Monday, May 30, 2011

Renew Your Relationship Through A Better Division of Labor

Do you remember the beginning, when you were oh, so much in love and the world was rosy? You wanted to do everything and anything for each other.  Does that time feel like a long time ago, and things are looking a little more grey? Assuming no great hardships have befallen your relationship, it may be that one (or both) of you is harboring a silent (or not so silent) resentment.

One of the most serious, but underappreciated threats to romance in a relationship is the unfair division of the household chores. Here is were selfishness, indifference and out-dated thinking about “men’s work” and “women’s work” can cause serious problems. 
Research shows that a sense of equity –  with both partners contributing equally (in their own way) to the relationship – is a strong predictor of relationship satisfaction.

When you’re feeling unfairly put upon, resentment grows. Eventually, you start to see the  other person as lazy and uncaring. You feel your own contributions are going unnoticed and are not respected.  This clouds the lens through which we see each other. Romance suffers, and your sex life has only one direction to go.  And it’s not the good one.

So, if this is where you find yourself and your partner these days, take action – because you can change it. Have a friendly meeting, and bring a list. It’s essential that you leave all thoughts of attack and victimization behind – the point is not to make your partner feel guilty, but to make a fresh and positive new start.

Come clean and simply say, “I need more help, how do you feel about that?” If you get a cooperative response, bring out the list of the things you do and how much time they usually take. If there are chores your partner does regularly, acknowledge them.   

Together make a new list of all the chores, and divide them fairly by the time factor. (Splitting chores by difficulty is too subjective, and may lead to disagreement.) When you’re done, make a solemn promise to each other to stick to the agreement without prompting and hang your new list on the refrigerator.

Celebrate your new beginning and the positive way you have dealt with a real relationship challenge. Once the resentment is out of the way, you’ll be able to respect and enjoy each other more. Maybe things will start looking a little more rosy once again.

Good luck with your goal!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

A Way to Be Kind to Yourself

I’m not talking about a shopping trip to the mall to buy yourself a treat. (But if that works for you, that’s ok.) What I’m talking about is giving yourself some time, perhaps just a few moments here and there where you can be alone.  You don’t need to do anything special - just enjoy feeling calm and peaceful. Your self worth will be nourished, your nervous system restored, and consequently you will function at your best.

How we spend our mornings, in particular, can very much effect how we will experience  the rest of the day. I have always felt pretty lousy on awakening, pained by the sound of voices and rummaging with frustration for something to wear. I promised myself I’d find a way to make waking up a more gentle process for me, and I have. I have turned the first 20 minutes of each morning into Being Kind To Myself Time.

Prep starts just before going to bed at night. I turn my comfy chair towards the sliding glass door that leads out to the garden. I set the footstool in front of it and fluff up my beat-up old pillow. In the kitchen I set up the coffee pot ready to go and put my favorite red mug next to it. (Remember that I feel bad in the AM and don’t want to hunt for anything.)

Then upstairs I set the alarm clock for 20 minutes earlier than anyone else will wake up, throw the bathrobe over the foot of my bed and (God willing) go to sleep.

When the alarm sounds I wake up only as much as I need to throw the bathrobe over my shoulder and hit the “on” button on the coffee pot.  I go “ powder my nose” (you’re welcome) and wash my hands, grab the Half & Half and pour my coffee. It smells great and I have made it a perfect golden brown. I am a little more awake now.

The family is still a sleep. I pull the drapes back, sit down, feet up and wiggle against my pillow. I soak in the silence, sip the coffee and let my eyes rest in the greenery of the garden. As I sip, my mind and body are slowly getting into sync. I feel hugged and cozy and grateful to have all this. As I finish my coffee my time is up. The day looks good and I am ready.

I pull off the list taped to the refrigerator that tells me what not to forget today (I don’t trust my memory). I wake up the kids. As they thunder down the stairs the first fight breaks out almost immediately. I raise my voice to the necessary level to be heard and follow them. It’s okay, because I know that’s not all there is.

Be kind to yourself often, and you’ll have so much more to give.

Good luck with your goal!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Learn to Say No, and Instead Say Yes to Yourself.

