For Valentine’s Day, Let’s All Admit We Love a Stranger

“I feel like I don’t know you anymore.” Usually, we think this means the end of a relationship. But what if it means a relationship can finally get started?

marriage

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We’ve been married fourteen years.

So I’m absolutely certain I know why she’s not returning my texts.

When I left her in the morning, she was quiet and sullen about something, so she must be retaliating for some unknown transgression—she’s withdrawing into herself to punish me.

Or, she’s giving my children the best of her and I’m getting the rest of her. The kids are home for winter break and she’s probably showing them the time of their lives; in the meantime, I have a couple of simple questions and she can’t take a moment to tap out a reply.

Or, she’s disorganized. She can’t find her phone or she can’t find her charger, or she can find her charger but hasn’t bothered to plug it in. She runs a mental health clinic impeccably, but she’s never been very interested in keeping her phone running.

In the end, I decide, it’s probably all three.

After all, we’ve been married fourteen years.

I know her.

It’s a hazard of any meaningful relationship.

You spend months and years and decades with someone, and you start to believe you know them. And, of course, in some ways, you do. You know how they take their coffee and if they sleep on their side or their stomach or both. You know their habits and their peccadillos.

Yet, as soon as we presume to know what’s going on inside of them, it’s all over.

Because we don’t. We can’t.

There is a universe alive within the people we love. At best, we know the little plot of land within them that we’ve mapped out. But there are entire lands and oceans and skies and galaxies we cannot even fathom. We have, at best, rumors of the mystery that exists within the people we spend our lives with.

And even the rumors change. Yes, at the core of us, we have a true self that is steady and sturdy. But on the whole, people aren’t static creatures. Human beings are dynamic, fluctuating, flowing, growing, and evolving. What we knew about each other yesterday may not be true tomorrow, and what was false yesterday may be tomorrow’s reality.

And then of course, sometimes—on a night fourteen years into marriage, for instance—what you are certain you know about someone else is really just a projection of your own fears and insecurities and doubts and loneliness…

I still haven’t heard from her as I’m pulling in the driveway, and I’m still grumpy about it.

But now I’m even grumpier about something else.

The day before, our big Christmas present was delivered: a set of three lockers for the children—a place to finally put their coats and shoes and schoolbags that isn’t the hallway floor. Tomorrow is my first day of Christmas vacation, and I’m expecting to spend most of it assembling them. I’m not very good at that kind of thing, and I’m dreading it.

As the garage door rises, my headlights illuminate the inside, and I look for the delivery boxes. But I see only empty space. And as I park the car, it begins to dawn on me.

I don’t know my wife as well as I think I do.

I open the door to the house and there, in the entryway, are three lockers, completely assembled. My wife hadn’t been replying to me because she was too busy surprising me. She wasn’t punishing me; she was loving me. And she wasn’t caring for the kids more than me; they were all caring for me together. Her phone was fully charged, but answering my texts would have drained the surprise.

I thought she was busy giving me grief, but she was busy giving me a gift.

Almost two months have passed since that night and another holiday is approaching. What if this Valentine’s Day, we gave the people we love the best gift of all—the gift of wonder? Maybe we could let them know we know we don’t really know them at all.

And then we could finally get started.

We could start trading in our certainty for curiosity, our knowing for asking, our accusations for questions. We could trade our biting words for biting our tongues. We could stop telling and start listening. We could wait upon the mystery that is another human heart.

Until maybe, just maybe, the garage door begins to rise.

The interior is illuminated.

And we get to be surprised by the good things we find there.

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Next UnTangled Post: Don’t Try to Make Your Life Better (Try to Make It Beautiful-er)

Artisan Blog: My friend and colleague, David Clinton, has written his first post for the Artisan Clinical blog. It’s a meditation upon turning forty and aging, and it is grace for all of us who know: we’re making it up as we go. You can read it by clicking here

Free eBook: My eBook, The Marriage Manifesto: Turning Your World Upside Down, is available free to new blog subscribers. If you are not yet a subscriber, you can click here to subscribe, and your confirmation e-mail will include a link to download the eBook. Or, the book is also now available for Kindle and Nook

It’s All the Rage: How Outrage Has Become a Virtue

This post is a bad idea—an invitation for indignation. Because I’m about to suggest we all act a little less controversial and, these days, suggesting less controversy has become the most controversial thing you can do…

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Electronic communication is in its adolescence.

