Monday, July 31, 2006

Dismaying Stories #18 and #19: Genes On Vacation

This post is a follow-up to Vacations and Families and Couples, Oh My! Two readers were kind enough to send in vacation stories. These submissions happen to illustrate similar issues so I thought I would present them together.

Dear Andrew,

I am a thirty year old married mom of an eighteen month old toddler. On our vacation we drove to my brother's house six hours away. It was more of a vacation for my husband than for me, I'm sure. When traveling with a baby, I have the same jobs / responsibilities as I do at home, and actually it's a little less convenient. It was a good bonding time for our family I think. However we visited my brother who is the ultimate bachelor and at times it felt like I was taking care of three children. My husband and brother would take frequent swims, meanwhile I would be giving the bath, putting the baby to sleep. One night however I rebelled and drank a little too much wine. My husband had to put the baby to bed and we announced to my mortified brother that we would be having sex in one of his guestrooms. I think he got over it and I merely told him that when he is married he'll know that you have to take the opportunities when they come.

Driving with a baby was fun as well. My husband thought we would be alternating but didn't realize that the passenger has the responsibility of navigating and keeping the baby entertained. So he ended up driving most of the time.

Signed, Traveling Mom


This response was followed by:

Dear Andrew,

Friends of ours owned a summer cottage while their three children were growing up, and spent virtually every summer weekend there. One day I was talking alone with the husband when he told me, "I work such long hours through the week that I really need a break by the time we get to the cottage. All I do while I'm there is sleep and golf."

I just stared at him. I was thinking, "Sure, YOU get a break but who's looking after those three kids?" And if he was such a workaholic, who was left with the kids all through the week? I'm sure his wife could have used a break too but apparently never got one.

This couple ended up getting divorced years later. I don't know whether his apparent lack of supportiveness was a factor but it certainly makes you wonder.

Signed, Shaking My Head


Dear Traveling and Shaking,

Thank you for contributing your vacation stories. I think they illustrate that your habitual family patterns can end up traveling with you. More than that, because you are away from the comforts of home, feeding, entertaining and caring for children can be more difficult. If the vacuum cleaner gene is recessive (or even missing) in your family, this fact can be even more apparent when you're on the road.

In my books, mutual supportiveness is a critical characteristic of a healthy marriage, one from which you should never take a vacation.

All the best,
Andrew

Do any of the Dismaying Stories on this site strike a chord with you? Could you use some advice? Take a few minutes today to email your question. You can also enter a comment using the link below. Answers are provided in a compact, digital form that you can take with you while traveling.
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Sunday, July 30, 2006

Dismaying Story #17: The Ghost of the First Love

Dear Andrew,

When I was fifteen I was in love. I never doubted, never questioned. I could have sworn we were meant for each other. Two years later I went away to school and my feelings suddenly changed; I broke up with him. After that I had a series of failed relationships and a history of cheating. Now I am 21 and in a relationship with a guy who is really great. We have no problems at all - never fight. But still, after six years, I compare my relationships with this first love - and it never seems as intense, as happy, as right. My current boyfriend is everything I ever wanted and yet I am afraid my feelings will change - that I will cheat on him because I am too sure of him and because "bad boys" are all so tempting - and that I will lose the only man that actually has potential. I doubt, I question. And the worst thing is... I absolutely don't know why. Is it me? Or are we just not right for each other? Am I cheating myself?

Signed,
Going crazy


Dear Not At All Crazy,

Your first big love can be an exhilarating experience. Everything is new, exciting, filled with discovery and fueled by the raging hormones that Mother Nature supplies in abundance when you are young. Teenagers often have relatively few responsibilities, so you can spend much of your time being carefree, having fun and enjoying each other. The whole deal is special and memorable, like your first kiss.

Whenever you start a relationship with a new partner, there is often a similar period of newness and excitement. You have the thrill of the first date with this person, the first kiss, the pleasure of discovering what they are like and what sort of couple the two of you can be together. This may not be as life-altering as your first big love but it can still be a rush, a mighty fine experience.

Eventually, though, most of us hope to settle down into one relationship that takes us through the bulk of our adult life. Such mature relationships are still filled with pleasure, just a different kind. Instead of adrenaline-filled excitement, we have the comfort and stability that comes from having a wonderful and committed life partner. We have the contentment of maturing together and achieving life's great accomplishments, such as raising a family. Happily, it is also possible to continually surprise and delight each other by sharing new and fun activities, keeping your sex life interesting and lively, visiting new places together and so on. The excitement doesn't always come "for free" - you have to work at it - and you can never re-create the pure rush of the first time, but there is definitely no need to settle for dull and boring just because you are with one person for a long time.

I believe part of your issue is that you have created an image in your mind of what a relationship "should" feel like. Unfortunately you have based this image on the first big love that happened when you were fifteen. Now as a young adult you are in a more mature relationship, which is entirely normal and appropriate. When you compare your experience now with the adrenaline rush of the first love, however, you realize they are different and wonder if your current boyfriend is somehow lacking.

Of course your current relationship is different. You will never have that first big love again. You will never be fifteen again. Every relationship you have from now on will be more of the mature variety. That doesn't make them any less wonderful; instead it means you will experience the pleasures that make life great in the long term.

What about that boyfriend you had when you were fifteen. What if the two of you had never broken up. Would you still have the same feeling today that you did back them? Would it still feel "as intense, as happy, as right"? In some ways, maybe. If he was indeed the right guy for you, then you could be happy in that knowledge. The adrenaline rush, though, would have faded by now. The two of you would have matured together and so would your relationship. I suspect it would resemble greatly the type of mature relationship you have with your current boyfriend.

What if you met that old boyfriend now and started seeing him again. Could you re-capture the original glory and excitement? You might do so for a short time, the same as with any new relationship. Before long, though, the two of you would be through with the "honeymoon period" and settle into a more mature relationship.

There is just no way around it. Mother Nature wants all of us to grow up; in fact she's rather insistent about it. (And don't send me letters about your Uncle Herbert who never grew up. There are exceptions to every rule :o)

I have no way of knowing if your current boyfriend is "the one" for you. Based on your letter, though, it seems like you are not questioning things because of any faults of him or your relationship. Instead it seems you are placing him in an unfair position. He can't possibly win. You are comparing your current relationship with some idealized memory of what love is "supposed" to feel like. If you continue to do that then every relationship you have for the rest of your life will feel like it is coming up short. You will be in danger of sabotaging any chance you have for long-term happiness.

You mentioned fear. You are afraid your feelings will change, like they have in your past relationships. Hopefully by understanding the unrealistic expectations that have been at the root of your discontent, you can now move past that. Give yourself permission to be happy. Stop holding out for a mind-blowing, hormone-induced buzz. Instead, realize that plain old "happy" is a wondrous thing in itself. If you can achieve that, I bet plenty of Faithful Readers would gladly change places with you.

Finally, you say "bad boys" are tempting. This seems like more of the same pattern. This image offers risk and excitement. Eventually I hope you will realize the incredible value of a partner who is supportive, reliable, committed . . . and who can still give you that weak feeling in the pit of your stomach whenever he walks into the room, even after many years.

In short, I suggest you stop comparing your current relationship with that idealized image. Only then will you be able to decide if your guy is right for you.

All the best,
Andrew

Do you worry about your relationship? Take a few minutes today to email your question. You can also enter a comment using the link below. Comments can be anonymous and the identity of email respondents always remains confidential.
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Saturday, July 29, 2006

Dismaying Story #16: The "But I Have Asked Him for Help" Excuse

This post is part of a continuing series entitled The Hunt for the Vacuum Cleaner Gene. This series uncovers the many excuses we use to perpetuate some old-fashioned stereotypes. Many people believe it is normal and inevitable for women to be responsible for the bulk of the housework and parenting within their household. This series includes motivational posts that argue "why" these beliefs are largely unfounded, as well as instructional posts that move on to discuss "how to" effect change in your household. Today's entry is a "why" topic.

Let's get right to the heart of the matter, because one issue will overshadow everything else until we get it out of the way. I've had ladies say to me: "You might have some great ideas, Andrew, but you haven't met my husband. There's no way he's ever going to cook a meal or run a load of laundry, and he'd rather wear a diaper than change one. Getting him to do more around the house isn't just hard, it's impossible."

If this sounds familiar, I have good news. Usually there is much more to a case like this than simply a stubborn husband. The posts in this series will show you many other factors that are often behind these types of situations. More than that, these stories uncover the excuses women make for their unfair work sharing arrangements. Imagine the powerful difference you can make in your life once you learn to recognize and avoid these excuses.

To get you started, this post challenges the notion that there is nothing you can do to get your partner to pitch in. I want you to gain the conviction you'll need to work toward a more equitable deal.

Oh ... and if your husband chooses to wear a diaper rather than change one, I take no responsibility for that.

