Getting Through Bad Months

Getting Through Bad Months

Or weeks, or years, or whatever period of time is bad. Let’s get one thing out of the way right away. This post is about how I handle things and how I cope, I’m not going to sit here and pretend I know what works for you. Maybe you can identify with some of the methods and techniques I use or maybe they’ll be something that you’d find willing to try, but I’m no snake oil salesman, and I can’t promise these things will help you through. I just hope they will. I’d rather you never need to know how to get through tough times but, that’s just a fact of life.

Don’t Change Who You Are

It’s tempting, after you’re hurt or you go through a bad time, to discard everything associated with that memory even if they’re a critical part of who you are. A favorite song, a hobby, a core behavior, a belief system, an entire city, they’re all things people can ditch in an effort to quickly relieve themselves of reminders of bad times. I can’t deny that these things can seem to help in the short run but I don’t think they’re good long term. Throwing these things away just gives power and legitimacy to the people or things that hurt you. If I could draw a familiar parallel, it’s a lot like the security theater that comes after a horrific attack on innocent people. We tell ourselves that changing our behavior is how the terrorists really win, and then we go and radically change our behavior in an act to make us feel safer. For bonus points, the things we change don’t seem to make us any safer at all when push comes to shove. Changing who you are won’t stop the future bad times that you’re going to go through, that everyone goes through. Bad times are a fact of life, and changing yourself in a fruitless attempt to avoid them does nothing but give them power over your life. Security theater for the soul. There is one exception to this advice though. If you get hurt in the same ways over and over, and the hurt has something to do with a life goal, like holding a job, retaining friends, or building meaningful relationships, it’s definitely worth taking a look at yourself, and you should do so with a professional. The scope of this blog however, is for those unconnected bad moments that aren’t part of a larger pattern. Sometimes bad things just happen. This is about those times.

You’re Not Alone

While each individual’s suffering is unique, suffering itself is universal. Everyone goes through tough times, everyone suffers, but life goes on. That’s not to diminish your suffering, quite the opposite. Your suffering is meaningful, it may even redefine you going forward if it is profound enough, but if you let it keep you from moving, from going forward at all, you can make it worse for yourself. Like it or not, the Earth doesn’t stop spinning when you hit a rough patch and neglecting yourself and your commitments can make a bad situation much worse. You haven’t hit bottom yet, don’t aim for it. Someone, somewhere, even if it’s just the person in the mirror, is counting on you. Don’t let them down. Friends are good to have in times like this, good friends, the ones that don’t get upset when you have an emotional load you need help carrying. You’re about to find out who your real friends are, and which ones are fair weather. That’s useful knowledge to have. Just remember, being under the microscope is often the price you pay for this sort of help. Your real friends don’t like seeing these things happen to you just as much as you don’t, and they’re going to try and help you prevent repeating mistakes, and that might mean they have to know things. They might have to see you ugly cry into a beer, they might have to learn that you did something awful, or that you were the victim of something awful, and either of those things can be painful to share, or to see, but real friends will listen and help you through, now isn’t the time to push them away.

Avoid Isolating Yourself

This is related to the preceding paragraph, but it’s important enough to reiterate. Isolated people are vulnerable people. Now isn’t the time to shrink from your friends. You’re emotionally vulnerable, there are predators out there who will exploit that, try to make themselves out as your savior, make promises to provide whatever it is you think you need, and then trap you with it. Whether it’s rushing into a rebound, getting in with the wrong crowd, putting yourself in a dangerous situation, or ceasing to bring in income, real friends are going intervene when you’re being self-destructive. All predators, four legged, winged, or the worst of all, two legged, prefer isolated and weak prey. Don’t make yourself attractive to them.

Joy Is Contagious Too

One of the most common excuses I see for people withdrawing from their friends and family when things get tough is not wanting to be an emotional burden. Sorrow is contagious, and you don’t want to spread it. That’s a reasonable concern to have. Negativity actually is contagious. One couple divorcing often results in a rash of divorces throughout their social circles, but having a baby is contagious too, and that’s because Joy is also contagious. First of all, you’re not sparing your friends the story of your hardship by radically changing your behavior in a way that I guarantee you is going to alert your friends to something being wrong. Spare yourself the fantasy that by vanishing suddenly you can spare people some worry, that behavior is worrying in itself. Your friends and family however, will try to get you to have fun and get over it. Let them. Let them take you to a movie, to the beach, to your favorite bar or hangout. Joy is contagious too.

