Saturday, December 30, 2006

Question of the Week #19: Relationship Resolutions


Should auld acquaintance be ... um, better?

Happy New Year everyone! There is really only one question that makes the most sense to ask this week; I'm talking about New Years relationship resolutions.

My theory is that nobody is perfect, so striving to improve is a healthy thing for all of us. Is there someone with whom you would like to get along better in some way? What could you resolve to change about your own behavior that might improve one (or perhaps all) of your relationships? Or maybe you're not sure what specific behavior changes might help, but there is a result you'd like to achieve. If so, let us know. I'll come clean with a relationship resolution of my own next week, along with a roundup of favorites from among yours.

And as a bonus question this week, consider this: To Love, Honor, and Dismay will soon publish the 100th Dismaying Story. This is due in large part to the continuing contributions of all you Faithful Readers, for which I am constantly thankful. Do you have any ideas how we could celebrate this milestone?
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Friday, December 29, 2006

Dismaying Story # 96: Uncharacteristic Behavior




This question came to me by way of my colleague Rod Smith, a family therapist, coach, author and newspaper columnist whose blog is listed in my sidebar under Difficult Relationships.

Dear Andrew,

My girlfriend and I, both 24 years old, have been in a committed relationship for four and a half years. We both form part of an extended social group involving university and church activities. She has been loved and accepted as part of my family as we intend to marry after we complete our studies in 2007. All of her immediate family has emigrated. We have slept together but in the context of a committed loving relationship.

Recently, all within a few weeks, she began an sms flirtation with the boyfriend of a friend of hers (an old school friend not part of our group who is overseas for a while) which developed into exchanging provocative emails in which she sent him full frontal nude pictures of herself. They did meet a few times and she then drove a considerable distance to spend the night with him one night. This obviously took place without my knowledge.

Through our extensive social network, I and our friends have found out, and are shocked and confused by her uncharacteristic behavior and betrayal. She does not deny anything, but strangely does not understand and can not explain her actions and appears to be embarrassed and upset about what she has done, although I have to wonder if this has only surfaced because she has been found out.

My family and I now face a choice of assisting her (and me) perhaps with counseling to discover the root of her actions and reconcile, or to move our lives forward without her to avoid further betrayal.

My question is – can you offer any insight as to why someone might suddenly behave in a manner so out of keeping with their normal character, and although understanding the hurt she has caused can not offer any explanation?

Signed, Baffled and Surprised


Dear Baffled and Surprised,

When you say her dalliance is uncharacteristic, ask yourself if that is in comparison with (a) her inner characteristics, or (b) your experience with her. It can only be the latter, because there is no way for you to understand her nature except through her external actions; only she can experience her hopes, desires, dreams, and emotions directly.

In the past you have seen her behave as a committed, church-going individual. Now you see a completely different side of her exposed and you ask yourself if your longstanding opinions could be wrong. You planned to marry, and you became committed to this plan in every sense of the word. You have invested a considerable amount of time, energy and emotion into your dream for the future, and quite understandably you would rather not have to abandon this dream and start over. You are grieving the possible loss of your idyllic future together and grasping for some possibility that would allow you to regain what you have lost.

Your letter implies the possibility of some psychological or medical condition that might explain the affair as an uncontrollable sudden impulse that surprised even her, something for which she could be treated and cured so you could have your future back. This is so extremely unlikely that I would categorize it under wishful thinking on your part. If she had some treatable condition that affected her behavior to that extent, this would have exhibited itself in many aspects of her life.

Instead, she behaved normally toward you in every way while she snuck around behind your back and very deliberately worked her way from flirtation to brazen overture and finally a sexual affair. She clearly wanted this, planned it, orchestrated it and made it happen. Is this out of character for her? In one sense it is -- this is a departure from your past experience with her. She has now shown you, however, that her true nature extends beyond what you have known in the past. You have discovered her to be two-faced, deceitful and selfish, but this is inconsistent with your cherished future plans so you don't want to believe it.

She is embarrassed because she got caught, period. She is not at all confused about why she had the affair; she did it because she wanted to, because her commitment to your relationship is nowhere near as complete as your own. She didn't offer any explanation to you because she had none that would satisfy you and allow your relationship to continue. She wants her safe engagement and her fun on the side, and she knows she would lose you if she told you the bald truth about why she had the affair.

If you marry this woman, you are letting yourself in for more of the same kind of treatment. Continuing with her will send a clear message that she can engage in whatever kind of behavior she wants and you will find a way to sweep it under the rug and keep on truckin'.

This is not a case for therapy. My advice is to run. Cut your losses and start fresh.

All the best,
Andrew
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Thursday, December 28, 2006

You May Regret Reading This Post!

Or you may not. Who knows, maybe you're into really bad take-offs of Christmas songs. In any case, so many of you were kind enough to respond to the most recent Question of the Week that I was inspired to burst into song. Sing along with me now. You know how the tune goes.

*clears throat*

The 12 Days of Christmas
(except we're only doing 5 days)



On the first day of Christmas, Margaret said to me,
"My family loves me all through the year!"


On the second day of Christmas, Klynn said to me,
"Money's always tight,
and thank God it's over for another year!"



On the third day of Christmas, Mark said to me,
"Presents are the culprits,
Meeting expectations
Are the reasons Christmas's stressful every year."



On the fourth day of Christmas, Smallfat said to me,
"I start in November,
Playing festive music,
Despite the obligations,
What a cheery way to finish off the year!"

On the fifth day of Christmas, Thee Hannah shared with me,
"Five holiday rules:
No gifts for older cousins,
Likewise for my friends,
No need to cook big meals,
Only do the things you like this time of year!"

---------------

Okay, so there were only four holiday rules in that last verse. She also said her family lessens their holiday stress because, "We don't let other people hijack our vacation time; we don't feel obligated to attend every single holiday function to which we are invited."

Thanks to everyone who left a comment. I hope your brand of holiday celebrating was wonderful ... or maybe you're still in the midst of it. In any case, I appreciate the contributions!

I'll be back tomorrow with a new Dismaying Story. See you then!
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Saturday, December 23, 2006

Wishing You the Best of the Holiday Season!


Merry Christmas everyone!
Happy Hanukkah!
Happy Kwanzaa!

Over the next few days I will be tearing wrapping paper off gifts, eating turkey and dressing (I've always liked the dressing best), visiting with my in-laws (which includes the Exalted Aunt... have I mentioned I worship the ground she baby sits on?), drinking eggnog, staying on the lookout for mistletoe, and generally celebrating the festive season. In the meantime, if you have wandered by looking for a few minutes of distraction, here are a few items you might peruse:
  • Yesterday's article about questions you should ask before getting married has already generated a fair amount of discussion, which has turned in directions I did not anticipate. This article has raised issues about living together before marriage (and whether this makes you more or less prone to divorce later) and whether your son should wear pink. Have a look.
  • The current Question of the Week is about, appropriately enough, the impacts of the holiday season on your relationships. I'll be summarizing the comments when I return so be sure to leave a few thoughts of your own.
  • A recent article about settling versus working on your marriage has generated a great deal of interest. The comments offer a number of viewpoints and are well worth checking out.
  • Or if you're just in the mood for some holiday reading, here are a couple of articles from the vaults: When Sleeping Really Means Sleeping raises some interesting issues about balancing what goes on in your relationship with the perception of others, and The Not So Handyman opens up a can of worms about supportiveness within a marriage.
That should hold you for a few days until the turkey wears off and I can sit sufficiently upright to post again. Until then, be nice to one another, remember hugs and smiles make great gifts, and be sure to write in and tell me what's going on with your relationships.

Happy Holidays!
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Friday, December 22, 2006

Do You Agree with the New York Times?


Paul was kind enough to let me know about a recent New York Times article entitled Questions Couples Should Ask (Or Wish They Had) Before Marrying. This article was their most frequent download for a week or two after it was published. I would love to hear your comments on these questions. Here are a few of my thoughts:

1) Have we discussed whether or not to have children, and if the answer is yes, who is going to be the primary care giver?

3) Have we discussed our expectations for how the household will be maintained, and are we in agreement on who will manage the chores?


Ah yes, sharing the domestic workload. Where have we heard that before? (Maybe here...) I think it's a great idea to open the dialogue on these issues before getting married. A word of caution, though; I have heard from many women whose husbands said they would help out, but then failed to follow through when the time came. The idea of sharing the workload might sound great in theory, but old-fashioned, stereotypical gender expectations often rear up and cause havoc at crunch time. Sure, talk about these issues as early as possible, but don't be surprised if it still takes some time to hash out how things will really work between the two of you.

