Yesterday, I took the day off from work. Originally it was scheduled so that I could take my wife to another of her recurrent surgeries for her chronic pain, which thanks to COVID-19, has been cancelled indefinitely. It happened to line up nicely, however, with cabinet install day for our home renovation that is thankfully heading ever so much closer to the finish line. It also coincided with a need that I’ve identified lately – that is, a need for rest. What I didn’t expect is to be spending most of the day feeling sad. For a while, I didn’t know why I was feeling this way, until the question loomed in my mind, “How do I respond to racism?”
You see, I’m one of the ones who is, on most given days, gleefully ignorant about racism. It’s not that I am not aware of it, because I am aware because on different parts of the world I’ve lived in, different ethnic groups I’ve worked with, clients I’ve seen, etc. It is, however, because on any given day, I am not personally subjected to it. In fact, it’s been exceedingly absent in my life. While I was pondering this question about how do I respond to racism all day yesterday, I realized that I can only think of one time in my life where I was keenly aware that I was being treated poorly because of my race. The details of the situation aren’t important here I don’t think, and likely wouldn’t spark any sort of helpful conversation, but it does highlight that in 39 years I can only think of one time where I was very aware of being discriminated against based on my race.
This doesn’t mean that I haven’t been aware of being treated differently, because I have been while travelling. While I would suggest that it’s still not okay, it’s normal, in my experience, to be seen as other when you’re in another country, and even hearing words like gringo if you happen to be white. Or, if you’re living in Ukraine and your friend is from Korea, it’s not uncommon for kids to stop dead in their tracks and stare simply because they’ve never seen an Asian person before.
There’s a massive difference, however, in the experiences I’ve had versus those from whom we’ve all been hearing from in the past few days through the Black Lives Matter movement and protests, and the devastating events around the death of George Floyd. In all of my 39 years, I can only recall one instance where I felt unsafe or threatened as a result of my treatment based on my race.
This is in contrast to some who can’t go 39 days, or 39 minutes, or perhaps 39 seconds between experiences that make them feel unsafe, threatened, or less than.
This makes me sad.
It makes me feel a whole lot of other things, including mad, confused, angry, frustrated, scared, and more. But, if I give myself the time to actually sit with the emotions and discern what I’m feeling, the core of it is sadness.
I’m sad because although I do my very best to honour everyone, regardless of race, colour, creed, ethnicity, or otherwise, I know that at some point I have unwittingly made someone feel this way myself.
I’m sad, because a part of my heritage story is related to culture – my family came to Canada in the early 1900’s because they were literally being killed off for being who they were, and coming to Canada saved their lives. And we still have the same problems over 100 years later.
I’m sad because although my wife and I do our best to raise our girls to love and respect everyone they meet, from all races and creeds and backgrounds, they too will struggle to follow through and will make mistakes, and this will inflict further pain even into the next generation.
We come from privilege. We are white, middle-class, and I am male. This carries a privilege that I am becoming more and more aware of. It carries a responsibility to realize this, and understand this, and do better in our actions as we move forward.
Now, some of you may have just cringed at that last paragraph. Some of you may feel that what I’m saying means that those of us who come from privilege need to be sorry for, repentant of, or similar for the fact that we are white, grew up reasonably well off, and may be male.
That’s not at all what I’m saying, and that’s not at all what privilege means. It simply means that we have some advantages in life that others do not, simply by being born into what we’re born into. With that carries a responsibility to be aware of this, and use this privilege to care for others.
It also doesn’t mean we didn’t work hard to get what we have, to do what we do, and that we shouldn’t appreciate it, and enjoy it. It simply means that if we didn’t have the privilege we do, it likely would have been harder for us to have the same successes in life.
How Do I Respond To Racism?
Herein lies the problem. I am by no means an expert on race relations, cultural history, sociology, or otherwise. I don’t have any perfect answers to this, or even particularly qualified ones. Instead, here are some thoughts I’ve had over the past few days that hopefully might be helpful to us all as we wrestle with this issue of racism that I don’t believe is going to go away anytime soon. How do we respond? What do we need right now to make changes?
We Need Grace
Nothing highlights the need for grace more to me right now than writing this article. I know that it is nowhere near perfect, and doesn’t come up with any astounding answers to any of the massive, looming questions many of us have. I know I’ve made mistakes in this article in my own ignorance.
