What do you bring IN to your Relationship?

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When I hear people talk about relationships, there is a lot of talk about compatibility, and how important it is to find the right person.

Compatibility does matter (to a degree), but I think it’s much less important than most believe.

In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that the quality of your relationship often has much less to do with your partner, and a lot more to do with you.

 

I see/read/hear men and women who are “unable to find the love they want”, and they complain, saying things like “all the men I meet are X” or “all the women I meet as Y” (insert stereotype of choice for X and Y).

Sometimes we run into so many similar problems that we start to lose faith in our gender of preference completely, and start to convince ourselves our experiences are representative of all members of that gender.

Here’s a potentially uncomfortable question for you:

If you have had a number of relationships, and they all turning out badly or you are struggling to even find a relationship, what’s the one common link?

You.

 

Now, don’t misunderstand what I’m saying here.  I’m not saying that you are a terrible person, or you are unlovable or anything like that.

I simply think that anytime life isn’t working out quite the way we want it to, the WORST thing you can do is think of yourself as a victim.

How your life goes is not “just the way things are” and I don’t believe in “if it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be”.  Those ideas, and the idea that you “just need to find the right person” paint yourself as a passive participant in your own life.

Rather, I believe that life presents us with different opportunities, and it’s up to us to decide what to do with them.  We can’t control how things will turn out, but we ALWAY control our own choices, and how we respond to the events that happen to us.

So if a relationship (or life in general) isn’t working out the way we want it to I think it’s important to take a look in the mirror, and try to understand the ways you might be contributing to things.

 

If people you meet aren’t treating you the way you want, ask yourself what are you attracted to?  How are you presenting yourself (as the energy you give off influences what you are attracting)?  If you are interested in a “certain type” and things work out the same way, maybe it’s time to expand your horizons and look at something different.

Are you respecting yourself and properly enforcing your boundaries?  Do you even know what your own boundaries are?  Unfortunately, many of us don’t really know what our boundaries are.  We know when they have been violated because of how it makes us feel, but even then, we often don’t know how to enforce them.

 

Another big question you I think people need to ask is, what are you bringing IN to the relationship?

Yourself obviously, but what does that actually mean?

As people, we are the sum of our experiences – both good and bad.  The experiences shape us, and shape our expectations of what we are looking for, and how people will treat us.

What are your expectations in a relationship?  Are they realistic?  I find that one of the biggest sources of unhappiness for people is that their life hasn’t turned out quite the way they thought it would.  Frequently by all objective measures those people have a lot to be happy about, but it is the comparison to the expectations they had for live that lead to their disappointment.

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One of the things we bring with us into relationships that can often be damaging is our coping skills.

What are your coping skills?  How do you deal with conflict, or respond when things get hard?  How do you fight?  Do you shut down and pretend things are alright?  Do you get angry?  Petty?  Passive aggressive?

Lastly, what baggage/insecurities do you bring into your relationship?  We all damaged in some way, and that’s okay.  We all have our own baggage, and although that baggage can seem like it’s part of who we are, it’s up to us to deal with it.

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Part of dealing with it involves allowing our partners understand our baggage, so we need to be willing to let them in enough to understand it.  We need to be willing to tell them how we have been hurt in the past, what are triggers are, and why we feel the way we do about things.  This can be difficult, because these are often some of our most personal and sensitive memories/experiences.  However by opening up and communicating these things to our partners we are allowing them to understand us.  When someone can understand why we feel the way we do about things, it allows them to approach those triggers with empathy and care.

 

If we are not careful, our personal issues and insecurities can easily start to poison our relationships, so an important question is what are you doing about them?

If you take the approach “this is just how I am”, you are expecting the other person to accommodate you, and that’s not fair.  And they should be understanding/empathic, and try to accommodate you to a degree.  At the same time though, you need to work on your own issues (own your own sh*t as some would say).

HealYourself

 

I believe taking a hard looking in the mirror, and trying to understand what you bring in to a relationship is very important to the health of any relationship; as it allows you to understand how you contribute in both positive and negative ways.

Understanding your own role in something gives you a degree of power.  Because you can’t change other people, at best you can influence them.  However you are always capable of recognizing parts of yourself you may not like, and working to improve them.

Saying “this is just the way I am” is just as much of a cop out as “I just need to find the right person”.

It’s more accurate to say “this is just the way I am – right now”.  But it doesn’t have to be the way you are tomorrow. 