Dear Andrew,

I tried asking my husband for help with the housework in every way imaginable. I nagged. I pouted. Once I even left the vacuum cleaner in the middle of the living room for a week, hoping he would notice the dirty rug and do something about it. None of this got me very far. Once in a while I could get him to wash the dishes if I really insisted, but before long he'd be back puttering in the garage or watching TV in the basement. Meanwhile I ended up looking after the kids and doing my best to clean up behind them. Eventually I realized bugging him was a losing battle. Now I don't bother asking anymore.

Signed, Vanquished Cleaner


Dear Needlessly Vanquished,

Sadly, your story is all too common. Research studies over the years have shown consistently that women shoulder the bulk of the housework and parenting, even when both spouses work and when the women would welcome more help. For example, a recent study by Lee and Waite appeared in The Journal of Marriage and the Family ("Husbands' and wives' time spent on housework: A comparison of measures", vol. 67, 2005, pp. 328-336). They studied 265 married couples and found that women still shoulder almost two-thirds of the total household workload. This is clearly a difficult issue to resolve.

But take heart. Many couples are able to work out an equitable deal, even when their marriages don't start out that way.

To understand your situation better, think of yourself as a mountain climber. You've lived beside a particular peak for many years and from time to time you get the urge to climb the thing. So you pull on a pair of hiking boots and arrive at the foothills brimming with determination. Every time, though, you end up frustrated by the icy surfaces, vertical cliffs and oxygen-poor air. None of these hurdles can be conquered by sheer willpower alone. After trying and failing several times, you decide the task is just too daunting for you. You know that other people have reached the summit but you can't imagine how you could ever do so. Like you said, you don't bother trying anymore.

Okay, but what if you were better prepared to tackle the mountain? You could anticipate the problems you might encounter and pack appropriate climbing gear. Taking some training would help you develop the skills you need to deal with those challenges effectively.

It's the same with your quest for a helpful husband; you attempted a difficult task with little preparation. As you will see in the coming posts, the road to household workload sharing is littered with a surprising number of land mines. These can include societal and family expectations for gender roles, mother's guilt, marital insecurities and challenges in balancing dual careers, to name just a few. It's no wonder so many couples struggle to navigate their way through all of this.

You need to understand the potential pitfalls and have an action plan for dealing with them. Happily, this series provides exactly that. And by the way, you haven't asked him in every way imaginable, because you haven't tried an approach that works. I'm confident this series will give you the chance to do so.

Sincerely,
Andrew

Note to Faithful Readers: Presenting a large, multi-faceted subject like this as a series of short blog posts is like performing a striptease over a period of many weeks. Any of you who would like to see this material collected into book form are welcome to leave a comment. Or if you happen to work at a publishing house, feel free to visit the sidebar and contact my literary agent. :o)
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Friday, July 28, 2006

Bestest Blog Award

I am thrilled to announce that this site has been selected for today's Bestest Blog of the Day Award! The review on the Bestest Blog of All-Time site specifically mentions the positive comments that readers like you have been kind enough to write. So a big tip of the hat to everyone for visiting and for providing the Dismaying Stories that make it all possible. Thank you!
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Dismaying Story #15: The Other Person's Pain

Dear Andrew,

Your story about The Affair-Proof Marriage makes me wonder about my own situation. I have been dating a married man for four years. He is my best friend and the sex is fun, but still I'm trying to end it. Here are a few things that have been bothering me:

1) All the signs of a cheat that you mentioned in your story are dead on. I'm the other person and I notice any little change in routine. Why doesn't the wife see it?

2) I seem to be trying to scare him into thinking I may be moving on but that hasn't changed anything. I would like to figure out how to get back to our friendship and walk away from the sex. This I'm sure of ... I either want him to leave his wife NOW or I want out NOW.

3) Do you think it's possible to be the other woman and it will turn out to be a successful relationship in the end?

As far as my friends know I'm happy, the life of the party. Inside, though, I am lonely, have no self-confidence and I don't trust anyone. Any thoughts?

Signed, The Other Woman


Dear Hurting Spirit,

Much of the discussion about extramarital affairs focuses, quite understandably, on how they impact the spouse and children. Your letter shows that a cheating husband can also create considerable turmoil in the "other" woman's life.

Let me start with your first question. I can think of several possible reasons a spouse might not catch on:
  • According to the FAQFarm article Signs of a Cheating Spouse: "Unfortunately, the 'signs' aren't that obvious nor are they that reliable. If he/she is doing it 'right', you won't be able to tell unless you catch him/her in the act." Like you say, though, often the signs are there to be noticed.
  • We all have a natural tendency to avoid pain. Few people want to think their spouse is cheating. Refusal to even consider the concept is understandable.
  • Marriage is based on trust. If the cheater's spouse trusts him (or her) then the spouse will be more likely to interpret the signs in a positive way, such as: "Oh, but he really is working lots of overtime."
Perhaps other readers can help us out with this issue. Can anyone out there speak from personal experience?

Now let's talk about what a great friend this guy is for you. I believe in the old expression: To have a friend, you must be one in return. A friend has your interests at heart. He wants you to be happy and finds ways to make that happen. He helps you avoid pain.

So what does your so-called friend do? He drops by, gets what he wants and then runs back to his life, leaving you feeling lonely. He robs you of the opportunity to find someone who will truly be yours by allowing you to spend all your time and emotional energy on a go-nowhere relationship. He shows callous disregard for your happiness -- he knows you are discontented yet he changes nothing. I'm guessing he provides you with some intermittent companionship and may drop the occasional compliment on you, but when you look at the big picture he is not being a good friend for you.

Can the other woman ever become the main squeeze? Sure, it happens sometimes. The real question for you, though, is whether you and this guy will stroll off into the sunset together.

Sorry to say but I highly doubt it. You've been together for years, right? Please. He has had plenty of opportunity to decide he wants you instead of her and to go ahead and make that happen. He hasn't done that, though. What should that tell you?

He doesn't want to!

Your "friend" enjoys things just the way they are, thank you very much. Otherwise he would have left his wife for you long ago.

You have a few options. You could keep on keepin' on and nothing will change. Well, that's not strictly true. I suspect you would feel worse and worse about yourself as time goes on. How could you not? After all, the most special adult in your world keeps telling you that you're not good enough to be with fulltime. You're only suitable as a diversion. And as long as everything stays the same, you have little to look forward to. You know there's nothing better coming down the road. Who could maintain a positive outlook in that situation?

Maybe you could do as you suggested -- leave the sex by the roadside and continue on as friends only. Hmmm. Would he be satisfied with that? Hardly, not after years of booty calls. Would he constantly pressure you to get back into bed? Almost certainly, if he sticks around very long, which I find highly unlikely. Would that relationship be satisfying for you? I hope not. As long as he is still in your life, you are not out finding someone who thinks you are plenty special and shows you by treating you that way. And what if someone special did come along –- with your "friend" hanging around, how long would the new guy stay? Not long, I bet.

Maybe you still think your friend might leave his wife. There is an easy way to test that. Give him a deadline, something close to the "NOW" you mentioned. Tell him the sex is done as of this minute and it stays that way until he has left his wife. Give him a firm deadline, no longer than a week. Tell him if that deadline passes with no action, you and he will be through. No being friends, no "for old times sake" rolls in the hay, no talking on the phone – completely done.

You say you would like to end it. If so, you must be strong here. He will try to negotiate a longer deadline, a much longer deadline if he can manage it. He will tell you he needs time to think about it, to prepare, that there is something going on that makes this a particularly bad time and can't you just wait a while longer. Don't buy it.

Now, for all you readers who think I'm advocating breaking up a marriage, I'm not. I have every confidence this guy will stay with his wife. Like I said, he would have left long ago if that was his intention. (Mind you, based on his apparent level of commitment to the marriage, I'm not sure his wife is getting such a great deal by keeping him.) What I am doing is offering a lonely, scared woman a way to convince herself there is no future in this extramarital relationship.

To be honest, the chances are about nil that the deadline would serve any purpose. His preference is already clear and I seriously doubt any deadline will change his mind. So my real advice is this:
  • Look in the mirror and tell the person you see that she deserves to be happy.
  • Admit to yourself that this relationship is not making you happy, in fact it is sabotaging any chance you might have of finding contentment.
  • Save yourself the week of waiting. Show him the door – today – and don't ever look back.
Change is hard. It's scary to give up what you have, even if you know it's not perfect. "At least it's something, right? At least I'm not totally alone. What if no one else wants me? Ever."

Yes, it's scary, but you have to choose between a guarantee that you will be lonely and hurting, versus a chance for something better. You can keep the pain . . . or grab onto hope.

I know which one I would choose every time.

And surely you've heard: there are plenty of fish in the sea. Fish who would love to meet someone like you. Unmarried, available fish. I'm just saying . . .

Sincerely,
Andrew

Are you in a relationship you feel is less than ideal? Do you have life lessons to share based on one of your relationships? Please take a few minutes to email your own Dismaying Story or enter a comment using the link below.

