left to focus on being lovers and being a couple.  So people settle into patterns, and what may have started as passionate love becomes a love based more on comfort and familiarity.

Love based on comfort and familiarity isn’t a bad thing.  At the same time though, romance doesn’t have to die.  In fact, it should NEVER die.  But it will change, and unless a couple works at it they will end up waking up one day and finding they are more roommates than a couple.

Romance doesn’t just happen.  Passion doesn’t just happen.

In the early days it’s there because it’s new, we are learning each other, and we are putting energy into it.  When we stop putting in, it fades.  And it’s not the responsibility of one person to keep things “alive”.  Both people in a relationship need to be willing to put the effort in, and prioritize being lovers.

 

Finding Passion again – the WRONG way!!!

A while back I interviewed a guy who cheated on his wife, and posted the story of his affair.  I’ve talked to a number of people and read a number of stories about affairs, and often the story is similar.

People get caught up in the “routine” side of life and find themselves longing for the “old days”.  They find themselves missing the early stages of love – the passionate side.  And they convince themselves that is “real” love, and they will never be able to find it again with their current partner.  They feel “dead inside”, so they start to look elsewhere in order to feel alive again.

In talking about his affair, he wrote:

I was lonely and dying for attention, which is what led me to look for it elsewhere. I did not do this looking for an affair, but just some attention that validated I was worth something. Then I met the other woman (OW), one thing led to another until I was in a full blown affair.

 

Affair are like a return to the world of dating, and it’s important to note that they are not real life. Rather, they are a way to escape from the pressures and stresses of real life.

Just like an alcoholic turning to drink, or an addict turning to a chemical high, affairs are a way to escape from reality.  Affair partners meet up in secret, and it’s all about need fulfillment.

There’s no real responsibility; no worrying about mortgages, bills or the kids.  Rather, the relationship with the affair partner is like being on a constant vacation.

Really, they are an “easy way out”.   Instead of actually facing and dealing with problems within a relationship, or accepting that the problems within a relationship are significant enough that the relationship should end; an affair is a way for someone to “have it both ways”.  They are able to pick and choose the parts of the relationship they want to deal with in their primary relationship, and then find the parts that are missing elsewhere.

Of course, they also destroy lives and do a tremendous amount of damage to everyone involved.

They are also not sustainable. 

Eventually, if the affair partners see each other enough the “vacation” will end.  Real life will start to intrude, with issues and responsibilities.  When this happens the carefully constructed facades crumble, and the real person beneath starts to show.  A real person, who has real problems just like anyone else.  And when this becomes apparent, the appeal of the affair is often broken.

It was euphoria when were together and agony when we were apart. This is what fed the illusion that it was such a great “relationship”. The reality was, it was just fantasy land and as I began to see her with everyday problems like us, the less and less I wanted to be with her.  I think I was finally really realizing what I had done. I was seeing that the OW was really just fantasy land and none of it was real.

 

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When the fantasy of the affair was broken and reality hit, he found himself trying to understand “why” he did it.  Why he felt such chemistry and passion with his affair partner but not with his wife.  And his answer was simple:

It is a funny question to me now. What did she see that my wife didn’t? I can answer it without a problem. She saw someone who had an interest in them. Who made them feel attractive and interesting. So she never saw me, she saw what I was giving her. So the real question I should have been asking myself was not “What did she see that my wife didn’t?” but “What I am giving her that I am not giving my wife?”

 

He had chemistry and passion not because of anything special about his affair partner.  No, it was there because of what he put into the relationship.  Time, energy, and effort.  He put that in to his time with his affair partner, and this led to the passion he had been missing.

 

Fantasy land is just that.  Fantasy.  It’s great as an escape, but it’s important to remember that it is not real life.  And it’s an escape that should only ever occur within the mind.

When the lines start to blur between fantasy and reality, often many lives are affected.

And no matter how great the fantasy world may seem, eventually reality always comes crashing down.

