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.

Sorting Things Out

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In the past I’ve written about relationship doubt and some of the things that can cause it.  Broken trust, anxiety issues, a belief that there may be someone out there who is *better* for you; all of these things can cause doubts.

Doubt is understandable but it’s also very dangerous, as belief is tied to effort.  At both a conscious or an unconscious level, the more someone doubts the less they put INTO the relationship.  As a result, if doubt is not dealt with it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, destroying the relationships.

 

In this post I want to look not only at the person having doubts, but also how it impacts the other person in the relationship.

 

 

If someone is having doubts about whether or not they really want their relationship or if it is the right one for them, there are a few things to think about.

First is the nature of the relationship.  It’s one thing to have doubts if you are casually dating, as those doubts are part of determining if it’s a relationship you actually want to commit to.  Once you have committed, things change a bit; and if you are living together, married, and/or have kids together then the complexity of the situation increases significantly.

Even in complex situations it is important to remember that a relationship involves two people.

If you are having doubts, you owe it to your partner to be honest with them.  Any problem or doubts you have affect them too – they NEED to know about it and they need to have an opportunity to be part of any solution.

 

I can understand the idea that sometimes we want to keep our thoughts to ourselves, especially when periods of doubt can be times when we don’t even really know what’s going on in our own heads.

However it’s pretty common to hear stories where one person thought that things were going pretty well, until one day they find out their partner has decided they want a divorce and they have already made up their mind.

To me, that should never, EVER happen.  Relationships are based on communication.  No one should ever be blindsided by these types of things.  If there is a problem, they have a right to know about it, and to at least have an opportunity to try and work on things; instead of being faced with a position where by the time they know it’s too late.

When someone doesn’t share their doubts, those doubts tend to grow and deepen.  And when that happens a distance will form, as the person with the doubts will naturally tend to withdraw and detach themselves from the relationship.

Some people may claim that their partner knew there were issues.  They had to, because they obviously saw the changes in behavior.

Well yeah, maybe.  I’m sure they did know something was up.  But unless it was communicated to them they had no way of understanding the severity of the doubt.  Relationships go through ups and downs all the time, frequently someone thinks they are just going through a down time – and then one day they wake up to find they are facing a divorce they never saw coming.

doubtpoisons

 

Time to Figure Things Out

Relationships change, things happen, and sometimes people question whether the life they have is really the one they want.  When it happens it sucks for everyone involved, but it’s part of life.

And when this happens, the person with doubts often wants some time and space to “figure things out”.  I get that.  It’s understandable that they can’t be fully engaged in a relationship if they aren’t sure they want it anymore.  And depending on the source of those doubts, I think most people’s partners will try to be understanding and give them a bit of time.

Here’s the problem though – a (committed) relationship isn’t a part time gig.  It’s not the sort of thing where you can just take a sabbatical, and come back when/if you decide that yeah, you are actually committed to it.

There has to be some empathy and understanding on both sides, but people need to find a way to continue the relationship even during this time.

If they can’t?  If they really need to “take a break”?

In my mind, that is what separation is for.

It is completely unfair and selfish for someone to expect to be able to “stay” in the relationship that they aren’t committed to it anymore.  People can’t just pick and choose the parts they feel like dealing with (usually the security of home, and family) while checking out on the parts they don’t want to deal with (usually emotional and physical intimacy).

To the best of their ability they need to find a way to do both.

 

In these situations the person with the doubts often wants time to figure things out in their own way, at their own pace.  They want their partner to give them time and space with no pressure.  To wait for them.

In a way there is something romantic about the notion of waiting for someone.

It brings to mind stories of WWII, where soldiers would go off to war and their girlfriends would promise to wait for them.  And the joy they would have when they were finally reunited.

This is different though.

In those cases the relationship was separated by circumstance; and the person waiting believed they would be coming back.

In the case of someone having doubts, why should the other person wait?  They are essentially being told that the person they love is “no longer sure if they want to be with them”.

Think about that for a moment.

No longer sure.

So they love someone and have committed to them, but that person isn’t sure they want things anymore.  Instead of being committed to getting through anything together, the person they love sees them as simply an option – not a priority.

Yet they are expected to just put their life on hold and wait, in the hopes that maybe their partner will continue to choose them.

And if they don’t?

Then that time spent waiting was time wasted.  Time of their life they will never get back.

 

You Can Never Go Home Again

Doubts happen, and as noted there can be all sorts of reasons that aren’t even directly related to the relationship.  Identity issues, depression, anxiety – all of these can cause doubt.  And sometimes those doubts will never go away.

But you need to identify the real cause of the doubt and actively fight back against it.  Because when someone checks out of a relationship because of those doubts they fundamentally alter the relationship forever.

Once you have been made to feel like an option, things are never the same again.  They can still be good, or even great.  But that magic of knowing that you will always be there for each other no matter what life throws at you?

Once that has been broken it’s gone forever.

 

I recently read a blog written by someone who’s partner had checked out on the relationship, and he wasn’t sure what to do.  One of the commenters told him that he should use this time to show his wife how much he loves her, because (in her words) “women like to be chased”.

Sorry, I can’t disagree with this more.

Maybe he had been taking his partner for granted and that was contributing to her doubts.  If so, and those doubts made him realize he had been taking them her for granted (sadly something that is natural in relationships), that’s one thing.  Then he should use this as a wake up call, and adjust his behavior appropriately.

We all want to feel valued, and appreciated (that applies to women and men).  But “chasing” accomplishes nothing.  Someone has to be there because they want to be there – not because they like the thrill of being chased.

It’s like an addict chasing the next high.  If someone is only there when they are being chased, how long will it be until they check out and are gone again?

