Monday, September 2, 2013

Ten Things I'll Try to Do Different in My Next Relatioship

     There has been an article floating around Facebook called  beautiful-advice-from-a-divorced-man-after-16-years-of-marriage.  I spent my last two posts mocking this article but the author shouldn't take it personally.  I mock almost any kind of list or advice like this. Love is a complex mystery somehow wrapped up in day to day mundane living and most of the advice people give about it is simple, paper thin, and unrealistic.  Usually, I argue against pop culture influencing society.  If our movies and games are violent it is because our world is violent and they reflect this; not the other way around.  When it comes to love and romance, though, maybe our movies and books have created and distorted ultimately unfulfilled and unfulfilling expectations.  When a man makes this argument it's always seen as saying lower expectations but I don't think that's what I'm going to say.  I'm going to try to say expect different, expect deeper, expect more real.
     As much as I mocked the man, he did put himself out there with his thoughts and his heart and now I will do the same.  I will fail to convey what I mean about love but hopefully not as badly as he did.  You might think it would be a strange feeling to start writing something being pretty sure you're going to fail but it isn't.  That's just how a lot of writing and a lot of life and lot of love is.
     Before I start my list, though, I want to share the most romantic moment I've ever seen in my life, the one moment I can point to more than any other and say that is love.  I want to share this because I think it will drive home the points I'm trying to make more than any other words I can write.  My writing may fail me but this memory never will.
     My grandma Mary was dying.  She wasn't my biological grandma.  She was my friend Brad's grandma but she was Grandma nonetheless and her husband is still Grandpa to me.  It was painful to watch.  She had developed Alzheimer's and had decided to stop eating and no one could convince her otherwise.  I was sitting in her hospital room with her husband and her son-in-law.  My wife and her daughter were in the hallway whispering and crying.  A doctor walked into her room and told her husband they needed to talk about feeding tubes and other possible life saving measure.  Her son-in-law and I started to leave the room but the moment and the discussion were over before we could even get to our feet.
     "There's nothing to talk about," Grandpa said, "She doesn't want any of that."  Then he walked over to his wife in her deathbed, kissed her gently on the forehead, dabbed at the few tears that leaked out of his eyes, and took her hand.
     That is love right there.  One spouse being strong enough to do what needed to be done for the other, what the other wanted to be done, even when it hurt.  It is something that I failed at once in my marriage and I regret it but I try not to be too hard on myself.  So I don't measure up to a hardheaded, hardworking German who grew up in the Great Depression, fought in World War Two, and still as he approaches ninety after a triple bypass will shingle his own roof.  Few people live up to that.  Few people are that strong.  Or perhaps the love I thought I had at the time wasn't that strong.  Regardless, in the words of Forrest Gump, I know what love is.  I witnessed it firsthand.
     From watching Elmer and Mary's marriage, the marriage of my parents' who are over forty years now, my own failed marriage, and those of many others the single biggest lesson I think I've learned is that nothing works for everyone.  All people are different and all relationships are different.  I think there are few, if any, absolutes  and that's why I'm usually dismissive to lists of love advice.  Still, there are a some things I plan to keep in mind during my next marriage, if there is one, and here they are.  I considered putting them in some kind of order that makes some sort of sense but life and love are not orderly so I give you my advice numbered randomly one through ten.

     One: Question Your Anger
     We all get angry.  We're human.  Some have said that our anger is our problem, that it isn't other people that make you angry, and that's half true and half hogwash.  I piss off people sometimes and they piss me off sometimes and no one can piss you off like someone you love.  So if anyone ever tells you to never express your anger you should cuss them out and walk away.  Things just aren't that simple and easy.
     Sometimes, though, anger isn't about what someone did or didn't do but it is about ourselves and the way we're feeling that day.  Anger, like shit, sometimes flows downhill. There's an old joke about how a boss pisses a man off, the man takes it out on his wife, his wife takes it out on the kids, and the kids kick the dog.  That usually isn't the way it goes, though.  Usually, one spouse unloads on the other and the spouse on the receiving end uses that as an excuse to unload all of their own frustration and anger and somehow the entire family is fighting because a boss was a jerk and the idiot at the restaurant for got to put pickles on a sandwich.
