Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Responding to Comments

A few readers have responded to recent articles with comments that include excellent questions. I thought I would address some of them today.

In How to State a Request for Help, I talk about a few of the pitfalls to be avoided when asking a spouse to help out with the housework. Here are a few of the comments:

Shari said...
I prefer not to even have to ask and to have an understanding about responsibilities in the household in which he understands what he needs to do and I understand what I need to do. This removes the whole notion that the housework is for women.

Cathouse Teri said...
I was reading over the scenario again, and then reading some of the comments. All good comments, btw. But, Doc, exactly what sort of circumstance would require me to have to ask him to sweep the floor anyway?

Kacey said...
Uh --- I thought that women were liberated from the drudgery of housework when they were permitted to go out and earn half the living. When are men going to take over half the home chores so the women can stop feeling inferior? And, why is the dirty floor hers in the first place?

The common theme of these comments is, "She shouldn't have to ask her husband for help." You are all absolutely right! Men should just intuitively understand that domestic work belongs equally to household members. Women should be able to count on support from their husbands. In my view (and obviously in yours as well) we should all treat these as fundamental underpinnings of reasonable relationships.

The problem is that the exact opposite happens in many, many households.

I have found that this issue polarizes people. Those who haven't lived through this issue or who moved past it easily in their own relationships sometimes find it hard to understand the difficulties others encounter. Shari offers an excellent approach ... if, that is, you and your husband buy into the idea of mutual supportiveness in a concrete way, have a considerable tolerance for clutter, and tend to work out differences rather easily. Not all couples are that fortunate.

The dirty floor should not be hers in the first place. To many people that is self-evident. What good does that viewpoint do, though, to the woman who has lived twenty years in a household where for whatever reasons all the dirty floors, dirty diapers, unhappy children, and uncooked meals have been hers? She has complained about this, pouted, and demanded help over and over again (perhaps even screaming "Why should the dirty floor be mine?"), and yet the situation always returns to the status quo. My experience has been that wives in this situation are either desperate for any information that might offer them relief, or have given up in despair years ago, believing this is just "how it is for everybody" and that nothing will ever change, at least not in her house. These are the women for whom the series entitled "The Hunt for the Vacuum Cleaner Gene" is intended. My goal is to uncover the many reasons why such situations develop in the first place, and to offer a strategy for climbing up out of the darkness. Many of you may find you don't need this type of advice (and thank goodness for that!) but trust me, there are many others who do.


Yesterday I posted Dismaying Story #87: Sisters Who Need Each Other, in which Sister #1 says she was abused by her father and Sister #2 (who wrote to me) finds this difficult to believe. I advised Sister #2 to open up her mind, her heart and her arms and talk openly about the issues. She wrote this anonymous comment:

Andrew, thanks for posting this. I have come to the same conclusion regarding my sister and dad. However, what do I do? How do I choose between the two? Do I have to promote the conversation between them? I don't want to be in the middle. I can't give up my sister and I can't abandon my dad who is virtually alone now as well as in poor health.

Dear Sister #2,

You are taking too much of this situation onto your own shoulders. It is not your job to promote reconciliation between your sister and your father. You can control only what you do, not what they choose to do. Sometimes you can influence others, but even that shouldn't be your goal in this case. You sister has suffered a trauma. Her path to healing may or may not include contact with your father. She needs to do what is right for her, and you shouldn't try to influence that for the sake of trying to make everyone get along.

You seem to be assuming that the only two options are (1) everybody gets along with everybody, or (2) you must choose between your sister and your father. There are other possible outcomes. Your sister has reached out to re-connect with you. She has asked to talk. One possible topic of conversation is your father, but aren't there other topics about which the two of you should catch up? What would you talk to her about if this issue with your father didn't exist? I suggest you do so. Talk about what has been going on in your life. Tell her you love her and have missed talking with her. Tell her you would like the two of you to be closer regardless of any issues with your father.

She may put pressure on you to abandon your father. That doesn't mean you have to do so, nor does it mean she will reject you if you choose to keep seeing both her and your father. There are such things as forgiveness and tolerance in this world, and your sister may surprise you in terms of how much she can extend in your direction.

Some people who have suffered abuse (not all, but some) eventually reach a stage in their healing process where it is therapeutic to forgive their abuser. Your sister might reach that stage at some point, at which time it may be easier for her to see you maintain a relationship with your father.

You may even feel differently about some of these issues after talking with her.

So my advice remains the same -- give her a hug and talk to her. You may be surprised where you end up.

All the best,
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Monday, November 27, 2006

Dismaying Story #87: Sisters Who Need Each Other

Dear Andrew,

I recently sent a letter to my siblings and received a troubling response from my sister. I don't know how to respond to her. Here is the letter I sent:


What I am going to share with you is in no way intended to be a negative reflection on anyone. I do not intend to hurt your feelings or upset you. If I do, please forgive me and talk to me about it.

I was married to a violent alcoholic. For a number of years we dealt with it by avoidance. The girls and I would go to our rooms at the end of the day before he came in the house to stay out of the way. There were times that we simply had to leave. If you think about it you may remember a time that we showed up at your place unannounced without a real reason.

That worked for a while. Then he would seek out whichever one of us was his target. Remember in 1996 when I tripped over a cat and fell down the steps breaking my tailbone and dislocating a hip? That was a lie; I was protecting one of my girls and got knocked down the stairs. Remember in 1989 when I walked into a cupboard door and got three stitches just below my right eye? Another lie. There were a lot of little lies that I told and in my mind I was saving face and protecting you.

We joined the Jehovah’s Witnesses because that was the only religion that he would allow and I desperately needed God in my life. Their meetings also gave us a safe place to go three nights a week.

I was never allowed to vote my own mind, not allowed to listen to music of my choice, or watch movies of my choice. They might have "given me ideas." I wasn’t allowed to have phone calls when he was home; not allowed to have friends or family over if he was home. While he had all these great things he never shared with the girls and me. He paid the mortgage; I paid for everything else related to the house and the girls. We rarely had money for extras while he had all kinds of toys-after all, he worked hard to earn it, and we didn’t.

When he moved out, he lived with the woman he was having an affair with at the time. When the affair ended, I forgave him and we moved on.

When we moved to a new city I thought "Oh a fresh start, everything will finally be okay." I discovered after we got here that the move was based on lies. His new assignment was to the country where another woman was. He is still seeing her to this day. He was spending three weeks there and one week with us. All this after the promises of moving to a new city so he would travel less and we could be a family again. The only saving grace was that the travel meant we were subjected to less violence.

That was the final straw. I was alone in a big city without family or friends. As you know, I can truly forgive anyone for most anything. However, I could not forgive my husband anymore. Between the adultery, the violence, and living in constant fear I had to do something. So, I got a job and filed for divorce.

It hasn’t been easy. The girls have suffered tremendously. It hurts me when someone says "he always was good to me" or "he never did anything to me" or "that’s all between you two." Those may all be true statements but I am your family and your loyalty should be to me not to the person who terrorized the girls and me. It really hurts.

Please forgive my selfishness in getting this off my chest. I do not want sympathy, just understanding. Perhaps forgiveness is also necessary since I have kept so much from you and perpetuated the lies for so long. Maybe I even need your forgiveness for telling you this when you did not want to hear it.


After sending that letter, I received the following response from my sister:


Many years ago you misunderstood something I said and have thought me a liar ever since. The only memory I have of my father is one and a half years of molestation that ended with him forcing me to have sex with him. I know you don't believe me and it kills me to watch you have a relationship with him. I'm not lying. I have several psychiatrists that will tell you I'm telling the truth. How can you and I get past this? Don't get mad at me, please. Let's finally talk about it.


Andrew, how do I respond to her? I can't give up a relationship with dad when I really don't believe her. What do I do? How can we talk about it when I know she wants me to discontinue a relationship with him and I'm not willing to do that?

Signed, Disbeliever

Dear Disbeliever,

First of all, I am sorry to hear of all the pain you and your children have endured at the hands of your ex-husband. I'm sure it took a great deal of courage to finally break away.