No, if someone needs that thrill and that rush, then I would say let them go.

 

 

All sorts of things can cause doubt, and at times they can be crushing.  But if you are in a relationship the worst thing you can do is keep it to yourself.

It may seem like a deeply personal thing but it doesn’t just affect one person, so both people have to be involved.  The doubts may originate with one person, but both people need to be part of the solution.

Doubt can destroy relationships but it doesn’t have to.  In fact love can be strongest when it can accept those doubts and continue to thrive in spite of them.

DoubtingLove

Why Counselling Fails

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Picture this scenario:

There’s a couple, who love each other; but one day they realize they are having problems.  Or maybe they aren’t even having problems, and instead they find themselves thinking that maybe there should be more to life.

Whatever is going on starts to put stress on their relationship, and they are starting to question if they really want this relationship any more.  Or maybe they know they still want the relationships, but not as it currently is.  They want to see some sort of changes that they believe will improve the relationship.

So, either because they think it may help or because other people are suggesting it is a good idea, they decide to see the help of a couples counselor.

 

The problem is, counselling often doesn’t work.

 

I don’t have any real hard numbers here, but from what I’ve seen only around 10% of couples show any sort of improvements in their relationship after seeing a counselor.  And for people who choose to see a counselor, around 50% of the relationships end up failing.

That 50% number is right in line with overall divorce rates, so really, what’s the point.  If seeing a counselor doesn’t really improve the success rate of relationships, it looks like it’s just a waste of time and money.

 

Why?

 

Is counselling nothing more than a waste of time and effort?  Or can it actually help relationships?

I happen to believe counselling CAN be very valuable – both individually and as a couple.  But you need to be doing it for the right reasons, and you need to go in with the right mindset.

 

 

Prevention or Cure?

The first big problem with counselling is, couples often go to a counselor WAY too late.  In fact, many counselors feel that a couple has gone to see them a year or two later than they probably should have.

In many ways this is understandable.  Our personal issues are, well, personal.  Communication is hard at the best of times, which probably the biggest reason that couples get into trouble in the first place.  Yet couples who are struggling with some sort of issues are supposed to now go to see some third party (with their partner) and talk to them about the exact issues they find it hard to talk to their partner about?

Ummm, yeah.  Not fun, or easy.  So it’s easy to see why people often opt to instead do nothing, and hope that this is something that will pass, or something they can just live with.

Except it doesn’t work that way. Ignoring things doesn’t work, and will never make things better

As the saying goes:

prevention

Yet most couples see counselling a last resort, so what may have been fairly manageable issues tend to grow and become magnified.  Resentment often sets in, and by the time people are willing to accept that it’s a big enough problem that they need to do something, there is a lot of damage that needs to be undone before any true improvements can be made.

 

Problem?  What Problem?

Another big problem with counseling is, in order for it to be effective BOTH people must want it, and see a need for it.  Unfortunately relationship issues often don’t work that way.

Commonly one person is actually pretty happy (or at least content) with the things that are a problem for the other person.  This can make it very difficult to see any real improvements, because the person who wants to see changes needs to get buy-in from someone who doesn’t see a need for any changes.

 

An important thing to remember is, a relationship involves two people and both peoples needs/wants have to matter.  If one person believes there is a problem (lets just call it an opportunity for improvement) – then guess what, there’s a problem.  The other person who doesn’t really see this as an issue can’t just convince their partner it’s not an issue, or wish it away.  Whether they like it or not, if their partner believes there is an issue then there’s a legitimate issue.

In fact, one of the WORST things they can do is try to convince their partner it’s not an issue.  By doing that, they are invalidating their partners’ feelings and beliefs (hopefully unintentionally).  And doing that will only serve to widen any gaps between a couple.

 

 

What is your Goal?

The last (and largest) problem I see with counselling is the reason people go.

See, we have this (broken) notion that unconditional love means you are being accepted “as you are”.  And being accepted for who you are means you shouldn’t have to change.

But if a couple is talking about going to counselling, generally there is a reason.  Something is not working, or could be working better.

And how is that supposed to happen without change?

I’m pretty sure a couple doesn’t expect to go to a counselor, describe their issues, and then have the counselor say something like “Sounds great, keep doing what you’ve been doing”.  That won’t address anything.  That won’t allow anything to improve.

No, couples go to counseling usually because one person is pushing them there, and on at least some level the person pushing for counseling is expecting the counselor to side with them.

They are expecting to go in and tell their story, and have the counselor “fix” their partner for them.  They want the counselor to tell their partner to change their behavior in ways that better accommodate them, and their needs.

 

And that is where I think counselling really starts to fall apart; because that’s not what it’s for.

 

To me, counseling is not about determining who’s right or wrong.  It’s not about having one person change their behavior to accommodate the other person.

It’s really about trying to understand the conflicts facing a couple, the gaps between their needs and wants, and trying to find a path forward works best for BOTH people.

And that will almost never involve change on only one side.

 

For counseling to be successful, I think both people need to be willing to face some potentially uncomfortable truths about themselves, and their roles in the problems their relationship faces.  Yeah, one person may be “more to blame” than the other, but that doesn’t really matter.  If you are looking for who’s to blame, you’re already in trouble.

What’s really more important – for things to be better, or for you to be right?  People often say they want things to be better (for both people), but really they usually want to be right.  Because accepting that they have contributed to the problems means they have to change too.

It’s easy to see how and why our partners should change to accommodate us, but looking at our own part in things?  That’s hard.  It means we may have to change some things too, and no one wants to change – because change is scary as hell.

