Sunday, August 5, 2007

An Open Letter to My Son

Dear Little Man,

You know, there are times when I look at you and I know that when you get older you are going to ask me what happened with our family. Growing up, I was grateful that you were so well adjusted to our separation. You mother and I, regardless of our differences, always agreed that nothing good would come of putting you in the middle of our problems. I will always be grateful for that; even your school teachers said that your behavior in school seemed to get better once we separated and I moved out of the house.

So now that you've become a man, you've asked me several times what happened between us. Each time, I've told you I'll tell you when you're older. When you're old enough to drive; when you're old enough to drink. Well, I'm sorry; I still don't think the time is right for you to know the details. One of the things I have always done is honored your mother for you, just as she has done for me. Our problems remain our problems; and this is something that you will need to learn to accept over time. When we are peers and you have been married, had a child, created a career, and carved your place in life then we can talk about this. As corny as it sounds, you still have too much to learn and experience. It's simply not the right time, and I hope you can understand.

Now, with that in mind I want you to live and benefit from my mistakes. I want you to learn from them, and not have to relive them. You've told me about being in love, and how your relationships are getting more serious. I'm happy for you, and excited for the opportunities that are in front of you. A good relationship will enhance your life. It will give you insight into aspects of yourself that hide from the world, and empower you to achieve more. The flip side of that is that a bad relationship will limit you; it will whittle you down to a sliver of yourself. Given who you are, you will know when things are right and when you have a good thing going. Its hard, sometimes though, to understand when things are bad; when it is time to move on. Here is some advice on when / why to move on:

Remember that relationships don't define you. They don't determine who you are. They describe where we are in life, and demonstrate what we value. Its ok for this to change over time, and when it changes its ok to recognize, accept it, and move on. If you find that your relationships define you, then maybe you have forgotten who you are. Don't let that happen.

This is going to sound like a cliche, but sex is not love. Great sex should be celebrated, but it cannot be the basis for a relationship. If you have not experienced this yet, you will soon and will know exactly what I mean (this is one of those things that you will know when you know). Ride it out for however long you can, but be real about what you have. Remember: a kiss is not a contract.

If you find yourself "hoping" your relationship will change, leave. Hope on its own has never changed anything; it certainly cannot change people. If you think that "waiting" for someone to change or that they will "see the light" at some point is noble, think again. In relationships, chumps hope. Now, at some point in your life you may find someone that you feel is worth your "hope" because when things are good, they are better than anything you have lived through or experienced. As a father, I want you to know that this will be your cross to bear, and it will be your choice alone to value this person more than yourself.

Does she say she loves you, but act differently (like she resents you, for example)? What people say and what they do can sometimes be very different. If they are, look out. You want to be with someone that lives congruently; whose actions are aligned with their emotions, thoughts, and goals. If she loves you but likes to put you down, walk away. Does she need to be right or have the last word? Does she feel the need to elevate herself above you (for whatever reason)? Does she put you down when she feels bad? If so, she has contempt for you at some level. Walk away.

Its smart to walk away from a bad thing, and trust your instincts when they tell you something is bad for you. Your instincts are right more often than we give them credit for; respect and hone them. Walking away takes courage and conviction; it takes strength and will. Believe in yourself and trust your instincts.

Nothing is more important than loving, respecting, and nurturing yourself. If you don't love yourself, no one will love you back. If you do not respect yourself, people will not respect you. If you do not nurture yourself, you will not learn, grow, or evolve. I feel that these three things are keys to living; I didn't learn this until my 30's. Hopefully you have learned it already.

Kid, you have always been the greatest gift my life has experienced. I am honored to be your father, and hope your understand the things I am talking about in this letter. I will always be here for you.

With Love and Respect,


Evolution Example: Where Is Your Wedding Ring These Days?

