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.

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The Only Real Secret to a Healthy Marriage

The only real secret to a healthy marriage is to not have any secrets. In AA, they say our secrets make us sick. They’re right. And marriage is the place we learn how to empty ourselves of them…

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I keep secrets from my wife.

Just last week, the kids were released early from school, due to a heat wave and old buildings with no air conditioning. While debriefing the shortened day, they mentioned their mom had taken them to an ice cream shop the day before after the early dismissal. It seemed like a random comment, but I’m sure it was strategic.

They know how to work me.

And I knew they didn’t need the sugar two days in a row, and I knew we didn’t need to spend the money, but who doesn’t want to be the cool-dad, especially when you’re married to a woman who’s always the cool-mom?

So, we piled in the car.

When we got home, I collected the empty ice cream cups, and I buried them deep in the garbage. I actually did that. Rearranged some dirty paper towels over the top of them. Like I was six years old again, sneaking a spoonful of fudge swirl from the freezer at 6am.

Of course, when I was six, I didn’t have three accomplices to spill the beans.

When my wife got home and asked about our afternoon, I didn’t mention the ice cream. But my partners in crime did. And I cringed. I cringed a little because I got caught. But I cringed a little more because marriage isn’t a place for secrets.

It’s a place for pouring them out.

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Why I Like to Fight with My Wife

A healthy marriage should look a lot like the Stanley Cup Finals. This is what I mean by that…

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Last month, as my oldest son and I watched the Chicago Blackhawks win game six of the Stanley Cup Finals, he pointed out something a little startling during the post-game on-ice celebration. In the 1990s, when it was the Bulls bringing championships to Chicago, at the final buzzer, their defeated opponent would immediately sprint for the locker room, hiding from the victors and their joy.

But last month, the defeated Tampa Bay Lightning did no such thing.

They waited patiently, for many minutes, as the Blackhawks celebrated together. Then, both sets of men lined up, as they’ve been doing since they were little boys, and they slowly moved past each other, giving handshakes and hugs and warm words of affirmation.

Although the teams had been in conflict for seven very intense games, there was a palpable sense of unity, as if both teams were part of something bigger than a contest, part of a great tradition called hockey, part of a mutual admiration for each other and a mutual respect for a game they are all indebted to. As I watched, I knew the post-game handshake was revealing something essential about conflict:

Conflict isn’t meant to be won; it’s meant to make us one.

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How to Turn Pro at Relationships (By Keeping It Simple)

“The difference between an amateur and a professional is in their habits. An amateur has amateur habits. A professional has professional habits.”

–Stephen Pressfield

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Sometime last year, my seven year-old son decided to turn pro at apologizing.

We sent him to his room after some egregious act toward somebody in the house, and he emerged fifteen minutes later with an apology note, scribbled with a black Sharpie marker and first-grade jaggedness.

Several days later, we went through the same scenario. But not quite. This time, when he came out of his room, he was carrying an apology note written in multi-colored crayon. The letters were less jagged, written with more care.

The next time it happened, he used glitter glue and waited for it to dry. He tried to write it in cursive he’s never been taught, and the words were tender and sincere. The note was hard to read, but love always translates, doesn’t it?

I’ve been a marital therapist for over a decade. Sitting in the therapy room, with two people who have two sets of histories, wounds, and resentments can feel complicated and confusing. I have a big bag of therapeutic interventions, and some days, I almost empty it out.

But as I held my son’s sparkling work of love and remorse, it occurred to me: maybe it’s not as complicated as I’m trying to make it. Maybe it’s about turning pro at one thing, and dedicating our lives to it. Maybe I just need to remember the old Navy engineering adage, KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid.

Maybe we all just need to KISS.

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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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Manning Up and Leaning In to Marriage

egalitarian marriage

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It’s a Sunday afternoon, I’m a suburban dad, and my oldest son has a double-header scheduled in his indoor baseball league. I line up in the bleachers with the other dads, and we all shout tough, competitive, guy things to our boys on the field.