 

 

Maintaining Relationships

If we buy a car, we understand we need to do periodic maintenance or it will break down (seriously, just try driving your car and never changing the oil.  I promise it won’t be fun).  If we buy a house we understand there is yard maintenance that needs to be done and general repair.

Hell, we understand that doing something like taking a bath or a shower on a regular basis is fairly important to personal hygiene.

Everything wears out, gets dirty or breaks down over time if you don’t maintain it.  But our relationships?  In theory they should be one of the most important things in our lives – yet most of us do a TERRIBLE job of even maintaining them (never mind growing them).

 

Counselling is often seen as a last resort for couples who are searching for how to “save” their relationship, or make it better.  And often even when we do go, it’s more about how we can make the relationship better for us than it is about how to make life better as a couple.

 

So what is your goal?  Do you truly want to grow old with your partner?  If so, wouldn’t it maybe be a good idea to try and make your relationship the best it can be – for both of you?

If so, putting in effort and working on your relationship a little be every day may go a long way towards keeping it strong.  Trying to truly listen to your partner, and acknowledge when problems exist (even when it doesn’t seem like a problem for you) and show willingness to work on them may also help.

Sometimes it’s hard to work through things together.  Sometimes we do need a bit of help – and that shouldn’t be something to be embarrassed about or ashamed of.

Divorce rates continue to hover around 50%.  And success rates for couples who seek counselling are also believed to be around 50%.

But if you could quantify the success rates for couples who are able to put ego aside and really focus on doing what’s best for “us” instead of what’s best for “me”, I’m confident the numbers would be considerably higher.

Happiness is Overrated

asian young Couple not talking after  fight  in living roomThere seems to be a huge focus on happiness these days, specifically in relationships.

I’m at an age now where a lot of long term relationships/marriages are failing, or people are starting new relationships (after their marriage has failed).  And in these failed relationships, unhappiness is almost always cited as the main reason.

I hear things like:

  • I just want to be happy
  • Everyone deserves to be happy
  • Lifes too short to not be happy
  • I’m happy now (in the new relationship)

This focus on happiness worries me a bit, and in fact I think happiness is kind of a dangerous and even subversive concept.  And although I understand what people are getting at, I think they’re often missing the point.

Of course people “want to be happy”.  Really, does anyone actually go around and claim the opposite?  Unless you’re Grumpy from the seven dwarves, I don’t think anyone really wants to be unhappy (though I will admit there are some people who almost seem to thrive off negativity).

Yes, there are different emotions and generally the positive emotions are seen as preferable experiences to negative emotions (which is probably why some are classified as positive and others as negative).

I totally get all that.

Here’s my problem – what exactly is happiness?

Do you know?  Because I sure don’t; and I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about this stuff.  I do however know that happiness is more than just a feeling.  Further no one is always happy, and even when someone IS happy, they aren’t going to be happy in every aspect of their life.

Happiness is not like a light switch that is “on” or “off”.  You can be happy at home, but not in your job.  Or happy when you get a bit of down time, but feel overwhelmed when faced with all the things that need to be done as part of domestic life.

Happiness is complex, and the aspects and levels of it aren’t consistent over time.

 

“Unhappy” Relationships

So what does this really mean to relationships?

When people leave (or thinking about leaving) a relationship because “they aren’t happy”, I don’t think it’s really about happiness.

Instead, I think it’s about conflict that a couple has been unable to resolve.

Over time, unresolved conflict creates an environment of hurt, and likely resentment.  That in turn creates tension in the relationship, as one or both members feel their needs aren’t being met and they aren’t being heard.  A few posts ago I talked about connection, and a big component of connection is feeling valued, heard, and seen.  So if you feel you aren’t being heard, this will cause the connection to break down.

Over time this leads to a perpetual state of tension within the relationship, which is emotionally draining.

With broken connection and a state of tension, a couple will have a harder time finding joy even in the good parts of the relationship and instead will often focus more on the problems as they become magnified.

And THIS will result in…

(ready for it?)

…unhappiness.

 

I know what you’re thinking –“but ZombieDrew, isn’t that the same thing?  Doesn’t it still boil down to the couple being unhappy?

Nope, and the distinction here is really important.

 

First, it’s important to remember that having conflict doesn’t mean you have a bad relationship.  It means you’re normal.  Conflict is as unavoidable as death and taxes, and is a byproduct of two different people building a life together.  You won’t always agree and you won’t always get along, and that’s alright.

Another important thing is unhappiness isn’t the problem, it’s a SYMPTOM of a different (and truly, a larger) problem.

And understanding that?  THAT really matters.

Because you can’t solve a symptom, you can’t solve unhappy.  You need to understand the actual problem.  And if you can understand the actual problem, THEN you can do something about it!!!

 

The Search for Happiness

My issue with people leaving relationships because they are unhappy (or searching for happiness) is that often they don’t really know WHY they were unhappy.  They stopped at the symptom, the feeling.

They knew they were “having problems”, and found themselves in a situation where they were unhappy for so long they believed the only way out was to leave the relationship.

They want to be happy again (after all, everyone “deserves” to be happy, life is too short to not be happy, blah blah blah).  So they leave, in order to find that feeling again.

(Actually often they go in search of the feeling before leaving the relationships, having emotional and or physical affairs that provide the “feeling” of happiness, which only solidifies their belief that there was something wrong with the relationship they are/were in.  But that’s a topic for another day.)

In any case, pursuit of a feeling leaves them looking for something they will likely never find.

 

Building Relationships

One of the big fallacies of relationships is that you just need to find the right person.  I absolutely hate this thinking, because it absolves people of responsibility in relationships.

Oh, our relationship failed because he/she wasn’t the right person.  I just need to find someone more compatible.

