Category Archives: Life

Yes, And . . .

I’ve had communication and relationships on my mind a lot lately. I’ve been wondering about failures in communication that allow people to retain utterly impossible expectations of their partners. I found the answer, not in my years of experience as a counselor, but in a bit of theater strategy given to me by a talented improv actress.

I was at the Houston Renaissance Festival, the biggest RenFest in the world. Its highly professional core company spends months preparing for each year’s offering. They excel at interacting with visitors.

The actress told me, “If you want to do improv, you must always respond to your partner with ‘Yes, And . . .’, never ‘No, But . . .’ You have to accept whatever your partner adds to the moment and take it from there. If you argue against your partner, it kills the skit.”

It occurs to me that the problem with many relationships is that partners too often use communication in an attempt, not to understand and accept each other’s reality, not to build on that reality, but to bludgeon their partner into adopting their own reality.

How often have you said or heard: “You don’t mean that,” “there’s something you need to understand,” or “I don’t believe it”?

These are all “No, But” responses. Not only do they refute another’s experience, they imply that your partner is at best ignorant. At worst, they say your partner is lying or stupid.

What these responses really mean is, “I don’t like what I’m hearing! (hands over ears) Ain’t gonna listen, la, la, la, la…”

My actress friend said, “If your partner says she’s secretly an alien from Uranus, coming to eat your brains, better pull out your laser gun.” (Okay, I made up that part. It was back in the 90’s and I don’t remember it with 100% accuracy. But it looks cooler in quotes. Besides, I’m sure some actress, somewhere said this. Maybe not during the actual Renaissance. They didn’t have aliens or lasers back then. Or actresses, for that matter.)

The point is to accept their experience as real. Take in whatever your partner gives you and treat it as golden, at least for them.

“But what if my partner’s reality is just wrong?”

And you know this, how? The inside of someone’s head is their own territory. It’s a mysterious place with an internal logic that would confound visitors, if it was possible to get past the blood brain barrier to drop in. If it changes, it changes according to that person’s timeline, not yours. If you get anywhere near this territory, it’s best to do as Romans do and obey the local laws.

You gotta respect their reality. I don’t mean “go along with it, for now, at least,” but respect it as if the Sun coming up in the East depends upon it. It may not be your truth, but it is truth. Ignore your partner’s truth and eventually, you’ll find your relationship crumbling.

“But, their reality is just wrong! Seriously!”

I have to ask, “What are you doing with someone whose vision of life is so contrary to your own?” Maybe the problem isn’t them. Maybe the problem is you, wanting them to be someone else. In which case, you need to adjust your glasses and figure out who your partner is, and if you really should be with them.

There are times when a little education might help your loved one. Fewer times than most people think, but it does happen.

Okay, supposing your friend, partner, whoever, has an idea you don’t agree with and you think they would benefit from understanding your point of view. It’s not a good idea to suggest someone is wrong. Just share your experience, from your point of view. As in, “I found the French to be very helpful when approached with courtesy and a little of their own language.” Let them do with it what they will. They are adults, presumably you would not be hanging with them if they were not moderately intelligent and able to add 2+2 and get 4. If you are right, they will get around to it when they are ready. Say it once, and shut up about it (unless they come back, begging and pleading for advice. Then, and only then, may you repeat yourself). It can be hard to do this, but it will preserve your relationship.

So what happens when your perfectly good worldview collides with your partner’s? You have to find a creative solution that incorporates both realities. It may be possible to agree to disagree with small things, like “Was Elvis REALLY the King?” or “Sushi is so gross, I can’t bear to watch you eat it.”

When it comes to such things as, “I want to move across country” versus “I love it here and I can’t leave”, you have to work harder to find a common solution. Ask questions, of yourself and your partner, to understand the foundation of each position. Not to find evidence that allows you to refute it, but to get at the basic need/truth that underlies the desire. Look for a creative way to deal with the core needs driving the current conflict.

Yes, And . . . is the key to a working relationship. The best parents understand this. When their child doesn’t want to go to sleep because there are monsters under the bed, what does that parent do? Refute the belief? Pooh pooh the child for being afraid? Jolly them out of their fears by saying, “And they are coming to get you, mwuah ha ha ha!” Nope. They look under the damn bed.

Are you willing to look under the bed?

Would You Talk to a Dog That Way?

