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.

This Is Just Who I Am

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Recently I was looking at my kids’ baby pictures (nah, not my kid up top), and it got me thinking about growth and maturation.

It’s amazing how much children change in those early years.

In one year they went from toothless chubby little babies who did little more than sleep, eat and poop; to little people who started to expand their world, learning to walk on unsteady little legs and exploring everything around them (often by trying to eat whatever it is).

Their photo albums are a window in time, showing milestones and transitions as the years go by.  They became toilet trained, learned to talk, went off to school, learned to ride a bike, gained friends and went on vacations.

With the turn of pages I saw them change, and grow.

Look at my kids, the changes in the past 10 years are significant and impossible to miss.  They have gone from babies to pre-teens.

Thing is, it wasn’t just my kids that were changing during this time.

In the pictures there are others.  I see myself, my wife, parents, siblings, cousins, friends, grandparents, etc.  We’ve all changed, and some of those people are now even gone.

When I look at pictures of me, the changes aren’t as readily apparent as the changes in my kids.  I’m definitely a bit older, with a bit more grey in my hair, and a few pounds heavier.  But I look largely the same.

 

Growing Up

At a subconscious level, I think there is a notion that most of our growing is done in our early years.  As children, we are in the process of becoming adults – with everything that means.

We finish high school, and probably go to university.  These post high-school years are very important, as we are young adults and the world is a blank slate.  We have a few years to figure out “who we want to be”, and decide on our future path.

By around our mid-twenties, we usually have this figured out.  School is done and we are starting careers, and often families.

We’re adults now, and we’ve made it!!!

We’re on a path (whatever it may be); and we are a finished product – or at least pretty close.  At this point who “we” are internally is seen as set.  We have established our identity, and any changes from here on are incremental and largely superficial, more the result of age than of any real growth.

I’m not sure if most people have really thought through this idea that our identities are established by our mid-twenties, but I think at some level most of us believe this (I know I did).

And I think this idea is totally wrong.

 

Who Am I?

One of my recurring themes in these pages is identity, and the question “who am I?”

I think this is a really important question, with far reaching implications on our lives.  But at the same time it’s a question for which there aren’t any easy answers.

What exactly are we?  Are we just a collection of the different roles we play?  Are we a combination of interests and hobbies?  Of habits?

All of these things make up components of who we are, and if we strip those away then what is left?

Our personality?  Our moral core?

Even these things don’t really seem “fixed”.  Sometimes peoples personalities have dramatic changes due to traumatic experience.

While trying to understand what we are, it truly seems to me that much of what we are is learned.  In fact I often think of people as the sum of their experiences.  We are shaped by everything we go through, and if our experiences had been different we likely wouldn’t be the same person we are today.

And our experiences never stop, no matter what age we are.  So although it may feel like we’ve stopped changing and growing when we became an adult, that’s not true.

We’re still changing all the time, sometimes in big ways and other times in small ones.  The changes just aren’t as easy to see as when we are kids.  We may no longer have noticeable physical changes, but the changes inside of us are always happening.

 

Relationships and Change

This idea of change as adults can have adverse impacts on relationships.

Sometimes couples get into a spot where they wake up one day and feel they no longer recognize the other person, and you hear things like “He/she isn’t the person I married.”

If you feel that way guess what, you’re right.  And guess what, you aren’t either.

As the years go by, you each experience things that change you.  Hopefully you are able to change and grow together, and hold onto the love and bond that brought you together.  But it’s also possible for you to change in ways that pull you apart.

Change is going to happen. 

To stay together you need to find ways to continue to learn each other, and continue to fall in love with each “new version” of your partner as the years go by.  You may not like everything, and you don’t have to.  But you need to accept that they are growing, not expect them to always be the exact same person they were when you first met.

Paradoxically, although we are always changing we have a tendency to get “stuck” in routines and patterns that are unhealthy for relationships.  And once in these routines, it often feels like things are hopeless and things will never be able to change for the better.  We get into these downward spirals where it can feel like the only choice left is to leave the relationship.