Sorry, that’s a load of crap.  Don’t get me wrong, there is an element of compatibility involved in relationships (though I believe it’s a much smaller factor than most people would think).

But here’s the thing – relationships are a skill.  And like any other skill, we can always improve the skill side of a relationship.  No matter how bad (or good) your relationship is right now, it can get better.

And THAT should be good news.

The catch is, you need to be willing to work to develop that skill.  And both parties need to be willing to do this.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be equal (no relationships are), but both people need to be trying.  And if they are?  Then ANY issue can be improved upon.

Notice I didn’t say fixed, some things can’t be fixed.  But all problems can get better.

 

Believing Change Can Happen

Its really important to believe that all problems can get better, because sometimes a couple DOES look at why they are having issues, they start to understand the problems; and then they give up.  They feel overwhelmed by the issues and take the attitude that they are “too big to fix”, or they can’t be changed because “this is just the way I am”.  And as a result they don’t really try.

This approach of quitting without really trying is called Learned Helplessness, and unfortunately it is a common approach for people who struggle with conflict resolution, people with mental health issues, as well as people who just aren’t very happy.

It’s a belief that someone has no control over the situation they are in, so why bother trying.  But it’s a broken thinking pattern, because people ALWAYS have control over their own choices and their own actions.  As I said, ANY issue can be improved.  But you have to be willing to put in the work.

learnedHelplessness

 

Going back to the “unhappy relationship”, this is almost always a question of conflict resolution.  Problems can’t be ignored, avoidance never works.  And you are NEVER helpless to make change.

It’s may seem easier at first to ignore things and avoid them, because dealing with things has an emotional cost.  But avoidance is a short sighted approach, because nothing gets resolved and the long term emotional costs of trying to deal with things when they’ve hit a critical mass are always higher later.

Plus, even when you are “avoiding” issues, they are always there.  These issues find ways to come out, normally through passive aggressive behavior by one or both parties, and that will only deepen the environment of hurt and resentment (making things worse).

 

The way out of this mess is through communication.  REAL communication.

When people talk about communication being the key to successful relationships, they aren’t just referring to talking.  Communication is about actually listening, trying to understand each other, and dealing with conflict in ways that are beneficial to the team.

If you aren’t actively working on making things better, then you aren’t really communicating.

CommunicationIssue

 

 

Happiness is Mostly About You

One thing I don’t like about this focus on happiness is, it’s an individual act.  It’s a focus on what a relationship does (or doesn’t do) for YOU.  While that is obviously important, I personally don’t think any relationship can thrive if that’s the focus.

Relationships should never just be about what one person is getting out of it. Both people’s needs and wants have to be respected and valued, even when they don’t completely match up. There has to be compromise.

For relationships to be successful the focus needs to shift from what the relationship does for me to what it does for us.  It needs to be a partnership that is mutually beneficial; and where people are just as interested in what they can add to it as what they get out of it.

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Communicating and building your relationships skills is difficult, because it can’t just be about you.  It requires facing the mirror and accepting your own part in the relationship issues.  It also requires truly letting go of past hurts and resentment in order to move forward.

But although these skills are difficult to build, they are the most important skills you will ever build in your lifetime.  They are worth the effort, and worth the stumbles that will happen along the way.

In my mind, as long as both partners are showing consistent effort towards building them, and being conscious about sliding back into avoidance and passive aggressive behavior, ANY relationship can not only succeed, but thrive.

 

Built to Last?

Happiness is a feeling, and feelings come and go.

Healthy relationships on the other hand have a number of components to them; pleasure, joy, appreciation and contentment.

And importantly, an acceptance that negative emotions are normal, and that conflict is a natural and even needed part of trying to grow both individually and as a couple.

Sometimes happiness is missing, and that should be alright.  Because if you can communicate, and resolve conflicts together without holding on to anger and resentment you will always find it again.  In fact it’s working through these difficult times that ultimately brings a couple closer.

 

So when people leave a relationship because they aren’t happy, I think it’s a cop out.  An excuse.

I understand leaving the relationship because you had communication issues and unresolved conflicts that were creating a toxic environment, and you reached a point that you gave up hope that things would ever improve.

I even understand leaving a relationship because you realized that addressing the issues was scary, and you weren’t prepared to do the work to make things better.

At least those reasons are honest.

They involve a level of self-awareness, and a realization that there is no magic wand or perfect person out there.  That those issues will still come up again, and will need to be addressed in the future or they could happen again.

 

But simply saying it’s because you were unhappy without understanding why, and chasing that feeling?  That simply sets you up to repeat the same mistakes again, and all but guarantees more unhappiness in your future.

 

meantToBe

Connect by Disconnecting

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Over the last 20+ years, perhaps the single most significant technological change (in terms of the number of people it touches daily) is the rise of the internet.

It impacts all sorts of areas of daily life; from marketing, to how many jobs are done, and even how we interact on a daily basis.  One of the newer ways the internet is used is social media.  A few years ago I had never even heard of social media, but now “social media” has become part of the social consciousness.

One of the catchphrases of this change is that we are now living in the “connected” era.

The Connected Era.

I saw a recent study that said in North America the average person has almost three devices that connect to the internet.  Initially most people connected to the internet with a computer, and although they are still commonly used they are increasingly replaced by tablets and smartphones.  Devices that allow us to continue to be “connected” wherever we are, 24-7.

The internet and social media allows us to connect with almost anyone in the world.  We can keep up with them and know what is going on in their lives in ways we never could before.

But this seems to come with a cost.

One of the ironies of today’s world is that through technology we have many more opportunities to be “connected”.  Yet at the same time, depression and anxiety levels are increasing dramatically, and many people seem to feel more disconnected in their lives than ever.  And there is a growing belief that technology is playing a significant role.

