Susanna’s 80/20 Suggestion

I finally caught up with the rest of the world and figured out how to get onto Netflix and stream the new comedy, Frankie and Grace. In one episode, octogenarian Frankie (Lilly Tomlin) wants to do a Yes Night with friend Grace (Jane Fonda) to cheer herself up over her recent separation. During Yes Night, you have to say Yes to everything.

The show reminded me of when Chris and I started dating. Like Frankie, Chris was going through a separation and divorce. Having recently watched the Yes Man movie (Jim Carrey), he was inspired to try to say Yes more often. Without getting into a lot of detail, that openness led us to where we are today, blissfully married.

I was reflecting on how often we say No because of our self-limiting beliefs (I can’t. I shouldn’t. I must. I’m not.) instead of embracing what’s possible (I am. I can. I will.) For example, instead of receiving a compliment, we brush it away because we couldn’t possibly be that. Instead of trying something new, we say we’re not interested, or we’re too busy.

At the same time, we are often saying Yes to what we shouldn’t agree to: another thankless task, enabling someone’s bad behavior, doing what others think we should do, or believing our own or others’ negative judgment of us.   Oh sure, I’ll do this for you even if it means I can’t do what I need for me. Yes, I need to make this/me perfect.

I believe we have a tendency to say Yes when we should be saying No a lot of the time, and visa versa. So let’s flip it! Here’s my 80/20 suggestion:

  • Things that don’t feel healthy or fulfilling (such as thankless tasks at work or relationships that feel too dependent) – Say No 80% and Yes 20% of the time.
  • Everything else – Say Yes 80% of the time, especially if the invitation makes you feel uncomfortable. Say No or “Maybe sometime soon” to the rest.

Have trouble saying No? Try these responses. Practice them:

  1. “Let me think about it.”
  2. “Let me get back to you.”
  3. “Maybe later.”
  4. When someone is asking for volunteers, give no response – In your head make a list of all the other things you want to do and envision the positive, glorious outcome if you actually do it.   Perhaps they’ll move onto someone or something else. If not, try Response #1, 2 or 3.
  5. “Doing X won’t work for me, but I can do Y” – If #1-4 fail, offer something that would be easy or fulfilling for you. “I won’t bake cookies, but I’ll donate $10. OK?”

Go try it!   Report back and tell me what doors or ideas opened up for you.  Maybe, like Frankie, you’ll end up wearing pearls and a blazer and dancing on a bartop with your best friend!
Frankie and Grace say Yes!

Making Good Use of Negative Emotions

I know from personal experience that negative emotions can produce positive change.  After many years of being in denial about the discrepancy between reality (bad wife, bad marriage) and my perceptions (good wife, good marriage), my psychic discomfort finally reached a point where I could no longer ignore the elephant in the room.

When I finally accepted the painful reality that major changes were needed, I made some tough decisions and acted on them.  What ensued was a blossoming of creativity and productivity that was enabled and characterized by positive emotion, growth and meaning.   My migraines and fibromyalgia dissipated, my joy returned, and I found a new level of engagement with and passion in my work.  I got to know myself again, this time without the martyrdom.   This growth phase was neither planned nor anticipated.  Rather, it occurred organically and continuously and surprised the heck out of me.  Now, the absence of that psychological and physical pain in my daily life is enough to make me want to do the Sound of Music twirl on the hill.

In some respects, my pre-divorce marriage and life were not too bad:  a “nice” husband, financial security, a beautiful family, and a comfortable lifestyle. Without the feelings of loneliness, despair and resentment, I may have passively continued in this comfortable-enough, pre-change situation indefinitely.  The antithesis of “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen” (Harry Truman) is “If you can stand the heat, stay in the kitchen.”  Which I did, for 20 years.  In hindsight, I do not believe the decision to change (divorce) would have happened had I not felt consumed by negative emotions.