Also, both of those questions are worded in a way that implies one partner should be expected to shoulder the bulk of the child care and housework burden. It may work that way in many households, but I also know of several where neither spouse is considered the primary parent nor the one who "owns" the chores. I'd prefer a question like: "Can we agree that we will share the chores as equally as possible? (allowing of course for the realities of life)"

2) Do we have a clear idea of each other’s financial obligations and goals, and do our ideas about spending and saving mesh?

How many young people are likely to know how shared finances will work when they haven't ever tried to do so? And how many have yet to arrive at a mature understanding of how they should manage their personal finances? (Or, for that matter, how many older people have yet to do so?) It's easy to say, "Oh, yes, we should save forty percent of every paycheck in a fund we'll never ever touch." That's easy to say but often harder to live up to. Agreeing on a financial plan before you marry doesn't mean you are done wrangling about the issue. Many times it only means you can say, "But you agreed we would do it this way!"

I don't mean to sound pessimistic. Certainly talk about these issues before getting married. Just be realistic and know there will still be work to do later.

4) Have we fully disclosed our health histories, both physical and mental?

Agreed. Anything but complete honesty here should be a deal breaker.

5) Is my partner affectionate to the degree that I expect

What if they aren't? Does that mean you should cancel or postpone the wedding? Maybe yes, maybe no; that's up to you to decide. Simply talking about this may not prompt the cold fish partner to warm up. On the other hand, such discussions can uncover underlying issues that can then be cleared up, thus relieving tension and opening the door to more spontaneous affection.

6) Can we comfortably and openly discuss our sexual needs, preferences and fears?

In my experience many young couples would answer this question with a "no," and not because they are dysfunctional. Young folks (heck, many older folks) often take a while to find their personal comfort zones when it comes to sex. Many issues still loom when they get married, such as the need to avoid pregnancy (at least for a while), the "chased versus chaser" mentality, the "sex is bad" messages that many people are bombarded with during their teens, and so on. A healthy dollop of tension around sex is common and should not be considered a reason to give up on a fledgling relationship.

7) Will there be a television in the bedroom?

I've never had one in my bedroom. Does anybody want to comment on this one?

8) Do we truly listen to each other and fairly consider one another’s ideas and complaints?

This is huge. The two people who truly respect each other, listen, and do their best to help each other (including a willingness to accept constructive criticism) -- this is a marriage with a good chance to flourish.

9) Have we reached a clear understanding of each other’s spiritual beliefs and needs, and have we discussed when and how our children will be exposed to religious/moral education?

Unlike the housework and sex issues, this is one where I would expect many people to have strong self awareness, even at a young age. And it's definitely a good idea to understand any sensitivities in this area.

10) Do we like and respect each other’s friends?

11) Do we value and respect each other’s parents, and is either of us concerned about whether the parents will interfere with the relationship?

12) What does my family do that annoys you?


How someone reacts to and gets along with others -- that tells you a great deal about that person. Beware the potential partner who has problems with everyone else in your life, or who wants to keep you all to themselves. If they have problems with everyone, remember they are the common factor in all those problems.

13) Are there some things that you and I are NOT prepared to give up in the marriage?

Come on, fella, she's right. That brown Naugahyde armchair is downright ugly. Pitch the chair and give her free rein to decorate the new place however she wants.

14) If one of us were to be offered a career opportunity in a location far from the other’s family, are we prepared to move?

I can see how this would be good to discuss, to have a general understand of the importance of extended family to each of you. I suspect, though, that such issues evolve over time and the answer depends on many factors, such as how juicy is the job opportunity, which of your family members still live in your home town by then, and so on.

15) Does each of us feel fully confident in the other’s commitment to the marriage and believe that the bond can survive whatever challenges we may face?

In other words, do we both feel good about doing this? Are we both optimistic? Please, if you answer no to this one, don't feel like it is too late to postpone or back out. It is much easier to have second thoughts beforehand than it is to undo things once you are married, especially once children are involved.

Now if you have a few moments in the midst of your holiday shopping and celebrating, I'd love to hear what you think.

Oh, and as an early Christmas present for all you grammar lovers out there, I gave in to the requests and added the serial comma in the banner at the top of this site.
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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Dismaying Story #95: Forgiveness Is A Gift You Give Yourself


Dear Andrew,

About six months ago, my boyfriend of two and a half years and I broke up. We still love each other, but since we were finishing university and were embarking on significant lifestyle changes, we decided that it was best to call it off, rather than fighting to keep together a relationship that was already falling apart. (The one thing we shared was that we loved each other. We wanted very different things out of life; had very different interests; different values; different approaches to life. My family didn't like him, he didn't like them. Once we finished university we could no longer sustain the relationship we had enjoyed as students.

About three months ago, I met a guy that was the polar opposite of my Ex. We hit it off right away, and began to hang out on a daily basis, on a platonic level, after work, and it seemed like everything we talked about just brought us even closer, and brought to light more similarities between us. About a week later, he expressed a romantic interest in me. I was flattered, and admitted that I was attracted to him as well, but expressed hesitation to get involved in anything with him because a) we are coworkers; and b) I was just coming out of a very serious relationship, and didn't want to start something on the rebound. He agreed to take it slowly and just see where things went. However, he didn't stop pursuing me fairly aggressively. And I didn't object to being pursued in this way. It was nice to feel desirable and wanted, especially since my Ex had cut himself off from me entirely.

What transpired was a fairly intense relationship that remained unlabeled and underhanded. Because we are coworkers, and didn't want to become fodder for office gossip, we conducted a lot of our romantic activities on the sly. About three weeks in, my Ex showed up at my front door, crying, and begging me to take him back. Although I had spent three months wishing for this situation, I finally felt as though I was moving on, and told him that I was seeing someone else. A few days later, the new guy took me to his home before a party we were going to attend together, and we slept together for the first time. The entire experience felt dirty and wrong. Two days later, he said that we needed to talk and told me that he felt that our relationship had come together in a very dysfunctional way, and it made him uncomfortable, and he didn't want to end up hurting me in the same way he had hurt girls in the past, so he thought we should stop seeing each other.

I agreed that we had rushed things and jumped into a sexual relationship that I, at least, was not ready to have. We agreed to rewind a bit, and revert to the "dating" stage, and take things one step at a time. The next day, at work, as we went to get our morning coffee, he said that he had thought about it some more, and wanted us to be entirely platonic. That evening, as we chatted online, he explained that after we had slept together, he had started thinking about a serious relationship that had ended about two years ago, in which he and his girlfriend had been on the verge of engagement, before he panicked, and she gave up on him. He said that in retrospect, he thinks he should have married her, and every relationship he has been in since has ended up being a train-wreck, because of his inability to connect, and he claimed that he didn't want me to become part of his "relationship chaos and carnage roadshow."

This made (and continues to make) me very angry. I was entirely upfront with him from the very beginning about my reservations about getting into a relationship, and my personal and emotional difficulties. He knew that I'd been struggling with depression for a few years; he knew that I used to cut; he went in with all the cards on the table. He also knew what his own background was. But he chose to not share any of this information with me; he chose to lead me to believe that he really wanted to be with me. He chose to convince me that he was looking for a serious relationship. I feel used, and dirty. If he felt that he wasn't ready for a relationship, he shouldn't have started one. In effect, he told me what I wanted to hear, and toyed with my emotions until I began to believe that I might actually be able to be happy with him; and the moment I slept with him, he lost interest and backed out. I've tried to give him the benefit of the doubt, because I DO still have to work with him, and see him five days a week, but the more I think about it, the more used I feel. I feel as though he took advantage of my vulnerability and naivete, and turned me into a notch on his bedpost.

Am I being unreasonable? Because of him, I destroyed any possibility of getting back together with my Ex, as well, and that makes the anger even more intense. I want to stop hating him and I want to stop loathing myself, but I have no idea how to do this. The worst part is that deep down, I really want to believe that he's a good guy, and that once he sorts himself out, we will end up together.