 

I opened with the idea that the quality of your relationship often has much less to do with your partner, and a lot more to do with you.

What you are interested in, the energy you give off, how you enforce your boundaries, how you cope, and how you deal with your own baggage.  These are all things that influence the success of your relationships, and they all come from you.  And you are the only person who can change these things.

So instead of “I just need to find the right person” maybe a big part of thing is “I just need to BE the right person”.  I’m not suggesting you should ever change for someone else.  But you are never a victim, and you can always strive to be the best version of you.

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Words Mean Nothing

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

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

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

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

I went.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

So off I went on my own.

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

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

It was no longer a priority.

It no longer really mattered.

 

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

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

But they aren’t.

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

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

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

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

But time passes, and tomorrow never comes.

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Often, I think the answer is the latter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Words mean nothing, unless they are backed by action.

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

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

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

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

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

If there isn’t?

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

 

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Is Monogamy Natural?

One of the big arguments/excuses/rationalizations commonly given for affairs is that monogamy is not natural.

It’s an argument that’s been around for years, and I recently saw it in the headlines when Scarlett Johansson was discussing her own failed marriage.

I don’t think it’s natural to be a monogamous person. I might be skewered for that, but I think it’s work. It’s a lot of work. And the fact that it is such work for so many people—for everyone — the fact of that proves that it is not a natural thing. It’s something I have a lot of respect for and have participated in, but I think it definitely goes against some instinct to look beyond.

Scarlett Johansson

 

I actually agree with what she’s saying here.

Yes marriages are work.  I’m not sure if being monogamous is “work”, but a marriage isn’t always easy or fun.  When you’re married you have to balance what is good for the marriage with what is good for you; and sometimes there are differences between these two things.

This is one of the big things challenges all relationships face.

Additionally, people are sexual beings.  Talking about sex and sexuality is somewhat taboo and often makes people uncomfortable; but it doesn’t change the fact that we are sexual beings.

Sexual desires are normal, and healthy even.

 

Monogamy is about committing to one person physically and emotionally, and committing to that person ONLY.

Committing to one person doesn’t mean you stop finding other people attractive though.  And yes, you may even have sexual thoughts or desires about another person.

So there is definitely some basis to the argument that monogamy is “unnatural”.

 

To that I say, so what?

 

Basic Instincts

Sexual desire is a basic human instinct.  It’s natural, and I can accept that it may be natural to (occasionally) have sexual thoughts about someone other than your partner.

But you know what else is natural?

  • Wanting stuff you don’t have
  • Getting defensive when people criticize you
  • Believing “your way” is the best way
  • Fearing what we don’t understand

 

There are lots of things that are “natural”.  But it’s a HUGE mistake to think “natural” is the same as good or desirable.  They aren’t the same thing.

When someone pisses me off, it may be natural to want to yell, scream, or punch them.  That doesn’t mean I should.

So sure, due to sexual instincts monogamy may not be natural.

Here are some other “unnatural” things:

  • Getting a job.
  • Being honest (instead of telling people what we think will make us look good or we think people will want to hear).
  • Accepting that our way isn’t always best, and different approaches can be just as good (or even better) than our own.
  • Working to find solutions to problems that work for both people instead of  focusing on what is best for ourselves.
  • Not just doing something or taking something (stealing) simply because we “want to”.
  • Trying to see things from the perspective of another person.

 

None of these things are “natural”, and none of these things are “easy” all the time.  In fact, some of them are REALLY HARD.  But they are still positive and healthy.

Unnatural things can be positive, and Just because something may seem “natural” doesn’t mean we need to act on it.

In fact, I would argue that MANY of our “natural” instincts are actually driven by greed and selfishness; which aren’t exactly positive characteristics.

Yes, we have basic/natural instincts and those instincts drive our behavior at times.  But our instincts don’t control us, and they don’t define us.  We don’t have to act on these instincts.

In fact, I believe our ability to demonstrate self-control and NOT act on our basic instincts all the time is one of the key characteristics that allow us to function in a social world.

 

Casual Sex vs. Intimate Sex

Thinking back to the idea of monogamy, I ask you – what is sex?  What does it mean to you?

Is sex just a physical act driven by a hormonal response?  Or is it something more?

I’m not sure if there is a “right” answer here, but I think “how” someone answers that question will have a direct relation to their views on monogamy.