 

The Social Media Age

Over the years I lost touch with one of my closest childhood friends, and due to Facebook I now have a bit of a window into his life that wouldn’t have otherwise been possible, which is great.

I have a brother on the other side of the country, and although he doesn’t post much I am able to periodically see my nephew and niece due to social media.

Hell, I have another brother who lives in the SAME city as me, and I find out more about him through social media than I do through actually talking with him (which is pretty damned sad if you think about it).

Furthermore, this blog is only possible due to online connectivity.  It’s a great outlet for me, and through it I’ve come to get to “know” a handful of people around the world that I wouldn’t have known otherwise, and hopefully my words have been able to give hope to some people, or at least let them know that they aren’t alone.

So yeah, there’s a lot of good that can come from this world of online connectedness.  It’s just a tool though, and all tools have both positive and negative sides.

 

The Importance of Connection

In my last two posts I have talked about the importance of connection.  True connection with another person is a feeling of being seen, heard and valued by that person (and feeling the same for them in return).  It’s an intangible energy that can be thought of as closeness, or intimacy.  And it’s a key component of love.

I believe that kind of connection is a basic human need.  But it can be difficult to achieve, because it requires us to be able to be in the moment and it also requires us to be vulnerable with another person.

And this  is where the dark side of online connectedness comes in.

 

The Highlight Reel

We all crave connection, but connection isn’t easy because it requires us to be vulnerable with someone else and to allow them to see our true self.

And that can be scary as hell.

For many, a fear of rejection and of not being accepted causes them to keep others at arm’s length; either limiting intimacy in the relationships they do have, or keeping them alone.

Social media gives us an avenue to partially fill this void, without all the risk associated with it.

fearofintimacy

One problem is, with an online persona we can be whoever we want to be.  And I’m not talking about the whole “your internet girlfriend is really a 40 year old man” type of fake persona, or retouching images like they do for models.

What I mean is, we get to be very careful about how we portray ourselves.  We are selective in what pictures we put up of ourselves, and what sort of things we post.

Thing is, it’s not real.  Well it is, but it’s more like a highlight reel of a person’s life.  Their life doesn’t always look like that!!!

I recently went on a car trip and posted pictures from it to my facebook account.  The pictures are the sanitized version of the trip, with everyone “smiling and happy”.

There are no pics of my kids continually arguing in the backseat while I drove, or my son getting carsick (that was fun).  There are no pictures depicting my stress level when my check engine light came on in the mountains and I was about an hour away from the nearest service station.

But that stuff was all part of my trip, and it’s part of life.  And when looking at online profiles, it’s easy to forget that.

It’s easy to look at the highlights of other people’s lives, and either consciously or subconsciously compare them to your own.  And since you know about all the details of your own life, it’s easy to imagine that everyone life is better than your own.  Funner, more exciting, and happier.

And our own life will often feel lacking by comparison.

 

Fear of Missing Out

Another problem with social media is a fear of missing out (yeah, that’s actually “a thing”).

Fear of missing out (FoMo) is related to anxiety, and is where someone has a desire to continually see what others are doing due to a fear on what they could be missing out on.  Instead of being able to live in the moment there is a fear of making “the wrong choice”, and time spent ruminating about “how things could be different”.

Wikipedia describes this as follows:

On one hand, modern technologies (e.g., mobile phones, smartphones) and social networking services (e.g., Facebook,Twitter) provide a unique opportunity for people to be socially engaged with a reduced “cost of admission”.  On the other hand, mediated communication perpetuates an increased reliance on the Internet. A psychological dependence to being online could result in anxiety when one feels disconnected, thereby leading to a fear of missing out or even pathological Internet use.  As a consequence, FoMO is perceived to have negative influences on people’s psychological health and well-being, because it could contribute to people’s negative mood and depressed feelings.

FoMO may drive someone to constantly look for a better or more interesting connection with others, abandoning current connections to do so, without realizing that what they move to is not necessarily better, just different.

For people who grapple with FoMO, social media involvement could be attractive because it serves as a convenient tool to be socially connected with a relatively low cost. However, social media could not completely substitute face-to-face communication. Therefore, people with FoMO end up with a higher level of loneliness and isolation, which leads to more FoMO.

 

The Golden Triangle

One of my life philosophies (stolen from the business world) is the Golden Triangle.  Basically, everything in our life is fighting for limited resources.  We only have so much time and energy, and the quality of everything we do is impacted by how much time and energy we are able to devote to things.  As a general rule, if we want something to be good (or great), we need to put time into it.  And the more time/effort we put into something the better it can be.

This has huge implications for our connections and the world of social media.

Look, back in grade two I may have been great friends with little Billy who lived a few houses away.  And yeah, in todays world I can probably look him up, send him a friend request and catch up on his life.  And yeah, it’s would probably be great to see him again and laugh about the things we did.

But every time I do that, I am taking away from time I am able to devote to something else.

Do I REALLY need to spend a bunch of time looking at the lives of people I would likely never see or hear from outside of social media?  It may seem like a harmless diversion, and it often is.  But it can also start to negatively impact our lives and relationships.

A while back I wrote a post called You can have anything (just not everything).  We CAN’T have everything, and attempting to means we stretch ourselves too thin while reducing the quality of the things we DO have.

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We need to pick and choose what’s really important to us, and allocate our energies accordingly.  And sometimes that means letting go of things that we would like.  It’s unfortunate, but that’s just life.

 

The connected era can make it really hard though, especially when the tools we use for it are literally designed to make us “feel good”.  Companies spend a ton of money on trying to understand human psychology, and the way our brains reward system works.  And this trickles down to the products they create and market.