I was watching a man with his pup the other day.  The dog had scrambled up on the picnic table next to me.  Now his owner wanted his attention. “Sit,” he said.  Pup did nothing. So owner says, “Sit. Sit. Sit. Sit.” Eventually, Pup plops his butt down. Does owner say “Good Boy!” and pat the pup?  No, Owner says, “Sit.  S-i-i-i-t. Sit.”

Sometimes I’ll intervene when I see a newbie making obvious training mistakes.  This time I didn’t. I didn’t feel a receptive vibe, so I kept my mouth shut. But this scene came to mind after I spent some time on the phone with a friend who was dealing with long-standing relationship issues. The problem is, she communicates with her significant other the way this guy talks to his dog.

To explain what I mean, some basics of effective human to canine communication:

  1. Be consistent.  Use the same signals for the same commands.
  2. Keep it simple. Don’t add any extra words or flourishes.
  3. Demonstrate what you mean through action. If you say, “Sit,” and Fido doesn’t,  say “Sit,” once more and gently push his butt down to the floor.
  4. Never give a command unless you are willing to enforce it. Each time you say “Sit,” and Fido doesn’t, you have to demonstrate what it means by gently pushing his butt to the floor.
  5. Never escalate. Yelling at Fido or smacking him because he doesn’t do what you want will never teach Fido anything except to be afraid of you.
  6.  Once Fido sits, shut up.  Repeating the command makes him think you want something else, and he must not have understood you.  If you want him to keep sitting, the command should be “Stay.”

Consistency is important.  You have to follow through each and every time you make a command, or else Fido realizes that sometimes “sit” DOESN’T mean “sit” after all.  So Fido will start testing by not responding when you give that command.  What you do at that time determines what Fido decides “sit” actually means.  I know a dog who has been taught, through his owner’s consistent actions, that “Sit!  Sit!  Sit! Oh, to Hell with you!” actually means “Jump on me and I’ll give you a biscuit.”

Consistency is a pain in the patootie. My first dog was a marvel of obedience, but occasionally Beez would get a wild hair.  One day I walked him (off lead) down to the neighborhood convenience store, like I did every morning.  “Down,”  I said.  He went down, like he did every morning.  “Stay,” I said. I walked into the store and went to the coffee counter.  I looked up, and there was Beez, sauntering by the window.  I swear he looked in and grinned.  I went back out and took him back to his original spot.  “Down,”  I said, “Stay.”  I went back into the store and was pouring my coffee when I spotted Beez lazily walking by.  I went back out and put him back down.

I will make this story short.  It took 17 tries before I was able to buy my coffee and newspaper and get back outside to release him before he took off.  It didn’t help that it was a busy morning and the line was really long.  It didn’t help that everyone ELSE was highly amused.  But it was important to keep at it until he followed directions.  Other wise, he would know that I don’t mean what I say.  Yes, it was very inconvenient that morning.  But sticking to my guns meant that I had a dog neighbors offered to trade their children for.  I want to add, Beez was a feral dog rescued after spending several months in Red River Gorge. If it was possible to teach him, it’s possible to teach anyone.

I have friends who are terrific with their dogs and blow it with their humans.  When they try to set boundaries, they say the equivalent of “No. No. No.  Oh, all right.”  Maybe they add, “Just this once.”  What they communicate is: “Be patient and I will give in.”  They think they shouldn’t have to treat their humans like their dogs.  “Humans can reason,” they say.  “They already know my situation, they know I don’t want to, why do they keep asking me?  Why are they making me be the bad guy?”  Umm.  Because you eventually say yes?  Because your “nos” don’t really mean “no”?

Communicating boundaries is not the same as issuing threats.  At one time I worked in residential rehab for alcoholics and drug addicts.  Our clients were not only addicted, most of them came to us through the criminal justice system. We’re talking chronic professional rule breakers here. My boss was a terrific guy, and he loved helping drunks.  The only thing he had a problem with was clients breaking rules.  His solution was to make the penalty so big that it would act as a deterrent.  “Change the rule,” he said, “If they do that, we’ll throw them out of treatment.” He figured then nobody would break that particular rule.  Except that eventually every rule gets broken. When the time came, no one was willing to levy the consequence because it was too harsh. Which demonstrated to the entire house that the rules had no meaning. (I want to go on record here.  I was vocally opposed to this strategy when he adopted it.) Is it any wonder this wonderful, caring man suffered high blood pressure and heart attacks?