Signed, Hurting and Hating


Dear Hurting and Hating,

Both of the guys in this story told you, "I don't want to be with you." This is a difficult message to hear because it bashes your feelings of self worth and clashes with your strong desire to make a relationship work. More than that, they delivered this message in an ambivalent, on-again, off-again fashion, which makes it even more difficult for you to decide what you want and predict what will happen. You spent three months wishing for your ex to show up and you still hope to end up with the co-worker.

For your own sanity, the first thing I recommend you do is realize neither of these guys is the one for you. Regardless of the reasons, "I don't want to be with you" is a pretty clear indication that they don't want to be with you. Why should a dynamic bundle of personable hotness like you put up with that? You deserve (and need) a better deal than that. You gave it a try with each of them and it didn't work out. You learned some lessons and got your feelings bruised. If you step back and look at the big picture, though, you will realize that you are still a whole person and you are now free to get on with life, which hopefully includes meeting Mr. Right and having many wonderful bowls of ice cream together. Don't hold on to the flimsy hope of getting back into one of these damaged partnerships. Doing so will only prevent you from finding a fulfilling relationship. Put them behind you and move on, and do it today.

Regarding your co-worker, you did not destroy your chances with your ex "because of him." If you and your ex were meant for each other, if things were great between you, then (a) you wouldn't have broken up (this happened because of real problems), and (b) no fresh-off-the-vine new boyfriend would have been enough to make you turn away the crying ex. You would have swept him into your arms and held on tight. It didn't work out between you and your ex because of the problems between the two of you, not because of your co-worker.

When your ex showed up and you "felt like you were moving on," that was because you were moving on. You were not at your final destination, though, just the next stop along your life journey. You may feel like you wasted your time with your co-worker. I would argue, though, that dating your co-worker helped you understand there was life after your ex, which is something you needed to find out. While hurtful in the end, this brief relationship also fulfilled some of your needs for a while. Rather than focusing entirely on the painful aspects of this experience, it might help you to realize that some good came from it as well.

Then there is your anger over feeling used and poorly treated by your co-worker, about all the things he should have done differently. Naturally you are interpreting the relationship from your point of view. If you are honest, I suspect you'll have to admit to yourself that you entered the relationship because of what it might mean for your life; it made you feel desirable and wanted, like you were moving on, etc. You did not say to yourself, "I should start dating this guy because it will help him feel good about himself." No, we enter relationships because of our own hopes and needs. That doesn't mean you don't care about the other person, just that your own viewpoint dominates your thinking at the beginning.

This is evident in your letter, which interprets what happened only from your point of view. This is natural and understandable, but I believe you can gain a greater understanding of what happened if you now step back and also consider events from his viewpoint.

You now know that he has been carrying a big load of emotional baggage for at least two years. He entered your relationship in a state of weakness, and was hopeful this would be the one to break him out of it. He desperately wanted this to succeed so he could get past his problems. Of course he wouldn't dump his baggage on you at that point. Suppose he said, "Just so you know, I'm a total emotional mess inside and I can't get over my old flame and I have sabotaged every one of my recent relationships with my dysfunction." That would have you (and most women) making excuses and heading for the door in short order, which is exactly the opposite of what he was desperate to achieve. And in the eternal optimism of the dopamine-driven early stages of dating, he truly hoped and believed he would never have to tell you this, because THIS one was finally going to work out for him, dammit.

But it didn't, in fact couldn't. He needs to get over his internal anguish and forgive himself for his past decisions, and no new relationship can help him do that. He needs to heal inside before he will be able to fulfill his end of a functional relationship.

But he didn't know that when he started dating you, and in all probability he still doesn't realize it. You say he should have told you, and he should have realized, and he should have known better than to start something with you. That is the same as saying he should be aware of the nature of his dysfunction and should be able to get past it. Clearly he hasn't been able to do that; he is still mired in his past and can't see a way out. "Except maybe," he thinks, "if I find someone else, that will make the memories go away," which is what he tried with you.

You feel like he got the sex he wanted and then lost interest. I don't see it that way. I believe he failed in achieving what he wanted (to feel a strong attachment for you, thereby erasing his painful past). He ended it with you because his pain persisted in spite of how your relationship had progressed. He wasn't happy to notch his bedpost; he was miserable that his hopes didn't pan out and he was right back where he started ... and he had hurt you in the process. Considered from this point of view, his statement that he didn't want to hurt you any further was probably sincere.

Yes, one could argue that he might have spared you the pain if he had been more honest about himself up front. And you could beat yourself up wondering if you should have seen the signs and avoided getting involved with him. None of this helps you, though. All it does is make the pain persist longer than necessary.

Do you really need to assign blame? How does this help you? You need to forgive him for hurting you. And don't do it for his sake; forgiveness is a gift you give yourself. It is the way you free yourself from the pain and allow yourself to gain closure, to move past the recriminations and brooding. I truly believe your co-worker did what he did based on hopefulness. Perhaps this realization will help you feel compassion for his pain, as well as forgiveness for sharing it with you.

Similarly, you need to forgive yourself for being human. We all want to feel desirable and wanted, and you shouldn't beat yourself up for trying to find happiness. I've yet to see a crystal ball that really works, so at the beginning there was no way you could have been expected to know how things would work out.

A better approach would be to open your heart in case Mr. Right walks by later today. And in case he happens to be on his way to an ice cream parlor.

All the best,
Andrew

Is the holiday season hard on your relationships? Or does this time bring you closer to your friends and family members? Weigh in with your opinion by checking out the current Question of the Week.
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Sunday, December 17, 2006

Dismaying Story #94: Is It Wrong to Settle?


Dear Andrew,

I wonder how many women out there have 'settled,' meaning they are not in love and never were with their partner, but because of finances or some other reason have settled. Is that why there are a lot of women out there that lose themselves in Harlequin Romances? Is that why they find themselves in chat rooms on the Internet, or worse, at dating sites?

I have two sons of 30 and 32. Both of them have been dating a special girl for several years. I know they are not happy, and when I had a chance to talk to them alone I told them how I felt. I said, son, don't settle! If you're not absolutely in love with this woman, keep going. If your eyes don't light up when she enters the room, keep going. If she is gone for three days and you don't miss her and yearn for her return, keep going. Don't settle! Not only are you being unfair to yourself, you're also doing her an injustice.

That's the advice I gave them.

Sadly, I haven't taken my own advice. For the past 10 years I've been living with a man who has made my life easier. I met him when I began bringing up my own grandkids. He just made it much easier for me to do this. By bringing home a steady paycheck, it enabled me to stay home and bring up these kids. We meet each other's needs and respect each other. He wants someone to come home to at night, cook his meals, and I need someone to help me bring up these kids of 8 and 11.

Our daily talk is of the weather and the kids and bills. He is no great thinker. He's a very simple man with very simple needs. We are opposites; while I need intellectual stimulation, he doesn't. He's content to sit on the couch and watch sci-fi movies.

I know I'm not the only one, and I believe if we did wait for this 'great love' in our life, many of us would be alone.

It could be that because at 21, I met and married a very abusive man and got divorced six years later. Perhaps that has led me to believe there is no such thing as the perfect love, the perfect soul-mate. After that disaster, I decided to be alone. Then at 46 I took on the responsibility of my grandson and met this guy. I was unemployed at the time. We dated, but I broke off the relationship four times. I felt suffocated. Finally I gave in. He just made it so easy and my life was easier knowing that I could handle this responsibility.

I read stories in the Oprah magazine about great marriages and couples who still love each other passionately after twenty or thirty years. A part of me is jealous and the other part doesn't believe it.

I personally don't know any couple that I can say without a doubt are deeply in love and have been for years.

Signed, Taking the Easier Road


Dear Taking the Easier Road,

It would be easy for me to sit here and preach about how no one should settle, and how a deep and abiding love is this sacred thing that everyone can have if they only have faith and are willing to work at it and...

...and I'm not going to do that. Like most of the issues that get thrashed around on this site, this one can be viewed from different directions. Here are a couple (and I'm sure the readers can offer others).

Most everyone would love to be perfectly fit, in wonderful health, have a worry-free supply of well-managed finances, be in a rewarding career that fits your interests and doesn't over-burden your life, have plenty of time to enjoy fulfilling hobbies and interests, and so on. Life has many dimensions and unfortunately not everyone succeeds equally well in all of them.

Some people have a knack for creating wealth, while others scrape by from paycheck to paycheck. Success may come from skill and daring, while happenstance and good fortune seem to smile more on some people than on others.

