Thursday, 27 December 2012

When it's better to go STRAIGHT THROUGH

Sometimes, it pays to sit down and drink half your takeout coffee with the barista who made it for you.  If you find a good one, he's like a bartender, only better because, since you're sober, you're much more difficult to impress.

So, I'm in my favourite coffee shop today buying a coffee, and I got chatting with my friend Kevin about pain.  In my usual self important way, I was telling him all about some particular struggles going on in my life, and how hard I was working to minimize the effects of it on my life.  He said something to me that stood me up in my tracks like a right jab straight to the nose.  I didn't write it down or anything, but it was something to the effect of, "maybe there are some struggles in life that you're not meant to bypass."  Maybe the purpose of the pain is just for you to BE. IN. PAIN. for a while.

I shut up for a minute, processing.  I stammered a couple conciliatory sentences out and changed the subject.  Cause that's not my language.

It's woven into North American culture.  The American dream.  The world is ours to manipulate.  If you don't like your results, keep working.  You can change them.  There's ALWAYS a knob you can turn somewhere, a switch you can throw, that can relieve the discomfort.  See, stress isn't good for productivity.  And how am I supposed to attain the life I always dreamed of if I'm stressed out and can't pursue my goals?!  Start from scratch.  Keep scratching.  There's always a variable you can try and change.

One of the recurring themes in my life is harmony.  I love harmony.  If anyone thinks I'm easy to be around, it's because I am willing to stand on my head to make people feel comfortable around me.  Even literally, if it comes down to it.  It makes me good at my job.

But there's a flip side to this coin.  Not only do I love harmony; I hate discord.  I may be willing to stand on my head to create harmony, but you should SEE the dances and acrobatics I'm willing to do to avoid confrontation!  Remember this?
Like that.

As soon as Kevin said it, a movie scene came into my head.  It's amazing how many things I can relate to Fight Club.  I do it, along with listening to Radiohead and NIN because it makes me feel like I'm not a 30 year old suburbanite (even though that's probably the best indicator of my domesticated self's repressed angst...)
The actual scene has been blocked for copyright reasons.  But this gives you the script, so that works.  The God stuff is a goat trail for my purposes, but the dialogue kind of nailed what I was thinking today:
Kevin from CoolBeans bus is my Tyler Durden.  Or maybe my power animal... I'm not sure which.

When pain, discomfort, and disequilibrium come along, I do what the burn victim's doing.  I have a mental break.  I disengage - go to my happy place.  Find any way around it.  Desperately, instantly, try to make it stop.  But maybe, sometimes, the lesson is only to be learned when you sit down and give in to the fact that the burn burns.

I'm no anarchist.  I'm not trying to hit bottom.  So let's give a more socially acceptable example.

When my wife was in labour, she had 2 amazing nurses whom we still greet when we see.  One is a midwife in town now (@prairiemidwives).  I'll never forget what Jenn said (or maybe I falsely attributed it to her - there was a lot of stress and not much sleep going on when I met her...).  She said that you can't escape from the pain of labour.  There's no way around it.  You have to OWN your pain, and go straight THROUGH it to get to the other side.  That's YOUR pain.  You earned it.  And you can carry it, like a decorated soldier, forever, when you're finished.

There is unexplained pain in life.  And some of us get more of it than others.  And sometimes, the most honest, self actualized thing we can do is just throw our hands up and say it sucks.  And slog right through it.

But I bet I'm not alone.  I'm probably not the only one out there who would rather find a new friend than have a confrontation with an existing one, am I?  Please say no.

If I hadn't stopped in to buy a coffee today, maybe I wouldn't have had to acknowledge this about myself.  That probably would've been easier.  Now I'm being forced to look at a number of different situations in my life and re-evaluate whether my current approach is proactive or avoidant.  Maybe I need to man up and take the pain.  Have the confrontation.  Because lord knows I've been using a lot of energy building all these escape routes and workarounds.