Book Review: Getting To Yes

Book Review: Getting To Yes

Boy has it been way too long since I’ve done one of these. Sorry about that! For whatever reason, over the last couple of months I’ve found it hard to read at all, much less get through material as certainly dry as self-help genre stuff. On that note Getting To Yes isn’t generally found in the self-help section, but rather the business section. If I could make a simple and critical point however, many things in our lives are negotiations and especially our relationships and even more especially when they go south. So I’m not just going to review this book, I’m going to give you some advice on how to use it. The latter half of that sentence may have tipped you off, this is going to be a positive recommendation.

“Facts, even if established, may do nothing to solve the problem”

If I could describe Getting To Yes in a nutshell it would be to compare it to a book I’ve reviewed previously, What Makes Love Last, by John Gottman. Basically, the material in Getting To Yes is called principled negotiation, and it’s the basis for the negotiation techniques Gottman encourages you to employ to repair and retain trust, Getting To Yes is however more comprehensive. To put it another way, What Makes Love Last could be considered the application of Getting To Yes as strictly applied to romantic relationships.

I’m being a little simplistic in that statement, which isn’t entirely fair to either book, but that’s a quick and comprehensive tl;dr for Getting To Yes. On that note, Getting To Yes is a far more comprehensive explanation of principled negotiation while managing to come in a smaller, more condensed and quicker to read package. Throughout this review, I have peppered memorable quotes from Getting To Yes that I thought would have been helpful to include in What Makes Love Last.

“Give them a stake in the outcome by making sure they participate in the process”

Now for the cover critique, or should I say cover appreciation. Since Getting To Yes isn’t strictly a self-help section book it mercifully comes with a cover that can actually be read in public without drawing attention to yourself. Bye bye lipstick red covers, suggestive fruit, and vulva purses. You could actually be forgiven for casually reading this in a coffee shop, or on a lunch break at work, physically, sans the protection of an e-reader and its coverless covertness. What a breath of fresh air that is.

“…some people begin by announcing that their position is an issue of principle and refuse even to consider the other side’s case. ‘It’s a matter of principle’ becomes a battle cry in a holy ware over ideology.”

The prose is deadpan, dry, but well written. It’s what you’d expect from a book focused on business deals and other similar negotiations but at the very least it’s not laborious to get through or especially hard to read. The book is small in physical dimension, and while 200 pages is already fast to get through, the fact that the pages are also small and the font is still large enough to comfortably read, and adding in some white space for the generously peppered formatting, reading Getting To Yes can be done in an afternoon easily. One of my metrics for scoring any self-help book is how quickly the contents can be digested and put to use, and Getting To Yes scores very high here.

Cost is another serious metric to consider. If a certain book is 40 bucks but there are two other books for fifteen each that cover the topic more helpfully and more completely I’ll generally give the nod to the two. It’s an opportunity cost to read a book, and combined with the length and difficulty of the read it can make one book not worth reading over two or even three others. Getting To Yes knocks this one out of the park as well, usually under 20 bucks, but at the time of writing, UNDER EIGHT on Amazon for the paperback.

“If you want the other side to accept a disagreeable conclusion, it is crucial that you involve them in the process of reaching that conclusion”

So that’s the short of it, and that’s why Getting To Yes comes with a quick and strong recommendation. There’s something else I’d like to talk about though, that really makes this book very useful for me, and highlighted by a recent catastrophic failure to use the techniques therein—though I am unsure if that would have effected the outcome of said event.

Here’s the thing. You don’t need advanced negotiating techniques about unimportant things. You don’t necessarily need to know the difference between positional and principled negotiation to win the battle of the pizza toppings. You may win more battles of pizza toppings with such techniques, but losing the pizza topping battle isn’t a hill many of us are willing to die on in the first place and I hope something many of us wouldn’t even consider ‘losing’.

When an argument gets serious, consequential, and important however it also tends to be emotionally charged, and like many of you, that emotional charge on its own may rid me of the use of my toolbox of knowledge. Stress physiologically takes us out of our executive function and puts us into more primitive modes of thinking. I’m the good guy, you’re the enemy, at least, that’s what the stress is making me think. If you’re the source of my stress you’re dealing with the same part of my brain that teaches me how to deal with a hungry lion. People vary in this response, some freeze, some flee, some fight. I fight. This gets us into a bit of a circular conundrum. If the best time to use this knowledge is the time I’m least able to access the areas of my brain that contain it, how is it useful?

I don’t have a specific answer for that, but I know that for someone as prone to emotional flooding as I am, I’m going to need some sort of technique, some trick, some device, that backs me out of flooding the moment I hit it, because anything less is too late. The other participant in the conversation willing, I can postpone or even stop needless suffering while I recompose and remember all this training I’ve put myself through. I don’t have that technique yet, and I’m going to have to practice it once I come up with one. My major point here is that simply knowing this stuff may not be sufficient for you to start employing it. I flood very quickly relatively to my circumstances. General levels of pre-exisitng stress will effect how quickly each of us emotionally floods compared to our normal rate. But if your rate is generally high like mine, neither What Makes Love Last or Getting To Yes is going to help you when you need it the most. Practice detecting flooding in yourself, and in others, and have others, and particularly those that care about you the most, practice detecting flooding in you. Build a safety net, and use it, and then by all means, leverage what you learn in Getting To Yes.