Blogging is about twenty years old (the word “blog” was first coined in 1999). For all intents and purposes, text messaging is about fifteen years old (texts could not be exchanged between phone networks until the turn of the century). And Facebook just reached the end of its first decade of public use (until 2006, Facebook was exclusively for college students).

Electronic communication is like a teenager.

And it’s doing what all teenagers do: it’s getting angry.

Online, we’re acting like right and wrong is obvious and what we believe is obviously right. Like uniformity is the only valid kind of community. Like someone else’s opinion is a direct threat to the validity of our own. Like it’s our job to be unwavering. Like talking back is the only way to talk. Like the only way to be yourself is to shout down all other selves.

To be enraged is all the rage.

To rant is to be righteous.

To be verbally violent is to be virtually virtuous.

We have become so comfortable with the everyday Facebook rant, we even expect it from our politicians and our pundits and our pulpits. In fact, we demand it.

I may not rant on Facebook, but I’ve been watching myself closely, and I have plenty of anger in me—dark stares and distraught sighs and dangerous sarcasm. Why? Because I’m ordinary. I’m human. We are, all of us, carrying within us an awful lot of anger, whether we realize it or not.

Anger isn’t new.

It’s been seething beneath the surface of our complicated humanity for millennia. Our anger wasn’t created by Facebook and Twitter and instant messaging and all our many forms of electronic communication. But they have given us just enough degrees of separation to feel comfortable unleashing it. And the problem is, once unleashed online, it gets hard to cage it again. Once typed out, it gets way easier to act it out. Then it becomes a habit. A way of life.

Fortunately, there is a way to grow out of our online adolescence.

It’s called uncertainty.

This Is How Kids Will React to Taking Away Their Electronics (In Sequence)

video games

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Every once in a while, every family needs to detox.

Collect all the electronics—the Kindles and iPads and iPods and Nintendo DSs and smart phones—and lock them away. Pull the plug on the television and the PlayStation and the Xbox, too. Don’t do it secretively. Announce it. Tell the young ones you’re going a week or a month or whatever without Minecraft and Netflix and Halo.

Beware, though. Because when you do, something will happen….

  1. First, they’ll begin to spasm and screech, as if possessed by a demon. What do I mean by that? Well, picture a demon possession. Got it? That’s what it will look like. There will be a significant amount of overlap with how an addict responds when you take away their crack. That’s not coincidence. They’re addicted and you’re taking away their crack.
  2. They will hate you.
  3. You’ll tell them they’re kids and that’s how they’re supposed to react. It’s your job to do what is healthy for them, and it’s their job to hate you for it. For about thirty years. Or until they have kids of their own. Whichever comes first.
  4. That will make them angrier.
  5. They’ll negotiate. And they’ll be cunning. You’ll discover they understand more about how you and the family work than you ever fathomed. They’ll probe at every crack and fault line. They’ll turn passive-aggression into an art form.
  6. When you fail to cave in, they’ll up the ante. They’ll get angrier. Make threats. Scream louder. Doors will slam. Demon possession may or may not reoccur.
  7. They’ll try to guess the passcode on your mobile phone. It may not have games on it, but at this point, they’ll settle for anything that can bathe their little faces in the the cold blue wash of LED light. They’ll try and fail until it locks you out for an hour. Maybe even forever. You’ll have to restore it to factory settings. And if you still don’t cave…
  8. They will still hate you.
  9. Their social life will suffer. They will not be able to communicate with friends via iMessage, text message, SnapChat, or Xbox One. They will plead with you, telling you they are becoming social pariahs. They probably are. They’ll tell you their friends think your evil. They probably do. And when you still don’t cave, they will suddenly resort to the antiquated ritual of sitting at the family computer. At a desk. And Facebooking. You will limit that to thirty minutes a day, too.
  10. So they will hate you even more.
  11. Then, some time later—the exact timing will vary depending upon the extent of their addiction, the stubbornness of their personality, and the amount of hormones coursing through their blood—you will start to notice a subtle shift in energy. They will still hate you—at least a little—but they will be somehow more present. And they will also begin doing other things. They’ll find two old Matchbox cars in a drawer and they’ll start a chase scene in the kitchen, complete with little-kid-explosion-noises. They’ll pull an old dollhouse out of the closet and you’ll hear imaginary banter coming from their bedroom. Imaginations will reawaken. Creativity will be resurrected. Someone might even go outside. Touch a basketball. Climb onto a bike. Caution: unused muscles may get unusually sore. Thumb muscles will begin to shrink back to normal size.
  12. They’ll slowly stop hating you. They won’t like you. But they will stop fantasizing about your sudden disappearance.
  13. Whereas before, these young minds were being filled up from the outside and absorbing all sorts of electronic stimulation, they will now fill up from the inside and begin overflowing with the natural stimulation of their own interior world. They may start to talk. A lot. You’ll begin to see parts of them you haven’t seen in a long while. Maybe ever. They will be brilliant. Like the face of a diamond.
  14. You will have to put down your phone to listen. (Be careful what you ask for.)
  15. Over time, their brains will begin to settle down, into their natural rhythm. They will no longer slip into a stupor when faced with anything that doesn’t light up, flash, or explode. They will begin to find homework less excruciating, boredom less torturous, and silence and solitude less terrifying.
  16. They’ll finally give in and start communicating with their friends face-to-face again. They’ll play board games. Go out to McDonald’s and look at each other instead of their phones. They’ll lay out under the stars together and wonder. They’ll discover, when you use more than 140 characters, you see depths in another you never knew existed.
  17. They may hug you. Because tangible human contact is beginning to feel meaningful again.
  18. Eventually, you may want to put down your phone more often, as well, because as you see the spark being fanned to life in them, you will wonder if, maybe, just maybe, you have a spark like that still alight somewhere in you, too.
  19. They’ll graduate high school, go off to college, and actually not flunk out. They’ll look their professors in the eye. They’ll understand the importance of etiquette and actually use it. They’ll discover a passion inside of them that does not begin with “videogame” and end with “designer.” They’ll give their passion to the world.
  20. And then, one day, many years from now, they’ll come home and it’ll be the day you told them about so long ago. The day they’re finally grateful you took all the mind-numbing devices away. Or maybe they won’t be grateful. But either way, you’ll be grateful you did it. Because you’ll know, regardless of how it turned out, you did the hard thing so they could have the best shot at the best of things: the opportunity to be fully human and to launch themselves headlong into this thing we call being alive.