The Disease of Me

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I’ve been writing about relationships for a number of years now, and during that time I’ve read a lot of books and talked to a lot of people.

One thing I’ve found is, although each person and each relationship is a bit different; people’s problems are largely the same.  There are a lot of couples out there who are struggling with slightly different variations of the same things.  But when you really break down the problems, at their root one of the largest problems is that people frequently choose “me” over “we”.

Put another way, one of the largest problems in relationships is selfishness.

I see being in a relationship as being part of a team.  And the same team “skills” that apply in a work environment or on a sports team also apply in relationships.

 

For years, Pat Riley was widely regarded as one of the top coaches in professional basketball.  He coined the phrase “the disease of me” to describe selfishness, and how runs contrary to the ideas that are required in order for a team to succeed.

The most difficult thing for players to do when they become part of a team is to sacrifice. It is much easier, and much more natural, to be selfish. – Pat Riley

Pat Riley makes a great observation here – it is much more natural to be selfish.  I believe this is very true.

 

As children, our world is about our needs and our fears.  Parents are in our life to provide for us and to shelter us, and I think we see them for the utility that they bring us instead of seeing us as people.

We grow, and develop friendships.  And although we care about those people, it is still mainly about what they do for us.  How much we enjoy being around them, and how they make us feel.

We start romantic relationships, and in the beginning these are COMPLETELY about us.  We have things we want out of life, and things we are looking for in another person.  And we view this potential partner in terms of what WE get out of the relationship, and how WE feel around that person.

This sense of love being about us and our needs is captured well by someone who writes about having an affair:

I wish I’d known what love was. I craved feelings I labeled as love. Feelings that came from having someone I valued value me in return. It made me feel I was all that. In fact, the more I esteemed the other person, the stronger the effect. But, what I really loved was how they made me feel about myself. The reflection of my image in their eyes made me feel amazing. But love isn’t that feeling, rather it’s the grace my wife extended, not when I deserved it, but rather when I least deserved it.

 

This inherent selfishness makes sense.  As a person, I can’t see into someone else’s head – but I am acutely aware of what I feel.  My feelings, my emotions, and how events impact me.  I may be able to tell that I have hurt someone around me, but I’m experiencing that through observation and interpretation of their actions and responses to my own.  I can’t actually FEEL their pain.  So it makes sense that it is less important to me than my own.

So yeah, selfishness may be inherent.  But not being able to grow past it is a sign of emotional immaturity.

Truly caring for others (versus seeing them primarily as a tool for our own needs) is learned.  Empathy is learned.  But the capability to learn these things is a huge part of what makes us human.

We may start by only being able to see the world in terms of how it affects us.  But part of growing up involves understanding that everything isn’t about us.

We may go into relationships because of what we want, and what we get out of them.  But for that relationship to truly grow and succeed, it HAS to become something more.  We have to come to see the other persons wants and needs as just as important as our own.  And there are times that we have to be willing to sacrifice what WE want for the benefit of the relationship.

If we can’t?

Then what we have isn’t truly a relationship.

Or if it is, it’s a parasitic one instead of a symbiotic one.  If we are there primarily for what we get and we can’t see the value of what we put in, the relationship will never be able to last.

 

In discussing the “disease of me” in the context of a basketball team, Pat Riley came up with the following warning signs:

  1. Feelings of under appreciation (‘woe is me’)
  2. Focusing on personal playing time and stats
  3. Internal cliques within the team
  4. Excessive joy in a personal performance when the team loses
  5. Frustration from lack of playing time when the team wins
  6. Desire to have more recognition than a teammate

 

Although this list has a basketball focus, the basic idea still applies in relationships.  Not feeling appreciated, focusing on what YOU get out of the relationship, not taking pride in or appreciating your partner’s successes, and valuing yourself above your partner.  All of these indicate selfishness.

 

But wait a minute?  What about me?  Am I saying that relationships are all about “us”, and you need to lose the “me” in order to be successful in a relationship?

No, not at all.