This is a good opportunity to remind all readers that seeking advice from some Internet guy named Andrew is convenient and (hopefully) entertaining. This type of forum should never be considered as a replacement, however, for talking face-to-face with a professional who can learn the details of your situation and provide personalized care.
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Thursday, July 27, 2006

Vacations and Families and Couples, Oh My!

It's summertime, which for many people means taking that yearly trip. What excitement as all your family members are thrown into much closer contact than usual, while you try to make do without the comforts of home. Making travel arrangements and packing can be a tremendous amount of work. Then there's that long car ride or plane trip to put in, not to mention the interminable rainy day when you were supposed to go to the beach. Add in the challenge of making it through the week without maxing out all your credit cards and there you have it . . . enough stress to strain any relationship!

Then you open the packet of photographs and reflect on how nice it was to watch the kids enjoy themselves like that. You remember when you and your husband sat for three hours just talking in the moonlight, holding hands and kissing occasionally while the waves lapped gently at your feet. You think about how you both ended up laughing when you realized he forgot to pack any underwear, and how overcoming the problems seemed to draw the two of you closer together.

Relationships are molded by the experiences we share and special occasions can play a big part in that. I'd like to hear your vacation story, even if you only traveled to the back yard. Let me know how your relationships with your spouse, children or other family members fared, for better or for worse, or maybe a bit of both. Perhaps you have a question about how to handle a particular conflict that arose. Let me know the nitty-gritty details and perhaps yours will be featured as a Dismaying Story.
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Self-Esteem Affects How You View Your Partner

Did you know that people with low self-esteem tend to see their partners differently than those who feel more secure about themselves? Apparently people with low self-confidence often think of their partners as either virtually all good or all bad, depending on how well things are going between the two of them at the time. In the good times, their spouse is a saint. During the tougher times ... well, that's why many people have a doghouse. This is just one of the ways self-esteem can affect your relationships. For the rest of the story, check out this article by Dr. Deborah Serani.
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Commitment Phobia: It's Not Just The Men Anymore




After talking about commitment in yesterday's post about The Affair-Proof Marriage, I did a little searching and uncovered a wide range of related material. In particular an article from the Discovery Health Channel caught my eye.

Tradition holds that men tend to have a harder time committing to relationships, while women are supposed to be the ones yearning to land a guy and drag him kicking and screaming to the alter. Apparently, though, this is no longer the case. According to relationship counselor and author Audrey Chapman, the changing role of women in our society has led to a state where both men and women are equally likely to exhibit what is referred to as commitment phobia.

The word 'phobia' refers to a fear, and that is exactly what people with this problem feel when it comes to relationships. The fear can spring from any number of sources. Some people grow up without ever seeing any of their family members commit to successful relationships. Others have negative experiences in relationships of their own, which leads them to expect a similar ordeal whenever they become involved with someone new. Whatever the reason, such people usually find ways to sabotage their relationships, sometimes before they truly begin.

Being without a relationship doesn't mean you are phobic of commitment. Relationships can encounter difficulties for a wide variety of reasons and some people are simply happy without a partner.

Chapman goes so far as to identify four types of commitment-phobic women. Do you have a history of failed relationships? If so, you might be a Pity Party-Goer, Boomerang, Detective or Picky Picker ... or none of the above. Check out the article to find out if any of these categories shed some light on your relationship patterns.
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Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Dismaying Story #14: The Affair-Proof Marriage




Dear Andrew,

Several months ago my best friend's husband informed her that he had been having an affair for over two years and he was leaving her for another woman. Just recently another friend caught her husband cheating. This couple has not separated yet but I won't be surprised if they do, and soon. She's so upset that I don't see how they can last. I thought both of these couples were happy together. My husband and I get along fine and I've never worried about him cheating on me, but all of this has made me realize it can happen to anybody. Now I find myself terrified I'm going to end up just like my friends. What do you think -- CAN it happen to anyone?

Signed,
Suddenly Insecure


Dear Suddenly,

There may be a couple of reasons for your letter. You might have a sneaking suspicion about your husband that you're not willing to admit in the letter, or maybe not even to yourself. If so, there are a number of common signs you can look for to tell if your husband might be cheating on you. For example, does he have unexplained absences or excessive mileage on his car? What about changes in grooming, wardrobe, spending habits or level of affection toward you and your children? Do the same unknown numbers show up repeatedly on his cell phone bill, often immediately after leaving or before returning home? Perhaps he has frequent short phone calls when he is home, to which he doesn't want anyone to listen. You can find more extensive lists of signs here and here. The same indicators, by and large, also apply to wives who cheat.

If you ever find yourself in a situation similar to your girlfriends, I urge you to seek help from a qualified third party such as a counselor or psychologist. Depending on the circumstances, you may also benefit from the services of a private investigator or lawyer. Dealing with the aftermath of an affair can be extremely traumatic and you needn't (in fact, shouldn't) go through it alone. Children typically find the experience difficult and are also likely to benefit from some help.

Another possibility is that your worry has nothing to do with your husband's behavior. Your stress may be strictly a response to what your girlfriends are going through. Based on your letter, I suspect this might be closer to the truth for you. This brings me back to your essential question: In the absence of any signs of cheating, should you be worried anyway?

Think about what happens when a married person cheats. At some point in the process they are presented with an opportunity; a potential partner becomes available. Now they have a choice. They can opt to begin the affair or decline the opportunity. Obviously, some people choose to cheat. But can it really happen to anybody? Does everyone on the planet have a particular set of temptations that, for them, would tip the scales and cause them to cheat? Or are some people immune to such temptations?

I firmly believe that many, many people are immune. The evidence is all around us. A tremendous number of couples are faithful to each other for their entire lives. This couldn't happen if everyone was constantly at risk of leaping into bed with someone else. What defines a person like this? I can sum up the difference between those at risk of cheating and those who aren't in one word: commitment.

Some people enter marriage with an astonishingly low level of commitment. Stories of spouses who cheat right from the beginning are all too common. (...which makes me wonder why they bother spending all that money on a wedding, but maybe that's just me.) Others seem to give up; problems and discontentment grow to the point where the marriage loses much of its appeal. As the level of caring drops, susceptibility to temptation outside the marriage can grow.

Not everyone is like that, however. By definition, when someone is truly committed to their marriage, cheating is not an option. It is simply not part of the plan.

A committed partner:
  • accepts the inevitability that their spouse will be imperfect, just like everyone else;
  • does not view imperfection as grounds for long-term discontent;
  • believes in solving problems instead of running away from them;
  • is repulsed by the thought of hurting their spouse and children;
  • could not bear the possibility of waking up each morning and having breakfast in a different house from their spouse and children; and
  • realizes that the grass on the other side of the fence is no greener. In fact, the other plot of grass is sure to have its own patch of weeds.
When two truly committed people are married to each other, I consider that to be an affair-proof marriage.

How can you tell which situation applies to you? I urge you to trust your instincts. If you have suspicions, you might want to check out the links I've provided above. Many husbands, though, are loving and completely devoted partners. These men could camp out for months in the Playboy mansion with no danger whatsoever that they would do anything to hurt their spouses. (Okay, so the camping trip alone might be enough to raise some eyebrows, but you know what I mean.) If your gut says your man is such a guy, then open your heart and give him the trust he deserves. Not only will this improve your peace of mind, it might save you from creating the very problem you so desperately want to avoid. Baseless suspicion and mistrust can drive a wedge between you and your husband. In some cases this even leads men to seek comfort elsewhere.

In short, it's kind of like the song: Don't worry, be happy ... unless you know of a specific reason to do otherwise.

Sincerely,
Andrew

Do you have a concern about your relationship? I am truly committed to answering any questions you might like to send in.
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Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Dismaying Story #13: Is This The Right Room For An Argument?

Dear Andrew,

My husband and I don't argue very often. When we do, though, it always turns into a yelling match. We end up fighting about anything and everything, oftentimes completely losing track of whatever issue started the whole thing. By the end of it we've both had our feelings hurt and the mood in the house can take days to return to normal. It seems so pointless but we keep doing it. How can we stop?

Signed,
Weary Sparring Partner


Dear Weary,

Anger is a hungry emotion, very much like a fire. It can start with a tiny spark and may smolder slowly for a while, then when the feeling gets out of control it just roars ahead, chewing up everything in its path.

This can happen when we have an argument with our spouse. Let's say the incident starts because something bothers you. You raise the issue with your husband and tell him you're not happy about it, not happy at all. He feels criticized, so now you are both upset. He might believe your complaint is unjustified and say so. Even if he thinks you have a point, he may not want to acknowledge that right now because he's in defensive mode. He hates feeling attacked. This isn't the first time the two of you have argued, so he may still harbor unresolved frustrations from the last time. These are likely to come bubbling to the surface and spray all over you.

