In July, my spouse Kathy and I celebrated our thirtieth anniversary. To commemorate this wonderful occasion, I did 30 posts on “Thirty Things I Learned (About Relationships) in Thirty Years.” A few of you asked that I put all of them together. So here is my Thanksgiving gift to you all: All thirty in one downloadable pdf. I send this out to you in deep gratitude for all of the blessings I have received from you, from life, from this community.
THIRTY THINGS I LEARNED
IN THIRTY YEARS
- It has never–EVER–helped for me to be critical.
I felt sad when I wrote this. I didn’t know. I thought people were supposed to offer “constructive criticism,” to say every negative thing. Looking back, my criticisms only ever led to Kath feeling bad (which, in retrospect, was probably my unconscious goal: domination through shaming).
- Drop the idea of “fair.”
For years, I lobbied for fairness. Chores should be “fair,” responsibilities like making plans or making money, all evenly divided up. I think that was a throwback to sibling relationships, where it was all about making sure nobody got the biggest piece of cake.
Now we operate from what we want and don’t want. What a relief! If someone wants to do it, it gets done; if no one wants to, well, why are we even worried about it? (OK, we did finally hire people to clean the house. FREEDOM.)
Without “fair” all kinds of remarkable experiences emerged. I found out I love machines–washers, dryers, dishwashers, anything that does the work for me, then I just unload it. And I could fully appreciate all of what Kath does spontaneously: keep the foliage happy (and does she ever!), take exquisite care of the dogs (you want to be a dog in our house), write and create and support art and artists. And be the kind of steadfast, loyal, loving partner of my dreams.
- Take responsibility. Always.
I had a (very brief) country western songwriting phase. There was “Go Beyond Persona” (“Look past all defense, true power’s what we’re after, found in our es-sence”); “Green Slime” (“I wonder if it’s yours or if it’s mine?”). But my favorite was “If Blame Feels So Good, Why Don’t I Feel Better??!”
Blame. It’s been a really hard habit for me to break. What a reflex: Something happens that I don’t like and I look outside for whose fault it is.
But, just as with criticism, blame didn’t ever help me. After the first momentary relief (“aHA!!”) I just created alienation.
Asking questions like “how did I create this?” and “how am I keeping this going??” (thank you, Gay and Katie Hendricks!) has transformed my life. I’m not 100% blame free (ask me about the white paint and the closet) but when I can reach beyond my reflex and choose wonder instead, I find me and Kath and life, right there.
- I needed to learn how to say No. But now, the fun part is greeting Kath–and life–with a Yes.
I didn’t understand boundaries. I thought they came from outside of me, that people with “bad boundaries” would need to learn how to have “good boundaries.” (It’s a therapist thing; I didn’t know those “people” were me.) I finally understood my body was trying to tell me “I do not want that,” and oh, “I do want THAT.” That took awhile.
Meanwhile, I had a knee-jerk reaction about fending off anything that smelled of control. (OK, I still do…). But I’ve learned the fun of turning my no into an “OK, I don’t know where you’re going with this, but I’m willing to follow along.” All kinds of amazing vistas have opened up for me, as I’ve allowed myself to let go, experience the world I never would have seen if I’d done it “my way.”
- If you’re going through hell, keep going! (Thanks, Winston Churchill.)
Years ago, I believed that having a good relationship was all about being a good shopper. My ongoing question was: “Is this the right person for me?” Each interaction was evidence for or against her.
Then came hell. My personal version of that fiery place started when my mother died when I was 40. My life turned upside down; nothing made sense. Kath and I fought hard and each looked for other people outside our relationship with our eyes on that good shopper question: maybe that “better” person was out there somewhere.
Little did I know that hell was coming from the inside, not from the outside. (As I write that, I’m a bit breathless at the importance of that distinction, and how difficult it was for me to see.) Understanding that literally took me years. Meanwhile, Kath and I kept walking through the darkness, feeling our way through like the blind people we were. Fortunately, we came upon truly incredible teachers–Gay and Katie Hendricks, Lin Harden, Ellen Maslow, and many more–so at least we weren’t alone as we stumbled around. Slowly, slowly the light began to dawn and to infuse our relationship again.
Overall, I believe there isn’t a lot of support to slog through these dark times in relationships. We tend to be more entranced by our own opinions about those around us who are struggling in their partnerships, about who is right, who is wrong, who is “good” or “bad.” Whether they “should” stay together.