The same is true for love. Building a relationship works best when people feel good about themselves, are willing to compromise, are compassionate and empathetic, share some commonalities, find each other physically attractive, and on and on. Some part of this is skill -- the ability to get along with people, to communicate clearly, to interpret the intentions of others correctly, etc. -- and there is also luck involved: for example, the people you happen to meet, and whether you feel that zing of attraction when you do.

Many people have negative experiences that inhibit their ability to succeed in this area; they have extra emotional hurdles to overcome because of rape, abuse, or a variety of other types of prior life trauma. In terms of interpersonal skills, some people are simply stronger than others. It is little wonder, then, that not everyone develops a love worthy of a Harlequin romance.

This is not necessarily an excuse to settle, though. For example, your finances might have always been horrid, but you can still decide to hone your money management skills and improve your situation. The same is true for your relationship skills (though I think relationships are more complex than checkbooks, so the learning path is not always as clearly defined).

Your letter implies he is inherently the wrong guy and your choices are (a) stay and settle, or (b) leave and in all likelihood be alone. There are actually more options than that. You could put some work into developing common activities for the two of you to enjoy. Maybe you could entice him into horseback riding, golf, biking, or ballroom dance lessons. Find ways to cheer and giggle together and you just might be surprised what this will do for your attitude toward each other.

Try pretending that he is the love of your life, and act that way for a week or two. You might be amazed what this does to your mind-set and to his behavior toward you. It's highly likely that he is well aware of your ambivalence about him, which makes him less likely to show affection for you, which feeds your negative feelings, and the negative spiral is on. Put a conscious effort into reversing the emotional vibes for a while and the spiral now has a chance to move in the other direction.

Like the old saying goes, if you can't be with the one you love (that is, someone who matches your vision), then love the one you're with.

Here is another way to think of this issue. What if you were alone with a guy on a desert island? Assume there is no chance of ever escaping. Chances are he wouldn't be the guy you would pick if you had thousands to choose from, but he's the one who happened to survive the shipwreck. Isolation is the overriding factor here, which I believe would drive most couples in this situation together.

Many of us become partially isolated for a variety of reasons. Your personal desert island is defined by your abusive prior relationship and the hardships of raising two grandchildren with little or no income. I wouldn't wonder if your current partner has had life challenges of his own (e.g. loneliness). These factors drive the two you together, and ignoring them for some ideal vision of love would be unrealistic.

Does this mean those with hardships should just accept whatever partner they can get? Of course not; we all have our own threshold for when a relationship is not worth keeping. But neither should we beat ourselves up if our love life is partially driven by pragmatic factors.

And for the record, my wife and I have been married for 22 years and we're still crazy about each other. (Is she crazy to put up with me that long? You decide.) What about the rest of you out there? Can you offer a hopeful story to Taking the Easier Road?

All the best,
Andrew
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Saturday, December 16, 2006

Question of the Week #18: Holiday Togetherness


Family time. Togetherness. Celebration. Those sound like the sorts of things that should help strengthen relationships over the holidays, don't they? A relaxing evening with a glass of bubbly. A romantic interlude next to the fire, with the Christmas tree lights blazing nearby. It's almost a Hollywood cliché for how to get people to bond with each other.

Or you could think about the relatives who don't see much of each other through the year, but are now thrown together in close quarters for a few days. Is it any wonder family tensions sometimes erupt? Then there is the stress of all the preparation, making everything just so, working hard and traveling far to meet expectations and live up to your family's holiday traditions. Yours wouldn't be the first set of nerves to be frayed from staying up late because of "some assembly required."

What is your experience? Pick one of your relationships, perhaps with your significant other or your parents, and consider this: Do the holidays bring you closer together? Or does the hectic activity create extra stress between you? And what could people do to make it more of the former and less of the latter?

I'm looking forward to hearing your thoughts. I'll post a few thoughts of my own along with my favorite comments next week.
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Thursday, December 14, 2006

Addicted to Love ... For Real!




Robert Palmer knew a thing or two about love. Sing it with me now everyone!





Your lights are on, but you're not home
Your mind is not your own
Your heart sweats, your body shakes
Another kiss is what it takes

You can't sleep, you can't eat
There's no doubt, you're in deep
Your throat is tight, you can't breathe
Another kiss is all you need

Whoa, you like to think that you're immune to the stuff, oh yeah
It's closer to the truth to say you can't get enough
You know you're gonna have to face it, you're addicted to love.


We all remember those heady days of infatuation, don't we? Maybe you're in the midst of them now, or you are trying desperately to recapture that heart-throbbing, stay-up-all-night feeling.

It's common knowledge that the pure excitement phase does not last forever. Long-term relationships settle down into a comfortable co-existence, pleasurable to be sure, but not the same as those early days. And thank goodness. Could we survive the exhaustion if the rest of our days were filled with that much adrenaline and energy?

We humans like to think of ourselves as cranial creatures. We choose our mates and value such characteristics as intelligence. It turns out, though, that the chemistry in our bodies has a lot to do with those feelings of attraction.

When you meet someone and say, "There was this immediate chemistry between us," you are probably referring to dopamine. Dopamine is a brain chemical that, in the right proportions, is linked to those feelings of excitement, focused attention and high-energy euphoria. According to sources like this WebMD article, dopamine is part of the reason that new lovers feel bold and are willing to stay up all night to pursue a new relationship.

And you thought it was because you liked his dimples.

This also explains some of our typical dating behavior. Young people on a first date are more likely to hop on the thrill rides at the amusement park than they are to visit an art museum. (I know, I know, some of you went to the museum, but hear me out...) The thrill rides stimulate dopamine production, which make it more likely that you will feel attracted to your companion.

I can see all the guys out there scurrying to buy tickets.

The research shows that chemistry also plays a role in long-term attraction. Oxytocin is produced when you see your spouse or hug your child. It is part of the internal chemical cocktail that keeps us feeling that strong attraction over many years. Want to keep that lovin' feeling? Have pleasurable sex together, and often. Apparently massages and orgasms trigger oxytocin production.

Of course, the same researchers found that love and obsessive-compulsive disorder have a similar chemical profile, so you might as well face it, baby; you're addicted to love. We all are.
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Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Dismaying Story #93: Moving Past the Fear


Dear Andrew,

I've made poor relationship choices in the past, repeating what was modeled to me as a child. Now I want a healthy relationship but I'm unsure how I can allow myself to have one. Are there steps/questions that one goes through while dating in order to dig out the weeds and allow the garden to shine through?

My mom was bi-polar, she loved me and hated me and was abusive. My dad is a controlling man who traveled a lot for work and when he was home I was his little princess. He would bring me gifts from all over the world. My mom would use me as a pawn when ever she needed more money, depriving me of things -for example a shower or a bath - claiming she couldn't afford to pay the household bills. Then he'd give her more household money, which taught me love was conditional. My kids and cats taught me love was unconditional.

In the past I dove into relationships way too fast, then when I'm in, I will do anything to keep it even when I know it's bad. I give away my needs for the needs in the relationship, which are generally his. The men I choose are unavailable emotionally. Then I run away and look for another one because my needs are not being met. This is the reason I've been living on my own for a while - to break that pattern.

Dating men who lack intimacy may very be because I also fear intimacy. If I don't give away that part of me, then it's like I'll be safe... but it hasn't worked yet. At this point I'm willing but scared to let go, to let someone really get to know me.

Also, abandonment issues raise their ugly head when I attempt a relationship. My mom was only half there when I was growing up, which left me fearful of being left. It's easier to not even get involved in the first place, or to give men the sex they want without any feelings. I know I have to do things differently but I don't know how.

The bottom line is, I've met someone who is willing to go as slow as I want. I've told him what I'm willing to do and what I'm not willing to do, but how do I know if I'm just keeping him at arms length to get to know him better or if I'm doing it because I don't want to let him get to know me?

I've had some insight reading The Intimacy Struggle by Janet Woititz. It has been very enlightening, not only for my behaviors but also for my prior partners.

Signed, Afraid to Jump


Dear Afraid to Jump,

Fear is a learned response. Your past experiences have taught you that you can expect the people in your life to:
  • consider you as not worth much (less valuable than, say, household spending money);
  • leave you alone whenever they feel like it;
  • be emotionally abusive, and so on.
More than that, deep down inside (or maybe even not so deep) you have come to believe that you deserve to be treated like that. You feel like you are not worthy of loving companionship.