His negativity adds to your frustration. You feel justified in thinking you've been wronged, otherwise you wouldn't have voiced your complaint. Now he's a jerk not only for upsetting you to begin with, but also for the insensitivity he is showing right now. So you unload this new judgment on him and toss in the original again for good measure. That jacks him up even further, and on you go.

Does this sound familiar? This spiraling increase in emotion is a common pattern.

Okay, I have a few questions for you. First, you just told him you're unhappy. Why did you do that? I know it sounds obvious but spell it out for me.

Right. You're arguing with him because you're upset, you figure it's at least partially (or maybe even totally) his fault and you want him to know about it. Okay, good. Now what if one of you admits fault? It might go something like this.

"All right, I'm sorry," he might say. "I shouldn't have done that, okay? Now can we just drop it?"

Is the argument finished at that point? Is everyone happy and friendly again?

I doubt it. A common retort might be something like, "Why do you have to do stuff like that? You know it upsets me." At which point he defends himself and on it goes. If you truly want to break this pattern, you must realize a few things about this scenario.

Unexpected Realization #1: A mistake by your partner does not give you a justifiable reason to vent anger.

Sure, everyone gets frustrated when their partner does or says something we don't like. That is natural and understandable. The dangerous part is when you take that a step further and believe the mistake then clears the flight path to bomb your husband with furious barbs. "I'm justified in saying whatever I feel like," your angry inner voice says, "because of that awful thing he did."

No, you're not. You are justified in finding a solution to your problem and that often means discussing the issue with your spouse. That doesn't mean, however, you have the green light to dump on each other to your heart's content. As the above scenario shows, that usually just gets in the way.

Does that mean you have to avoid ever speaking to each other in anger? Of course not. No one is perfect so that's going to happen occasionally in every relationship. The key is to realize that happens in spite of our best intentions; you should not accept it as a reasonable and normal way to proceed.

Unexpected Realization #2: When you argue like this, you are not actually trying to fix the problem.

I said this in a different form a few paragraphs ago: Why did you say that to your husband? "Because I was angry."

Wrong answer. You should be saying things to each other because you want the original problem to go away. Instead you add a new problem by spouting anger. Now you have to get past all the spiteful things you just said to each other. Have you ever started out arguing about one thing, then one of you says something nasty and the fight ends up being about those hurtful words? If so, you're not alone.

Try this. The next time you feel the emotional temperature starting to rise between the two of you, promise yourself you won't say anything for which you might have to apologize later. Instead, work toward resolving the original issue. You'll find this forces you to have an entirely different focus.

Let's pick an arbitrary scenario. Suppose you and your husband are alone and he makes a joke about your mother, which you don't appreciate. What should you do? You could tell him how awful he is but that just starts the familiar cycle. Instead, think about what your goal should be. You want him not to make jokes like that anymore. So tell him that. He might be defensive for a while or claim you're just being overly sensitive. Stick to your guns, though, and present a reasonable argument as to why you don't like that sort of thing. I bet you can get him to apologize for upsetting you and agree to cease and desist with the Mom-in-law jokes.

Now here's the really important bit. You have now won the argument. You have accomplished all that is possible to achieve. At this point you must stop arguing. That means no more complaints or discussion of his flaws, no more requests for change, and no more explaining how upset the whole thing has made you. Accept his apology (out loud so he knows about it) and end the discussion.

We're all human, so it may take a while for your blood pressure to recede. That's fine. Find a quiet corner to calm down if need be. Just don't go on arguing for no purpose because of it.

I wish I could tell you that this knowledge will make it easy to avoid raging confrontations. The truth is, the anger is still hungry. When that jolt of furious adrenaline hits us inside, lashing out can feel good. Just realize that when you do that you are no longer working toward a solution; you are simply giving in to those destructive emotions. Keep your focus on the real issue and you will be much further ahead.

Sincerely,
Andrew

I would be more than happy to answer your relationship question. Take a moment today and send it in.

Editor's Note: Please forgive the Monty Python reference in the title of this post. As chief editor for this site, I feel Andrew has finally gone too far in his feeble attempts at humor. This is not in keeping with the noble purpose of this forum and I wish to--

Don't listen to him.

Be quiet, Doctor Propeller Head. You've had your chance. Now, as I was saying--

But that's the kind of stuff the Faithful Readers like.

No it isn't!

Yes it is!

No it isn't!

Look, you better quit arguing or people will start leaving comments about our incredibly inept editorial staff.

Oh shut up!

Like I said . . .

Tomorrow's topic: The Affair-Proof Marriage
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Monday, July 24, 2006

Best Blog of the Day!

Blog Of The Day Awards Winner

Hey Everyone!

I just received word that To Love, Honor and Dismay has received the Blog of the Day Award for Sunday, July 23, 2006. Thanks to all the Faithful Readers who have graciously put up a link to this site, mentioned it to a friend or left comments while visiting. Your support is much appreciated!
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Dismaying Story #12: Big Bad Dad

Dear Andrew,

My teenage daughter is getting to the age where the boys will soon come calling. Though I would never actually embarrass her like this, I like to tell people I have my speech all ready for when a young lad arrives at our door to take her on a date. It goes something like this:

"I realize young men today have plenty of social issues to deal with. Well I just want you to know that as of this moment ... I am your social issue."

What do you think?

Signed,
A Protective Dad


Dear Better-Get-Used-To-Waiting-Up-For-Her-To-Come-Home,

You have stated it in a half-joking manner but your letter alludes to a real issue parents face. It can sometimes be more nerve-wracking on the parents than on the children when young folks start to date.

To me this is part of a larger progression we all must go through. Think of the two ends of the maturity spectrum. At the beginning you have very young children who are incapable of making even the simplest of decisions for themselves. Parents direct their lives down to the most detailed level. Eventually these children emerge as independent adults. The parent's role in telling them what they can or should do has either been virtually eliminated or reduced to that of an adviser.

Young teenagers and their parents are partway along in this process. The parents may still have complete control over some aspects of the child's life (for example, where they reside, setting their curfew) and the teenager has likely taken over responsibility for others -- getting themselves dressed in the morning, choosing with whom they will socialize, and so on. This gradual shift of responsibility from parent to child is necessary as the teenager progresses toward adulthood. By the time they are old enough to live independently, they need to have acquired the life skills to manage their lives, to keep themselves healthy, safe and productive.

Mother Nature seems to know about this transition and to imbue teenagers with some of the traits necessary to make it happen. In particular, teenagers have a tendency to rebel against authority. No matter how polite, mature and good-natured your teenager, eventually they will resent it if you continually tell them what to do. A three-year-old will take it, a 15-year-old typically won't. Mother Nature, it seems, doesn't want the 15-year-old to be complacent on this issue. The desire to take responsibility for some of their own decisions is necessary if they are to learn how to function as adults. I understand this about my teenagers, so when I get resistance I try to remind myself this is natural and necessary.

That doesn't mean I have to like it, though.

As parents, we worry. We're used to protecting our children, making the decisions we feel are best for them, keeping them safe. We tend to believe that our own decision-making skills are superior to our children's. After all, we have the benefit of years of experience behind us. We want to help our children avoid the mistakes we made, perhaps to enjoy opportunities we missed. Often all of that ends up taking a back seat, however, to Mother Nature's larger agenda. "I just want to do it my way," your teenager will say.

And so we worry.

Transitions can be especially tough and dating is a perfect example. Until this point your daughter has likely done most of her socializing in groups, with other girls, with "just friends." Now all of a sudden she will be out on her own, needing to rely on her own abilities for a time to remain healthy and safe. Part of this depends on the young man. Chances are, though, you don't know him as well as your daughter. Will he treat her well? Will he exercise good judgment? Or will he pressure her to do things, to be in places and situations she might not ordinarily find herself? Parents may worry about sex (both consensual and otherwise), sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy, peer pressure, drinking and drugs, automobile accidents, emotional trauma, and on and on.

And here's the tough part. We can talk about these things with our children. We can prepare, coach, threaten and cajole them, but when it comes right down to it, we can't be there when the decisions are finally made. Our children will be (shudder) on their own at crunch time.

This is a good thing. No, really, it is. It's all part of the progression toward adulthood. Also, it doesn't mean we have to relinquish all control. We can still talk to our children, monitor where they are going, try to establish safe and reasonable limits. Some situations are obvious red danger flags and should be actively discouraged. What would you think if your fourteen-year-old daughter said her date would be taking her to a cheap hotel room for the evening? Not happening, of course. What if it's a party where you know some of the people will be nineteen and twenty years old? It's a safe assumption that party will involve drinking and is probably not the best place for your fourteen year old, so you tell her to stay away. If you have developed a solid relationship with your child, she will listen.