I was definitely a yes-sayer. I have memories from high school and college that make me both cringe and laugh, and sometimes feel a little sad.  I always made myself available to people for whatever they needed, whether or not it was really important or interfered with my own plans. Saying no more frequently would have made things much better for me, with fewer but truer friends.

By grad school I had recognized it as a real problem for me, and I was determined to learn to say no. I was working towards my Ph.D. in psychology, fortunately, so I had some research available to me that would help me make the change. I knew I wouldn’t succeed overnight, so I set up my plan in two stages.  If you find that you are someone who has a hard time saying no, this plan should work for you, too.

First, you have to learn to recognize when a no is a healthy yes to yourself. When being asked for a favor or offered an invitation, if you immediately wish you hadn’t been asked, then a no might be the right answer for you.   (The point is not to stop caring about other people, but to strike a better balance between what’s best for them and what’s best for you.)

Sometimes, you say “No I can’t” and you get a follow-up “Why not?”   Remember that unless it’s coming from a close friend or family member, you really don’t owe anyone an answer.  “Why not?” is rude and invasive. Bottom line, other people are not automatically entitled to know your business.  If the reason is private, then the ideal answer is perhaps “I beg your pardon?” or better yet, silence.  To get comfortable saying no and not making excuses, try this method:

Stage 1:  Since you probably have a long history of saying yes, you need to start with baby steps. Take a notepad and write down several excuses you will use when just saying “No I can’t” makes you uncomfortable. Memorize them so you’re ready at work. at the party, etc. This is an example of using the if-then method of planning.

If they ask….then I will say.....

Once you are comfortable with Stage 1, in Stage 2 you will be able to leave those little white lies behind. You simply answer the “Why not?” questions with “It’s kind of personal.” This isn’t a lie, because it always is!  Sure, they might get offended.  You might lose some “friends” who have found you useful in the past. But those that remain, and the new friends you make, will respect you more because you do.

Once you’ve mastered Stage 2, something interesting happens.  I noticed this quality first in a professor and mentor of mine at Columbia.  She was confident and secure, and  completely uninterested in justifying her choices to other people.  When asked to do something, she would often simply say:” No, I can’t.”   And that was it.  No one ever asked her “Why not?” She said no and it went unchallenged.  After a while, people just seem to “get” that you aren’t going to be manipulated into doing things, and they stop trying.

Be patient with yourself in this process and you will reach your goal. Remember that it is YOUR time (or money, belongings or whatever is being requested), so put yourself in charge of it!  It’s important to be there for other people, but it’s just as important, if not more so, to be there for yourself.

Good luck with your goal!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Tackle A Big Job In A Better Way

“I just love cleaning my house!” Have you ever heard this from anyone? I certainly haven’t, and have never met anyone who does.

Growing up, our house was practically spotless. My mother was driven. She had a weekly routine that she allowed nothing to interfere with. When I came home from college in the summer with my dirty and disheveled belongings, she went pale and couldn’t speak.

The unsolicited advice on organization and household-related do’s and don’ts I have received over the years could be compared to the flow of Niagara Falls. It annoyed me most of the time. So you can imagine the absolute delight I’ve experienced now that I’ve become the advice-giver for some of her problems. 

A few years ago when she began to live alone, she bought a small house with a big, unruly backyard.  She single-handedly turned it into a big, beautiful garden, not really grasping the continuous work that it would entail. Stubbornly sticking to her motto, everything must be beautiful at all times, she is completely exhausted from March through September, and disillusioned with the beautiful world she has created for herself.

She had fallen into that awful trap, when a chore (it can be any kind) appears so insurmountable that doing it makes you feel frustrated and depressed.  Or, when you avoid it altogether, it becomes that bogeyman in the closet that never quite lets you breathe easily again.

This is one of those clear cases of unrealistic goals that I write about in my book. When you decide to tackle a big goal and give it a hard deadline, you have given your brain a target. Unless you achieve it exactly as planned, your brain will tell you that you have failed, and all those negative feelings will haunt you.

The solution to the problem is to break up that big, unrealistic goal into smaller, realistic ones that you can readily accomplish.  And when you do, your brain will reward you with those wonderful feelings of a job well done.