Often this is because we feel like the issues are due to fundamental differences between people.  Things that are “just the way they are”, or “just the way WE are”.

 

 

Embracing Change

Change is a funny thing, because it can threaten us if someone has changed too much or in ways we don’t like.  But it can also restrict us, as we can feel stuck in situations where change doesn’t seem possible, and where there is no hope of improvement.

Part of us wants stability.  We have visions on what we want things to look like, and we want it to be that way forever.

But really, the one constant in life is change so we need to accept it.

And when situations feel hopeless, we have to recognize that change CAN always happen.

Much of what we “are” is learned, and that means it can be unlearned and new paths can be found.

Change is hard though so often it won’t happen until we have real reason for it to happen, because someone has to WANT it to happen.

 

In relationships, much of how we act and interact is actually skills that we have developed subconsciously over time.  But instead of thinking of them as skills, we think of them as personal characteristics or traits.

How we communicate, how we deal with conflict, how we cope with stress.  These things aren’t inherent.  They aren’t who we are.  They are “part” of who we are, and they are part of who we have been.  Additionally, after many years these learned behaviors can be difficult to change.

 

Is This REALLY Who I Am?

To anyone who says “this is just who/how I am,” I say no – this is who you are today.  Tomorrow has yet to happen.  It’s a blank slate, and it’s up to you to decide how you want it to look.

Anything can change, and anything can get better.

If we feel stuck, our relationships can improve, and we can also improve.

We shouldn’t have to change for someone else, but that shouldn’t be how we look at change.  If we take a hard look at ourselves and are able to identify attitudes or aspects of our personality that are causing us problems, why would we want to improve?

Shouldn’t we always strive to be the best possible version of ourselves?  And if those improvements also help reduce conflict in our relationships, all the better.

 

We aren’t a constant – we are always growing and always becoming.  Being an adult doesn’t mean our growth and development is done.  It never stops, it just slows down a bit and becomes harder to see.

So instead of saying “this is just who I am” ask yourself, who do you want to become?

Fitting the Mold

CookieCutterMold

When I started this blog, I was trying to come up with possible answers to the following:

Everyone who gets married wants and expects it to last.  So why do so many fail?  And for those that don’t fail, why do so many people end up unhappy or in a marriage that isn’t satisfying?  What are we doing wrong?

 

As I’ve explored these ideas, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no “magic reason” that causes them to fail; however there ARE a lot of common contributors.

One or more of the following show up in most struggling relationships:

  • Not making time for the relationship
  • Taking each other for granted (hedonic adaptation)
  • Focusing on the negative instead of appreciating the positives
  • Confusion over the relationship when “feelings” fade
  • A lack of empathy

But another, less talked about area that I feel is a significant contributor to relationships problems is “fitting the mold” (yeah the term sucks, but bear with me and hopefully it will make sense).

 

The Process of “Growing Up”

If you are married or in a long term relationship and living with someone, why did you do it?  If you have kids, why did you do it?

Did you ever even think about it?  Of it is just something you “knew you always wanted”?  And if you knew you always wanted it, how did you know?

 

Often, it’s something we always knew we wanted because it’s what we saw modeled to us growing up.  Through parents, friends parents, grandparent, media etc; we see this template of what it looks like to “be an adult”.

We’re supposed to finish high school, and probably get a post-secondary education.  After that it’s off to a career.  While we’re doing this we date a few people (with the intent of finding the person we can see building a life with).  Marriage, maybe a couple of kids (not necessarily in that order), we probably buy a house, and hope we have enough money to go on vacation every once in a while.  We raise the kids, see them move out on their own, retire, and shift from parent mode to grandparent.

Oh yeah, then we get old and die.

Overall, it’s not a bad story.

 

There is one fairly important thing that gets lost in this story though.

Who exactly am I?