Psychic entropy, the opposite of flow, occurs when life’s reality interferes with your goals and intentions.  When your viewpoint finally becomes clearly at odds with reality, the resulting discomfort and negative feelings that result may cause re-evaluation of perspective and change, as it did for me prior to the divorce.    This transition to actually considering change is difficult, especially when the stakes accompanying the change are high.  For me, introspection and self-discovery have become essential tools in denial-management.  Increasing my awareness of buried feelings of sadness, despair, frustration, anger, or resentment provides an early warning system for psychic entropy and whether change is needed.

Despite my successful experience with change thus far, I’m still no change expert.  At least I know now that having good self-awareness allows me to be more proactive about detecting and solving problems in my life instead of requiring that negative emotions consume me before making needed change.   But if you do have to go there, don’t let those negative emotions go to waste.  They’re there for a reason:  get out of the kitchen.


See also:  Can You Spare Some Change; and Making the Change You Know You Should Make

All:  Don’t forget to send me questions or topics you’d like for me to discuss.  Go either to this blog, email me at or to the Talk to Susanna link on the left.  Thanks!  Look forward to hearing from you!

Evolution, Not Revolution

Four terrific kids

Four terrific kids

A snapshot of each holiday gathering is like time-lapse photography capturing the evolution of both family members and the family itself.  With each new frame, the subjects, and the relationships between the people develop and change.  Sometimes the differences between snapshots are dramatic, sometimes subtle.

I reflect upon these changes with the recent family gathering over the holiday.  This year, my youngest son, his girlfriend, Chris’s daughter and her boyfriend, join us at the beach.    All together under one roof for four wonderful days, this is our first time cohabitating for longer than the time it takes to enjoy a meal together.

What a difference a few months make.  I guess you can say Chris and I have been together a “long time” according to the perception of teenagers.  When we started dating we were working through the emotional turmoil of separation and divorces. Since then, not only have we worked through that transition, we have also invested time and energy into strengthening our relationship.  This upfront effort has paid off to create a smooth, comfortable and companionable partnership that would be apparent in our couples’ portrait.

A more dramatic change would be evident with the picture of the kids.   The divorces after our respective 20+ year marriages were understandably traumatic, and being introduced and acclimated to new surrogate families was a big, and not so easy transition.  Yet we progressed, within a pretty short timeframe, from “I’m not ready to meet anyone,” to hanging out under one roof as if we’ve been  palling around for years.

Frankly my style tends to be to push forward without looking back, but that style does not work for everyone.  Sometimes just patience and acceptance is the best way forward, Chris reminds me.  Evolution, not revolution.   Living in the land of Patrick Henry during Independence Day, I am now channeling my inner Darwin and celebrating changes that are more incremental than dramatic.  Viva la difference!

Same Problem, Different Relationship

It’s always a surprise, but it shouldn’t be.  Our friends and family, though, can see it coming a mile away.  In the meantime, you’re kicking yourself for falling for the same type of person who just broke your heart.

See, it’s tempting to think by kicking your Ex to the curb that you’ve learned your lesson and you’re going to do better the next time around.  Your new love just seems so perfect.  So different.  What you don’t remember is how your Ex also seemed so perfect when you first fell in love.

“You complete me” – Jerry Maguire

There are two parts to this equation.  First, according to relationship experts like Harville Hendricks, we fall in love with people who replicate our childhood wounds.   Since I have discussed this previously in What Every Couple Should Know Before Getting Married and Blessings of a Dysfunctional Marriage, I will just summarize to say that we fall in love because, on some level, we feel that we’ve met the person who will heal our childhood wounds.  When we realize they won’t is when the trouble, conflict and discontent occur.

The second part of this equation is your choice.  You can either blame your partner and get all your friends to agree what a horrible person she is (see A Random Act of War, Part 2), or you can heal your own childhood wounds.  By healing your wounds, you also help your partner heal hers, and thus strengthen and reinforce your relationship (see Do I Stay or Do I Go?).