I can assure you that your girls need a great deal of help, and will for some time to come. They need to learn that the dynamic they witnessed between you and your husband is not normal and is unacceptable. Their father has done a thorough job of showing them how unimportant they are. Talk with them about this. Explain why you put up with it and why there is no need for them to do the same. Do your best to convince them they are truly special and worthy of love, so they are not tempted to settle for whatever guy will show them some attention. If they don't learn that lesson, they are at great risk for accepting abusive and controlling men into their own lives.

As for your sister, you should give serious consideration to what she says, and talk with her about your father. Let me explain why.

First let's assume you are correct, that she has fabricated this story about your father. Why would she do that? Perhaps it is a plea for attention, or she may have some other unrelated grudge against him and this is her way of getting back at him. If so, then you must realize she is paying a hefty price for her subterfuge. She loses out on having a relationship with her father and must deal with a good deal of embarrassment and negative feedback from others, including you. This is a huge disincentive to tell such an untruth.

While children do occasionally tell such lies about their parents, the vast majority of people who reveal their long-held "dirty secret" are doing so because they can't hold the crippling emotional pain inside any longer. They are tired of living like a victim and need closure so they can begin the healing process.

Have you talked with your father about this? I suspect not -- your letter makes it clear that you tend to avoid initiating confrontation at all cost. You spent your entire adult life sweeping your own secrets under the carpet. Assuming you did talk to him, though, what would he say? If the allegations were false, he would deny them. If your sister is telling the truth, he would still deny what she has to say. He would express outrage and sadness that she would feel compelled to tell "such lies." In other words, his response would likely be the same regardless of the truth.

Can we point to some reasons why you would find it difficult to accept what she says? First, you have been through an incredible amount of conflict and trauma during the years of your marriage and in the difficult period following the divorce. I'm sure you feel you have endured just about all you can take for this lifetime and several more to come. You have a very real need to have supportive people around who can prop you up, make you feel accepted and loved. Your father likely fills such a role for you right now, and it would be devastating for you to have to give that up.

Secondly, you have shown almost (not quite, but almost) an infinite capacity to forgive and explain away bad behavior on your ex-husband's part. How likely is it that you would have the same tendency when faced with evidence of bad behavior by your father? I suspect the likelihood is high.

Clearly I have no way of knowing the truth of this situation. Based on the factors I mentioned, though, I believe the chances are very high that your sister is telling the truth.

Let's put the shoe on the other foot for a moment. In your letter you say how much it hurts when your family expresses any kind of support for your ex-husband, and that was before you told them your story. What if, after you informed them about the abuse, they now chose to invite him into their homes and have a direct, loving relationship with him? How hard would that be on you? Well, that is what is happening with you, your sister and your father. She has told you about the abuse she suffered, and in spite of that must watch you have a direct, loving relationship with him. If you let yourself assume for a moment that she is telling the truth, can you imagine how painful that is for her? Yet despite that pain she is reaching out to you in a loving manner.

Even if you can't get past the idea that she is lying, what level of pain would prompt her to maintain that kind of story for this many years? She would have to be hurting tremendously to do that, and she would really need some help from her sister.

Either way, I urge you to open your mind, your heart, and your arms and go talk with your sister. Each of you needs support from the other, big time.

All the best,

Is there a relationship issue you have been afraid to talk about? Send me an email and I'll do my best to help. The identity of email respondents always remains confidential.
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Sunday, November 26, 2006

Dismaying Story #86: The Designated Driver

Dear Andrew,

I am the oldest child in a large family that has seen a lot of instability and destruction in the past decade. My mother suffers from debilitating alcoholism and my father from equally destructive addictions. However, I have a healthy lifestyle, happy marriage, a college degree and a successful career — and I wish the same for my younger siblings.

One of my little sisters in particular has impressed me. She beat several odds (including placing a baby for adoption at the age of sixteen) to go from high school to college as seamlessly as possible. However, I recently learned that my sister is dating a total jerk, eight years her senior, with whom she is sexually active (despite her reform to premarital abstinence). She's flunking out of her first semester of college courses, and worst of all, drinking. She gave up her baby to avoid our mother's outcome, but she seems to be heading that way anyway. Perhaps that sounds extreme, but I believe that in our family, the difference between stability and alcoholism is little more than that first drink.

I've made a bad habit of wanting to "save" my mom and my siblings in the past, acting like a parental figure — taking them under my wing, moving in with them to help out at home, even having my sister come live with me this past summer to prepare her for college. When I see my sister compromising her values (again!) for some guy she says she doesn't even like, throwing away her hard-earned chances at an education, and experimenting with a substance she's genetically predisposed to become addicted to, my first instinct is to take over her decisions for her. I want to become the Designated Driver for her life.

I can't decide where to draw the line between helping her and watching her learn the hard way. I feel that "doing it for her" robs her of the refining fire experiences and the valuable learning curve that molded me into the person I am. I know my sister will listen to me if I talk to her. With this sort of influence, however, it's important to me that I have the right approach.

I suspect that her lack of motivation and self-respect may be a sign of depression. She is genetically prone to that as well, although I've never really noticed it in her before.

What should I do?

Signed, Designated Driver

Dear Designated Driver,

You are right to be concerned about your sister, and there is nothing bad about wanting to help her. Taking over the reins of her life may not be the only answer, though.

We all learn by observing the world around us, and it sounds like your sister witnessed many years of your parents displaying severely compromised life skills. In such circumstances it may not be surprising (though it is sad) when a young person starts making bad decisions of their own.

Like it or not, statistics tell us that it is common for college-age people to experiment with drinking and sex. For some this amounts to a natural transition into adulthood, while for others this type of behavior can lead to drastic consequences. Three signs of trouble concern me In your sister's case. The first is the pregnancy, which can happen to anyone when sex begins, but is nonetheless a sign that she was not able to successfully navigate through that particular patch of potential trouble. Then there is the older boyfriend. While age gap relationships can be made to work, they are uncommon and fraught with issues, so this also serves as a red flag. One of the issues, as you mentioned, is that sex for an older guy may be normal, whereas it may be more emotional baggage than your sister can handle right now.

The third issue for me is the fact that she is failing her college courses. As a university professor I have worked with thousands of college freshmen. In all those cases I have yet to see a student fail because of lack of ability. If they have the high school marks to be admitted, then they have the brain power to succeed. The issues are always around lifestyle and work habits. If your sister were applying herself to her studies, then she would be passing, it's as simple as that. She has lost sight of what is important right now (her studies) and has instead fallen into a destructive pattern of focusing on other things, which likely means partying with her boyfriend and other friends.

I have friends who are alcoholics, so I acknowledge there are many people for whom one drink is too many. That may indeed be the case with your sister, I don't know. What I do know is that I hear "drinking" and "failing courses" together. She has proven she can't handle both at the same time.

So what can you do about all this?

Should you treat her like an independent adult? Let her sink or swim on her own? Allow life to teach her some harsh lessons? I don't think so. First-year college students like to think of themselves as all grown up, but after working with them for over twenty years I can tell you they are usually not done maturing. She is too young for you to abandon her to the wolves.

Should you try to yank her out of college and protect her by sheltering her in your home for a while? That seems to be an over-reaction. She has to continue to strive, to live her life.

Happily, those are only the two extreme approaches. What about the other 99 percent of the options open to you? Since you say she will listen to you, I would sit her down and have a heart-to-heart chat with her. Start by convincing her that you are correct to be concerned. See if you can get her to agree that not all is well in her universe. Bring up the issues you mentioned in your letter, and try to be supportive rather than accusatory when you do so. Rather than acting exasperated and demanding to know "Why are you going back on your intentions?", ask her gently what she hoped to accomplish at college. Persist at this, even if she claims not to have any goals. Ask what any college student should be trying to achieve, such as building a foundation for her future. Then ask her whether she believes she is doing so.

You must stay with this step until you get her to buy into the idea that she has problems. You may or may not get agreement on all the issues (coursework, older boyfriend, sex, and drinking) so you will have to use some judgment as to when you think you have made enough progress to move on. You can talk again another time; it doesn’t all have to get done in one sitting.

Once she acknowledges there are issues, then you can move on to discuss potential solutions. Teenagers usually hate being told what to do, so I suggest you use the approach of asking for her ideas first. The answers may seem obvious to you (e.g. break up with the boyfriend) but are likely to be far less so to her. After all, she has made her current decisions for reasons that make sense to her. If the boyfriend is less than an ideal match, it is highly likely she believes she can't do any better. "No one else would want a loser like me, someone who has already had a baby and has parents like mine and can't even pass a few college courses." I would bet money that she has thoughts like these, so the prospect of dumping him will seem stressful. The thought of being alone may seem worse than the status quo. You need to recognize the underlying factors and patiently help her to see the truth, that she is worthy and doesn't have to settle in life.