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

A million tiny choices

I was feeling all melancholy last night, so I sat in front of my laptop for 45 minutes trying to blog.  But nothing really came out.  Which is probably good.  Alone and moody isn't the same thing as inspiration, and after a few months of posts, I'd have to change my title to Danny Downer and the Blog That Will Make You Depressed.

So instead I learned something about biomimicry, something about algorithms (TED: guilty pleasure), and then had a good chat with my wife.  This morning, after a good sleep and a play with a happy 4 1/2 year old boy, I've got a coffee and a fire in the woodstove, and I think I'm in a better headspace to blog.

Maybe you're like me, and you get a little plagued, a little haunted by the subplot of the year-end holidays, where you're supposed to take stock of your year, and submit (to yourself) a mental annual report.  I spend more time than usual staring off into space like I'm out of batteries, lost in thought about what last year looked like and what I want this year to look like, and how those two should be different from each other.

I was listening to a CD on new years goal setting, and a couple interesting anecdotes were mentioned (yes, I listen to self-improvement CDs.  Another guilty pleasure, but they've totally changed my perspective, and I'd recommend them to anyone).

Imagine that a guy comes up to you and says they have a hockey bag with a million dollars in it hidden somewhere in your town, and it's yours if you could find it.  Sounds interesting, but how many of you would start looking?  You could throw away years! For all you know, it's on your neighbours back porch, but it's so arbitrary.  Where do you start?  How do you keep track of the ground you've covered?  It's too much.

Now, imagine if the guy told you he had a map.  Kind of changes the story, doesn't it?

An airplane that flies from Toronto to Vancouver is off course 99% of the time.  But it knows its destination, and its navigation software is constantly recalibrating and adjusting its path so it's always headed the shortest distance from its current location. It's important to have a destination in mind - a clear idea of what success looks like in your books, otherwise you'll go in circles.

As I write this, my wife Caryn is 10 weeks pregnant.  Not one of those has been an easy week.  It was one of those pregnancies where the nausea tells you you're pregnant before the test does.  And it hasn't subsided.  At some points, we didn't know how we'd make it through the DAY - don't even TALK about the 8 months to follow.

But time is relentless. And one of the blessings (and curses) of time moving on is that you never have to experience the same moment twice, and it never lasts any longer than right.... now.

And suddenly, we look back, 1/4 of the way through the pregnancy, and realize that, though it seemed impossible at nearly every moment, now we have left a trail behind us.  By no means did we 'kick the first 10 weeks' butt".  Quite the contrary, in fact.  But here we are on the other side of it.  And now, instead of feeling impossible, those 10 weeks stand as testimony to the resiliency and durability of Caryn.  Instead of being a loss and a failure, or a fear, now they're a badge.  Like exercise, the muscles we tore, the pain we felt during those 10 weeks are now the strength that we carry into the NEXT... one week.  Time passes.  And if you don't DIE, it just moves on.  And if you make the best, healthiest decisions you can muster at any point, you end up with a body of work that you can look back on without shame - even if it wasn't pretty.

So, how does that relate to goal setting?  Well, I think a mistake that people make is that they see their goal as a destination and not a trip.  Since I'm in the industry, let's use a home construction metaphor.  Imagine that your end goal is like a newly built home.  You don't just push a big red button that says "ENGAGE GOAL ATTAINMENT" and bam - instant home.  No no.  There are a zillion steps to building your goal.  Some are big steps, like the momentous ground-breaking moment, or when the structure is complete and you can envision the finished project.  But mostly, it's a million hammer swings, screw turns, and broom pushes. 

As long as you envision your goal as a lofty end target, you'll never hit it.  There won't be a moment where you just quit your job and move into the corner office of that new dream career.  It's way less sexy, but the way you get there is by making a phone call, reading a book, taking a course, befriending a person who can open doors for you, or a zillion other tiny things.

Instead of setting goals or resolutions that you might hit or might miss for the new year, try seeing your goals as directions to head.  And then ask a different question: "What actions can I be doing on a daily/weekly basis that will move me in the direction of my goal?" Suddenly, your goal goes from the abstract "lose 20 pounds" to "get 90 minutes of exercise a week".  Maybe (probably) you'll lose the weight, but more importantly, you will have built healthy actions into your life that put you on a trajectory of health, energy, and a higher capacity.