That Time My Brother Hated My Wife

So this is a thing I don’t often speak of, but it’s pretty darn relevant to this blog. What do you do when a family member dislikes your spouse? Depends on what kind of family you have, ultimately. I consider what happened between my brother and I to be about as good as that could have gone. I don’t think there’s a method or trick or rule that’s going to solve this problem for everyone that experiences it so I’m just going to share the story as is and my feelings about it and let you make up your own mind from there.

James and I always had a very different experience with women as we grew up. I’m not sure if it’s because of luck or because he’s more attractive or because we were aiming different. Perhaps I was more naive. I was under the strong belief that it wasn’t worth wasting my time on temporary pair bonds. I was in it to get married and have children from the word go. There were girls I found highly attractive in middle school, but I didn’t want to be with them, there’s no way that was going to last. I kept that opinion until my Jr. year or so of high school. I started looking for mates, not girlfriends. Turns out that was a little early to get started too, at least with that stated goal. Looking back that seems obvious to me. James on the other hand was quite successful with the temporary pair bonding and didn’t seem to want for a longer term arrangement and especially not children.

James rarely approved of my girlfriends. The first was a strict, “you can do better” and he was right. In fact, those words ended that relationship. Actually at this point I feel I should point out that I’m not just the older of the two of us, I’m the eldest sibling. My brother’s opinions carry lots of weight, always have. Emily got a much better approval rating, which is to say that James didn’t voice disapproval until after the marriage. Here’s where things get interesting, and perhaps instructive. This story could end up being more useful to the people doing the disliking than the recipients.

The timelines on this are really fuzzy, so I’m going to try and just stick to the narrative order of events here. For instance, I can no longer remember if James first voiced his opinions before or after his nephew was born (One of the reasons for starting this blog was to get those things out before they were completely forgotten). I do however remember being physically in his presence when he broached the subject. He had lived out of town for a while at this point and was visiting for some reason. He waited until he was with me physically and we were alone to break it to me. That wasn’t too difficult, one of our favorite past times is taking long lonely walks together.

James told me that he was sure Emily was a good wife and didn’t mean to disparage our relationship—waiting until after the marriage was pretty good evidence of that I thought—but that he just couldn’t stand being around her and that he hated her. Hate has been a diluted word for some time and I knew at the time and from his tone of voice that what he really meant was strong dislike. He couldn’t stand her attitude and being around her was an exercise in restraint, which he demonstrated admirably.

I kinda felt sorry for James, not quite pity but sorry for him. I wasn’t angry, but I wanted him to like my wife. Who doesn’t want their brother to like their wife? Heck, who doesn’t want their friends to like their wife? I knew however, that the way he was telling me and the timing with which he broke it to me indicated that there wasn’t any use in trying to change his mind. Both of us obviously thought it was in everyone’s best interest not to relay that opinion to my wife, but that I should be mindful of it when arranging get-togethers and that sort of thing. For his part, James didn’t seem angry or resentful either, just solemn, almost like relaying a sad story from a newspaper. I’m not sure he knew what to do with those feelings. I was just going to give it time. I assured him sincerely that it wouldn’t affect our relationship.

That’s the thing about being brothers, we’re stuck with each other for a while. At least, we are in my family. Who else is going to keep you honest? Family has to be able to tell you things you don’t want to hear, it’s the test on whether you really care about someone. If you can’t disapprove of really bad decisions when it really matters, the way James did with my first shot at a relationship, when can you disapprove of them? Is your capacity to care about someone limited to brow beating them about how many calories are in that snickers bar or other social niceties? Well then you probably aren’t really looking out for them as well as you should, at least that’s how I view it. Actually yeah, a side bar on our particular family dynamic may be instructive here.

I’m well aware that not all families work that way, and I’ve noticed that the more broken a family is the more the individual members tend to subscribe to the idea that friends can be family. Stable and strong families like mine tend to subscribe to the blood is thicker than water mantra. I can’t say I’ve done any sort of study on that or anything, that’s just been my life experience. We do however have research on how real mom can make stepmom’s life hell just by existing. Worth thinking about. Seems a pretty obvious explanation to me really, absent a genuine family bond there’s no reason to value that relationship over a good friendship. I can guarantee you though, that families that get it right are experiencing a more powerful and more useful bond than any friendship could. I have plenty of both. Perhaps your family isn’t so close, you can break that cycle. Emily’s family has some problems, they backbite, have petty squabbles over inheritance, some even steal from the elders outright—I mean actual petit theft. These things are unheard of on my side. I told Emily that her family’s behavior ends with our home and our generation; she likes that idea.