You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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Next Post: It’s All the Rage: How Outrage Has Become a Virtue

Free eBook: My eBook, The Marriage Manifesto: Turning Your World Upside Down, is available free to new blog subscribers. If you are not yet a subscriber, you can click here to subscribe, and your confirmation e-mail will include a link to download the eBook. Or, the book is also now available for Kindle and Nook

How Therapy Helps Us Make Meaning of Our Stories

I’ve written at least one blog post every week for the last four years and I’m often asked, “How do you find something meaningful to write about week after week?” This is how I write. This is how blogging is like therapy. And this is how therapy makes meaning of our lives…

therapy

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In late November, I was putting up Christmas lights on the bushes outside our house. It seemed to go flawlessly until, around dinnertime, as I was gazing out the window at the glow, it suddenly went out.

Turns out, I’d linked too many strands together and fried the first one.

I was getting ready to go buy a new one, when I remembered the fuses.

In every box of Christmas lights are several spare fuses—little glass cylinders with metal on the end. In theory, when a strand fails, you’re supposed to pull out the old fuses, pop in the new ones, and…voila…working lights! However, in twenty years of putting up Christmas lights, replacing the fuse has never fixed a single broken strand.Never.

About a decade ago, I decided the extra fuses are the manufacturer’s way of making us feel like we have some control over their cheap, almost-disposable products.

I absolutely knew replacing the fuses wouldn’t work. But it only takes a minute to do, so like countless times before, I pried out the old fuses and replaced them with new ones. Then, with no hope whatsoever, I plugged in the strand of lights.

And that’s when the moment happened.

TO READ THE REST OF THIS POST CLICK HERE

To read about how an experience like that gives rise to a blog post—and how that process is like therapy and the way we make meaning of our lives—click the link above to read the rest of this post on the Artisan Clinical Associates blog. I will continue to post here at UnTangled weekly, but this is the last time I will link to my original content on the Artisan blog. After today, you’ll need to be subscribed to the Artisan blog to read my Artisan posts, so don’t forget to subscribe in the sidebar while you’re there. Or CLICK HERE to subscribe to the Artisan blog right now!