You keep guys at arms length for at least two reasons. One, you expect them to hurt you, and two, you don't dare let them see the real you. You have built up a brave, happy, hard-working, over-achieving persona that you show the world every day. (I'm guessing on a couple of those adjectives, but I bet I'm close.) You are afraid to let any guy get too close because he would discover the "truth" -- that behind the facade there is this person with so many faults, which means she is not really worthy. And if he discovers your true nature, he is sure to do just like everyone else; he will leave.

So maybe you try to let a guy in, just a little, and what happens -- the closer he gets, the more fearful you become, which makes you shut down emotionally and push him away.

Now what kind of guy would be attracted to a relationship like that? You mentioned him in your letter: someone who is emotionally unavailable. You each feel like a safe place for the other because neither of you will demand more than the other can give. It's like two terrified middle school kids who claim to be going steady, yet they physically hold each other as far away as they can when they do the slow dance at the sock-hop, and both are glad to dance that way.

Neither of your get much from the relationship, though, so your fears and beliefs about yourself are confirmed. Then you break up, which strengthens your fears even more.

Happily, though, just as you learned these fears, it is also possible to discover how needless they are. You can replace them with trust in others and humble confidence in yourself. Reading the book you mentioned (and doing the work it suggests) is a reasonable way for you to begin this process. As I have mentioned before, you may also consider finding a coach or therapist to help you silence that inner voice, the one who is always predicting doom and telling you how worthless you are. Until you do so, you may find the prospect any relationship daunting, regardless of how great the guy is.

Your question, though, is what to do when you meet a guy. You might decide to wait while you work on your own issues, but then such issues are often managed rather than cured, so you will want to take the plunge at some point. When you do, the most basic question you should ask yourself is this: "Is he the type of guy who will (a) feed my fears, or (b) help to show me that my fears are groundless?" Will he bring you down or prop you up?

You learned to be afraid by repeated exposure to negative stimuli. To learn trust, you need to be exposed to guys who will treat you with respect, dignity, compassion and understanding. The brash, self-centered type is not the one you need right now. You should be looking for tender and patient, someone who will look you in the eyes and say, "You are a wonderful person, and of course I want to be with you." In other words, you need the exact opposite of the emotionally distant guys you mentioned in your letter.

Unfortunately, realizing what you need is no guarantee you will find it. Being aware of your needs, though, should put you in a better position when considering which guys to date and when evaluating how any relationship is proceeding.

You are most definitely worthy of love! Good luck!

All the best,
Andrew
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Sunday, December 10, 2006

Dismaying Story #92: Where Are All the Good Men?

Dear Andrew,

I am contemplating a relationship with a man older than myself who has two sons, aged 4 and 7. They live with their mother, but he spends as much time with them as possible and visits daily. I am 21 and he is 30. I was looking around online for advice about dating someone with children, and while there seems to be a wealth of information regarding dating as a single parent, there seems to be nothing about this topic. My concerns are not about future logistics as a "mother figure," as the relationship is not yet begun, but rather to do with our respective life experiences, and the bearing this will have on the success of a relationship. I feel that having children fundamentally changes people's life perspective and priorities. I fear that because I have no children, I could never really understand and appreciate his life perspective. I also feel I would always be lower priority than his children. Do I really want to be third in line?

I am also fearful of a relationship at all. I wonder if it's worth getting into another relationship that seems destined to fail, and after reading an older posting on your site (Dismaying Story #42: When an Age Gap Doesn't Work), I wonder if the same applies to me. Am I only attracted to this man because I think it will fail? We have talked about pursuing the relationship and have both agreed the timing is not right because of our various past difficult relationships, and the holiday season bringing stress to his family. We have discussed and agreed on all the difficulties a relationship of this nature would pose; issues like my still wanting to "party," his children, etc. Despite all this logical analysis and all the things stacked against it, I still feel like I want to pursue it. I guess I am confused because I am now second guessing myself and wondering if it's for the right reasons. Could I be just imagining our strong connection because it's what I desperately want to find?

I always seem to make the wrong choice with men and am terrified I will do it again. I constantly ask "Where are all the nice men?" but I never seem to be attracted to the nice ones. I know many women feel this way. Former short but serious relationships include a compulsive liar, a jealous control freak who emotionally abused me, and a conman/fraudster who was actually deported! With this list, I am not confident in my ability to pick suitable partners!

Signed, Afraid, Confused and Petrified


Dear Afraid,

Oftentimes someone will describe a relationship to me and ask me for an opinion on whether I think it could work out. Occasionally the signs are so clear that I must express my doubt, for instance in the presence of violent or emotional abuse, addiction or adultery.

Other times there are obvious challenges but I have to admit that I can't predict whether the union might or might not work out. The relationship game is not that cut and dry. Most of us know couples who seemed destined for each other but ended up in divorce court, and others who overcame tremendous odds and ended up growing old together.

Your story involves a few obvious obstacles, such as the age gap, your childless /partying lifestyle versus his role as a parent, and your insecurity over whether he would feel a closer bond with you or with his children. Could this possibly work out between the two of you? Sure, it might. Would there likely be problems along the way? Oh yeah, I'd say you could count on that.

But don't all of us need to work past difficulties in order to make our relationships work? Absolutely. The issue here is that you know about a few of the challenges right from the beginning.

That is actually a good sign. Both you and this guy have demonstrated level-headedness by recognizing that all is not peaches and cream. You have your eyes wide open, have discussed the potential issues rationally, and have exhibited caution. This type of maturity can serve you well as you try to work past issues in a relationship.

On the other hand, you still have this fire in your belly that is driving you forward. Passion, lust, desire, fun, tossing logic out the window and grabbing him with both hands and impulsively running away for the weekend -- these are what make relationships such an invigorating and rewarding part of life. Yes, you should listen to these instincts too.

How, then, can you resolve your quandary? In my opinion you can't -- not in your current state, not with any reasonable likelihood of success. Here's why.

In your letter, you talk about your desperation and lack of confidence when it comes to relationships. You want badly to be happily hooked up with a nice guy, but fear that it will never happen, that you in particular could never make it happen. Unfortunately your fear serves as a self-fulfilling prophecy. It makes you enter relationships with an expectation of failure and, most likely, a monumental chip on your shoulder. Guys who are attracted to quiet confidence and self-assured women will find this a turn-off; they will stay away in droves. On the other hand, these are precisely the characteristics that will draw in the men with a controlling nature. They will circle in on you from miles away like sharks following the scent of blood in the water. I have a great deal of confidence that this is part of the reason for your dysfunctional dating history.

Once you are in a relationship, your fear also stands in the way of making it work, or at least of making it work well. The inevitable issues that crop up will be blown out of proportion in your mind, serving as immediate reinforcement of your prediction that things wouldn't work out, that he wouldn't want you, and so on.

So here's my answer to your question. Before you can make a judgment about this or any other potential partner, you should focus on healing your own wounded spirit. Several of the posts on this site deal with developing humble self-confidence and stopping negative self-talk. You can start there, and consider finding yourself a coach or therapist to help you with these issues.

Coincidentally, yesterday's post includes a wonderful strategy for dealing with exactly your situation. Have a look at it; basically the idea is to imagine your life in the long term without a significant other, tweak this vision until you are happy with it, and then set out to make it happen. Once you are not so desperate to find a man, you will have an entirely differently perspective for evaluating potential relationships. More than that, you will start attracting a different sort of man, the kind who does not gravitate to needy, desperate women.

For the record, he should have a stronger bond with his children than with you. In fact, I would recommend you stay away from the guy if that were not the case. His children are dealing with the trauma of the breakup of their parents' marriage. They need his unswerving attention and devotion. They need it now and they need it often. Any father who allowed a new dating relationship to take precedence over those needs is probably not the kind of guy you want to end up with. Yes, it would be a challenge to play second (or third) fiddle for a while, and that may not be a challenge you want or need. His children are, however, where his first loyalties must reside.

All the best,
Andrew
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Saturday, December 09, 2006

Domestic Violence - Don't Put Up With It!

Many thoughts to everyone who commented on last week's question. I agree with Margaret, who said, "I believe that domestic violence is a conditioned and learned dysfunctional behavior."

The consensus among those who commented seems to be that the primary place we learn such behavior is in our childhood home. I also agree with this. Children learn by watching the examples we provide, and tend to replicate the environment in which they were raised. Young men who observe abuse between their parents learn that such behavior on their part is normal and will be tolerated. Young women in similar situations learn that they can expect no better from life and that they should put up with it.