To this day I think the proudest moment of my life was expressing my wedding vows. I remember the pride and power I felt; almost like a mountain. On that day, I knew my purpose, my reason for breathing, and had this cool confidence that grounded me. Everything seemed to move a bit slower; and while things around me were a little crazy, I never felt consumed or impacted by it. For me, saying my vows culminated the day and made the marriage real for me. Take the ceremony away, forget the reception, and erase the honeymoon. What made the event concretely real for me were the two minutes we used to exchange the vows we wrote for each other. In all my life, I do not think that I have said anything else with so much passion and honesty; and when we were done, it was my wedding ring that for years would server as a reminder of the person I was that day. Of the person I had pledged to be.

Well, my how things change over the years.

So I do not wear my wedding ring any more. To be honest, I do not even know where it is. I stopped wearing it minutes after I told my wife I wanted a divorce and sincerely meant it. Now, one thing about my wedding ring is that it honestly was among my most prized possessions. I took it off maybe five times in all of the years we were together. What it symbolized for me was tangible as well. The ring had an interesting design; there was an inner band to my wedding band that allowed me to "twirl" it with my thumb. I would do this when I was nervous, thinking hard, looking for inspiration, or grounding. When I spun the ring, I could faintly smell the perfume my wife wore on our wedding day (it was powdery, with a touch of flowers). The ring was not expensive, but it represented the resolve and commitment I had regarding out marriage. Thus, it was only fitting that I remove it when my marriage had finally failed.

Hindsight being what it is, I removed my ring originally out of anger and spite. I took it off, and left it on my entertainment center for days. I wanted my wife to see it; I wanted her to understand that I was at the end of our relationship; that she had made a mistake treating me the way that she did. I wanted her to feel hurt when she saw my ring on our shelf, and eventually in my sock drawer. When I moved all my things out of the house, I left my ring on the kitchen table. I refused to take it with me. I wanted her to see that I had abandoned it; that I had abandoned the idea of our marriage. I now realize how wrong and petty I was with that. Divorce is such an ugly, painful process. We end up hurting or trying to hurt each other because of the pain we feel and cause.

So if you are curious when it is appropriate to remove your wedding ring, remember that this decision should not be trite or trivial. The ring represents something you vowed to own, an ideal that you chose to live up to. Removing the ring is a broken promise. It is a resounding "no", and (chances are) something that will at least initially hurt your spouse. It is a rejection. But rather than look at this act as the end of your relationship, chose to view it as the continuation or evolution of your life. Removing your ring is the start of something new; the announcement that in the face of no evidence you are will to change your life. Be empowered by this experience, and do not look upon it with guilt. Think about the following:

  • Your wedding ring is not an obligation; it is a pledge or oath of commitment. If you feel that, for whatever reason, you cannot live up to the ideals that embody your ring and marriage, then remove it. Don't live a lie; it will hurt you more than you will understand in the moment.
  • If you no longer honor or respect your spouse, remove it. You cannot have a relationship without these emotions and values; pretending that you can only perpetuates the painful.
  • If you look at your ring resentfully, remove it. Remember that the ring can be a symbol. Remember that your ring represents your relationship and spouse. If you look at your ring and feel overwhelming resentment then consider taking it off.
  • If the negative aspects of your marriage have begun to define how you feel about yourself, remove it. Over time, we sometimes define ourselves not by who we are, but rather by the circumstances around us. We convince ourselves that we are good people when things go well, and bad people when they do not. This is not reality; its conformity.
For me, my ring originally represented the ideals behind which I chose to marry. It was an iconographic representation of how I wanted to measure my relationship. Over time, though, that ideal changed to one of commitment, then responsibility, then obligation, and eventually debt. In a marriage, you should not feel obligated to your spouse. In life, we have “get to” opportunities; things that we do not have to do, but rather choose to do. Marriage, in my view, is not a “have to”; it’s a “get to”. Obligations indicate a lack of choice; well, marriage is a choice; commitment is a choice. When marriage becomes a “have to” is a sign that problems exist.Now, in divorce, we experience a n array of negative emotions typically associated with loss; anger, frustration, resentment to name a few. When we feel these emotions, we tend to react. Do not let your wedding ring removal be a reaction to something your spouse has done. Let it be a decision or choice that you have made which defines the direction you have chosen in life. Removing your ring should not be the end of your marriage; it should represent the beginning of your new life.

