Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Halloween Masks

Today's spookable activities got me thinking about masks, in particular how people mask their thoughts and emotions when dealing with others, and how much this can impact our relationships.

I can think of several common ways this occurs:
  • You're angry at your spouse, but you paste on a neutral expression and pretend everything is "Fine. Just fine." (I suspect most married folks learn to recognize "fine" as code for "I'm seriously ticked.")
  • You come home from work all stressed out, but you paste on a happy face so as not to ruin the evening for your family.
  • You wear your mask of civility when you're at the office, but come home and unload your true feelings on your spouse and kids. (I posted on this topic in Dismaying Story #36: Hurting the Ones We Love.)
Wearing an emotional mask can sometimes create problems. For example, it can be impossible for our spouse to work out problems with us if we hide them. This is a common thing to do, though, since it is natural to want to avoid conflict.

Keeping our emotions inside can also be a mature, giving thing to do in some circumstances. The second item in the list above might be one example. Also, we've all likely had the experience where we're annoyed about something, but we realize it is unimportant or is only because we are feeling bad physically at that moment (tired, hungry, whatever) so we let it go without saying anything. I'd rate that as a good mask.

This is a skill everyone should develop, learning to recognize when it helps to open up and share with your partner what's going on inside you, and when it would be hurtful and counter-productive to do so. I'm not aware of any magic formula you can use to decide which is which. In my experience, though, people in long-term relationships tend to become quite skilled at making this sort of decision, usually without even having to think about it.

Happily, today we can put on real masks for no other reason except to have some fun. I hope you have a Happy Halloween!
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Monday, October 30, 2006

There Is Hope!

A big thank you goes out to "Dr. Brazen Hussy" for inspiring today's topic. I was blog surfing over the weekend when I ran across this post. Apparently the good doctor (she is a biologist) was feeling temporarily out of sorts with her other half, so she Googled the phrase "I hate my husband." This generated 25 times more hits than "my wife hates me," which she suggests is an indication that husbands are not aware of how their wives feel about them. (She suggested this with tongue in cheek, I think. Or maybe not, you'd have to ask her...)

This got me thinking. I wondered what would happen if I searched for both positive and negative phrases related to relationships. Which would "win"? I started with these two queries, where the quotes mean I searched for these exact phrases:

26,200 for "I hate my husband"
296,000 for "I love my husband"

Okay! Maybe we're onto something here. I tried the next obvious step:

15,700 for "I hate my wife"
358,000 for "I love my wife"

Awwww. Way to go, guys! You've got me all misty-eyed over here. Way to stick up for your loving wives.

I was feeling pretty good about my experiment now, so I rambled on:

12,100 for "terrible marriage"
83,500 for "wonderful marriage"

6,300,000 for ex-husband OR ex-wife
8,670,000 for fiance OR fiancee

15,200 for "my husband is cheating"
215,000 for "my wonderful husband"

10,900 for "my wife is cheating"
175,000 for "my wonderful wife"

You know what this proves, don't you? Absolutely nothing, except maybe that Google will give you hits for just about anything you type in.

I wasn't trying to prove anything, though. Instead, I choose to interpret this as a crude barometer of how people feel about their relationships while they are working away on the Internet. Admittedly, the results are likely influenced by a number of factors. People might simply be more willing to admit to positive sentiments in a public forum, even if they are feeling lousy inside. Then again, surf the blogosphere for a while and you'll come across plenty of people venting about the problems in their lives. Many folks seem to need and benefit from unburdening their souls in this way.

So I'm going to be a starry-eyed optimist about all of this. I hope -- no, I believe -- that the world is full of good people who are trying and succeeding to make others around them happy. Sure, we all have our difficult days, some of us more than others, but these numbers seem to back up what I have always thought; there is far more good than bad in the world when it comes to relationships (or most things, for that matter). Maybe that's why I'm such a sucker for happy endings when I go to the movies.

Now here's what you have to understand. At this point I was feeling like I could pretty much conquer the universe with my little number experiments. So I decided to bet it all, to plunk down my entire stack of chips and tell the guy to spin that roulette wheel one more time. "Let it ride, baby! Let it ride!"

5,960,000 for "Dr. Phil"
25,600 for "To Love, Honor and Dismay"

Ummmm... Do you think I should have left well enough alone?
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Sunday, October 29, 2006

Dismaying Story #75: Plato's Relationship Legacy

Dear Andrew,

I have a history of "friendships" with men, whom either want something more with me, or whom I want something more with. I do not know how realistic or fair it would be, to them or me, to continue the friendship, knowing that we are on different wavelengths. There are two such men in my life currently.

I have a 67 year old friend whom I can communicate with and enjoy the occasional night of dancing with, that I could not entertain a relationship with because of the age gap (more than 2x my age). We did share the occasional hug or peck on the cheek in our friendship, but somewhere along the way he developed stronger feelings for me and it is clear that he wants something more. I have expressed my feelings that I could not be more than friends with him, but the frequency of his affection interferes with the boundaries that I want, which have also been expressed to him. He is an excellent dancer and that is one of my favorite past-times, but the difference in our perceptions is affecting my motivation to see him. Do you have any suggestions to keep him as a friend and get him to respect the boundaries, so I can continue the friendship? Or would it be better to say good-bye and leave it alone?

The other man is someone I have known for 2 years, dating then and again recently. We have great communication, a deep connection on various levels and there is a physical chemistry as well. For whatever reason, he has stated that he is not ready for anything more than "friends only." Without getting into backgrounds, I understand his position. My dilemma is this, I want to continue a friendship with him - because that foundation has been built quite solidly, but I fear that my feelings for him and "hope" that we will get together again, may make future interactions awkward. I am ordinarily a person whom cuts my losses and moves forward, leaving ex's in the past, but this guy is someone whom I'd rather have in my life, even if only friends. I'm just not sure if I'm capable of being "only friends" with someone who in many ways could be the right guy for me. Am I setting myself up for continued heartache?

Signed, Platonic Possibilities

Dear Platonic Possibilities,

I must admit, dancing and hugging and cheek pecking between two otherwise unattached adults can be potent stuff. That combination has been known to get the embers of desire glowing, even when there is quite an age gap. I can understand how the older gentleman could fall for you and how he could take your continued desire to see him and go dancing as tacit approval for his advances, even if you say otherwise. To him, your actions may speak louder than your words. His ongoing expressions of affection mean that he is somehow encouraged to continue.

Think about how you react when he expresses his feelings. Is the feedback to him consistently neutral or even negative? Or do you get a bit of a payoff when he pays you that compliment? And does this tiny pleasure, however muted, come through to him? Do you smile? Maybe touch his arm in an "Aw shucks" gesture of fondness? If so, that would dramatically lessen the impact when you also suggest he shouldn't do that anymore.

Pay attention to your own reactions and cut out any rewards you might be unconsciously throwing his way. Combine that with telling him explicitly where you want the boundaries drawn, and that may encourage him to be good.

I can't say whether it would be better for you to simply walk away from your dancing partner. This seems to me to be a matter of balance and your own comfort zone. If you can keep the relationship on a level where the fun outweighs your annoyance, then it might be worth it to keep on. Only you can decide if any continued advances bother you enough to call it quits.

You might also want to consider this from his point of view. By allowing him to have hope when none really exists, are you keeping him from other relationships where he might have a better chance of finding what he is looking for?

The situation is reversed with the second guy -- you have the feelings and he wants to keep things light and breezy. You say you want to maintain the friendship even if that is all it is, but you also still hope his ambivalence will someday evolve into deeper feelings for you.

Some readers may remember Dismaying Story #47: The Objectionable Beau, which deals with a similar situation. If so, perhaps you can join me in telling Platonic Possibilities what she needs to hear: He's Just Not That Into You! Yours is one of the classic situations described in the book of that name by Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo. In my opinion, if this guy was going to be excited about having a relationship with you, he already would be. The chances are extremely low that his feelings will spontaneously bloom at some later magical date. You'd be better off to face the music right now; this is not the guy with whom you're going to ride off into the sunset.

Could you keep him as a friend? Sure, if that will make you happy. I wonder if it will, though. You said it yourself -- you have hopes for a deeper relationship. Since it won't be with him, I suggest you get busy looking for it elsewhere. As it stands now, he is getting the level of companionship he wants, while you are not.

As a final thought, you might want to consider whether having your older dancing partner in your life could be a roadblock when seeing other guys. There is certainly nothing wrong with having multiple platonic friends, regardless of gender. It is possible, though, (even probable) that potential dating partners might perceive the older gent as more than your friend and as a possible threat.