Ah. There it is. The big "if." If you and your child have long ago established mutual trust and respect; if the two of you have repeatedly discussed issues like substance abuse, safe driving, peer pressure and sex for many years, long before dating becomes an issue; if you have served as a good role model, demonstrating responsible behavior in similar situations; if you have helped your teenager grow into a responsible and mature young adult; if all of these things are in place, then dating is probably a low risk activity.

"Wait a minute, Andrew," you say. "What's this 'probably' stuff?"

Sorry. That's the best you're going to get. Life, it seems, does not come with a money back guarantee.

So you start preparing for your conversation with that young man many years before he shows up at your door. Do that and you will be ready for him. More importantly, so will your daughter.

As for your speech, I trust you wrote the letter with your tongue firmly in your cheek. I'm sure you'll be a perfect gentleman when the first young man arrives to pick up your daughter. I also have a sneaking suspicion, though, that you'll be tempted to turn to your wife as soon as they're out the door and say with a grin, "I should have told him!"

Sincerely,
Andrew

Which life transition stresses you the most? What was your experience as your children began to take on new responsibilities? Be sure to email your own Dismaying Story or enter a comment using the link below.
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Sunday, July 23, 2006

The Five-Minute Drill




Every mother will tell you this hurts. A lot. No, I don't mean the agony of labor and childbirth. This pain comes later. It pulls at your insides, has you pacing back and forth in emotional agony, feeling helpless, like an unfit parent.

I watched my wife go through this when our firstborn son was eight months old. Truth be told, I felt a pretty good dose of the discomfort myself. I could tell, though, that she suffered much worse than I.

Like so many parents, we didn't know what else to do. Our son had been sleeping through the night for a while and we were quite happy about that. The problem was bedtime. Each night we would bathe, clothe, feed and rock him. Then it was that dreaded hour when we had to put him in his crib for the night. Maybe you're going through this in your home right now. Or perhaps you can only remember how bad it felt to leave your baby standing in the crib, one chubby hand grasping the side rail, the other reaching pitifully in your direction, his face screwed up in abject misery while he wailed at the top of their lungs. (I use "he" in this article, though we all know in half the cases it should be "she.") No words were necessary; our son's message was clear: "Mom! Dad! I don't want to be alone. Please come get me. Mom! Help me!! I need you! Please! Mommmmm!! I'm really hurting in here. Please … I really need you!"

Raising children is one of the most difficult challenges couples face. Parents get paid for their efforts with tiny hugs, feelings of immense pride and almost infinite love. Still, the task can be exhausting, expensive, life altering, time consuming and incredibly stressful. This can be especially true for new parents, who often face a steep learning curve and the nearly constant demands of a tiny person who is utterly dependent on you for their every need. Your marriage can end up taking a back seat for a while after the arrival of a newborn. All of this can have quite an impact on your marriage relationship, which is why I decided to include articles about parenting on this site. The relationships between parents and children are also tremendously important and worthy of discussion in this type of forum.

So what do you do when your child puts up such a fuss at bedtime? It seems you have two options. One approach is to go back into the bedroom and comfort him. That might involve simply reassuring him and trying to get him to lay down and go to sleep. Or you might pick him up until he settles down, then put him back in the crib. When you try to leave again, though, he starts screaming once more. All of this leaves you right back where you started.

You could pick him up and rock and/or walk with him until he falls asleep, maybe even take him into bed with you. That's not the objective of the exercise, though. Eventually you need to get to the point where you can put him in bed and he'll go to sleep by himself.

The second option is to wait him out. Once you put him to bed, stay out of his room and let him cry himself to sleep. The theory is that he will eventually learn you are not going to come back in, so he will eventually get to the point where you can put him in bed and he won't cry.

Eventually. Right.

See, here is where that pain comes in. We tried the "wait him out" approach with our son ... once. Well, "once" may be a bit of an overstatement since we weren't able to go through with it. The tug on the heartstrings was just too powerful. "I can't stand it," my wife said as she paced back and forth in the living room, hugging herself in distress. "My baby needs me. I have to go to him." But I was strong, I got her to wait some more. Didn't matter. Before long neither of us could hold out any longer. We went to comfort him ... and we were right back where we started.

With the benefit of hindsight, I realize waiting out a crying baby is not a good strategy. The child is in considerable distress. Even if you know he's perfectly safe when alone in his bed, he is far from convinced. The experience is obviously traumatic for him. He feels alone, ignored, perhaps even abandoned. The whole thing seems cruel.

But what else could we do? Going back in didn't work and staying out was worse. That's when somebody told us about...

The Best Parenting Tip We Ever Received

It happened on a routine trip to our family doctor. Upon hearing of our bedtime struggles, he told us about the five-minute drill. Here's how it works.

We put our son in bed and left, with him crying as usual. After waiting exactly five minutes by the clock, we went back in to comfort him. (I say "we" but it can be one or both parents.) We told him, "You're okay. Mommy and Daddy love you and we're right outside your room. You're not alone. Everything's all right, so you just lay down and go to sleep." We laid him down and said, "We'll be back in five minutes to check on you." Then we left.

Of course he popped right back up and resumed his wailing. We watched the clock and repeated the routine every five minutes. Here's the key: you go back into his room every five minutes regardless of what he is doing at the time. If he is crying, you go back in. If he is quiet, you go back in. You are teaching him that (a) he is neither alone nor abandoned and there is no need for panic, and (b) he cannot influence your behavior. You will reappear like clockwork every five minutes no matter what he does, stopping only after you find him asleep.

We tried this with our eight-month-old son. The first night he fell asleep after an hour. The second night took about forty minutes, the third about twenty, and on the fourth night he went to sleep with no fuss. Needless to say we were thrilled. We had similar results when our other children reached the same age.

We had to pull out the five-minute drill and dust it off when our son reached 18 months and graduated from his crib to a toddler bed. For the first time he was able to get out of bed when he awoke so he started bouncing into our bedroom in the middle of the night, all ready to party. Some of our friends pull their children into bed with them in those situations but we have always felt this is a slippery slope. It encourages your children to disturb your sleep on a regular basis. I don't know about you, but lack of sleep has a considerable effect on my ability to be productive and cheerful throughout the day. We wanted our son to go back to his own bed, so that's where we took him.

Next time he woke up, though, back in he came, over and over again.

A couple we know gave us another great parenting tip at that point. "Tell him," they said, "that you don't want him to do that."

Duh. Seems obvious now, doesn't it? How unfair was that to our son. We were frustrated with him for coming into our room at night, yet it didn't occur to us to simply explain the ground rules to him. So we told him, "Unless you are sick or really need us for some reason, we expect you to stay in your bed and go back to sleep. Mommy and Daddy need to sleep too."

The next night? You got it. In he came, all bouncy and happy to see us. At that point we had to back up our instructions by applying the five-minute drill. Once again it only took a few nights before he got the idea.

You may have a young one at home or perhaps children are still in your future. If so, pop this technique into your parenting toolkit. It certainly has proven useful for us.

Sincerely,
Andrew

Do you have a great parenting tip to pass along? Or perhaps you have a problem you're uncertain how to handle. Either way, be sure to send an email or enter a comment using the link below. Comments can be made anonymously if you prefer and the identities of email respondents always remain confidential.
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Saturday, July 22, 2006

The Hunt for the Vacuum Cleaner Gene




Last week I drove my wife to the airport so she could catch a flight. "I hate it when my wife goes away," the airline guy told us while he checked in her luggage. "The house gets so messy while she's gone and I have to eat out all the time."

We've all heard stories like this, haven't we? I've spent Christmas parties listening to work colleagues discuss their husbands, who are apparently incapable of figuring out that whites and darks don't mix well in the washing machine. Whenever this happens, the other ladies in the circle of conversation always nod knowingly and chip in with gems of their own. It seems there is an epidemic of guys who are missing the help-with-the-homework gene, not to mention the neurons that reveal the mysteries of the mop, the can opener and the ever-perplexing Huggies.

Every time I hear some dynamite, intelligent lady tell one of these tales, they finish with essentially the same punch line: "Men are so helpless, aren't they?" I've heard many variations of this lament. My favorites include: "Guys just seem to be so much needier than women," and "I don't know what he'd do if I weren't there to pick up after him."

The message is always clear. Many wives have resigned themselves to doing the bulk of the household chores, even if they have a career equally as demanding as their husband's. It doesn't seem to matter how exhausted or over-stressed the lady of the house becomes. "I have no choice," she'll say. "Getting Mark to help is impossible." These ladies have bought into what I call the myth of the helpless man. Their husbands (surprise, surprise) seem more than willing to believe right along with them.

I usually smile at these stories and try to appear sympathetic. Meanwhile I feel like shouting to the world: "It doesn't have to be that way!" Admittedly, I hear about the other flavor of household less often, but I've met plenty of wives who claim to have supportive husbands and to be completely satisfied with the balance of work at home.

Here's the kicker. Every good-news story I encounter happens one of two ways. Occasionally a lucky lady wins the equivalent of the Y-Chromosome Lottery; she marries a guy who does his share without being asked. Most cases, though, involve a wife who firmly believes that her husband can and should help out, and decides to do something about it.

