The Fault in Our Scars

How often do we protest, “It’s not my fault,” both loudly with our tongues and silently in our hearts? Why do we hide our faults? And what if we quit protecting them, and started celebrating them?

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“It’s not my fault!”

The most popular phrase in our house.

My son has just accidentally opened the refrigerator door into the dishwasher door, which was hanging ajar, knocking the dishwasher backward, off the hardwood and onto the subflooring. It becomes a box of crashing porcelain and before I have a chance to say anything, he is denying responsibility.

I stare at him blankly, at a loss for words. I watched it happen. I saw him throw one door into another. Either he thinks I’m blind, or there’s more to his denial than meets the eye.

There’s more to his denial than meets the eye.

He’s seven and, already, he has scars.

When he declares, “It’s not my fault!” with his chin out and his eyes a little scared, he’s not saying he didn’t do it. Of course he did it. What he’s doing is fighting not to be wounded again. He’s asking to be absolved of the emotional consequences of his mistake. He’s saying, “I didn’t do it on purpose, so please don’t blame me or shame me or reject me or leave me feeling alone.”

The thesaurus lists these synonyms for fault: defect, error, evil doing, failing, flaw, frailty, guilt, liability, misconduct, misdeed, negligence, offence, transgression, vice, wrongdoing. Is it any wonder our kids deny responsibility for their innocent mistakes?

Is it any wonder we adults do the same?

Is it any wonder no one wants to be at fault for anything?

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The 5 Empathy Fails in Marriage (And How to Avoid Them)

Empathy is the foundation of any authentic connection. It’s the bedrock of togetherness, the fuel of compassion, and the mortar of grace. We must hone our ability to feel it and to give it. But empathy can be elusive, for at least five reasons…

empathy

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Dusk is closing in when I arrive home from work and walk in the back door.

Some nights, all is well when I get home—my wife is happy and the kids are smiling. But some nights, my wife is tired and worn thin after a long day at work and the onslaught of demands for food and attention. Some nights, my oldest son is anxious and fretting about homework and standardized testing. Some nights, my younger son is distraught about the inevitable injustices of a middle child. Some nights, my daughter will settle for nothing less than a Daddy mirror—a father who will show his interest by reflecting all her energy and joy.

Some nights, everyone wants a little empathy and, some nights, I don’t want to give it.

Some nights, I get home, and I want someone to notice how tired I am, to soothe my anxiety, to correct the injustices done to me, and to mirror me. I could embrace my fatigue, fear, anger, and neediness as common emotional ground and I could reach out and connect in the midst of that shared experience.  But, some nights, I don’t.

Because even for psychologists, empathizing with the people we love is hard to do. And it’s particularly hard to empathize with the person we’ve promised to love for better or worse, for at least five reasons:

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Curiosity May Have Killed the Cat But It Saves Relationships

Good communication is easy, but curious communication is anything but easy. And it may be the difference maker in every relationship. Because words matter, but they mean something different to everybody…

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It’s about a hundred degrees below zero, as my daughter and I get out of the car at her preschool on a winter Wednesday morning. She grabs my hand, I look at her, and I say, “Let’s run into the warm building!”

She won’t budge.

She looks at me like I’m crazy.

“That’s not a building,” she says in a severe teacherly tone, as if she’s the one who’s almost forty and I’m the one who’s just getting started.

I’ve already lost feeling in my toes and I’m pretty sure the skin on my face will never be the same, but I’m curious about how her little brain works, so instead of arguing and pulling her along like a fish on a line, I ask, “If that’s not a building, what is it?”

“Daddy,” she says, “that’s not a building; that’s a school.”

Now all feeling is gone from my fingers, too, but my curiosity gets the best of me again.

“So, what is a building?”

A lopsided smile appears on her face. She doesn’t say, “Duh,” but it’s implied. “Daddy, a building is a place you go to work.”

Oh.

Then she drags me inside like a fish on a line.

Words matter. But they mean something different to each of us. Which can be a small problem in a parking lot, but a much bigger problem in a marriage or partnership or friendship or any meaningful relationship of any kind.

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The One True Thing About the Perfect Valentine’s Date

Is that it doesn’t exist. Because the perfect Valentine’s date doesn’t seek perfection. It seeks reality. It acknowledges who we are as individuals and where we are as couples. Which means, the most loving Valentine’s date could happen in a restaurant. Or in a therapist’s office…

perfect Valentine's date

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I’m a marital therapist

And I’ve worked on Valentine’s night.