 

Sex is a physical act, and feels good.  It makes nerve endings in certain places go crazy (in a good way).  It also causes the release of dopamine and other “feel good” hormones.

But is that all it is?

I don’t think so.  When it comes to sex (and attraction), I think there are a few other things going on.

 

Even if you are in a monogamous relationship, when our partner compliments us, tells us we “look good”, that they find us attractive or that they desire is, it feels good.

Whether it’s your partner saying it or someone else, it feels good to know others find you attractive (anyone who says otherwise is lying).

 

Someone noticing you, wanting you, and desiring you makes you feel good about yourself.  Well, unless they do it in a creepy leering way – then it probably just makes you feel self-conscious and perhaps a bit concerned for your safety.

Other than that?

Being desired makes you feel better about you (at least for a little while).

This is because sex and attraction are tied to ego; to our feelings about ourself, and our own self worth.

 

Sometimes (especially in long term relationships), our partners do a pretty shitty job of “wooing” us, and reminding us that they find us attractive and desire us.  Or maybe they still do and they still try, but because we already “have them”, it doesn’t impact us much anymore.  After all, wanting something we “don’t” have is another of our natural instincts (this is why I think understanding hedonic adaptation is key to happiness in life).

This is just a reality of long term relationships.  So we ALL need to remember that letting our partners know that we still desire them is important.  And listening and being willing to believe our partners when they tell us they still find us attractive and desire us is important too.

 

But is sex just about desire and feeling good about ourselves?  Are our egos so fragile that we actually “need” others to wants us?

Sadly, I think the answer is often yes.  And if so, what does that say about us?

 

Let’s say I go for a walk, and while out on the street I run into Scarlett Johansson.  And let’s assume she sees me, we get talking, and yeah, she finds me attractive and desirable (because she would of course).  She’s already established with her quote at the start of this post that she doesn’t think monogamy is natural, so let’s say she and I decide to have sex (hey, this is my story so I can have it play out however I want!).

I’m sure the sex would be enjoyable.  But beyond having a chance to be naked with Scarlett Johansson what have I really accomplished here?

Will I actually feel better about myself?  If so, why?

Is my life any better because I’ve now had sex with her?  I guess I could put it on my resume or something; but in reality, it wouldn’t change my life much.  And actually, even if it’s on my resume it likely wouldn’t help me land many jobs.

 

If sex is purely a physical act that feels good, then we can do it with anyone we find attractive.  When that happens, it’s all about ego.  It’s all about external validation.  Sex becomes a form of power, where having sexual power over someone or being wanted sexually is required in order to feel good about oneself.

 

So yes, sexual desire is natural.  And there are lots of people out there who I would find sexually attractive and/or appealing for some reason.  But does that mean I should want/need to have sex with them?

If so, why?

To feel good about myself?  To validate my ego?

 

Sex as a physical act may feel good, but I think sex can (and should) be more than that.

A few years ago I wrote the following:

Sex is a form of communication. It’s a physical manifestation of the love, caring and compassion that you share for one another. If there are any underlying issues in your relationship, there’s a pretty good chance that there’s a bit of a breakdown in caring and compassion. When this happens the openness required for meaningful sex is likely missing (or at least somewhat hampered). You may or may not still be having sex, but without the emotional connection sex becomes purely the physical act.

Sex is different from intimacy.

Intimacy is about connection. It’s emotional, physical, and even spiritual. Sex is a form of intimacy, but it’s not intimacy. Intimacy is the little things – the touches, the smiles, and the shared looks. Intimacy is feeling loved, feeling valued, and giving that in return. Intimacy is opening up to each other, sharing hopes and dreams, and allowing yourself to be vulnerable with another person. Intimacy is about openness.

Sex in the context of intimacy is the deepest form of sharing a couple can have. You are literally giving yourself to your partner, and symbolically the two of you have joined as one. It needs to be as much about what you give as it is about what you receive.

 

I think intimate sex can only exist in a committed/monogamous relationship.  Casual sex may feel good, and may be passionate at a physical level.  And for some, they confuse this with “intimacy”.

Intimate sex is deeper though; and can only happen when you let down your walls and truly let the other person in.

 

MoreThanSex

 

There are many things that aren’t “natural” for people, but these things can still be admirable characteristics and qualities to have.  We just need to work on them, and accept that we always have choice.  We aren’t slaves to our natural instincts.