All the best,
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Saturday, October 28, 2006

Question of the Week #12: Trust -- An Admittedly Silly Parable

Two wise men in monk's robes once sat in the lotus position on a mountain top in the early morning mist. So deep was their concentration that if someone had been walking by on the nearby trail, they might have felt the rumblings from the profound thoughts tumbling around within their shaved heads.

"I have determined," one said after a time, "that a newborn babe should have the complete trust of his or her parents. The infant is completely innocent and has done nothing to betray such trust. Only later, when the inevitable temptations of life intercede, might the parents' trust adjust itself to a more realistic level."

The other wise man nodded sagely. "But isn't it also true that the newborn has yet done nothing to earn trust from the parents? Perhaps such faith should start at zero and grow throughout life as children show themselves to be trustworthy."

As they did every day, the two men began debating this issue. They were still at it hours later when a mother walked by in shorts, hiking boots and a backpack from Prada. (Hey, if she has to hike all the way to the top of a mountain for us, she might as well do it in style so she can enjoy the experience.) Her two children accompanied her, one of them a teen and the other a few years younger. She listened to the argument for a few minutes until she couldn't stand it any more.

"Hey," she called out.

The men stopped talking and looked at her in surprise. They had been so deep in conversation that they hadn't noticed the onlookers. That's when the mother told them the truth of the matter.

"You two," she said, "need to get out more."

You see, the mother cared little for such philosophical silliness. She knew that the trust between her and her children flowed in both directions and had a very real impact on their day-to-day lives. By knowing what her children were and were not likely to get up to, she could make sound decisions about what activities she could safely approve and how closely they needed to be supervised. Similarly, her children had learned that she would treat them with compassion, love and fairness. When conflict situations arose, they were likely to confide in her and resist jumping to negative conclusions about her intentions.

She explained this to the two wise men, after which they blinked and looked at each other in apparent confusion. After a few awkward moments, one said, "Let us discuss, my brother, why we are here."

His companion's face brightened at the prospect of being back on familiar ground and they began debating happily once more.

So how does trust work between you and your children? To me the interesting issues aren't so much about the level of trust that exists, but how you arrived there. When kids make the occasional poor life choice, how do you get back to a place where you have faith they won't make that particular mistake again? And what do you think is important for helping your children develop trust in you?

Oh, and for the record, I agree with the mother -- that encounter on the mountaintop was probably the only time those two (ahem) "wise" men have even met a child.

As always, I look forward to hearing your opinions.
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Blogging Friends

I think somewhere in the back of my mind last week I must have said, "I should come up with a question of the week that will really get my readers fired up to share their thoughts." Whether I did it on purpose or not, that is certainly how it turned out. And it makes sense; ask a group of bloggers to talk about the blogging experience and you're sure to get an enthusiastic response. I asked for comments about the relationships you form with the folks who visit and comment on your site regularly.

Your feedback is completely consistent with my own experience. I truly get the sense that people are sharing their honest feelings and beliefs when they comment on my site, and many of you offered the same opinion. Another common insight was that you meet all sorts of people regardless of the forum. Some might be cranky on occasion, but the majority of people you run across tend to be friendly and well worth the effort you make in getting to know them. This is the same whether you meet them at a cocktail party, at work, or through your blog. (And when, pray tell, will the spellchecker dictionary makers at Microsoft learn that "blog" is a real word??? But I digress...)

Quite understandably, some of you rated your online relationships on a par with casual acquaintances. You know some of the superficial details of their lives, but you are unlikely to call them up to go pick out wallpaper together. I also found it interesting that several of you mentioned deep and abiding friendships that have developed over the years via your blogs. Regular contact over extended periods of time can breed mutual respect and trust (which relates to this week's question), even when that contact is online. (As an aside, this is great for those of us who develop true friends that way, but it is also unfortunate when online predators use this principle to gain undeserved trust from unsuspecting children.)

The story I found the most amazing and uplifting came from Dublin, who wrote about her younger sister's blogging friends. Dublin's sister has many longtime online friends who provide her with valuable feedback by pulling no punches and telling her like it is. These same online friends rallied around when Dublin's sister sat in an ICU room with her sick child. They provided 24-hour support when she needed it the most. It really is an insightful story and I recommend you read it here.

Thanks again to everyone for all your input, and most of all, for joining my circle of online friends. Many people have thanked me for providing this forum, but I assure you that the support I receive in return has made the experience more than worthwhile.
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Friday, October 27, 2006

Dismaying Story #74: Ex-Husband, Life-Long Father

Hi Everyone,

I'm on the road today so I'm a little late posting. I wrote this morning on the airplane and now that I've arrived at my hotel (in a warm, sunny destination :o) I'm able to post. I hope you are having a great day.

Dear Andrew,

My ex-husband insists on negatively commenting on my daughter’s appearance – hair, clothes, shoes, etc. No matter what she wears or what she does with her hair, he tells her she needs to “do something” different.

I’ve tried to stay out of it, but she comes to me heartbroken or lately, incensed over her father’s comments. Oddly, she resembles her father much more in appearance than she does me. How can I help without interfering in their relationship?

Signed, Caught in the Middle

Dear Caught,

You can't. Interfere away because helping sounds like a good idea.

I would approach this as if you were still together. You no longer share a marriage, but you are still co-parenting and you should do your best to minimize the effects of your separation on your children.

How would you handle it if you were all living in the same house? I bet you would have a private chat with him. You would ask him why he is doing this and tell him what kind of effect he is having on your daughter. Then, depending on the causes, you would look for a change. Do the same here.

I can only assume from your letter that his complaints about her appearance are largely baseless. Presumably she isn't going out the door in the morning looking like a vampy version of Madonna in concert. What, then, could his reasons be? The obvious question is whether he has resentment because of the divorce. Do you have primary custody of your daughter? Any contact with her could be a reminder of his frustration, putting him in a grumpy mood whenever he sees her. Or perhaps he has unrealistic and old-fashioned expectations of how young ladies should present themselves. If there is a new partner in his life, her resentment over you or his children could play into this; he could be reacting to and passing along negative sentiments that originate with her.

I can't predict which, if any, of these factors may be at work. If I were you, though, I would talk to him and see if he knows. Explain to him why the criticism has to stop and insist that he do so. As an ex you may have less leverage to ask for change than you did when you were married, but you should still try. If this is displaced resentment of you, then talking out the issues between the two of you may reduce the amount that spills over onto your daughter.

In addition, you can coach your daughter on how to handle criticism. This is not the last time in her life she will face it, and coping with it is an important life skill. We all need to be able to maintain a positive self-image in the face of negative external feedback. As many letter writers have already attested on this site, that is not always easy to do. Explain to her that she will face various forms of negative feedback in school, on the job, when she has a significant other, when she imposes unpopular rules on her own children, and so on. Help her understand the need to evaluate her own behavior objectively and honestly, to take ownership of any legitimate issues that others have raised, to use such feedback to improve in a constructive way, and to have the confidence to shed the emotional effects of unfounded criticism.

Has she actually explained to her father how his words make her feel? As unlikely as it may seem, it's possible he has no idea what kind of effect he is having on her. Hearing it directly from her might be the wake-up call he needs. Even if he won't listen, she is likely to feel better about herself (less like a victim) if she is able to stand up for herself in a mature, reasonable way.

If you have gained some insight into the reasons for his behavior, you may be able to help your daughter by explaining them to her. For example, this may be more of a problem between two ex-spouses, which he is unfortunately turning into a problem that involves your daughter. That still means she has an issue with her Dad, but it may help her to know that it's not just about her.

Hopefully treating him as a current co-parent rather than solely as an ex-spouse will make a difference. Good luck!

All the best,

Do you have a group of regulars who visit your blog and leave comments? If so, then the current Question of the Week applies to you. Today is the last day to check it out before I provide a response tomorrow.
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Thursday, October 26, 2006

Dismaying Story # 73: Past Baggage

Dear Andrew,

I am a forty-year-old man who has been divorced for twelve years. I've had a few relationships of varying lengths over the past 12 years (three years was the longest), but this is the first time I've been interested in getting re-married. I truly feel like I've found "the one."

I'm afraid, however, that a lot of my past baggage is getting in the way. The current problem is that my fiancée does not give me much praise and reassurance, and she needs and gives much less physical affection (I'm not talking about sex here) than I am used to and expect.

I have depression, was sexually abused as a child, and adopted when I was young. My depression is very well controlled through meds and cognitive behavioral work I do on my own, as well as what I've learned in therapy in the past. Through lots of therapy I have recognized that I have huge issues with fear of abandonment and feeling I'm not worthy of being loved. I've surrounded myself with very expressive friends who constantly reassure me by telling me how great I am.