     As I said, though, sometimes anger is legitimate and not ridiculous.  So how do you tell the difference?  The first step is actually asking the question.  Before you go off on your significant other take the time to question your anger.  Ask yourself if you're really mad about what you're mad about.  If you aren't don't take it out on your spouse.  Instead share with them what the world did to you and look to them for comfort.  That's what they are there for.
     If your anger is legitimate, if it is that bitch or asshole that you live with that pissed you off, you still shouldn't just start calling them a bitch or asshole.  You still need to question it. Expressing anger at your lover isn't something that should be taken lightly.  Ask yourself if whatever they did or said is really worth it.  If it isn't then just let it go.  If it is then do something about it.  Don't let it linger.  That's worse than the anger itself.  Still, try to do it gently.  Ask yourself if the level of response you want to give is actually in line with whatever caused the anger in the first place.
     More often than not, I think, all of this questioning will actually give time for the anger to dissipate.  Neither my ex wife nor I did this very well in our marriage.  I come from a family that communicates at the top of it's lungs sometimes and this has worked for my parents but it didn't work in my marriage and I plan on doing it differently next time. Besides being less angry and expressing less anger is a worth while goal in general.  Rage against the machine is a good band not a good way of life.
     Two: Have Lots of Sex
     I can imagine the eye-rolling and the mutterings of "it's always about sex to guys" now. As unimportant as you might like to pretend it is, though, sex is the primary physical expression of love.  Yes, there is kissing and cuddling and hugging and holding hands and all of that is important.  Even if there is a lot of loving contact like that in your relationship you should try to have more.  The thing is, though, you kiss your mother and cuddle with pets and hug your friends and hold hands with your children.  Sex is the one physical act of love that you only do with your partner and that makes it the most important one.  Don't you want to express to your partner that you love them in as many ways as possible?
     Just having sex isn't enough, of course.  It needs to be good sex.  Here is where I have to advise men and women differently.  I want most of my advice to apply to both sexes but it just can't in this case.  Guys, be unselfish lovers.  As crude as it might be to say, you are going to get yours.  Try to make sure she gets hers.  Gals, be selfish lovers.  Here's the deal ladies, our sexual organ is pretty simple.  Sure, there are acts that please one guy more than another but for the most part the same simple acts are going to please a man and quite frankly when you see a male erection it's pretty obvious what to do with it.  Yours aren't that simple.  We don't call it the Bermuda Triangle just because we can get lost in it but also because it's pretty mysterious to us to begin with.  Of course, over time and practice we learn a few things, at least some of us do, but then comes the complication that what works for one woman might not work at all on another woman.  Then comes the bigger complication that what works on a woman one time might not work on the very same woman the next time.  So women what I'm saying is take what you want from us in the bedroom and tell us what you want from us in the bedroom and if a man reacts negatively to this well that's one situation where it's acceptable to express your anger quite clearly.
     I'm sure there are many people out there that have had long and satisfying relationships without much of a sex life but they did it in spite of it.  Sex is important to most healthy relationships.  If you can give each other pleasure the hair in the sink and the bra on the bathroom floor won't seem like much to argue over or care about.  It's more than that though.  For a moment after good sex is finished with someone you love and you collapse into each other...well that's about as close physically, as intimate, as two people can be and that's what love is supposed to be about.  You can take my advice or leave it, think it's important or not, but this is my list of what I will do next time and I'm not going to have a relationship where weeks or months even go by without making love to the woman I love and if this isn't happening I'm going to be man enough to look her in the eye and ask why.