The “ding” of a message coming in, seeing the number of “likes” that you get on a picture or a post, the friend request.  All these mechanisms are designed to release dopamine, and make us “feel good”.  And that sort of instant gratification is often easier than the effort required sustaining our relationships in everyday life.  Kind of like escaping into substance abuse and affairs, it’s so much easier to escape into the world of online connection than it is to face the connections we have in real life.

 

With that I’ll leave you with two questions to ask yourself:

  1. What REALLY matters to you?
  2. Do your actions reflect that?

I’ll guess that for most of us, if we look at how we are actually spending our time – we will find we aren’t spending it on the things, or with the people we say matters.

And if that’s the case, what does that tell us about ourselves?

 

Are You and Your Partner Compatible?

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

Yet roughly 50% or all first marriages fail.

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

So, what exactly are irreconcilable differences?

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

How Does Compatibility Break Down?

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

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

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

Yet almost 50% of marriages fail.

What the hell are we doing wrong?

How does compatible become irreconcilable?

 

I guess at least part of it is change.

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

They changed.

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

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

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

 

Accepting Influence

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

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

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

It’s about an “us”.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Building Compatibility

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

If requires communication, negotiation, and accepting influence.

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

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

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

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

Avoiding Life

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

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

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

 

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

That was how I viewed the world.

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

 

You Aren’t Me And I’m Not You

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

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

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

 

Problem?  What Problem?

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

That approach is very destructive, to everyone involved.

 

When to Deal with Issues?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Avoidance

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

In psychology this is known as Avoidance.

Psychology Dictionary defines avoidance as:

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

Misdirected Effort

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

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

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

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

 

In many ways, his behavior is similar to avoidance.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

IF you accept that there are issues.

IF you accept that conflict is an opportunity for improvement.

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

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

How Does Parenting Affect Your Relationship?

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A while back I read a post where someone was wondering how kids change your marriage. The guy who wrote it was fairly recently married.  He and his wife were thinking about starting a family and he was worried about how it would impact their marriage.

It was a thoughtful question.

What do kids do to your marriage?
Do they make it better, or worse?
Do they alter the bond between husband and wife?

I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that most people don’t even consider this. They just think hey, we know we want to have kids one day (though they probably can’t say why they want them).

And so they do.

And then they find themselves woefully unprepared for what comes next.

At first, it would seem as though children should make the bond between a couple stronger; after all, children are a product of your love for each other, right? Fine, they may also be the product of one night of bad decisions; but let’s assume for the moment that they are wanted by the couple who decided to have them.

In that case, do they strengthen the bond?

Well, it seems the reality is a bit complicated.

In fact most studies state that relationship satisfaction decreases after kids are born. According to The Wall Street Journal:

About two-thirds of couples see the quality of their relationship drop within three years of the birth of a child, according to data from the Relationship Research Institute in Seattle, a nonprofit organization focused on strengthening families. Conflict increases and, with little time for adult conversation and sex, emotional distance can develop.

In theory a baby can help strengthen the bond between a couple. But for some reason when I think of “strengthening the bond”, emotional distance is not one of the things I think of.

So why does this happen? What changes?

 

Life Changes

When you go from being single to being part of a couple your life changes. But for the most part, you are still you. Yeah some people lose themselves too much in the relationship, but their identity is still as a person (who is fitting someone else into their life). When you need some “me” time, it’s usually not that difficult to do.

When you become a parent however, your life changes irrevocably. You are now a parent fulltime, 24-7, every day of the year.

And for the next however many years, the needs of the child will always trump your own.

It’s not better, or worse (though I suppose it could be argued that some aspects are definitely better while others are worse). Looking at it on the whole though, the best way to describe it is that it’s simply different.

And in addition to your life, it also fundamentally changes the nature of your relationship.

The needs of the baby/toddler/child don’t just trump the needs of the individual – they trump the needs of the couples as well.

So as a couple one of the biggest and most noticeable changes is that you no longer have nearly as much time for each other as you used to.

This seems obvious, and something people should know going in. I mean, it’s simple math. People only have so much time and energy, and kids take time and energy. So adding them to a relationship will reduce the amount of time the couple has to focus on each other.

But I don’t think most people really realize exactly how much it changes their “couple time”, or how much of a toll it can take.

 

Increased Stress

A while back I posted on stress, and on the impacts stress can have on relationships.

Basically, stress is corrosive to relationships.

When stressed, we tend to become inwardly focused. We see how the stress is affecting us and tend to forget that it is also affecting our partner as well. We are also more likely become more sensitive to and notice smaller things and allow them to become blown out of proportion. There are other issues, but basically high levels of stress can kind of make us selfish jerks.

Well, kids can be rewarding but they can also be a great source of stress.

First, they are a responsibility that doesn’t go away. In the early years they basically need us 24-7, and the weight of this responsibility can take a toll. We want the best for our kids, and we want THEM to be the best they can be. This leads to immense pressure on our ability to be a parent. When we are struggling, it can make us feel like we are failing our kids and this can make us feel like failures as parents.

Add in things like kids getting sick, fighting, trying to figure things out on their own and just being kids? Well, it can be at once stressful and exhausting.
All of which can make us less patient with our partners.

And this is even before you start looking at the breakdown of who is taking on the lion’s share of parenting duties (hint – it’s usually the woman).

 

Parenting Conflicts

Which brings me to the next fun part – parenting conflicts, which tend to come in a few different ways.

The first of these is the approach to parenting. It would be great if parents agreed on “how” they wanted to parent in advance, but chances are they haven’t even thought of it. Instead we often just go with what was modeled to us growing up without even thinking about it.