You matter.  Your needs and wants in the relationship matter.  You need to be able to maintain the “individual” as part of the relationship.

But your partner matters too.

In a healthy relationship, you have found a balance between me and we.  You accept that you are building something larger than you, and that sometimes you need to sacrifice for the good of the relationship.

Healthy relationships have strong communication, and accept that there are both individual and couple goals.  And they work to find a balance where both can be worked towards.

I think the following quote sums this up well:

selfishness-quotes

 

Everyone has needs and wants, and it’s important to strive towards them.  That’s healthy.

But when you put your needs and wants above those of your partner, and expect them to conform to you; that’s selfish.  And that is VERY bad for relationships.

 

A while back I came up with my three keys to a successful relationship:

 

  1. love each other (actively)
  2. don’t be selfish
  3. communicate

 

Three simple rules that I think can make any relationship better.

Loving each other should be easy.  Communication may not be easy, but it’s a skill that can be improved over time.  The real key is not being selfish.

Selfish people CAN change.  But no one can change them.

They have to be willing to see how much damage their self-absorption has caused to those around them, and then they have to want to change on their own.

And when they can’t, or won’t?  Sometimes the only thing you can do is walk away.  Because often their pursuit of happiness will come at the expense of yours.

selfish_just_you

Empty Love

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Relationships are hard.

That’s a simple fact – borne out by divorce rates which continue to hover around the 50% mark.

And then there’s that additional question – for every relationship that “makes it”, how many are actually happy?

How many people get up each and every day, and actively CHOOSE their partner?  How many are grateful for what they have?

Instead of that, I really wonder how many are just going through the motions and living day by day.  Still married on paper, but no longer in mind or soul?

 

All couples are different, but I think the story of a failing marriage is all too familiar.

A couple meet, and fall in love.  Everything is great, or at least good enough that they decide to get married.  And those first few years they are pretty happy.

Then over time, life starts to get in the way.  Jobs, mortgages, bills, kids, extended families.  All the stresses of “everyday life” happen, and this person who started as your friend and lover morphs into something more like a business partner.  Instead of fun and exciting, things become safe, and mundane.  And instead of actively showing each other how much we care about them, we often start to take each other for granted.

Fact for you – MOST couples don’t do a very good job of keeping the romance and the fun alive.

And then one day they wake up, and realize the passion is gone.

 

What Makes a Couple a Couple?

Let’s rewind a bit, to the early days of a relationship; and think about what it actually is that makes a couple a couple.

Is a couple defined by two people who live together?  No, you can live together and just be roommates.  Conversely you can be in a relationship without living together.  So living together has nothing to do with it.

Is it because you are close friends?  Again, no.  Yeah, friendship is an important *part* of a relationship but being a couple implies something more than that.

The term “friend zone” is used to describe when one person is looking for a relationship with another person, but in return they are just viewed as a friend.

When you have feelings for someone and you are stuck in the friend zone, this is seen as a bad thing.

Having it happen with someone you are hoping to have a relationship with is one thing – if things don’t develop into anything more you can just move on.  But when it happens when you are already IN a relationship (or worse, married)?

Well, that sucks all around.  And realistically, I’m pretty sure it’s not what anyone thought they were signing up for when the relationship started.

No, when you are a couple it is implied that each person views the other as something more, something special.  There is a degree of connection that exists, and often this connection is tied to feelings of closeness, affection, and trust.

 

Triangle Theory of Love

A while back I came across the idea of the “Triangle Theory of Love”, and I think it’s brilliant.  Love is a really difficult concept, and if you ask people to describe love, you are liable to get a different answer from every person you ask.  That’s because there are different elements to it.

triangular_theory_of_love

 

This diagram breaks love down into three basic components:

  1. Passion
  2. Commitment
  3. Intimacy

 

When we look at “romance novel” or “movie” love, the focus is always on the passion.  THIS is the part of love that people are often led to believe IS love.

But it’s not.

