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 match.com. 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 match.com. 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 match.com 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.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Fundamentals of Emotional Intimacy: Managing Conflict

Anytime people come together, there are differences of opinion, values, needs and desires. Finding a method to resolve those differences has been a major challenge for every civilization and organization. Personal relationships present the same kinds of challenges. It's difficult to share your life with someone else, and manage disagreements in a way that leaves both of you feeling positive about the relationship.

I came from a family where my mother had a very passive-aggressive style and tended to become emotional during any kind conflict. I've found that that style is not very productive, and I've learned to use a more rational, goal-focus style instead. Yet, we humans are emotional beings, and sometimes it's hard to control the way we express our feelings.
Recognize that if you're in a highly emotional state, you will transmit that state as you communicate. It's nearly inevitable. We all easily pick up on the emotions of those near us. If you're angry and you start expressing that, people near you will probably start feeling angry too.

Here are a few tips that I've learned over the years for handling conflict in a way that promotes a positive outcome.

1. Be aware of the topics that are hot buttons for conflict in your relationship. Some of the typical problems for romantically-involved couples include money, sex, in-laws or other relatives, raising children, and division of household work. Remind yourself that before you begin talking about any of these issues, you will need some extra planning time to make sure the discussion goes smoothly.

2. Before you start the conversation, think about what kind of resolution you want. Say it to yourself in words. It may be something like, "I want her to acknowledge that this is a difficult situation for me, and I am making a sacrifice", or "I want us to divide up the chores so that I don't have to do so much right after I get home from work". Don't start a discussion until you know what you want and have a goal clearly in mind. If I just need blow off some steam, I find it helpful to preface my complaints by saying, "I just need to vent about some things that are going on. I don't expect you to solve these problems. I am just looking for a little empathy"
if indeed that is all I want.

3. Think about how to get what you want with a win-win arrangement. What can you give in exchange for what you want? Sometimes it is as simple as giving praise and gratitude.

4. Warn your partner if you're about to bring up an emotional topic. Say something like, "I want us to discuss this, but I'm worried that you might feel defensive" or "I just want you to understand how I'm feeling about this." You're essentially telling your partner that she/he might need to exercise some emotional restraint during the discussion. Your warning will help your partner tune into your feelings, and make it far less likely that the conversation will deteriorate into a fight.

5. Stop after every statement you make and allow your partner time to respond. Listen carefully and repeat back what you hear him or her saying in your own words. This is where good listening skills become very important. A lot of conflict arises simply because we feel we are not being heard, and we often begin to repeat the same message more and more loudly in an effort just to be understood. Showing that are listening and understanding stops this pattern and keeps the discussion productive. Ask that your partner listen to you too. If you feel like you're not being heard, stop and say, "Can you tell me in your own words what you think I'm saying." Often you'll find your partner is reading more into your meaning than you really intend, and has been reacting to that inference rather than what you actually said.

6. Make requests rather than statements. "I think you should help out more with the laundry" is not a request. "Could you please help out more with the laundry?" is a request. Use your best manners with the people you love. This is the place in your life where being polite pays off the most. When you make a request, say why it's important to you or how it will help you out. Also mention if it will improve the relationship, like "I will feel less stressed if you help out with this chore, and I will then have time to relax with you after dinner." Your partner is most motivated to help you when he or she also benefits directly.

7. Become more self-aware of your own emotions and how they affect the relationship dynamic. Pause between the point where you feel the rush of emotion and the point you begin to communicate, and consider how your message will be heard and received. Then ask yourself what kind of response you are likely to get based on your past experiences.

8. Express your feelings without assigning blame. Rather than saying, "You have no right to talk to your mother about me that way", say "I feel angry and hurt when you tell your mother about our problems even though you haven't talked to me first so that we can work out a solution."