And after a month, or 6 months, you can stop and check your progress for a moment.  Enjoy the view.  The view from the top of the mountain is end destination, but guess what?  You're missing the largest part of the enjoyment of the mountain hike if you don't enjoy the occasional vantage point along the way, and the exhilarating feeling of accomplishment you feel when you catch your breath and see how far you've come, even if you're only at a midpoint lookout.

In 2007, Caryn told me she was going to do a triathlon, and said I should try one too.  I laughed at her and said, "Care, you have to be able to SWIM to do a triathlon."  So, she did one, and it looked like fun.  So she taught me to swim.  And I set some goals of my own.

This past summer, I swam 1.5 kilometres, cycled 38km, and ran 10km. 

Even at the beginning of 2012, that felt impossible to me.  It was a lofty goal, bordering on a dream.  But I kept going for swims, runs, and bike rides.  And it stayed impossible.

Until one day, it wasn't.

So, what are the actions you can start doing RIGHT NOW to start getting closer to the person you want to be?  The more tiny choices and actions you make, the more momentum you gain.  The more strength and confidence you take into your future actions and choices.  And suddenly, you'll realize that there is no 'GOAL ATTAINMENT' button.  You'll just kind of show up there one day, and realize that, nail by nail, screw by screw, you built it.

Good luck.  I know you'll get there.  If you start.

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Christmas Survival Guide

Christmas is a time when relationships take the front stage.  This is a rich, joyful time for many people, a chance to remember what great people they have in their lives, and feel gratitude. 
Others dread relationship time year round.  There are many who are kept up at night fearing the obligatory get togethers; being forced to play nice with people they secretly don't like, or have been hurt by for years.  Christmas can be messy.  Because, relationships can be messy.  And we have a way of trying to solve our relational hurts with geographical space or dead air space, instead of solving them by steeling our guts and addressing the hurts. Those hurts are best dealt with by cleaning out the infection and applying stitches, rather than trying to graft over the abscess.  Just because you can't see it doesn't mean it's not poisoning you from the inside out every day.

For me, Christmas is also a break from a stressful time at work.  Sometimes holidays make me feel like Indiana Jones.  You're approaching the exit as the walls start crumbling around you, and you just barely make it out as it all turns into rubble at your feet. Or this.

You get out, but just barely.  And then the first few days of holidays, you're wound so TIGHT that it's all you can do to decompress.

And therein lies the challenge.  The temptation is to cut the corner.  Bypass the processing - the follow-through on why you left work frustrated, or why you're moody every time the family reunion is brought up.  And skip straight to the drinking and World Junior Hockey broadcasts, or whatever your thing is for dis-engaging (Twitter is my cable tv...).

But in the words of Brene Brown, who I know I've mentioned a few times,


When you numb stress, you numb joy.  When you numb broken relationships, you also numb your feeling of belonging.  When I disengage from my family, I may not have to deal with the fact that I'm out of sorts with them, but I'm also slowly building tension within the family unit, because they don't have my attention. 

Here's the sucky part.  Engaging?  It's hard.  I mean, not always.  Engaging with a great family over Christmas dinner and having a great conversations over drinks and presents? That's wonderful, and you wouldn't get it if you were sitting in the corner checking who 'mentioned' you just now.  BUT, engaging also means being honest about what's distracting you.  Being straight about why your feelings are hurt, so that you can make appropriate boundaries and salvage some christmas cheer when that difficult parent or in-law comes over.  It means that you don't get to ignore the bad stuff. 

The reward for taking on your baggage?  You get to enjoy the full joy of the good parts.  When you're not conflicted, emotionally hung up, or distracted, you are there - RIGHT THERE to watch the kids toboggan. To laugh with your friends.  You're aware of and prepared for the hurtful behaviour of that family member, so you are quick with forgiveness should it come.