“You bet on me like I bet on you” – Rod Tidwell, from Jerry Maguire

If you choose blame and denial about your role in your troubled or failed relationship – guess what? – you’ll go and repeat the cycle with your next partner.

If you don’t believe me, go out and try it.  Or maybe you have already.

“How’d I get myself into this?” – Jerry Maguire

If you’ve gone from failed relationship to failed relationship, ask yourself:  what is the common denominator?

If you’re now launching into a 20 minute answer, then maybe you’re fooling yourself.

You don’t know what it’s like to be me” – Jerry Maguire

If your answer is “me”, then you know what to do.

“Show me the money!” – Jerry Maguire

How to do it is another story, and is a major theme of this and many other blogs, books and therapy sessions.  Know that it is a life-long journey that is filled with wonderful discoveries, beauty, joy, and forgiveness.   Remember:

It’s about the journey, not the destination” – Dad

(If you need a Jerry Maguire quote the only thing I could find that works is, “If you fuck this up I’ll kill you.”  It just seemed wrong.)

Do I Stay or Do I Go?

Most people in relationships will eventually ask this question at some point.  After all, intimate relationships are almost ordained to eventually produce conflict as discussed previously*.  So if conflict is inevitable, then how do you know whether to call it quits?

Gooood question.  I wish I knew the answer.

Though I have no answer, I do have some thoughts on the matter, which should not be a surprise to those of you who are regular readers of this blog.  After all, what else are blogs for?

  • If you are being physically abused, leave.  If you are laying your hands on your partner in an unloving way, get to a therapist immediately.
  • If you are only staying because you’re afraid of being alone, consider healing yourself and learning to enjoy your own company instead.  Invest that energy in bettering yourself rather than making due with a sub-standard situation. Once you are more whole, you’ll be in a better position to create a better relationship.
  • I don’t believe the “soul mate” notion.  Relationship theory says there are many people who would be a love match.  However, that doesn’t mean you can make it work with every one of them.
  • It takes two to make it work.  If only one of you is interested in trying, you have to decide whether you can live with that person exactly as s/he is.  Also consider the possibility your partner is trying, even if it’s difficult for you to recognize their efforts.
  • Assuming s/he is trying, is change happening in a meaningful way?  If s/he is not going to change, does his/her behavior violate your minimum standards? If so, have you clearly and consistently communicated those standards?   This is an important step.  It’s worth investing in a therapist to make sure this message is clearly delivered.   If you have done so and the behavior is still occurring without sign of improvement, ask yourself why you’re with someone who doesn’t respect what you need.
  • If s/he is changing, but slowly, then know that change can be difficult.  Consider what your role is in that change process.  Are you changing too? Sometimes we unwittingly make it more difficult for our partners to change by ourselves refusing to change or improve.  Remember, it takes two.
  • If you are married and/or have children, I feel that marital therapy is a must before you, in good conscience, should consider dissolving the marriage.  Yes, it can be expensive, but it’s cheap compared to a divorce, especially if you consider the potentially unnecessary emotional toll on the children.

Do not make the mistake of believing that only one of you has to change. Relationship expert Harville Hendricks believes that our emotional wounds dictate who we fall in love with.  Our love interest somehow replicates the wounds we received when we were children, and our subconscious belief is that our new love is the self-actualized/improved/healed version of our primary caregiver.  Trouble happens when we find that in actuality, they continue to replicate the hurtful behavior from our childhood and push our hot buttons.  Therefore, the role of marriage and relationships is to provide the forum for us to grow by providing what our partner needs.  In other words, by giving my partner what he needs, I will heal the places in me that are incomplete while simultaneously providing a salve for my partner’s emotional wounds so he has a better chance of healing them.

Beautiful, isn’t it?