When I removed my ring, I was sad; but I knew it was right. When I look back on the experience and get through the anger I had, the hurt I felt, and the resentment that filled me, part of me immediately acknowledged that it was time. It was right. It was the first step in my evolution. Did I miss it? Yes, of course. Even today, I still find myself looking at my ring finger and seeing if there is a faint tan line / outline left (there isn't). But now, I recognize and understand that I missed the idea behind my relationship; not my spouse or the relationship we had. When I missed the ring, I missed the connected moments we had as equals and vulnerable, giving partners. Well, life moves on. You have to be willing to move with it, or it will leave you behind.

Monday, July 23, 2007

What Makes a Marriage Successful? Not Contempt.

I recently began reading Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell. In the book, Malcolm discusses the different ways that our mind and subconscious process information to come to snap decisions that do not require huge investments of time to achieve. Under these circumstances, time is not a factor or bottleneck in achieving an accurate decision / result; if anything, it is a benefit. Examples of this include intuition, or "gut" feelings about something in the face of what appears to be little or no empirical evidence. The process by which this occurs is called "thin slicing", and in the book Malcolm shows an example of how thin slicing is used to analyze whether marriages will be successful. The relationship study, performed by Dr. John Gottman, demonstrated that contempt, above all other emotions of relationship behaviors, was the leading cause of failed relationships among study subjects. If Dr. Gottman witnessed signs of contempt by either or both partners, he considered this the single most important sign that the relationship was in trouble.

As I continue to experience my divorce, I reflect on what made my marriage successful at times and I come back to the same things over and over. No judgment; no contempt. Contempt breeds resentment, and misplaced contempt breeds guilt. Judgments are righteous, and when we judge we look to conform someone to our point of view. Instead of judging, learn forgiveness. Instead of contempt, practice acceptance. My point, here, is that you must learn to maintain yourselves as equals. Regardless of what trials you experience, what success you share, never allow yourselves to put one of you above the other.

If one partner is valued more than the other in the relationship, then these negative relationship-eroding emotions will surface. Learn to accept each other; and remember to express compassion to one another during difficult times. Remember that compassion is not pity; compassion is the act of relieving a person's suffering. Sometimes we suffer because of the people around us, or even bring it upon ourselves. Try to notice this; pick up on it; point it out. Suffering takes many forms, and to deal with this in an unselfish way we must expression compassion to our partners. One of the greatest things we can do in a relationship is accept our partners at their weakest, act compassionate when our partners choose to express their suffering through anger, and forgive when they make mistakes.

Understand that by this am I in no way saying that this is all you need to have a successful marriage. Other emotions and relationship responsibilities are necessary including trust, love, respect, and consideration to name a few. Hindsight being what it is, though, the role of contempt in failed relationships makes complete sense to me. When I look at the relationships in my life whether they be related to work, friends, or partners, the ones that failed did so because either I or the other person expressed contempt towards each other in some way. Contempt is a viscous way of expressing resignation to another person in that it can be hidden or justified rather easily. It is ego driven since when we choose to express it, we are in effect stating "You are not as important as I am." Well, it is tough to maintain a relationship towing that line, isn't it?

Note: This question was originally answered in Yahoo! Answers. You can view the original question and answers in the Marriage and Divorce community.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Check It Out: Yahoo! Answers (Marriage & Divorce)

Ok, so I'll admit it. I am a big fan of Yahoo Answers; specifically their Marriage & Divorce section. The questions are real, and the perspectives from men and women are raw, truthful, honest, and even funny. Like anything else, you should pick and choose what works for you, and not "trust everything you read."

Yahoo answers allows users to post questions in a semi-anonymous manner which can promote uninhibited contributions from the user base. Questions cover a broad range of subjects: anything from "what will save my marriage", to "is he cheating on me", to "what are the keys to a successful marriage or divorce". Answers follow the same trend; some are witty, some are brutally honest, and others can simply waste your time. In the midst of this communication, some questions and answers remind us that these people experience the same struggles we do. They are insecure about the same things, fear the same consequences, and hope for the same dreams and outcomes in their relationships.