So you could go through the holidays with your escape mechanisms intact.  And you'll keep people at a distance and return to work just as stressed as you left.  And for some, the hurt is so bad, and the emotions of the season at such a fever pitch, that it may not be such a bad idea.  OR, you could decide to start processing all that baggage. And at the end of it all, when you've put in the hard work, you will exit the holidays feeling energized and refreshed. 

Most of the time we know what the right thing is to do.  It usually still takes a 2x4 to the head to get us to do it.  A lot of the best ways to improve our lives are extremely simple.  But they are anything but easy.

Good luck this Christmas.  Wish me luck too.

Saturday, 22 December 2012

You're more amazing than you think!

Know what I like?  Writing.

I liked it in high school.  As in, I was that kid that was laughing to himself during the english final, because he was having so much fun coming up with an essay topic.

Then I went to college, and had a prof who was so ruthless that she completely took the joy out of it for me.  For a decade. Grammar.  Syntax.  Verb tense.  When you're smart, you're not allowed to play fast and loose with language.  You have to write like a smart person.  I agree with this to an extent.  You lose people if you distract them with bad grammar.  But you also lose them if you lose the forest for the trees.

So I started blogging.  My english prof will never read it.  But if she does, she might bristle when I start a sentence with "but".  But (hah - twice in a row) she'd probably get over it.  Her job was to teach me how to write papers, not blogs.  But (3) blogs are all about finding your personal voice.  I get to make the rules.  Cause really, I don't know if anyone's going to read this.  I just write it the way I think it.  And if you find it interesting... weird.

So, thanks, blog, for helping me find my voice back and enjoy writing. 

And that's kind of the point.  If you're trying to develop yourself, personally or professionally, it might be a good idea to figure out what you enjoy.  And then work on it. 

So many of us detach our work from our strength.  Your job is to swing a hammer.  To punch keys on a calculator or keyboard.  To sell widgets.  Our job is so rigidly defined that there's no room for us to develop with in it.

I had a cool conversation with a friend this past week.  One of the things I came away with was the fact that it is never a bad thing to strengthen your strengths.  If I have a way of communicating that people respond to, it's probably a really good idea for me to develop that.

Does it make sense that you are becoming the best version of yourself when you practice the things you're naturally built for?

I have a long back and short legs.  I'm like a human daschund. If I wanted to become a sprinter, I'd have a natural disadvantage, regardless of how much training I did. Usain Bolt's legs are twice the length of mine (I made that up, but it feels true). But maybe I'd have made a heck of a greco-roman wrestler, or cyclist. Or circus clown.

Spend a little time figuring out what you're like.  What your skills are.  Interact with new people, and figure out what sets you apart from other people you encounter.  What do YOU do that people really respond to?  The more you do those things, the more you tease out your unique skills and attributes to the surface.  And when you have a strong sense of yourself, and what skills you can offer to the world, the more your purpose will become clear.

Purpose is like a GPS connection.  A plane is off course 99% of the time it's in the air.  But it knows its destination so well that it can make a million tiny corrections, and get there almost as though it had been going in a straight line the whole time.

In the same way, if you know your strengths, your purpose, your best explanation for being right where you ended up, your daily tasks and your job will all reorganize under a new context. Each decision you make becomes a tiny calculation slightly closer to your purpose.

But if you never strengthen your strengths, how would you know which direction to grow toward? To make decisions toward?

Perhaps storytelling and idea communication isn't the most important skill in my current job.  But as a person, if it's something I'm skilled at, why wouldn't I want to hone that?  Having those strengths means that I will find opportunities to use them.  Opportunities that will leave me feeling fulfilled and purposeful.  If I hadn't practiced, perhaps people wouldn't know to refer me, or make me aware of the opportunity.

Few things are more rewarding than doing something you love, that you know you're good at, that benefits others.

And the rest of us are going to find you a LOT more interesting when we meet you, and you are SO good at, and SO passionate about what it is that you're doing.

What skills are laying dormant in YOU?