I've mostly dated women who fit this mode. I also have a history of over-achieving and doing tons of volunteer work to prove my worth to myself. I realize I have become addicted to external praise. I realize that and I'm working on it.

In my current relationship, though, I'm having a hard time drawing the line between my insecurities versus my legitimate right to tell my fiancée what I need out of the relationship.

How does one know the difference between one's own baggage, and legitimate relationship concerns that need to be addressed?

Signed, Needs PLENTY of Hugs

Dear Needs Plenty of Hugs,

Many times since starting this site I have recommended that people should seek help from a professional -- a therapist or psychologist. As your letter makes clear, this is not always the end of the road, not by a long shot. There is never any guarantee that a series of sessions with a therapist will provide the relief you seek. It might be the most appropriate course of action -- your best bet, if you will -- and many people make tremendous strides as a result of their therapy, but seeing a professional is not always a silver bullet cure-all.

There can be several reasons for this. Some clients are simply not committed to putting in the effort to help themselves. As the joke in my sidebar alludes, you have to be ready and willing to make changes in your life.

Another fundamental reason is that psychology is an inexact science. Our understanding of the complexities of human behavior is far from complete, as is our knowledge of how to intervene when things go awry. Some types of behaviors are resistant to change, and persist despite the best efforts of patient and therapist.

You can point to several reasons for your fears. Feelings of low self worth are a classic response to sexual abuse, as is fear of abandonment for those who have been adopted or who have lived through foster care. Your therapy has made you aware of the fears as well as the causes, and has given you some techniques you can use to manage the effects. You have worked out other coping strategies on your own, such as gravitating toward expressive, supportive friends.

It is obvious, though, that you have not actually addressed the roots of your fears. You still struggle to think of yourself as worthy of love, as someone that people will like and want to be around.

Think about that. After years of therapy and medication, the problems are still there. Does that mean you are destined to struggle for your entire life? I have no way of knowing whether that is true in your individual case, but many people in your situation are able to make breakthroughs once they begin addressing the root causes rather than the surface behaviors.

Let's consider your self-esteem for a moment. You can do all the exercises you want, shouting "I'm great" affirmations at the top of your lungs, having therapists and friends assure you that you really are worthy, but at some point you will have some alone-time again. That's when your inner voice will whisper to you: "Psst. Hey! You know that was a load of baloney, right? None of that play-acting changes what you and I know. We both know what people really think of you." Your therapy has not evicted this malicious tenant from your head. You have not yet gone back to the events that caused your fears, dealt with them effectively and successfully, and discarded their harmful effects.

All of this is a preamble to answering your question, which is: How does one know the difference between one's own baggage, and legitimate relationship concerns that need to be addressed?

We all have baggage, every single one of us. We are all individuals with our own hot buttons, topics about which we really don't want to be teased, and sensitivities for which we could use a little moral support. These are legitimate relationship concerns. When your fiancée chooses to be with you, she chooses all of you. Like it or not, she will have to deal with your insecurities.

The question, though, is what constitutes an appropriate way to address these concerns. You would like her to give you more praise, reassurance and physical contact, which is just another form of reassurance -- the touch or hug when passing in the kitchen, in effect saying, "Yes, I still love you." In other words, you want her to feed your insecurities. You want the quick hit, the temporary fix of external gratification so you'll feel okay for another few minutes.

And I don't blame you. For someone who feels badly like you do, of course you are looking for ways to feel better, and temporarily better is preferable to not at all. It's okay for you to ask for this type of help. If this sort of touchy-feely constant reassurance does not come naturally for your partner, though, it may be difficult for her to provide it to the level you seek. You risk straining the relationship by asking her to provide more than she has to give.

More than that, it may not be the only way (or even the best way) for her to help address your legitimate relationship concerns. Perhaps she could say, "You should keep looking for a professional who can get to the root of your problems and help you discard their effects, someone with a proven track record of helping people with their self-esteem issues."

I realize that may be difficult to hear after all your experiences with therapy, but it just might be an idea worth considering. I wish you luck in achieving a workable balance of need-versus-give with your fiancée.

All the best,

Does your inner voice take a few stabs at your self-esteem whenever you're naked, alone in the dark? Does this affect how you interact with others? Drop me an email and I'll try to help. Comments can be anonymous and the identity of email respondents always remains confidential.
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Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Other Kind of Cheating

Here's a true story. A friend of mine was invigilating a first-year biology exam years ago in a large university lecture hall when he noticed one young man acting suspiciously. My friend decided to watch him more closely and before long he saw the young man pause to ponder, look around for a moment, sneak a look under his wristwatch, and then continue writing on his exam paper. Wanting to put a stop to this, my friend moved so he was standing closer to the guy and stared in the student's direction, making it rather obvious that he was watching. The student glanced up nervously and then bent over his exam paper, studiously avoiding looking anywhere else. Before long, though, he twisted his body slightly to one side and snuck another rather obvious glance at the underside of his watch.

My friend had had enough. He marched over and asked, "Can I see your watch for a moment?" The student appeared to be flustered, but he had no choice. He fumbled off his watch and handed it over. Surprise, surprise; my friend found a small piece of paper taped to the back, with a single word written on it: "Gotcha!"

I have caught people looking at their neighbor's paper in my exams. The university has an official policy for dealing with this situation, which involves standardized procedures and student appeal committees. I have a simpler solution. When the cheating is obvious, I simply present myself to the student, smile warmly at them, all friendly-like, and inform them quietly that I have a nice seat for them at the front of the room right beside me, where they have no other students sitting next to them. I haven't accused them of anything but everyone in the room can undoubtedly guess why I am moving them. Besides removing the opportunity to cheat, the embarrassment factor works like a charm.

One of my colleagues tried a unique approach to detecting cheaters. He made up two different exams. Then he interleaved the stack of papers -- exam 1, exam 2, exam 1, and so on. When he handed them out, each student had a different paper than the neighbors to their left and right. Several students ended up answering questions perfectly ... the corresponding questions from their neighbor's exams, that is.

Cheating in that context means to gain an unfair advantage based on what others have done, not on your own efforts. The word has a different connotation when applied to relationships; we typically use it to refer to the involvement of a third party. The first meaning of the word, however, can also apply to relationships.

How often do we hear about a partner who doesn't step up to their end of the bargain in some way? Perhaps they rely on their significant other to do most of the communicating, or to take on the lion's share of the housework and running errands. One could argue these are people who want the benefits of a relationship, but seem unwilling or unable to put in their share of the effort.

I often receive questions about spouses and boy/girlfriends who apparently don't contribute equally on an emotional level. Perhaps conflicts fail to be resolved because only one partner is willing to work things out; the other consistently clams up and walks away. Or maybe only one of the two recognizes the value in keeping a bit of romance alive in the relationship. Are these different forms of cheating, of relying on the significant other to pick up the slack?

We should all be careful, though, when we are tempted to accuse our partner of this kind of negligence. Oftentimes there are two sides to the coin. For instance, a recent study involving 275 couples examined the split of domestic work between husbands and wives. (Lee, Y.-S. and Waite, L. Husbands' and wives' time spent on housework: A comparison of measures. Journal of Marriage and the Family, vol. 67, 2005, pp. 328-336.) The women handled an average of 61 percent of the workload while their men took care of the other 39 percent. This is consistent with historical trends. One interesting finding, though, is that both husbands and wives tended to overestimate their own contribution and underestimate the amount of work done by their spouse. Men claimed they did an average of 42 percent of the work, while the wives thought their men averaged only 33 percent.

The point is, our own perceptions of inequities in our relationships may not always be accurate. I suspect most of us have had the experience where we feel badly about something our SO has done, only to find out later they also had an equally valid concern about some failing on our part. The old saying is true; it usually takes two to tango.

So what can we do to avoid that "other" type of cheating? We can look in the mirror. Some morning when you are putting on makeup or shaving those stubbly whiskers, pause for a moment and ask yourself, "Am I doing my best to make this relationship as good as it can be for the two of us?" Now that doesn't mean being perfect, because we are all a long way from that. This is about making the effort -- doing whatever work is necessary to keep the bond with your partner spit-shined and polished as best you can.

If you can make that kind of effort ... well, that's really all any of us can do, isn't it?


Do you have a group of regulars who visit your blog and leave comments? If so, then the current Question of the Week applies to you.
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Monday, October 23, 2006

Dismaying Story # 72: The Kitten Substitute

Dear Andrew,

I'm in a long distance relationship. However, my boyfriend and I talk every day (MSN, SMS, calls) and we see each other every two months. He is my best friend and the best boyfriend I could ever imagine. Yet I didn't imagine how hard it would be to be so far away from him. I simply underestimated how important a hug can be, a kiss, to take somebody's hand when I'm feeling down, just the company while watching TV. We will be together again after a year, settling into a relationship that is made for life.