This highlights our need for grace as we navigate this challenging issue, in a challenging time. While this article isn’t authoritative, or perfect, it is honest.
This are simply my honest wrestling with an issue I don’t know enough about. It is the start of an attempt to lend help, even in my own imperfection, with initial thoughts on a complex issue.
I ask for your grace as you read this, and I would ask for grace for us all, from those who are subjected to racism on a daily basis. You don’t deserve this treatment, and we don’t deserve your grace – but, if you can muster some grace for us while we try to change our understanding and our behaviour, we will all hopefully win in the end.
With grace, we can have hope for a different future, one that honours everyone, from all races and cultural backgrounds. A future that holds promise for us all.
We need to feel sad
Understandably, there is a lot of anger right now over the state of race relations, and particularly over the death of George Floyd. And, there should be anger over what happened to Mr. Floyd, and what has happened to far too many people over the years who have been subjected to similar treatment.
In my area of expertise, psychology, we understand generally that anger is a basic emotion (one of the 6 basic emotions according to the Gottman Institute). Anger, however, is often a secondary emotion – based on underlying emotions that aren’t expressed.
One of the most common source emotions for anger that I see, particularly in men, is sadness. I know for myself, I am far more likely to express anger than I am sadness. It’s not particularly socially acceptable in North America for men to express sadness, but it is much more socially acceptable (if only for being more common) to be angry.
The problem is that very few productive conversations happen through anger and the expression of anger. It doesn’t mean it’s not valid, it just isn’t as effective in communication. If someone is angry with us, our back usually goes up and we become defensive. Very rarely is our response to ask something like, “Can you help me understand why you’re angry, please tell me more.” Instead, our fundamental biology kicks in through our limbic system and we go to defensive mode, and most likely, enter into our fight-or-flight stance (or freeze for that matter).
What happens, then, if we embrace the underlying sadness? I’d suggest it instructs us better (I can easily describe right now why I’m so sad about all of this versus if you asked me in the angry moments to describe why I’m angry), and it’s more effective in communication. If someone tells us they’re sad, we’re far more likely to respond in curiosity and kindness wanting to know more, simply because our limbic system isn’t firing.
“Anger is valid and ok, but we shouldn’t gloss over the underlying sadness.”
We need to educate ourselves
This may seem blatantly obvious, but it’s still the truth. We are woefully uneducated as a whole about racism, no matter what our background is. This is where I will plead ignorance regarding resources because I’m at the stage of doing my best to find out what some of the most helpful resources are.
There are two main reasons that we need to educate ourselves: to understand, and to reduce pain.
While I am early on in my journey toward education on this subject, I did come across this article that lists a number of resources that I have seen posted many, many times and seem to be helpful. Our very own Rebecca Farnell posted the book, Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor on her Instagram feed and it seems like it would be a good resource for those of us wanting to learn more. I am continuing to look to find resources that are suggested by people who know far more about this than I do. I’ll update this post as I find more resources as I hope it will be helpful to others. The second reason we need to educate ourselves is because when it comes to pain, the inevitable result of racism, current pain science research shows that it is one of the greatest modifiers of the pain we experience.
Since I do have a particular interest in chronic pain and the psychological management of pain, I was reading The Explain Pain Handbook: Protectometer yesterday to try to find some resources for a client. In this book they explain that in terms of physical pain, embracing bioplasticity and education about pain can adapt the body to reduce pain and disability and increase life satisfaction (p.30). They also state that bioplasticity is based on the research on neuroplasticity which is the research showing that our brain is able to change over time, no matter our age.
What we do know, is that physical pain and emotional pain act the same way in the brain, and hit the same receptors. We have documented data on the effects of traumatic stress on the brain. It seems to me that if education can reduce our physical pain, it should help our emotional pain. If we know what is happening, we can respond differently, and this can change the impact on our neurobiology.
We need to connect
More than ever, we need to connect around this issue. We need to learn together, do better together, change together. I’m convinced that the solution to our problem with racism lies in human connection. It’s going to be a long road, but connection is where we start.
If we connect, we can learn from those who are hurting and change our behaviour. If we connect, those who are hurting can understand the perspective of the perpetrators and what they are trying to do to change, thus reducing their pain. Note well, this is not to excuse the perpetration, it is to understand one another’s positions and the efforts being made to change for the better, and to reduce pain in the meantime.