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Why would a loving God...

Drop this blog post in the ocean of opinions that is circling the ideasphere today.  Like everyone else out there, I watched the news today and was deeply troubled by the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut.  I saw the pictures of the kids running terrified from their school, and I still can't think of it without choking up. 

The life we live feels so stable. 

It's vapour. 

We build all these routines and structures on the assumption that tomorrow will pretty much behave the same way that today did.  There is NEVER a guarantee of that.

That doesn't stop us from living our lives that way.  Our brains are wired for patterns.  And there's beauty and joy in the patterns that make up our lives.

There are some things that I avoid thinking about, and children dying in violence is one of those.  Even in this blog post, I won't talk about that, except to say this: I prepare myself for a lot of contingencies, but not that.  I will not spend any energy thinking about that.  Because I don't believe there's a way to recover.  Life would change in so many ways that I just couldn't imagine.  And I don't want to think about it.  Take my job, my health, my money - I will be okay.  Do. Not. Take. My. Child. From. Me.  That's the one thing that the current form of myself could not withstand.  All of our love should go out to these people who have to try and create a different life out of the burnt, damaged pieces that are left.  But I can't imagine.  I won't put myself in their shoes.

There is no denying that there is unspeakable evil in this world.  No. Not evil.  Pain.  Because how much pain exists in the mind of a person who could commit an act like that?  There is no end to the suffering and sorrow.  And an act like today's pushes our minds to the very edge of the kind of depravity that humans are capable of.

Then you hear someone say, "It's all part of God's Plan."  Every time someone said that today, 12 people walked away from their faith.

I'm not an apologist.  The closest I come is, "Sorry Christians have done so much stupid stuff in the world." However, my faith has proven to be stronger than my cynicism.  And that's pretty strong.  And I can't speak for any church.  I'm no theologian.  And I can't speak for God, because I don't know him well enough to do that.  But the God that my faith sticks to is not a God who had this anywhere in his plan. 

Don't take this as an argument for the existence of God.  Because I've never tried to make a logical argument for the existence of God.  It's like the toilet seat argument - no one's ever gonna win that argument, but we're all gonna lose while we fight about it.

The God that I can believe in? Here's how I imagine he sees a day like today.
1. When you have a child, your heart doubles in size.  If you have a second, you don't divide the love over two kids - your heart doubles again.  This is how I imagine God views the world.  His love busted open and he created people.  Who he loves.
2. He created a world we can live in that follows it's own rules.  So that we know that the coffee cup is going to remain where we put it down.   And one of those rules is that we are able to make our own choices. And bear the consequences of them.
3. Just like a parent, God watches us make the decisions we make with love. And sometimes our decisions compound into a collossal hot mess.  And sometimes into catastrophe.
4. Just as I weep as I write this, God weeps when bad decisions collide. He saw the car.  He saw the kid run out onto the road.  But he promised us a predictable, cause/effect world. And it kills him to watch.  Just like it kills me when I see Silas struggle with something I know I could fix for him.  Or when I watch him stumble and fall, but I'm too far away to catch him.  But way worse. Way, way worse.

 Like parents love their children.  That's how the God I believe in watches situations like todays.

But then there's the next part.

So, the Bible says that God IS love.  It says, 'everyone that loves, has been born from God, and knows God.  And whoever doesn't love, doesn't know God.  Because God IS love.'

So, when I see love in the world, I see God. Directly.  It's his signature.  His scent. Whether you recognize it as such or not.  When we love others, we are embodying God.

Which leads me to Mr. Rogers.

Look for the helpers.

Earlier on today, I tweeted, "Nothing heals sorrow but blessing. And time."

The other thing about the God I've managed to keep faith in - he finds a way to restore.  I'm not saying he makes hurt go away.  Oh, no.  We're damaged for good.  But what he can do is the final insult.  The depravity and chaos doesn't win.  Because the God that I believe in, when he is set loose on a terrible situation, finds a way to fill it with cancerous goodness. People's lives are destroyed, and yet they find ways to use their pain to inspire others to love more; to give more. 

