Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Why Are Relationships So Frustrating?

Can you see that everything in your reality appears to you as one of two categories? Either you think of it as yourself (or belonging to you) because you have control over it, or you think of it as part of your external environment, because it is not under your control. A "relationship" is where these two categories meet. A relationship is formed when you interact with the external environment, and you have some influence, but most of it is outside your control. That's what makes the relationship experience interesting and exciting (but sometimes also frustrating). Other people are just a specific instance of your external environment, but a special one, because of all the things in your world; they are the most like you. Therefore, your interactions with other people also have a special significance to you.

Maybe you are looking to other people for acceptance; that is to say, you want to be accepted by them. You might say to yourself, "Why should I change so that other people will accept me? I am what I am. They should learn to deal with me as I am." You have a strong desire to find someone who can accept you just as you are: totally, completely, and fully. At the same time, you also want to achieve full self-acceptance, to feel totally comfortable and "at home" being yourself. But you continually struggle with the challenge of accepting others as they are. Right now, some people in your life are exhibiting qualities that you don't want to deal with. They may pass judgment on you, criticize, nag, complain, or fail to give you enough respect and consideration. In short, they just don't do what you want them to do. Am I wrong about these things?

The essential challenge for you is to recognize that being accepted by others, accepting yourself, and accepting others are not three different things, they are in reality the same thing, because acceptance is a state of mind regarding the way you interact with your environment. Acceptance doesn't come from outside of you, it comes from within you. It is your willingness to just allow things (and people) to be as they are. Think about water flowing around rocks in a stream. Sometimes the water flows gently around whatever obstacle it encounters and continues downstream unhindered. This is your mind in a state of acceptance. Sometimes the water hits the rocks forcefully and churns back on itself, creating a frantic whirlpool that goes nowhere. This is your mind in a state of non-acceptance. While being accepted by others is not something you can directly control (and you only frustrate yourself by trying), accepting others and accepting yourself are your free choice. Once you choose the path of acceptance, you are then also free to perceive your environment as being accepting of you, because you are no longer demanding anything in particular from it.

My motivation in writing this is to help you clarify your thinking and stay on a productive path. Realize that you will keep meeting the same problems in different relationships until you figure out that the frustration is itself presenting the learning experience you need. You could turn right now and ask yourself, "What is the real cause of the things that frustrate me? What am I trying to change that is outside of my control? What can I learn about myself from these experiences?" I would love to hear you reflect on your feelings, respond to those questions and unlock the personal growth that comes from doing so.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

It's Summertime and the Living is Easy

I didn't really mean to take the summer off, but it just happened that way. I really thought after I stopped working on June 1st, I would have a lot more time for this blog. However, it turns out that I actually had a lot more time for relaxation and recreation. The weather here has been unusually cool for summer and it's great to be outdoors—swimming, walking, biking, and trying to keep up with the copious amount of zucchini coming out of our garden. I think up until this week, we had the air conditioning on only about four days so far this summer.

For those of you who remember my "Changes" post, you will be heartened to learn that my father-in-law is doing quite well. In spite of having an advanced aggressive cancer, he has responded well to chemotherapy (so much so that he has to take another 12 week round). He even resumed playing golf about two weeks ago.

After I stopped working, I made a conscious decision not to rush into doing anything. I often get a restless feeling, like I should be doing something, and sometimes I will start a project out of that feeling, and get caught up in it. But now I have a different problem, which is mental inertia. I've become so relaxed, that it's hard to get started on anything. Nonetheless, I want to resume regular postings, so my new goal is to put up at least one post every week so I can get back into the swing of things.

I would especially like to thank all of you who have been reading my blog for the past six months, and particularly those of you who have taken the time to leave comments. Your encouragement and support has been very much appreciated!

Finally, I would like to leave you with these insightful thoughts from the book, The Lost Art of Listening, by Michael P. Nichols:

"The yearning to be listened to and understood is a yearning to escape our separateness and bridge the space that divides us. We reach out and try to overcome that separateness y revealing what's on our minds and in our hearts, hoping for understanding. Getting that understanding should be simple, but it isn't.

The essence of good listening is empathy, which can be achieved only by suspending our preoccupation with ourselves and entering into the experience of the other person. Part intuition and part effort, it's the stuff of human connection.

A listener's empathy—understanding what we're trying to say and showing it—builds a bond of understanding, linking us to someone who understands and cares and thus confirming that our feelings are recognizable and legitimate. The power of empathic listening is the power to transform relationships. When deeply felt but unexpressed feelings take shape in words that are shared and come back clarified, the result is a reassuring sense of being understood and a grateful feeling of shared humanness with the one who understands.

If listening strengthens our relationships by cementing our connection with one another, it also fortifies our sense of self. In the presence of a receptive listener, we're able to clarify what we think and discover what we feel. Thus, in giving an account of our experience to someone who listens, we are better able to listen to ourselves. Our lives are coauthored in dialogue."