But then I pull out my wife’s scrapbooking materials, and I begin to cut Christmas trees out of green construction paper. The other dads glance at me sideways. I swear a couple of them cough-laugh.

I breathe deeply and I remind myself I’m still a man.

I’m a man married to a tenured professor of psychology. I fell in love with her tenacity and her deep sense of vocation and when we stood on our wedding altar, I knew what I was getting into — an egalitarian marriage. Which means, if we’re two weeks away from Christmas and she’s grading final exams and our kids’ Christmas party craft needs to be prepared, I’m toting the scrapbooking supplies to baseball. I’ll also be the only dad at the Christmas party.

And all of that can feel a little…emasculating.

But thirteen years of striving for true equality in our marriage has convinced me of at least one thing: having your manhood called into question can be a good thing, perhaps even an essential thing. And ten years as a psychologist has confirmed it: the number one obstacle for men to personal healing, emotional health, and loving marriages is what most of us call masculinity — this idea that to be men we have to be strong, unflappable, and invulnerable. When I ask the question, “What would you have to give up to be vulnerable and honest, to be forgiving and gracious, to be empathic and caring?” the most common answer I get is, “My manhood.”

When men talk about manhood — and when most of us talk about masculinity — those words and ideas and experiences can all be code words for something else: ego.

This is the beginning of a guest post I wrote for Disney’s Babble.com, in conjunction with the #LeanInTogether campaign. To read the rest of this post, click here.

You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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Next Post: I’ve Got Bad News and I’ve Got Good News (Which Will You Choose?)

Disclaimer: My writings represent a combination of my own personal opinions and my professional experiences, but they do not reflect professional advice. Interaction with me via the blog does not constitute a professional therapeutic relationship. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor who can dedicate the hours necessary to become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. I do not assume liability for any portion or content of material on the blog and accept no liability for damage or injury resulting from your decision to interact with the website.

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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The Last Marriage Post You’ll Ever Need to Read

Marriages aren’t destroyed by lack of knowledge. They’re destroyed by our unwillingness to listen to the knowledge we already carry within us…

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Around this time last year, in Chicago, we were in the middle of a polar vortex. The thermostat hovered around zero. The schools were frequently closed. It was painful to go outside.

And my wife went to New Orleans without me.

It was a business trip, and she went out of her way to make provisions for the kids and me—she even flew her mother in to help with childcare while I was at work. Nevertheless, on the night the thermostat short-circuited and I discovered dog poop wedged in the couch cushions, she sent me a video of her enjoying Bourbon Street.

And I got as bitter as the weather outside.

When that happens—when I feel like I’m on my own and nobody cares about me—I put a big, invisible wall between me and everybody I love. When she returned from New Orleans, I wanted to be good to her but, to be honest, I also didn’t want to. So, I wasn’t. The problem is, after a few weeks, I was lonelier than ever and I just wanted my wife back.

I couldn’t figure out how to accomplish it, though. I felt like something big needed to change. I felt like something new needed to happen. I got away for an evening to brainstorm ideas, but I couldn’t come up with anything. Until I realized:

I had fallen prey to three big fallacies about how to make a marriage thrive.

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Which is More Important, Your Marriage or Your Children?

The answer is your marriage, and the answer is your children. The answer is neither. The answer is both. The answer, actually, is to begin asking a different question altogether…

marriage and children

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Two months ago, one of my posts about marriage was picked up by the Huffington Post and went viral. In it, I wrote, “Our kids should never be more important than our marriage, and they should never be less important…Family is about the constant on-going work of finding the balance.”

I expected it to be an unpopular statement.

But as the conversation unfolded some people said, “He’s right, your marriage is more important.” And others said, “He’s right, your children are more important.” My statement had become like a Rorschach inkblot test: everybody projected their own beliefs onto it.

Or, rather, everybody projected their way of thinking onto it.

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