     Three: Address Money Issues
     Notice that this doesn't say don't worry about money because for most people that just isn't feasible.  It also doesn't say don't argue about money because that is going to happen. Ideally, what I mean is win the lottery but that probably won't happen so you have to move on to plan b.  However you decide to handle the finances in your relationship, and I've seen this work and not work too many different ways to tell anyone how to do that, when problems come up don't let them linger.  Of course, you won't be able to solve them right away but make the decisions that need to be made to solve them.  Make a plan, make a budget, decide between Johnny's football fee and Sarah's skeeball tournament, and do whatever else you can to lighten the burden of money problems.
     Then after you do that, and here's the hard part, stick to it.  If you and your spouse have decided that skeeball is more important than football or that to get the house payment caught up you'll forgo contributing to savings for now then don't complain about it later. Don't second guess the decision.  If you do change your mind have a calm discussion with your partner and go through the decision making process again but try not to do this often. Money is always going to be an issue for most of us but it only becomes as big of an issue in your relationship as you let it.  Again, lighten the burden and deal with the issue by actually addressing it instead of sitting around worrying about it.
     Let me share a personal story on the issue of money.  This happened not long before we separated.  Money had become tight, very tight, and though she usually handled the money she threw the problem in my lap.  I didn't mind.  Spouses are supposed to pick up your slack and vice versa.  I came up with a plan and showed it to her and she agreed to it.  One part of the plan was that we wouldn't buy anything for Valentine's Day.  Nothing.  We couldn't afford even ten dollars on each other that week if we wanted to pay our bills, eat, and pay for our son's needs.  We've made similar agreements before on birthdays and holidays and she never kept her end of the bargains so I stressed this to her.  She assured me that we wouldn't buy each other or our son anything for Valentine's Day.  We could celebrate the day by relaxing at home and enjoying our family love.  So the day before Valentine's Day she comes home with candy and cards for both my son and myself.  I actually followed the first bit of advice in this list for once and questioned my anger and whether it was worth expressing.  It was.  Even the ten or fifteen dollars she spent would put us in a tough spot where we had to borrow money from friends and mostly she had broken a promise.  Still, I could recognize good intentions when I saw them and tried to stay quiet but she could tell I was angry and kept asking me until I exploded at her.  I tried to make amends for my mistake the next day by buying her cards and candy from myself and our son, putting us even deeper in the hole, but she never tried to make amends for what she did wrong.  A month later when she asked for a divorce she would say that had been when I had broken her heart for the last time.  She didn't realize, and as far as I know never has, the burden I was under with solving our money problems right then.  I may have broke her heart but she broke my back and broke a promise.
     The point of sharing that isn't to reopen old wounds or old arguments.  I just want to illustrate how harmful money problems can become to a relationship.  I'm not letting that happen in my next one.  They are going to be addressed early and agreed on how to handle them and that plan agreed to or there won't be a relationship.
     Four: Use Your Secret Language
     This is actually something my ex-wife and I did well and that I hope to keep doing well in relationships.  The best example I can give of what a secret language is, is "I guess."  When I first met my ex wife she was a shy fifteen year old girl and after a few days of talking when I pulled her on my lap and asked her to be my girlfriend she was nervous and caught off guard.  She said, you guessed it, "I guess."  I always kidded her about this saying that it seemed at the time like she was saying I'd do until someone better came along.  She always went along with the joke and just said that no one better had come along yet.  She even, when I proposed to her, looked down at me on one knee and said, "Hmmm, I wonder if I should say I guess."  We joked about saying "I guess" instead of "I do" during the wedding vow and we should have.  That would've been pretty awesome.
     It was an inside joke but it became more than that.  "I guess" became our way of saying of course we'll do something because we love each other.  It became a secret way of saying "I love you" and an easy way to make the other smile.  It made her asking me to take out the trash romantic sometimes because I could say "I guess" and we could both think about love and pleasant memories for a moment rather than stinking garbage and the pile of dishes in the sink.  That's the point of the secret language; it's a small way of celebrating your love and how far you've come everyday.