When we do this there are bound to be differences, and these conflicting parenting styles can cause serious conflict.

It’s usually pretty easy to accept that your partner is different from you and has different outlooks on the world. When those differences impact your children however, it’s easy to become possessive and defensive (mama/papa bear will ALWAYS protect their cub). Approaches to discipline is often a prime example of this

When we can’t agree on an approach to parenting, often each side is convinced that their way is right while their partner is wrong. This attitude is terrible for a couple, as instead of being a “we” it becomes a case of you vs. me.

 

Changing Roles

Perhaps the biggest change that happens when a couple becomes parents is a change in roles. Before they were both individuals and a couple – probably in fairly equal parts. This is not only a life change but also a role change, as the role of parent becomes the primary one.

As a couple you likely started as friends and lovers, but now you are primarily parents and this change can result in a sense of loss and cause conflict in couples.

Marriage counselors talk about how one of the biggest complaints couples have is that they don’t feel their partners make enough time for them anymore. While they understand that the kids are the priority, they don’t feel like they are a priority anymore.

Maintaining being a couple even after kids is extremely important, and many counselors talk about the value of ensuring there is still time for the couple by carving out time in the schedule for things like date night.

Although most couples seem to understand why that’s important it is still something that often goes ignored. It’s one thing to understand why it’s important, but actually making time is not always easy when there seem to be a million other things that need to be done.

 

Diminished Sex Life

Going hand in hand with the changing roles comes a diminished sex life. This is an unfortunate yet understandable side effect of having kids – especially in the early years. It’s hard to feel sexy when you are always exhausted or worried about the kids. Stress has huge negative impacts on sex drive, and as discussed earlier kids are a source of stress.

Many couples say that after the first few years of kids they see their sex lives bounce back somewhat. Likely not to the levels they were at before kids, but generally to a level both partners can accept.

In some cases however, the sex drive doesn’t come back at all.

This is usually (though not exclusively) an issue faced by women. Last I checked I’m not a woman, so I won’t pretend to understand all the reasons. But from what I know it can be a combination of things, from body and hormonal changes, to feeling solely like a mom instead of feeling like a woman, to sheer exhaustion and resentment from the unequal burden that is normally faced by women when it comes to child rearing.

Sexual problems are often associated with feelings of guilt and shame, so this is an issue that often goes ignored. Some couples convince themselves that it’s not that important, or that it’s just a natural part of getting older. Or things will just come back on their own if they give it time.

It’s only true that it’s not important if both people in the relationship agree with that, and a lost sex drive is not simply a natural part of getting older. If this loss of sex drive occurs it shouldn’t be ignored as it is often a significant factor in the breakdown of relationships.

 

Support Systems

In a relationship it’s always important to have time for “me”, and making time for yourself is even more important once kids are in the picture as it allows people to retain a bit of their own identity and not get completely lost in the role of parent.

It’s still very important to balance this with time as a couple (without kids) though.

A challenge here is that many couples don’t have a strong support system that allows them to get time as a couple. So each partner ends up taking turns, going out as individuals while the other partner watches the kids.

This time is valuable, and important. The danger is that without sufficient couple time as well, each persons only real break or “fun” time comes as an individual. And when you start to associate fun, and a freedom from the stress and responsibilities of kids as also being time away from your partner it can start to create doubt about the relationship.

Family time is not couple time. And couple time is not me time. Finding a working balance between all three is needed to keep the relationship alive and well.

 

Financial Impacts

Another challenge presented by kids is financial. Adding kids to a family adds a new expense center. Food, clothes, activities; all these things cost a fair bit. And maybe it’s just my job, but I don’t think people get pay increases to offset these costs. So the end result is couples have less money to do things.

They also have less freedom, as things like holidays soon are limited to times that they kids aren’t in school.

It’s not that you can’t do the things you did before. It’s just that it takes a lot more planning, and you probably can’t do them as frequently.

 

Adding It All Up

Reading over this it probably seems as though I have a negative view on having kids, and that’s not the case at all. I’m a father, and I love my kids and wouldn’t change a thing. In fact I believe my children have enriched my life considerably.

Kids do introduce all of these things though, and they all require adjustments and take a considerable toll. In fact, indirectly I’ll go so far as to say that the additional stresses caused by kids are probably one of the leading causes of divorce. Which is ironic, as they are a product of the love a couple shares.

Kids put additional stresses on relationships, but I want to be clear that I don’t think this has anything to do with the kids themselves. They aren’t to blame, ever. What IS to blame is that people generally don’t talk about these things, so couples aren’t prepared.

They run into these challenges, and they start to believe that something is wrong. And since people rarely walk away from their kids the relationship is often blamed, when what they are going through is actually fairly normal.

Being a parent is a fantastic experience, and it can be very rewarding. But it can also be very hard, and many couples can’t handle the strain it puts on their relationship.

 

Making it Work

I’ve heard a lot of couples who have “made it” confirm the challenges of being a parent. And often I will hear them say things like “stick it out, and things will get better”.

Sometimes couples that are having troubles stay together “for the kids”. 90% of me is completely against that. You need to stay together because you love each other, and want a life together. If you no longer love each other for whatever reason, then it does the kids no good to have a loveless relationship modeled to them as they grow up.

The remaining 10% of me thinks that if kids give you another reason to stay together and stick it out through tough times, then that can be as good a reason as any. But that’s only if you then use this time the kids have bought you to actively work on and improve your marriage. I’ve heard of some couples who stayed together “for the kids” who then learned to love each other again and rebuild, and were happy they had done so. I think that’s great.

Ultimately you need to be with each other because you still love each other, and still want to share your lives.  Not just because of kids.