It’s a starting point, and a component of love.  But passion on its own does not make a sustainable relationship.  If a relationship is based only on passion, eventually it will burn itself out.  So there has to be more.

 

Although passion is great, I think Intimacy is actually a MUCH more meaningful part of love.  Intimacy is vulnerability.  This is where you have let down all the walls, and truly let the other person in.

Passion is a physical connection, which often seems emotional as well.  Intimacy however is something deeper.  I think of intimacy as almost a spiritual connection.

 

Lastly you have commitment.  People talk about commitment as if it’s this great thing, but I’m not so sure if it is.  Commitment is simply saying “I will always be there for you, no matter what”.  It’s the “in good times and in bad times” part of a relationship.  And that part IS important, because there will always be bad times.  There will always be challenges.  So commitment is what keeps you together, even when it’s not easy.  Even when maybe you don’t even want to be.

 

Empty Love

Common complaint for couples in trouble is that they feel like nothing more than roommates.  They are still together, but they are more two individuals occupying the same space.

The passion is gone.  The intimacy is gone.  And the connection is gone.

All that’s left is commitment.  And when that’s all you have left, it’s a very hollow and lonely way to love.

 

Robert Smith (The Cure) sums it up beautifully in the song Bare

 

But holding onto used to be

Is not enough

Memory’s not life

And it’s not love

 

Think about that for a moment – memory is not life, and it’s not love.

When all you have left is commitment, you have empty love.  You have history, memory, and nothing more.

I think THIS is the biggest challenge in long term relationships.  THIS is the problem that happens to SO many couples.

And THIS is why so many relationships fail.

Empty love.

Commitment, when both the passion and the intimacy have gone.

 

Choosing Love

When you have Passion, Intimacy AND Commitment all together, you have a beautiful, incredible thing.

But it’s something that is SO easy to lose.

How does this happen?  WHY does this happen?  And what can we do about it?

 

A while back, one reader (apensiveheart) gave me this comment, and I think it sums things up beautifully:

Love isn’t a feeling. Love is a verb. It is action. It is work. Part of the reason it is so successful and feels so good in the early part of a relationship is because we are willing to put in the work and make the effort to do what our companion desires. Over time, we lose that need or that desire to put that same level of effort in, and things begin to deteriorate. I think we forget just how hard we tried in the beginning simply because the feelings made it feel so easy and natural. We go from asking what can I do for you, to instead asking what can you do for me. The whole dynamic changes because our perspective changes from caring about them to caring more about ourselves.

This is one of my core beliefs about love – it’s an action, a choice.  If we want to maintain intimacy and passion, we need to work on it.

And I guess this is the real value of commitment.

Commitment ISN’T about staying together no matter what.  Commitment does not mean accepting empty love.

Commitment means always choosing your partner, each and every day.  And not just choosing them, but also putting IN to the relationship.

Working on it – working on intimacy.  Working on passion.  Making ALL aspects of love a priority in your relationship, and doing your best to prevent it from failing.

 

When relationships fail, couples often say that they “fell out of love”.  Or they still love each other, but they were no longer “in love”.

I think they are talking about empty love.  Commitment, without passion or intimacy.

When that happens, I think the fault lies with the person who fell out of love.  Because love is not supposed to be passive.  It’s not just something you “feel” one day, and not another day.

Instead, I believe each person in the relationship is responsible for their feelings of love for their partner.  Part of that commitment involves nurturing that love.

Waking each day, and looking at the good side in the relationship.  Appreciating their partner for who they are, instead of who they aren’t.  And working together to improve the things that need to be improved.

When people “fall out of love” they often believe it’s some sort of incompatibility with their partner.  Or it’s a sign that something is wrong in the relationship.

But love isn’t just a feeling.  It’s not supposed to be passive.

So if they aren’t actively choosing love, each and every day; the person they should really be blaming – is themselves.

I Promise to Hurt You

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In my writing, I generally try to have a positive look at relationships and marriage.  I’m a big believer that marriage can be a great thing, while acknowledging that often it ends up not being all that it can and should be.

