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Marriage Myth-Busters Myth #2: Compatibility Is Key

compatibilityBirds of a feather flock together.

Well that may be true in the avian world but, sadly, it doesn’t always work out that way in the land of long-term, committed relationships.

Okay, I’ll give you this: it may be true that, in our search for That One Right Person, we do end up gravitating toward potential partners that are more like us than not. That just makes sense.

But under this innocent and very understandable preference for perceived compatibility lies the equally innocent, and somewhat dangerous, belief that this compatibility will protect our marriage from eventual demise. Dangerous because it’s not true.

Think about it. Doesn’t everyone know a couple that is divorcing because they’ve “grown apart?”

Exactly.

But what causes this growing apart feeling? And why does it feel so insurmountable and incompatible with long-term love? I’m hoping the myths I’ve noted below (helpfully bolded) will shed some light on these questions.

First of all, the person who shares our every value and interest truly doesn’t exist. We know this, don’t we? And yet we keep hoping, and searching.

A friend of mine has an actual checklist (yes, written on paper) of qualities her eventual mate must have in order for her to even consider going on more than one date with him. Perhaps not surprisingly, she is still single.

But sometimes it happens, doesn’t it? Sometimes THIS happens:

“We are so much alike.”
“I’ve found my soul mate.”
“We like all the same things!”

And then we’re all in.

But not so fast.

Because despite our certainty in this moment that we have found our perfect soul mate, this sense of perfect compatibility often turns out to be only an illusion of sameness.

If you doubt this, consider how honest you were about your shadow side the last time you were getting to know someone. What little dark details did you leave out of those initial rounds of storytelling and baring of souls? Personally, I work really hard to keep a lot of that nasty stuff hidden. And, yes – even from my partner (whom I really believe loves me no matter what, by the way).

Even more important (and unnerving), few of us have much insight into our own complexities, much less about those of another person. Most of us, to quote Alain De Botton, have “the sincere impression that we are really quite easy to live with,” when the truth is that we generally have some pretty ragged and annoying edges.

So even if we really do try to bare all to a potential mate, we obviously can’t be honest about facets of ourselves about which we lack awareness, which means that the information we share with each other in that “getting to know you” phase (which can last a lifetime, in my experience) is . . . well . . . suspect.

compatibilityAlso, and this is really unfortunate, the sense of alikeness or compatibility we feel for someone is often organized around our mutual brokenness. If this is true, then we are often looking to recreate, within our committed relationships, patterns and dynamics from our childhood that may not work very well in the adult world, and so can’t necessarily be counted on to save the day when things get rough.

Here’s the good news (I always have good news!):

More important than the interests and values we share (which, truth be told, can change over time – and actually should change if we want to be evolving humans, but that’s another blog post) is the way in which we relate to each other as we engage in these interests and live out these values.

Couples can and do fight (sometimes destructively) in all kinds of situations – even at Disneyland, on a trip to Italy or while training for a marathon. What becomes truly important as a relationship progresses – and is predictive of relationship longevity, according to relationship researcher Dr. John Gottman – is the way a couple interacts while pursuing our interests and values, shared or not.

Case in point:

  • One couple shares a fondness for the Christmas holiday but always fights over the proper decoration of the Christmas tree.
  • A second Christmas-loving but aesthetically-different couple decides to decorate one side of their tree in multi-colored ornaments and the other side all in bisque, thus avoiding a yearly argument. (This really happened, and this same couple owns two coffee makers set to brew each morning – one that makes a strong brew for him, and one that brews it lighter for her. Genius!)

De Botton has this couple’s wisdom in mind when he observes that “the person who is best suited to us is not the person who shares our every taste . . . but the person who can negotiate differences in taste intelligently – the person who is good at disagreement.”

Consider James Carville (lead strategist for Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign) and Mary Matalin (Deputy Campaign Chief to George H.W. Bush), married with two children. These two are polar opposites politically, but (according a 2014 CBS News interview) live peacefully within and around their ideological differences. They say they are more likely to argue about pets than politics.

compatibility“Compatibility is an achievement of love; it must not be its precondition,” writes De Botton (can you tell I love this guy?).