Some of you might be shaking your head in despair at this point. Let me guess why. You tried tying his leg to the vacuum cleaner but he gnawed off his right foot and crawled back to the TV. Arguing with him just makes him defensive and you end up fighting. It's easier to do the work yourself.

Am I close? I suspect so. These are just a few of the powerful reasons why women continue to believe the myth.

I want you to discard that belief, so I have gathered stories based on real hard-working wives. The first of these stories is already available on this site as Dismaying Story #1: The Myth of the Helpless Husband. These situations illustrate the many ways husbands get away with doing less than their share, as well as the most common reasons couples use to justify this behavior. I bet you'll be surprised at how many of these reasons have crept into our culture.

I plan to present a series of these stories on this site. These posts will be interspersed with a variety of other topics: answers to your questions, Relationships in the News, and many more. My goal in featuring these stories is to help you realize the following:
  • You make an amazing contribution to your household. If you're feeling overwhelmed, you shouldn't feel guilty, selfish or inadequate for wanting more help.
  • In many cases, the husband is not the only reason for the imbalance. Your own beliefs and fears may be contributing significantly to your workload, even though such beliefs are often groundless and unnecessary.
  • Not only is it fair that your husband should pull his weight, every member of your household (and that includes your husband) will benefit once he does.
  • Change is possible, even if you believe your husband is the most stubborn creature ever to walk the Earth; even if you gave up hope long ago that you could ever have a better deal.
I understand where your husband is coming from because I, too, am a fully-certified TV remote operator. I've inhaled my share of secondhand stress, just like all the other husbands out there. Yet, despite being a guy, I still know enough to insert the bottle in the noisy end of the baby. I'm tired of hearing about ladies being sentenced to life with hard labor because they don't get the support they deserve from their men, so I've decided to do something about it. I will include pieces that discuss why the myth is invalid and should be discarded, along with others that delve into how you can achieve real change in your home. You can get your first taste of the 'How To' information in Dismaying Story #6: The Permission Paradox and Dismaying Story #7: So THEN What Should I Do?

There is value here for the guys too. I have spoken to many men who are frustrated by the tension between themselves and their wives over the housework issue. They don't understand the underlying causes, however, and so feel powerless to fix the problem.

So come back and visit often. As you review these stories you'll be able to help me and your fellow readers by sharing the benefit of your own experiences. Together we'll work toward achieving some workload equity in your house.

Sincerely,
Andrew

Is domestic workload equity an issue in your household? Have you become convinced things will never change? Let me know by sending an email or by entering a comment using the link below.
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Friday, July 21, 2006

Dismaying Story #11: Mom's Bonding Time

Dear Andrew,

My wife and I both work full-time so our two girls go to daycare after school. My wife feels badly about being away from them while she's working. It's gotten to the point where she wants me to leave the three of them alone for an hour or more each evening. She says the bond between mothers and their children is special and she needs time with the girls when they can focus on her. To me, though, it feels like I'm being squeezed out of my own family. Which one of us is right?

Signed, Displaced Father


Dear Displaced,

Mother's guilt is a common issue, especially today when so many families include two working parents. In Dismaying Story #2: The Breadwinner Wars I discuss how this type of family has become the norm rather than the exception. Having dual earners can place a number of stresses on the family. Yours is obviously going through its share.

I can sympathize with your wife's intense desire to spend as much time as possible with her children. Mother Nature seems to have decided that women will be the ones to yearn most strongly to have babies in their lives and to carry that maternal instinct with them throughout their lifetimes. Your wife clearly feels this need and is searching for the best way to fulfill it in your particular life circumstances. You and your children are very fortunate to have such a loving, caring and attentive mother in the family.

I have reservations, though, about her strategy of excluding you from family time on a regular basis. She seems to be focusing on her own personal needs and on the bond between herself and your children. While these are certainly important, there are other considerations in maintaining the emotional well-being of your four-person family. My reservations include the following:
  • Children can be very good at figuring out what's going on. They will soon realize Dad isn't around because Mom prefers it that way. A child's mind may conclude:
    • "Mom doesn't love Dad anymore and it's probably my fault. I must be a bad girl."
    • "Mom thinks it's a bad thing for Dad to be around us, so Dad must be a bad person."
    • "I like being with both Mom and Dad. Mom is mean because she won't let us see Dad. I'm angry with her." This the exact opposite of what your wife is trying to achieve.
  • Children seem to have an infinite capacity to love. Nothing in my experience indicates children bond any more closely with Mom when she has them alone compared with when she interacts with them in a larger group. Bonding happens as you share positive experiences together. When the kids enjoy having both Mom and Dad around, they are fully engaged in developing closeness with both parents. The affection they feel for one parent is not diluted because the other parent is present.
  • Given today's hectic lifestyle, I suspect it is inevitable that you and your wife will each naturally end up alone with the children at various times. This seems easier and less forced than trying to manufacture these opportunities artificially.
  • Your question makes it clear you feel badly about this situation. Regardless of how supportive or easygoing you are, this has to put a strain on the relationship between you and your wife.
  • Your daughters might decide you are choosing to exclude yourself from this family time. Children often draw conclusions that place themselves at the heart of the issue: "Daddy doesn't want to be with me. I am not important to him." Or: "I must have been a bad girl." This can be hard on a child's self-esteem.
While I understand your wife's motives, it seems dangerous to impose rules that limit when you are permitted to be with your children. This has the potential to cause several problems and doesn't seem to address the issues she is most concerned about.

Perhaps the two of you could come up with some creative solutions to help her feel better. Here are a few ideas you might consider:
  • Since the girls are in school, the primary times she is concerned about are late in the afternoon and summer vacation. Is it a viable option for your wife to work part-time while the children are young so she can spend at least some of this time with them?
  • Does housework consume much of her time and energy while she is off work? If so, perhaps you might consider stepping up to more of this responsibility. This would be a gift from you to her, freeing her up to be with the children more. Alternatively, if you can afford it, you might consider hiring a cleaner to come in once in a while. Think about having simpler meals so preparation and cleanup time is minimized.
  • Perhaps there are activities that cut into the time the two of you can spend with the children, such as cooking, cleaning or shopping. You might consider including the girls and turning these into family activities. Sure, it can be more challenging to bake a casserole or buy groceries while young children "help", but having the time together might be worth the effort. This is especially true if you go into it with the attitude that you will relax, take a bit more time and try to pay as much attention as possible to the kids.
Above all, I urge you and your wife to approach these types of decisions with love and understanding for each other. Remember you are both stressed and in need of support. Hopefully you will come up with a balance that makes life more enjoyable for everyone involved.

Sincerely,
Andrew

How do you balance the home versus work issues in your family? Send in your story by email today or enter a comment using the link below.
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Thursday, July 20, 2006

A Good Joke, Ruined




Somebody told me once that golf is a good walk, ruined. Well that's what I intend to do today to the humor of Jeff Foxworthy by putting a few of his jokes under the microscope. I was watching a Foxworthy TV special when it occurred to me just how much of his material is based on marriage and relationships. This is true of many comedians; I just happened to be watching Jeff when the thought struck me. So I started wondering why. What is it about our attempts to get along with each other that the whole world seems to find so endlessly entertaining, in fact downright hilarious?

I put on my detective hat and came up with the following clues. See if you can spot a pattern. Foxworthy's topics include:
  • Trying to figure out which answer your wife is looking for when she asks you a loaded question, like whether you would re-marry if she died: "You ever have that dream where you're taking a test you haven't studied for?"
  • Understanding what will and will not anger your spouse, and how women are so much better at this than men: "How often do you see a man stomp out of the room crying, and a woman going, 'What? What'd I say?' "
  • Attempting to make peace with your wife after you fail to master that last skill: "You like jewelry don't you? I'll buy you a lot of jewelry."
  • Maintaining a healthy sex life once you have children, especially when the young ones wake up at night and wander quietly into your bedroom: "There are few surprises in life to match looking your wife directly in the eye ... and feeling somebody tickle the bottom of your feet. That is what you call a show stopper right there."

Did you notice? These are exactly the same types of relationship issues that show up as Dismaying Stories. How can we deal with various circumstances that stress our relationship? How can we get along better?

I paid attention to the audience reaction to some of Foxworthy's relationship stories. Finger pointing and sheepish expressions were common. People clearly related to these situations from personal experience. The collective reaction seemed to be: "I can feel the pain of those people Jeff is talking about because I have been there, done that and I am soooo glad it's not me ... at least not this time."

Here is the message you can take from this; you are not alone. If your relationship is less than perfect, if you and your partner need to work through issues from time to time, that doesn't make you unusual or somehow inferior to others. It means you are normal. You are dealing with the same types of issues the rest of us have been struggling with since Eve asked Adam which bunch of fig leaves suited her figure the best.