Monogamy may not be natural, but that doesn’t make it a bad thing.

Part of what makes us human, and makes us more than just animals is our ability to learn empathy; and to actually care about something larger than just us.

 

I’m not saying casual sex is necessarily a bad thing.  If that’s all you are looking for in a relationship for whatever reason (time, energy, fear of intimacy, enjoyment of being able to live life attachment free), that fine.  In that case it’s important you are upfront with the person you are with, and you find someone who has a similar approach to life.  As long as that approach works for both people, great.

But when someone wants “the life” – the safety and security that comes with a committed relationship, yet also wants to do what they want sexually; don’t use the excuse that monogamy isn’t natural.

It may not be, but a lot of what makes us human isn’t natural.

It’s a choice.

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Your Life is Not Your Own

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One of the biggest things that shapes my world view is a belief that my life is not my own.

In some ways, that statement seems completely nonsensical.  Because of course my life is my own.  I mean, if it’s not mine then whose is it?

Am I not an individual?

Don’t I make my own choices?

When I get up in the morning, I decide how my day looks.

I can go into work, or I can call in sick.  If I go to work, I decide how hard I want to work during the day.  I choose what I want to eat – I can eat pizza pops and candy all day if I want.  I can flirt with co-workers, come in to the office drunk or high, and pick up prostitutes.  Hell, I can head into my bosses office and defecate on her desk if I really wanted.

I have those choices.  I have that *power* (if you can call it that).

Based on all of the above it seems obvious that my life is my own, and I can do with it whatever I want.

 

Thing is, although I COULD do whatever I want, I don’t (fine – I’ve probably had days that I ate nothing but candy and pizza pops, but they’re rare.  Never more than once a week).

Generally there is some thought process behind my choices; and 99% of the time this involves weighing my choices against my core values.  Values that tell me doing things like flirting with co-workers, coming into the office drunk or high, picking up prostitutes and defecating on my bosses desk are BAD decisions.

I can’t say that I’ve ever wanted to do any of those things, but even if I did, they are choices that would potentially have long term implications on my life.  And these implications don’t just affect MY life, but also the lives of the people around me.  The people I care about.

See, my life isn’t just about me.  My actions may be my own, but they impact other people.

 

I’m a father, and virtually EVERY decision I make has the potential to shape the lives of my children.  Some decisions can radically affect their futures, but even for smaller decisions I need to model behavior to them that shows them how I believe they should live their lives.

In my mind, when I became a parent I gave up the right to focus primarily on me.

 

Even without children, the same rules apply in relationships.  It’s one thing if all you want is to casually date.  Casual dating is all about you, and what you get out of it.  It’s the easy part – the “fun” without any responsibility.  You see someone only when you want, and on your terms.  You can focus on what you get out of that “relationship” and not actually care about the other person (side note, I don’t consider casual dating an actual relationship).  And if they don’t like that?  Too bad for them, you can move on and find someone else.

That approach to relationships works for some, but most people want more out of their relationships.  Most people want at least some commitment from the other person.  For that person to be faithful to them; and maybe to start building something with them.  I think most of us like the idea of growing old *with* someone, and sharing our life with them.

For that to happen, things need to change.  It can’t just be about you anymore.  Relationships are about both people, and both people matter.  Both need to feel valued, and heard.  And for that to happen, the other persons needs/wants have to matter just as much as our own.

In a relationship, your actions are still your own.  You are still an individual, and you can choose to do whatever you want.  But your decisions impact your partner, and as a result you need to take your partner into account in the things you do.

You can still choose to do whatever you want, and not take your partner into account.  But if you do that you are not respecting that other person, and you are not respecting the relationship.

 

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Even if I don’t have children and I’m not in a relationship, I would still contend my life is not just about me.  I still have parents, siblings and friends.  I still have co-workers who rely on me.

There are ALWAYS people who are impacted by my actions and my decisions.

That doesn’t mean I have to live my life for those people.  That doesn’t mean I *can’t* do what I want.  But it DOES mean I should take them into account, and realize that my decisions may affect those people adversely.

 

Pretending I’m an individual who can do what they want without realizing my actions impact others is self-absorption.  Thinking we are special, and we can do what we want because the regular rules of life don’t apply to us is entitlement.