And this earned compatibility – one built on countless moments of yearning to understand, respectfully disagreeing, loving the differences, and moving toward compromise – is one that will go the distance.

Please take some time to share your compatibility stories below, and feel free to check out this Hitch Fix post for more marriage myth-busting!

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Marriage Myth Busters Myth #1: Falling In Love Is Enough

falling in loveThis “falling in love” myth is the Disney promise, right? The one we cut our romantic teeth on when we were young.

It goes something like this:

There is a One True Love out there for everyone, so I will find mine and, after falling in love with each other (obviously) and outsmarting the modern-day equivalent of a wicked witch or two, we will live happily every after in wedded bliss.

 

I have good news and bad news here.

First the bad news . . .

I hate to break it to all of you romantics out there (because I’m a member of the tribe), but the truth is there are several special someones, multiple True Loves, out there for each of us. In fact, you will likely feel that same “falling in love” feeling with more than one person in your lifetime. (This will be a little startling if you’re married to a different person when it happens.)

Because it’s all about the biology, baby. Hormones and neurotransmitters.

Dr. Julie Holland, a psychiatrist in private practice in New York City, puts it this way in her book Moody Bitches: “Falling in love is the neural mechanism of mate selection.”

Super romantic, right?

But she’s spot on. Attraction is as much a physical process as an emotional one. As Holland goes on to explain, multiple neurotransmitters and hormones (like dopamine, norepinephrine, oxytocin and testosterone) all collude in the beginning of a relationship to create both the sensation of initial attraction and that euphoric “falling in love” feeling.

But eventually, as Holland notes, the chemistry of attraction changes over time, becoming calmer and less intense, because “the reward circuitry isn’t firing, and the frontal lobes are fully online, so rational thought wins out over emotional upheaval, due to normalized serotonin levels.”

Which is science-speak for “I’ve lost that lovin’ feeling.”

So, wait. There are actually tons of people out there that you could be happily married to, and your initial passion will most likely eventually wane, regardless of which handsome prince or beautiful princess you choose. So what’s the good news?

Falling in loveIt’s this. Once we have chosen a One True Love, we are given the delightful opportunity to choose this same person again and again and again. And it’s this rechoosing – this reclaiming of our love day after day, spat after spat, through sleepless baby nights and meno/manopausal changes – that is, in and of itself, True Love at work.

And this True Love is the type of love that doesn’t depend on, and so is not at the mercy of, high dopamine and norepinephrine levels.

So the falling in love part is easy. It’s the staying in love part that takes work.

In the end, long-term committed love is, as Stephen Covey coined and John Mayer croons, a verb. Not an emotional state. A verb that will, in fact, conquer all.

(By the way, another marriage myth is that the first years are the best. I’ll bust that myth in a future post!)

All of you happily married (or committed) people out there – let us know in your comments below all the ways you’ve rechosen your partner over time. And check out a few more of my Hitch Fix blog posts if you’re interested in reading about both the challenges and awesome gifts of long-term committed partnerships.

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After A Fight – Request A “Do-Over”

fightConflict is a given in any long-term relationship, right? And by now most of us know there are different ways to handle conflict, some helpful and some not so much.

And, for the most part, we’re really trying to learn and use the healthiest conflict management methods, those that are most effective in resolving differences and strengthening our relationship.

And we’re getting pretty good at these strategies, right? With only occasional exceptions, we introduce our concerns using a soft start-up, favor “I” over “You” statements, and ask for a time-out if we need to self-sooth to keep from biting our partner’s head off. Yay, us!

But, hey, what about those exceptions? What about the times we forget to be respectful, or are just a little too tired or overwhelmed, thank-you-very-much, to stick to the effing communication script? What about when the conversation takes a wrong turn and we end up in a fight? What do we do then?

First, relax.
A fight is not the end of the world, or even the end of your relationship. When two people live in close proximity to each other, sharing bathrooms, beds and opinions, there will be conflict, and some of these conflicts will blow up into fights. It happens.

Second, ask your partner for a “do-over.” But not the kind of do-over you remember from elementary recess, in which you re-serve the volleyball and it STILL ends up in the street. No, this do-over is more of a reprocessing than a rehashing, a time to put aside the content of the argument for a while in favor of focusing on the communication process that went awry.