My family is the only group of people I can count on to always have my best interests at heart whether they are praising me or knocking me down a few pegs because we’re stuck with each other until we die. That attitude tends to keep needless fights at bay and motives on the right course. They’re not going to spite me out of jealousy, but they can also be counted on not to be sycophants. There sure were fights though, not to get too deep into that but don’t think I’m trying to paint some idealistic picture of a family here. I’m just commenting on the nature of the bond itself. We have fights, and when we do it’s intense and bitter and feelings are really hurt. Those fights tend not to be needless and those criticisms almost always have truth buried in them, perhaps that makes them hurt more. The strength of those bonds let James and I keep our cool.

James didn’t disapprove of my relationship with Emily, he just couldn’t like her, but he could have disapproved, and I would have listened. That doesn’t mean I’d have left her, I didn’t drop my first girlfriend just like that, I gave that plenty of thought, but I’d question the motives of any non-family member for telling me such things out of the gate. I can count on my family to come from a position of looking out for me as their sincere motive. That means my spouse can be a source of disagreement between my brother and I without turning into a source of conflict. That’s why adding Emily to my family came with a ceremony and vows. Words of adoration and good sentiment aren’t good enough.

Patience ended up winning out and eventually James came to like Emily without any persuasion or brow beating from me. Time and exposure. He came to like certain qualities about her. Indeed, when James switched gears and started dating with marriage in mind he suddenly noticed qualities about Emily that lent themselves to such a relationship and was suddenly very appreciative of them. James simply couldn’t see them before because his goals were different. Ultimately, family thing aside, that’s why I was able to take his initial criticisms of Emily in stride. His outlook on relationships and their purpose was obviously different, and that was okay. He also didn’t turn his personal feelings in a mission to change me or Emily. He said his piece and left it alone.

Disagreements like this don’t always go so smoothly, but they can. Hope that’s helpful, or that you enjoyed the read at the very least.

When Facts Don’t Matter – How Trust Shapes Reality

When Facts Don’t Matter – How Trust Shapes Reality

One of the pleasures of reading John Gottman’s book What Makes Love Last was how it gave articulation and voice to an idea I had been holding onto for a while about trust, and that idea was when it comes to getting into an argument with your significant other or really anyone else is that the amount that the facts of the situation matter is entirely dependent on how much trust there is between the two of you and the severity of the situation.

Of course this idea has functional limits. If your wife walks in on you ankle deep in another woman all the trust in the world isn’t going to undo the facts of what she saw. But trust has a lot to do with other less extreme situations, like not being where you said you were going to be. However, I find that the extreme situations are where it’s easiest to illustrate this whole trust as reality idea. Suppose you’re just sitting there minding your own business in your bedroom with your spouse. Some wrong number text comes your way telling you what an awesome time someone had sleeping with you last night. Now suppose your wife was quick enough to read the push notification. Has your behavior with other women in the past been virtuous enough that she’ll believe it was a wrong number? And further more has she had enough trust in you to begin with to establish that pattern of behavior?

That last idea is kind of critical and I want to expand on that one a bit more because part of the exercise of being in a relationship is that you have to trust the other person in it enough that they’re in a position to hurt you and let them prove themselves or fail you, either way. Let’s say your wife in the example above never even lets you be around other women as a rule. Well how in that situation are you even supposed to build the trust in the first place that you can use it to soothe her into the reality that it really was a wrong number? Well you can’t because she hasn’t let you, and so in this example the reality doesn’t even matter. Low trust begets low trust because it turns innocent pieces of reality into guilty verdicts. It’s a negative spiral that you can subject yourself to accidentally by allowing your low initial trust to prevent the behaviors that are necessary to build it up in the first place.

The digital era can really highlight this phenomenon in some really nasty ways that I think a lot of us have experienced. If you’ve ever had someone take something in your text history out of context to beat you over the head with it in a way that makes no sense you’ve been there. If you’ve tried to prove your innocence with exculpatory evidence from the same and have found it lacking the efficacy it ought to have had you’ve experienced this too. You may have even done this to someone in the past and not realized what you had done until it was too late.