In media, we are constantly bombarded with messaging telling us we need to be different, be unique, and be who you want to be.  And the underlying message here is that “normal” is bad.

So if we’re all more or less following the template, what makes us “us”?

 

Losing (and Finding) Yourself

When I was a kid I thought midlife crisis was a bit of a joke.  I would see it in movies, and it was usually portrayed as a man (usually a fairly pathetic one) trying to recapture his youth.  He would divorce his wife, get the red sports car and a girlfriend half his age.

As I’ve aged, and hit these supposed midlife years my perception has changed somewhat.  Now I think midlife crisis is a real thing, but it’s not the way Hollywood portrays it.  Yeah, sometimes there’s the sports car and the girlfriend.  But those are the extreme cases.  More commonly I see that at anywhere from 35-45 years of age men and women seem to hit a point where they take stock of their lives.

Some find themselves generally content, and continue on happily.

Others find that marriage, parenting and simply being an adult isn’t quite what they were expecting; and they find themselves asking is this all there is?

Lastly I see a group of people who seem to come to the conclusion that they have been living the life they thought they were supposed to live.  They’ve been following the template, and fitting the mold.  And suddenly they aren’t sure if the life they have is actually the one they want. 

To outside appearances, they may have a pretty good life, and find that the people around them are unable to understand why they aren’t happy with it.  Hell, THEY may not even be able to understand why they aren’t happy with their life.

When this happens it often has very little to do with the actual conditions of their life.  Rather, this discontent with their life is about choice, and belief.

 

Making Choices

In life some people actively make choices.  They get a job because they wanted that job.  They pursue that guy/girl because they were interested in that person.  They get married because the want to build a life with that other person.

Other people are more passive.  They aren’t sure of what they want, so life just kind of happens around them.  They get a job because the job was available.  They are in a relationship because they don’t want to be alone, and the other person seems like a pretty good option.

I believe your enjoyment and satisfaction level in life is directly related to whether or not you have actively made choices.  People who actively make choices tend to be happier overall then people who are just along for the ride.

 

If someone hasn’t actively chosen their path, it’s understandable they would experience discontent, and question whether the life they have is actually the one they want.

Sometimes people take a look at their life and decide it’s not what they actually want.  So they go in search of something different.  Sometimes people find it and are happier.  Other times people spend many years in search of something they can’t even define, thinking they may not know what they want but they will know it when they find it.

Another approach is to try and make some changes and grow as an individual.  When someone either isn’t sure what they want or has been living the life they thought they were supposed to live, this can be a time to try and find what they actually want.

And this doesn’t have to mean throwing away the life they currently have, as personal growth can often bring back a sense of fulfillment that has been missing.  By making a few changes and growing, some people are ultimately able to re-embrace the life they had.

A degree of caution should be taken though, as life doesn’t stop while someone tries to find themselves.  And there’s a risk that during their search the life they had is now gone.

 

Making Your Own Road

In life, there is no one right path.  Getting an education doesn’t guarantee a job.  Getting a job doesn’t mean you’ll enjoy it.  Some people are happier staying single, and being a parent is much, much harder than anyone ever tells you.

So instead of fitting the mold, it’s best to find what works for you.

That’s not always easy though.

Personally, I think the mold exists because it does have a number of strengths and advantages, and for many people it provides a good path for finding happiness in life.

Even if you embrace it though, you shouldn’t go through life just checking off the boxes in a soulless way (got the job, yup.  Got the girl, yup…).

Maybe it’s best to think of it as a guide instead of a map.  You still need to put your own mark on things, and do the little things to make your life “yours”.

The “Secret” to Happiness

top-secret
Have you ever received a raise?

Let’s say you get a $1200 raise. Not bad, right? Well if you’re paid twice a month that’s around $50 per cheque before deductions; so let’s say it’s an extra $30 per pay period.

It’s an increase, but it’s not really that much. It’s not like you’ll be buying a new car or taking that vacation you wanted with an additional $30 every few weeks.