When I see a young couple where she has low self-worth and he lacks maturity, these are red flags for me that the relationship will have serious issues, maybe even to the point of domestic violence. Ronni offered a list of other behaviors for girls to watch out for in their boyfriends:

If their boyfriend wants them to do things like dye their hair,

If he badmouths their friends and parents,

If he tries to get her to do things he knows are against her family's rules, like drink, or stay out past curfew,

If he pushes her around, even in fun,

If he sets "rules," or gets angry,

If he wants her to withdraw from school activities, like choir or cheerleading,

If he wants her to date him exclusively,

Any or all of these things are Red Flags.

Above all, girls need to remember that whatever he says or does, the behavior will escalate.

Most girls don't realize how serious this behavior can and WILL get.


Amen to that. A list like this should be required reading for all high school girls (and guys, for that matter). Girls should learn they can choose guys who don't act like this (and there are plenty of them out there) and guys should learn that such behavior will put them in the Alone Club pronto. Unfortunately girls do put up with guys like that, and the guys don't end up alone as a result. The sad truth is that too many young men believe this to be normal, and too many young women are so anxious to be validated and wanted that they will put up with it.

The one comment I have about that list is the exclusivity part. That may be a red flag for very young girls (and I suspect that is what Ronni meant) but being monogamous is a good thing for couples who are dating seriously, such as when they get to the point of contemplating marriage.

Ronni also offered some advice on how to attract the right kind of guy. I have heard about this type of strategy before and it makes perfect sense to me:

Women who feel that they need to be in a relationship in order to be happy or fulfilled tend to attract abusers. For grown women, I would suggest visualizing your life alone. Think about it down the years until you can see yourself as an old lady, alone. Now tweak your scenario until you like it. Maybe just in a studio apartment with a cat and your hobbies and friends. Maybe owning your own home. Maybe sharing a home with a room mate. Tweak it until you like it, and then set out to make it happen. There are much worse things than being alone.

All of a sudden you will start to attract men who respect and admire you for your self-confidence, rather than those who would control you.


We all advertise ourselves to the world. We tell others about the type of person we are and what we expect from the world, all by how we act. If you project an aura of fear and quiet desperation, you will tend to repel confident, "together" guys and attract those who can't quite seem to manage life. In other words, the image you project will determine how people respond to you.

Finally, Klynn told a powerful story from her own life that reinforces these thoughts. It seems she learned the right kind of lessons from her upbringing:

When my first marriage was getting rocky, my then-husband and I were having a loud argument. At one point, he pushed me, and I fell back to sit on the couch. It was just a push, nothing more. But silence ensued. After a moment of stunned wide-eyed silence, I picked up my toddler daughter, and walked out of the house, barefoot. I did not stop or look back. He eventually caught up with me a couple of blocks down the road, and was crying and begging me to come back. I made it clear that physical violence of any kind would NEVER happen in my house again. I was dead serious when I walked out that door, and he knew it. Eventually the constant arguing would lead us to the realization that we were not going to work it out, and that was no environment to raise a child, and we divorced. But, he never raised a hand toward me again. The moral to my story is that I had the upbringing and the self-esteem to not tolerate physical violence.

I know it can be tough to draw a line in the sand and really mean it when it comes to your marriage. Some behaviors, though, should be considered dead-stop deal breakers, and physical violence is one of them. Please, if you are living with this kind of abuse, make a commitment to make it stop. Tell your partner that you will no longer tolerate it, not for one instant. And if it doesn't stop, find somewhere else to be. Staying in such a situation can literally be life threatening and, as the comments from several readers attest, can doom your children to a similar life when they become adults.

Violent abuse is not normal. It is criminal.

Thanks again to everyone who contributed.
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Friday, December 08, 2006

Dismaying Story #91: The Contented Wetter

Dear Andrew,

What do you do when your three-year-old reverts back to wetting his pants? We are using regular trainers (cloth) and the wet doesn't seem to bother him. He still goes poo-poo in the potty, but now we're back to square one after three months of going in the potty. Any ideas?

Signed, Frequently Washing Clothes


Dear Frequently,

I would look at three possible factors: physical, emotional distractions, and behavior in response to rewards and/or penalties.

Let's start with the physical. At some point in this process, if nothing else seems to be working, you might want to consider taking your son to a physician to rule out urinary infection or other conditions that might make it more difficult for him to make it to the potty. If such accidents were to happen, some children may treat them as if they were no big deal in the hopes of avoiding a reprimand.

I suspect your problem is more likely to be a behavioral issue, though, especially if he has no other noticeable symptoms and is not complaining of any discomfort.

Has anything changed in his life that might be distracting for him? Using the potty is a new thing for him; it is not yet instinct. He still has to make a conscious decision to get up and go. If he is spending a major portion of his brain cycles worrying about some life issue, this can dramatically reduce his ability to remember to go to the potty. This could be anything he would find traumatic -- a new babysitter, Mommy and Daddy fighting more than usual, an increased level of tension in your home, and so on. If you know of any such issue, it might help to take steps to reduce the impact on him. Talk to him and help him put his mind at ease. This may not solve the issue, but it could remove a significant roadblock to doing so.

In terms of pros and cons, look at the issue from his point of view. He's hanging out, playing with some cool toy cars, and generally having a good time. Then the urge hits and he has a choice. Should he leave the cars (which at the moment is not something he wants to do) to go use the potty? Well, he figures, what's in it for me? What is my reward for going? Is it greater than the cost of staying where I am? That might have been the case when you first started the toilet training. I suspect he received plenty of attaboys when he first used the potty. Time has passed, however, and now maybe Mom and Dad take it for granted. He no longer gets the external reward. Sure, maybe he would prefer the dry pants, but you said this is no big deal to him, perhaps not as big a deal as taking a break from whatever he happens to be doing at the time.

One thing you can try is to change the equation for him. Increase the cost of peeing in his pants, as well as the reward for going in the potty. That doesn't mean you have to be angry or punish him. Instead, make it so he has to bear the cost of the "accident." Give him as little assistance as possible in removing the wet clothes. He may struggle a bit getting them off, but that's good -- it means an even longer break from his fun activity than it would have been if he had used the potty. Make him carry the wet clothes to the washing machine or laundry basket. He should get a wash cloth, run the water until it is warm, wet the cloth, and wash and dry himself off. You may have to help him if you want to avoid puddles on the floor, but do so as little as possible. Then it's off to the laundry again with the cloth. Next the two of you can visit his bedroom where he must pick out new clothes and do his best to put them on. Let him struggle with it for a while. Once that is accomplished, maybe you can get him to wipe the damp spot he made where he had the accident.

There is no need to act the least bit upset at any point in this process. He already knows you don't like the wetting, and now he is learning why -- because messes mean lots of work, and now it means lots of work for him too! He'll hate the disruption, which is exactly what you want.

On the reward side, you want to catch him succeeding at peeing in the potty and give him over-the-top praise and encouragement. You may not have had any chances recently to do that, so you might have to manufacture a few. Schedule a couple of hours when you can give him your full attention. Dress him in just training pants (turn up the heat if you have to) and offer him plenty of his favorite juice. Sock it right to him so hopefully he will have to pee several times during this session. As the two of you are playing, ask him frequently if he has to go to the potty. Tell him you expect him to make it there when the time comes. If he doesn't make it, you are back to the clean-up routine. If he succeeds, heap on the praise. Tell him how proud his grandmother will be to hear about his great accomplishment, how happy Daddy will be when he gets home. Celebrate after his success with a treat from the kitchen.

The combination of increasing both the cost and the reward should be effective.

Finally, don't forget to explain to him the reasons for all of this. Too often we forget that our little people are highly intelligent and can make better choices if they have all the facts. Make sure you explain to him how important it is for him to use the potty. Tell him about the extra laundry Mommy and Daddy have to do, how nobody likes the smell, and so on. Give him every possible reason to make the right decision.

I hope that helps. Good luck and let me know how it turns out.

All the best,
Andrew

I'm still looking for more input on this week's Question of the Week about domestic violence. Let us know what you think is the best way to deal with this issue.
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Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Dismaying Story #90: Circumventing Mom's Values

Dear Andrew,

I know tons of moms facing this issue. Maybe you can give some insight on how to handle this for the holidays, and it will work for the kids' birthdays and such also.