Still, I am worried. I have many guy friends. One in particular is my ex boyfriend. The relationship hurt me in so many ways and yet I decided I could be friends with him. We live in the same apartment complex and we spend a lot of time together. This would be okay if this ex was completely over his feelings for me, but this is not the case.

I enjoy being with him, though. He is finally the person I wanted him to be in the relationship although he still lies about certain issues, which was a huge problem in the actual relationship.

I don't ever want to be with him again. He even leaves the country in three months. I'd like us to enjoy the friendship because I went through a lot with him and I feel like I deserve him being there for me after he tortured me for so long. My benefit is I get a hug or two when I'm sad. He never knows why I'm sad because, although he knows I'm with my boyfriend, I wouldn't want to hurt my ex by talking about my boyfriend all the time.

It would probably be better for me and my relationship if I'd never see my ex again. Yet, I can't tell why it's so hard to tell him No when he asks me to come over to have dinner together, watch TV, go to parties together. I miss my boyfriend a great deal because I love him so much. I need to be given a hug though every once in a while and I'm afraid that I'll search (am already searching) for this closeness in my ex boyfriend who is simply available. I don't know when the lines of friendship might fade away and when it's actually considered cheating. Is it when I let him take me into his arms for 5 seconds too long, when I let him put his arms around my shoulders, when I lean on him, when maybe one day I'll fall asleep on his couch while watching TV? I know that I'd go absolutely crazy if the same thing happened to my boyfriend and a friend of his. The problem is that I don't have family in this town, nor my best (girl)friend to be there for me. The only person that seems really close is this ex of mine.

What can I do?

Signed, Needs a Hug

Dear Needs a Hug,

Let me get this straight. You love your boyfriend and plan to spend the rest of your life with him. At the same time you hug your ex-boyfriend and snuggle on his couch to watch TV, knowing he still has feelings for you ... and you're not sure if you have exceeded the bounds of simple friendship?

Of course you know.

Here are a couple of simple ways to tell if you are crossing the line. After you've spent some time with your ex, would you then call your boyfriend and tell him everything that happened? I bet not. Similarly, would you act differently with the ex if your boyfriend was standing behind you the whole time, looking over your shoulder? If you wouldn't do it with your boyfriend watching, then you shouldn't do it at all.

Several of your statements fail to hold water for me. For instance, you say your ex is now the person you always wanted him to be, but he still lies to you. Lying seems like it should be a deal-breaker. Why hang around someone who treats you like that, regardless of your circumstances?

Secondly, why are you worried about hurting your ex by talking about your boyfriend? If your ex is just a friend, then he should be perfectly comfortable hearing about your boyfriend and should be supportive of your need to talk about him. This is another clear indication that your relationship with your ex is more than just being friends. If you are truly committed to your boyfriend, then you should be more concerned about hurting him by being with the ex.

Finally, let's call a spade a spade; you are dating your ex-boyfriend. Where I come from, that's what we call it when he phones you up to go to parties and to come over to his place and the two of you end up snuggling. This relationship has progressed to the point where you are uncomfortable enough to write to me. You know there is an issue, but you seem to be trying to convince yourself this is okay because you have to be apart from your boyfriend for a time and you feel all alone.

I understand loneliness is no fun but let's look ahead a bit. How are you going to feel when you are back together with your boyfriend and you have to think back on how you acted when he was out of town? Will you feel proud of your actions or will you feel guilty? I suspect it's the latter, and let me tell you, that one is no fun either. Then the two of you get married and he has to go away on a business trip for a few weeks. You'll be lonely then too. Would that make it okay to look up another guy for the physical contact you miss while your husband is away? Of course not, and it's not okay now, either.

What can you do? You can start honoring the commitment you have made to your boyfriend and stop wandering over that line. Start acting like you would if he were there watching you.

If you find you can't do that, then I wonder just how strong your commitment really is. If so, then it's not fair to your boyfriend to deceive him. Let him know what has been going on.

You say that's not what you want, though, so if I were you I would get a kitten to snuggle with, or find a new girlfriend or two so you can have someone to spend time with and confide in. Join a club. Take a class. Get a part-time job to fill up your extra hours. There are plenty of ways to distract yourself from your loneliness without resorting to cheating on your boyfriend.

All the best,
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Saturday, October 21, 2006

Question of the Week #11: My New Friends

I've made some new friends recently, and I'm quite fond of them. These relationships are a bit unusual, though, because I know very little about these people. In most cases I don't know what they look like, where they live, or even their real names. I know them by their online handles -- made-up names like JellyHead and AZGoddess, or partial names like Melli, Julianna and Lori. I'm talking about the group of people who make a habit of dropping by this site and leaving comments.

As I surf around and read other blogs, I notice most sites tend to be visited by a group of regulars. It's obvious from the comments that many of the visitors have been to the site before and the comments on any particular day are part of ongoing online relationships. I bet you have a group of regulars who visit your blog. It's only natural; we all have our blogrolls, our daily reads.

It's amazing to me how much of the individual personalities come through in this limited form of interaction. From the comments I receive, I get to see how specific individuals react to a variety of issues. I get a sense of who tends to be agreeable and supportive (which is nice), and who likes to sink their teeth into issues, really think them through and offer alternatives to consider (which can amount to the same thing and is equally nice). I've gained a great deal of respect for the regulars on this site, and as I write my posts I find myself looking forward to hearing what they will have to say about the issues involved.

The whole process reminds me of characterization techniques used by fiction writers. When we read a novel, we meet the characters in a very limited way. We get to see them for only a brief period, and we only see the scenes that the writer chooses to show us. We must build a picture in our mind of what they look like based only on descriptions, and more to the point we get a sense of their personalities by the few words and actions in those scenes. Nonetheless, literature offers many examples of beloved characters. You probably have a few favorites of your own.

So tell me about your experience in interacting with the regulars on your site. How would you characterize this type of relationship? Do their individual personalities shine through? Do you find you develop a special kinship with some? Do you get the sense you are experiencing their true personalities (as opposed to the above cartoon)?

As always, I will post my personal favorite comment next Saturday with a link to the respondent's blog.
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Readers Speak Out on Step-Parenting

Thank you to everyone who left a comment regarding last week's question about step-parenting. Hopefully your collective experiences will prove helpful to others who are faced with the same challenges.

Several issues came through to me in your comments, including:
  • The importance of not showing favoritism towards your own children as opposed to your spouse's children.
  • Equally importantly, the need to not swing too far the other way, neglecting your own child while trying to build a relationship with the step-children.
  • Recognizing that children can blame themselves when their parents are no longer together, and help the kids understand it's not their fault.
Opinions were divided on the issue of disciplining step-children. Some said discipline should be delivered equally regardless of the step-status of the parent, while others said each parent should discipline only their own.

I found it almost impossible to pick a favorite among the comments -- how could I possibly consider one person's step-parenting experience as more valid or interesting than another's? Still, I did promise to pick one and a few of the things that Walker had to say resonated with me. He wrote: "I think what matters the most here is respect and trust by all those involved. If the relationship with your partner is a loving one it only filters down to the whole household and step kids." That sounds like good advice to me.

Thanks again, everyone!
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Friday, October 20, 2006

Dismaying Story #71: Learning Not to Gossip

Dear Andrew,

How can we better teach our daughters (or our children, for that matter) to be more open and honest with their peers? My daughter vented online about her best friend's behavior recently, and now she's sweating it out hoping the friend won't see her comments, which were made in the heat of anger.

I've often told her that she should give complaints to the person who has upset her and no one else, but I see her and her girlfriends repeatedly in a pattern of gossiping and complaining to each other about friends' actions.

Any pearls of wisdom?

Signed, Mom

Dear Mom,

I did a little research after I received your question; I talked to some kids in their first year of high school and a few mothers of high school kids. The small group of people I talked to does not constitute a scientific survey, nonetheless the results coincided with my expectations.

My sense is that virtually anyone is capable of talking to friends A, B and C about friend D, but this seems to be more prevalent with girls than boys, and in some social groups (cliques, if you will) rather than others. Some girls told me this happened all the time among their closest friends (and they assumed everyone does it), while others said they couldn't remember the last time it happened among the girls they normally hang out with at school. The moms echoed this sentiment, saying it was common when they went to school, but that some of their peers seemed particularly prone to malicious gossiping.

The interesting thing to me is to understand which kids, regardless of gender, are more likely to take part. Here are a few of the comments I received:

"It's the people who are more worried about being popular."