This do-over requires a team approach in which you both work together to complete the following three steps:

1. Take Stock. Think long and hard about what happened, paying particular attention to your contribution to the mess. Look for the mistakes you made, and the ways in which how you listened or didn’t, or how you spoke or looked or worded your argument, helped lead you both from productive conflict management to an unproductive fight. Then apologize to your partner for all of the above.

2. Forgive. Forgive your partner for their contribution to the confabulation. They, like you, are only human. They too have triggers, bad days and moments of losing their minds. Accept their apology and move along.

3. Plan to do better next time. Come together and use what you’ve learned above to plan ahead for the next conflict (because there will definitely be one!). Make a mental, or written, list of the triggers that got you each off track, the strategies you each forgot to use. Make a plan to try harder and listen better. And remember – there was a conversation in there somewhere before it became a fight. Make it your goal to eventually get back to that.

It’s truly the nature of the cohabitating beast to share different opinions and, at times, to find ourselves in conflict over them. And our first goal should always be to do our best to engage these conflicts in a healthy, relationship-sustaining way so that we can avoid the fallout from an unhealthy fight.

But when we falter at this and the conversation turns more adversarial, the resulting fight doesn’t have to define our relationship. As this Gottman Relationship Blog post confirms, we can take stock, forgive and make a plan for the future. We can have a do-over.

Now, I just wish volleyball were that easy.

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3 Reasons You Shouldn’t Click On This Relationship Post

relationship

Oh, shoot! You’ve gone and done it already! Ah well. May as well keep reading.

You’ve just clicked on what’s known in the blogging world as a “list post” or “listicle.” A list post is an article in a list format. It generally contains a numbered list of (hopefully) helpful tips, trends, ideas or secrets.

Lists posts, especially those containing relationship advice, are a familiar Internet phenomenon. We click on them all the time. And why not? They have attention-grabbing headlines, information that’s easy to scan and absorb, and a helpfully-specific content promise.

Let me be clear. THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH A LIST POST. I myself have written more than a few.

But list posts do have their limits, especially if what you’re searching for is an answer to a difficult or seemingly intractable relationship problem. Hence, my three reasons why you should think twice before clicking . . . CLICK HERE TO READ THE REST OF THIS ARTICLE at YourTango.com. (I know, I know – I’m asking you to click AGAIN! ARGH!)

[This article was originally written for and published on the relationship website YourTango.com.]

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Overheard: The Worst Relationship Advice EVER (Not)

relationship advice

“What’s the worst relationship advice you’ve ever heard?”
I was attending a conference on teaching relationship skills with about a hundred other professionals, the majority of us therapists, and this question from our trainer was our introduction to the topic.

In listening to the members of my small sharing group as they related their answers, I heard a lot of pretty bad relationship advice:

  1. “My friend told me to have an affair. She said it would do me good.”
  2. “Don’t expect much from your partner and you won’t be disappointed.”
  3. “My mom once told me I should just ignore our problems and they would eventually go away.”
  4. “My therapist asked me if I’d ever considered looking to have some of my needs met outside of my marriage.”

HOLD EVERYTHING. What?

Now I have this auditory figure/ground issue that makes it hard for me to filter ambient noise, so I wasn’t sure I’d heard right. But as I shifted my attention to the conversation of the group meeting behind mine, I heard the speaker continue:

“I know. Isn’t that the worst relationship advice EVER? Hah! I couldn’t believe she suggested that.”

And then, a bit later:

“No, of course we didn’t go back to her . . . Oh, we eventually divorced.”

You eventually divorced. Hmmm.

I know what you’re thinking.relationship advice
Getting your needs met outside of your marriage . . . sounds fishy.

After all, what would happen if we stopped talking to our partner about our life (disengagement and distance), stopped asking our partner to do their share of the household chores (resentment and a perpetually dirty bathroom) or stopped communicating our sexual needs to our partner and took on a lover instead, as per the spectacularly bad advice above (need I go into details here?).

But, really, the truth is that we need to be willing to rely on others for at least SOME of our needs, because our partner can’t possibly take care of them all by themselves.