So if you are looking to learn how to talk about your divorce or seek help but are unwilling or unable to speak with someone, visit Yahoo Answers. Read the questions, and check out the best answers. Be a consumer about the advice you pull (remember, not everything you'll read is going to be good), and look for value that is applicable to your situation. Post a question, and if you do not want to use your current Yahoo Id register and create a new one. Anonymity can be empowering, after all.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Law of Evolution #6: Find and Embrace Your Best Self

Evolutionary Law #6: Find and Embrace Your Best Self. I will collect, understand, and embrace the best qualities of myself with the understanding that at my best self, I maximize my power, presence, and effectiveness in the world.

So what is your best self? Does that mean being generous? Giving? Loving? Compassionate? Selfish? While each of these qualities may be noble, your best self involves all of them but is borne from none. To evolve, you need to nurture your ability to grow. And the best growth you will experience in life is borne from confidence. That’s right. Confidence. The confidence to not care; to believe in your passion; to recognize value and trust the instincts that measure it. To often, we think of our best selves in terms of things we do (ex. giving, generous, loving, selfless). Instead, we should think in terms of who we are; and we are at our best when we are confident.

Confidence can mean different things to people and can show itself in different ways and under different circumstances. A Navy Seal, for example, can be extremely confident about jumping out of an airplane with a parachute and pack. The same individual, though, may demonstrate a complete lack of confidence in a social situation. “I can jump out of an airplane, but can’t talk to a pretty girl without breaking out in a sweat.” It may sound funny, but it happens more than you think. Often, confidence is localized to what makes us comfortable: certain clothes, places, people, and surroundings. From that confidence, we demonstrate glimmers of our best self to the people around us. The key to embracing our best self is to understand how to leverage this at will, instead of having it predicated on our surroundings.

So how does one create this confidence, and how does that create an environment where we can nurture our best qualities? This can be done by understanding and practicing the following:
  • Subjugate your need for approval. Understand that nothing good in life will come from needing or wanting the approval of others. Approval always carries a negative costs, and ultimately limits what you can accomplish.

  • Control and manage your need for immediate gratification. Immediate gratification is a derailment mechanism that we use internally to seek comfort or short-term payoffs. Examples include putting off events, cheating on diets, smoking, etc. Immediate gratification is a metaphor for seeking approval from ourselves, and carries the same negative cost.

  • Be rigorous with your communication. Learn to ask for what you want, be clear with what you say so that others understand you, and make no assumptions of people. When in doubt, ask. When clarity is necessary, tell. And remember that communication is not just limited to what we say; it includes how we act and look.

  • Live congruently. Living congruently means ensuring that your actions are aligned with your goals. If you want to lose weight, for example, you should exercise and diet. If you are not, though, and still believe you want to lose weight you are not being congruent. Congruence is a powerful way to validate that our commitment and passion for a goal exists.
First and foremost, we must subjugate our need for approval. Nothing good in life will ever come from feeding approval (think back to your marriage; did anything good come from seeking the approval of your spouse?). To put it another way, feeding approval always has a negative cost associated to it. It may be hidden, buried, or even outweighed by the gains made, but it exists and takes physical, mental, and emotional toll on each of us. Approval as a basis for living is dangerous because it places the responsibility for defining ourselves and experience on outside forces. Instead of owning, for example, that we are good people we sometimes place the responsibility on someone to tell us that we are good people. In these circumstances, our perception and value is molded not by who we are, but by what others tell us they think we are. In other words, when we pursue approval we give our power away and limit our possibilities to what the "approver" believes or understands. Ridding yourself of the need for approval will open up new opportunities for you that did not exist before.