"They care the most about what people think of them -- the kids who were into wearing makeup first, that sort of thing." (And no, I don't think makeup is the issue. This is merely the way a child was able to describe her perception of the difference to me.)

"They gossip because they are insecure. They want to be liked."

This is the part that coincides with my expectations. Let's consider two fictitious young people, whom I will call Abigail and Betty. (They could be Al and Bob for that matter; the same psychological principles apply.) Abigail is confident in her self-image. She recognizes she is human and has flaws like anyone else, but she thinks of herself as basically a good person and assumes most people have a reasonably positive view of her. Betty, on the other hand, appears confident on the outside but has a little voice inside that constantly reminds her of her inadequacies. She is not sure at all what others think of her.

Of these two girls, Betty is clearly more attuned to how others treat her. Her social antennae are constantly unfurled and ready to interpret what the people around her say and do. She is looking for clues as to whether she is perceived positively or negatively by others, and the way she feels about herself may yo-yo up and down depending on her most recent observation.

Now put Betty together with a group of kids who feel the same way. They share a similar focus: who said what about whom and what that means. This is an incredibly big deal for all of them. As usually happens when a group shares a common interest, this will naturally be a frequent topic of conversation.

This leads to a key observation; gossiping is the symptom, while the underlying issue has to do with the way kids measure their self-worth based on cues from others. Not surprisingly, quite a few adults continue to use the same yardstick.

Parents can try to address either the symptom or the underlying issue. I suggest you work on both.

You are already coaching your daughter in social skills around conflict management. Keep it up. Tell her to assume that anything she says to one friend will eventually be heard by the entire school, including the person she is talking about. Your daughter will then feel bad because (a) she has hurt a friend, (b) others will know she hurt someone, and (c) now that friend may do or say something hurtful in return (and we have a pretty good idea how that will impact your daughter's self-image). If she wouldn't say it directly to her friend, then she shouldn't say it to anyone else because there is no such thing as a secret.

Tell her the kids who are liked best by everyone are those who don't gossip, for exactly the reasons mentioned in the last paragraph. Ask her if she wants to be one of those likable people.

Talk to her about her choice of friends. Hanging with others who lack confidence can be an effective way to reinforce and firmly entrench her insecurities. Remember: "If they'll gossip with you, they're gossiping about you."

Dealing with the underlying issue can be more of a long-term project. You can start by helping her recognize that mischievous inner voice. Ask her about one of her recent accomplishments. Perhaps she made the cheerleading squad. What are the chances that as soon as she was alone after the tryout the little voice piped up and said, "Sure, but you know you're not as good as most of those other girls." We all do this at times. Help her understand that she can reply to the voice: "Thank you for your input, now go back and hide in your dark corner and be quiet." Often simply recognizing the source of that negative self talk can lessen its power.

Explain to her the relationship between gossiping and self esteem. Get her to read this article if you think it will help her see the connection. Recognizing and acknowledging the root of the issue is a powerful first step toward change.

Teach her that her self worth is not defined by what other insecure kids have to say about her. She is much more than that. Tell her repeatedly what you think of her as a person and how glad you are that she is part of your life. Catch her accomplishing and being good; praise her for it. Help her recognize her own value and strengths. If she learns to define herself from within, then what others have to say will seem dramatically less interesting and not worth discussing.

Good luck!

All the best,

100% of people who read this site report having relationships in their life, yet the backlog of questions is dwindling. Tell me about yours and it may be featured as a Dismaying Story. Comments can be anonymous and the identity of email respondents always remains confidential.
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Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Answer to Life, Relationships, and Everything

I've always thought about writing a letter to Stephen King. I never have, though. Just imagine the flood of mail that must wing his way. I'm guessing the letters probably fall into two general categories: people who wish to assert their place as his Number One Fan (visions of Misery), and those who hope to gain some sort of advantage by contacting him -- "Dear Mr. King, Would you read my story and offer some suggestions on how to make it even gooder?"

My letter would be neither one of those. He and I have a few things in common and it would simply be nice to chat about that.

I could start by telling him that I do a little writing myself. But then, that would be too much like writing to Picasso to tell him how much fun I had with the paint-by-number set I got for my birthday.

Maybe it would be better to talk about the writing itself, and how much I appreciate some of the skillful things he does. For instance, I just finished reading The Eyes of the Dragon to my teenage daughter. (Isn't that cool? She still enjoys listening to her Daddy read.) In the middle of our session one night, I stopped and talked with my her about how King handled the scene I was reading. In it, a jail guard delivers a note to the home of a judge. Some writers would simply describe the guard handing over the note and that would be that. In the hands of King, however, this simple act turns into a subplot of its own, with plenty of conflict and tension. The scene is told from the point of view of the judge's butler, who is torn whether to even answer the late-night pounding on the door. Then he thinks the hunched figure of the jail guard might be a troll and is afraid to let him in. There is much doubt as to whether the judge will ever see the note, which, of course, builds the reader's desire to see the delivery completed.

Skillful stuff. Then again, saying so would start to make it sound like a fan letter. Better to steer clear of that.

I could talk about car rides. As it happens, I can roll out of my driveway, stay within a respectable shouting distance of the speed limit, and pull up in front of Stephen's house in about three hours. We're close enough that we see all the same snow storms. I've actually made that drive a few times. He has a funky wrought-iron fence around his property with all these bats worked into the design. I don't drive to Bangor to see his fence, though; I have family members who live there. I doubt Stephen would be interested in knowing that.

I would really like to tell him about my favorite parts of his books. Whenever I receive a crisp new King hardcover, which typically happens each year at Christmas (Thanks honey!), I invariably turn first to the notes that King writes to his readers. Often these are in the form of "An Introductory Note," which discusses what was going on in his life as he worked on this book, perhaps a bit about the inspiration that led to this work or some of the particular challenges he faced. Occasionally one of his works appears with no such note. Desperation is an example, so I had to be satisfied with reading the brief Acknowledgements. In Four Past Midnight, though, he outdid himself by providing notes about the book as a whole, plus a separate introductory note for each of the four novellas in the book. Yum.

Which brings me to the point of this post. Stephen King's books are not about him. They are about ... well, you know what gremlins and ghoulies live within. In the same way, this blog is not about me. It's about you, Faithful Reader, and all your wonderful, wacky, traumatic, rewarding and infuriating relationships. Still, I enjoy getting a behind-the-scenes view and finding out about King the person, so I thought you might forgive me for indulging in the occasional bit of editorializing and navel gazing.

It looks like fun, you see, when I read so many wonderful personal posts on all of your blogs. I thought about starting another site for doing just that but I can barely do justice to one forum, let alone two. My compromise is to indulge myself today and write a bit about To Love, Honor and Dismay.

I have been working for some time to publish books. More accurately, I have been banging my head against the gates of the publishing industry. These gates open only occasionally for first-time authors these days, due to some challenging changes to the book market. In the old days, numerous medium-sized publishers could afford to develop new talent. Many of these companies have now been swallowed up into mega-publishing houses, which in turn are actually smallish wings of even larger corporate conglomerates. Publishers are under more pressure than ever to turn steady profits, at the same time CDs, DVDs and video games are taking the place that books used to play in many people's lives. The bottom line is the gates don't open as often as they used to. Still, those of us who fancy a bit of scribbling lumber on undeterred.

So one day I was watching Good Morning America and saw a fellow talking about using a blog to trade a big red paperclip for a house. Right then I said to myself, "Self, (because that's what I call myself when no one's around) you should start a blog." I already have a house but it still seemed like a good idea. Here are a few things that have happened since then:
  • I was used to spending months and years working on a manuscript, and then waiting many more months to receive feedback from literary agents. The experience of publishing a blog is startlingly different. I write (almost) every morning, edit and polish right away (which is a skill worth honing all by itself), publish immediately, and then converse with readers later that same day. The pace is exhilarating and, at times, almost overwhelming.
  • I try to post every day, but my day job gets in the way once in a while. I am a university professor so, of course, maintaining the blog became more challenging when September hit. My current biggest challenge is to find enough time to return the favor and visit other people's blogs. I'll keep trying. (And why do so many people seem surprised when I show up at their site?)
  • I am grateful for all the comments and emails I have received. The format seems to strike a chord with many of you and the feedback has been wonderful, which is very satisfying. Even the inevitable bit of criticism is helpful to keep me on my toes.
  • To date, 133 other folks have extended me the ultimate online compliment by linking their site to this one. That's more than one a day since I began. As a result, Technorati ranks To Love, Honor and Dismay in the top 20,000 blogs. I'm not sure how much that really matters, but it seems like a nifty thing to be able to say.
  • A magazine editor emailed me right out of the blue earlier this week. She has been reading this site for a while and as a result she extended me an invitation to contribute to the magazine. Talk about a feel-great moment for me. More on this later when the details are firmed up -- the magazine has an online edition so you'll be able to see the results.
  • I put up a new banner at the top of the page a while back, replacing the standard Blogger design with a picture that seems more applicable to the sorts of topics we discuss here. Not one you left a comment, though, mentioning you noticed the change. So, what do you think? (Not that I'm needy or anything...)
And while we're on the topic of personal information, here is a bit of my own philosophy for all you relationship insight junkies out there.