Talk to her. Be her coach. Help her work through the issues behind her poor decision-making, and then cheer her on as she starts to take halting steps in healthier directions. That way you haven't abandoned her to life's cruel lessons, nor have you stolen her opportunity to experience and grow.

If none of that has any effect, and if her life continues to spiral downward, then the time may come when a more intrusive intervention makes sense. It doesn't sound, though, like you are at that point yet.

I wish both you and your sister good luck.

All the best,
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Saturday, November 25, 2006

Negative Self Talk and a New Question of the Week (#16)

What an amazing response I received to last week's question about negative self talk. There were several great insights into how our inner voices tend to affect us, and quite a number of people opened up and admitted this is an area where they struggle.

Here is what Mark had to say:

The voice that runs 24/7 in your head is very powerful. I once read a quote that went something like this - "If you were sitting across the table having lunch with the voice in your head, how long would you put up with what that voice was saying?" For most the answer is, not very long.

That's true. The challenge is that we can physically stand up and walk away from a table, but that won't make the inner voice go away, or even diminish its influence.

Walker wrote about a life strategy he has seen people employ:

It’s easier to fail than succeed, so accepting failure beforehand reinforces what you believed from the start. If you know you are going to fail, why try?

Consider a man who dates only married women. This guy's inner voice has convinced him he is certain to fail in any relationship, so what does he do? He gets involved only in relationships that are sure to fail because of other factors. When he and one of the married women call it quits, he doesn't have to face the notion that it was because of some failing on his part. He can tell himself, "It was never going to work anyway." The tragic consequence is that he denies himself any chance of finding a happy relationship.

Many of us do the same thing in various ways. Perhaps you are convinced that others judge you because you are a woman, or a visible minority, or too fat, or too skinny, or have too many pimples, or don't have enough money, or ... pick your poison. So you enter social situations with a chip on your shoulder, expecting to be treated badly. Others are likely to sense your hostility and react negatively, at which point you say to yourself, "See? I knew they would judge me."

Once we give in to feelings of poor self-worth, they typically cause a variety of other problems. Melli wrote about just such a situation:

Self doubt was a huge issue for me when I was young - especially in my teen years. Since I didn't have anyone at home telling me I was wonderful, it really was huge! Once I moved out and was on my own though -- away from non-supportive family - and out of high school away from the "catty" girls who feast on those with no self-value -- I started realizing that I was pretty enough - and plenty of fun! But it probably took me until I was about 25/26 to finally "get" it -- to accept that I'm okay just the way I am and (and I think most important) that it was okay for some people not to like me.

However I do still occasionally walk into a room full of people I know and think "None of them want to talk to me." On very rare occasions it can still get me bad enough that I'll do the wall flower thing. When this happens, nobody thinks I'm feeling shy or uncomfortable -- they automatically think I'm being "standoffish." I'm generally outgoing and happy, so when a "moment" hits me, no one suspects I might be feeling insecure!

The next time you encounter someone who acts aloof or even aggressive, ask yourself if they might be doing so because they feel threatened. It happens more frequently than you might think.

Here is another example of someone who listens to their negative inner voice, from Shan this time:

I know I do this constantly. It makes me want to disappear, it's a lot of self-hate, because I believe I can be better, and I don't have any excuses. I'm always a big disappointment to myself and then I try to avoid interaction with others so they don't see what I see.

This is a young man who limits his social interaction because he doesn't know how else to deal with that voice. I have to wonder how much of this disappointment is because (a) something in his past has caused him to set unbelievably high expectations for himself, and (b) his poor image of himself has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. In other words, similar to the stories above, I bet he "fails" because his fear and self-loathing make him act in ways that actively prevent him from accomplishing the things he most wants in life. He wants friends and successful relationships, yet he withdraws and acts fearful.

Another reader (this one anonymous) tells virtually the same story:

This is my biggest problem, by a long shot. I'm wasting my time/money with school; it's not really going to get me anywhere. I can't believe I'm 30 and still living at home. I don't have any friends. I don't want to annoy the ones I do have by relying on them too much. I haven't had a date in over a year. I haven't had a boyfriend in--count 'em--six years. I'll never get married or have kids. I can't believe how ugly I am. I can feel myself getting fatter, frumpier, and more bitter all the time. Blah blah blah. Worst of all, when I try to do something about it, I feel like a fraud, or I get discouraged that it seems like I have to move mountains to maintain a minimally acceptable standard. How do you find the energy to stop this?

Again, here is a person who chooses, out of fear, to limit interaction with friends, then is sad because she doesn't get to interact with friends. She firmly believes she won't get married, and perhaps doesn't understand that such a belief is one of the biggest impediments to making that happen.

That darned inner voice causes trouble for so many people -- persistent, life-altering trouble. Nancy Ruth provides a final example:

Negative self talk is my bugaboo. To send out a manuscript or submit an article takes such a terrible amount of energy. I haven't found any way to overcome this.

Yes, It IS Possible to Overcome Negative Self Talk

I am privileged to work with Thomas K. Matthews, a professional coach whose expertise is in helping people eliminate negative self-talk from their lives. He has worked with hundreds of clients who have spent many years dealing with problems just like the ones described above. He is able to help people uncover the influences in their lives that have resulted in their feelings of self doubt, discover the positive effects of these influences, and discard the negative. Clients report that the results are often extraordinary.

I have had the opportunity to review his book manuscript entitled WHEN YOU'RE NAKED, ALONE, IN THE DARK, which details his approach for identifying and overcoming the factors that lead to self doubt and negative self talk. I, for one, can't wait until this book is published so I can start recommending it to people who write in with this sort of issue.

One of the key insights that underlies this approach is that we don't have a single inner voice. Instead we have a committee that develops over our lifetimes. Our pasts include several episodes and periods of time that contribute to the development of self doubt. Identifying these chronological events is a critical first step toward removing their hold over our lives.

As today's Question of the Week, then, here are a couple of questions to start you down that path:

1. At what age do you recognize that your self doubt first surfaced? What happened?

2. In elementary school, did you experience people or circumstances that perpetuated negative or doubtful self talk habits? Were you scolded or demeaned by peers or authority figures?

By answering these types of questions objectively and honestly about various periods of time in your past, you can begin to recognize and face the members of your committee. Many people find this process both challenging and liberating.

Your comments are welcome. Since this can be an intensely personal process, I will also understand if some of you choose to do your introspection in private.
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Friday, November 24, 2006

Openness Versus Hostility: A Post-Thanksgiving Rerun

Often we can draw parallels between high profile relationships and the challenges faced by couples. For example, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and U.S. President George W. Bush are two key figures in the crisis following North Korean missile tests this past summer. There has been much speculation about why Kim went ahead with tests in the face of widespread diplomatic opposition. Some sources suggest the choice of July 4th as the missile test date indicates Kim is after attention, especially to draw Bush and the U.S. into direct talks. Others argue Kim needs an enemy to engage so he can maintain a sense of purpose and bolster his image and importance within North Korea.

Regardless of the actual motives, what seems clear is that Kim's regime:
  • is isolated, with few close relationships;
  • is suspicious and mistrustful of others; and
  • uses aggressive, provocative acts to get a reaction from others.
Personal relationships can exhibit similar characteristics. Certainly many marriages are marked by a lack of closeness, with an unfortunate abundance of suspicion and mistrust. Couples who have difficulties with basic relationship management skills can end up in this type of circumstance, especially if they have issues with open and honest communication, conflict resolution and negotiating mutually beneficial solutions to everyday challenges. Unfortunately these same issues can make it difficult to reverse the downward spiral and start rebuilding trust and goodwill between spouses.

Even couples who normally get along well can find themselves in a similar situation occasionally. Have you ever lashed out verbally at your partner while in the midst of a particularly emotional argument? Do you sometimes say hurtful things to your spouse when you are angry, because you are angry, that you have to admit to yourself later aren't really true? You've been provoked by your partner in some way, so you fire a provocative verbal missile right back. And for what purpose? Because it feels good to lash out when we're angry? Possibly, but it's rarely an effective way to calm the waters and resolve conflict.