I can’t really tell you how to avoid having this done to you by someone else, you can’t control other people so much. The only thing I can really tell you about what to do with other people is to exhibit behavior that builds trust and to demand the freedom required to establish those behaviors. When it comes to doing this to other people though I think I have a little bit more useful advice. Don’t get attached to what you think the facts are when you feel you’re owed an apology or recompense. Fundamentally it’s not the facts you are interested in anyway, it’s the recompense, you’re just using what you believe are the facts to extract that because you think the situation is a bit more rational than it actually is. The problem is when you tie these two things together and someone gives you evidence that you’ve been mistaken then you would also have to admit that you aren’t owed the apology, but you feel that you are! So what you’ll do is perform these fantastic denials of reality and really distrustful and manipulative things to maintain this narrative in order to get this apology or change in behavior you want. You’ll move goal posts and gish gallop and all sorts of abusive behaviors to keep this false narrative going because you’ve linked it so tightly with your need for your feelings to be acknowledged.

Now I’m not talking about ignoring things like I talked about in the beginning. Don’t allow someone balls deep in another woman to gaslight their way out of it, that’s dumb. But for other things what you should do is ask yourself if you trust this person, and if you think they care about you, and if that answer is yes all you have to do is let them explain their actions and deal with the reality of them, and it’s okay to still want an apology even if they’ve done something reasonable. Sometimes reasonable things hurt, like when people put their own well being before yours. Don’t get it all mixed up in some accusatory fantasy you created to extract a guilty plea. No one has to be guilty of a moral wrong to hurt your feelings. Furthermore making someone apologize for something they didn’t feel they did is abusive and if they’re willing to be insincere because of your badgering you’ve damaged the relationship to begin with. On the other side of that coin if you really care for somebody and their feelings were hurt by a reasonable thing you did acknowledge their feelings and you’ll find you can both move on a lot more quickly. Don’t let someone extract an apology out of you for something you didn’t do either, for the reasons mentioned above, that’s abuse, and if you find that you’ve done that to someone and you care about them you’ve got a lot of repair work to do.

Anyway, I hope that’s given you some insight in why you shouldn’t get too caught up in the ‘truth’ of a situation when dealing with it in an argument, whether your the accuser or the accused.

Have a comment or a question? Is there a topic you’d like discussed? Let me know through my contact page.

Don’t Stop Dating

Your road through marriage can come with a lot of new identities: parent, spouse, Home Depot junkies, just to name a few. You’ll run a household together, manage finances together, become your own handymen and landscapers (even if you delegate those jobs you’ll have to have instructions and vision), raise children, reprimand teachers and other care givers when they step out of line, deal with in-laws, and handle end of life care for your parents.

You may not think, doing all of these things and dealing with the punches life throws at you, that you have the time or bandwidth to tend to the tasks that brought you together in the first place. You may vanish as regulars to your favorite bar or restaurant, your friends may see less of you, you may see less of each other. Some of this is bound to happen, you just aren’t getting out for dates as much when you’re say, sleep training an infant. But I implore you not to let ‘phases’ become new norms.

When there is a genuine need to put the nights out on the back burner, do so, you have a family to take care of, but don’t give up on dating forever. Love is not something that you achieve and then put in a trophy case, it requires constant reinforcement and reaffirmation and I find a lot of couples discard dating as soon as they tie the knot. They seem to think of dating as this courtship phase that has a hard end when they get married, they don’t recognize their dates as the series of love and trust deepening behaviors that got them to the marriage finish line in the first place. On that note, the act of marriage isn’t the finish line at all, it’s the starting line.

I think you could be reasonably confused about that. Society certainly is. Young couples overwhelmingly choose cohabitation over marriage as their preferred lifestyle. According to a study by Sharon Sassler at Cornell University, this largely comes from a fear of divorce. Sassler has further found that a good portion of these people are primarily worried over the emotional turmoil from the split.

So let’s simplify that thinking for a little bit just so when can put it in perspective and consider the implications. A significant group of young people, are living together for as long as they can, and having and raising children, instead of getting ‘married’ in order to avoid the psychological pain of splitting up. I am left wondering what the word marriage must mean to these couples. It wasn’t that long ago, from a historical perspective, that living together this way made you married, and I don’t mean de facto married, I don’t mean as good as married, I mean married married. Hell, there are still 15 states in the United States, 16 if you include D.C., that recognize some form of common law marriage. A lot of these have caveats but there are a few that don’t including Alabama, Colorado, D.C., Iowa, Kansas, Montana, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, and Utah.

Whatever causes this line of thinking, it’s clear there’s at least one thing going on. Marriage has become some sort of magical divider that separates us from our pre and post dating state, but having children does not. Sure, there’s not having to go through divorce, but the moment you split there’s going to be a custody fight and child support to pay. You’re not ‘getting away clean’ here, and you may end up just as in court as you would have been in a divorce. The evidence is clear, many of us are convinced that our entire emotional state regarding our relationship should change on our wedding day.