So, if it’s keeping up with your garden or house that’s giving you problems, clean just one room well (or make sections in the garden). On a different day, tackle another room. Working in circles like that, you will get to everything eventually that needs your care. Your surroundings will feel friendlier and more relaxing, because you have stopped being a slave to it.

Another good example of how you can use this strategy came to me recently from my widowed great aunt. She is ninety and has decided to move into an assisted living arrangement. For many years, she has been dreading dealing with her husband’s private office.  She has rarely entered the room because it utterly overwhelms her. It is full of odd collector’s items from trips long ago, old papers and unfinished manuscripts, and boxes and boxes of unknown content.

She felt it her duty to clear this out herself - it was too personal for a stranger’s eyes and hurried hands. I told her to tackle just one drawer or box a day, and make sure to take weekends off!  She told me a few days ago that she was almost done and that it had been far easier than she thought it ever would be.

Good luck with your goals!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Save Money, Save Time.

This tip will help you with several goals: Sticking to your food budget, sticking to your diet, saving time, and never again feeling the frustration while you are cooking of discovering you’re missing a key ingredient.

I just recently adopted a method that helps with all of the above. At a neighbor’s party, I met an older woman new to our neighborhood.   Among the things she shared about her life was that when she was a young mother, money was very tight. What caught my particular attention was how she handled her food budget. She wrote down a seven day menu for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and then checked it against the ingredients in her cabinet and her pile of coupons.

With her list (based on the menus,) and plastic “clicker” in hand (a gadget very popular at one time - it added up the numbers you clicked into it, giving the shopper an accurate idea of the amount already spent), she had a food allowance of $25, including detergent and shampoo. When she went over her limit, she put some items back on the shelf.  If she was under, she bought a favorite family treat.

Even though it was clear, judging by her appearance, that she no longer needed to be so careful with money, she said, “I still do it to this day.  The menu is much, much better and the allowance is more generous, but I so dislike food shopping, I don’t want to have to go more than once a week. Planning ahead makes that easy.” I was impressed.

Our food budget has been a source of frustration to me, and the frequent trips to the convenience store because I am missing an ingredient for dinner is anything but
convenient. Planning out a week’s worth of meals in advance means that I know I have everything I need, and food is less likely to get wasted. 

Also, having planned particular meals is great for the inevitable question “What’s for dinner, Mom?”  Here are the choices folks, take it or leave it.  That question isn’t nearly as annoying as it used to be.

If you are dieting, this method is particularly helpful. Write your menus after you have eaten, using your diet-friendly cookbooks, and add some healthy snacks for your weaker moments at the end of the day. This will keep you away from the fast food places when you are too tired to both shop and cook. Looking forward to having something delicious to eat at home will help you stick to your goals, whether their about your diet or you wallet.

Good luck with you goal!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

When Saying “No” Can Bring You Closer

Among all my friends, I had the strictest parents. (And my friends were mostly bookish honor roll-types from church-going families, so that’s saying something.) Like many high school students, we partied as often as one particular set of parents (not mine) with enough space and a good set of nerves would allow. We were mostly good kids. I thought my friends’ parents were very cool and certainly more lenient with things like curfew, or allowing a boyfriend to drive you to and from school or to a party. These were among the NO’s at my house.

Once, in 11th grade, I so wanted to go to a U2 concert in Philadelphia with our group, and we had it all planned. We lived in a small beach town in South Jersey, and the ride would take 1 ½ hours each way through the lonely pines. The boys had the cars and they would drive.

As you may have guessed, my parents gave a decisive “no” when I asked if I could go. I was crushed, and knew I was the only one not going. I felt hurt and frustrated, and hated them -  especially my mom, who was the personification of caution in my eyes.

She followed me into my room were I had plopped down on my bed, crying my eyes out. “Let’s talk about this” she said sitting down next to me. We always talked about “this” when she had said “no” in the past. But I was in no mood to talk, listen or be reasonable. She ignored my body language and the crying.

 “Heidi, rock concerts are very dangerous. There will be drugs and alcohol, the boys will certainly be tempted to drink, they’ll want to be cool. There may be guys hanging around who get a kick out of dropping something in a girl’s drink. There will be no one there to protect you if something goes wrong. And the boys will have been drinking before you get into their cars for the long ride home.