Another concept that mirrors approval is the need for immediate gratification. Immediate gratification scenarios occur when we want something right away without considering the consequences or cost. If we are on a diet, for example, and feel the need to break away from the diet for a moment by eating a Twinkie. In this scenario, our need to eat what clearly is not good for us outweighed our desire to respect the diet and, ultimately, follow through on our goal of losing weight. Immediate gratification is an inward form of seeking approval entrenched in physical response of feeling good. That is the payoff; that is why we indulge in this - because it feels good to have a Twinkie when we crave it or smoke a cigarette when we are stressed out. They payoffs, however, are short lived and their cost is ultimately more expensive than we realize. What happens with immediate gratification is that the long term cost is hidden from us because we only focus on the short-term cost and gain. For a smoker trying to quit, one cigarette here or there (as opposed to a pack a day) seems rational, even reasonable. The short term cost is low, and the payoff is high. The smoker, however, may never quit following this pattern of behavior. When feeling good at all costs is as or more important than our desired goals, then we are seeking approval from ourselves, almost asking "it's ok to not follow through on our goals, right? I can do that, right? It doesn't make me a bad person, does it?" Remember, nothing good ever comes out of seeking approval; especially when its faced inward.

One of the key acts that we can participate in to deal with immediate gratification is communicating rigorously. Just as we have a need to be rigorous with our communication externally (to the people around us), we have a responsibility to be rigorous with our internal communication (the conversations we have in our heads). To illustrate this, think about the smoker wanting to have just one cigarette, and caving into their need for immediate gratification:

You: "Man, I could really use a smoke right now."
Ego: "Well, you know, you said you were trying to quit."
You: "I know, but I'm just very stressed out. I just got off the phone with my wife, and she's completely pushing my buttons. I just don't understand why she needs to act that way."
Ego: "You know, it's only one cigarette. What can it hurt, right? I mean, you can always start quitting tomorrow."
You: "You're right. That's what I'll do."

Now something to point out here is that you control both sides of this conversation. Your "ego" does not have a mind or will of its own; instead it has your mind and will. Now, if your ego were to be rigorous with how it communicates, the conversation may have a different result:

You: "Man, I could really use a smoke right now."
Ego: "I want to remind you that you are trying to quit."
You: "I know, but I'm just very stressed out. I just got off the phone with my wife, and she's completely pushing my buttons. I just don't understand why she needs to act that way."
Ego: "You know, I complete understand how you feel. But you are trying to quit, and it is my responsibility to let you know that this will not lead to your quitting. You will keep smoking, and inherit the physical risks that smokers experience."
You: "Well, I really just want something to help me get past how I feel right now."

Ego: "I agree; try and find something to satisfy this need other than smoking. Chew gum. Listen to music for 3 minutes. Drink water. If you are going to do something, just make sure it is congruent with your goal of quitting smoking."
You: "You're right. I'll drink water. That's what I'll do."

In the above conversation, the ego was consistent and rigorous about maintaining clarity regarding the smoker's goals. Granted, this takes discipline to be effective. But communicating rigorously will help you accomplish your goals and maintain focus for those things that are truly important to you. It will also reinforce the importance of these goals on a moment-to-moment basis. Remember, it takes
21-30 days to form a new habit. If you can think like this for that amount of time, what else could you accomplish with your life?

Now, if we can be rigorous internally, we can do the same externally with the people around us. We can learn to truly ask for what we want of others, and tell others when they do not meet our expectations (without fear, judgment, or prejudice). Remember that rigorousness is best expressed as a commitment to one's goals, passion, and through a definition of one's self. This means that we not only get to be rigorous about what we say and how we say it, but we get to be rigorous about our physical appearance, standing, and place in the world. We get to question ourselves as to our goals regarding every aspect of our life, and then we get to follow through with them. This is an exciting way to live. When we do this, we have begun to establish congruence which in turn creates confidence. From this confidence, our true and best self is born.

Think to your past. Everyone has certain times in their life when almost magically, everything that needed to happen in order for you to achieve a goal happened. For that moment or series of moments, your focus, attention, and presence separated you from the people around you. You seemed almost better, committed, or more prepared than those around you. For some, it was almost as if everyone around you moved a tad bit slower. For others, when you spoke the people around you never questioned your word. In each of these moments, we surrendered our nature to our best selves by living congruently. In these moments, nothing mattered other than to accomplish our goals. We did not seek approval. Immediate gratification had no place in our life. So live congruently, and be rigorous with your communication. Set your goals and live up to them. Soon enough, you will find your best self. How will you know? You will be defining your reality, instead of having it defined for you.