A corporate executive once delivered a speech to a few thousand of his customers at a user's conference. I'll always remember the first slide he put up on the big screen, because it epitomizes my own view of how we should approach life. He said:

It's all about the people, stupid!

Of course it is. Spend plenty of time and energy looking after the people around you and you'll be well on your way to a fulfilling life.

Be nice to each other. See you tomorrow.
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Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Dismaying Story #70: Fitting in with the Crowd

Dear Andrew,

Recently I was with a group of new friends I met a few weeks ago in college. These girls have known each other since they were in diapers and my insecurity resurfaced when I "lost" them in the cafeteria. I found them eventually, and in hindsight I know they weren't purposely avoiding me, I just took the wrong exit. At the time, though, flashbacks of being avoided by friends I thought liked me came back in a flood.

Or flashbacks of coming to say hi to a group of "friends" in the morning, only to have them get all quiet all of a sudden, or, worse, to keep bashing someone who could be me, and when I ask who they're talking about, they answer "oh, someone you don't know."

I've always been uneasy in group settings. I always feel like I'm being talked about behind my back, or that I'm just tagging along and they allow me to but would rather I not be there. If I'm not invited to a party, it's like confirmation of my worst nightmares.

My reasonable side tells me to ignore these feelings because it's probably just a mild case of paranoia, but deep down inside, I have this doubt -- I could be right.

I've had several episodes in my life that reinforced this feeling, like finding an insulting note written by a supposed friend in middle school, or the time some friends from high school purposely gave me the wrong directions, knowing I would get lost in an unfamiliar part of the city.

How can I get over this and have normal relationships, and not just one-on-one? Be part of a group without constant fear of backstabbing and betrayal?

Signed, Paranoid Girl

Dear Paranoid Girl,

You have learned a fear, and there doesn't seem to be much of a mystery where it came from. You had your feelings hurt on more than one occasion and this helped you develop an insecurity about your role in social groups.

If you look back, you will realize these "episodes" occurred when you were interacting with immature people. Unfortunately, children can be cruel to each other. Adults can too, of course, but this phenomenon seems especially common when we are younger. Any sign of weakness or vulnerability on the schoolyard tends to be noticed and held up for immediate ridicule. Young folks are still very "me" oriented. There is some degree of empathy for the feelings of others, but nowhere near as much as when we mature into adulthood.

School-age children also seem to be incredibly perceptive at picking out vulnerabilities. Some kids are perceived as easy prey and get teased over and over again. You admit that you have always been uneasy in group settings. Imagine someone like that approaching a group of girls in the hallway in middle school. Would you approach with confidence? No, you would emanate insecurity. You might as well have a neon sign on your forehead flashing, "I'm uncomfortable." That is all the prompting some young people need to be catty or play practical jokes.

This is where your feelings of "I could be right" come from. You struggled with fitting in when you were younger and now you are having a hard time shaking the feeling.

The good news is that you have reached an age where your friends are more mature. Being nasty for the sheer joy of tormenting someone becomes rare in college. (And yes, I'm sure some of you could tell a story or two, but they would be the exception rather than the rule.) Your fear has now become unfounded; you are afraid of something that is extremely unlikely to happen.

Fear can be a useful emotion when it protects us from a real and present danger. If you are inside an electrical generating station, fear of electrical shock is probably a good thing, something that will prevent you from foolishly touching things. An unfounded fear, on the other hand, can be debilitating, such as a fear of lightning that keeps you from going outside even on sunny days. The probability of a lightning strike in that situation is so remote that the fear is unreasonable and counter-productive.

In your case, you are preventing yourself from enjoying normal social interactions. You are afraid your friends might be nasty and immature, but that has now become unlikely. You need to drag your inhibitions out and take a good look at them in the strong sunlight. Is your fear helping or hindering you? Does it serve any useful purpose in your life? I don't think so. It's time to start letting go. As you have more and more positive experiences with your friends, you should eventually find that this fear has gone away for good.

More than that, let's imagine your worst fear coming true. Suppose a group of supposed friends are nasty to you. How should you respond?

See ya! Hasta la vista, baby. New friends, here I come! Nasty, immature people simply aren't worth worrying about. Most adults are not like that anyway, so why spend energy on the few who are.

My point is that you would survive such an occurrence just fine. People like that can only impact your life if you let them. So why worry about it?

You need to stop giving those schoolyard bullies from long ago all that power over you. Stand up and say, "I'm not going to cower in front of the memory of you anymore! I am now a young adult. I am going to hold my head high, knowing the vast majority of people I meet will appreciate that. And to heck with anyone who doesn't."

That'll show 'em!

All the best,

A few people have already answered this week's Ask the Faithful Readers question about the challenges of being a step-parent. If you have some experience or observations related to this topic, why not join in the discussion?
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Monday, October 16, 2006

Dismaying Story #69: "I Shouldn’t Have to Ask"

Last week I published a post entitled How Not to Ask Your Husband for Help. Several readers left comments and I would like to respond to some of them today.

Cairogal wrote: Here's the rub, for me, anyway. I feel that when I have to ask my husband to share the responsibilities, that somehow that makes it a favor. I don't like to have to say, "Babe, would you mind taking out the rubbish?" because really, that sounds like I'm asking him to help me, rather than assume a shared responsibility.

This was followed by an anonymous comment: Cairogal's comment struck a chord. I have felt like that too. What softened it for a while was saying thank you to whatever help was given, but soon that took on the same feeling too, like it was still my responsibility but thank you for helping. Now I just don't say anything (which still doesn't feel good) but just quietly consider it a nice bonus when something gets done.

I have seen this type of dynamic before. "Why should I have to ask him?" many women will say. "He should just know the work needs to be done and pitch in on his own. If I have to ask, it ruins it."

There is no such thing as a "one size fits all" solution, so if Cairogal's approach works for her, then more power to her. I wonder if it truly does, though. She wants her husband to assume a shared responsibility, but it sounds like that has not happened. If it had, then asking versus not asking would no longer be an issue. Clearly the anonymous commenter is not getting the level of support from her husband that she would like.

The issue here is that we all tend to interpret the world in terms of ourselves, and women and men have different approaches when it comes to cooperating and helping out. Women are more likely to sense need in others and give without being asked. To them, this is a normal expression of supportiveness.

Men, on the other hand, like to view themselves as competent. An unsolicited offer of help is sometimes welcome, but also may be taken as an insult. Don't believe me? Wait until the next time your husband is struggling with some task. It could be anything -- assembling a toy, finding someplace while driving, whatever. Put on a sweet smile and ask him, "Would you like some help?" More often than not you'll get back a grumpy, "I can do it."

Okay, now put these two people together in the same household. Unfortunately society has taught many of us that housework has traditionally been the wife's responsibility. This is often no longer practical given that dual-income households are now the norm, nonetheless this historical bias remains. So the helpful wife starts off doing more than her share. She waits for her new husband to do like she would do -- to recognize her need for a full partner and to pitch in on his own accord.

He, on the other hand, interprets her actions on the basis of what he would do, which is to handle a task until he can no longer do so and only then ask for help. Since she has not yet asked for help, he assumes she neither needs nor wants it. He believes all is well, while her frustration is building. Eventually she explodes into the "criticize, blame and demand" mode I discussed last week, which puts him on the defensive and lessens his desire to help. She now concludes that nothing works. After all, she tried waiting him out and then asking him, and neither had the desired effect. So she gives up and "considers it a nice bonus with something gets done."

Men are more likely to ask for what they want, while women are more likely to offer help to others without being asked. Men assume women will ask and women assume men will offer. The result is an impasse. You can’t fight Mother Nature – just ask him! The keys to doing this successfully are how you ask and how you react to his various potential responses. Some people seem to intuitively know how to do this effectively (and perceive their spouses as helpful), while others struggle with these skills and achieve less satisfactory results. I'll post more on this later.

Finally, Walker wrote: I have noticed that gender doesn’t matter anymore especially with more women in the work force.