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Ten Minutes of Honesty

Babies are born honest. They cry anytime they're upset, and they spit out food they don't like. We adults spend many years working to make them less honest, and in many ways that's a good thing. "Be nice." "Don't complain so much." "Say you're sorry." We want our kids to be considerate of others, polite, and unselfish, even if they have to hide their real feelings to achieve it. But it's a difficult thing to teach a child the difference between situations when it's okay for them to express their true feelings and situations when it's not okay to do so. Sometimes, it's even hard for an adult to understand the difference.

My daughter is nine years old now. I figure I have no right to brag about my parenting skills until she's at least 18. I know the really tough years are still ahead of us. She's the feisty kind and is always trying to push the boundaries. A couple of weeks ago, she said to me, "Mom, there are things that I don't feel like I can tell you." I asked why not. "Because you might not like it," she said. "You mean like when you complain too much and I tell you to stop?" I asked.
So, we made a deal. At any time, she can ask for ten minutes where she can tell me anything, and I agree that won't get mad, I won't lecture, advise or punish, I won't tell her not to say things like that. I promise that I will take off the "Mom hat" and just listen.

This time, she has an interesting assortment of things to reveal. She tells me about a minor mistake she's covered up so she won't get in trouble. She tells me about some mean things her friend said to her last year (actually she had told me that at the time too, but she forgets). She tells me that sometimes she feels like she doesn't love me when I get mad at her. She tells me about the boy who kissed her in the hallway when she was in kindergarten and it was so eeeeeewwww! I tell her that I had the same problem in kindergarten, there was a boy who was always trying to kiss me and I hated it. She tells me that one of her online friends from SmallWorlds is 16, and how this friend said she had a boyfriend who was always trying to "feel her all over", so she dumped him. She tells me how annoying it is that the boy her same age, who lives next door, gets upset over some really trivial things, and she describes how they were playing 20 questions, and he got enraged because she and another kid guessed the object he was thinking of right away. At the end, she says, "Mom, I really like it when I can talk to you like this."

I know that as she grows up, I will need to take off the "Mom hat" more often. I will have to learn to trust her judgment, and be willing to listen to her tell the truth about her feelings. I will have to learn to stand by quietly as she makes mistakes and learns from them. It will be a difficult thing for me, I know. We went to an amusement park last week to celebrate the end of her school year, and she insisted on riding every ride she could by herself. "I like to feel independent," she said.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

How I Met My Husband

One of the most daunting aspects of dating is the rejection. It is never easy to be on either end of a rejection, so the fear of being rejected or of having to reject someone else can make people very hesitant to even try. When I was young and single, I was not at all comfortable being upfront or obvious if I was attracted to someone. I found it even hard to talk to guys I found attractive, because the attraction created an extra nervousness and awkwardness for me that would not have been there otherwise. So for the most part, I ended up with boyfriends who picked me, rather than ones that I sought out.

Throughout my twenties, I was mainly focused on educational goals anyway and was not looking to "settle down". I didn't feel like I needed to give too much thought to the long-term prospects for a relationship, and it was enough for a relationship just to be enjoyable and satisfying in the present. I didn't get married until I was 31, so it's fair to say I "circled the buffet table a few times before I decided what I wanted to put on my plate", so to speak.

The last one of the several romantic relationships I was involved in before I met my husband lasted for seven years. It almost ended a few times because I really knew deep down that it wasn't right for the long-term. There were breaks over the years where we saw, or at least tried to see other people. But the truth is that it's hard to end a relationship that is generally comfortable and loving if there is no animosity to use as a push-away. It was too easy for us to keep drifting back together, rather than working to meet other people.

The pattern finally ended when I accepted a job that moved me about 250 miles away, and I knew if we were ever going to successfully break up, having this distance between us was our best shot. It was especially hard for me because I didn't know a soul in the new town. I had one friend from college living about 85 miles to the south of my new location, and I reconnected with him and drove down there on some weekends just to have something to do.

The first few months there were sad and depressing. I was grieving over the loss of this warm and supportive relationship. I was lonely. I was working on adjusting to the expectations and requirements of the new job, including what was the most difficult aspect for me--giving presentations and speaking up in meetings.

My ex-boyfriend, John and I were still talking to on the phone at least once or twice a week, and he suggested I try I had never heard of it, and in fact, the service was not even a year old. At that time, it was a very basic service-you wrote a description of yourself, and answered a few questions about the type of person you were interested in, but there were no images. It was also heavily male-dominated at that time. I think the listings were something like four or five men to every woman, and what's more they were often geeky guys-guys who were really comfortable with computers, which it stands to reason would be the earliest users.