Before the evil act is finished, there are already people showing up with love in hand - protecting children, helping, caring.  Standing beside dumbstruck people with their hands on shoulders.  The situation still sucks.  But before it has a chance to be perfectly evil, God's there, fucking up the evil.  Busting it up with good.  And it's little help at first.  But over time, the evil shrinks and is forgotten and the love grows.

We carry our scars with us as we grow.  But our unique scars and pains - the damage we accumulate as we fumble through life - these are the very things that make us more beautiful, should we choose to learn from them, to fight to keep our hearts soft. Like this lady:

I hope and pray that a day like today might raise my eyes off my daily grind.  And maybe a few other people's too. 

You know what?  My heart can't bear the pain of those 28 people's families. My heart can't even bear the pain of all the people in Red Deer that I interact with in a day.  It's a painful world.  But, as Mr. Rogers might remind us, there are so many helpers.  And I hope that maybe I reflect the God I have faith in to a few people on a given day by being a loving person.  I don't need to fly to Connecticut to find people who need kindness.  Who need love.

So, instead of turning to blame and playing politics, let's try a new game.  Let's try and love our neighbours.  Evil is not conquered by fighting it.  It's not conquered by legislation.  Know how evil is conquered?  By displacing it with love.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Feeder Bar Psychology

Know why I stopped smoking cigars?  Because I couldn't.  I was always jealous of friends of mine who could keep half a pack in the closet, and pull one out when there was a campfire, but otherwise not think about them.  That ain't me.

I've always fancied the idea of having a liquor cabinet.  My problem is, I've never been able to keep booze around my house long enough to have a special spot for it.

At Christmas time, my co-worker, Kim, makes this ridiculous sweet, salty, caramel, cheesie bits n' bites kind of snack.  We just call it Christmas Crack.  I can't leave it alone.  Even though I'm mildly allergic to the damn stuff.  I will eat it till it's completely gone.

At thanksgiving, do you eat till you're sick? Do you like decadent desserts like cheesecake?

If I open a bottle of wine, it's really hard to have just a glass. I like the buzz. 

Also, did you know there was a research study done, where mice had electrodes attached to their erogenous zones, and any time they would hit their feeder bar, they'd get stimulated?  They put 2 feeder bars in the cage - one gave food, and one gave pleasure.  Know what happened?  They camped out in front of the stimulation bar and pushed it continually.  Till they DIED.  Maybe that's a little off topic, but weird, huh?

What's with human beings and their magnetic attraction to those decadent things? Why can't we stop at one chocolate? Why can't we push back from the table before seconds?  It's pandora's box!  You scratch an itch and it just comes back worse in an hour.  We can turn a good thing into a bad thing, because we don't know when to walk away.  We just keep hitting the wrong feeder bar.

How do you learn when to walk away?  Why doesn't it get easier?  I've had turkey sweats so many times! I've hurt feelings with jokes or conversations SO many times.  Because I don't know when to shut up and back away.  You'd think that I'd learn eventually just by conditioning.  After so many negative experiences, why do I not RUN away from these situations? 

It's not that we don't know when we're in too deep.  You KNOW you shouldn't order the cheesecake.  You usually know which joke is too far.  We know.  But we still go.

Maybe we're tempting fate.  Maybe it's an evolutionary thing? If a little bit is good, then we should get as much of it as we can, because it may be scarce tomorrow, right?

Or maybe it's an escape. Maybe we gorge on decadent things because, some times, it's as close as we might be able to get to a good thing.  Or maybe we've forgotten what a good thing really is.  Or maybe, it's because we lapse.

We know what 'good' actually feels like.  The problem is, good is slow. Good is how you feel when you eat healthy.  Unfortunately, it takes weeks to feel better from changing your eating habits.  Good is having healthy relationships.  But taking advantage of someone is faster.  Good is how you feel when you've finally made enough positive decisions in a row that you start gaining momentum.  When those good decisions start to accumulate into a character, a lifestyle.  That's what good actually feels like. 