If we connect, we can reduce pain. I remember a study that Sue Johnson mentioned once (and I’m actively trying to find the study), where subjects participated in a random controlled trial on secure relationships and pain response. From memory, they had three conditions:
Subject enters the room, is shocked with electricity, and their pain response is measured.
Subject enters the room, a random person is also sitting in the room, and the subject is shocked with electricity and their pain response is measured.
Subject enters the room, another person they have a safe, secure relationship with is also in the room, and the subject is shocked with electricity and their pain response is measured.
In that third condition, the study found that they could get the pain response down to almost zero. Let’s remember, the other person in the room did nothing other than sit in the room with them.
This is how powerful safe, secure human connection is. If we can find ways of doing this in the midst of our pain around racism, we stand a chance to weather the storm while we try to make the changes we need to make to do something about it.
Our commitment at Alongside You
I hope it goes without saying that everyone is welcome at Alongside You. We embrace all races, cultures, and backgrounds at our clinic. Our staff and associates come from all backgrounds, as do our clients. Our intent is to welcome anyone and everyone and that they would feel loved, and cared for.
I also understand that we are not perfect, and we too make mistakes. Here is my commitment as the Director of our clinic – if anyone has had, or in future has any concerns about how they are treated by our clinic for any reason, and particularly with regard to race and ethnicity, please contact me directly and I will sit down with you personally to listen, to learn, and to see what if anything needs to change at our clinic.
Safety, security, compassion, and respect are core to our values and I commit to doing anything I can do ensure that these values are communicated to every client by our words, our actions and our policies.
Thank you for taking the time to read this, and if you’re struggling with racism in any way, we’re here with you in the middle of it. Let us know how we can help.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had many of us in social isolation and practicing social distancing when in public for weeks now. For a fortunate few, this has been a welcome reprieve from an otherwise hectically paced life. For the majority, it has meant being cut off from friends, family, community, and routine supports such as gyms, recreation centres, and social gatherings. We have become a people who are afraid to even greet one another in person. It’s because of these shifts that some of us, particularly those who have struggled with depression before, may be asking the question, “How can I prevent depression during COVID-19?”
How Can I Tell If I’m Depressed During COVID-19?
Anxiety about the risks of catching the Coronavirus are at an all-time high as are concerns about the future of jobs, financial security, and the availability of needed supplies, the education of children, and so on.
When ongoing anxiety is combined with a lack of social and community support, the result can be despair and even full-on depression. Depression is defined by features such as:
A feeling of purposelessness or hopelessness about life
Feelings of intense sadness often combined with heightened irritability
Failing to attend to one’s personal hygiene
A loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed
Changes in appetite
Failure to adhere to previous routines
Loss of motivation
Some of the features indicated above are currently forced upon us by the pandemic. For example, simple aspects of hygiene such as going for a haircut are not currently available. And, even if we can find the motivation, many of the activities we would do are structured and rely on facilities such as a gym or a recreation centre which are currently closed.
The Effects of Social Distancing on Depression
Perhaps most alarming out of all of the effects of the pandemic is the imperative that we practice social distancing (or maybe more aptly, physical distancing). While this is entirely necessary at the present time, it can serve to greatly contribute to the development of depression. It is primal in human beings to gather with a friend, a family member, or community supports when experiencing stress. As it happens, we are incurably pack animals – maybe like orcas or wolves. Rare is the person who wants to be alone for extended periods of time while anxious. Rather, we naturally gravitate toward one another and, furthermore, we need social connection to remain emotionally and psychologically healthy. The need for social distancing has forced us to behave in a manner that is counterintuitive to our being healthy in the world.
Ways to Prevent Depression During COVID-19
What all of this means is that we will need to be very deliberate and stubborn in our efforts to fend off depression. I have a few suggestions for us all to consider, as I try to answer the question, “How can I prevent depression during COVID-19?” Here they are:
Contacting with friends or supports by phone or video. Don’t be shy about admitting that you’re in a funk and just need to talk.
Go for walks outside alone or with others (6 feet apart of course…)
Do a bit of what you enjoy – whether it’s a hobby, listening to your favourite music, etc
Pay close attention to your nutrition and don’t let it slide into bad habits
Exercise – whether it’s a run outside, a workout following a TV or YouTube instructor, throwing the ball for your dog, riding a bicycle, etc. 20 minutes of exercise daily is ideal to fight depression
Reach out for professional support if needed. Yes, we’re open for business and can safely meet with you if you feel that a counsellor is needed to support you for a time.