Unless we’re married to God. And even then we might be disappointed, because I think God gets pretty distracted by a lot of other things. Like war and poverty and stuff.

A (Very) Short History Lesson
Back in the day, when we lived in smaller rural communities, we didn’t expect our partner to meet our every need because there were so many other people around to help out. There were extended family members who could offer babysitting and childcare advice, lifelong friends who shared our interests and hobbies, and maybe a church or community center down the road that offered engaging and accessible activities.

Nowadays, because of our move to big cities, time-consuming jobs, scheduled children’s activities and more insular lives, there is often a considerable distance between us and these valuable people and resources, so we’re tempted to ask that just one person, our partner, meet all of the needs that an entire community used to fill.

Does this sound fair to you? Or even possible?

Exactly. As Esther Perel asks in her book Mating In Captivity, “Is it any wonder that so many relationships crumble under the weight of it all?”

relationship adviceBecause we simply can’t do it all, people!
I know this limitation is real because I’m a partner myself. And, although I think I’m actually a pretty decent wife, I’m also fairly certain that I quite regularly disappoint my husband of 25+ years in the “meeting his needs” department.

In fact, I asked him about that as I was writing this post, and he said (somewhat awkwardly), “Well, Sweetie, you’re pretty good but . . . you know . . . not perfect.” There you have it.

But that’s okay. I don’t need to meet my husband’s every need. BECAUSE HE HAS SO MANY OTHER COOL PEOPLE IN HIS LIFE THAT CAN HELP HIM.

He has a best friend who doesn’t gag when they smoke cigars together and whose professional challenges are similar to his own. He has a son who shares his passion for fantasy football. And he has a whole slew of organized and creative people in his office who help him set and keep his professional goals and generally stay on top of things.

Likewise, I have a trusted colleague to whom I can turn when I need input about a tough client or a good marketing idea, as well as a funny, thoughtful friend I can call for writing advice. And it goes without saying that I can totally count on my daughter when I need a date for the “So You Think You Can Dance Top-10 Dance Tour.” (Sorry, Sweetie. They’re not coming to Omaha this year.)

Hey, I’m not recommending polyamory.
I want to be clear that I’m not suggesting you disconnect from your partner entirely in favor of these other supports, or that you immediately introduce polyamory into your relationship (not that there’s anything wrong with polyamory; it’s just really tricky and not for everyone).

The truth is, consequences like disengagement, resentment and broken trust are real, and can be devastating to a marriage.

relationship adviceBut I am suggesting that you and your partner do these four things:

  1. Do your best to meet those of your partner’s needs that you can.
  2. Let yourself and your partner off the hook for not being able to meet the rest of them.
  3. Seek friendship, support, shared interests and guidance from sources outside of your relationship.
  4. Wash, rinse, repeat.

And I’m suggesting that if you do these things that you’ll actually end up meeting your loved one’s most important relationship need . . . the need for a confident, healthy and well-rounded partner who has the capacity to enter into a truly equal and collaborative relationship.

Hey there! I think this is is pretty good relationship advice. Maybe the best EVER.

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What Little Word Could Lead To BIG Relationship Problems?

relationship problemsOkay, I’m not going to keep you in suspense. The word is “but.” And, yes, it can lead to BIG relationship problems. Read on.

Newsflash: Most of us are not great listeners.

Oh sure, we incline our heads in each other’s direction, show great eye-contact and even mutter a helpful “uh huh” here and there. We put on a really good show. Or at least I know I do. After all, I get a lot of practice, being as it’s my job and all.

But behind this attentive façade is a virtual mind-field of narcissistic thoughts that distract us from really listening . . . so many, in fact, that most of us end up listening, not in order to understand, but in order to respond.

And by respond I mean rebut. As in oppose.

So that doesn’t work, right? Because if our goal is to come up with a good rebuttal to our partner’s position, in effect to win the argument, then how can we truly be listening to them? Enter BIG relationship problems . . .

[This post is an excerpt from an article I originally wrote for YourTango.com. Click here to read the entire piece! ]

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4 Tips For Handling Conversation Bullies

conversationYou’re at a cocktail party or in the office break room, and someone goes on a rant about their political views. Only in the process of sharing their own views, they are also demeaning everyone else’s.