The “downside” is that you have to face your own wounds and take ownership of them.  Scary stuff.  But the prize is opening up and healing that scared kernel/grapefruit in the pit of your stomach while simultaneously improving yourself and your relationship.  It’s kind of like going to the dentist:  it’s not as bad or as hard as you had feared.  Your fear itself is much worse than the actual treatment.  Most of our phobias and fears are just devilish constructs of our left brain – you WILL survive after facing your demons.  You will probably be a happier and healthier person afterwards too.

If you don’t heal those childhood wounds, you’re setting yourself up to face the same problem with your next partner.   Like the budget deficit, you’ll just be kicking that can down the road to the next relationship.  If you’re not ready to deal with it now, perhaps that will be your choice.

So, are you and your partner (both collectively and individually) worth drumming up the courage to deal with this now?  I’m curious.  Talk to me.

*Additional Reading – Blessings of a Dysfunctional Marriage, Single Again After Twenty-Two Years, What Every Couple Should Know Before Getting Married, Who Do You Love?, A Workability quiz



The Joy of Loss

This morning I am trying hard not to throw myself a little pity party, complete with doting guests and a big, fat slice of succulent chocolate cake.  Last night, not so much.  Chris and I had a nice dinner at a new Indian restaurant and he held my hand and listened to me whine.

Thus, this morning I am feeling better but reflecting on the nature of love and loss.   I won’t go into details of the profound or superficial losses that are accumulating in my heart as I’m not indulging that pity party anymore.  But rather, I’m somewhat comforted by the fact that I have something to lose.

I think dogs are a perfect example of having something to lose.  You know from an earlier post that I lost my beloved little dog last month.  I’m fortunate to have two other dogs to blunt the sting of that loss, and some day, when the time is right, we’ll get another dog.  We tried to have multiple dogs separated in age, so that we wouldn’t lose them all at once.  The two remaining dogs are also getting up there in years as well, and since Max was supposed to be the dog that lived the longest, we may well lose them all within a short period of time after all.  I bring this up just to point out that the choice to bring a dog into our home is a choice to have the inevitable heartbreak of loss, 10-15 years later.  It’s a choice I will make over and over again until I’m too old and feeble to care for a dog.

But it’s not just dogs for whom we are inevitably choosing heartbreak.  It’s everything and everyone we choose to put time, energy, and love into.  I made that choice when I chose to love a friend who is 70 years old with a chronic illness.  We made that choice when we bought a house, fixed it to our liking and within it, raised our children.  We made that choice when we chose a career, because it will eventually end in retirement.  We made that choice when we get married, because regardless of whether it’s due to divorce or death, there will be a separation in the end.  We made that choice when we even chose to have children, because if you do your job right, they’ll eventually leave home and be successful and independent.  Likewise when we are born into the world with family members or good health, for we will eventually also part with each someday.  I make that choice every time I choose to teach, mentor or tutor a student.  In short, everything in our lives is as impermanent as the snow that fell while we slept last night.

Recently I was talking with a friend about her recent divorce and how she’s afraid to get hurt again.  She was married to a particularly schmucky schmuck so that feeling (and all feelings for that matter) are entirely understandable.  But to love is a choice to make yourself vulnerable.  To choose life without love is not an option.  So life, love and vulnerability, loss, and pain are one and the same. And I will gladly choose the joy of love, and the inevitable pain of loss, every time.

Pain and loss

Pain and loss

What Every Couple Should Know Before Getting Married

unhappy-coupleI had always heard that marriage was so much work/so hard, but until I was married for several years, I did not realize the extent of my naiveté.

Before:  I thought the work of marriage had to do with the demands of juggling family, house and job.  Poopy diapers, cooking, cleaning, house and yard maintenance, entertaining with incredible Martha Stewart-like style, raising 2.2 perfect children, paying the bills, maybe having sex sometimes when you aren’t feeling romantic.  Of course, those things are all actual demands of marriage, but they’re somewhat mindless responsibilities, with the exception of parenting.  You just have to buckle down and do them.  There’s not a lot of thought involved, and hopefully relatively little conflict unless you include that hyperbolic perfectionism.  That is a topic for another blog.