Picture me sitting by the window, terrified if you’re late. You are the dearest most important thing to me. Imagine me if something happened to you, and I had given my o.k. knowing all the dangers.  Keeping you safe is my number one job. I love you and there will be lots more rock concerts when you’re older.”

Despite my resistance I had begun to listen. When she left the room I could visualize what she had said. She was right about one thing - the boys were going to be drinking beer, because they had planned to take it along. Knowing what a car accident would do to my parents made me a little sick to my stomach.

I had a choice to make: I could stay mad and we would all be miserable, I could go without permission, or I could forgive them for wanting me to be safe. I went into the living room, hugged my mom, and told her “I got it.” She thanked me for loving her enough to listen and weigh the pros and cons.

There are lots of ways to say “no,” and I heard them many times in the homes of my childhood friends:

“The answer is NO and I don’t want to hear about this again!”

“I don’t care what other parents do!”

“The answer is NO and I’m really too busy for this now!”

Impatience and preoccupation make these answers understandable, particularly now that I am a mother myself. We are all only human. We instinctively know, however, that this is not the way to have a close relationship with your child.

So, if you have to say “no,” always remember to say why. The why is the most important part of what we do, or choose not to do.  Your children will feel that you respect them if you explain the why, and doing so teaches them the process of making good decisions.  After all, one day they’ll be on their own. Children who are only given “yes” and “no” answers don’t learn how to make the best decisions for themselves.

So, again, if you have to say “no,” tell them why, and remind them that it’s your job, and that it comes from love.

Good luck with your goal!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Don't Make Assumptions, Test the Water

For the past five years our family has been living in a small college town. Although my husband works in Manhattan and has a long commute, we decided to stay even after I stopped working at the university. We agreed that it’s a great place to raise our two children and we have made some valuable friendships here. It was at our daughter’s pre-school that we met Bob and Carol (not their real names). Both are musicians, with Carol taking time out from her career to raise their children. Since I do most of my work from home these days, she and I felt we had a lot in common. Our husbands liked each other, our children played together peacefully, so we socialized quite frequently.  Ideal, right? Well it is, but it almost wasn’t.

During a casually dinner at their home not too long ago, in the midst of the usual friendly chatting back and forth, Bob asked my husband why he had made such a drastic career change, from professor of philosophy to the health care business world. As Jonathan talked about his reasons, he mentioned that between those two positions, he had worked on the national campaign for a particular presidential candidate – thus revealing the political party to which we belong.

“Hang on, you are a ------?” asked Bob in disbelief. “You mean you’re a -----?" asked my husband, equally astounded.  With so much in common, they couldn’t believe they didn’t share the same political views.

There was silence.  Carol and I looked at each other, and then simultaneously said  “So, anyway…" and changed the subject.  I don’t remember to what.  Both men joined in the new topic very quickly. We all had decided that there was too much to lose by going down that road.

When we got home, Jonathan and I talked about how easy it is to put your foot in it, by assuming that the people we like so much and whose company we so thoroughly enjoy would automatically share our views.  Studies show that these assumptions are very common – we all tend to think that our opinions are more popular than they actually are, particularly among people we like. 

Awkward situations like this happen every day in areas where people hold strong beliefs (e.g., religion, gay marriage, abortion, etc.)  So if the conversation takes that kind of turn with someone who matters to you, and your goal is to protect your relationship and avoid the silence (or worse, an angry exchange), don’t assume you agree. Test the waters gingerly before jumping in!

Good luck with your goal!

Thursday, May 5, 2011

When They Are Boring, Crude, or Just So Wrong…

You probably don’t suffer fools gladly, but sometimes you know you must. 

Maybe it’s because the fool in question is your boss, so your job is on the line.  Or perhaps at a party given by your neighbor, you have an annoying dinner partner who you’d love to tell off, but can’t without offending your host.  Maybe you might want to show compassion to a senile old aunt who makes oddly racist remarks.  Awkward situations like these are waiting for us everywhere.

So if your goal is to stay calm and poised, I have a very good tip for you- one which I use quite frequently myself.