The truth is that I have always been attracted to that type. I think it's the intellectual aspect--it's always been high on my list, as I wrote about in What Women Want. Intelligence and geekiness just seem to naturally go together. I have a story about that, which I will tell at the risk of digressing. Many years ago, when I was still together with John, and he insisted on introducing me a guy in his neighborhood that he had grown up with. This guy (I can't even recall his name) was a magnet for women. John was somewhat bewildered by this. He couldn't figure out why girls were always calling him and chasing after him, so he wanted me to check this guy out and tell him, from the female perspective, what qualities made him so appealing. We went over and hung out with him and his girlfriend du jour for a while, and after we left, John wanted to know what it was exactly that made this guy so great. My answer? Absolutely nothing. I had no attraction to him whatsoever. I thought he came across as vapid vain, and empty-headed, all total turn-offs to me. Sure, he had good looks, but I wouldn't have given a guy like that a second glance under any circumstances. This came as something of a surprise to John--I guess he thought if you were attractive to some women, you were attractive to all women. But it's not so. Every woman has her own preferences, and you should never underestimate the power of "chemistry". I don't really understand what causes "chemistry", but I know it when I feel it.

So, returning to my main story-after feeling really empty, disoriented, and emotionally drained for a couple of months, I woke up one morning finally feeling clear. It was like the clouds had parted and the emotional hang-over had come to an end. I finally took the plunge and put a listing up on I was living in a very rural area and I didn't get very many matches at first. I found I had to go up over 85 miles to start getting matches, because at that point I was able to pick up three metropolitan areas. Then there were a lot of matches, and it took me a long time to read all the listings. I didn't have my own computer at the time, and I would stay at work after hours to read through all of them. It took me a while to narrow down the hundreds of results to four individuals who seemed really promising. At that point, I was feeling very determined that I wanted to be with someone who was totally and completely right for me. I did not want to get sucked into another comfortable, but not-quite-right relationship that I would have a hard time breaking off. I knew that I would need to be assertive. I would need to actively look for what I wanted in a life-long partner, and I would need to be decisive.

I had four matches that seemed ideal, and I began to correspond with all four of them. I didn't intend to be connecting with all four at the same time, but the first one was slow to write back, and I took this as a sign of no interest, which it turned out was a wrong assumption. But I got the idea that not everyone I contacted would write back, so I should not just focus on one person.

Being ideal on paper and having a enjoyable correspondence doesn't necessary mean there's chemistry, as I found out, when I had the first actual meeting. The first in-person date I had through was with Ken, and he was very sweet, friendly, and fairly attractive. I really liked him as a person, but there was no chemistry, and I realized it immediately. We met at a park about half way between our homes, a 45-minute drive for both of us. We spent a couple of hours walking around, talking and getting to know each other, but I knew from the first moment it was not going to work out. At an earlier point in my life, I would have told myself that this was something worth exploring. He was clearly a terrific person, so maybe if I gave it a chance it could develop into something over time. But those days had passed. I was no longer willing to go down that road. Now, it was all or nothing, and I wanted it all.

Being single as long as I was, I had done my fair share of rejections. With a rejection, I want to start out as subtle as possible, because hopefully the other person is having the same realization, which is that it's just not going to work out. Sometimes, it doesn't go that way, and it's necessary to be more direct. With Ken, it was easy. At the end of the day, we embraced, and said how great it had been to spend a few hours together, which was entirely true, and looking into his eyes, I saw he knew what I knew, and it was such a pleasant relief to find that we were both on the same page. No hard feelings.

The second person I met in person turned out to be my future husband. After meeting the first person, I was so hopeful that it could happen so quickly, but it did. I was immediately attracted, and it took less than two hours for me to feel certain that we were going to be together always. The best way I can describe it is to say that in previous relationships, I had the sense that my love had boundaries. I felt like, okay--now I know what this relationship is doing for me, how it's meeting some of my needs, but I also know what it just can't be-you know, I had this sense of what needs were not going to be met. But when I finally met my husband, those boundaries just disappeared. I felt, for the first time, the sense of limitless, bottomless, uncontainable love. I knew there would be no end to it. And there has been no end to it. Our first date was on the fourth of July of 1996, and we have been married for eleven years. It's still inconceivable to me that we won't be together always.

So, that's my story, and here are a few things that I hope you will take away from it:

1. Sometimes you need to be assertive and determined to get what you want, and take decisive action-coasting along letting things happen to you just doesn't get the job done. Once you make up your mind that you will work hard to get what you want, it's often easier than you think it will be.

2. Rejection is just a state of mind. If you're looking for the person who's totally right for you, and the person you're with is doing the same, then it's either happening or it's not. Ideally, both of you will know it. Don't be afraid to be honest-you may meet someone who is a really wonderful person, but is just not right for you, and it's okay to say so.

3. Don't fall into the trap of thinking you're not attractive. Attraction is a matter of personal preference, and everyone's preferences are different. Too many people think they have some big flaw that makes them undesirable-they're too short or not smart enough or not pretty enough, but even if the flaw is real, be assured that there are lots of people out there to whom that is one thing that just doesn't matter. After all, my ex-boyfriend's neighbor seemed to find lots of eager women who didn't mind vain and vapid. Exactly what they saw in that guy will forever remain a mystery to me.

4. Never underestimate or try to fight "chemistry". I think there's a part of you deep down that better understands what you want and need than your thinking mind does. I believe there is such a thing as "true love"-it's not just that there's a good fit and a better fit, but there really is a totally, completely right person out there for you, and when you meet that person you will know it, and he/she will know it too. Respect the secret magic.