    Of course, there were more phrases in our language than "I guess" and of course any relationship will have different phrases.  It doesn't even have to be words.  It can be a look or a touch.  It isn't something that has to be developed.  It happens naturally over time.  My advice isn't to make or discover the secret language in your relationship.  If you think about it you already know it.  My advice is to remember it and use it.  As corny as it sounds, it's a small way to keep love alive each day.
     Five: Get the Hell Out of the House
     It's hard, especially when you have kids, to get out.  Sitters have to be found.  Money has to be found.  Energy has to be found.  It's hard but you've got to do it.  They don't have to be big deals.  Take your kid to the park together.  Go for a walk.  Sit outside on the front porch in the morning and have coffee together.  As cliche as it sounds walls close in and you go stir crazy.  All your problems in life and in love are in that house just bouncing off the walls and bouncing back at you.  I'm not going to write much about this one because it's pretty self explanatory.  I will admit that I wasn't always good at this.  I was tired and just wanted to be left alone to relax.  I will be better next time.
     Six: Make An Effort to be Attractive
     Humans get older.  They gain weight and lose hair in some places and grow more hair in other places.  Stuff gets wrinkled and gray.  Your lover should love you anyway.  If you've made it all the way to marriage and your physical attractiveness is still among the things your partner loves most about you then you've married the wrong person.  So your physical appearance isn't a big deal in a marriage but...
     Guys, go ahead and lounge around in sweatpants but don't wear the ones that are ten years old with holes in the ass.  Go ahead and throw those away.  Gals, go ahead and walk around in just one of your guys old t-shirts, in fact we encourage it, but when you move the right way and we get a peek at something we'd rather it not be granny panties.  It's okay to go a few days without shaving but at least try to keep the places your partner likes shaved, shaved; says the bearded man.  Unless they inherited an amazing metabolism like mine, thanks Dad, everyone gains weight as they get older and many times a weight gain makes a person look more attractive, more adult.  Still, we all know there's a difference between being comfortable enough with someone that you don't have to worry as much about how you look and completely letting yourself go.  Let's all try not to let ourselves go.  Gals, guys like a phat ass not a fat ass.  Guys, no matter what the t-shirt says your beer gut is not an engine for a sex machine.
     I'm not saying slave away in a gym for hours or wake up three hours before work to get ready.  I'm also not saying physical appearance should ever cause a marriage to end because it shouldn't.  I'm just saying do the little things.  If your partner likes your hair back then wear your hear back sometimes.  If your partner wishes you'd wear slacks more put on a pair every now and then.  The more attractive you are to each other the easier everything else is.  It's harder to be angry at someone that just looks so damn good.  It's natural to cuddle and be intimate with someone that you can't keep your hands off of.  When you feel like you and your partner both have a partner to show off you'll both naturally want to leave the house more.  You should find each other more attractive with each passing day and year. Those gray hairs and wrinkles were earned and are memories of what you've been through together.  They should be loved not obsessed about.  Still, make an effort is all I'm saying.
     And before anyone gets to angry at me remember that this list is mostly things I'm going to do differently from now on.  That's why I grew the beard; it hides half my ugly face and now that it's the length I want I'm going to keep it trimmed.  I was terrible at this when I was married because I've never given a shit about my appearance but I know now that was wrong and selfish of me.  So I'm saying this is about me not you dear reader.  Unless you think it's about you then it probably is.
     Seven: Be Tired Together
     We work.  We have kids.  Laundry and dishes don't do themselves.  Stuff has to be fixed.  Stuff has to be bought.  Alarms go off way too early in the morning.  Life is exhausting.  Now some jackass is telling you to have more sex, get the hell out of the house, and try harder to be attractive.  Sure, I'll get right on that, moron, right after my nap.
     Sometimes, we're going to be too tired to worry about anything else.  It happens. Sometimes the boots or the bras or both have to come off as soon as we get home right before our asses hit the couch and don't move again until it's time to go to bed.  Sometimes we're all going to spend an evening watching bad television and wishing there was a minifridge in our living room.  It happens and I would go so far as to say it's necessary for human survival.