In reality we ALL have moments of self-absorption or entitlement.  It’s just a question of how often do we do these things, and how do we respond when we’ve realized what we’ve done?

To me, I am in control of my own life.  I make my own decisions, and I do my best to deal with the impacts of those decisions.  And I do that recognizing that while I control my own life, it impacts others.  So I need to take others into account.

And in that regard, I accept that my life is not my own.

Establishing Boundaries

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

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

Beyond that though?

What do we really learn?

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

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

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

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

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

 

Giving and Taking

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

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

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

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

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

Treat others the way you want to be treated.

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

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

But there was one problem here.

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

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

We aren’t taught how to say no.

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Learning To Say No

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

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

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

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

We don’t know what our own boundaries are.

We only start to learn them when they are violated.

 

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

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

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

But often we don’t.

 

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

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

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

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

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

And I wasn’t respecting myself.

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

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

But sometimes, it’s necessary.

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

selfish

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

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

 

Discovering You

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.

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

When this happens you face a difficult decision.

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

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

Both people need to be respected.

Both people need to be valued, and heard.

Both peoples boundaries matter.

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

 

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Relationship Limbo

Cracked clay landscape in the Atacama desert.

One of the main premises of my blog is, although each relationship is unique there are often common problems and issues affecting many of us.

So by looking at those “common problems”, in theory there will be many people out there who will be able to relate to what I’m trying to say.  Some of what I write is from experience while some is from things I have read or even just from personal observation.  But in my writing I try to look at things in terms of ideas, or beliefs.  I try not to write about me or my experiences directly.

 

In that regard, today’s post is a bit different.

Like many, my marriage was challenged; and that became the flashpoint event that caused me to turn to writing.

When I found out my wife was unhappy in our marriage; I wanted to understand, and to make things better.  I knew there was a lot of good, and I believed that if we could go back and find that good our life could be great again and we could have the “forever” we once promised each other.

So I fought for us.

I tried to grow to be a better person, and in that regard I would like to think I’ve succeeded.  But even though I grew personally, I still failed and our marriage failed.

Today I hope to share lessons I learned, painfully.

Every situation is different and what is right for me isn’t necessarily what is right for others, so everyone needs to judge for themselves what is right in their own situation.

But for me, these are “truths” I wish I had learned earlier.

 

My story

A number of years ago my wife told me she was no longer happy in our marriage.  She didn’t feel she loved me anymore, questioned if she ever “truly” loved me, and wasn’t sure if she wanted to be married anymore.  I’ll guess she felt that way for a while, but it was over 4 years ago when she finally told me those things.

“Why” doesn’t really matter, and honestly I don’t actually know if she or I will ever really understand it.

I was caught off guard, as I hadn’t seen it coming.  To me, marriage was forever.  We had been together a long time and had a young family; so I didn’t want her to do anything rash.

I wanted to understand what was wrong, thinking if we could identify the problems we could improve them.  After all, isn’t that what you do?  Try to be there for each other and try to be better?

She told me she didn’t want “us” anymore, and further she didn’t even want to try because “what was the point”.  She had never communicated this to me before, but apparently for her she had been feeling this way for a while.

I was able to convince her to stay, but it was only ever in body.

She never seemed to buy in to the notion we could still be happy, and she never seemed to *want it* the way I did.

It felt like a self-fulfilling prophecy.  She wasn’t sure she wanted to be married anymore, so her effort was sporadic, and never sustained.  And not putting in consistent effort undermined our ability to ever improve.

She wasn’t sure if she wanted to be married anymore, and after that day we really never were.

I continued to love her, but she didn’t seem to love me back.  Instead, we were in this limbo state where we were a bit more than roommates who co-parent, but not really a couple.  Any passion she once had for me or for us had long been gone.

In that situation, it was a struggle to remain positive and stay strong, holding on to hope things would get better.  But I tried.

Occasionally things would improve for a day or two; sometimes even weeks at a time.  During these moments I would feel connected again, and get a glimpse of what our life once was and what I felt it could be again.

But these moments were always fleeting, then her body language would change and the walls would come back up.  Emotional walls, where I could feel her holding back.  She either didn’t love me, was unable to express it, or didn’t believe she should have to.  But in the end it amounted to the same – my perception had been one of a number of years in a relationship where my love was not returned.

