5 year engagement parents

I have a love/hate relationship with romantic comedies. Okay, it’s probably about 20% love and 80% hate. For example, I love everything about “When Harry Met Sally,” from the older couples discussing how they met to the conversations about women meowing to the filmmakers not realizing that The University of Chicago is not in Evanston. Then again, that film came out nearly 25 years ago. Somewhere around a bajillion romantic comedies (give or take) have come out since then, and most of them fall far short of Woody Allen or Nora Ephron. Hence that word hate I mentioned earlier.

To be clear, I’m not anti-romance or anti-happiness or even anti-schmaltz, but I’m strongly pro-originality. And that’s where romantic comedies (and the last two Die Hard movies) fall short. We all know what’s coming before the lights even go down, right? We meet two people, and their witty banter makes us laugh and smile and hope all at once. How can you not like these two?! Not to mention their quirky friends and/or relatives who always seem to provide comedic relief or unexpected wisdom! We watch the near kisses and beautiful excursions and grocery bags with baguettes poking out. But things just keep getting complicated, right? First, there’s a misunderstanding. Then, there’s another attractive love interest. Not to mention the argument that ends everything. I mean, are these two ever going to figure out they clearly belong together? Let me save you a couple hours and a couple bucks: yes…yes, they will. So romantic comedies almost always boil down to execution alone. In fact, making a romantic comedy is a lot like making a Fast & Furious movie, really. Same characters and plots and scenes every time…just a matter of sticking the landing.

Thus, when we recently watched “The 5 Year Engagement,” I had pretty reasonable expectations: I expected a few laughs, a few cute moments and hopefully some solid comedic acting. And it was thoroughly above average, which says something considering that most movies like this are – well – not. But the quote I’ll remember most is a throw-away line about 3/4 of the way through. THE guy’s talking with his parents about THE girl (names are irrelevant here, people…see paragraph 2), and his mom simply says this:

“Honey, we’re not even 60% right for each other, but he’s the love of my life.”

And just like that: the quintessential parent figure throws out the quintessential romantic comedy insight. The movie may not have surprised me that much, but clearly even formulaic caricatures have something to offer sometimes. “Honey, we’re not even 60% right for each other, but he’s the love of my life.” Yup. Pretty much.

You see, romantic comedy protagonists (guy, girl, you name it) inevitably learn that nobody’s perfect and no relationship’s perfect. And I may get tired of seeing that play out over and over again, but that does not make it any less true. My wife and I have not been married for 12 years because were 100% right for each other. And my grandparents were not married for 68 years because they were 100% right for each other. Nope. Relationships work for many many reasons, and this blog’s a testament to the fact that some of them are more understandable/controllable than others. Compatibility’s part of it, but Hollywood’s most predictable genre knew some time ago that other things mattered more. Love comes in unexpected places, and the decision to embrace it and defend it is a choice. Every time.

See? I don’t mind schmaltz. Just promise me that I’ll never have to watch “Serendipity”* again.

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* No, really. I HATE “Serendipity.”

January 2011 053

Toddlers? Let them eat cake … at least for today. Tomorrow, how about some nice green beans?

When you are a new parent, you get a lot of unsolicited advice you don’t really want. But occasionally you do get parenting advice that makes sense, in your world. There are a handful of tips we’ve picked up in random places that have made a lot of sense:

  • Never interrupt a happily playing child.
  • Establish a bedtime routine.
  • Find a schedule that makes sense for the family, instead of individuals within the family.
  • Patterns aren’t made from something that happened only once, so don’t panic. Yet.

There’s another piece of advice that always reassured me when our kids weren’t eating well. Someone once told me to think of a toddler’s diet over a week, instead of over a day. Don’t worry that today she won’t eat green beans and only wants blueberries. (Though be prepared for a messy diaper.) Tomorrow she’ll want peas and turn up her nose at fruit. Go for nutritional balance over the week, not over the day.

And here’s where we get to marriage.