But. That's. So. Slow.

And sometimes, as humans, stuff happens and we need a fix.  It's hard not to poke the bear.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Married in Red Deer... For Now...

Know what's crazy about this town?  It has a structural flaw in it's social fabric.

I'm on one of several working groups that is attempting to find a way to end homelessness in Red Deer.  You only need to scratch the surface of the issue to realize that broken families contribute hugely to this issue.  Husbands work away in the oilfield. Wives stay at home with kids, or work low-paying retail jobs.  Then the stress of working away ends the marriage, and many women are left with kids to raise and no training to get gainful employment.  It's stressful, kids don't get the parenting they need, live under the poverty line, and they are left to their own devices while mom works stupid hours - often making the wrong friends and developing habits that send them down a road that ends in any number of social issues.  This isn't every single parent family - not even close.  Some of the best people I know were raised by single parents.  But these families certainly have much to overcome. 

All that is just to say that, if you want to solve some key social issues in this town, WE HAVE TO DO SOME WORK ON RELATIONSHIPS. Call it 'upstream prevention'.

I already touched on a few things above, but I'm going to make a couple observations:

-Guys who work too much:  If you want to have a family, have a family.  But make them the priority.  You don't get to just walk away from them for weeks on end, sending paychecks.  Your kids don't need money.  They need your example.  They need to know you love them.  They need a dad.  How does a 4-year-old spell love? Like this: T-I-M-E.

-Marriage is hard.  Yup.  It is.  In one way, you just stay married once you get married, till you file divorce papers.  But then, I know a lot of married people who don't even have a relationship to speak of. It actually takes a lot of work.  Just like fitness, or the car/truck you love, or your favourite sport.  It usually looks like this: one gets complacent (guys are really good at this), and the other adapts by becoming domineering.  One of them kind of becomes an extra kid - under the thumb of the boss.  When you get married, you are telling someone that you want to GROW WITH them.  That means you have to be together a lot.  Otherwise you grow APART.  You're always growing.  You're always going a direction.  It's up to you to ensure that you're STAYING close.  Very easily the relationship balance can tip from partnership to something more toxic.  And as soon as partners aren't equal, resentment and distance start to grow.

-Men are notoriously non-self aware.  As a result, we have a tendency to just act like jerks for no reason.  We (and forgive me - I'm pushing the boundary here) don't get monthly practice saying, "Wait, am I actually upset, or is something happening outside of my mind (like hormones) that might be affecting me?"  Guys never do that.  So we just act like jerks.  And if you ask us what's wrong with us, we won't be able to answer you, unless you find a way to ask us in 6 different ways and sneak it out of us.  Guys - this is no excuse.  You have to be nice to the girl.  You learned this in second grade.

-Unfaithfulness is not an act.  It is a direction.  Whether it's a flirtatious relationship with a friend, a subscription to a daily girly picture on your cellphone, or fantasy thoughts (just thoughts and nothing more) about someone other than your other half, it's moving you in the wrong direction.  Away, not toward.  Take that action and extrapolate it - if you continue down the same path, where do you find yourself?  Happily together, or apart for good?  So yes, a flirty comment doesn't mean that much.  But IT DOES if it means that you're engaging with other members of your spouses gender in even the most minorly sexual way.  Because it drives the smallest edge of the wedge between you and your spouse.  It makes sexual interaction with another an option.  It shouldn't be.

-WHAT IS WITH THE CULTURE OF CHAUVENISM AND MYSOGYNY?  Let's go all the way to the end of that continuum.  I left a party the other day, and some friends (who I love, and still respect), were planning where next to take the party.  One of the options was the strip club.  And it wasn't just guys.  It was women too.  And no one said, "No way! Forget it!  Do something else!"  I don't know where the party ended up.  I just went home.  But I was kind of surprised, cause I thought self-respecting people didn't go near those places.  A lot of stuff gets tolerated that is absolutely toxic to relationships.  On the surface, maybe your girlfriend/wife says they don't have a problem with it.  Boys will be boys, right?  But on a deeper level, it's telling them something about how you see women.  About what you wish they could be.  And they feel like they're in competition.  Your wife shouldn't be in competition with anyone. Or anything.