 

John Gottman (Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work) said a successful marriage needs 5 positive interactions for every negative interaction.  I disagree.  Tension and negative interactions may be bad; but apathy is worse. Living in limbo, without expressions of love and affection was a slow death, and in some ways I think a major issue or incident would have been better.

 

Limbo

Limbo is defined as:

“an uncertain period of awaiting a decision or resolution; an intermediate state or condition”.

And that’s what my life had become.

A life where I was married, but not.  I was with someone who wouldn’t commit to me, but was also unable to let me go.

In those early months and years, I thought I was doing the right thing.  I stayed with her, and accepted the lack of reciprocation of my love.

I told myself she just needed time.  I knew what we had, and I knew how great our life could be.  So all I had to do was stay positive and I would be able to get her to come back to me.  I could be the light that would bring her out of whatever dark place she was in.

So I waited.

I had visions of those romantic stories where people are separated by circumstance, and eventually they are reunited in their love.

I told myself that would be us.

One day she would see me again with fresh eyes, and she would love me again.  I even imagined us one day renewing our vows together.

I was an idiot.

 

What I failed to see was, this was different.  We weren’t separated by circumstance, this was choice.  This was someone who knew me, and knew everything about me.  She had every opportunity to be there and to choose me.  But she wouldn’t, or couldn’t.

She was a priority to me, but for her I wasn’t a priority anymore.  For whatever reason, I was just an option.  She wanted time to “figure stuff out”, to figure out what she wanted out of life.

And while she figured stuff out I was supposed to sit there and wait; and be there IF and when she decided she wanted us again, no matter how long that took.

option

 

In staying with her I thought I was doing “the right thing” for us and our family.  I thought I was respecting my vows, and being there for her in good times and in bad.  After all, marriage was supposed to be for life.

But the reality is, I wasn’t doing the right thing.

I wasn’t respecting myself.

By allowing us to stay in this limbo state where I wanted things but she didn’t, I was enabling this.  I was saying “this is alright, it’s okay for you to feel this way.  It’s okay for you to treat me this way”.

It wasn’t.

 

I needed her to make a decision.

I needed her to recommit to us.  To work on improving whatever was wrong, and to choose me, each and every day.

And if she couldn’t, I needed her to let me go.

 

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Establishing Boundaries

What does a relationship mean to you?  What do you need from your partner?  What behaviors from them are acceptable, and what aren’t?

I don’t think most of us know that.  I don’t think we understand what those things mean to us.

I know I didn’t.

I believed I loved someone, and she loved me, and that should be enough.  With that, everything else would just fall into place.

But I was wrong.

 

Living in limbo was difficult, but the one positive is it allowed me to try and understand those things.  I didn’t just mope at how sad my home life had become.  I took the time to understand who I really am, and what I need out of life and love.

There are things we want, and there are things we need.  Learning what these are is part of understanding ourselves, and establishing our own boundaries.  And once we’ve established them, we need to enforce them.

But nothing is either/or.  Everything exists on a spectrum.

Love, affection, kindness.

All of these things exist on a sliding scale.  Some days you will have more, other days less.

You can always have more, but at what point do you have enough?

 

My broken marriage was an awful experience, but it allowed me to learned what enough looks like for me.  I’ve learned what things I need, and what things I can’t and won’t do without ever again.

 

Finite Resources

In the investment world, people talk about how property is one of the safest investments you can make because there’s a finite amount of it.

And that’s true.

 

But there’s another thing there’s a finite amount of.

Time.

We have a finite amount of time on this earth, and each day should be precious.  Things aren’t always easy, they aren’t always fun, and that’s alright.  Getting through the hard times with someone you love is part of what makes a couple stronger.

But you have to believe in what you are doing.  You have to WANT it – even when it’s hard.  And if you DON’T want it?  That’s when you fail.

 

When things start to fall apart, it doesn’t mean you need to bail right away (if people did, I doubt ANY marriage would last).  When you have history together, it’s always good to give things a bit of time to turn around.

So the question becomes, when things aren’t working how long do you hold on?

I think that’s a question there’s no right answer for.  Initially I told myself I was going to give things 6 months.  That became a year, and then two.  Eventually we hit four years in this limbo state, where we were more roommates that co-parented then we were a couple.

And other than a handful of little moments, there was no real sign we would ever be able to find middle ground which would allow us to both be happy.

If we were actively working on things together, that time would have been an investment in a better future.  That’s not what happened though.  She just wanted more and more time to “figure things out”.  Her way.  At her pace.