Bush and other world leaders face a quandary in trying to decide how to respond to Kim's aggression. They could try to create a closer relationship with North Korea, hoping that improved sharing of information would reduce mistrust in the long term. This might reward Kim's behavior, however, and increase the chances he will be aggressive in the future. They could impose sanctions in the hope that punishments will discourage further missile tests, but this escalates the conflict and validates Kim's view that his enemies are indeed aligned against him.

The same difficulties crop up when one partner uses aggression to get their way within a marriage. How should their spouse respond? Will they give in to human nature and lash back? Or might they try to appease their aggressive partner, with the risk of rewarding the behavior and feeling like a doormat? Neither option is very appealing.

If you find yourself taking a page from Kim Jong Il's book when interacting with your spouse, you might want to rethink your strategy. After all, Kim's South Korean neighbors chose to build open, cooperative relationships with other countries and ended up with the 10th-largest economy in the world. That's an impressive feat for such a small nation. North Korea ended up with famine, economic hardship and few friendly ties with other nations. You should see a similar dichotomy of results when you choose between openness versus hostility with your significant other.

Would you like some advice on how to handle conflict with your spouse? Send in your question today. As always, your identity will remain confidential.
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Thursday, November 23, 2006

Happy Thanksgiving!

I am thankful for:

My wife, who continues to tell me with actions and words that she is happy to be married to me.

My three little stress factors, who aren't so little anymore, and who continue to tell me with actions and words that they are happy to be married to my wallet.

All of you faithful readers, who continue to drop by and share this journey of discovery.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!
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Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Dismaying Story #85: Love is a Verb!

Today's question is the most succinct I have received, as well as one of the most significant since it pertains to choosing a life partner.

Dear Andrew,

How do you know when a man really loves you?

Signed, Wondering

Dear Wondering,

I once talked with a man who was in the midst of a career change. He was moving to a new city for a couple of years, and then he would be assigned a position in yet another city. It was highly unlikely that this work would ever take him back to his hometown. He decided to make this move knowing that, for a variety of reasons, his wife and young children were staying in the hometown.

I told him that no career aspiration would ever be important enough for me to move away from my family, that I simply loved them too much. This made him angry. "You have no idea," he said, "how much I love my family!"

As I reflected on this conversation later, I came to the conclusion that he and I used the word "love" in entirely different ways. He was talking about the intense emotion he felt inside. Despite how he phrased his response to me, he was referring to love as a noun, as an inner feeling.

To me, though, love is a verb. It is expressed by our actions toward others. When I say I love my family, I mean that I do things for them in an effort to make their lives better. Sure, this results from those strong feelings I harbor in my heart, but by themselves those feelings have no impact whatsoever on the people in my life. It is only when I translate those feelings into action that my love has a chance to enrich those around me. I could simply adore my wife and children, yet if I abuse, ignore, abandon, or otherwise treat them poorly, what good would my feelings of affection be to them?

I interpret your question to mean: "How can I tell when a man really harbors a deep and abiding love for me in his heart?" (And by the way, the question is equally valid when asked by a man about a woman.) In other words, I believe you are asking about love the noun. My answer is that you will never -- can never -- experience this type of love directly. It will always be hidden from view. I believe you should be concerned with his actions toward you. How do his feelings translate into behavior? What do you experience as a result of being with him?

Does he do supportive things for you? Does he make you feel good about yourself and about the two of you as a couple? Does he let you know that he cares, or does he keep it inside and assume you should just know? Are you doing all the giving in this relationship, or do the concrete expressions of love flow in both directions? Has he learned what makes you happy and what stresses you? More importantly, does he make an effort to do the former from time to time, and to avoid the latter?

In other words, if he generally treats you well, what more do you need to know? And if he doesn't, then that may be all the answer you need.

Here is another possible interpretation of your question: "How can I tell if he loves me enough to stay with me forever?" Unfortunately, as in other areas of life, there are no guarantees in love. If he has proven himself to be a caring and giving individual, though, and he seems to love being with you, then hopefully there is a good chance that will continue. Talk with him about your respective views on marriage, commitment, and divorce. How does he react when people you know get a divorce? Again, there are no guarantees, and every relationship must withstand highs and lows. Hopefully you can get a sense of how committed he is to your relationship.

I urge you to resist the following thought: "I am not very happy with the way he treats me now, but I know things will be better once we are married." If you have had this thought, you should think seriously about whether this is the relationship for you. In the vast majority of cases, what you see now is what you will get later. Do not count on changing him (or her, if you are a guy).

Finally, this is just one way to approach your question. I bet many readers will have other ways to gauge how their partner feels about their relationship, and these approaches are sure to be equally as valid as my thoughts. Make sure you drop back and see what others have to say. Hopefully you will find a few nuggets amongst the collected advice that will help you in your own situation.

All the best,

The Question of the Week is about negative self talk and how it can inhibit our success in life. I'd love to hear your thoughts, so take a moment today and leave a comment.
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Monday, November 20, 2006

Yet Another Indulgence

I received a warm response the last time I wrote a behind-the-scenes-with-Andrew post, so when Lori sent me a meme, I thought it was a good excuse to do so again. She tagged me with Five things you don't know about me. Here they are:

1. The color thing: I am chromatically challenged, but people, please, I am not color blind. My world is full of vibrant colors, it's just that sometimes they act silly and pretend to be one another. (This is the point where my daughter would raise an eyebrow resignedly in your direction and say, "He's color blind.")

2. A long way from home: My wife and I spent the first two years of our marriage living thousands of miles away from our families. I'm not sure if this helped to bring us together but it certainly made for some interesting long distance phone bills.

3. A personal milestone (er... kilometerstone?): This year I completed the ten-kilometer version of the Terry Fox Run for cancer research. I have never been a long distance runner, so this was a personal best for me and it felt good to complete it.

4. Tinkling the ivories: I recently inherited the piano that was in my family home when I was growing up and decided I should learn to play. The beginner "how to" books bored me silly so I started in on Beethoven. I can now play the Moonlight Sonata, Fur Elise, the Adagio Cantabile from Sonata Pathetique, and I'm branching out into Chopin with the Prelude in C Minor.

5. Relationship and life skills coaching: I am planning to expand my services to include one-on-one coaching by telephone. I will still offer free advice via To Love, Honor and Dismay, and this new service will allow me to provide more in-depth and personalized interventions. My current model for providing advice consists of an email from a reader followed by a published letter from me in response. This can point the reader in the right direction, but is restricted in several ways. My knowledge of the situation is limited to what the person elects to mention in a single email, so I virtually never get the full picture. That means my responses focus on common issues and are liberally sprinkled with phrases like "many people tend to" and "this often leads to." I frequently wish I could work with a person over a period of time and help them resolve their issues, which is what coaching will allow me to do.
    I have already received a few inquiries about receiving one-on-one assistance, so I am currently developing a results-oriented coaching curriculum that focuses on identifying your challenges, discarding their negative effects and developing positive relationship and life skills. I will provide more information when I am ready to launch this service.

Now I will tag Catch, Regina Clare Jane and Vivian.
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Sunday, November 19, 2006

Dismaying Story #84: Painful Love Letters

Dear Andrew,

My girlfriend broke up with me this past summer. I'm not "over" her and I don't think I ever will be. It was kind of an unpleasant breakup, as all are, but we agreed to be friends. I am not going to look for another relationship for a long time because, after this experience, I decided to wait a few years and my parents will arrange a marriage for me as is the custom in my family.

Is it a bad idea to read love letters that this ex-girlfriend wrote to me? Something tells me it's unhealthy. Another part of me says that keeping and reflecting on the good memories is okay. I think part of it is that the letters act as evidence that she loved me. Is this a guilty pleasure that I can afford? I don't think it's wrong per se, but it does make me miss her more. It makes me think of that time we were together and wish that it had lasted.

Signed, Not Over Her

Dear Not Over Her,

The love letters are not your problem. They are simply one way to jog your memory about the relationship you had. You currently have other things that make you think about the relationship, such as when you get up in the morning or when you take a breath. Your problem is that you are having trouble letting go.