I can hardly describe how grateful I am that we Kept Going. I know that Kath knows every bit of me, the best and very worst parts. And I stand in the power of how much she loves me. And the power of how I know all of her, love every bit.
Having our shared history, not having to go through losing everything and starting over, going deeper and deeper and finding each other there: It’s heaven.
- Sexual attraction doesn’t go away. It gets more multi-dimensional, deeper, and better.
Enuf said. 🙂
- Sing at the top of your lungs together.
We regularly crack ourselves up with our rendition of “Someone Left the Cake Out in the Rain…” This, and “One Less Bell to Answer” have been our go-tos for these decades if one of us gets the impulse. Then we can alternate lines and feel REALLY clever. It’s nonsense. Absurd. Completely fun to belt it out. (And especially satisfying to not care about pitch or anything close to actually being musical, which I especially appreciate about my fine musician spouse.)
Top of Form
Bottom of Form
- Do new stuff together.
There’s evidence that supports the idea that couples who try things they’ve never done before feel more bonded. We’ve done that in the extreme (ask me about the surprise trapeze lesson–I couldn’t pull my pants up for a week). But I also watch the impact of simpler experiences: Going to a gala and chatting with folks we hadn’t met before; moving the furniture; adding another dog to the pack and having to figure it out together.
Now that I’m not making life wrong (“This shouldn’t have happened!/be happening!”) I celebrate the steady stream of possibilities that allow us to experience a new way to be together.
- There’s no way to not be creative.
Kath is an artist. I’ve loved that about her from the start. She’s a musician, she writes, she fills her days with experiences of other artists and the arts.
I was raised in the Midwest, in a family that highly values “doing.” (I finally realized that being exhausted equaled being a “good person,” as it meant I’d done everything I could in a day.) Creativity was extraneous, with no purpose. But I’ve osmosed over the years; I’ve watched with great interest to see what creativity looks like. And I finally got it–there’s no way to not be creative. Even if I just sit silently I’m creating a still life called “Silent Sitter.” I understand now that I paint in air with each person I meet, every session I do, every class I teach.
- My reactions have NOTHING to do with Kath. Ever.
This one has taken many years for me to embody. And when I’m reactive, my knee-jerk impulse is still to pin blame. But give me a moment and I’ll remember. All of that reactivity is inside of me. Geez–who would’ve thought that this “nice” WASP could have such a hair-trigger? I have no idea if I’m any more or less touchy than anybody else, but I’ve stopped caring. Me and Popeye–we are what we are. And sometimes I just need to send myself to my room.
- PHYSIOLOGY FIRST!
I once went to DisneyWorld with Kath and her family. As the morning went on, we all started getting cranky. Then we stopped for lunch and voila! instant transformation. Suddenly we were having fun again.
Sleeping enough, drinking water, exercising, eating right–I swear that if people did these things, I wouldn’t have a psychotherapy practice. So when I take care of my physiology first, it’s remarkable–almost miraculous!–how much more smoothly things go between Kath and me.
- When in Reactive Brain, STOP TALKING.
I think our record for fighting was three days. Not continuous battling, for sure, but our power struggling through silence felt just as bad. Now we stop, generally within 5 minutes. If we’re stuck, we do other things.
A hallmark of Reactive Brain is urgency. Its other trademark characteristics include the orientation that Something is Wrong and the narrow focus that’s required to ferret out what that wrong thing is. All of this together makes trying to “process” while in Reactive Brain a terrible idea. Pushing onward when triggered is when blaming, defensiveness, and old patterns will inevitably escalate the conflict.
Keep in mind there are a zillion things to do besides talking. Singing, moving, standing on one’s head, twirling, reciting a poem…the list is endless. ANYTHING besides talking.
- Appreciation is miraculous.
In 2000, we went to Fiji to spend a week with Gay and Katie Hendricks. I frankly had no idea what they were teaching about; it was all about seeing Fiji. When we got there, they said we were spending the week learning about appreciation. My heart sank; I figured I could learn everything I needed to know in about 15 minutes.
18 years later, I haven’t learned everything I need to know about appreciation. What I am sure of, though, is that it’s a miracle cure. Ever since we committed to appreciating (versus the more standard, unconscious commitment to blaming and criticizing), our relationship was transformed. John Gottman’s 5:1 rule (that’s the ratio of appreciations to criticisms for couples that stay together) gave way to his 20:1 rule (that’s the ratio for couples that thrive). I don’t know our ratio now, but any criticism now is such a glaring exception that it pretty much freaks us both out.