And of course, it is always important to say what you mean.  I’ll never forget my beloved grandmother repeatedly imploring a guest to stay and have another glass of tea.  The woman insisted, no, she really had to go.  Grandma finally closed the door behind this woman.  Then she shook her head and said, “I thought she’d NEVER leave!”  Seriously.  Would you tell your dog to “come” if you wanted it to “stay”?

Do your loved ones take advantage of you?  Do they ignore your feelings?  Try talking to them the same way you should talk to your dog.

Dialing it Back in a Relationship

Last week I spent an hour walking back and forth across the dog park with a friend while she vented about her boyfriend.  For several years she helped him out while he was unemployed and in school, putting herself in debt on his behalf.  He finally has a good job.  What does he do?  Does he cheerfully take on the credit card bills he ran up?  Does he offer to whisk her away to Bimini? You guessed it, he chose Door Number Three:  “I can’t do this anymore.  I want out.”

You don’t know my friend, but you’ve heard some variation of this story.  I’ve known people who have ruined themselves financially over love. One wasted an entire inheritance on her boyfriend.  One took out a loan to buy a car for the woman he loved and is also paying insurance on this vehicle while she cheerfully drives by his house with her new boyfriend. She always waves. Meanwhile, he is eating peanut butter and Vienna sausages for lunch.

I am talking about finances because that’s the most obvious place to look for inequities in a relationship.  But we could be talking about affection, attention, empathy, or even how often each person gets to choose which movie to see.

There’s a hint of this tired tale in my first book, “A Shot in the Bark.”  Lia’s boyfriend Luthor is a selfish schmuck, and part of Lia’s ongoing evolution in the series is learning how to have a healthy relationship.  I would not be able to write about such things if I had not at some point given too much of myself in pursuit of love.  I have, more times than I care to confess.  And it NEVER has a happy ending.

I want to help my friend. I offered to round up a crew to dump his stuff on the lawn and change her locks.  She declined. She’s at that exquisite  point where she wants to kill him, but she hasn’t given up hope yet.  It’s painful to watch.  I wish I could fast-forward her life to that day when it sinks in:  He’s NEVER going to change.

Our conversation got me thinking. What do I know about relationships?

All adult relationships are reciprocal.  If they are not reciprocal, what you have could be a parent/child relationship, even if it involves sex.  If you aren’t related, it might be legal, but it’s still icky. If there is little to no sex involved and you are putting out all the energy in keeping things going, your relationship might edge over into stalking territory.  If the other person is a willing party who adores you as long as you pay for everything, look in the mirror.  You probably have “Patsy” tattooed on your forehead.

If your relationship is not reciprocal, you’ve got to ask yourself why you’re investing so much into it.  If it’s not reciprocal there’s something important you need to understand about giving.

People give on their own terms.  Everyone has rules for what and how much they give and when, and it’s based on their personality, their particular circumstances, how they were brought up and how invested they are in the relationship. You don’t get to decide how someone else gives or reciprocates.  You might nag, guilt or blackmail them into giving what you want for a time, but all that does is create resentment and set up barriers to a truly healthy give-and-take.  You have to decide whether or not you are happy with the way the other person responds/reciprocates to your overtures/efforts. You have to realize that “what you get is what you get.”  They don’t have a closet full of goodies stashed away somewhere, just waiting for a special day when they jump up and and cry, “Surprise!  I really do love you and today is the day I show it!  Take your shoes off and let me rub your feet while I tell you all the marvelous things I’m going to do for you now!”

If you aren’t happy with how much/what the other person is putting into the relationship, you have two choices. You can end the relationship. Harsh, but in the event of disappearing trust funds and looming bankruptcy, this may be the only intelligent option.  Or, you can dial it back.  Dialing it back means reducing your efforts to match what’s coming back to you. It means redefining the relationship based on what is, rather than what you hope it will be. Out in the Ether somewhere, I hear someone screaming, “But if I did that, There would BE no relationship.  To that I say, “Uh, Doh?”