True, my articles about equitable sharing of housework do have a gender bias, but there is a good reason for this. I have met couples where the husband does most of the work. Statistical studies continue to show, though, that women still bear the brunt of the domestic workload in our society and that this is a source of marital strife in many homes. The guys will have to excuse me while I address these articles to the majority.
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Sunday, October 15, 2006

Dismaying Story #68: When Meds Are Not Enough

Dear Andrew,

I got married twenty-four years ago when I was sixteen. I married someone so totally opposite to me so that I could be provided with stability and taken away from an incredibly dysfunctional home. I have gone through much in my life and that is an understatement. I have been abused in every way from my father, mother, brother, and older sister.

I married an abusive man, who eventually changed his ways when he found God. He has not hit me in years. He has become more gentle but can still be passively controlling. He has changed dramatically but I am still so afraid of him and I have no reason to be. I find myself living for his approval in EVERYTHING! I want to shake this off but don't know how. I am tired of living in fear all the time and walking on egg shells. I have become severely depressed and I am on antidepressants. I have been hospitalized once for a suicide attempt but I am far better now. I am on meds but I am still always afraid. What can I do?

Signed, Walking on Eggshells

Dear Walking,

I am glad you wrote to me because it gives me a chance to talk about an issue that affects many people, namely the use of medication to modify behavior. Drugs can be incredibly beneficial in certain circumstances; they can even save lives when the threat of suicide enters the picture, but they also have limitations.

You have been traumatized by the abuse in your life and you describe many of the classic symptoms that follow from such trauma. Your self-esteem is close to non-existent and your ability to cope with normal day-to-day stresses has been severely compromised. You fear negative consequences constantly (such as the disapproval of others) even in the absence of any immediate external reason to expect such consequences.

This type of fear reaction has two components, physical and behavioral. These two sides feed off each other and make the reaction difficult to modify. We all have physical reactions when faced with traumatic events. You know the symptoms -- your mouth goes dry, you feel a surge of adrenaline course through your body, you get that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach, you tremble, your hair stands up, and so on. This is your body going into an alert status to prepare you to either fight or flee.

An abusive event also teaches you that such trauma is possible and you should watch out for it in the future. Repeated abuse can cause people to go further and come to several unfortunate conclusions. Chronic victims often believe the pain is inevitable and unavoidable, that the abuse is somehow their fault, that they deserve it or invite it because they are unworthy, and so on.

You were abused by your husband, so his very presence can serve as a stimulus to remind you of the trauma. This invokes a behavioral reaction (for example, walking on eggshells, fear, seeking approval, etc.) and a physiological reaction. When you feel the fear, do you get a little spurt of adrenaline or a dry mouth? I bet you do.

So you went to your physician, who is trained to respond to medical emergencies. The primary methods of intervention are pharmaceutical and surgical. (And yes, I know many physicians go beyond this, but many also tend not to.) At the time you were in the midst of a medical emergency, namely acute depression with suicidal tendencies, so you received a predictable response -- you were hospitalized and prescribed anti-depressants. This was almost certainly the appropriate treatment to get you through the immediate crisis, the period of greatest risk. As you can attest, however, this is not sufficient to address your ongoing issues.

The pharmaceutical solution offers attractive benefits for both the physician and the patient. Our North American medical system places great time demands on doctors. They are typically challenged to care for a flood of patients in a finite amount of time. Writing a prescription is time efficient and is one of the main things physicians are trained to do. Physicians simply do not have time to sit and talk for hours with each of their patients. The medical system is not set up to handle that, and doctors are not rewarded financially for doing so.

Patients also tend to be comforted by the medical model. The underlying message is, "This is not your fault. This is a medical condition to be treated with pills. You don't have to do any hard work or accept any responsibility. Simply take this pill and all will be well." Happily, I can tell from your letter that you don't subscribe to this view. You are asking, "What else can I do?" You are ready to take ownership of the solution and move forward, which is a healthy sign.

The fundamental problem is that pills can only change the physiological aspects of your reactions. They do little or nothing to address the behavioral side. You have never come to terms with the severe damage to your self-image. I would bet good money you have not forgiven yourself for "allowing" the abuse to happen. In your mind, it is still partly your fault. You still expect bad things to happen in your life, even though you say they have essentially stopped. You have been conditioned to expect them, so you now need to reverse that process, to condition yourself to expect them not to occur. This type of behavior modification is difficult to achieve by yourself. I recommend you see a psychologist, whose job it is to spend the time with you that a physician simply cannot. Psychologists are also trained differently and can offer the type of help you need to address your behavioral challenges.

Medication can sometimes be beneficial while you are taking part in behavior modification therapy. In certain cases, pills can help quell the undesirable physical reactions and make it easier for you to isolate and address the behavioral reactions. It wouldn't surprise me, though, if you find you no longer need the anti-depressants once you learn to let go of the fear. For your sake, I hope that is where you are headed.

Finally, you mentioned that your husband can still be passively controlling. Since you "walk on eggshells," I can only assume you have trouble sticking up for yourself in your marriage. Hopefully once you come to terms with your own individual challenges, you will be in a better position to begin working out more equitable ways of interacting with your husband.

All the best,
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Saturday, October 14, 2006

Ask the Faithful Readers #10: Step-Parenting Advice

Dear Faithful Reader,

One of the questions posed in my recent interview with Basil was: What pitfalls should couples with children from previous relationships be wary of?

And here was my response:

That sounds like a good candidate for an "Ask the Faithful Readers" question. The folks who have been there, done that would certainly be able to provide plenty of valuable advice based on experience. Here are a couple of ideas that come to mind:

1) Beware of trying to become an "instant parent" to your partner's children. It takes time to gain their trust and respect.

2) A step-parent will not always achieve exactly the same role in a child's life as the natural parent. For example, some children are older when their parent re-marries. It often works best if kids in this situation are disciplined by the natural parent. On the other hand, plenty of folks consider their step-parents simply as "Mom" or "Dad." It depends on the circumstances.

Are you or your spouse a step-parent? Do you have a friend or family member who has lived through the challenges (and the joys)? What advice would you offer to someone who is about to become a step-parent?

I will post my personal favorite comment next Saturday with a link to the respondent's blog.

Signed, The Inquiring Advice Guy
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The Cyberlove Lifestyle

Last week I asked about recent technology that allows a degree of sexual interaction between couples who are separated by many miles. I wanted to know if you thought this would become mainstream or always be considered too "out there" for most people.

A few people found the idea somewhat intriguing and suggested it might catch on with the "anything goes" crowd. The majority of you, however, reacted somewhat negatively to the idea. Some found it simply unappealing and felt it should be relegated to the same status as pornography. Others commented that it fails to provide the intimacy necessary to be considered a satisfying way to interact with your partner. A few of you quoted Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell (and several other artists with great covers) who once sang: Ain't nothing like the real thing, baby!

My favorite comment was by Shan, who may have coined a new term: the cyberlove lifestyle.
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Friday, October 13, 2006

Dismaying Story #67: A Confusing Attraction

I have invited Tom Matthews, a colleague of mine from the San Diego area, to serve as a guest columnist and help answer today's question. Tom is a personal coach who helps a diverse range of clients deal with personal issues such as bolstering self confidence, recognizing and eliminating negative self talk, public speaking, and interpersonal communication. He is also the author of NAKED, ALONE, IN THE DARK, a forthcoming book about the power of the discovery of humble self confidence. I provided Tom with an anonymous copy of the following question:

Dear Andrew,

I am happily married to the man of my dreams. We are still in love after many years and are truly partners in every way. I can't imagine being married to a better man.

The problem is that recently I have been having very strong romantic feelings for someone else -- someone who happens to be a woman. I am certain that she doesn't suspect my feelings for her. We are only casual acquaintances. She is not gay. But then again, I never would have classified myself as gay, either. I've never had romantic feelings for any other female.

What surprises me is that my love for my husband is diminished not at all by the love I feel for this woman. I am as happy with him as I have ever been but I still sometimes find myself pining for this lovely woman who has no clue how much I adore her.

Is this sort of attraction normal after many years of marriage? Am I just going through some sort of mid-life crisis? Or am I destined to always love this woman from afar knowing I would never do anything to hurt my husband?

signed, Surprised and Confused

First let's see what advice Tom has to offer and then I will provide my response.

Dear Surprised,

Sometimes we are confronted with a person that, for reasons we cannot explain, induces a feeling of attraction or love in us that seems inappropriate. I often find the impact of such a person is based on a memory or an event in our lives. For instance, I had a client whose wife developed exactly the sort of attraction for another woman that you describe. Turns out the other woman reminded her of a teacher who had nurtured her when she had no one else to do so. Even the woman's name was the same as the teacher. Thankfully she saw a therapist before she spoke with the "other woman." The therapist helped her discover the object of her desire was just an ordinary person, and not an angel or some sort of salvation.