Or you’re at a family Thanksgiving gathering, and as you sit down next to Uncle Charlie at the dinner table, he starts in with his usual diatribe against everything you believe in, complete with expletives and offensive labels.

Pushy, abrasive people like these are conversational bullies. They exercise control over conversations by insulting, hurting or belittling (sometimes without either the intention or realization that they have).

We’ve all been in these kinds of conversations, right? These tips for handling conversational bullies will help you survive them.

First, be sure you’re doing everything you can to keep the conversation civil and productive.

Tighten up your listening skills so that you are really hearing what the other person is saying. Don’t interrupt, rebut, dismiss or minimize (even with the voice inside your head). In other words, don’t listen with a critical ear – JUST LISTEN. And try to understand the other person’s perspective, even if they are communicating it in a less-then-respectful way.

If their language (curse words, belittling phrases or pejorative slang) is making it difficult for you to hear their point, then say this. Explain, politely, that these kinds of words and phrases are offensive to you, and ask if they could refrain from using them. MOST people will be able to do this for at least a short period of time. If your person can’t, then I suggest you go right to choice #2 below.

conversationOnce the other person is done speaking, stay calm (go to your happy place if you need to) and do two things before you take your turn.

First, let them know you’ve heard and understood them. Paraphrase back what you think you heard them say (maybe softening their language a bit to model better communication skills), paying special attention to what they seemed to be saying about their feelings. And be open to correction; you might not have gotten it right the first time.

Then, even though it’s killing you to do this, try to find some way to validate their perspective (like, “I see what you mean” or “I understand you feel strongly about this”) so that by the time it’s your turn to speak the other person really feels heard and understood, and might be calm enough to give you half a chance to share your own views.

When it’s your turn to speak, you have two choices:

If you feel the other person’s manner, as negative as it is, leaves some room for a productive conversation, then by all means share your opinion. But be sure to share it respectfully and in a non-blaming, non-combative manner. Stick to talking about your feelings and perceptions, not the truth with a capital T, and use I statements instead of You statements whenever possible.

And be sure that you are really willing to agree to disagree on the topic, that you don’t have a secret “I need to be right here” agenda. (I may or may not struggle with this issue myself.)

If, on the other hand, the other person’s manner is just too critical or offensive, or perhaps downright abusive, then it’s time to bow out of the conversation and move on to someone else. Know your values and limits here, and don’t be afraid to stand up (or move down the table) for them.

One important thing to remember – this parting doesn’t have to happen in an emotional or confrontational way. In any exchange, while you don’t have a bit of control over the other person (really, you don’t), you always have control over your own thoughts, feelings and behaviors. You can choose to allow someone’s behavior to trigger you into behaving badly, or you can choose to respond less reactively and more in line with the positive force you want to be in the world.

conversationAnd, yes, there are certainly times, if the person in question has shown they are either unwilling or unable to ever speak and act in a respectful manner, if it is clear that they don’t value you or your boundaries, when it may be wise to actually end your relationship with them.

Don’t get me wrong; we need people with different opinions in our life. What we don’t need is someone who can’t value and honor our perspective even as they assert his or her own.

Whether you’re leaving this person for the evening or for good, leave in a positive frame of mind. Take a deep breath, validate the person’s perspective, wish them well, and remind yourself as you are walking away that they’re still learning how to share their views in a manner that doesn’t demean yours.

And, when next Thanksgiving rolls around, don’t sit by Uncle Charlie.

A slightly different version of this post appears here on the relationship website Your Tango.

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What about you? Do you have experience with a conversational bully? Do you have strategies that have worked for you in these situations? If so, please share them with us in a comment below.

And, if this post got you thinking, you might also like these:

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8 Conversation Tips When It’s Your Turn To Speak

conversation tipsMost of us don’t have too much trouble speaking our mind in an argument (much easier than listening, yes?). But, if we’re honest, we have to admit that we could all use a little tune-up in the style department, some conversation tips to help us be speak in such a way that we are really heard.