9. Create rules to clarify your agreements and prevent further conflict. Ideally, rules provide both freedom and limits. Regarding money, my husband and I have a joint bank account. We generally agree that we can each spend up to a couple of hundred dollars a month on personal purchases without consulting each other. If one of us wants to make a purchase for more than that, we discuss it in advance. If one of us wants to buy an item for the household, or for our mutual use, we discuss it first. I know some couples that maintain separate bank accounts. They have agreements about what bills get paid out of each account. The point is to find rules that you and your partner both feel good about and that will reduce future problems.

10. Don't avoid conflict, but manage it. The problem with not speaking up when you disagree is that over time, you become increasing annoyed and resentful. It's called passive-aggressive behavior because you remain passively angry until you can't take it anymore and then you explode. Resolve that you will talk to your partner about the things that bother you when you first notice them. If you're worried about being confrontational, approach it this way--first, ask probing questions to find out how your partner is feeling about the matter. This will get the conversation going, and give you something to respond to. Focus on giving responses that both allow you to reveal your feelings, and that address the points your partner is bringing up.

11. Look for hidden rewards in your conflict patterns. Some couples fall into a mode of conflict that has positive consequences for one or both of them, and this motivates them to keep the conflict going. This can happen if one person consistently wins the fights and other concedes or apologizes. Then the reward of gaining a sense of power can keep the fights going, but it also creates an undercurrent of resentment, and causes the relationship to deteriorate. Make-up sex is also a reward that can encourage regular conflict. If you have these kinds of rewards built into your relationship, change what you do after a fight. Make it a point to celebrate every day or week of peace and harmony that you create for yourselves.

Are there other conflict managements strategies that work for you? What are the disagreements that you have the hardest time handling in your relationships?

Saturday, May 9, 2009

The Transition Continues

Today has been a lazy day for me, the first lazy day I've had in a long time. I've finally settled into something of a routine, even though it's not yet an ideal one. When I resigned my position, I agreed to work a 30-day notice, but I'm taking nearly all of my available vacation days as I do it. This generally means I work half days all week. My daughter and I do the parts of home school that require me to actually teach in the morning, and we bring a backpack filled with work that she can independently into the office with us. My daughter is able to work quietly at the table in my office, and we can both get our jobs done.

When we first decided on the home school option last summer (actually it's a cyber school, but there's not too much difference except for the requirements of having a structured curriculum), we had asked my father-in-law to fill in as the teacher until one of us could be available, which we had initially planned to be in January of 2009. My father-in-law had been a physical education teacher at the high school level for several years in his early career, but we knew that supervising a head-strong third grader who was well accustomed to getting everything she wanted from "Pop" would be very different. As it turned out, it went far better than we expected. Pop was able to be firm with her, and I played the role of relationship coach for both of them. In the evening, I would listen to her complaints about their day, and then translate them into positive suggestions for him, and in the morning, I would listen to his complaints, and do the same with her.

It was interesting to see how they were both complaining about the same things but from different perspectives. One of the big ones was his complaint that she didn't pay attention enough. She would begin playing with her pencil or whatever, and stop focusing on the work. Her complaint was that Pop kept saying she wasn't paying attention when she felt she was. I explained to her that there were certain things she did that Pop took to mean she wasn't paying attention, like looking around the room or focusing on other objects, and if she didn't do those things, he wouldn't draw that conclusion. I also encouraged Pop not to nag her about paying attention, but instead look at the book in front of her and ask her a question about the lesson that would help her see what she needed to do next.

After a couple of months, the relationship seems to be working so well for both of them, that we decided that there was no need for either of us to stop working at the end of 2008. It filled Pop's need to have something useful to do and to spend quality time with his granddaughter, and she was getting quality instruction and work that was challenging to her, both elements that had been missing when she was attending public school.

There's really nothing more to tell about Pop's condition. He has started chemotherapy, but it's too soon to know if it will be helpful. He is trying to adjust to his new lack of mobility--walking with a cane and being unable to drive. He was still playing golf regularly up until two months ago, so it's a big change for him.