That’s rubbish.

Emphasizing your new identities as spouses and parents to the exclusion of your old identities as a romantic dating couple can cause you to become entirely consumed by these identities, and that often leads to long term unhappiness in your marriage. A wife consumed by her identity as a mother may have trouble with mustering the raw feelings of desire she needs for sex. A father consumed in his role as a provider may have trouble prioritizing the emotional needs of the rest of his family and ironically fail in that exact role. Either parent, consumed by their roles as such, my absorb themselves in their children to such a degree that their partner may feel unappreciated and unloved. Balance of our myriad identities matters. Maybe I could spend a lot more words trying to convince you of that, but I think Esther Perel does a much better job and I don’t wish to duplicate her research or experience. Just go read Mating In Captivity if you’re skeptical, then get back to me.

For the rest of us, remember that continuing your courtship behaviors helps you balance your new identities with your old ones. Emily and I recently had our tenth anniversary and we spent it doing something I think you may find interesting.

Emily and I dumped our kids off with relatives, and generally when we do that it’s so we can have some of the kinkier sex that would be too noisy and require too much assurances it wouldn’t be interrupted than we can manage when they’re in the house. That day however, we had a different goal in mind. We were going to just have a good old fashioned mall crawl. We arrived when the doors opened, and were immediately hit in the face with the smells of Cinnabon. We hadn’t had breakfast yet and Emily exclaimed something to the effect of, “that would be good”. Emphasis on the would. I chuckled a bit and corrected her. That’s going to be good.

Emily realized at that moment, it finally hit her after about an hour and a half, that she was free to act without children, that she could be a little selfish, that she could enjoy herself, she didn’t have to buy extra cinnamon rolls or share one with sugar craving piranhas, that, for the moment, for this day, we were just the 2 of us again. She got so happy she nearly cried, and we spent the next five hours or so going through makeup, clothes, video games, candles, and whatever the hell we felt like doing.

I explained the day to a coworker, 11 years married and he exclaimed, “Yeah, we spent our tenth pretty much the same way, we had a Home Depot date and spent most the day casually building the kitchen island we have now and it was fantastic”.

We certainly have dates more frequently than just our anniversary date, but we don’t get to do these things as often as I’d like, granted, perhaps should. We could strive to do our date nights a little more, tone it down on the sex and up on the sushi bar. I understand the concept of having superior obligations too, like bills and house maintenance, but take it from me, take it from my co-worker, it’s worth it. Don’t stop dating.

How to Stop Bad Arguments Before They Start

You’re engaged, or married, or getting there, and you’re madly in love with each other; there’s only one problem, you’re fighting a lot. Rows are a part of every relationship. Living together with any other human being is bound to create some tension eventually. For some of us that’s a little more frequent than we’d like, and I think we’d all like to have less of them even if they are rare. Fortunately, there are concrete things you can do to change things for the better. For maximum effect, you and your partner need to both commit to less fighting, but there are things you can do unilaterally that should lower the amount of bad arguments you have.

Dispel The Housework Myth

Housework can be an insidious source of stress. While for most people these are small annoyances in isolation, undone housework has a habit of reminding you that it’s not done until it’s taken care of. You see the annoyance all the time and anything annoying becomes infuriating with enough time. As such, the division of housework can end up being one of the bigger flash points in a relationship. There are several dynamics at work that can make resolving the problem of housework troublesome.

The largest hurdle I keep encountering with early couples and even some old ones is the expectation that their spouse won’t be like their old room mates when it comes to cleaning up and helping out. You may have the idea that finally you have someone to share these chores with, that you won’t be the only one in the house that cares about how the house looks. Perhaps the script is flipped, perhaps you were the one that never cared about cleanliness and you’re looking forward to not being pestered about it. This is a dangerous fight causing myth. I have some shocking news for you, take out the relationship and guess what, you’re just room mates. Being in love with each other doesn’t fundamentally change the logistics of keeping a home. If you are the clean one, the one that always cared more than everyone else about the state of the living space, you will more than likely be that person inside your relationship, putting more value in the state of your home than your spouse. If you are the messy one, tired of being pestered about things that don’t matter to you, you usually won’t find that escape inside a relationship.

I find dispensing with this expectation alone can take a lot of stress off your mind. Expecting something out of your relationship that isn’t coming is a sure road to explosive arguing. Your spouse can likely improve in cleaning up after themselves, or maybe it’s you that needs to improve. Conversely, you may need to be the one to learn to let go a little or your spouse might be. Fundamentally neither of you are going to change here, don’t expect your significant other to fundamentally change either. Clean people tend to stay that way, and messy people also tend to stay their way. I’m not saying give up on a clean house, but you may have to dispense with the idea of equitable division of house labor. Ask for something in return for this however, this should be a negotiation. There are things other than housework that can help take the load off, bargain for those. You’re probably tired of hearing this, like a played out meme, but communication is key. Communicate that the state of the house upsets you, or that the pestering upsets you, and go from there and do it before it boils over.