You know what I mean, right? Or perhaps you’re one of the fortunate few who’s never blown their lid in anger during a conversation, or watched confused as your partner (or mother, teenager or coworker) blew theirs . . . No?

Well then. In the interest of helping us all keep our lids firmly in place, I offer the following 8 conversation tips for when it’s your turn to speak:

  1. Set aside a calm time to talk, and keep the time free from interruptions. Put the children to bed, take the dog out one last time, turn off the TV and silence the cell phone.
  2. Speak calmly and in a quiet, respectful tone. If you become too upset to do this, ask for a quick break to self-soothe (sit down, breathe deep, and/or talk yourself down off the anger ledge) and then come back to the conversation when you’re in a better place.
  3. Speak about your own experience, not the other person’s personality. Use I messages (I feel, I think, I would like . . .) instead of blaming ones (You are, You make me . . .). People will usually tune us out if they feel blamed or attacked. Don’t you do the same?
  4. Rephrase complaints into requests, and focus your request on specific behaviors, not the person as a whole. As in ”I would like you to stop leaving your shoes in the hallway,” not “I would like you to stop being such a slob.” Don’t demand. Ask. And don’t expect the other person to mind-read. Be clear about your request.
  5. Use the “sandwich” technique – start with praise, make your request, end with praise. Like a spoonful of sugar, this technique helps your appeal for change (with its accompanying implication that things are not okay the way they are) go down a lot easier.
  6. Don’t say “never” or “always.” First, it’s highly unlikely the behaviors in question are actually either “never” or “always” present. But, more importantly, these extreme expressions of blame will usually make the other person pretty defensive, and someone who’s busy defending themselves isn’t going to be very open to change.
  7. Don’t offer your theory/explanation/diagnosis as to why they did what they did along with your request. In other words, don’t therapize. It’s annoying and off-putting; plus, you’re probably wrong. You do you. It’s the other person’s job to do them.
  8. Stay focused on one issue at a time. It’s not helpful to store up resentments and throw them out all at once, like a garbage truck on a dump run at the end of the day. If additional issues come up for you as you are speaking (and they probably will), make a mental or written note to set aside a different time to discuss them.

There’s a lot here, I know. But take heart: you have the ability to change your part of any pattern you notice isn’t working because feelings, thoughts and stories don’t control your actions – you do! And you shouldn’t assume the other person can’t or won’t change. Remember how difficult this stuff is for you, and then be patient and give them a chance to show you their flexibility.

Most importantly, remember that the goal in any conversation, especially one about a difficult topic, is not to win the contest or be right about things, but to solve the problem in a way that allows you to both get what you need.

A slightly different version of this post appears here on the relationship website Your Tango.

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What about you? Do you have an idea I haven’t thought of here? A personal story about speaking well or badly? Tell us in a comment below; it’s our turn to listen to you.

And, if this post got you thinking, you might also want to check out I Statements 101 and Listen Up! – 8 Tips for When It’s Your Turn to Listen.

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Starting Over When We Forget

Imagine you’re in a committed partnership with someone you love very much. Imagine that, although things aren’t always perfect, you’re happy and confident in your love and your life with this person, and have a wealth of memories to remind you of commitment when things get a little bumpy. Starting over, rekindling love, is relatively easy when it’s called for.

Now, imagine you wake up one day and can’t remember anything about the love you used to feel for your partner. You can’t, in fact, even remember you’re in a partnership at all. You have no memories of your time with this person, the moments logged, the confidences shared, the promises spoken. You feel alone, confused and unthethered. How do you even begin the process of starting over?

starting over“I will always find you.”
At the opening of the hit television series, Once Upon A Time, the Evil Queen’s curse has zapped all the fairytale characters you’ve ever known to the modern town of Storybrooke, Maine, where they are living more or less normal, and decidedly un-magical, lives. And, to make things more interesting, all but two of the characters have forgotten who they really are and everything about the magical world from which they came, and so they live in community with friends, family members and romantic partners that they don’t actually recognize as such. Unbeknownst to them, they are starting over.

As flashbacks reveal the characters’ pre-curse back stories we find out their lives are complex. Similar to the “mash-up” song style made popular by Glee, the fairytales in this series wind and overlap in multiple, sometimes tragic, ways: connections are made between characters from different stories, a gap in one story is filled in with reference to another; and almost everyone moves back and forth between ancient magical worlds and our modern one.