After: After being married for several years, I realized it pretty much boiled down to how to manage all the above as a team, and how to manage your relationship with your spouse.

Managing the house is still the relatively easy part.  Hopefully, the duties can be split equitably according to interest, talent, schedule, and so forth.   That’s a great start!  But be prepared to re-evaluate and re-negotiate that split when/if the allocation changes.  Agreements shift due to creeping incrementalism and/or because circumstances drive the change, maybe a job loss, a new baby, or illness in the family.   Unconscious/unintentional change can cause resentment, so it is important to be mindful, proactive, and communicative about ensuring equity, especially as the years fly by.

In her book Love, Honor and Negotiate,  Betty Carter says that couples often unconsciously shift into roles that were modeled for them as children.  So you may have all the best intentions to be the modern couple with an equitable allocation of chores, but you may unconsciously slide into a more traditional division typically seen in older generations.  For example, having the lion’s share of cooking/cleaning/child care may have made sense for the stay-at-home mom generation but does not work so well for two career couples.  It still surprises me how often this distribution occurs in the otherwise modern couple.

Managing chores is still fairly straight-forward compared to managing relationships.  Spousal/partner relationships are delightfully fun during the honeymoon phase, but when that wears off – and it always does – you have to figure out how to make the relationship work.  This is the real work of marriage.  Word of caution:  everyone has different definitions of what it means for a relationship to “work”.  A relationship that is placid on the outside might be seething with unhappiness or resentment, while a fiery relationship may actually be quite happy overall.  But I digress.

When that romance fades, individuals often find that their loved one pushes their hot buttons like no other, turning otherwise civilized people into crazed and irrational cavemen.  They may have recurring fights with familiar themes, each fight feeling worse than the previous one.  Or they may find they settle into a stony resentment having given up on trying to resolve their differences.  If your relationship has reached the phase where contempt is present, your relationship is in deep trouble.

Many psychologists believe that couples are attracted to each other initially because the other reflects their unresolved childhood issues.  I may fall in love with someone, for instance, because in some ways he has the same emotional “personality” as one or both of my parents. That personality may not represent the best qualities of my parents, but rather the ones that recreate my unmet needs.  Romantic, isn’t it?  It’s just that with a new love, subconsciously I may believe that  he has resolved those personality issues within himself and thus will heal my childhood wounds by finally giving me the love/attention/affirmation/time/safety/whatever I have been craving.  That’s why it feels so good to be together.

The romance and euphoria wear off when I realize he can’t heal my wounds, and in fact, perpetuates my emotional void. As a result, he pushes my hot buttons and I push his.  If we cannot resolve this fundamental conflict, our relationship will be headed towards the marital cliff (ha ha, sorry, just been wanting to use that word in a blog).

This cycle is predictable, clinical, textbook.  Therefore, you are not a loser, you are not alone, you are not crazy if trouble with your relationships begins predictably after, oh 3-5 years.   You’re completely normal and just like everyone else.

I used to think I was all alone, I was crazy, I was a failure when we started to have difficulty in our marriage after a long and fairy tale honeymoon phase.  In the end, it was not my fault, it was not his fault, but it was our responsibility.  The good news is, one role of marriage is to inspire people to heal those childhood wounds.  If you both can do so successfully, you have an excellent chance of having a successful marriage.   If you don’t, you’ll likely make the same mistake with your next partner, and so on, until you do heal those wounds.  The bad news is, it takes two to make a successful relationship. But maybe that’s actually good news too as partners have an incentive to help each other.

The bottom line is, a successful relationship is up to each partner, both separately and working together as a team, to manage their personal issues and their half of the relationship.  What better reason to grow up emotionally, learn to become truly whole as an individual, than for the sake of your relationship and your beloved?  What better reason, really, to take a chance on love?