Me, and my needs ceased to matter.  And I never got the sense that she actually wanted US.  She would “say” she wanted us, but her actions never reflected her words.

And as time passed, nothing changed.

 

Maybe it would have come had I waited another year.  Another 6 months?  Another week?  Who knows.

That’s the thing, you never know.  You can only ask yourself if you’ve done “enough”.  To that I can definitely look my children in the eye and tell them yes.  Their daddy did everything he could to keep his family together and hold on to his dream of forever.

But my best wasn’t enough.

I’ve learned you can’t make someone else love you.  And you can’t make someone else want something they no longer want.

But you CAN make it clear that certain things aren’t acceptable, and that you matter too.  You CAN stand up for yourself, and what you need out of life.

 

To the woman who was once my wife, and anyone out there in the same situation I say:

No one is entitled to a relationship.  If someone isn’t sure about what they want, they need to make a choice.

Commit, or get out.  Don’t hold people lives hostage because of your own uncertainty.

Because time wasted is time you will never get back.

 

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Showing your “True Colors”

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I’ve been blogging for around 3 years now, and in addition to writing I try to follow a number of blogs.

One of the blogs I follow regularly is another relationship blog, written by a guy who went through a divorce a number of years back.  His divorce broke him; so he started writing about all the things he did both consciously and unconsciously that ultimately led to the breakdown of his marriage and his divorce.

It’s refreshing, and self-aware.  Like myself, the guy who writes it seems to believe most relationships can be improved by looking inward at the things you are doing as a person, and BEING BETTER.  And a big part of being better is gaining an awareness of what often goes wrong and trying to better understand and accept the other person.

Anyhow, his blog seems pretty successful, and has a really active community in the comments section.  Great group of people by and large, but like any “family” it sure has its own dysfunctions.  And a few months back the comments section broke down.

A new reader came along with a very different set of beliefs compared to most readers.  Beliefs that were frequently offensive and hurtful to others.  These comments started to disturb what had been a pretty happy/healthy commenting community, and many (myself included actually) became upset that this one commenter was, for a lack of a better term, poisoning the comments.

Some asked for this commenter to be banned, or at least something to be done.  But nothing was, and things became worse for a while.

Eventually, when multiple requests to do something to improve the comments section were ignored, one readers suggested that by not doing anything the author of the blog was “showing his true colors.”

Communication can be difficult and frustrating at times; so I can’t say exactly what was meant by that.  But my interpretation of that assertion was, in writing his blog the author talked about things like equality and improving relationships between men and women.  However by allowing dysfunction in the comments section he was showing inconsistency with this.  So perhaps the reality was, he really didn’t care.

This post really has nothing to do with the issue with the comments section story.  Similar to how my last post opened up with a story about renewing a mortgage, and then went on to actually be about how people can place differing values on the same thing; that’s just a backdrop to a larger idea (or at least that’s my intent).  And that’s the idea that in life, there are always nuances.  And things are rarely as straightforward as they may seem.

 

Patterns of Behavior 

I like to think I am a good person.  I have a strong moral compass, and I try to live my life with integrity.  Truly, I try to do “the right thing”, whatever that is.  And I would *like* to think I’m a fairly empathetic person, who does his best to think through the consequences of his actions before he does them.

But you know what?  Sometimes I hurt people.  And sometimes it’s a lot.  In fact, even for the people I care about the most, I PROMISE I will hurt them.

I hurt people in different ways too.  Sometimes by something I do, and sometimes by something I don’t do.  Sometimes I do things that get interpreted in ways I never meant.

Does that make me a bad person?

 

If I do 50 “good” things and 5 “bad” ones, do those bad ones show “the truth” about me?  Do they show that I’m actually a bad person?  That my “good” actions were just a show?

Yeah, I’ll acknowledge there are differing degrees of what good and bad are.  So yes, I suppose it’s possible that one bad action (particularly in the case of extreme behaviors, which again is subjective) can completely undo the good.  But by and large, I say no.

 

In statistical analysis, there is the concept of outliers.  Outliers are values that “stand out from other values in a set of data”, because they are aberrations in some way.

We are all going to have good days and bad days.  We are all going to do things that hurt others sometimes.

What REALLY matters is not each discrete individual action.  A bad action is a bad action.  A bad choice is a bad choice.