You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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Next Post: This Is How Kids Will React to Taking Away Their Electronics (In Sequence)

Free eBook: My eBook, The Marriage Manifesto: Turning Your World Upside Down, is available free to new blog subscribers. If you are not yet a subscriber, you can click here to subscribe, and your confirmation e-mail will include a link to download the eBook. Or, the book is also now available for Kindle and Nook

The Kindness Challenge

Let’s admit it: we’re obsessed with winning. Just look around. Everything has become a competition. Our will-to-win is everywhere, and it’s not going anywhereBut what if we gave it something better to do? What if we all decided to compete at a game called kindness?

kindness

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We’re at the kitchen table—my wife, youngest son, daughter, and I—and we’re playing Go Fish. The game is quickly becoming too competitive: my son is hiding cards underneath the table, I’m pretty sure my daughter is sneaking cards from the pile, and heated words are starting to fly. Most of them are not from me. I’m tempted to end the game.

Instead, I announce we’re changing the goal of the game.

We’re going to keep a tally of kindness during the game and, regardless of who has the most cards at the end, the winner will be the one who has shown the most generosity and gentleness. At first, the kids look at me like I’m crazy.

Then it changes everything.

5 Essential Life Lessons from 4 Surprising Years of Blogging

January 6th. Four years ago today, I published my first blog post. I’d written only one and wasn’t sure I had anything else to say. Now I’ve written 242. The truth is, though, somewhere along the way, I stopped writing the blog and the blog started writing me. This is what it’s told me…

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1. The fear never goes away. These days, I schedule my posts at least a week ahead of time, to be published at 3am every Wednesday morning while I’m asleep. And every Wednesday—every Wednesday—I awake with my heart beating a little faster than usual and my mind spinning a little faster than usual on one question:

“What have I done?”

Vulnerability is a beautiful thing. And it sucks. It gets a little easier over time, but not much. Because vulnerability is always a door thrown wide open for pain. So, why keep doing it? Because it is also the doorway to grace and worthiness and connection and belonging and passion and purpose. And joy of every surprising kind.

If someone tells you they aren’t afraid, it means they aren’t being vulnerable.

But if we don’t risk a heart that skips, we can’t ever reap a heart that soars.

The Top 10 UnTangled Posts of 2015

Here we are again. The last Wednesday of the year. The last UnTangled post of 2015. And, as has become tradition here at UnTangled, the year-end top-ten lists.

2015 top 10

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It’s been a quieter year around the blog. No appearances on the TODAY Show. No viral marriage post. No documentary filmings. This particular lap around the sun has been much more ordinary here at UnTangled. And it’s tempting, when things are quiet and the attention goes away, to wonder if you’re doing something wrong. So, this orbit through the solar system has been one continuous opportunity to call B.S. on that way of thinking.

To remember, when the attention goes away, our worthiness doesn’t.

Because it is eternal and unchanging.

To remember, working harder is a good thing, but a limited thing.

But loving harder has no limits.

To remember, life isn’t about chasing the extraordinary, but resting into the ordinary.

And finding magic there.

Most of my blog posts this year arose from that growing awareness. I’ve listed here the ten most popular posts (ranked by number of Facebook shares), and then, according to me, the best of the rest (that is, the ten I most enjoyed writing). And I’ve added a new list this year: the ten books I enjoyed reading most this year.

Thank you, each of you, for listening with me, to the voice inside of me that I translate into writing and for choosing to seek out that voice within you. I’m looking forward to spending 2016 with you. Even if it’s completely ordinary.

Especially if it’s completely ordinary.

The Top 10 UnTangled Posts of 2015:

  1. Karma Envelopes
  2. The Beauty of Being a Quitter
  3. The Only Real Secret to a Healthy Marriage
  4. The Last Marriage Post You’ll Ever Need to Read
  5. This Is How Christmas (and Life) Should Be More Like Halloween
  6. The Point of Life Isn’t to Be More Happy (It’s to Be More You)
  7. An Open Letter to Millenials About the Insanity of Marriage
  8. Why I Want My Kids to Be in Pain
  9. The Secret About Healing Nobody Wants to Hear (But Everybody Needs to Hear)
  10. How to Know Who Loves You Best

Why Christmas Eve Is More Magical Than Christmas Day

There is magic happening, right underneath our noses. To find it, we need only get still long enough to catch the scent, and follow it where it leads us…

Christmas Eve

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Ten years ago, my family celebrated Christmas Eve in a massive church, with thousands of other people. It was electric and exciting and when a thousand hands held up candles at the end of the service, it was breathtaking.

Five years ago, we celebrated Christmas Eve in a smaller church, but there were still hundreds in attendance and we wedged ourselves into pews with friends and family and the celebration was joyous. When the hundreds of hands held up candles at the end of the service, it didn’t take your breath away. But the flickering flames did calm it.