You were obviously quite smitten with this girl right up until the time of the break up. Now you are left with all these memories of the great feelings she brought out in you, as well as profound regret that these feelings cannot continue. You are grieving the loss, which is why it hurts to look at the love letters.

A period of mourning is normal after a break up. Eventually, though, you must move past this phase and accept your changed circumstances. In your case I can see at least two factors that may make this difficult for you. First, she is no longer in your life as a partner, which means that you are working only from memories of her. It can be easy in this type of situation to idealize what happened, to forget any of her mundane or less-than-perfect characteristics (other than those you find endearing) and remember only the good. Some people build up an image of a "perfect" ex-partner in their mind.

Not only does that make it hard to let go, but it can lay the foundation for future relationship troubles. Regardless of whether your next relationship begins spontaneously or is arranged by your parents, you still have to make it work. That will be more difficult to do if you are constantly comparing your partner with an idealized memory. No one can live up to such unrealistic expectations, which means you may be dissatisfied for all the wrong reasons and have problems as a result.

It's news flash time, my friend. Your former girlfriend is not perfect either. If you were to get back together with her, over time you would find out she has the same range of wonderful and not-so-wonderful characteristics as the rest of us. Many people have the experience where they fantasize over a former partner, only to bump into them years later and find out that they don't match the memories at all.

If you want to see where this could be headed, read Dismaying Story #44: Hang On Tight about a woman who tried to reconnect with an old flame she had been fantasizing about for twenty-three years. Also check out the comment left by The Memoirist. These stories provide firsthand accounts of the troubles that crop up when we never really break up with someone in our mind.

You say you have decided not to enter into another relationship for some time. This is the second factor that increases the difficulty for you. Oftentimes the best way to get over one relationship is to discover an even better one! Your decision to wait may work out for you, but you should be aware of the additional difficulties this can create.

I can assure you with complete confidence that this former girlfriend is not the one for you. You see, she doesn't want to be with you. Her reasons don't matter. Any good times you shared in the past do not change this about her. You deserve a partner who wants you back, so you need to accept that this relationship is over and move on. Once you have truly done that, you will find that reading the love letters may be poignant, but will no longer be painful.

All the best,
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Saturday, November 18, 2006

Question of the Week #15: Negative Self Talk

Negative self talk is one of the most common themes that emerges in many of the Dismaying Stories on this site. When we are faced with a challenge, opportunity or success, that little voice inside often pipes up and reminds us that we really aren't all that great. (You are great, by the way; the voice is virtually always wrong.)

From time to time I talk to highly successful business executives, people who have accomplished a great deal and exude a tremendous amount of apparent confidence. When you get them alone, however, almost every one of them will admit that this thought runs through their head frequently: "Some day someone is going to realize I'm just faking it, that I really don't have much of a clue what I am doing." They have plenty of clues, of course, otherwise they wouldn't have all that success in life. Still, though, their negative self talk causes them stress and makes it more difficult to move forward with confidence in life.

I wonder if you could take a moment and listen to your inner voice. Are you like much of the human race when it comes to negative self talk? Do you sometimes doubt yourself? If so, don't feel bad; you have plenty of company.

In what types of situations does your negative inner voice start whispering self-defeating messages in your ear? What does it say? Have you found a way to ignore it, or does it still hold some degree of power over you?

Sharing your story will undoubtedly be helpful for other readers, who are likely to recognize themselves in your words and realize they are not alone. As always, I'll post some of my favorite responses next week.
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Keep the Home Fires Burning

Last week I asked for your ideas on how to keep your relationship alive during periods of forced separation. This is particularly relevant for military families given that last Saturday was Remembrance Day. Here is what Cathouse Teri had to say:

"I know the answer to this question. It is without a doubt what has already been mentioned. Communication and OFTEN. Phone calls, letters, emails ~ all good solutions. The more personal, the better. We tend to think that we shouldn't bother them (especially if they are at war) with the little silly things of our daily lives, but the truth is that they want nothing more than to hear about your day. If you communicate every day, you will tell about some mundane things, but it really is important to share all of it in order to stay close. I've lived it. I've seen it. I know it's true."

I agree, I agree, I agree. As I have said many times before on this site, relationships are strengthened when couples share positive experiences. Hearing about your "mundane" home life is very welcome for the person who has to be away. I might add, though, to be careful not to make the communication a constant stream of complaints and problems. Sure, share the challenges that are going on in your life as well, but try to make the experience a positive one for your partner.

I also love what NavyBride had to say on the subject:

"The key for us is that we never go to bed alone. During the day, both of us are so busy that it's easier not to miss each other. But when the time comes to turn out the light and fall asleep alone, that's the hardest. So, we got into the habit of tucking each other in, via email. For example, if I know that he's still awake when I go to bed, I'll send an email saying goodnight and promising to leave the covers turned down and the pillows fluffed for when he decides to join me. When he is finally able to sleep, he writes me back, telling me he's come to bed now, "kissing my cheek", and falling asleep.

It helps me to know that our normal bedtime routine is not interrupted by something as silly as thousands of miles. Even if it's only in our minds, we still tuck each other in every night. He feels cared for in an environment that is not typically nurturing, I feel protected even though I'm alone. Both of us know that we never, ever sleep alone."

What a great idea! Thanks again to everyone for contributing to this discussion.
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Friday, November 17, 2006

Dismaying Story #83: Something Niggles Him

Dear Andrew,

Please help me understand my partner. I am 41 years old and my partner is 30 years old. We get on fantastically well. He always says how comfortable and relaxed he is in my company, and we have very similar interests. He says he has never been with anyone before that he gets on so well with BUT he says the relationship is 99% perfect. Something niggles him always.

He did say after going out with me for 3 days that the relationship probably won't work since his ideal partner will be a similar age to him and with no children. I have two children one 12 years and one who's 8 years and they all get on remarkably well. He encourages us all to go out together which I have never had before with any other relationship.

I know I can't change his mind. He says we are very much attached to each other but he can't get the thoughts of his ideal partner out of his head.

I have always been under the impression you marry your best friend as he may never find the perfect person. We see each other every day and text every day and do absolutely loads together every week. We are sexually compatible but as his thoughts come back to him and we get serious again he backs off, as if he's frightened of getting too close.

Can you help understand his thoughts? Will he ever change his thoughts?

Signed, Not His Ideal Partner

Dear Not His Ideal Partner,

You are an ideal partner, just not for this guy. You need to find someone who will appreciate you for what you are.

Yes, I understand his thoughts very well. They go something like this: "Wow, what a great deal I have. I get to have sex when I want it. I get a companion to do fun things with me so I don't have to be lonely. I can even hang with her kids when I feel like it. And the icing on the cake? I don't have to promise her a darn thing! I can insult her, tell her she is not good enough for me and that I would really prefer someone different, and it doesn't matter! She still wants me around. This is fantastic. So until someone better comes along, hey, I might as well stick around."

His message to you is unequivocal and clear: "You are not what I want."

So here is my question to you. Why would you want a partner who doesn't want you? The fact that he is still hanging around doesn't mean that he really wants you and he just doesn't know it. It doesn't mean that he will realize over time how much you have come to matter to him. It simply means that he is getting a payoff for being with you today. He gets sex ... today. He gets companionship ... today. If you start talking about long term commitment, then again he tells you that he is most definitely not interested in that, at least not with you.

Why would you put up with that?

Because it means you don't have to be alone ... today. You are also getting a short-term payoff for being with him. More than that, you get that most precious of commodities in relationships -- you get hope. As long as he is hanging around, you can hope things will change. You hope he will eventually see what a wonderful relationship you have and realize he can't live without you.

Hope is a great thing, but in this case it is blinding you from seeing the truth. Your hope is trapping you in a go-nowhere relationship. It is preventing you from moving on and finding a guy who appreciates what an amazing person you really are.

His thoughts will not change. For whatever reasons, he is just not that into you. My advice is to accept that and walk away. Show this guy the door. Only then will you have real hope, because only then will you be available for the partner you deserve, the one who isn't constantly telling you that you are not good enough.

You deserve better than that. Give yourself permission to go find it. The right man for you is out there, I promise.