While couples across the world were dining by candlelight, riding in carriages, and sprinkling rose petals—attempting to orchestrate the perfect evening and the most romantic moment—I’ve sat with couples in the midst of their pain and sorrow. On the most romantic night of the year, I’ve sat with lovers while they got as honest as possible about who they are, turned over rocks most people won’t even look at, fought to forgive, and dug deep to find empathy and intimacy.

On the most romantic night of the year, I’ve sat with couples while they got real.

In other words, I’ve been a witness to the most Romantic Valentine’s dates of all.

Yes, that’s Romance with a capital R.

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What Were You Made To Do?

What were you made to do? The answer to that question has the power to alter the arc of history. For good.

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The alarm sounds at 5am, and my heavy-gritty eyelids creak open. The kids still have two hours of slumber ahead of them, which means I have two hours alone with my thoughts and my keyboard and my craft. The prospect is thrilling.

And terrifying.

Because there’s something else nestled right next to my gleeful anticipation. It doubts and it gnaws. It’s my fear of the blank page. It’s my fear of drying up. It’s my fear of not being enough.

When I sit in front of a blank document, it can feel like my worth is up for grabs. And that kind of fear makes me feel incredibly vulnerable—it’s way easier to feel prolific and invincible. In the past, the fear has driven me back under the covers. Fear and vulnerability like a padlock, trapping my words inside.

But now I know, my vulnerability isn’t the lock on my words—it’s actually the doorway into everything I want to write about.

The Violence of Invincibility

We live in an invulnerable world. Somewhere along the way, we decided vulnerability is weakness, and we’ve banished it from the public square.

Waiters aren’t allowed to confess mistakes for fear of a lawsuit. If a doctor admits doubt, they lose the confidence of everyone they serve. When was the last time a politician admitted they were wrong before they were caught in the act? Pillars of virtue cheat their way to the top rather than embracing limitation and weakness.

We’ve replaced the public square with a winner’s circle.

And our homes aren’t much different—we’ve banished vulnerability from our living rooms and bedrooms and hearts. Marital conflict escalates as spouses litigate their love with cross-examinations and Exhibits A to Z. Our children take their cues, and they compete with each other for worth and value. On playgrounds, tears get stifled and punches get thrown.

Our strength and invincibility are, quite simply, tearing the world apart. In the end, the winner’s circle stands empty, and so do our hearts.

Who will show us the way out of this morass?

The answer might surprise you, because the answer is you.

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The One Illusion We Cannot Afford To Believe In

“We are here to awaken from our illusion of separateness.”

—Thich Nhat Hanh

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I’m on the fifth floor of a hotel in Pennsylvania, waiting for an elevator to the lobby. It’s July 4th—Independence Day in America. Early morning, and I’m leaving the hotel to find a cheaper breakfast. As I wait, I become aware of piped-in music overhead. I hear lyrics that remind me of my wife: “Fortune teller said I’d be free, and that’s the day you came to me.”

I instantly reach for my phone, Google the lyrics, and the song title is the top result. I click out of Google, tap my Spotify app, search for the song, and the song playing above my head is now coming out of my phone.

I enjoy the dopamine rush of immediate gratification and I marvel at the convenience of technology. But mostly, I revel in my apparent self-sufficiency. Twenty years ago, I would’ve required the help of a number of people to identify the song, find a music store, and purchase the CD.

In 2014, I interact with no one.

In 2014, I can completely ignore how interdependent all of us are…

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A Father’s Letter to Young Men (About How to Treat a Woman)

Dear Young Men,

Our confusion about women starts early:

how to treat women

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Last spring, a new family moved into our neighborhood. They have a school-aged daughter, and on moving day she was playing alone in her new yard. Meanwhile, a group of six boys played in our yard. When I suggested they go invite her to play, one of the boys cried out, “We don’t know how to treat girls!” The rest of the boys nodded vociferously in agreement.

Our confusion about women starts early.

We’re told they are fundamentally different than us. Women have emotions, but men have muscles. Women nurture, but men protect. Women like to talk, but men like to act. Women want love, but men want respect. Men are from Mars and women are from Venus.  We’ve been trained to believe they are alien.