And, yes, things get complicated. I am a dedicated viewer, and I sometimes feel I need both a flowchart and a team roster in order to keep up.

At the beginning of the season, we are introduced to Mary Margaret, a pale schoolteacher with dark hair looking for love in all the wrong places, and David, a handsome and recently comatose John Doe who can’t remember even his modern-day life. After Mary Margaret volunteers to spend time reading to David in the hospital, they are drawn to each other in a powerful way, and a love affair blossoms.

Turns out, you guessed it, that Mary Margaret is Snow White and David is Prince Charming and they are, in true fairytale fashion, destined to be together. But a long history of near-calamities and seemingly insurmountable separations have made their lives, and their love, very difficult to maintain. Hense their promise to each other: “I will always find you.”

And, somehow, even in this new world in which they don’t remember who they are or the history they’ve shared, or even remember the promise itself, Snow and Charming do find each other again and eventually get a chance to recreate their love, to begin starting over.

But this is just a fairytale, right?

“If I lose my memory again, I will still love you. I will always love you.”
Jeff Ingram, a forty-six-year-old Canadian, has a rare type of amnesia called dissociative fugue. People with dissociative fugue amnesia are fine most of the time, but can, in moments of extreme stress, temporarily lose their sense of personal identity and impulsively wander away from their homes or work places. When this happens, it is as if their memory is wiped clean, and they don’t remember who they are or where they’re from. Hmm. Sound familiar?

Jeff has experienced this dissociative fugue state two times in his life so far, and on both occasions he has had to recreate the different elements of his life all over again, including, on the second occasion, his relationship with his wife, Penny. You can learn more about their story here.

Odds are, this will probably happen to Jeff again . . . and again. At the drop of a hat, he may be called upon to start over. When this happens Jeff knows he will have to make an effort to fall in love with Penny all over again. And he has committed to do this very thing, as evidenced by his promise to Penny above, that “If I lose my memory again, I will still love you. I will always love you.”

starting overOkay. I’ll give you that that circumstances of both of these relationships are pretty unusual. But the necessity of recreating love, making love happen again when it disappears or your can’t remember it, the necessity of starting over, is not. Isn’t this, in fact, the task of every couple that has committed to ride out the bumps and turns of a long-term relationship?

Whether we promise to love each other “until we are parted by death” in a public ceremony or make a similar promise in the privacy of our own home (or castle), I believe we commit to something real here. Like Jeff and Penny, Snow and Charming, we commit to recreate our love for our partner again and again . . . and again. And this sustained, renewed commitment then becomes, in fact, the essence of love.

Oh, sure, we are initially attracted to our partners and fall “in love” with them because of certain factors . . . the circumstances that align to bring us together, shared interests and beliefs or qualities we like about each other (skin as white as snow, charm and whatnot).

But, if you think about it, this list of factors can’t be what creates or sustains love. Because circumstances, personality, physical beauty, interests, beliefs – all of these things can and do change. And it’s easy, like Jeff and our fairytale couple, to lose, to forget, the memory of the “in love” feeling we had at the beginning of our relationship. And to feel alone, confused, untethered.

starting overKnowing he will probably have another fugue, Jeff has gone to great lengths to insure he’ll always be able to find his way back to his life and love with Penny.

He has purchased expensive shoes embedded with GPS tracking devices, has tattooed his arm with identifying information, and wears a medical information zip drive around his neck.

And he has chronicled his memories in a recorded interview on NPR’s StoryCorps, where he has left himself a personal message to “trust Penny.”

Knowing that they could, at any moment, be separated again by the Evil Queen, Snow and Charming have embodied a commitment to, against all odds, find each other again each time they are separated, a commitment that turns out to be powerful enough to withstand curses, ogres, pirates and even inter-world travel.

Snow, Charming, Jeff and Penny have taken all of these precautions because they know, from real, gut-wrenching, experience, that love is not this thing outside of ourselves, a perpetual motion machine that hums along nicely on its own volition, until one day when it doesn’t and, oh well, it was nice while it lasted.