- When things feel upside down and crazy, ask “the questions.”
About 26 years ago, Kath and I were stuck in some big power struggle. (The story will be familiar to lots of you as it got me on this whole path of consciousness.) I sat there glaring at her and computing how many more relationships I’d have before I died (“If live to 75 now and my relationships each last 5 years, how many more relationships will I have??”). Kath had the wisdom to pull out “Conscious Loving” and to start reading The Questions. Things like: What are you really feeling? How are you creating this? What are you getting out of staying stuck?”
These magic questions (you can find a list of them on page 254 of “Conscious Loving”) started a 26 year quest of waking up out of unconsciousness. I feel exhilarated by the idea of following this path until I die–SO much better than keeping that partner rotation going!
- Relationship is a team sport.
There was that fateful trip through Nebraska, so long ago that the speed limit was 55 then. That means—it took us a LONG time to make it across those wide and lonely plains. But how did we spend the time? For me, it was about trying to score points. Kath would lob a statement over to me, I’d try to smash it back with my wit and analytic abilities. Then she’d do her best to score the next point. Back and forth, with no real connection (except our mutual desire to be RIGHT).
As time went on, I finally realized that life went so much better when I wasn’t competing against my beloved, but saw us as teammates. That meant—if I was in Reactive Brain, it was as though I was the player who was down. The game needed to stop so I could regain my composure, do what I needed to do to play at my best level again. Time-outs became our friends, as we learned that stopping the chaos to huddle up (or just go off to the sidelines for some water) stopped our worst impulses to emotionally clobber each other.
And now—I love doing what I can to make my teammate look good, to pass the ball in a way she can easily catch it. Much of the time, our lives look like a choreographed dance of flow and connection. And we definitely WIN.
- Instead of my old thought that “this should not be happening,” this crazy idea: “How is it perfect that this is happening?”
I created so much suffering for myself and for the two of us with the idea that some of life is desirable, lots of it isn’t, and the goal is to control things so they’re just in the desirable column. A corollary of this is that allowing the undesirable things to happen is a failure.
Oh, GEEZ. Talk about strangling the life out of life…
It really was a seismic shift for me to understand that “somethings always happen.” (Thank you, Katie Hendricks.) And even beyond that, if I can stay spacious, to see how what is happening is actually perfect. It’s reliable feedback, it’s part of flow, and, well, it is reality.
- How to play with the Upper Limits Problem.
What got me into this whole Planet Hendricks/body-centered wisdom way of thinking was a line from “Conscious Loving” that was the craziest thing I’d ever read (paraphrasing here as I don’t want to hunt down my chewed up copy): “If you do this work, there are no real problems. Except one. Feeling too good.”
Isn’t that insane? I’d never heard such a thing. And yet…could it be true??? I decided–I want to live in that world.
Being with Kath has given me endless chances to answer the question: How good am I really willing to feel? Sometimes the answer is GREAT! ECSTATIC!! WALKING ON AIR!!! And then there are the other times…more like, well, pretty crappy. I’ll choose the victim position and revel in it for awhile (that contraction can be so very restful…)
And…I really do love the ecstasy….
- How to stay connected.
Early on, I’d complain “I don’t feel connected to you! Where are you??!” As you can imagine, these questions led to both of us getting frustrated and, well, nowhere.
Then I started listening better to Kath. She’d say “I always feel connected to you.” I thought that was weird, impossible, and interesting. I mused on this, wondered about it…and ultimately got it. “I don’t feel connected to you” was code for “I’m totally disconnected from my body and feelings.” Oh.
So now if that old complaint passes through my brain, I can translate it to “what am I not connecting to?” As I reconnect to me, it’s like getting back online, where I access Kath through time and space. She was there all along.
- Intimacy is poorly advertised.
As I tried to figure out how to be in a relationship, all I really had to go on was from love songs, TV and movies. It seemed gushy, looked kind of easy, but, in retrospect, quite vacuous. As far as I could tell, there was a big flame that would inevitably burn itself out.
What I didn’t know about intimacy: That it can feel so intense I can hardly stand it. How it pulls my very best–and worst–self to the surface. How some days it’s like a low hum in the background, while other days it explodes to the surface, crashing through my being like wild waves. I didn’t know how it would kick my butt, be endlessly challenging, never boring. That “boring” routine allows me to settle down, get grounded, be available.
I didn’t know that I’d actually be able to imagine “forever” with someone, or that when I just slow down for a minute, I can have the crazy experience of seeing someone’s soul. And–I didn’t know that I could do it.