-Consider the other first.  I had to learn, when Silas was born, that saying yes to an evening activity meant that I was automatically volunteering Caryn to stay home for the night by herself.  Another way you can put your partner first is to give them the benefit of the doubt.  If you know they love you, then when they say something that could be taken hurtfully or neutrally, just suspend your hurt feelings for a minute and choose to assume that they didn't mean to intentionally spite you.  Even if they did say it hurtfully, chances are there's something going on in their head that's more important than a single comment anyway.  Take a little time to find out why they're upset and feel like shooting barbs at you.

-Have a good filter.  Not just the one that fits between your brain and your mouth, but also one that sits between your ears and your brain (and heart).  Let me describe a couple of them:
-The "After 11:00" filter: "I'm tired and don't have patience.  They are tired and aren't thinking about how to diplomatically word something. Those words will hurt less in the morning, but chances are my partner will rephrase them after a nights sleep anyway."
-The under stress/pain filter: "They are in pain and hating life.  Everything is bothering them.  The tide of their patience is out, so things they can usually tolerate are now intolerable.  A) Give them extra space. B) Take this as an opportunity to find out what sort of things kind of bother them, that you might be able to fix. C) Take what they say and multiply it by about 0.8"

When I graduated from high school, I spent a summer living with a wonderful couple named Lando and Kathy Klassen.  Kathy told me (years before I would need the advice) that the best thing you can do in a relationship is not to stop listening when you've heard; but rather to stop listening when you've understood.  We spend so much time preparing our answer while our partner is talking that we aren't actually listening to what they say.

- Fight fair.  You are not allowed to bring up old fights.  Are you fighting to hurt each other? Or are you fighting to solve a problem?  One thing sticks out more than any other from when Caryn and I went to marriage counselling when we were engaged - a visual.  When you're fighting unfairly against your spouse, it's like you're taking an axe and chopping into the bottom of the boat you are both standing in.  If you win the fight, do you win, or do you lose?  How do you fight fair?  I already mentioned keeping to the topic you started on.  Other ones are - approach the topic delicately, at an appropriate time. Do your best to be open and not defensive.  When you react defensively, you make yourself unapproachable.  How can you make your partner happy if they can't come to you with an issue?  Instead of being accusational, say, "When you do _____, I feel ______".  Help them to see your side.

-Remember when I said guys are un-self-aware?  Well, if we don't even know what's going on in our own minds, PLEASE don't make us try to read yours.  I make lists.  I just had a job review.  When I was finished, I sent an e-mail to the 2 guys giving me feedback, listing the suggestions they had made.  I wanted to make sure I understood their expectations, and they were clear with me about what they were.  I can't meet an expectation that I don't know exists.

Anyway.  I had to get that off my chest.  The state of relationships in this town is actually causing a lot of damage.  At the extreme end, it's causing social issues with addiction and crime, but at every end of the spectrum, it's causing damage to people's hearts, creating huge amounts of pain, and hurting a LOT of people that we love.  We need to get better at this.  Men need to be FAMILY MEN.  And women need to learn what it takes as well.  You can't just withdraw and stop loving.  You need to stand up for yourself and tell your man what you NEED to make this thing work.

You and your partner may be a long way apart.  But as I said, faithfulness is a direction.  If you start heading toward each other - one small decision at a time, you can repair what's been broken.

Red Deer needs to look at this part of it's culture.  It's tolerance of divorce and the causes thereof is terrible.  It's causing so much pain.  So much.

Anyway, these are the thoughts I rehearse when I think about my relationship.  I've only been married for 7 years and change, so I'm not the guru of this, by any means.  But we've got to start the dialogue somewhere, right?

As usual, give me some feedback?  Do you agree that broken families are an 'upstream' issue to homelessness, crime, and addiction?  Am I being fair?  Let's hear it!