All the best,

There have only been a few responses to this week's Question of the Week about how to make a relationship survive (and hopefully even thrive) during periods of enforced separation. If you have some thoughts on this topic, why not take a moment and contribute to the discussion. I'll post a few thoughts on this tomorrow.
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Wednesday, November 15, 2006

How to Ask My Husband for Help

This post is part of a continuing series entitled The Hunt for the Vacuum Cleaner Gene. Last month I posted on the topic of How Not to Ask Your Husband for Help, which looks at some of the natural tendencies people have when they try to ask for help from their spouse. In particular, last month's post examines why these approaches often backfire.

Today I begin looking at a more effective approach by examining several subtle variations of stating requests for help, and the hidden messages you should avoid delivering.

This is what it should look like:

NICOLA: Honey, would you sweep the floor for me?
SAM: Sure, no problem.

Short, simple and to the point. Your husband, on the other hand, might have other ideas:

NICOLA: Honey, would you sweep the floor for me?
SAM: You normally do the floors. Why are you asking me to do it?

Your request is not finished until the conversation is over. For the time being, stay away from the broader issues. They lead to immediate negotiation and possible confrontation. Keep the focus on the single task you are asking him to do. Restate your request and end the conversation as quickly as possible.

NICOLA: It'd just be great if you would help with the floor. Will you do that for me?
SAM: Okay.

As Sam has done above, your husband might ask: "Why should I help?" or "Why are you asking me now?" or "Is this because you don't think I do enough?" In other words, he might try to steer the conversation toward the larger long-term issues. Your first instinct might be to answer his question directly, like one of the following:

NICOLA: Because you never help out and I want you to start.
NICOLA: Because I really need more help around here.

Both of these responses make it clear that Sam's performance to date has been substandard, which he will take as a criticism. This is likely to lead to an argument about whether he already does his share. Avoid this by responding in a positive way, as Nicola does above: "It'd just be great if you would help..." Instead of criticizing past poor behavior, predict wonderful consequences (your happiness and approval) when he supports you in the future.

Avoiding Hidden Messages

Ideally you would like your request to leave your husband inclined to be supportive. You want him on your side, feeling good about himself and about you. Since supporting a wife and family is a natural role for a man, you can typically accomplish this by keeping your request simple. The idea is to avoid giving him an opportunity to read more than you intend into your words. Simply ask; nothing more, nothing less. Unfortunately, it can be surprisingly easy to give him a reason to object to your request. Here is an example:

NICOLA: I need you to sweep the floor for me.

At first blush this might seem like a reasonable way to ask. Nicola has stated her need simply with the implication that she would like Sam to respond to that need. Many men, however, will not see it that way. Notice that she has not asked a question; she has made a statement. Men will often interpret this as a demand rather than a request. Sam is likely to resent the idea that Nicola feels free to tell him what to do, that he has no say in the matter. Nicola, of course, was not trying to tell him what to do. That was the furthest thing from her mind. She will probably be surprised and frustrated by his resentment, which is the exact opposite of what she was trying to achieve. "Why," she thinks, "do men have to be so touchy? Why should I have to be so careful how I choose my words?" That's a fair question. In this case the issue is that most men hate feeling powerless in a relationship. Being told what to do evokes exactly that feeling. State your request as a question or you risk getting the same reaction from your husband.

The following variations tend to have similar negative results and should be avoided:

NICOLA: You need to sweep the floor.
NICOLA: The floor is dirty. You could get the broom and take care of it.

Another common mistake is to unwittingly include a criticism, like this:

NICOLA: I know you probably don't want to do this but would you sweep the floor?

You might be nervous or unsure of yourself if you are not used to asking him to pitch in. In that circumstance you might try to soften your message, make it seem like less of a demand with something like: "You probably don't want to do this but..." Unfortunately this opens the door for him to hear: "I expect you to refuse. I don't have any faith in you as a supportive husband."

Now this might be true. His past behavior may give you plenty of reason for doubting his willingness to help. Before you ask, you might even be fully convinced he will refuse. It is important, however, that you hide any such skepticism. If he gets the sense that you doubt his worthiness as a husband in some way, then he will be less inclined to support you and the whole deal can spiral downward. You are trying to move past all that mutual doubt and get to a place where you both have faith in each other as supportive spouses. You want to express optimism, which makes him feel good, then he wants to make you feel good, and so on. Now your spiral has a chance to shoot upward.

The key to getting that started is to state your request in a positive way, leaving out any potentially negative commentary. Here's another variation to avoid:

NICOLA: You don't have to do this if you don't want to but will you sweep the floor?

This carries the same implication; she doesn't think Sam will support her. A further problem with this type of request is that Nicola is telling Sam she is not serious about wanting him to help. She is offering him an escape route, practically begging him to say no. You could do the same thing like this:

NICOLA: I'm sorry to have to ask you this but would you sweep the floor for me?

Please. That just about sums up the entire myth of the helpless husband, doesn't it? You might as well say: "I know husbands aren't supposed to sweep floors and I really shouldn't be asking you this. You'd be well within your rights to refuse but would you sweep it anyway?"

Don't go there. You must cast off the myth and stop being apologetic about your need for support. It is right and natural that your husband should have a role in maintaining the household. Your words should reflect that. I'm not asking you to be aggressive or confrontational but you must find the courage to ask for help with some degree of confidence.

A lack of confidence can also make you want to explain your request:

NICOLA: Honey, would you sweep the floor for me? I have a ton of stuff to do because I have to pick up the kids in an hour and I need to have the kitchen straightened before then or I won't have supper ready before Emily's soccer practice.

Nicola has just delivered a couple of messages she should really avoid. First, her words make it clear she doesn't believe Sam wants to be supportive. If he wanted to, she wouldn't need the detailed explanation to try to convince him. As I explained above, men often perceive this as an insult. Even worse, she has implied that the circumstances are extraordinary so her need today is especially strong. In other words, Sam ordinarily shouldn't have to help out. Her request is just an exception and any help he provides is unlikely to become part of a regular pattern. This message is exactly the opposite of the direction in which Nicola should be trying to move.

To avoid these hidden messages, resist the urge to explain why you need his help. Keep your request short and to the point.

Of course, this is only one small part of the picture. You want your partner to pitch in willingly and repeatedly, to be a partner in taking care of the mundane household maintenance work. To achieve this, you might also need to watch out for body language, respond to his reactions in effective ways, and work around any objections on his part. I will examine these and other topics in future posts.
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Monday, November 13, 2006

Dismaying Story #82: Will Leaving Make Him Come Back?

As I read other blogs, I often find posts about people struggling with their relationships. The issues (surprise, surprise) are frequently similar to those that show up in letters I receive from readers. The following is a recent post by Mony, who is clearly struggling. At the same time, though, she is focused on trying to repair the hurt. This shows a good deal of courage and determination, and I thought it was worth sharing. Mony writes:

Thank you for all of your sincere, non-judgmental, caring comments. Each one represented a hug & a comforting hand on my shoulder. Youse Rule.

On many occasions throughout my life I have been told how brave, strong & courageous I am. It's always amazing, if not a little startling to hear people talk about me in such a fashion because I often feel the exact opposite. I don't cry a lot. This is not because of an inner strength or a degree in self meditation. It just takes a heavy deal to bring me undone.

In the past few weeks I have cried countless times, into many different pillows, shoulders & tea towels. It was therapeutic if not a little damp.

I walked out on my husband because I was desperate to show him that I could not accept his dramatic mood swings or unprovoked temper any longer. I just couldn't bury my sadness or isolation another day. It was extremely hard to acknowledge that our polished lives had begun to tarnish & rust. I had glossed over our marriage for too long.

It's hard to air your dirty laundry in front of an unsuspecting audience. It's excruciating to remain motionless as everything drops from the display cabinet that is your life. It's awful to hear negative remarks about your relationship. Looking truth in the eye takes nerves of steel.

But I did it. And I am so glad that I did. Perhaps, just perhaps leaving him was exactly what I needed to do to salvage our relationship.

My husband has had an emotional year. His Mother's stroke has left him incredibly sad. Her recovery has been steady, yet slow. She is blind. She is completely dependant & unable to hold a lightening quick, animated conversation like she used to. We are getting to know the new woman she has become even though we dearly miss the one that she was.

My husband's family business has seen the exit of his Mum, Dad & sister since July. The load on him is unbearable. I know these things are partly to blame for his terrible moods. I also know it is no excuse to treat me badly. Hurting the ones we love can be so, so easy.