They know, because they have lived it, that when we commit to love someone “until death do us part,” we have made a mighty commitment. We have committed to remember what is forgotten, to search and find what is lost, and to starting over when all we can see is a not-so-fairytale ending.

And we have committed to doing this as often as it takes, time and time again.

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What about you? How have you and your partner weathered those times when your love has been hard to remember? Share your story in a comment below.

If this post got you thinking, you might also want to check out Is Breaking Up Really Hard To Do? or these other posts on relationships.

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8 Tips To Improve Your Listening Skills

listening“Now, children, I want you to put on your listening ears . . . “

Even in our earliest memories, it seems as though someone is always trying to get us to listen. And yet, as adults we still wrestle with just how to do this ostensibly simple thing well.

Why is that? Every conversation, if you think about it, requires that both parties listen at some point. So we get an awful lot of chances to practice. And, really, how is the act of listening all that different from the act of not speaking? It should be simple, right?

But clearly it’s not. Despite our years of practice and its simple appearance, effective listening still eludes us, particularly when the conversation is about something difficult. And so our teachers, our friends, and especially our partners, tell us repeatedly, “You’re not listening!”

Truth be told, the act of listening is actually a lot harder than it seems. True listening is an active, focused experience, not merely a bit of down time during which we have a chance to formulate our next response.

So, with a nod to Kindergarten teachers everywhere, here are your 8 tips for when it’s your turn to listen:

1. Give the speaker your full attention. There’s nothing more frustrating than trying to have a serious conversation with someone whose eyes keep darting to the TV or cell phone, or who is otherwise not able to stay focused on US. So, step away from the texting and tweeting, ignore the grumblings of your inner to-do list and all the other shiny objects in your life, and focus in.

2. Stay relaxed and seated. As I’ve noted in an earlier Life Lines, we’re naturally calmer when we sit but, even more helpful, we seem calmer to others. So, no scary pacing, arm-flailing or finger-pointing, please. Keep your seat and keep your cool.

3. Adopt an attitude of “I wonder” instead of “I know.” Remember that your story about the way things are might not actually be the way things are. Try to understand the other person’s perspective and be open to change and compromise. Keep an open mind. You don’t know what you don’t know.

4. Don’t interrupt, rebut, dismiss or minimize. In other words, don’t listen with a critical ear. Send the prize-winning point-by-point college debater in your head out for coffee, and just LISTEN. Period. (I know, right? It really is a lot harder than it seems.)

5. Watch your non-verbal communication. Heavy sighs, crossed arms, eye-rolling – these and other similar behaviors can convey strong negative messages (Seriously, how would you feel?). On the other hand, a nodding head, an open body posture, and attentive eye contact can communicate your interest in and respect for what the speaker has to say.

6. Monitor your emotional thermostat, and if you notice your temperature rising, ask if you can take a short break to relax and self-soothe. But don’t leave the conversation for good. Agree to do what you need to do to calm down, and then come back. Stay in the game.

7. Don’t put down the other person’s feelings/opinions. You don’t have to agree with them, but don’t make them feel crazy or wrong for feeling the way they do. Believe me, you’ll be very happy you set this tone when it’s time to tell your own side of the story.

8. When the other person has finished speaking, let them know you’ve heard and understood them by acknowledging their feelings and paraphrasing back what you heard. Be sure you really understood what they were trying to say before you begin your own story. And, if it’s clear from their response that you haven’t understood, be open to correction. Listening is hard work; sometimes it takes more than one try to get it right.

Remember that your goal in any conversation, especially one about a difficult topic, is not to win the contest or be right about things, but to solve the problem in a way that allows you to both get what you need. And, paradoxically, the more time you spend listening, the easier the problem solving will eventually be.

A slightly different version of this post appears here on the relationship website Your Tango.

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If you have other listening tips, please offer them in a comment below. Our listening ears need as much help they can get!

And if you liked this Life Lines, you might also like these about I statements, breaking bad habits and insomnia.

Coming next month: Speak Up! – 8 Tips for When It’s Your Turn to Speak

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Posted in Communication, Hitch Fix, Life Lines | Tagged , , | 4 Comments