     So do it sometimes and don't worry about it.  Order a pizza and binge watch some show on Netflix.  Tell your kids not to bother you and just fucking take care of themselves for once in their damn life.  Here's the thing, though, do it together.  There's far too many shows available these days to say you can't find something to watch together.  Even if you are going to be doing different things do them in the same damn room.  If one of you is going to play video games and the other is going to read a book there's no reason you can't be next to each other on the couch.  Even better would be playing games together or reading together.  Still, it's just being together that is important sometimes.
     I tried to force this in my marriage.  I never wanted a television in any other room of our house except the living room so that we would be forced to do this.  Still, with phones and laptops it didn't matter.  Besides, looking back I can't blame my ex for not wanting to watch wrestling all the time even if I did suffer through many episodes of crappy reality shows with her.  If I get married or live with someone again I'm going to do a better job of enticing her to be close to me on these quiet nights at home.  There's an old country song that claims that "love grows best in little houses" and it's true.  Being physically close breeds emotional closeness or contempt but that's the chance we take.
     Eight: Don't Reject An Idea Without Having Another One
     We all know the conversation.  What do you want to eat tonight?  How about pizza?  No, I'm not in the mood.  How about Chinese?  Eggrolls in this weather?  How about Mexican?  I don't think a fajita would be good for my spirit right now.  How about a steak?  Red meat, are you kidding me?  How about I fucking eat whatever the hell I want and when you finally decide on just a piece of toast I hope you choke on it?  Toast doesn't even sound good tonight.
     Or to be fair, the other conversation.
     Let's go out dancing tonight.  Yeah, that's what I want to do after working all day.  How about a movie?  There's nothing good playing.  How about seeing what Mike and Jan are up to?  I don't want to listen to them prattle on about stuff I don't care about.  How about a walk in the park?  No, allergies are too bad right now.  How about I go to a bar, get drunk, and hope someone else takes me fucking home so I can escape from the hell I live in?  A bar would be too loud right now.
     We are all going to say no to our partners sometimes.  Just because we know someone well enough to read their mind doesn't mean we're always going to like what we find in there.  No one should just agree to what the other person wants all the time.  No one should be on a pedestal.  Still, don't just say no.  It's a good idea in all of life, not just relationships, not to reject one idea without suggesting your own idea.  For instance, my son wanted me to do something different than write this right now so instead of just saying stop he found out that the original Legend of Zelda was now available on the WiiU Virtual Console and I'm now completely distracted.
     Okay, I'm back but now I think this entire list should just be play Zelda together.  If you think I'm wrong that's fine but give me another idea.  I've played this for laughs so far, or at least lame attempts at humor, but it is more important than that.  It makes decisions easier and compromises more natural.  It's just good advice in general.
     Nine: Allow Each Other Alone Time
     I know, I know.  Get the Hell Out of the House and Be Tired Together and now Allow Each Other Alone Time???  Did you expect simplicity?  We're talking about human beings and love. Every religion in the world contradicts itself from time to time and human love is far more complicated than religion.  Everyone has different needs at different times and our job as someone's partner is to try our best to meet our partner's needs and to make it as easy as possible for our partner to meet our needs.  I think most people at least try at the former but most people don't think much about the later.
     What am I babbling on about?  When you need to be alone you need to tell your partner but here's the catch.  When you say it you have to mean it.  If you tell your partner that you just need to be alone and then yell at them later because they actually left you alone, how are they supposed to know when you actually need what?  I can foresee more eye rolling from the women out there and mutterings of "Do I have to spell everything out for guys?"  The answer to that question is yes.  If you haven't noticed most of this list has been about spelling things out for each other to avoid misunderstandings and complications.  I'm guilty of a little stereotyping and sexism when I blame this all on women, though.  Men do the same thing sometimes.  We're egotistical assholes who just assume women should know what we want because we think women are thinking about nothing but us even though we're too wrapped up in our own shit to think about them.