With that, todays headline may seem like an error at first.  But it’s not.

Yeah, I am intentionally saying “I promise TO hurt you” (instead of I promise NOT to hurt you).  And no, I’m not talking about hurting someone in the “50 Shades of Grey” sense.

I’m talking about actually hurting someone.  Not physically, but emotionally or mentally.  And I’m not saying I may hurt you.  I’m saying I will – and so will you.

So what am I talking about here?

 

Vulnerability

Who can hurt you?

If you’re talking physically anyone can hurt you.  Periodically people will bump into me with their carts when I’m out shopping, and it hurts.  I play basketball, and sometimes guys will hit me with an elbow or a knee, and yeah, that hurts too.  Hell, my kids will sometime hit me with random toys while playing.

Those kinds of hurts?  Those are just things that happen.  Generally people say sorry (hopefully), bruises heal, and you move on.

But who can REALLY hurt you – the kind of hurt that lingers long after the physical hurt has healed?

The people who can really hurt you the people who are closest to you; the people who love you.  The people you never expect it from; parents, siblings, friends, children and most importantly your partner.

Why?

Because we care about and trust these people.  We believe they value us and want what is best for us.  We allow ourselves to be vulnerable with them, and as a result we open ourselves up to potentially be hurt.

 

Being Human

I consider myself a fairly good guy.  Based on my belief set I try to do “the right thing”, and when I screw up I try to take accountability for my own actions.

I try, I really do.

But I still screw up sometimes.

I have days where I’m frustrated and I inadvertently take it out on those around me.  I have times that I think I’m being funny, but in reality I’m being hurtful.  I have days that I can be self-absorbed, and not pay enough attention to those around me.

I know these things happen, and I know that when they do they hurt those around me – those who I profess to love the most.

And I don’t think I’m alone in this.

In turn, I can guarantee that I’ve been hurt badly by those who I care about the most.  My parents, my siblings, my wife.

It happens with my friends too, but that happens less frequently.  Why?  Honestly, it’s because I see them a lot less.

When you are around people a lot, they have more opportunities to see you at your worst.

 

A Higher Standard

Interestingly, I’ve been hurt by my kids too; but it tends to sting less because they are just kids, and I figure they don’t know any better.  To me those “teaching moments”, on how you need to be conscious of how you treat other people.

Here’s the thing though, at some level I hold those closest to me to a higher standard.  Subconsciously I figure that because they care about me, they should know better and they should DO better.  So when they hurt me, it shows they don’t care.

 

I think we all do this in relationships to some degree.  We hold our partners to a higher standard, and when they hurt us it slowly erodes the trust we have in them.  And as the trust erodes, so is our willingness to be vulnerable.  After all, someone can’t hurt us if we don’t let them in.

I’ve heard it said that relationships rarely die because of some big event.  Instead, it’s usually the death of a thousand cuts – a thousand times that someone has hurts us, and we don’t want to let them do that anymore.

 

Accepting Hurt

The obvious solution to preserve our relationships is for us to stop hurting each other.  To always be conscious of what we say, and what we do.  To always be considerate and take our partner into account with everything we do.

But that’s a pipe dream.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s a goal, and one we should all aspire to.  Thing is, we all have bad days.  We all have moments we wish we could take back.

That doesn’t excuse bad behavior, and it shouldn’t be a pattern.  But maybe we need to accept that sometimes our partners WILL hurt us.

And when it happens, we communicate it.  Maybe not right in the moment, but we tell them “hey, when you did this it hurt me”.  And then we let it go.

Because holding on to hurt allows it to grow.  That allows it to break down trust, break down vulnerability, and break down relationships.

 

I would never tell someone I promise not to hurt them, because I know that’s a promise I would not be able to keep.

Instead I would promise people that I would not intentionally hurt them.  And when I do hurt them, I want to know about it, and I want to be held accountable for it.

I can never change the past.  But I can always do my best to prevent the past from poisoning the future.