When it comes to housework there’s another myth I keep running across that also seems to disappoint people and turn housework into a point of friction. There’s often an expectation, an anticipated joy, that there will be less housework to do if there’s someone to share it with. If you think about this critically for even a moment you can see the problem with this selfish equation. Yes, there is another person in the house to help keep things tidy. There’s also another person in the house, they come with their own messes. You’ll be doing well if the amount of things that need doing stays static per capita. Often this expectation also accompanies moving from rental to home living. Few people accurately correctly account for the sheer increase in things to do once they’re responsible for cleaning their own roof and mowing their own lawn and making other home repairs and improvements. Even if this burden is handled largely financially—you pay people to do it—it’s still more on the pile. Dispel this myth as well, the housework load isn’t going down with another person in your life.

Re-draw Your Defensive Perimeter

This one is tricky, but potentially the most rewarding. When we get angry we tend to lash out. For many, and especially new couples, our partner is located in the ‘outward’ area. In other words, they are in the area we deem to be outside ourselves and are available for attack and blame. You can stop a lot of arguments by taking your partner out of this area. Putting someone, anyone, inside your ‘in’ area can be difficult and requires a tremendous amount of built up trust.

I like to imagine trust as the income of a relationship. As you build trust, save it, invest it, and help it grow, you stop living from paycheck-to-paycheck in your relationship. If you outspend your trust income for long enough you end up homeless. So how do you build trust and what does it mean to spend it? I’ll use Emily as an example.

Emily is a homemaker, she takes care of our three children and keeps up the house while I tackle the easier task of making some money(That could be and probably will be its own post). Emily frequently arranges her day so that she finishes her errands and arrives home just as I get home from work. There’s a couple ways to interpret this behavior depending on your level of trust.

  • Emily wants to make sure she doesn’t miss her limited time with me and has a hard cutoff time on her errands, which would otherwise run into the evening, to do so.
  • Emily wants to make sure her car is in the driveway when I get home so it looks like she’s been home working all day.
  • Emily is trying to hide how much time she spends away from the home because she’s doing something she’s not supposed to.
  • Emily is poorly hiding an affair.

Believe it or not, Emily is spending a tiny amount of the trust bank every time I notice this behavior, usually when I get home a little early from work and she’s not there. It’s not being spent because I distrust her, it’s being spent because a positive reaction depends on how much trust exists. It should be noted that the truth of the situation doesn’t matter. The amount of trust I have in Emily determines whether or not I believe her answer in the first place. In other words, if Emily and I maintained a negative balance in the trust account our relationship could suffer over an innocent pattern of behavior. The converse is also true, a high trust nest egg could aid her in hiding a tryst. The former is why it is so rationally difficult to build trust in a person. Trust changes the truth and that can leave us vulnerable to manipulation and other terrible things. You can overcome this obstacle by considering the decisions you’ve already made—this is your life partner. You are already vulnerable to your partner financially and emotionally. Your partner will be helping you raise your children and form their ideas about you. Your partner will or does have demands about your living conditions; how the house is constructed, diet, and so on. You’ve already agreed to spend your lives with each other despite whatever quirks or requirements these areas have attached to them. If there is anyone in the world where having low trust is going to do more harm than good, it’s your partner.

So how do we build trust and fill that piggy bank? Well there’s some good news here, especially for the busy types. I find it’s the little behaviors that help the most in keeping the trust account topped off. Buy her chocolate for no reason, tell him you appreciate his contributions to the home, kiss, engage in playful touch, practice speaking the compliments that you think, and when you eventually do get in an argument…

Target the problem instead of the person!

Practice this. Fundamentally what you want to achieve here is diminishing the importance of assigning blame. When an argument comes up, remember that no amount of yelling is going to get the kitchen floor cleaner or put the toilet seat down. When you’re partner is packing their bags and walking out the door are you going to be saying to yourself, “at least I know it wasn’t my hair clogging the drain!”? Once you get to the point that you are focusing on the problem see if the ‘problem’ suddenly sounds silly. There might be something else making you angry and making you notice small things more—bringing work stress home is a frequent cause. Let your partner know if you ever realize this, let them know that you’re stressed and noticing small irritants more. Ironically, I find that a lot of these arguments start up over small things as an excuse to get the attention the angry partner feels they’re entitled to and not getting. Try to figure out if there’s something you can do, together, to get you in a better mood. If there’s a real problem, address it. Your partner is going to be more useful in helping you solve the problem than as a dejected emotional antagonist of your own making.