At a friend’s wedding many years ago, well into Open Bar time, an elderly man with cocktail in hand introduced himself to me as the bride’s “favorite uncle Tiny.“ (He was a very big man.) “You know why I’m the favorite uncle, don’t you?” he asked with a wink, and gave me a conspiratorial elbow shot in the ribs.  Leaning further forward and treating me to the full bouquet of his finely aged cocktail breath, he informed me at great length about how he was the real financial benefactor of this wedding, because his brother, poor soul, never had the success that he himself had earned.

I was stunned and horribly uncomfortable.  How could I respond?  I thought it was wrong of him to tell a perfect stranger something that would deeply embarrass the bride, but I also didn’t want to offend him. I could feel the sweat running down my arms, ruining my dress and forcing me to spend the rest of the night with my arms down at my sides.

Later that night, my mom (who was at the wedding, and had also been cornered by Uncle Tiny) reminded me of what one of her friends always said in response to someone who was boring or too controversial for her taste: “I hear you.”

These three little words – I hear you - will keep you compassionate with the elderly aunt, poised when you have no comeback (or can’t use the one you’d like to use), and will keep your integrity intact when talking to the politically incorrect, because all you are doing is hearing them, not agreeing with them.  I hear you is the neutral Switzerland of responses, and I can tell you from experience that it comes in very handy.

Good luck with your goal!

Monday, May 2, 2011

Beware The Dangers of Compromise

Among the plethora of advice generally given to newlyweds is the old chestnut: “ a good marriage is based on compromise.” Because it is repeated so often by so many, this becomes the mantra for some young couples.  “Meeting each other half way” is their preferred method for dealing with differing points of view when making any decision.  If Bob wants the $3000 large flat screen, and Cindy thinks the $1000 small version will do, then the medium-sized $2000 model is the compromise choice – somewhere between what he wants and what she wants.

The problem is, compromise is not ideal for all situations.   Imagine that, instead of large and small flat screens, Bob and Cindy are deciding to pull up stakes and move to the place of their dreams.  She wants to move to Kennebunkport, because of wonderful memories of family vacations there. He, on the other hand, was raised in a home where Beach Boys recordings started the morning and were only silenced when the television came on. His mother was from southern California and that’s where he wants to go.

So, what’s the “compromise” choice here? Chicago?   When you’re deciding between a large-X and a small-X, medium-X can be a good end result.  But what if you are choosing between option A and option B – does it really make sense to choose option C?  Will that make anyone happy?

A close friend of mine from graduate school was once married to a young man who believed in compromise for EVERYTHING, from the cheese they bought to the movies they rented….just every little dumb thing was a negotiation that had to end in a “meeting each other half way” compromise.  As a result, neither of them ever got what they really wanted. “No one can be happy in a relationship like that,” I thought at the time -  and they weren’t.

The last straw was when my friend wanted to get a small dog -  the kind her parents had at home and that would comfortably fit into their small one bedroom apartment. Her husband on the other hand didn’t want a dog at all.  His “compromise” was to get a big dog of his choosing. (That dog turned out to be a German Sheppard mix that could only be walked with a muzzle and took up half the apartment).   So the husband had to put up with a dog he didn’t want, and the wife got the wrong kind of dog.  Some compromise. The marriage didn’t last more than a few months after that foolish decision.

Relationships need compromise, but they also need give and take.   Sometimes there is no middle ground, and one person has to just give in to the other.  Giving in is not a bad thing – in fact, both people get something out of it.  One gets the choice they desired, and the other gets the satisfaction of knowing they made their partner happy (and some serious brownie points).

The key is recognizing if the decision in question has a true middle ground.  For instance, we recently had our house painted and were actually in agreement about the color of paint (blue), but my husband liked a much brighter version than I did.  We compromised with a shade in the middle and are both happy.   But if the choice is between painting the house red and green, then there is no true middle ground – someone has to give in.

If you see that your loved one really has their heart set on something you don’t really care for, why not give the gift of giving in, letting them know that ”your happiness is important to me”?   This is the stuff that happy marriages are made of.  And besides, next time it will be your turn.

Good luck with your goal!