My husband and I are trying to live simply. We don't buy electronic toys for our children, and we try to avoid plastic "crap," violent toys/movies, and all the princess stuff. Problem is, my family doesn't understand this. They continue to give toys that I have told them are inappropriate for our values. We have told them we don't do these kinds of toys, we have offered suggestions, but to now avail. I even have one that insists on giving my 5 year old makeup and high heels! What can I do to keep the peace, and not have to fill my home with this stuff?

Signed, The Peacekeeper


Dear Peacekeeper,

The toys are not the main issue here. Your main problem is that virtual badge you have pinned on your own chest, proclaiming yourself to be Deputy Keeper of the Peace for your extended family. I have said this before on this site; once you get married and have children, they are now your main family and your primary concern.

In this case there is a conflict between the values you wish to use within your own household and the values of your extended family. You have to remember that it is your house and they are your children, period. It is up to you and your husband and no one else to decide what is appropriate for them to own. Inform your family members that if they give inappropriate gifts to your children against your wishes, you will return the gifts to the giver. (Or you will throw them out, or you will put them in permanent storage in a basement closet, your choice.) Tell them that they now know the ground rules, so they will be responsible if your kids are disappointed about having to do without a gift after opening and seeing it.

And you have to follow through on your promise, with absolutely no exceptions, regardless of the giver.

You have to realize that they are the offending party. These are your children, and your family members are trying to impose their own will on how they should be raised. Stick to your values. Your family members may test you on it, and they may grumble or complain when you keep your promise, but this strategy will stop the problem.

If your family members raise huge waves over this, then that is a bad reflection on them, not you. It means they don't respect your rights to raise your own children as you see fit. Again, you are in the right here.

In other words, you have to stand up to your family members and to heck with the consequences. Stop worrying about keeping the peace. That desire is leading you to be manipulated by your family. They will learn rather quickly that you have developed a backbone on this matter and they will toe the line, because they will hate it even worse that they end up giving no gift at all to your children.

Here is another way to think about this. You have developed those values for a reason -- because you believe that violating them will prove harmful to your children in the long term. Until now you have been acting as if the feelings of your extended family members are more important than the well-being of your children. If you step back and look at it from this viewpoint, I bet you will agree that this may not be the best way to balance those priorities.

Unpin that imaginary badge and your problem will disappear.

All the best,
Andrew

There have already been several amazing responses to this week's Question of the Week about domestic violence and young people. Take a moment to review the comments and leave one of your own.
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Monday, December 04, 2006

Dismaying Story #89: Learning to Fight Fair




Dear Andrew,

My husband and I cannot manage to resolve conflict. He has this passive aggressive strategy of dropping little verbal bombs, then denying he is even angry and not acknowledging there is a conflict then refusing to discuss the fact that now my feelings are hurt. This hurts my feelings further because I feel as if he does not give a hoot that I am upset, because he refuses to discuss the circumstances to a resolution. On occasion I will get a solicited, "Well then I'm sorry," which is very shallow and insincere.

I am getting tired of being beat up by him and having to "let it go" to keep peace in my marriage. I think one of the reasons he refuses to discuss anything is he rarely admits when he is the source of a mistake or may have been behaving inappropriate. I on the other hand am the type of person who does not sit well with conflict and prefers to confront the conflict, try to understand the other person, express myself so I feel I have been understood and then move forward.

Here is an example. Yesterday morning my husband told me we would be leaving for his brother's house at "about 12:30." To me this means give or take 15-20 minutes. I came downstairs at 12:50, ready to leave. He is sitting on the couch, visibly angry. I say, "Are you ready to go?" He responds, "Yep, I have been ready." My husband stomps around the house and gets in the car. On our way he expresses his irritation that we are late. I tell him you told me we were leaving at about 12:30. It is now ten after one, twenty minutes after I came down because the kids were not in the car and he had to collect his stuff. Now he denies ever saying that. He asks the kids what time he told them to be ready, ooooops....they say 12:30. Still nothing from him, pissed off mode. I say, "You said 'about.' If you meant pulling out of the driveway at 12:30, then you need to tell me that."

He says nothing while he can still affect the course of events, angrily comments after there is no turning back, lashes out at us all because we don't read his mind, then never apologizes and doesn't give a crap he hurt my feelings. That is the kicker of it all, he simply doesn't care that my feelings are hurt, and just expects me to "let it go" to keep peace.

This is very typical. He tries to appear very passive because he will never acknowledge his feelings and therefore he sees himself as very easy to get along with. I on the other hand find him somewhat impossible to get along with where conflict is concerned because he refuses to address it by simply refusing to talk about anything. My attempts to seek reconciliation are perceived as bullying. I back off, and nothing gets addressed. Even if I wait hours, days, weeks, we will not address the circumstances further. I cannot think of one time he has initiated a discussion with me to resolve a conflict. I have to drag him to a discussion and half the time that never accomplishes anything either because he will refuse to acknowledge his feelings. For example yesterday he said he wasn't mad, although he lashed out at me and the kids and was a total jerk.

I could use some help!

Signed, Looking to Talk Things Out


Dear Looking,

You should treat this as a project. The basic materials you will need are a good-sized piece of paper, a thick felt marker, and some tape to put the paper up on the wall. I'll get back to these in a moment.

The dynamic you describe is quite common. It occurs because without realizing it, you teach each other ineffective ways of responding to the other.

Here is how the cycle goes. You start with two people who dislike conflict intensely. That would be you and your husband. I can tell this because of the severity of your reactions. Both of you hate to be criticized and instinctively do things to avoid it. One of the issues is that your strategies for doing so are different.

You respond by actively trying to suppress any criticism coming from him, including any requests for change. (All such requests, no matter how positive and constructive, must include an element of criticism.) You immediately make it clear to him that his request is invalid, unwelcome and he is a jerk for making it. Don't believe me? Re-read your letter; you say exactly that. You are not doing this to be vindictive. Instead you feel attacked and poorly treated, and this is the way you have learned to deal with those feelings.

He responds to criticism by trying to avoid whatever instigated it in the past. As I have just described, you have taught him he will be criticized for admitting he is upset with you. He reacts by refusing to admit it. His coping strategy when he becomes upset is to deny, deny, deny, and then wait for the storm to blow over. Once in a while he becomes upset enough that he just has to say something (as in the "about 12:30" incident) but then he gets reminded rather quickly that this causes him to be criticized, so he retreats back inside his protective shell. Apologizing would mean admitting he is upset, which is inconsistent with his instinct of deny, deny, deny.

This teaches you that you will be punished for trying to talk out any issues. The punishment happens when he retreats into his uncommunicative shell and shuts you out, all the while making it abundantly clear with his nonverbal communication that he is galactically ticked off. As a result you have learned to "let it go" to "keep the peace." There is not really any peace to keep in that situation, though. You are both upset. You both desperately wish there were some way to make the issues go away, and you are tremendously frustrated that nothing seems to help.

Both of you are misinterpreting the actions of the other. He sees your reactions as aggression, not realizing they are really a manifestation of your insecurities about being criticized. Many people in your husband's position are simply astounded when they learn that their spouse's actions come from vulnerability, not a desire to dominate. A husband who believes his wife wants to dominate him will tend to resist, while one who is aware of his wife's vulnerability is more likely to want to protect and help her.

You believe his silence means that he doesn't care about you. As I have already described, this is not at all what causes his behavior. Like you, his self-esteem takes a hit when he gets criticized, so he tries to avoid that. His actions are the result of vulnerability (again, just like you), not callousness.

By not understanding the vulnerabilities involved, both of you become firmly entrenched in your criticism-avoidance strategies, and become even more convinced that the entire situation is the other person's fault. If you look at your letter, you will notice that you lay the blame at his feet and say nothing about the possibility that your own actions may be contributing to the problem.

This is not his fault, nor is it yours. This is a matter of the two of you not understanding each other and not knowing what to do. With a little insight and patience, you should be able to turn this around.

Since you wrote to me, you are the one who has to initiate the solution. You need to be the hero, the first one to swallow your pride and take action. So here is what you should do. Start by popping the cap off that felt-tip marker and writing this on the paper: It takes two to tango! Then tape it up where you have to look at it every day. In other words, you need to buy into the concept that this is not a problem with him, but rather with the two of you. You need to take ownership for your role in the relationship. That's the internal part.