Stick to as much routine as possible. Get up at a decent hour, get showered and dressed even if you aren’t going out. And then do that 20 minutes of exercise mentioned above
We don’t currently know how long the pandemic will last and that uncertainty can be very upsetting. Preventing the anxiety and the upset from becoming depressed in life is one of the few factors that we can actually control with some decided effort.
If you’re resonating with anything I’ve written, know that I’m rooting for you. We’ve all been there, and we’re all in this together. If you’re asking yourself how you can prevent depression during COVID-19, I’d love to help you out. Give us a shout at the office, and set up an appointment. Don’t go through this alone, we all need some help sometimes and I’d love to be there for you through this.
We find ourselves in a very unique time in history, don’t we? We’re so globally interconnected (part of the reason why Covid-19 became a global pandemic in a few short months!), and yet so isolated (particularly now that we all do our part to practice social distancing). For many people, the practice of being removed from others is especially difficult because they felt alone before social distancing was even a thing. For others, there is a reawakening to the importance of relationships. Maybe it’s a bit of both for everyone. How can we stay connected during Covid-19?
Give Social Distancing A New Name
As we practice social distancing, I think it’s important that we give it a better name and call it for what it is – physical distancing.1,2 I’m certainly not the first to propose this name change, and even the World Health Organization and health authorities have recently begun to swap social distancing for physical distancing terminology. The reason why it matters is because we are social beings, and we may need each other more than ever right now – but from a safe physical distance. We cannot, and should not, deprive ourselves of social connection at time when we are more prone to anxiety, dread, fear, and uncertainty.
Maintaining Social Connections During This Pandemic
If you are feeling isolated or lonely, it is still very safe to go outside for a walk and call a friend as you enjoy the fresh air. Many people are using Zoom (online video platform), WhatsApp, voice memos, and regular phone calls to connect with people they can’t see in person right now. It might be, for some, that you find you have more greater quantity of time to invest in the people that really matter to you, and as a result you experience more quality time. Perhaps some people will use this self-isolation period as a unique opportunity to reinvest in important relationships.
If you find that your screen time has increased significantly in the last couple of weeks, and that connecting on social platforms is becoming an impediment to a regular rhythm in life, perhaps you could consider making some changes to how you divide your time. If you spend an hour or so each day reading the news, and find that this drains you of mental or emotional energy, try to cut down your news intake! If you allow yourself 20 minutes to read the news each day, you might then spend more screen time with people whom you are socially connected to.
Maintaining A Physical Connection During This Pandemic
While social connection is something we can all become creative around, it is the physical connection that may feel challenging over time, particularly for those in troubled relationships, or those who live alone. I have some good news! Would you like to hear something interesting that we know from neuroscience? Oxytocin, the bonding hormone released through safe and affectionate physical contact, also sometimes called the “love” or “cuddle” hormone, essentially shuts off our stress response in the body. Research conducted several years ago measured for rates of oxytocin in people when they touched themselves (on the arm, face, stomach, etc.) versus when they were touched by another person. What they found was that there was virtually no difference between when they were touched by another person, versus when they touched themselves.
So, if you live alone, or are in a home with people you do not receive physical affection from, put your hand on your chest and take some long, deep breaths. Give yourself a foot rub or a hug, massage your temples, or place your hands on your neck. This is, in a true sense of the word, self-care! 3
Maintaining Your Community Connection During Covid-19
During this time while we are physically removed from one another, how can we stay connected during Covid-19? We all need social bonds that tether us together as we face this crisis at a community level, and on a global scale. We can look for ways to support the most vulnerable in our community. If we express ourselves creatively — drawing, painting, playing music, writing, cooking – we can share it with those who might appreciate it. We can post our project online or drop off food for an isolated neighbour. We can find some comfort in the fact that we are taking care of one another by remaining physically distant. We can cheer from our front door at 7pm for our frontline workers, and remember, for a moment, that although we are physically separate, we are all in together.