When it comes to sharing the work of the household, go for balance over the week – or the month, or the year, whatever makes sense for you – not over the day.

If you are an accountant, for example, you should expect some grace from your spouse for the months of February through April. If you’re a teacher, your spouse should know he or she carries the bulk of the household load in August and September. If you’re an accountant married to a teacher (like two good friends of ours), it works perfectly.

It works perfectly in smaller chunks of time, too: my busy day may mean I do jack-you-know-what around the house. Cliff picks up the slack un-begrudgingly. I’ll return the favor next week when he’s late getting home from work and has to dash out the door right after supper to get to another meeting. It will all balance out, over time.

Every couple divides the work of the household in the way that makes the most sense to them. Like in bullet point #3 above, you have to find a balance that makes sense for the couple, and not for one individual. No single day will work perfectly – I can’t say that there’s ever been a day where Cliff and I have shared child care and laundry and kitchen duties and cleaning and car care and yard work and bill paying exactly equally. But over the year, it all works out.

Now the dietary habits of toddlers: that’s not quite as easy to figure out.

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Marriage on Spin Cycle

squeaky toyThe internet’s filled with ideas for surprising your partner:

  • Surprise him with a gift!
  • Surprise her with flowers!
  • Surprise her with a night out!
  • Surprise him with some new lingerie!
  • Surprise him with Bears tickets!

Actually, that last one is a lovely idea. And the one before that also. Paying attention, dear? At any rate, Amber’s grandmother (the one who lost a nightgown) recently shared one surprise strategy that has never been mentioned on a blog or dating site. Not once. Until now, that is.

You see, a few decades back Joyce found some squeaky toys at a garage sale. There was a whole box filled with them, just perfect for a couple preparing to welcome grandkids at their home. She picked them up, even though they were fairly dirty. Upon arriving home, she determined that the quickest cleaning approach was actually the washing machine: Just throw them in and press start, right? It was efficient. It was also noisy. One can only imagine what a washing machine full of squeaky toys on spin cycle sounds like, right? Faced with that situation in 2013, one might generate an amusing tweet or take a video with her cell phone or post something to facebook, but Joyce had an even better idea. She waited till her electrician husband arrived home and explained that the washing machine had started making a strange noise. Her unsuspecting husband Leslie walked to the utility room…and pressed start. A few moments later, he emerged with a perplexed look on his face, “I have never heard a washing machine make a sound like THAT.”

A surprise like that probably would not make some magazine’s list of top ten surprises for your spouse. But you know what? Sometimes a small surprise is just enough to get you laughing together and enjoying each other. After a full day of meetings and a long commute, sometimes that’s all I need. (Not that Bears tickets wouldn’t be nice. Or lingerie for that matter. I digress.) Being goofy may not be a relationship improvement strategy, but it’s a great way to start an evening together. It’s also a great way to clean squeaky toys.


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TennisSit down folks, because this is a sports-related post that IS NOT written by Cliff.

Last week I was at an Inc. magazine conference, where I heard Bonnie St. John speak. For those of you not keeping track at home, St. John is the first African-American to win an Olympic medal in downhill skiing. And she did it on one leg.

St. John told the story of her bronze medal run down a slippery slope. Going into the race, her times were the fastest. She was on pace for the gold when she took a fall at an icy patch near the bottom of the slope. Stunned, she scrambled to her feet and finished the race, still earning a bronze.

You might think that was an unfortunate fall, and in some sense it was. But here’s the thing: the gold medal winner fell too. She just got up a little bit faster.