Unless there have been other events or circumstances to suggest you have homosexual or bisexual tendencies, this type of attraction almost certainly indicates a desire for nostalgic comfort. The woman to whom you are attracted is probably the personification of someone (or sometime) that tugs a heart string of simpler and easier times, thus the attraction after several years of happy marriage. Call it an emotional mid-life crisis, a need to be comforted and a desire for a simpler time.

The bottom line? You have, by your own admission, what most people pray for: a happy marriage. Whatever you do, do not jeopardize that for the indescribable, fleeting emotional need to have something else. Look deep into your heart and see what is genuinely working in your intentions and motivations concerning this woman. Whatever superficial comfort or thrill you may get in pursuit of these feelings comes with an enormous price tag, even if you never told your husband of your intentions or what transpired. Regret and unspoken truth (the worst kind of lie) is a bitter pill to swallow once an impulse is acted upon.

Are you bi-sexual? I doubt it. Does this woman evoke something in you? Absolutely. Should you ignore it and be grateful for what you have? Yes!!! Stop being confused and start being grateful.

Good luck!

Dear Surprised,

To me, the issue of commitment to a marriage is the same regardless of the gender of the "other person." Just to gain some perspective, what if you found yourself attracted to another man? You still love your husband, but for some reason you feel a rush of excitement and warmth whenever you meet or think about this other guy. Should you do anything about it?

Here's the thing. Everyone meets attractive people. How could we not? The world is full of them, and every once in a while we meet someone who strikes a special chord. There is a wow factor, something about them that makes us sit up and take special notice. When you are married, though, you have a responsibility to file those feelings where they belong. Go ahead and enjoy that tiny tingle of pleasure that comes from seeing someone attractive, then file it under "Life's Harmless Diversions" and get on with your day.

Would you find it easier to recognize this attraction as a diversion if the other person were male? Possibly. In any case, the issue of fidelity is the same and so should be your response.

You are left wondering, though, how you could be attracted to another woman. Tom is right; this woman -- no, strike that, your perception of this woman -- fills some need for you. She invokes a feeling for which you have a strong need. It could be that when you think of her you feel safe or needed or mothered or not alone in the world. Like Tom suggested, this may be because she reminds you of someone else or another time in your life. The important realization for you, though, is that it is this feeling for which you are actually yearning; she is only the stimulus.

What if you started spending more time with this woman and tried to develop a relationship with her. First, I suspect you would discover that you have never been attracted to women in general because you are not bisexual, so the relationship would flounder on those grounds. More than that, you would find that these special feelings she invokes in you would subside. Real, day-to-day life would intrude. You would discover the grass is no greener on her side of the fence, that she is just another person with both nice and not-so-nice attributes. At that point you would realize you had made a tremendous mistake.

Yes, you are going through some sort of crisis, and no, you are not destined to love her forever. Try to identify the need she seems to fill for you. If you can't come up with this on your own, you might consider seeing a therapist for some confidential counseling. You need to find another way to fulfill that need, which might mean coming to terms with some unresolved insecurity or re-connecting with your mother on a deeper emotional level. If you can accomplish this, then both your crisis and your misplaced attraction will be over.

All the best,

Do you have a relationship issue in your life? Tell me about your situation and it may be featured as a Dismaying Story. Comments can be anonymous and the identity of email respondents always remains confidential.
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Wednesday, October 11, 2006

How Not to Ask Your Husband for Help

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. Previous titles in this series are listed in the sidebar under Supportiveness.

Today's entry is the first of the "how" topics, or more accurately it is a "how not to" topic. This article looks at some of the natural tendencies people have when they try to ask for help from their spouse. In particular, you should understand why these approaches often backfire.

Approaches that Don’t Work

Criticizing, blaming and demanding:
Let’s face it, people commonly put off asking for help until they are completely fed up. Suppose you’ve had a long day, you’re exhausted and you’ve just finished feeding, bathing and putting your two young children to bed ... alone. You emerge from your daughter’s bedroom to find toys everywhere, a dirty kitchen and a husband who, as usual, is making no move to deal with any of it. Something snaps inside and you feel a surge of outrage. Suddenly you couldn’t care less whether he likes it or not—he’s going to start pulling his weight, dammit!

So you launch in. “I’m sick and tired of you just sitting there while I do all the work around here. You never do anything and that’s going to change starting right now. Get up off that couch and help me with this kitchen!”

Ouch. Yes, you are undoubtedly justified in feeling frustrated and your reaction is understandable. Unfortunately, your husband is now about to do several things that are the exact opposite of what you want.

First, you have just told him that his performance is inadequate. He is failing you. This is a huge insult to a man, who tends to measure his self-worth based on how competent people perceive him to be. A natural reaction to criticism is to start arguing why you are wrong in your assessment of him. “Hey,” he says, “it’s not like you do all the work. I do my share.” Now you’re into an unproductive argument about who does what and how often, all the while reinforcing how poorly you feel about each other.

Second, you have just implied that his laziness is to blame for the situation. As some of the other stories in this series show, the true causes for a workload imbalance are often more complicated than that. He will almost certainly feel it is unfair of you to blame him and will resist even more.

Finally, you didn’t ask for help; you demanded it. Again, this is a natural thing to do. You want to leave no doubt in his mind about how badly you need his support. Unfortunately, he just heard you say: “You have no say in what goes on around here. I can boss you around whenever I want and you darn well better do it.” Trust me, few messages are less welcome to the average husband. Men truly hate feeling powerless in any relationship, which is why your husband will often push back if you tell him what to do. He might cave in to your demands for a while to smooth things over but I guarantee some part of him will begrudge doing so. If he feels he has lost a contest of will, he will want to reassert his place in the household pecking order. He will wait for you to calm down so he can eventually stop helping out. This is hardly the outcome you want.

Business-style negotiation: At the other end of the emotional spectrum is the “sit down calmly and discuss the situation” approach. The idea is to propose to your husband a new deal for his consideration, discuss the relative merits of his inevitable counterproposals and eventually settle on some agreement that both of you can live with.

Sounds reasonable, right? Unfortunately this approach is littered with land mines. First, the prospect of such a conversation can be stressful for you. By the time you screw up the courage to broach the subject, you may be considerably less calm than you had originally hoped. In such a state, it’s easy to present your proposal in a manner that sounds remarkably like the “criticize, blame and demand” approach discussed above.

But let’s assume you get over that hurdle and manage to state your request in what you believe to be an objective, nonthreatening way. There is still a good chance he will hear this as a criticism. After all, you are asking him to change; his current performance must not be good enough. Moreover, you are talking about him doing more work in the future. Regardless of how detailed your discussion is, he will wonder just how much “more” will really turn out to be. What if he comes out on the short end of this negotiation? What impacts will this have on his lifestyle? The prospect of change is stressful and his fear of the unknown will come into play. He may build up a contrary position in his mind and arrive back at the bargaining table emotionally prepared to do battle and defend it. Now you have additional barriers to overcome.

Okay, suppose you work through all that and reach an agreement. You’ve succeeded, right? Well, maybe, but not necessarily.

Business agreements tend to be binding on both parties because they are backed up by some formal mechanism like business laws or terms of employment—you might be fired if you don’t perform. Short of divorce, there are no such formal consequences for deviating from an agreement between spouses. You can get angry and insist he should live up to his word, but those are the same inducements that proved to be ineffective in your earlier efforts.

More than that, you and your spouse will immediately begin renegotiating the new agreement. Maybe he puts off doing some task he agreed to take on. Do you say something? If so, you risk nagging and criticizing him, which might tempt him to reconsider how anxious he is to be supportive. Say nothing and you teach him that the agreement has changed; it is now okay for him to avoid that chore. In short, just because the two of you state your intentions doesn’t mean things will work out that way.

Am I saying you should avoid talking to your spouse to work through issues? Of course not. Communication is essential in any relationship; couples discuss issues and agree on solutions all the time. Suppose you and your husband are going out to dinner. You discuss which restaurant to choose, who you should call to baby-sit, and so on. The difference in this case is that you are dealing with a major lifestyle issue charged with emotional considerations, such as your husband’s supportiveness and competence at everyday tasks. Obviously some couples talk their way successfully through this minefield and, as we will see later in this series, discussion and explicit negotiation sometimes turn out to be unavoidable. There are alternatives, however, that sidestep many of the pitfalls ... but that is a topic for future articles.
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