If you find that you are struggling with anxiety, loneliness, or grief, please do not hesitate to make an appointment with one of our counsellors at Alongside You. We are seeing clients for in-person and online sessions. We’re also offering a free online support group for anxiety related to Covid-19, which you can read about here. Wherever you’re at, whatever you’re managing, pulling for you! Let us know how we can help.
The words punishment and discipline seem to have become synonyms these days, but it wasn’t always this way. The word discipline comes from the Latin word disciplina which means to teach or instruct. However, nowadays, most people associate punishment or consequences with the word discipline. Let’s take a minute to differentiate discipline from punishment.
When your child misbehaves, what do you want to accomplish? Are consequences your ultimate goal? Is your objective to punish? Of course not. But, as parents, we’re still human! When we’re frustrated or angry, we may feel like we want to punish our child. When we are stressed, overwhelmed, frustrated or feeling at our wits end, we can feel like punishing. It’s totally understandable – even common.
Let’s face it, it’s what our parents likely would have done, so it’s what we know. But once we’ve calmed down, we know that punishing doesn’t feel good for either of us (parent or child) nor is it our ultimate goal. What we really want is for the behaviour that got us into this situation to stop.
Our children need to learn skills like inhibiting impulses, managing big feelings and considering the impact of their behaviour on others. Learning these essentials of life and relationships helps them, helps us, and helps their larger community. We know these are the basis for emotional intelligence and the foundation for being happy and successful adults. What a gift! But how do we teach our children these life skills without punishment?
Positive Discipline helps us teach our children how to control themselves, respect others, participate in deep relationships, and live moral and ethical lives. It teaches important social and life skills in a manner that is deeply respectful and encouraging for both children and adults.
Connection Before Correction is one of my all-time favourite Parenting with Positive Discipline mantras. I believe that these are words to live by both in the moment of dissatisfying behaviour and in the long run as a foundation for any relationship.
Brain science tells us that when we are emotionally overwhelmed we cannot access the parts of our brains that allow us to think logistically or learn. So, there is really no point in trying to teach a lesson or talk through a problem when a child (or adult) is in a state of being emotionally overwhelmed.
Emotional overwhelm often triggers unacceptable behaviour. We do and say things that we wouldn’t normally because the parts of our brain in charge of impulse control, reasoning, problem solving and language are off-line.
Connecting is one of the fastest ways to reduce emotional overwhelm and to get those off-line parts of the brain back online.
Connection before correction also helps us parents stay calm and not say or do things that don’t align with our parenting goals. We get emotionally overwhelmed too! The most common parenting techniques used during parental emotional overwhelm are yelling, threats, punishment and spanking. When we move into emotional overwhelm we often forget our kind and firm tools, utilizing anything we can to make those feelings stop.
Research has clearly shown that physical punishment and shaming are detrimental to relationships, mental health and self-concept. Recent research has suggested that the ability to experience shame develops as early as the age of 3. Children develop an image of self by using evaluative feedback from others, especially authority figures and those they love. Particularly important are findings that high levels of shame were related to the onset of depression. Research has suggested thathumiliationis especially damaging when inflicted by anattachmentfigure, such as a parent or primarycaregiver.
By connecting before correcting we have a chance to build stronger relationships, focus on solving the problem, and correcting behaviour all while building resilience, self-reflection and strengthening self-image and mental health.
Along with my colleagues at Alongside You, I truly believe learning the principles of Positive Discipline can radically change our interactions with our kids and our relationships, and achieve the outcomes we’re looking for. If you’re looking for ways to connect with your kids, help them manage their emotions and behaviour, and set them up for success in their relationships with their friends and family, and their lives at school and beyond, I hope you’ll join us at our training in May! Click here for more information.
It can be difficult to know what to say or do when someone has experienced a loss. It is a delicate subject to approach since we do not want to say the wrong thing or come off as intruding or prying towards someone who is grieving. We don’t want to add to anyone’s pain, so sometimes we go back and forth between being present and supportive, to taking a step back and giving a person their space to cope. Both of these can be beneficial for the other person, but our uncertainty about how to respond can make us feel unhelpful or that we are adding to their pain. When it comes to offering support, however, being present and available to help or spending time with them can be healing.
What else can we do to be supportive during this difficult time? Here are a few practical ideas of how to help a friend or family member who is grieving:
Know what “normal” grief is and how to respond – check out my last article for a primer
Know that there is no one right way to grieve, every response and emotion is valid; people who are grieving may feel relief, guilt, anger, emptiness, sadness, etc. These emotions may be intense or extreme or they may be more mild. Be prepared for any reaction, and know that the reaction isn’t about you, it’s a response to pain.