Drawing from the world of sports research, St. John cited a tennis study Continue Reading »

NBA Marriages, Revisited

Last June, I wrote about NBA marriages, suggesting that teamwork means everyone knowing their role and every role mattering. That post seems worth revisiting this year for several reasons:

  1. The Miami Heat are back in the Finals. Nobody doubts LeBron James’ status as GPITW (greatest player in the world), but winning this year’s series will require full team execution and buy in. Same truth, different year.
  2. The team that I held up as an example of teamwork and unity was the San Antonio Spurs…the Heat’s opponent in this year’s Finals match-up. They evolved from David Robinson’s team to Tim Duncan’s team to Tony Parker’s team. And never missed a beat.
  3. I have not worked a sports/marriage metaphor into this blog for some time. If you read this site with any regularity whatsoever, you know that’s actually MY role. Gotta do my part for the team.

See? Three very good reasons to reread this little post from last year. Trust me.

The NBA Finals: Two Marriages, One Champion, 6-19-12

You may or may not have noticed that the NBA Finals are taking place this week (I definitely noticed…see afore-mentioned posts about sharing the remote control) The Oklahoma City Thunder currently trail the Miami Heat 2-1 in a series that’s rife with stars, storylines and last second shots. Interestingly enough, both teams’ stars have occasionally struggled with their “marriages.”

When LeBron James joined the Miami Heat (you might have seen something about that…his TV special was the sports equivalent of The Bachelor and involved South Beach being awarded a rose, Cleveland burning jerseys and an audience of children awkwardly watching the whole thing), he was clearly joining Dwayne Wade’s team. Nonetheless, James was immediately and obviously the best player on that team. Given the murky nature of this new super-team, they struggled to figure out who would take the last shot, who would be the team’s leader and generally how to play together. And that struggle showed at moments. The other Miami Heat players seemed to stand around wondering what would happen next. Eventually, James’ status as the most talented basketball player on earth made him more and more of a leader, but the growing pains were significant and included last year’s Finals collapse.

Meanwhile, in Oklahoma City a super team was being built via draft but encountering pretty similar problems. Kevin Durant had been anointed “next big thing” status fairly early in his Freshman year at Texas. After all, he’s a 7 footer with silky moves, a smooth shot and ice running through his veins. Also, he’s avoided the injuries and attitudes that derailed many other talented youngsters. Then something strange happened: the Thunder also happened upon an extremely gifted young player named Russell Westbrook, an unparalleled athlete that wanted and deserved…well…the ball. Who would be Batman and who would be Robin? Stay tuned, folks. We still don’t know yet. Westbrook was just benched in Game 3 for some questionable decisions. While the Heat seem to have become James’ team, the Thunder are still finding themselves in some ways.

What does this have to do with marriage? More than you might think. A few weeks ago, ESPN posted a column about how the San Antonio Spurs managed to navigate a similar circumstance when Tim Duncan (an all-time great) was suddenly drafted to play alongside David Robinson (also an all-time great). They won a title almost immediately, and there was barely any drama. How was that possible? Check out this quote from Robinson

For me, when Tim came, the very first thing I told him was, ‘I’m going to put you in position where you can succeed. Period. That’s it. If you’re a better scorer than me, I’ll put you down on the block, you score. I don’t care. I can do other things.’…You don’t lead the league in scoring without believing that you can put the ball through the hoop more than anyone else in the NBA. I didn’t necessarily think I wasn’t the best player on the team. I still felt like I had my role to play. It’s sort of like being a husband and a wife: Who’s more important? Nobody’s more important. You’ve both got your roles, you play your roles. And everything goes great as long as you play your roles. As soon as one of you guys acts like you run the show, and you’re more important than the other one, everything goes haywire.

Yup. There it is. For years, people have believed that every basketball team needs a clear alpha dog, and for centuries people believed that marriages needed a clear leader (and a clear follower, actually). What if it’s not about alpha dog status, at all? The Heat and Thunder have been finding themselves for some time now; meanwhile, the Spurs skipped right past growing pains and right into championships. Everyone just accepted a role…and not a better role or a worse role, mind you. There doesn’t need to be a Batman and Robin; there just needs to be a Dynamic Duo. The Heat seem to be figuring that out. Of course, they also seemed to have figured that out last season before dropping 3 straight to Dallas in a similar situation. Sometimes being a team is easier said than done, and there are plenty of relationships (and basketball scores) to prove it.