This year, we’ve moved to a small town and we’ve been attending a very small church. Every week, our family can count on our ten hands the number of people in attendance. I expect the Christmas Eve service will be no different. And I’m grateful for that. Because this year has been teaching me something I’ve been trying to learn for a lifetime: getting quiet and still and small brings us face-to-face with the ordinary.

And the ordinary is where the magic is.

How Therapy Saves Us from Wasting Our One Precious Life

What if our mistakes, flaws, imperfections and mess aren’t our biggest problem? What if our biggest problem is the story we tell ourselves about them? And what if there was a place where we could go, to hear a different story?

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The to-do list when you’re launching a therapy practice is a mile long.

For many months, I’ve shared that list with my friend and co-founder of Artisan Clinical, David Clinton. Together, doggedly and determinedly, we’ve been whittling it down. Several weeks ago, on a Monday night, I had one thing left on my list.

Program the thermostat in the new office.

I tried and failed, over and over again. So, impulsively, I went out, bought a new thermostat, opened it, and was promptly reminded to turn off power to the furnace before installation. I don’t have access to the fuse box in our rented suite. There would be no quick start for this thermostat. So I gave up. Then, a week later, on another Monday night, a client suggested I simply download the instructions for the old thermostat.

Oh. Yeah.

Wisdom goes both ways in a therapeutic relationship.

Later that evening, it took about ten minutes to download the owner’s manual and to program the old thermostat. The temperature in our new office was now officially under control.

But something inside of me wasn’t.

I felt embarrassed I hadn’t come up with the solution on my own. I felt guilty I’d wasted money on a new thermostat we didn’t need. That I’m-not-good-enough feeling can visit upon us in many guises and, this time, it had returned in the shape of an unnecessary thermostat. So, this is what I texted David:

“I’ve got good news and bad news. Which do you want first? Okay, the good news. I found a manual on-line and figured out how to program the thermostat. It was every bit as asinine as it seemed to be. The bad news is, I wasted $20 on a thermostat (I already opened the package like a dummy).”

I called it a night and went to bed.

But I wasn’t alone. My shame was there with me…

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To read about how David responded to my shame—and how therapy can relieve all of us of the shame that lays our lives to waste—click the link above to read the rest of this post on the Artisan Clinical Associates blog. This is the second of three times I’ll link to my original content on my new practice’s website. After that, you’ll need to be subscribed to the Artisan blog to read my Artisan posts, so don’t forget to subscribe in the sidebar while you’re there. Or CLICK HERE to subscribe to the Artisan blog right now! To be clear, I will continue to post here at UnTangled once per week, and will be posting additionally on the Artisan blog approximately once per month. 

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Next Post: Why Christmas Eve Feels More Magical Than Christmas Day

Free eBook: My eBook, The Marriage Manifesto: Turning Your World Upside Down, is available free to new blog subscribers. If you are not yet a subscriber, you can click here to subscribe, and your confirmation e-mail will include a link to download the eBook. Or, the book is also now available for Kindle and Nook.

An Open Letter to Millenials About the Insanity of Marriage

Dear Millenials: Surveys show you’re losing interest in marriage and, from what I hear, the main reason is this: to you, marriage doesn’t make any sense. And I know why you feel that way—it’s because marriage doesn’t make any sense.

marriage

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One life has enough sorrow of its own. Why would you volunteer to share the sorrow of another human being, too? Why would you double-up on pain and mess?

Marriage is a crapshoot. Half of them end in divorce. Do we really need to go out of our way to add things to our life that are going to end up dying anyway? Isn’t that what pets are for?

If marriage is to work, you have to give in. Daily. You have to submit, allow, release, and let go. At least half the time. For crying out loud, it’s hard enough to get a leg up in life, who has the time and energy to spend their days lifting someone else up, too?

Human beings seem to be wired for attraction to many different people. Our appetites are not easily whetted. Why would anyone spend a lifetime trying to rein in that craving?

And people get old. The person you’re attracted to now will eventually be replaced by a smaller, plumper, more shriveled version of themselves. What if, eventually, you’re not attracted to the person wearing the lines and signs of a lifetime together?

Not to mention the brokenness of people. No matter how amazing a person is, they’re still going to mess up. A lot. Forgiveness is a beautiful thing, but it’s also a ruthless thing. Every time you do it, you have to let something inside of you die, like your instinct for retribution or your self-righteousness. And after all, we’re here to live, not to die, right?

Except, Dear Millenials, we actually are here to die.