Over time, these behaviors will take your partner from someone outside of your defenses—a valid target—to someone helping you shoot from the walls. The frequency and intensity of your arguments will drop, and you’ll both be happier. The high trust environment you start creating will reinforce itself too. Taking the pressure off of your partner just a little will give them the emotional space to start reciprocating these changes, and they often will do so without prompting. You got together because you enjoyed each others company remember? Frequent arguments are often a cycle that appears later on, and cycles have this funny little property of being breakable by one participant.

Share A Calendar

This is another one of those communication things. I find it annoying how much the word communication is thrown around as if it were it’s own self-contained set of actions and recommendations. So here’s something specific that goes under that heading. Double booking days off is immensely irritating. A fight often ensues over which double booked event is more important, or which was made the longest ago, or who forgot what, or who only mentioned it while you were busy and distracted, and so on.

Do something with that smart device of yours other than being your bosses annoying leash to you. Create a calendar for the family. Check it before you commit to doing anything. Like all new habits you’re going to stumble on this one a few times before you get into the groove of using it, but commit to not double booking your free time today. Will you be watching the super bowl? Put it on the calendar, let your spouse know it’s on the calendar, and you’re not entertaining the in-laws unless they show up with foam fingers, appetizers, and a party mentality. On that note, if your guy is a football guy, don’t do something as seemingly passive aggressive as scheduling a visit from your parents during the super bowl, yeeesh. If you find you’re often oblivious to those things the calendar will help. If you aren’t doing this already please start today, just trust me on this.

Make Time For Dates

I find that making time for dates most frequently vanishes after having children and I’ll be writing this section from that point of view, but some couples struggle with this shortly after moving in together. In either case, do not sacrifice all of your alone time with your partner. In an earlier piece I mentioned building a circle of friends you could rely on to take on temporary burdens. Rely on your support networks to handle the excuse you’re always throwing out, you know the one, “I’d take you out if only I didn’t have responsibility X”. By the way, that’s just an excuse. I don’t know what hurdle you think is blocking off your time for entire months—once a month dates is what I’d shoot for at minimum—but it’s likely not actually consuming every single day for an entire month. Don’t write angry letters if you’re one of the few that are busy for entire months, I get it—working on an oil rig for instance—but those gigs generally also come with a week or more of downtime, make room for your partner.

For those of you who haven’t been on a date in a while, try to keep it simple. Emily and I struggled with this for a while after our second child and on our first date out in months we’d realized we’d forgotten what it even felt like. Something as simple as sitting down together at a chain restaurant can feel surreal in those circumstances so don’t clutter up or needlessly complicate the itinerary. Take a hike—literally—or one of my favorites, only plan the amount of time you will be gone and drive around town stopping literally anywhere that catches your fancy. Practice being free. Go to that knick-knack shop you used to love but just drive by now, revisit that old make-out spot, dive into that dive you’ve been meaning to try.

Catching a movie needs its own little section. I typically don’t recommend this if you’re only getting about a date a month and can’t get about 5 or more hours on your free-time clock. Counting logistics this is usually a 2.5 hour gamble you’re committing to. If you are going to go to a movie be clear about the circumstances under which you’ll walk out and practice that option with prejudice. Have a back-up plan. Emily and I will go mall crawling in the event of a disappointing film. Having a back-up plan pits the movie against alternatives and helps you recognize when it’s failing to be entertaining enough. Forget walking out on only the ‘bad’ movies, I walk out on the ones that aren’t strictly good or better. Those are precious hours! You may like movies a lot more than I do—that’s very likely actually—but most films these days, well…I get more enjoyment out of treating Emily to a Cinnabon in the mall food court.

So what’s any of this have to do with arguments? I’d say if you’re asking that question you’re definitely missing out on too many date nights, schedule more. A good night out can raise your mood above the petty squabbling threshold for days or even weeks. It’s a good time to connect and remind yourselves that you’re a couple and that you’re in this thing together in a context that’s positive, as opposed to the we’re-in-this-together that comes with dealing with a sick infant.

There are more ways to prevent bad arguments for sure, but I find these general behaviors to be the most generally applicable to the other couples I talk to. There’s a lot of devil in the details of other relationships, and some experiences are more universal. So whether you’re the one having argument problems, or you’re a couple that’s just afraid of ending up that way, or you know a couple that could use some help, I hope you’ve found this post useful. Remember as always, there’s a time for self help and a time for professional advice. Don’t use my blog as a substitute when professional help is called for.

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