Now let’s change this up a bit and imagine you received a 10k raise. That would probably turn into around a $250-$300 increase per pay period, which is fairly significant. When that happens, you definitely notice it.

At first.

Here’s the thing. After a few months (and at most a year) you won’t even notice the increase; no matter how big the increase is.

 

This happens in all aspects of life. We get that new car we’ve been wanting and there are all these new features we didn’t have before. We get that new house, and it has more space or more rooms.

The new stuff is pretty cool, and pretty great.

But over a fairly short period of time, it stops being new. We become used to it. And it becomes our new “normal”.

Once something has become our new norm, we start to notice flaws we didn’t see at first (or flaws that didn’t seem important).  And more importantly, we stop appreciating the positives these new things have provided.

This is part of the human condition. We are hard-wired to take the positive things in our life for granted.

 

Hedonic Adaptation

I’ve been writing about happiness being negatively impacted by taking things for granted for a long time now, but it’s only recently that I found out there is a name for it. This phenomenon is known as Hedonic Adaptation (thanks Matt for pointing me to this).

Here’s a brief description from Wikipedia:

The hedonic treadmill, also known as hedonic adaptation, is the observed tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes. According to this theory, as a person makes more money, expectations and desires rise in tandem, which results in no permanent gain in happiness.

Most of my writing is about relationships, and the implications of this for relationships are HUGE. I’ve often challenged the concept of soul mates, or “the one”. It’s a terrible concept that removes any personal accountability for building and maintaining healthy working relationships. After all, when things get tough why would you want to work on things? And why would you look at your own role in the breakdown of a relationship? It’s easier just to tell ourselves that this other person wasn’t the right one for us.

Hedonic adaptation tells us it doesn’t matter how amazing the person we find is. They can be “a perfect match” for us, and it STILL won’t matter. Because no matter how great they are, after a while that greatness will simply be the norm.

When you see it day after day, year after year is ceases to have any impacts on us. It will just be who they are, and we will stop seeing and appreciating the good.

Thing is, everyone has at least some flaws. And when we stop seeing and appreciating the good those flaws start to stand out.

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Making Comparisons

This becomes an even bigger issue when it’s coupled this with another problem with human nature – comparison.

As people, we have an inability to judge something based on its own merits. Instead, we judge the value of something by comparing it to a similar item.

And when comparing, we almost always compare the flaws of the thing we are comparing to those characteristics in something else. But when we do this, due to hedonic adaptation we aren’t also comparing the positives, because we no longer see them.

 

I’ve got a pretty good career, and a pretty good job. It’s not what I initially wanted, but it provides a reasonably good life for my family without requiring long hours or high levels of stress.

Sometimes though I compare myself to others, to people I’ve known through school or through work. I see people I’ve known over the years that seem to have greater levels of career success then me, and in many cases they are people who aren’t any better than me.

In those moments I often feel like a failure, and question what I’ve done wrong.

In a vacuum, I have a lot to be grateful for. It’s only through comparison that I start to feel like things are lacking, or feel like a failure.

These moments usually pass quickly, because am aware that I am doing this, and I realize I am making selective comparisons.

First, there are different measurements of success. And looking selectively at someone’s title or salary doesn’t take into account all the other factors that I have no visibility on.

Secondly, in those moments I am picking and choosing WHO I compare myself to. There are a lot of people out there who I have known that haven’t had the same level of success I have had. During my personal self-pity parties I conveniently exclude those people from my comparisons, and only look at those people I perceive as doing better than me.

Falling Out of Love

I recently asked someone about the concept of falling out of love with your partner, and what was described to me was a perfect example of these concepts.

We meet someone, and there’s a pretty good chance there are good qualities that draw us to them. Over time though, things break down and we are left feeling tired, frustrated and not feeling valued. These items on their own cause the relationship to break down, and resentment to start to grow.