More often though I think couples who split up do still love each other. And it’s really just the stress that comes with being parents that has put emotional distance between them. I think often they do still want to love each other, and have just lost sight of how. In being parents and not making time to be friends and lovers, they have lost each other.

Independence and Interdependance

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I was talking to a buddy recently, and he told me that there was something he wanted to buy for himself. It was around a $500 item (not cheap, but not crazy expensive), so he asked his wife if she minded if he bought it. She said yes she was fine with it, so he went out and bought the item.

When he told me this I asked him what he would have done if she had said no.

After thinking about it a bit, he responded that he really didn’t know. Thankfully, that hadn’t come up.

I didn’t ask the question to be a jerk, and I don’t think there’s really a right or wrong answer. But the scenario illustrates to me one of the most difficult aspects of a relationship; the balance between “we” and “me”.

We are all individuals first and foremost, with our own needs and wants. When we become part of a couple though, we become something more. That’s not to say that you cease to be an individual when you become part of a couple. But it does raise the question of how these two identities co-exist.

Where does the individual end and the couple begin?

Doing What You Want

To me that is at once the biggest change and biggest sacrifice in a relationship. You are building your life with another person, so you can no longer act like you are single.

You can’t just “do what you want” anymore. Yet at the same time, what you want still matters.

That’s not a problem when your needs and wants line up with your partners. But in any relationship there will be times that they don’t.

This can present a conundrum, and it’s not easy to find the balance between independence and inter-dependence.

To anyone who says they can do whatever they want in their relationship, I say you are either kidding yourself or you are selfish. And if you’re being selfish? Well, that goes against one of my 3 rules/guidelines for a successful relationship; and when you act that way over an extended period of time I believe your relationship will suffer for it. So it’s probably not a formula for long term success.

I suppose it may feel like you can do whatever you want if your wants happen to always line up with that are beneficial to the couple; but I doubt that ever happens all the time.

You shouldn’t feel constantly restricted in your relationship, and if you do it’s probably not a healthy relationship for you. But I think it’s safe to say that in a relationship there will always be times when you need to sacrifice what you want for the benefit of the couple.

 

Seeking Permission

Going back to my buddy’s scenario, did he really need to get her permission? If it’s something he wanted, should he have had to ask her to buy something for himself, or should he have just gone out and done it? And if he really wanted it, what should he have done if she had said no?

I’ve seen different opinions on this kind of thing before. Sometimes I see people get angry at the thought of having to “ask for permission”. Taking the approach that it’s their money and they can and should be able to do with it what they want.
Others belittle someone for “asking for permission”, as if it’s a sign of weakness. Sadly this is normally men, making macho statements and questioning the “manhood” of someone who asks for permission from their wife.

Here’s my stance:

Did he need to ask her permission? No, of course not. He’s an individual who is capable of making his own decisions. However asking her, or at least saying something like “hey, I’m thinking of doing this – any concerns?” is a way of being respectful and including her in the decision making process. And in a relationship, that’s pretty damned important.

Should someone have to include their partner in every decision? Of course not. Some decisions yes, and it’s really a judgement call as to which decisions warrant some level of discussion vs. which ones you just do on your own.

For example, you probably wouldn’t even think about mentioning to your partner that you are meeting a buddy for lunch. You may mention it in passing, but if so you probably are not looking for their input. However it’s *probably* best to get input before you do something like come home with a new car.

It really comes down to whether or not your decision impacts the other person, and how much.

I recently wrote a post about the idea that what affects one person often affects both. In it I used sex as an example of something that affects both people, but the post was never really about sex. It was about relationships, and how you really need to take the other person into account and consider how your decisions and actions impact them.

When you are in a committed relationship, life isn’t just you anymore. So for the health of your relationship you probably shouldn’t act like it is. One person should never dictate the terms of the relationship.

Unfortunately we often misjudge and underestimate how our choices can impact our partners. That’s probably one of the biggest problems that leads to hurt and resentment in relationships. People make decisions they think only impacts them (and therefore shouldn’t be a big deal); when the other person feels they should have been involved. When you don’t feel involved, you don’t feel valued. And it can breakdown closeness and connection between a couple.

I think it’s always important to consider your partner when making choices. If you don’t think your decision will impact them, go ahead and do it. But if you know it will, or even if you aren’t sure, then discuss it with them first.

Yes, it lessens your autonomy. Really, that’s the trade off in a relationship – you aren’t just you anymore. And for those questioning the manhood of someone who involves their partner in decisions, I fail to see how trying to be respectful and inclusive makes someone any less of a man (or woman).

 

When You Can’t Agree

Now what if you really want something, and when you discuss it with your partner they say no?

In that case, I think it really depends on the reason given.

Are they saying no because it will impact other things and goals you are working towards? If so, is it really “no”, or is it a case where now isn’t a good time? Or are they saying no because they don’t like the idea, or they feel it’s frivolous?

In relationships I think one of our primary roles is to be each other’s cheerleaders. To support each other and help each other grow. Just because you don’t understand why something is important to the other person doesn’t mean it isn’t. So saying no because you feel something is frivolous isn’t very supportive.

On the other hand, saying no because it’s frivolous AND you need a new car and you are saving for braces for little Johnny or little Sally is a bit more understandable. Although it’s great to be your partners cheerleader, sometimes we also need to be their conscience when they aren’t seeing the bigger picture.

Of course, if it’s something that’s truly important to you even in spite of those things, you should be able to explain that and make a case why and do it anyway. It may cause some conflict for a while, but if it really is important to one person the other person should be able to understand.

So I guess my take on this is, yes you should be able to do what you want.  But at the same time what you want should definitely be influenced by your consideration and caring for your partner and how your choices impact them.

 

 

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