What matters is the PATTERN OF BEHAVIOR, and it is these patterns that speak to a person’s true character.  How you consistently act is a much more accurate measure of who you are than any specific action.

 

All or Nothing Thinking 

Cognitive distortions are broken thinking patterns that are often found in mental illnesses and mood disorders.  They are commonly found in anxiety disorders and depression, and are also believed to be part of why it’s so hard to break the cycle of anxiety and depression – these thinking patterns reinforce negative thoughts and emotions, “feeding” the issue (as an aside, one of the most effective ways to deal with/manage depression and anxiety is cognitive behavior therapy, which is intended to rewire the brain to correct these thinking patterns).

There are a number of different cognitive disorders found in anxiety and depression, and perhaps the most damaging is Splitting, or All or Nothing Thinking.

 

All or Nothing Thinking is kind of self-explanatory.  It is a form of thinking where we look at things in extremes, or as black and white.  You are a success, or a failure.  Someone loves you, or they hate you.  Something is perfect, or it is broken.

To be clear, we ALL fall into this sort of thinking once in a while (so when I reference the “comments” situation at the top I am in NO way suggesting anyone there is mentally ill).  But although we all do this sometimes, this type of thinking becomes a HUGE problem when it becomes a common or default form of thinking, or a pattern of behavior.

 

A while back I talked about the primal brain, and how the primal brain overrides reason and logic.  Well one of the big issues with all or nothing thinking is that it’s rooted in emotions, and normally extreme emotions.  It’s part of the automatic fight or flight response that you generally see with depression and anxiety.

 

Impacts on Relationships

Hopefully it’s clear that an automatic form of thinking, which overrides rationality and is rooted in extreme emotions is unhealthy.  But just in case it’s not, here’s a common way it impacts relationships:

In the early days of relationships, we all have a tendency to idealize our partners.  We see them as we want to see them (not as they actually are), and are often blind to their flaws.

This is normal, and science has shown that in the early days of love, brain chemicals are actually altered, contributing to this.

Eventually though (generally between 6 months and 2 years), this altered chemical state goes back to normal and we are able to see the person more clearly.  Normally we see a few rough edges, but are still able to accept the other person for who they are.

With all or nothing thinking however, these “flaws” often become proof that “something is wrong with the relationship”.  And if something is wrong, then this person is not “the one”.

 

All or nothing thinking has a perfectionist view of relationships; where there is a belief that if you can just find the right person, everything will be perfect and you will be happy forever.

But no one is perfect, and not being perfect doesn’t mean someone is a failure.  A relationship isn’t good or bad, rather it will have good and bad elements.

 

Popular dating site eharmony even talks about this thinking pattern and what it can mean to relationships:

Rather than seeing people as having both positives and negatives, overly critical people hold their romantic partners to an unrealistic expectation of having no faults whatsoever. Sadly, this type of “all-or-nothing” behavior can repeat over and over in one relationship after another until a person realizes that they themselves are the problem.

 

Basically, all or nothing thinking does a lot of damage to relationship.

 

And in addition to doing damage, it also makes is so people fall into a sense of hopelessness and a belief that things can never get better.

I’ve talked about loss of hope before and how destructive it is to improving a relationship.  With all or nothing thinking, the mere existence of problems shows that the relationship is flawed.  And if it can’t be perfect, what’s the point?

It makes it hard to see or appreciate incremental improvements, as the relationship is all or nothing.

 

 Seeing Shades of Grey

All or nothing thinking puts tremendous strain on relationships.  And unfortunately, people who suffer from it usually don’t even realize that their way of thinking is unusual and damaging.  It’s a thinking pattern, so for them, that’s their reality – or just who they are.

A question to ask yourself is, do you often think in terms of extremes?  Do you get caught up in thinking that things have to be perfect, and if they aren’t they are ruined?  Do you give up on things easily because you “know” you can’t do them, or you feel they are impossible?  Do you think in terms of “always”, or “never”, “terrible” or “awful”?

If those sorts of thoughts are common, you may deal with all or nothing thinking.  And it may be doing a lot of harm to your relationships, and your personal life in general.

 

Life isn’t all or nothing.

You can love some parts of your life and not others, and still have an amazing life.

You can be terrible at something, but still be able to improve it.

Your partner can love you, but still be a bit of a jerk sometimes.

 

And nothing in life can ever get better, until you can accept that it doesn’t have to be perfect.