When the relationship has hit this stage, hedonic adaptation is one of the big culprits. Chances are, the good qualities of the other person haven’t really gone away. They are still there, but we no longer see them. Instead all we see is the flaws, and the problems. And when those flaws are no longer being offset by good (because we no longer see the good), it’s easy to question is it still worth it?

I don’t think that alone is usually the killer though. The REAL killer is once we add comparison.

In the description of falling out of love, a comment was made that when the relationship has hit a bad spot you start to think something like “maybe I should have married my college sweetheart instead”. Sometimes the comparison is to an old relationship. Sometimes you hear positive stories about things other people’s partners are doing (oh look, they just went on a trip, or had a romantic night out) and that creates a perception that other people’s partners are better than your own. Or sometimes you meet someone that “seems to have more in common with you” and start focusing your energy there (while reducing the effort in your relationship) because it makes you feel more alive.

None of these are positive, productive, or realistic (especially the last one). In all cases, you are comparing the issues and flaws of your current partner to strengths of someone else, while simultaneously ignoring the good parts of your partner that you have taken for granted and not seeing the flaws of the other person.

They are broken comparisons, rigged to make our partners look even worse than they really are.

What This Means for Happiness

So what does all this mean, and what does it have to do with happiness? Well, hopefully that’s fairly clear.

There’s no real surefire way to “be happy”, and we shouldn’t want that anyhow. I have always seen happiness as a journey, and not a destination. To me it’s not something we can achieve.  Rather, it’s a byproduct of the way we live and our outlook on life. And on any journey there will good and bad, happiness and sadness. Joy and pain.

But although we can’t make ourselves happy, human nature will cause us to do things that will minimize our potential happiness.
Hedonic adaptation tells us that over time the good in our life becomes our norm, and when that happens we stop seeing the good and we take it for granted.

Being aware of this phenomenon allows us to guard against it. And to guard against it we need to try to approach life with more of a sense of appreciation. We should regularly take stock of the good in our life, and the good qualities of our partner. When we do this, the flaws (which will always be there) often don’t seem as bad.

The second thing we can guard against is making comparisons. Stop comparing our partners to someone else (past relationships and potential partners) and stop comparing ourselves to other people.

The way we make comparisons is broken. We tend to only make comparisons when we see flaws in the thing we are comparing (ourselves or our partners), and we tend to compare those flaws (while overlooking the good) to an imaginary state that is usually only focused on the good in the other thing.

Hedonic adaptation and comparison can be fatal to us appreciating what we have in the here and now, and understanding them allows us to reduce their effects, maximizing our happiness. So the secret to happiness isn’t so much about searching for happiness. Instead it’s about not losing the happiness we already have.

I found this nicely stated on psychologytoday.com:

Human beings spend a lot of time trying to figure out what will make them happy, but not nearly enough time trying to hang on to the happiness they already have. In a way, this is like focusing all your energy on making more money, without giving any thought to what you’ll do with the money you’ve already earned. The key to wealth, like the key to happiness, is to not only look for new opportunities, but to make the most of the ones you’ve been given.

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.

Broken Trust

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I’ve talked before about my love of basketball, and in the news recently there was an incident that hit headlines.

Although they are terrible these days, the Los Angeles Lakers are still one of the “glory” franchises in the NBA. They hit headlines though because a video was leaked where one of their top newcomers (D’Angelo Russell) was talking to another player (Nick Young) about his relationship, and in it Nick Young apparently admits to cheating on his fiance.

Interestingly, the furor over this video has nothing to do with Nick Young cheating on his fiance. Instead, it has been about the actions of D’Angelo Russell – filming and then purportedly posting this video (he denies posting it, and insists he doesn’t know how it got out).

See, regardless of what was being said the discussion between Young and Russell was private. And in letting it out there, Russell has violated his trust.

In the sports world the outcry against Russell has been considerable, with some even going so far as to say that Russell (who is a rookie) will never be able to recover from this, because his teammates will never be able to trust him again.