Parallel parking2

I saw this someecard today, and recalled a post from last year on how I can never seem to parallel park with Cliff is in the car. Though I can whip into tight spaces when I’m alone, I always seem to whiff instead of whip when Cliff is riding with me. Based on some research out of the University of Chicago, I can tell you this has an official academic name: choking.

At the heart of choking is our deep, underlying desire to be impressive to people we like and love. 

On Sunday my children decided to dress up for church – not necessary, as our congregation leans toward casual. Maggie put on a dress that twirled when she spun. Sam put on a tie and khakis (and a belt – despite the fact that the pants didn’t have belt loops). A friend of mine saw them and commented on how nice Sam looked.

Unashamed, Maggie looked up at my friend and asked, “Do you like me?”

Later, my friend commented, “Isn’t this how we all really are?” A compliment is paid to someone else, and we wait, in expectation and disappointment for a compliment as well. We need, daily, the affirmation that we are beautiful and impressive and smart and strong.

We need to parallel park like a champ.

But we choke. Marriage, and real friendships of every kind, are about choking without consequences. It’s about laughing at mistakes together. It’s about whiffing and then trying again. It’s about not looking pretty, but being attractive to each other anyway.

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How does marriage survive chronic, devastating problems? Sarah Kishpaugh has something to teach us.

On this blog, we tend to operate under the assumption that your marriage is mostly fine. Maybe not spectacular, but doing okay. We presume you read this blog because it makes you feel not-alone in the little niggling thoughts about your relationships, or because it holds you accountable to a higher standard, or because you want to take (hat tip to Jim Collins) your marriage from good to great. We make these assumptions because that’s where we are , in our marriage.

We’re lucky. We know that. Just scrolling through my (broad) friend list on Facebook, I can see couples that survived infidelity; that survived the death of a child, or a child’s chronic (and someday terminal) illness. I see couples that have conquered unemployment. That have faced the fact that they married impulsively, and have decided to make it work anyway. Hats off to you. 100 percent respect.

I am completely unqualified to offer marriage advice in general, but especially to people facing some of life’s more extreme circumstances. Perhaps that’s why I was so entranced by a recent New York Times article by Sarah Kishpaugh called Love, Light, Strength (and Glue).

Kishpaugh’s husband Miles was in his early 30s when a work accident left him in a coma for more than a month. He came home from the hospital looking mostly like his old self, but he wasn’t. Not really. Kishpaugh writes:

 I knew that he felt like squashed garbage and that his brain was mush. He wandered from room to room with his head in his hands wondering what had hit him. He felt nauseated and slept most of the day.

When he told me he didn’t “feel love,” I tried to stay calm.

How does one “stay calm” in the midst of such circumstances? Love and commitment are the only explanations.

Kishpaugh and her husband weathered years of physical therapy and grand mal seizures and financial stress in the midst of the normal busy family lives we all experience. It took more than four years to find any sort of break through. But now, Kishpaugh writes:

I doubt I’ll ever say I’m grateful for the experience. And yet, because of it, I like myself better. When I finally broke through my wall of despair, I realized what I had gained: a sense of aliveness and appreciation that has opened me up and cracked me free.

We’ve been holding hands a lot lately, Miles and I. Before bed the other night, this man who once feared he could no longer feel love said: “I love you so much, Sarah. Now more than ever.”

If your life seems perfect, and untouchable, and illness or tragedy seem light years away, you should read this article and celebrate that this kind of love exists in the world. And if your life, and your marriage, are buffeted on every side, then read this article and believe in possibilities. I am humbled.

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HeadphonesOur family mostly enjoys road trips. After all, what red-blooded American couldn’t appreciate the open road or gas station snacks or alphabet games or playlists (formerly known as mix tapes)? Unfortunately, road trips are preceded by packing. And while packing once seemed pretty simple, it is now one of the most dreaded processes in our household. Once bags start getting stuffed and thermostats start getting adjusted, it’s simply a matter of time. Someone will break. Someone’s voice will raise. Someone’s temper will flare up. Just wait.