He has acknowledged his problems. He is confident he can do much better. He wants to let go of his inner macho shithead persona. He wants to be the man I married.

We are trying to undo the hurt. We are delving into the pile of distress to see if we can recover something beautiful. Sifting & sorting through all the dust in the hope of finding gold.

Brave. Strong. Courageous.
I am.
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Sunday, November 12, 2006

Dismaying Story #81: Jealousy Over Past Partners

Dear Andrew,

I am in my ninth month of a relationship with my current girlfriend and I care about her very much. The problem is I was a virgin when we first had sex. I am the seventh guy that she has been with. I really care for this girl and I love her very much. We are both eighteen years old. She has made it clear to me that she doesn't think about them at all. I just want to know what I can do because I still have feelings of absolute hatred for her past relationships and flings. I really think that if I didn't love her like I do, I would leave her because it's very hard to take at times. How do I get over this?

Signed, Wishing I Was First

Dear Wishing,

Mother Nature is a very effective salesperson. She starts working her wily ways as soon as young people are old enough to physically become parents, trying to get them to have sex with each other. The urges are strong and I am enough of a realist to know that in many cases Mother Nature has her way.

Despite that, my advice to teenagers is to be very cautious about how early you become sexually active. Some of the risks are obvious -- pregnancy and sexually-transmitted diseases -- so you take the pill and use condoms and feel you are protected. No method of birth control is one hundred percent effective, and condoms have been known to break, so there is always some risk. More than that, such measures do nothing to protect you from the emotional landmines that sex introduces into a relationship, especially when the people involved are still maturing.

Two people can hold hands and kiss and touch, and it can feel like sex should be just an extension of that. Some people might think nothing will really change in the relationship if they go that one step further. Like it or not, that's simply not true.

Young women have many potential concerns. Pregnancy impacts both people involved, but obviously more so for the girl. Often girls worry about whether they will get a reputation as someone who is loose and easy. For many people, sex implies a deeper commitment to the relationship, which can add pressure if things don't always go smoothly or when you break up. Girls tend to be taught that good girls don't, so their inner voice can pipe up and suggest they are now a bad person, that the sex is wrong. This can make it difficult for them to relax and enjoy the sex (which makes me wonder if it is worth doing in those circumstances). And here is another common lament: "Does he really like me, or does he only want to be with me because I give him the sex he wants? Would any guy want me if I didn't put out?" I could go on.

The list is somewhat shorter for the guys, but can still cause plenty of dismay. "Why can't she just relax and enjoy it like I do? Why does she have to act like it's such a big deal?" The answers are essentially found in the preceding paragraph, but young men frequently lack the insight to understand the concerns involved from the girl's point of view. This apparent lack of empathy can, in turn, deepen the issues for the girl, creating a self-perpetuating cycle of problems.

Another common concern for young men is the one expressed in the letter. Despite the realities of pre-marital sex, society perpetuates the image of two virgins on their wedding night as ideal. A virginal boyfriend can feel that his more experienced partner somehow falls short of that vision. More than that, the dating game for guys is one of attracting a girl, beating out the competition. They want the girl all to themselves and past sexual partners can be perceived as competitors. This may seem illogical -- they are, after all, in the past -- yet your letter is an example that proves my point. "She has made it clear to me that she doesn't think about them at all." In other words, you worry that she still thinks about and has feelings for those other guys, that you are competing with them for her feelings.

The bottom line is that life is simpler in teenage relationships that don't involve sex.

To me, your situation is all about (a) knowing what you want in life, and (b) your emotional development. Perhaps you would truly prefer a virginal partner, someone who fits with that societal ideal. You may not be attracted to a girl who has had several partners at such a young age. If so, then this is not the girl for you and you should move on. If that's the case, though, you should examine your own behavior; by having sex with her you have created exactly the situation you are trying to avoid. It would be hypocritical to act one way and expect others to behave differently.

I don't believe that is what is going on with you, though. You simply can't get past that competitive mindset. The image of her with someone else drives you bananas, and you worry about what those images mean to her.

Here's the thing. This is your first sexual relationship so it feels extra special to you. You have never had this feeling before and you can't imagine it going away. The natural assumption is that she must have had this special feeling for those other guys, which makes it difficult for you to imagine that her extra-special feelings for them could have disappeared. You have never had the experience of moving on to a new relationship after having sex, so you find it hard to understand what it must be like for her, and you imagine the worst.

If a girl has a sex-less relationship and breaks up, her partner becomes an ex-boyfriend. The relationship is over, done with. If she has sex and then breaks up, her partner becomes (surprise, surprise) every bit as much of an ex-boyfriend. The fact that sex took place does not increase the threat to subsequent beaus.

You need to come to the realization that this is not about her; it's all about your own insecurities. She is with you because she wants to be. Count yourself fortunate and let the past go.

All the best,
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Saturday, November 11, 2006

Question of the week #14: Lest They Forget (Each Other)

Today is a day to remember the debt we owe to the veterans of major conflicts, known variously as Veterans' Day (United States), Remembrance Day (Canada and UK), Poppy Day (South Africa and Malta) and Armistice Day (internationally).

Soldiers and their significant others pay a high price when they are separated during foreign deployments, so this week's question is simply this: What can couples do to keep their relationships in good shape when they are forced apart by circumstances such as this?

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

Last week I asked you to complete this sentence: "The first time I laid eyes on my significant other was special because ..."

I also promised to tell you my story, so here goes.

One year in late June I called up a good friend of mine, a guy I often went golfing with, and told him, "We're going out tonight." I had been stuck in the books for a few months, working hard to finish up my masters thesis. My social life had suffered and I was determined to change that. I decided that night I wanted to meet a new friend, someone to expand my social circle, someone I could call up once in a while and do something, go to a movie, whatever. I didn't care if this person turned out to be just a casual friend (that was my expectation) and I would have been equally satisfied if they had been male or female. I was just tired of all work and no play.

With that devil-may-care attitude I arrived at a club with my friend and proceeded to strike up conversations with everyone in sight. At one point I walked over to where my friend was deep in a conversation and there was a girl standing nearby. I jokingly asked her if she would like to dance with my friend. (I never claimed to be good at this.) She declined, so I said, "Well would you like to dance with me?" She said yes and we spent the rest of the evening together. At the end of the night she went home with her girlfriends. Before she left I kissed her on the cheek and told her I would like to see her again. Four months later we were engaged and the wedding took place the following summer. Now twenty-three years have passed and I love her more every day.

The first time I laid eyes on my significant other was special because ... it must have been meant to be. I certainly wasn't on the hunt for a future wife.

The moral: be careful what you ask for because you might get more than you bargained for -- and you might be very lucky that you did!

Thanks to everyone who so generously shared your own stories. I enjoyed each and every one. (And if you haven't seen them, you might want to take a look.) I especially enjoyed Margaret's story; it made me laugh out loud. Here is the punch line:

Off to Boston I flew to meet him after a good 1 1/2 years (of emails, chats and phone calls). I knew that when I met him face to face I would feel comfortable and want to give him a great big friendly hug. However ... The first time I laid eyes on my significant other was special because ... I knew right then and there he was going to get way more than just a big friendly hug. I slipped him a kiss and then the tongue and after a 20 minute lip-lock the airport security guy asked us to please "get a room" and leave the building.
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Friday, November 10, 2006

Dismaying Story #80: Catching a Cheating Spouse

Dear Andrew,

I've been married over a year now. Several years back, with my then-boyfriend now husband, there were issues of trust. More specifically, I did not trust him. I don't consider myself a jealous person, but the distrust was based on vague information, strange stories on his part, things that just didn't add up. Gut instinct, essentially.

Here we are, 3 years later, and I feel much better. I should say, I felt much better until last night. I went to bed before my spouse, as usual. I had been watching something scary on TV, and decided to leave the bedroom door open, something we don’t normally do. I struggled to fall asleep, and within 15 or 20 minutes, I noticed he was on the phone. This is not unusual. He’s got family in Europe and often talks to them late at night. What was unusual about this was that his conversation was in English. I could not hear anything specific, but I did notice his tone. It was soft, not something he ever adjusts when talking to family or friends, regardless of the time of day. They’re loud people. The TV, which he originally had on, was turned down. Shortly thereafter, he turned it up, loud enough to cover the conversation. It reminded me of the way he used to talk to me on the phone, way back when during our courtship; as if he was trying to conceal the privacy of our conversations from other ears. Only this time, I was the other set of ears.