A sports team in many ways is the same as any other team. The players don’t necessarily have to be friends, and they don’t even have to like each other. But to be successful they need to be able to effectively work together. And that requires a degree of trust. When that trust breaks down, it damages the chemistry between players. And trust once gone, is very difficult to rebuild.

Breaking Down Trust

I’ve written before about honesty in relationships, and although I don’t believe anyone is always honest I do feel it’s important that our actions toward each other are characterized by empathy and respect.

In relationships trust can break down in different ways. Sometimes it is big events, and other times it is an accumulation of smaller events over time. At the end of the day though, trust is about the questions “can I count on you?”, and “will you be there for me when I need you?”

When the answer is no or there is significant doubt, then trust has broken down. When this happens, often our entire perception of the other person changes. They aren’t the person we thought they were. And this realization can leave us feeling betrayed and hurt.

If trust has broken down, can it ever really be rebuilt? Or is it something that once broken is gone forever?

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Making Mistakes

Are you perfect? Have you made mistakes?

We all make mistakes, both big and small. And it doesn’t matter how kind, or caring, or devoted you are – we all have days and moments where we are tired, frustrated, or selfish.

At some level we know this, but we still expect more from the people we care about the most. After all, we care about them – and we expect them to care about us. So we don’t expect them to be the ones who hurt us. We expect better from them.

However the ones we care about the most are often the ones we hurt the most. When I look at my life, overall I think I’m a pretty good guy. Yet I know I’ve done things that have hurt those closest to me.

It’s the law of averages – for the people who see us the most, they are more likely to see us at our worst moments. While being around people more gives us more opportunities to “be on our best”, it also provides more opportunities to hurt them.

Unfortunately, it’s often the bad stuff that people remember the most.

There’s No News Like Bad News

Take a look at any newspaper, or any media outlet. Sure, sometimes there are “feelgood” stories that get traction. But by and large it’s the bad news that sells. And it’s the bad news that sticks with people.

That’s just human nature – and unfortunately it’s bad news for relationships.
In his work on relationships John Gottman talks about this – and he even has a formula for what it takes to have a successful relationship. According to him, healthy relationships need 5 positive interactions for each negative one.

We remember what affects us more, and the bad often outweighs the good.

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Letting People In

As the saying says, trust takes years to build and moments to break.
There are definitely different degrees of bad choices, but if a person has done a lot of good for a long time and then does something bad, does that make them a bad person?

Some would argue that it depends on the severity of the bad choice, and there’s truth to that. Some choices are so terrible that it’s hard to ever accept. I still think history matters though. As does a person’s reaction after the fact.

If someone continually exhibits selfish or disrespectful behavior then that’s one thing. But if someone takes ownership for their actions, shows contrition and demonstrates changes in their behavior, we should be able to rebuild trust over time.

When we can’t?

I think that often issues with trust aren’t only issues with the actions of the person we are struggling to trust. Instead, they are issues with us being unable to let go and being unable to forgive.

When we’ve been hurt it’s good to be cautious, and it’s good to try to protect ourselves. But it’s important to remember that building walls and not letting the other person back in will ensure the relationship is never able to move forward.

 

D’Angelo Russell made a mistake, and that mistake cost him the trust of his teammates. Does that mean he’s untrustworthy?

I don’t actually know anything about the guy in question, but I would say no, one mistake no matter how big does not mean someone is untrustworthy. Right now all it means is that he made a selfish decision that hurt his teammate. If that mistake is part of a pattern of behavior, then I would say yes.

That’s not to say the affected teammate should just forget it and trust him blindly moving forward. Some mistakes are bigger than others, and Nick Young needs to decide if he is willing to even consider trusting Russell again.

Trust isn’t just about one person though. So if they do want to move forward as teammates Russell needs to consistently show he’s worthy of that trust, and Young also needs to let him back in. If Young doesn’t, then nothing Russell does will ever be enough, and trust will never be rebuilt.