Packing did not used to be like that, mind you. The twenty five year old versions of ourselves only needed toothbrushes, underwear and books to read. The thirty something (ahem) versions of ourselves need far more. There are toys and snacks and blankets and technological devices. In other words, packing started to suck when we had kids. Plain and simple. My wife recently wrote a post about autopsy without blame, but kids are exempt from that. Feel free to blame children for anything and everything…especially when they’re not around. Or online.

Regardless, packing inevitably causes problems. We’ll argue over how much we’re bringing or we’ll get stressed because the kids keep asking questions or we’ll develop a martyr complex because we’re doing so much. Eventually, everything gets packed and everyone gets going. But the adrenaline takes time to dissipate, and those first few minutes of driving can be somewhat demanding. Especially if something’s forgotten.

And that’s precisely what happened last year sometime. We’d finally escaped Chicago’s city limits when our son asked for some iPod time. So Amber reached for the iPod and headphones…only to find that the headphones were missing. And I kinda flipped out. To be fair, several concerns arose in my mind just then. I was picturing Sam blasting Yo Gabba Gabba throughout the car. I was picturing his younger sister waking from nap time because of the volume. And – most importantly – I was mourning the loss of NPR podcasts…a blessed road trip tradition that only works when the little people in the backseat are sleeping and/or wearing headphones. So I said some words that have since lived on in infamy:

“You forgot the headphones?! Those were like the most important thing for us to remember.”

It was an unfortunate choice of words. Clearly, the headphones were not the most important thing…they probably did not rank in the top 50 most important things. But I refused to allow logic or rationality to get in the way. Strangely, we survived the next two hours without headphones (shocking, I know). And I was forced to admit that perhaps headphones were not that important, after all.

The next time we were packing – when everyone was rushing around and emotions were running high – I casually joked that we’d better remember those incredibly important headphones. Amber was more than happy to join the fray, laughing at my previous overreaction and mocking our mutual tendency to stress out before trips. It’s become both an inside joke and a subtle reminder. We never pack that car without referencing the all-important headphones, “Oh, don’t forget the headphones! They’re incredibly important, you know.” We laugh at my poor choice of words. We shake our heads at the trivialities that become issues somehow. We remember that stressing out over road trip preparations (over most things, really) is pretty pointless.

Family narratives like this are pretty crucial, actually (we’ve written about others here before). The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves do far more than make us laugh…they remind us about who we were, who we are and who we are becoming. In other words, they’re far more important than a pair of headphones. Then again, most things are.

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My arguments are a lot like this car - full steam ahead until I fall off a cliff (pun not intended). Image via Flickr "faster panda kill kill."

My arguments are a lot like this car – full steam ahead until I fall off a cliff (pun not intended). Image via Flickr “faster panda kill kill.”

The email arrived in the middle of my work day – just a line or two from Cliff: “We’ve got to figure out what we’re doing about the dinner on 5/14. Are we cooking, buying, asking people to bring potluck?”

What dinner on the 14th? I wondered. Are we hosting something? I checked our Google calendar (which we pretty much live and die by), and there was nothing there. Working to be very polite, I wrote back, “What dinner? Nothing on the calendar.”

In the next email, Cliff reminded me of the dinner (which he had told me about … I’d just forgotten), and then wrote, “It’s showing on my calendar.”

Ready to prove him wrong, I clicked back to the Google calendar and checked again … sure enough, it was there. On May 14th. I’d checked June the first time around.

This is basically a replay of a conversation from a few weeks ago, with roles reversed. I accused Cliff of stealing my car keys and suggested he check his coat pocket. He informed me there was no way the keys were in his coat pocket; he’d just taken it off, and surely would have noticed them there. Humoring me, he stuck his hand into a coat pocket to illustrate its emptiness … and pulled out my keys.