The first rule of dialing it back, is do not do anything you are going to resent later. “Not fair!” That same voice screams out in the Ether. “How am I supposed to know what I’m going to resent later?”  It’s not that hard.  Anytime you are doing something you would not ordinarily do to please someone else, stop and take a good hard look.  Notice, I did not say, don’t ever do anything nice for someone.  But take a moment to imagine that they don’t notice, don’t care, don’t reciprocate.  And if that thought has you feeling hurt and/or embarrassed and/or resentful, don’t do it.  If you are denying your own basic needs and obligations to please someone else, don’t do it.  If you are making sacrifices for someone who will not sacrifice on their own behalf, don’t do it.  And if the person has a history of not taking care of their obligations, don’t do it. Lastly, if you feel that little tingle of shame inside, the one you get when you are hoping that this time your beloved is going to respond if you try just one more time, Call your best friend immediately and have them duct-tape you to your kitchen chair, well out of reach of any means of contacting your so-called beloved.

When you think about giving something (time, energy, attention, as well as actual gifts), imagine that this person is going to give back only what they have given you so far. This is important, because, as Dr. Phil says, the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.  Does this outcome make you happy?  If it doesn’t, then don’t do it.

Dialing it back means ending resentment.  It means giving up on the idea that you are “investing” in a relationship by giving more than you receive.  It means setting boundaries so that you put yourself first and never give more than you can afford (financially, physically, mentally, emotionally).  It is not romantic or noble to give blood to someone who pours it on the ground and asks for more. It means that when you give, you give wholeheartedly, without a hidden agenda, and without hope or expectation of return.

It also means recognizing and appreciating what the other person has to give to the relationship. You’ve got to understand who you are dealing with through small gestures first.  You’ve got to decide if that’s what you truly want. It means assessing your light-of-love’s level of reciprocity early in the relationship, BEFORE you give them the keys to your home and your ATM password.

This is not about bean counting, exactly.  Playing tit-for-tat will destroy a relationship.  But you have to feel secure that your relationship is not one-sided, that your partner is also invested in it, and will be there when you need them. Maybe not all the time, every day, but enough. That your relationship will feed you in some way, in return.

Every relationship is unique.  It may be that you have a good job and plenty of discretionary income, and your friend is always broke.  If you find your friend’s company truly worthwhile, say they are a great listener, or always cheer you up, maybe it gives you pleasure to treat your friend to things they can’t afford.  If you can do so without resentment and without making your friend uncomfortable, that’s a viable option.  Or you can dial it back by meeting your friend on their turf, where they can afford the price of admission. You can mix apples and oranges here. You cook meals.  They fix appliances.  As long as you both understand what you are getting out of the relationship and are happy with it, fine. Just don’t kid yourself.  It’s okay to mix apples and oranges.  Not so much if we’re talking watermelon and grapes.  Unless it’s a whole lotta grapes.

Transparency is important.  Can you talk with your friend/lover about what you are each getting out of the relationship?  If not, that’s a red flag.  Can you talk to yourself about what you are giving and getting out of your relationship?  Be honest.  Write it down in two columns.  Take a good look at it.

There’s another side of this.  When you give more than the other person can (on their terms) reciprocate, you are likely to make that person feel uncomfortable because you’ve created an obligation they can’t or aren’t willing to repay.  We’re talking about normal people here, not users.  This will push that person away rather than bring them closer. Someone who cares about you will not want you to overextend yourself on their behalf. They’re happy with your company without any grand gestures. On the other hand, greedy, selfish people will be happy to suck you dry. Want to find out who they are?  Dial it back.

Black Friday and Thoughts on the Art of Giving

I think the world must be divided into two kinds of people.  People who participate in Black Friday, and strange people like me, who Just-Don’t-Get-It.  I mean, there you are, stuffed to bursting in a turkey coma with your nearest and dearest, and instead of pulling out the Parcheesi board, you’re bundling up.  Bundling up?  For what?  a nice walk?  A movie?  Meeting friends at a bar?  Nope.  Bundling up in battle gear to stand outside all night long, waiting for the opening bell of Black Friday.

I’ve waited in lines before, for a good cause.  I waited in line for four hours to see the president.  I spent nine hours holding a Great Spot to see the WEBN Labor Day Fireworks the year my sister came to town to see them.  I don’t mind hardship for a good cause. But what is this good cause?

Black Friday marks the opening of the Season of Giving.  No matter your religion, you spend the dark days of winter in the pursuit of Peace on Earth and Goodwill towards Men.  This is universally celebrated by the giving of gifts.  And how do Black Friday adherents mark the opening of the season?  By punching out the person between them and the thing they want to buy so as to demonstrate their Love for Humanity.  For real?