We’ve even been trained to believe they play differently on a spring afternoon.

Our confusion about women starts early.

On a spring afternoon, as the boys nodded violently, I told them I knew the secret about how to treat girls. I waved them in close. They smiled conspiratorially. Then I whispered, “You start by treating them like a person.” They quit smiling. They asked the girl to play and, in minutes, they were all jumping on the trampoline. Same energy, same laughter, same joy. People being people together.

Young Men, we can stop treating women like women and start treating them like humans.

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The One Thing Worse Than Being Embarrassed (And How to Avoid It)

We orchestrate most of our lives around avoiding embarrassment. But what if, in doing so, we orchestrate the only thing ultimately worse than embarrassment?

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I bit into a sandwich and a large part of my top front tooth broke off. My tongue found the new gap in my teeth, and then I found a mirror to survey the damage. I looked like I had just played in the Stanley Cup. And lost.

It was a Friday evening and I promptly cancelled all my weekend plans except a meeting with a small group of friends on Sunday. I thought it would be embarrassing to see anyone else. Yet, as the Sunday gathering approached, my fear of embarrassment began to grow anyway:

What will they think of me?

What will they say about me?

I felt like I was in middle school, hiding my first pimple.

Sunday came and the group came together and, as time passed and no one mentioned the gap in my teeth, I became increasingly anxious. Finally, I blurted out, “Yeah, so my tooth fell off this weekend.” They looked at me and collectively responded with, “Oh, we hadn’t even noticed.”

I think they did notice. They were one of the nicest groups of people I’ve ever known, and I think they were trying to save me from the very embarrassment I feared. Yet, although that weekend was six years ago, I still recall the moment in which no one noticed.

Because the only thing worse than being noticed and embarrassed is not being noticed at all.

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How to Defeat the Most Insidious Epidemic of Our Time

Loneliness

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When I Saw Loneliness Sitting in a Restaurant

I remember the first time I witnessed loneliness, and I can still feel the way it ruptured me.*

I was in grade school, playing hooky on a Friday afternoon, traveling with my father to a Chicago Bulls game. While munching on fries at a roadside McDonalds, I glanced at the table opposite us.

My eyes suddenly itched and I felt something throb behind them.

Sitting several feet away was a man whose image was instantly seared into my mind, because his loneliness was oozing from every pore. A youngish man, mid-30s, bushy red hair, eyeglasses thick and slightly askew, weak chin, a short sleeve shirt and a clashing tie, big-sad eyes staring into the distance, nibbling on a French fry of his own.

He spoke to me with those eyes, and they said, “I’m all alone and I’m used to it and I’m resigned to it—there is nothing more for me.” I think he broke my heart because he was a mirror for my own loneliness—a painfully shy kid who felt completely unanchored in the world.

The years have rolled by, and now I’m that man’s age. And I’m a therapist now, instead of a kid. I’ve put down roots in the world. But one thing remains unchanged by time: lonely hearts still rupture me.

The Loneliness Epidemic

As a therapist, I’ve come to believe loneliness is at the heart of human suffering:

It’s the depression convincing us we are alone in the darkness and no one notices.

It’s the haunting fear we are on our own without protection and there is nothing solid to land on.

It’s the pulse of a thousand addictions.

It’s a child’s rebellion shouting, “If I can’t be looked upon with a warm eye, I will settle for a frustrated, angry, disciplinary eye.”

The world we live in is aching with loneliness, but we are rarely aware of it, because in a loud and crowded world, loneliness has a thousand busy disguises.

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How to Find Balance in an Imbalanced Relationship

Marriage is for losers.

When two people choose to make marriage a contest to see who can lose the most—and create a household culture of mutual surrender—marriage becomes a radical rebellion, transforming the world through sacrifice from the inside out.

But a healthy relationship of losers requires balance.

Two people dedicated to sacrifice and selflessness and vulnerability.

Relationships with one constant-loser and one always-winner are sad, degrading, and usually abusive. The always-winner dominates and controls through emotional or physical coercion. And the constant-loser sacrifices and forgives and gives grace, but nothing ever changes.

Nothing ever changes because the constant-losers aren’t giving enough grace.

They aren’t giving enough grace to themselves

Balance in Marriage

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