- What?? We get to do what we want to do (and not do what we don’t want to do)..??!
I hear frequently from clients, and I completely believed, that life is hard. That’s just how it is. It’s about struggle and endurance and pushing through.
No wonder I spent the first half of my life trading off between anxiety and depression. And the first part of our relationship pushing through, and then trying to get Kath to do things she didn’t want to do. At least we would be equally miserable.
When I read that last paragraph, it seems like I’m exaggerating. For sure, we created amazing, fun, joyous time together. But I lived life from that pretty grim story of suffering.
Then we found out about living from genius and essence, and not doing those things we don’t want to do. FREEDOM! I stopped pressuring Kath to be different and started witnessing her truly amazing self. And instead of willing myself through a day, I put my attention on aligning myself with my expression, my choices. I changed my story to LIFE IS A MIRACLE. And believed myself.
- To let myself be influenced.
I’m pretty sensitive about being controlled.* “You don’t own me” and all that. I yam what I yam.
Really, that’s a dull existence. What am I protecting, anyway?? How about if I open up and learn how to: love dogs (even in our bed); eat pierogies; have books in every nook and cranny; get up early; deal with puppies’ chewing/peeing/pooping/taking over our lives; stop asking so many questions and just go ahead and talk about myself; commune with nature spirits and talk to plants; move the furniture around in weird configurations; write books; go to classical music concerts; hang out with strangers at fundraising galas…(this is a fun list that I want to add to!)–so many new dimensions have opened up for me because I stopped being so darn defensive and opened to life as tossing me constant opportunities to improv with its friendly feedback.
*If you’re familiar with body-centered transformation work, you must have already filled in how I’m totally creating that.
- How to have feelings.
So–I went to five years of graduate school to be a psychologist. I had a great education, was very well-trained.
When I came out, I knew nothing about emotions.
What I’d surmised about them over my life wasn’t very helpful. I figured if I was feeling anything, the thing to do was to look outside of me and see if there was a good reason. Like, oh, I’m grumpy. Anything to be mad about? Or, I feel anxious. Anything to feel scared about?
Invariably, the answer was no. There really wasn’t anything valid to be that upset about. So I’d try to shut it all off, however I could. This directly led to my struggles with anxiety, depression, self-hatred, suicidal thoughts, and my myriad of creative ways to try to get away from all of that (sugar and workaholism were two faves).
If you’ve done any work with me, you’ve heard the LAW (that I made up): ANYBODY GETS TO FEEL ANYTHING ANYTIME FOR ANY REASON. Figuring that out changed everything for me.
Fortunately for me, Kath had great patience through this process. It took me awhile to turn that ship (of my old emotional habits) around. Thanks to all the great practice I’ve had within our relationship, and such motivation to feel better, now I’m pretty much an emotional ninja!
- How to FORGIVE.
I don’t mean “forgive;” I mean FORGIVE.
I thought forgiveness was some sort of magnanimous gesture, a royal wave of, oh, I now grant you forgiveness for having done me wrong. Then one day I looked the word up and found out it means “give up the desire or power to punish.”
In other words, it has nothing to do with the other person’s supposed transgressions. It’s all about how I want to punish someone because of my conjured up story about what a victim I was.
So–my choice to forgive simply means I’m not wasting my energy trying to control someone else through my withdrawal, or self-righteousness, or haughty meanness. It means letting go of my story and accepting what is. Which means coming back into life as it is, not as my Reactive Brain/ego thought it should be.
Bottom line: Forgiveness brings me the gift of coming back into Flow.
- That giving and receiving are the same thing.
I remember keeping track of things. Did I do enough around the house; did Kath give me enough attention and appreciation; if she made me dinner did I do something that returned the favor? Was the level of our love for each other equal, or was one of us “more in” than the other?
Comparison (and its siblings, lack and scarcity) are hallmarks of Reactive Brain. Thankfully I had enough time to try out living from an entirely different paradigm. Now I notice that anytime I give anything–a present, an appreciation, my time–I am concurrently rewarded through the chance to live in a high vibe. And when I open to receive, I’m creating the opportunity for those around me to do the same. What a gift!
- That feeling peaceful is not the same as being bored.
When I first learned about the Karpman Drama Triangle (Victim/Villain/Hero) my heart sank. What in the world would I do with my time if I wasn’t doing drama?? Was there actually anything else that made life interesting???