The thing that precipitates this behavior is love of the Great Deal.  And a newspaper that costs twice as much as usual and weighs five pounds, full of Great Deals.  So that you can spend the day we set aside to consider all that we are grateful for, not cherishing memories with loved ones, but poring over pictures of things we don’t have and designing a battle plan for grabbing as many of these as possible for the lowest cost. No matter who’s in the way.

This must hark back to the good old days, before box stores, when Jason endured countless dangers in pursuit of the Golden Fleece.  When the value of a gift was defined, in part, by the amount of danger one went through to get it.  The HDTV becomes some kind of blood trophy.

Me, I’d prefer a gift that someone didn’t toss away a bit of their humanity to get. Oh, there are nice stories about Black Friday.  I hear that some churches give away hot cocoa to those in line in the middle of the night.  Then I wonder what those poor folks do when the cocoa runs through them and they’re still stuck in line. But such stories are rare.

To me, gifting is a subtle art, one that is not benefited by pugilism. It’s not about quantity.  It’s not about satisfying another person’s greed.  It is a way to recognize someone, to show them you understand them and love them for being who they are.  They connect us.  The best gifts require intuitive leaps that are served by aimless wanderings and serendipitous encounters.   One of my most cherished gifts was a scarab beetle in a test tube.  Huh?  I am probably the only female in the world who would coo over such a gift.  And the fact that my brother, who never communicates with anyone except to send presents at Christmas, somehow intuited that I would be pleased by such a thing is precious to me.

Another gift that tops my list was a blouse. On a freezing Saturday, I drove to Oklahoma City to spend the day, first teaching, then attending a round of gallery openings.  I was surprised to find my boyfriend waiting for me when my class was over.  The weather had shifted, and I was doomed to get heat rash from the sweater I was wearing. So he bought me a blouse, a very pretty blouse that looked great on me and went with my skirt.  Even better, it was a blouse I would not have thought to try on.  Then he drove twenty miles to get it to me so I would be comfortable that afternoon. I treasured that blouse, and still treasure the memory, long after we parted ways.

True gifts are symbols of the heart.  Someone very far away recently asked me what I wanted.  I said a key ring.  He was very surprised.  I told him I wanted it because that way I would have something from him that I would be touching all the time. Didn’t matter what kind of keyring.

If you’re reading this, you probably aren’t wrestling with someone over the last Tickle Me Elmo.  Possibly you are in sympathy with Walmart strikers, or just don’t care to risk maiming so some CEO can have another margarita on his yacht in the Caymans. Hopefully, you believe in supporting your local economy by buying local.  Maybe your idea of a gift isn’t the thing that a million other people have.  Perhaps your idea of giving the gift of yourself isn’t so literal as to involve bloodletting.  It’s possible you are just sensible enough to know that it’s freaking cold out there and the traffic is stupid to the max.  Whatever the reason, if you are reading this on Black Friday instead of shopping, you are my kind of people.

If you’re like me and think a much better way to spend today is to curl up with a good book,  I hope you’ll take a look at my friend, Kate’s, blog.  She’s listed a plethora of terrific indie ebooks (including “A Shot in the Bark”) for you to check out.  Find her here: Only True Magic

What Now?

Drool Baby
My Latest Release

This morning I pushed the button on “Drool Baby” over at KDP, and the book went live on Amazon after a year of wrestling with it.

So what did I do after that? I took a nap. A long, glorious, don’t-have-to-do-anything-or-be-anywhere nap.

I’m looking forward to spending the next week catching up with all the things that I’ve neglected during this last, long push to publication.

I’m excited that it looks like I’ve won the race to finish the book before a cold snap kills all my basil and parsley. I may get to make pesto this year, after all. And a big batch of tabooli.

The dogs can look forward to getting a bath. Chewy is getting groomed one last time before winter.

My mechanic doesn’t know it yet, but he’s going to see me next week for an oil change.

I’m going to read books somebody else wrote.

I swear I’m going to call my mother. And my stepmother, and my sister . . .

I might even get my hair cut.

I’m going to relax and enjoy the little things. Like clearing the biology experiments out of my refrigerator.

Then, after I’ve had a chance to start feeling human again, I’m going to take a deep breath, look around me, and figure out who I can knock off next.