I struggled to listen from the bedroom for a while, but thought, “This is ridiculous!” I walked out into the living room, sat down and watched TV while he continued his conversation. His voice increased in volume (as if now there was nothing to hide) and he lowered the volume of the earpiece. It didn’t matter. I could tell it was a woman. The conversation seemed to change course when I entered the room. He began filling in details about his work day. Then it turned to some conflict at work. He eventually said, “I’ve gotta go” and hung up. I didn’t ask anything, but continued to watch TV. He immediately informs me that this assistant manager was calling him for his advice, and he was being dragged into a problem at work that he didn’t want a part of. Only problem was, his phone never rang. It was 11:00 at night.

My husband has a history of lying about things that are seemingly small, in order to avoid conflict. The problem is, those small lies created doubt in my mind, particularly on a night like last night. I hadn’t noticed any of these lies until a few months ago, when I caught him in a very strange lie, but couldn’t expose him. As I’ve mentioned, I’m not a jealous or suspecting person. So why did I lay in bed last night fantasizing about finding his phone and checking to see who made the call and who received that call? And his phone? Out of sight. Not by his bedside this morning and not in the living room. The basis for my insecurity is a sporadic and unsatisfying sex life. Andrew, what sort of advice can your offer now that you have some insight into the mind of a wife who fears her husband is seeking physical companionship from another woman? We absolutely cannot afford the cost of therapy at this time, though I believe we desperately need it.

Signed, Suspicious

Dear Suspicious,

Those who have discovered that their spouse has been having an affair often comment that the signs of the infidelity had been evident for a while but they chose not to believe them. Your account of the late night phone call does not make you seem like a jealous, insecure wife. On the contrary, it sounds like your instincts are spot on. His behavior did not fit with familiar patterns and he lied about receiving the phone call rather than making it. I would be suspicious too.

Your letter also suggests other ongoing problems in your marriage. There are trust issues dating back some time, an unsatisfactory sex life (which means it is almost certainly unsatisfactory for him as well) and he has a habit of telling lies. This sounds like a high-risk situation to me. According to the FAQFarm article Signs of a Cheating Spouse, here are a few of the common indicators:
  • They act distant. Your intimacy level goes down.
  • You stop having sex, or have sex less often.
  • Someone from the opposite sex calls that you never heard off. Perhaps they say it is a business call.
  • They develop a special interest in appearance and personal grooming.
  • They start having unexplained time away. For example, a trip to the store for some milk takes an hour, or they frequently call to tell you they will be home late, e.g. they are helping out a friend, their truck broke down.
The first few items from that list could be taken directly from your letter. There are other signs and I suggest you look at the article.

Another danger sign is something you didn't say. When a marriage is in good shape and the trust level is high, then life is an open book. Neither partner has anything to hide so asking questions is not considered threatening. If that had been me and my wife in your story, I have no doubt she would have immediately come back with, "What do you mean someone called you? The phone didn't ring. And I could hear that it was a woman's voice." All the cards would have been on the table immediately. I'm not saying that is what you should have done (see below), just that your silence is one more indicator of a less-than-trusting relationship.

In your situation, I believe you reacted appropriately by saying nothing. I have seen several resources that advise you to keep your initial suspicions to yourself, including an article called How to Catch a Cheating Spouse. This article suggests several reasons for waiting:
  • If you are wrong, your lack of trust can hurt your spouse and damage your relationship.
  • Your spouse is apt to make more mistakes if you act trusting and dumb than if you accuse them.
  • If they are cheating, you should wait to accuse them until you have enough evidence to prove it and you're ready to take action.
  • For your own sake, you should wait until you can handle their response. Suspecting is one thing; having them confirm their adultery is much worse.
I suggest you should try to gather the information you need to confirm whether your suspicions are true. You said you can't afford therapy, so I suspect the same is true of a private detective. If so, the article also offers several ways you can gather information on your own, including the following:
  • Keep a detailed journal of your spouse's activities. See if there is a pattern to your spouse's 'extra' times away.
  • Record times and dates of phone calls that are hang-ups and/or wrong numbers. Call unknown phone numbers from a pay phone, say nothing, see if you can identify who answers.
  • Check the mileage on the car before and after trips.
  • Become unpredictable. Show up at your spouse's office for lunch without notice. Say you're working late when you plan on being home early or on time.
  • Read their email.
  • Go through their wallet or purse.
We all have a tendency to avoid looking for answers when the result might be bad news. In a case like yours, though, finding out the worst is still better than not knowing.

Regardless of whether he is cheating, you are right in thinking that your marriage has issues, with a general lack of trust and closeness at the top of the list. If you decide to work on those issues, here are a couple of quick suggestions:
  • Sharing positive experiences tends to build closeness. Find ways to have fun together on a regular basis.
  • Trust develops when both partners live life as an open book. Ask him if he is willing to do so, and get in the habit of having absolutely no secrets from each other.
Of course, these suggestions may be difficult to achieve if he is in the habit of lying to you, or if he is indeed cheating. Not all marriages survive that kind of betrayal.

I wish you luck in your search for answers.

All the best,
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Thursday, November 09, 2006

Dismaying Story #79: Alone with her Thoughts

Dear Andrew,

I grew up an Air Force brat. This meant I moved around a lot and did not form lasting friendships. The only friend I have from childhood is my sister. I sometimes feel like I live in her shadow since she is older, but that is beside the point.

I am now 27 and have few friends. I have a very hard time making friends because I have terribly low self-esteem. I am always afraid people are judging me and talking about me behind my back. I think this relates back to my childhood, but I am just not able to get over this insecurity. I think I am beautiful and have a great family, so my insecurity is not about my looks; it's about who I am as a person. I never feel like I am good enough on the inside, like I am not worthy of having friends.

How do I get over this and make friends? I fear it's not as simple as going to a new book club.

Signed, Friendless

Dear Friendless,

You are right; it is not as simple as getting out there and meeting more people. You need to change what is going on inside yourself. The good news is that this is possible to do.

Moving frequently as a child is a circumstance of your life and a contributing factor to your problem, but it is not the cause. Yes, moving can make it more challenging to form lasting friendships, but it does not preclude doing so. Some people are so gregarious and sociable that they would manage to fill their life with friends even in those circumstances.

You also mention a lack of friends, low self-esteem, fear of judgment, and feelings of low self-worth. Again, these are not the causes of your problem -- they are symptoms. You need to identify the causes so you can recognize them, acknowledge the impact they are having on your life, and discard their influence.

What do you say to yourself when you are all alone? Is your internal self-talk positive or negative? You have already answered that -- you express doubt about yourself. You question whether you are good enough and tell yourself that you are not.

These fears came from somewhere. Your negative self-talk habit did not just spring up spontaneously. This is based on your accumulated life experiences. Somewhere in your past you have been conditioned to react like this. You have learned to do so.

Happily, you can also learn positive self-talk. One of the most effective ways to accomplish this is to go through a discovery exercise where you recognize the influences in your past that helped to create your self-defeating habits. You can identify the positive impacts that these influences contributed to your life (because you want to retain these), and then discard the negative aspects.

Such negative internal voices flourish in the dark. They love to remain anonymous. When you are feeling vulnerable and alone, they delight in showing just enough of themselves so they can tell you how unworthy you are and then they scurry back into their dark crevices. Dragging them into the harsh sunlight and exposing their true nature is often an effective way to recognize the lies they tell. Identifying the true nature of your self-talk can make it possible to manage it.

When that voice inside you says, "You know they won't like you," you can respond, "Hey, I recognize you. Thank you for your input. Now go back and sit on your stool in the corner and be quiet."

You are worthy of friendship. Everyone is! More than that, the problems you describe are incredibly common. I hear similar stories all the time, including from some of the most outwardly confident and successful people you can imagine. It is amazing how many of us struggle with those self-doubting internal voices. But they can be managed by finding someone to help guide you through the discovery process I described.

All the best,

Do you have a story that you tell people about how you and your significant other met? If so, then the Question of the Week is for you!
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