There is no timeline or linear process to grief; each grief process is unique. People will cope in whatever way feels right for them and will take as long as they need.
Be empathetic by acknowledging the bereaved individual’s feelings (e.g. I can’t imagine how difficult this must be for you). Showing acceptance and support of their emotions, whether it’s anger, sadness, or otherwise, can provide a safe space for the person to experience their emotions openly.
Give them space to tell their story. The person may want to discuss the details of their loss repeatedly or in detail as a way to come to terms with what has happened.
Reach out to the person who is grieving whether it be through a phone call or an in-person visit. Remember them as time goes on and check in. Many times, people respond immediately and then support fades quickly.
Avoid saying things like: “Everything happens for a reason”, “They’re in a better place”, “At least…”, “It’s time to move on”, “I know how you feel”, “You can always have another child/get another job/get remarried”, “Time heals all wounds.” Avoid finding a silver lining to the loss or trying to fix what’s happened.
Instead, say things like: “I’m here for you.”, “I don’t know what to say, but I care.”, “I’ll call you/visit in a few days.”, “What can I do?”, “I can’t imagine what you must be going through.”
Saying nothing and just listen. It’s okay to listen or just be present with the other person. Sometimes there’s nothing at all that we can And certainly, whatever we say is unlikely to make the situation better.
Providing practical support can be very helpful, such as offering to:
Help with arrangements related to the loss, such as funeral arrangements, packing, finding a new place to live, etc.
Complete household chores or run errands
Cook or drop off meals in non-reusable containers so they don’t have to worry about washing your dishes and getting them back to you
Watch their children or pets if needed, giving them time for themselves
Help with insurance or other paperwork
Answer or make phones calls or for them
Take them out for a meal or a movie
Watch for signs of depressed feelings or complicated grief
We’ll take as long as we need to cope with our loss, but we do need to eventually come to terms with what has happened. Over time, we’ll adjust to a new normal and be able to move forward. However, sometimes we don’t move on and get stuck, which is called complicated grief which involves:
Being unable to move on from the loss
Being unable to carry out daily routines
Having feelings of intense loneliness, numbness, or sorrow
Wishing to be dead with the loved one who has passed
Depression can also occur and is often a part of complicated grief. The challenge with depression and complicated grief is they can be hard to tease apart, and often co-exist. Both can come in waves, or be constant companions.
If you’re noticing a complexity in the grief of a loved one, or signs of depression, then it’s best to encourage your loved one to seek out mental health support such as counselling. This can provide a space for emotions and thoughts related to the loss to be processed and allow for healing to occur. It can also provide an invaluable resource for depression and trauma screening by experienced professionals who can direct care most appropriately.
A loss isn’t something that can be fixed or repaired; it is something that has to be lived with. The pain cannot be taken away, so instead, we can help others by sitting with them in their pain. It is okay not to know what to say or how to help; if we can show up, listen, and be present, then that’s enough, and is valuable!
Today is the anniversary of the best decision I’ve ever made. This sounds cheesy, perhaps, but it also happens to be true. Fifteen years ago, I married Meg, and it’s been a wild ride ever since. Depending on how you recount history, our story either started in grade 5 or when I was 16. I went to school with her twin sister when I was in grade 5, and I remember when she came into our class for the first time to deliver a message to her sister. Now, you have to understand, I was in no way, shape, or form smooth at that age (many would argue that never changed). But, I distinctly remember turning to my friend and saying, “Wow, she could come back more often.”
Fast forward to when I was sixteen and started working at a summer camp. I walked along the boardwalk and low and behold, there was a beautiful girl that I recognized. I walked up to her and asked her, “Do I know you from somewhere?” She, thinking I was feeding her a line, literally got up and ran away. Now, I’m not using the word “literally” in the new-school hipster way, I actually mean she literally got up, moved her feet at a rapid pace, and in the opposite direction. Great start to a relationship.
Needless to say, it took a few years of work to get her to stop running away and to actually consider that I might be marriageable material. But, when I was 20 and she was 21, I asked her to marry me and, as they say, the rest is history.