Externally, you need to change how you react to your husband. Instead of explaining to him how he is wrong to be upset with you (which is how you describe your actions in your letter) you should first consider whether he might have a point, even a partial one. The 12:30 incident involved a two-way communication breakdown. Sure, he could have been more clear in explaining his expectations. On the other hand, you found his request to be vague and yet you did not admit that up front. You simply made an assumption about what he meant, one that met your own needs, and then went with it. You both had a role in the miscommunication.

You could have smoothed the water considerably by admitting your part in this and apologizing, without also explaining his mistake to him. If you do this consistently, he will soon come to trust that he will not get backlash for mentioning things to you. His tendency to retreat into silent mode will decrease. You can even do this when he lets you know with body language that he is upset. The more times you behave like this, the more quickly he will learn and the sooner he will become more communicative. If, on the other hand, you acknowledge your part and criticize him back, then you lose the benefit.

Going along with that, tell him that you now realize how your reactions have been affecting him. Apologize for this general trend. Tell him that you really weren't trying to be aggressive, you are just sensitive about criticism and you will try to do better.

No doubt your instincts are screaming at you right now. "But that's not fair," they are saying. "Why should I have to give in? Then he can just lord it over me." Here's the thing; apologizing is not giving in. It is simply acknowledging that you had a role in whatever happened and that you are a big enough person to admit that. Apologizing is really a way for both of you to win, because you can stop spending your time being resentful of each other and start building a loving bond.

Then your delicious surprise should happen. When you change how you react to him, he will start changing how he reacts in turn. Once you have admitted your part and apologized (in other words, once you have been the hero) his natural reaction is to reciprocate. He will start saying things like, "Well, I guess I could have been a little clearer in what I said. Sorry about that."

Now you're on a path where you can start to trust how the other will react, and how they are feeling inside.

Two words of caution. First, don't be discouraged if it takes more than once for this to work. You have been teaching each other for a long time; it may take a while before you each stop expecting the other to react negatively. Have a little patience.

Secondly, at some point you will have the breakthrough two-way apologies and it will feel great. This is a surprisingly dangerous moment. You have both had specific complaints on your mind for some time that you have been dying to unload on your partner. This may seem like an opportune moment to do so, when the other is in a receptive mood. You should resist that urge or you may be right back where you started. Forget the past grievances, because you now know the reasons and are starting fresh. And don't be surprised if he picks that moment to voice a criticism. I have warned you this may happen and explained why, so you can choose not to react negatively. Simply be the hero and apologize once more.

Good luck!

All the best,
Andrew
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Saturday, December 02, 2006

Question of the Week #17: Domestic Violence and Young People

I recently heard a news item on a local radio station that reported the assignment of two police officers to focus on domestic violence in my community. The newscast included a quote from a police representative, who said: "We have to teach young people about inappropriate behaviors in relationships that can lead to domestic violence."

Such an announcement is a clear indication that this problem is widespread and severe enough that police officers are involved on a regular basis. I find this sad, but I am intrigued by the idea that intervening with young people might be able to make a difference.

Young men tend to be interested in the conquest. They are driven by powerful physical urges and often lack the degree of understanding and empathy they may develop later in life. Young women live the life of the pursued. They wait to be asked out and their self-esteem can take repeated hits when the phone doesn't ring. Viewed in this context, a date often consists of two needy people seeking validation from the other. Guys need to curb their natural aggressiveness and girls need to ignore that little voice that says, "I better put up with whatever he does or he won't like me." I can see how this combination can lead to dysfunctional patterns, even to the point of violence.

What do you think? Have you experienced the sorts of pressures I described? Can you verify that these or other factors can lead to domestic violence? How do you think we could educate young people, both guys and girls, to help prevent this problem?

I'll post my favorite response next week (or perhaps even a few of the responses), with a link to the winner's blog.
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Friday, December 01, 2006

Dismaying Story #88: An Emotional Affair




Dear Andrew,

About a year ago I started getting active in on-line forums, which offer private messaging. I became friends with a single man, aged 52, who lives several states away. We talk about our day-to-day lives but never about sex. He means so much to me and has told me I mean so much to him. We have each other's phone numbers but have never spoken on the phone or in person. He sent me some flowers and a book when I was on a short trip by myself. I have sent him cards, just friendship cards.

I told him I was not looking to leave my marriage. My love for my frequent-traveler husband has been gone over the past few years, but I still have to raise my children.

I do love this man. I love him in my life. I feel like I have a friend for life now. I've always been wary of on-line relationships but not anymore. The thing is, I feel guilty for having a friend like this. My husband would never understand.

I am not looking for your approval. I just wanted to confide in someone, on the outside.

Signed, Just Fell Into This Relationship


Dear Just Fell,

I believe your husband would understand exactly what this on-line relationship means, and I think you do too.

Ask yourself a couple of tough questions. Why do you think your husband would react negatively to your friendship with this other man? And why have you hidden it from everyone? The reason is you know you have crossed a line.

Here is a good test for whether an action represents a betrayal of your significant other. Would you do it if they were watching you? If not, you should consider strongly whether you should be doing it.

This is more than a casual friendship with someone of the opposite gender. You have developed an attachment to this man of the sort you feel is missing in your marriage. In short, you are having an emotional affair, and this is definitely a betrayal of the commitment you made to your husband.

I understand that things can get rocky in marriage for all sorts of reasons, including frequent separation like you and your hubby must endure. You may feel like the spark is gone and there is no way to get it back. Your life at home is full of work, kids, stress, and enough hum-drum to fill a dump truck. This is what you share with your husband, which means much of the time you spend together is filled with neutral or even negative experiences.

Your on-line friend, on the other hand, is your escape from the storm. With him everything is always, "Hi! Glad to hear from you!" You are always in mini-vacation mode when talking with him. This is spiced with excitement of newness and the thrill of the forbidden.

If you step back and think about this for a moment, you will realize this is an entirely unfair way to compare the two men in your life. Imagine you could perform this magic experiment. Pretend your online friend is your husband. Now he is the one who is away all the time and has to share the stress of kids and bills with you. What personality characteristics would come out in this man that you have had no opportunity to observe? Your husband, on the other hand, is now the new spark that you only get to glimpse when the two of you have time to have a virtual cup of coffee together. You have nothing but fun experiences with him.

Now which man would be holding your interest? I suspect the shoe would be entirely on the other foot.

Let's take it a step further. Suppose you left your husband and went to live with your on-line friend. Now you would get to run the same experiment for real. All of a sudden life would come crashing into your new relationship, with the same stresses you must deal with now.

I strongly believe that having an affair is never an appropriate response to troubles in your marriage. All you end up doing is hurting your spouse and your children, and feeling guilty about yourself. This is no path to happiness.

It is possible to re-generate sparks in a marriage that has become hum-drum. We all feel good about people with whom we share fun and positive experiences. The problem is that it can be difficult to make room for such experiences in the midst of bills, jobs and kids. Too many of us get out of the habit of having fun with our spouse, and situations like yours are often the result. We become convinced there is no time or no money.

Baloney. It may take some inventiveness and willpower, but it is possible to schedule fun activities with your spouse. The key is to realize how amazingly critical it is to do so, and to elevate the task to project status. Decide you are absolutely going to make it happen and don't let anything stand in your way, including your hubby, who has probably fallen into the same trap of believing it can't be done or isn't worth it.

It is totally worth it. I recommend you give this a shot.

Even with such efforts, however, the sad reality is that not all marriages are destined to succeed. I still don't believe an affair is justified. You made a commitment to your husband. If you wish to back out, then do so first. Getting involved with a third party while you are still married just muddies the water and strips you of your dignity.

You say you are staying for the children. The best thing you can do for them is to restore that lovin' feeling with your spouse. Right now they are witnessing how a marriage works between two people who don't feel much for each other. What a sad role model, and they will view this as normal. You are increasing the chances they will grow up and replicate this model. How much better it would be if they could learn by example that it is normal for husband and wife to beam with happiness at each other and give each other a hug in full view of the world just because they feel like it. And if you can't make that happen, you might want to consider whether your kids would rather be from a broken marriage ... or be living in the midst of one.

All the best,
Andrew

The backlog of questions is tiny indeed these days. Please help me keep the stories flowing. If you have a question or observation you think would be of interest to readers of this site, please consider sending it in. I appreciate all the support!

Check back tomorrow for the Question of the Week, which will deal with young people and domestic violence.
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