Well, the world kept turning, and I inched my way out into the huge space that lies out there beyond drama. Kath was such a great model for me for what fills that space: Creativity. Possibility. New ideas, a different way of being. I found out that the states of Appreciation, Love, Joy and Peace hold increasing levels of power and energy. And I sure haven’t felt a moment of boredom as I’ve moved towards embodying those states.
- That Kath is my teacher.*
I spent the first part of our relationship arguing for my point of view. I thought this was extremely important, at times almost a life or death question. Actually, that was accurate; giving that view up meant letting parts of my ego die.
I learned that, well, I could learn. That Kath was, and is, a magnificent teacher. Some of the things I’ve learned were truly brand-new for me (You mean dogs have to be walked even if we have a yard?? Oh, that’s what you do with a garlic press…). Others were harder for me to be open to. That no, I don’t know the best route. That being righteous isn’t actually the goal. That I can learn more about listening, and more about…well, there’s pretty much an endless list. (Humility is predominate.)
It turns out I love to learn, and I love to be a student. And I don’t ever have to graduate.
*Thanks, Katie and Gay.
- To get clear about: Whose problem is it, anyway?
I want there to be a game show with that title: “WHOSE PROBLEM IS IT, ANYWAY!!?” Of course, my Reactive Brain knows the answer: YOURS.
Well, or…it might be mine (uh-oh…).
When I’m in my wise self, it’s so clear to me. If there’s something on the floor, pick it up. (Even if I wasn’t the dropper.) If I don’t like what time we’re leaving or where we are about money or our social life or work or WHATEVER–it is only a “problem” because I see it that way. Blaming just outsources what is my responsibility. And the bonus prize? When I know it’s all about me, I can take immediate action to shift what’s going on (even if that’s simply about shifting my state).
- It’s TRUE! Everyone really CAN get everything they want!!
I teach this as a principle, and clients and workshop participants go from thinking I’m trying to trick them, to rolling their eyes in annoyance, to half-hoping…but just not sure if I’m trying to pull them into a fairy tale.
So. I have many, many examples of Kath and I both getting EVERYTHING we want. I guess there really is a trick involved: To give up on the pictures we have, the solutions we thought of. Not so easy. I LOVE to solve problems, and have lots of solutions.
Instead, it’s all about “qualities.” What are the qualities we’re each after? If we’re going away, we start with the feeling we’re each wanting to generate (relaxing/educational, brand-new/familiar?). Instead of “what are we doing this weekend?,” it’s “how do we want to feel?”. Once we back away from how we think the solution should look, we open up to new possibilities, an unfolding that neither one of us could have predicted. It’s a BLAST!
- I really WOULD prefer to be happy.
“Would you rather be right or be happy??!” Such a simple question. Over and over and over I make that choice. Being right used to be the gold ring for me, a triumph that was a nod to my validation as a human. I clung to that feeling when life felt upside-down and out-of-control. At least I was RIGHT! I had the illusion of there being at least some solid ground under my feet.
But oh, the cost. The suffering I created for myself; the days of disconnection and unhappiness. The suffering I created for Kath through my criticism and unwillingness to open to her feedback. All the time I was in hell when I fell out of “right” into the horrible pit of “wrong.” The days spent in anxiety and gloom, believing myself to be on the outside of connection, out of the realm of all the humans who were somehow “right.”
I choose happy. Not all the time, yet. But I’ll tell you–it’s the BEST!!
30! The land beyond drama and Reactive Brain is full of miracles.
“Live from essence.” “Express genius.” “Live Above the Line.”
It can seem so impossible. It’s so easy to get embroiled in whatever the latest calamity is, either externally or internally.
And yet. Here’s my life. I’ve had the incredible opportunity to live from a shared vision for 30+ years in a field of love with my courageous and daring partner. From that expanded state, we’ve found our way to a world I had no idea existed before, one where the ongoing thrumming through our lives is one of calm, peace, and harmony.
As I write this, my mind is telling me how privileged and difficult to attain what I’m describing is. (That trickster, the mind, always looking for a way back to the story that living from threat is a good idea.) I don’t believe it has to be that hard. It’s been a huge challenge for me, more difficult than anything else in my life. But living this way has nothing to do with life circumstances. It’s all attainable to any human on the planet, and to think otherwise is to degrade my fellow humans.
The miracles are there. They’re happening all around us. And now I get to live in that world.
Thank you, my dear love Kathryn, for a wonder-filled 30 years. You are the miracle.