As I was trying to fall asleep last night, my mind kept circling the question, over and over, “How is it that our relationship has lasted, and gotten infinitely better over time?” See, it hasn’t been easy. We got married young, and in our first year of marriage we went kamikaze with school, work, and other activities and didn’t see each other a whole lot (I definitely do not recommend this approach…). We are quite different people in many ways, and we often don’t see things the same way. And now, we’re business partners full time. Our recipe for success isn’t so simple! I also realize that we’re still in our infancy in our relationship at 15 years in – my parents will be celebrating 48 years of marriage this year, something I aspire to. So, this article isn’t definitive, because we have a long way to go!
I can’t write nearly as much as I wish I could hear, so I’ll save some for a later article. Here are three things that have been helpful to me in our marriage, and I hope will be helpful to you in your relationships.
If you know you’re wrong, admit it. If you know you’re right, shut up.
A very close family friend wrote this on the wedding card he gave us on our wedding day. I didn’t realize that this was a quote from Ogden Nash at the time, but it’s always stuck with me. Anyone who knows me knows that I love a good argument, and I’m pretty opinionated. I don’t expect everyone to agree with me, but if we’re arguing, I’m going to try to win the argument.
This is not a recipe for success in marriage. If it’s simply an intellectual argument it might be ok. If the argument is about something you’ve done wrong, arguing that you were right is not going to help things. Similarly, if you know you’re right it may not be your best course of action to beat this over the head of your partner. Chances are they know you’re right (even if they don’t want to admit it), and forcing the issue will just breed resentment.
Accept influence from your partner.
This one does not come naturally to me, at all. I’m not even sure why because I often say, and I sincerely believe, that I married up. It would only make perfect sense for me to accept Meg’s influence as a matter of course, but for some reason, it’s still challenging for me. There’s still a little birdie on my shoulder that, when I’m under stress, tells me that accepting influence is admitting defeat. Let me assure you, it’s not.
Accepting influence from your partner means that we shift from a focus on me and instead, focus on we in the relationship. John and Julie Gottman refer to this as the we-ness of the relationship and it’s something they measure in their research i. If you’re a research geek like me, feel free to have a read of this article that highlights how John Gottman has shown that relationships are far more successful when men accept the influence of their partner. It’s important for women to do this too, but the research seems to show that most women are already pretty good at it.
69% of conflict in relationships is due to perpetual problems.
This fact can either be encouraging or be discouraging depending on how you look at it. This statistic comes from John Gottman’s research and it’s been replicated. Perpetual problems are the issues that come up in the relationship over and over again. These problems are due to fundamental personality differences or lifestyle needs and are not going to be solved. These problems simply need to be managed. The conflict stems from the idea that we can change these things, rather than accepting them and managing them.
Part of me finds this frustrating. My brain and my passion drive me toward creating positive change and my superhero complex leads me to believe I can solve all of life’s problems if given enough time. When I’m stuck in this mode, I get frustrated and wonder why, after 15 years, we stumble through the same issues and I haven’t figured out how to solve them yet.
My more reasonable, rational self-finds this encouraging. I find it encouraging that after 15 years of struggling with the same issues, we still have a great marriage. We haven’t given up. We haven’t grown resentful. Somehow, even though we can’t change it, we find a way through it together. Over, and over, and over again.
We’re not perfect, even after 15 years of working at it
I didn’t want this article to come across as Andrew’s guide to having the perfect marriage that he has with his wife, and I hope it doesn’t come across that way. We’re not perfect, and we regularly screw it up. But when we do, we work hard at it.
Relationships are difficult. My marriage is by far the most difficult thing I’ve had to work on, and I can say without reservation, that I’ve had more work to do on myself than my partner has. She’s better at this than I am, she’s more of a natural, and Gottman’s research seems to support this.
What their research also shows, however, is that if I continue to work on this, and continue to accept Meg’s influence, my doing so is one of the most powerful forces to effect positive change in our relationship – and that’s what I’m going to work on for the next 50 years, God willing.
I love you Meg. Thank you for working on this with me and teaching me every day.
[i] It’s ok to laugh at this. Every time I go to one of their training and they use this word, I laugh. Part of maturity is accepting that we laugh at immature things. Or something like that.
If you’re looking for some summer reading that will improve your relationships, check out this book by John Gottman. It’s a great primer for some of the principles that make relationships last!