     That's the point of alone time, though.  We all get wrapped up in our own shit sometimes and we have to sort it out enough to get our heads out of our asses.  The whole two become one thing sounds nice and romantic but it doesn't and shouldn't happen.  We fall in love with someone because of who they are as an individual and then expect them to become less of an individual.  Does that make any sense?  In marriage two do not become one but they become a team and as the saying goes there is no I in team but there is an m and an e.  If someone feels as if they are losing themselves because of their marriage they will resent their partner.  So when you need some alone time take it and when you're partner needs alone time respect it.  We should make sure there isn't too much alone time, of course, but the real end of every marriage is resentment so we should do what we can to make sure our partner doesn't grow to resent us or their life.
     Ten: Make Shared priorities
     I wrote these in a random order but it must be human nature to end on a high note because this is the most important one on the list and it is also the one that my first marriage was lacking the most.  Marriage makes you a team, as I said, but the problem is that there aren't any agreed upon rules for the game we're playing or even any agreement on exactly what game it is that we're playing.  I sent this list without the explanations to my friend Tracy earlier this week to keep her from nagging me too much about writing this and she mentioned how she loves the us against the world vibe that good couples seem to cultivate.  At least, I think that's what she said.  She was a nagging woman so I didn't pay complete attention.
     That's what this advice is all about; not nagging women but cultivating that us against the world thing.  Some may see this as a repeat of my advice on money problems and in a way it is but it goes beyond money.  What are your goals as a couple?  Do you want to buy a house?  Spend more time together? Keep your children in activities?  Make sure they're prepared for college?  Advance your careers?  Live a more organized life?  All worthy goals and you might have several others in life but we all know we'll have to choose between them at times.  The world is going to throw obstacles at you that you and your partner are going to have to overcome to get where they are going.  How are you going to do that as a couple if you don't know or agree about where you're going?
     So if you don't know then talk to your partner and take as long as it takes to come to decisions about your priorities and then stick to them.  I'm not saying you can't change your mind but if you do talk to your partner about it and make your decisions again and then stick to them.  My ex-wife and I never did this.  We bought a house when she decided it was time to buy a house.  We ran ourselves ragged trying to keep up with our son's activities because I decided they were a top priority.  In the first half of our marriage it was easy and clear what our top priorities should be and we battled enormous obstacles and we stayed together and were in a love deep and true.  As we got older, had a child, and life got more complicated we never agreed where we were going and as a result we didn't go anywhere.  I know better now and I hope she does too but it's far too late for us.  Hopefully, it isn't for you.

     So that's my advice.  Take it or leave it but think about it.  Discuss it with your partner. Mock me mercilessly together if you must.  I probably would in your place.  The important thing is to work on your relationship and think about your relationship and care about your relationship.  The last thing is though, or at least the last time I'll say the thing is in this post, is that if you are thinking about it and working on it and worrying about it by yourself then you aren't really doing anything.  If you and you're partner find this difficult or things get heated while you're doing it then kiss your partner and tickle you're partner and have some fun.  I've used a lot of humor in this post, probably too much bad humor, but I wanted to remind everyone that above all love is supposed to feel good and be fun.  I probably should have put that somewhere on the list.
     It has taken me three days to write this.  I've gotten distracted by being a parent, doing chores, going on a great first date, the original Legend of Zelda, watching Animaniacs on YouTube, and a thousand other things.  Those distractions have made the tone of this uneven.  It goes from sad to funny to whatever with little or no transitions.  It isn't near as romantic as I would have liked.  I envisioned this being my magnum opus on love and marriage and I knew I would fall short but I think I fell even shorter than I expected.  I'm absolutely certain no one will call this beautiful advice and with the way I've rambled it might not even be useful or practical, just confusing.  All of that is probably fitting, however. Love has to survive distractions and delays.  Love is funny and sad and never as romantic as we'd like it to be.  Love often falls short of what we want it to be.  Love, when it is good, however survives all of that and is still more than worth doing.  I just hope this was worth reading.

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