So keep dropping by, faithful reader, and together we will chip away at the mystery that is the human relationship, one Dismaying Story at a time.

Sincerely,
Andrew

P.S. I made a discovery about myself while working on this article. Apparently while I'm typing I say the words silently to myself. As I composed this story I realized the voice in my head was speaking in Foxworthy's southern accent. For some reason that made the whole experience more enjoyable. And you can draw whatever conclusions you'd like from my admission that I sometimes hear a voice in my head. Keep smiling!
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Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Dismaying Story #10: The Personality Wars

Dear Andrew,

I don't have the nicest *cough* *cough* or healthiest relationship with my sister. We clash a lot since our personalities are so different. (She's a very stubborn and 'my-way-or-the-highway' sort of person while I'm more easygoing and relaxed.) What can I do to make the relationship less, well, clashing?

Signed, Sibling Rival


Dear Sibling,

I love your last sentence. Too often when people tell me about their issues, they point to external factors as the cause of their problems. The underlying message is , "It's not my fault and there's nothing I can do about it. It's all because of something outside my control." You didn't do that. You asked, "What can I do?" This indicates a willingness on your part to step up and take charge of your life, to do whatever you can to make things work. Such a mature attitude is a great way to start.

You undoubtedly have more control than you realize over how you get along with your sister. You are, after all, half of the relationship. When you're dealing with her, she acts in a certain way, you react, then she reacts to what you have just done. In other words, you have just influenced her behavior. So your first step is to realize this isn't just about how your sister behaves -- your own behavior is roughly half of the story. Don't feel bad about that; this is really good news for you because you can't control what your sister does. You can influence it but you can't control it. You do, however, have complete control over what you do. This means you have the power to change the dynamic between the two of you.

You say your personalities are different. Consider this. Do you think, anywhere in the world, there might be a married couple or a pair of friends or even two sisters who share the same mix of personalities as you and your sister ... and yet these two people get along without clashing? I'm sure there are people like that, plenty of them. That means your personalities don't doom the two of you to be rivals. You can keep your basic personality types and still find ways to get along just fine. It might be more challenging with some types of personalities, but it can be done; lots of people do it.

I have been in situations that were remarkably similar to yours. I once had a work colleague that I just couldn't seem to get along with. I'm a bit like you, more laid back, while this guy was aggressive and brusque. He would say nasty things and make snap decisions that were difficult for me to understand. To be honest, I found myself getting angry with him. Then one day I had a revelation. I asked myself, what if this guy is intimidated by me? I turned the situation around in my mind and started wondering what our relationship was like from his point of view. This made all the difference. I became deferential and polite. I started asking more and telling less. Wherever possible I told him I had faith in his ability and judgment, and asked him how he thought we should proceed. The change in him was rapid and remarkable. You could almost see his protective walls falling away. Not only did we start to work together effectively, we soon became good friends.

So ask yourself this: What do you think it is like for your sister to interact with you? What is the experience like from her point of view? In particular, what is her perception of your opinion of her? In your question you refer to her as a stubborn person. Have you made it clear to her that you think of her that way? Do you give off other similar messages that are less than flattering? Even though you think of yourself as easygoing, do you sometimes bristle and snarl when talking with her? I'm not expressing any judgment here, simply offering ideas for you to consider.

If your sister is lashing out with negative emotion toward you, there is a good chance she is doing so in reaction to some challenge she perceives from you. It doesn't matter if that perception is accurate, only that this is her experience. If her perception continues, so will her behavior. So your goal should be to provide her with a different message. Here are some things you might try:
  • Find ways to compliment her. Catch her being good and tell her how great she is.
  • Watch your body language when you're around her. Think of yourself as physically relaxing away from her. This can give off a non-threatening message.
  • Be careful not to give the message that you have a negative opinion of her. This might be difficult if the two of you have gotten into this habit, but by being conscious of the issue I bet you'll be able to handle it.
  • Apologize for making her feel bad. It doesn't matter whether you think you're responsible for making her feel that way. Her experience has been negative and the apology will be welcome. So be the hero who breaks the ice and apologizes first, even if she isn't ready or able to respond the same way.
  • Give her some time to react. Don't expect her behavior to change instantly. Keep going with your "be nice" program and have faith it will make a difference in the long run.

Again, I am impressed with you for posing the question as you did. Your willingness to take responsibility should help tremendously. Best of luck.

Sincerely,
Andrew

Do you remember what is was like in school when you had a question but were embarrassed to raise your hand and ask it? ...and then you were grateful when you got the answer because someone else asked it? Now you can be that someone. Many other people are struggling with the same relationship challenges as you. Be the one who gets the discussion rolling. Send in your question by email or enter a comment using the link below.
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Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Dismaying Story #9: Can't Dream Without Him

Dear Andrew,

I have always wanted to be a novelist. I've taken evening writing courses, written short stories (a couple of which have even been published), completed one novel and started another. This has taken me several years, sandwiched between a full-time job and all the regular stuff that comes with a husband, a house and two very busy children. I still try to squeeze in a little writing each day. My query letters bring only rejections, though, and it's getting harder and harder to stay motivated, especially since my husband thinks it's all a waste of time. His attitude really upsets me. How can I convince him this is important to me?

Signed, My Dream Is Slipping


Dear Dreamer,

What you need is a big roll of duct tape. You know, the silvery gray stuff that is the handyman's (whoops, handyperson's) best friend. Grab a roll and hang onto it for a moment -- we'll get back to it.

I'm a huge believer in having big, bold, beautiful life dreams. They add spice to our lives, give us yet another great reason to get up in the morning and give us a balance that helps us deal with all the other more mundane stuff we have to slog through each day. Special events like Christmas and vacations can serve a similar function. It's all about anticipation, the time we spend being excited about something great that maybe, hopefully will happen some day, but only if we make it so. This can be a never-ending source of pleasure and energy, part of the fuel that makes it possible to work and struggle and accomplish. Having something to look forward to can make the difference between greeting each day with enthusiasm versus feeling like a mouse on a treadmill -- you're working hard but you're not trying to get anywhere special.

The problem is that dreams often take time to materialize or in some cases can even be a lifelong quest without ever reaching the end of the rainbow. If you become a published novelist, it will be because of the years of effort you have invested. I doubt that will be the end of the road, though. You will undoubtedly then be motivated to promote the book to success, publish a second book and so on. Even with success, your dream will remain an ongoing process.

What if you never publish a novel? Does that mean your husband was right and all that time and energy you invested was a waste? Should you regret not taking that time to do something else, like spending it with your family? Each of us must make the judgment calls in balancing our own life, but I suggest you take all that regret and toss it out the window. The time you spend working on your passion is usually well spent, even if the goal remains unfulfilled.

I say 'usually' because there must be a balance. Even the most pie-in-the-sky goal can be worth chasing, but not at the expense of sacrificing other important things in life. For example, quitting your day job to chase your dream of becoming the President of the United States might not be the best tradeoff, unless you happen to be independently wealthy and incredibly connected in the circles of political power. Based on your question, balance doesn't seem to be an issue for you. It sounds like you're not neglecting your children or your husband; you take care of regular life just fine and still manage to eke out some time for you. That's a healthy strategy.

I suspect you gain tremendous pleasure from seeing your stories take shape as written works. You are also undoubtedly energized when you play 'what if' and look forward to future possibilities. These factors will continue to enrich your life as long as your passion remains alive, regardless of whether publishers take any interest in your work.

This is where your husband comes in. All of us have a tendency to doubt ourselves when life's little knocks come along. Your query letters bring rejections, so naturally your self-esteem takes repeated hits. You must constantly tell the doubt salesmen living in the dark recesses of your mind to take a hike and leave you alone. In this vulnerable state, your significant other can make all the difference. His lack of faith can deflate your enthusiasm like a week-old party balloon, whereas expressions of belief and support can keep you flying high. This is true whether your passion is becoming a fashion designer, training for a marathon or hunting down rare coins.

In his memoir entitled On Writing, Stephen King talks about the early years before he published his first novel. He was working as a teacher, writing in the evenings and struggling to make ends meet. If his wife Tabby had expressed doubt, says King, "...I think a lot of the heart would have gone out of me." But her support was a constant and the rest, as they say, is publishing history. Knowing that your husband believes in you obviously won't guarantee the kind of success Stephen King enjoyed, but it will help you to keep climbing that hill, enjoying every step along the way. Shouldn't any supportive husband be happy to give a gift like that to his wife?

So here's what you do. Sit your husband in a chair, use that roll of duct tape to wrap him up so he stays in the chair, show him this article and unwrap him only after he reads the whole thing.

And remember -- a professional writer is an amateur who didn't give up. Write on, Dreamer!