In my experience, certainty lurks just around the corner from discovering you were dead wrong. We’ve covered being wrong on the blog before, and we’ve established my ability to be really wrong about really important and expensive things. In both the above examples, I was grateful for our extra efforts to state things politely and with a smile or sense of humor. It’s one thing to be sure, it’s another thing to be rude too. 

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OperationIn my day job I often interview senior executives, the CEO, and front-line workers about a company’s culture and practices. The conversation is often inspiring, as it was not long ago at a Chicagoland catering company that I admire for its strong, positive, people-focused culture.

In our interviews, various employees at this company used a phrase that caught my attention: Autopsy Without Blame (AWoB). They use this phrase to refer to the dissection that takes place after something has gone amiss. Say an order is screwed up, and a high class event is missing their wine and cocktails, a $5,000 mistake. Other companies would scream and fire over a mistake of this size, which is a big hit to the budget. But at this company, after fixing the immediate problem, the team steps back for an AWoB.

At work and at home, most of us are willing to do an autopsy: we’re willing to figure out what got screwed up, why, and who is at fault. It’s the “without blame” part that makes this company unique. In most mistakes, who is at fault matters less than making sure it doesn’t happen again in the future, and than retaining the strong interpersonal relationships that make for a great marriage or a great place to work.

In the month or so since the interviews I’ve thought of the AWoB phrase repeatedly. I think the concept transfers well to the topic of marriage, so here are my reflections on what’s important for performing an AWoB in your relationship.

Get some space

In real life, autopsies aren’t done at the scene of a crime. They’re done in a lab – a new, neutral environment – hours, days, or even weeks after. In your relationships, you need some distance from the fight or problem to fairly perform an AWoB. I know “don’t let the sun go down on your anger” is a standard piece of marriage advice. And most of the time it’s true. But sometimes some distance from the immediate, emotional response of anger is the best thing you can do to ensure an honest and kind conversation. Don’t do the autopsy until you’re in a calm emotional space.

Neutral environments can help too. Melissa Weiner-Davis, in her aging but useful book Divorce-Busting (which we’ve referenced many times on this blog, like here and here), recommends changing locations in the middle of a fight. Move from the living room to the bathroom … it doesn’t solve the problem, but a new location can function like a “reset” button. For your autopsy, pick a location that’s neutral – the back porch, the local coffee shop.

Show respect

Here’s where my degree in communications comes in handy. Whenever you’re discussing a challenge, always use “I” language. In other words, instead of “You really upset me when ….,” try starting with, “I felt upset when …” This takes the blame off the other person, and puts the real problem front and center.

Give benefit of the doubt. Start the autopsy by assuming your partners has a very reasonable explanation for the position he holds, the choices he made, etc. Assume the best of him or her.

Did it turn out that your partner was a little at fault for the circumstance that led to the argument? Then show gentle disregard – if you believe your partner really wants the best for you and your relationship, then it’s not too difficult to overlook a few imperfections. You want them to do the same for you.

And finally, part of showing respect is realizing that at least half your argument was crap to begin with. This always happens to me. I feel impassioned about an opinion or a certain course of action. I argue for it vigorously. Defensively. With disregard for Cliff’s perspective. Then I actually listen to his perspective and realize that a solid percentage of my own opinion isn’t as defensible as his. An AWoB gives you the space to make a U-turn when required.

Take responsibility for the future

Finally, if only one participant ends the autopsy with a “to do list” for change, then it wasn’t really an autopsy without blame. You both screwed up somehow, I’m certain of it. Figure out what you can do differently in the future to keep disagreements from escalating to fights, fights from becoming big problems, and big problems from sucking the joy out of your relationship.

The autopsy analogy breaks down, of course. Autopsies happen after something has died. Your relationship isn’t dead … but the argument can be. Dissect it, figure out how to fix the root causes, and move toward the future. Together.

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