Sincerely,
Andrew

Do you need help reaching your relationship goal? Send in your question by email or enter a comment using the link below. Both dreamers and support crew members are welcome, 24 hours a day.
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Monday, July 17, 2006

It's My Turn To Receive Advice


Once again there is a good reason to check out some Useless Advice From Useless Men. They were kind enough to answer a question I posed, a follow-up to Dismaying Story #1: The Myth of the Helpless Husband. If you could use a laugh (and who couldn't) check out their take on the issue of men doing housework. It's listed under Definitely Not Dr. Phil, which is true -- I'm not.
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Dismaying Story #8: Skeletons in the Marriage Closet

Dear Andrew,

Something happened years ago and I have never told my wife about it. I'm scared it would hurt her feelings for no good reason. Is it ever okay to keep a secret from your spouse?

Signed: Mum's the Word


Dear Mr. Word,

Different people would undoubtedly approach this question from various directions. Those interested in morals and ethics, for instance, might consider what was right or wrong about various ways of handling your dilemma. I take a pragmatic view; I look for solutions that have the best chance of empowering (rather than hurting) both you and your partner. Going along with that, my goal is always to strengthen relationships, avoiding scenarios where the bond between the two of you can be eroded or even shattered.

I do believe there are times when your spouse might be better off without certain information. I can give you an example that happened to me this week. We had some pork chops that smelled funny when we opened the package so, to be safe, we tossed them in our garbage bin outside. A few very warm summer days later I went to toss in more garbage and was greeted by an incredibly bad odor and white creepy crawlies all over the inside of the bin. Knowing my wife is not a big fan of tiny creatures, I warned her to avoid the smell but purposely didn't mention the maggots. There are a few reasons why this "secret" seems okay to me:
  • She had no need to know. The state of the garbage bin posed no risk to her or anyone else. I knew I would clean up the mess on garbage pickup day and that would be that. She would not have done anything with the information even if I had told her.
  • More than that, I knew she would prefer not to know. The mental image would gross her out. (And my apologies if the same has happened to you, faithful reader...)
  • There was no risk to our relationship if she found out later. I was extremely confident she would understand and agree with my reasons for not telling her.

Does your secret match these criteria? Oftentimes this is not the case when one partner is scared to share information. Let's consider a concocted example. Say you used cocaine without her knowledge for a period of time early in your marriage. You realized it was affecting your health and your ability to succeed at life, so you told her you had a business trip, checked into rehab and have now been clean for years. You've always been afraid to tell her.

In this case she has an incredible need to know. Substance abusers can be at risk to fall off the wagon, which then poses a risk to her and to your children. More than that, if she knows your secret, then she can watch for signs of trouble and potentially help limit the risk not only to herself but also to you. So there is your first litmus test; does your secret deprive her of information that would be useful to her in some significant way? If so, that is a persuasive reason why you should tell her.

Would she prefer to know? That one can be tougher to predict. I've had people say to me, "If I was going to die in six months, I'd rather not know. I'd rather enjoy my remaining time." In the case of the cocaine issue, one could argue his wife might go from a state of blissful ignorance to constant needless worry (of course it's only needless if he remains on the wagon, which is not necessarily a given). This seems to me to be a rather weak argument, but still it might be relevant in some situations.

Now suppose at some later point someone else tells her about your cocaine use. This is likely to be a major blow to your relationship. Not only will she be upset that you engaged in such risky behavior, but she now knows you deceived her both before and after you kicked the habit. Oftentimes deception can be a greater risk to a relationship than the original transgression. The revelation can also hurt her as an individual; finding out your partner has deceived you can be a blow to your self-esteem, for instance. So ask yourself: what sort of damage is likely to occur if she learns your secret on her own? Again, if you are putting her and/or your relationship at risk, you might want to consider telling her the secret, and sooner rather than later. Owning up to a problem right away is often the best way to deal with it and move on, without adding the extra problem of deceit.

I don't know what sort of secret you are keeping and it may not be as serious as the cocaine example I discussed. However you said you are scared your wife will be upset "for no good reason." Is that really true? Are there actually good reasons why your wife should know about your secret? I hope these criteria help you decide.

Sincerely,
Andrew

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Sunday, July 16, 2006

Dismaying Story #7: So THEN What Should I Do?




In response to Dismaying Story #6: The Permission Paradox, a reader wrote the following (slightly paraphrased) comment asking for advice:

Dear Andrew,

In my first marriage I was kind and supportive, and very, very patient. And he never picked up anything.

So, what do you do if you've asked him to put his dirty underwear in the laundry basket at the foot of the bed instead of the floor at the side of the bed. (The two being separated by, oh, maybe four feet.) He ignores you. You don't persist, but every morning, there's the dirty laundry on the floor.

Every day. For three months. No exaggeration.

So what do you do when being patient and calm simply doesn't work?

Signed: Tired of Being Patient


Dear Tired,

To him, whether the dirty laundry stays on the floor for a while or goes directly in the basket is no big deal. He drops it on the floor because that's the way he would do it if he were living alone. To meet his own needs, this is a perfectly acceptable solution. To you, however, dirty laundry on the floor is an irritant.

There are two possible solutions. Either he can start putting it directly in the basket or you can teach yourself not to care about skuzzy undies on the floor. If there were a major amount of effort involved, or if having the laundry on the floor offered any kind of benefit, then there might be a reason to consider the latter solution. Since there is neither a benefit nor any effort involved, it's a slam dunk easy call; he should change, not you.

I doubt you could shift his attitude about the issue. He's comfortable with the underwear lying in plain sight and that's not going to change. The change you are asking him to make is to acknowledge one of your needs and to take action to meet that need. You are asking him to give you a gift, plain and simple.

Since there is no effort involved in reaching four feet away, this gift would be simple for him to give. So why doesn't he? There are three possible obstacles. The first is that down deep he still believes the underwear on the floor is no big deal. It is not an irritant to him and he believes it is reasonable that it should not be an irritant to you. Therefore, his unconscious mind reasons, there is no pressing need to change.

The second obstacle can crop up if he starts feeling like he is being told what to do. I am married, his male ego inwardly grumps, but I am still an individual. This is my home too. Why should I have to do everything her way? The underwear by itself is a non-issue to him. If the situation were handled poorly, however, then it could become a symbol to him of his struggle for autonomy within the marriage.

The third possible obstacle is that some people have difficulty adjusting to the concept of giving within a marriage. Single folks can typically make many decisions based solely on their own needs. Considering the needs of another is a change in mindset with which some people struggle after entering a serious relationship.

You need to take all three obstacles into account when you ask for change. The good news is that you have begun handling the situation in exactly the right way. By being patient you have torn down some of the walls he might have erected to protect his ego. You have thus far given him no reason to feel he is being told what to do. Your problem seems to be that you weren't sure how to follow through and complete the deal.

It sounds like you asked once and then waited months for him to comply. Based on the results, this was clearly not enough to (a) convince him that your need is genuine, and (b) invoke in him the spirit of selfless giving. Your next step should be to tell him explicitly about your need and ask him to fill it, like this:

"I know the underwear on the floor seems like no big deal to you, and I understand that, I really do. But to me it makes the whole room seem messy. Maybe it's a girl thing, but it's important to me. I would really appreciate it if you'd help me out and toss your clothes in the basket when you take them off."

Get the important points in but keep the request as short and simple as you can. Notice you are not blaming him for creating a problem. You acknowledge that his position has merit and that your request stems from your unique need, not from a failure on his part. This is important; if you blame and criticize him then you bring the whole male ego thing into it again. (I know, I know. We men can be such tender hearts. But bear with me, we're almost there.)

Avoid the temptation to point out how easy it would be for him to comply. He knows how close the basket is and he's perfectly aware of his own ability to reach it. Pointing this out to him would seem needless and sarcastic.

It's not enough to simply state that your need is different from his. By saying "it's a girl thing" or something similar, you are explaining to him why you have different needs. This is something he can use as he tries to wrap his head around why there is a pressing reason to change. You've told him why.

Finally, how can you make selfless giving a part of your relationship? That could be a book all by itself, but here are a few pointers:
  • Be a giving person yourself. Kind deeds tend to draw similar responses. Based on your comment, I suspect you have no problem with this one;
  • Give him small, non-threatening opportunities to give. Ask for help with simple tasks (and remember the permission paradox); and
  • Show appreciation whenever he is giving and supportive. Do this whether you had to ask for the help or he did it on his own initiative. It's not enough to feel appreciative inside and assume he knows. He doesn't know. Show him by saying explicitly how much it means to you, how thankful you are, how much it really helps and makes a difference in your life. Act accordingly; give him a smile or a hug. Do something nice for him in return.

To sum it all up, he didn't take your hint when you asked initially so now your quest must become a negotiation. Even after you explain your need as discussed above, he may or may not change. If not, then you have to determine which of the three obstacles is still standing in the way and discuss it explicitly so the two of you can work past it. Each time you have to do that, maintain your calm, non-accusatory approach while asking for change.

Sincerely,
Andrew

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