The Beginning of the End

That’s how one pro football coach described the moment to his players right before game 9 of 16 this weekend. Hearing that, I thought it aptly described my present stage of life. Then again, life is fragile, so who knows, I could be a little or a lot closer to the End than I realize.

If it’s hard to figure out how to approach the End, it’s doubly hard when married because everyone thinks about the End a little, or a lot, differently. The Good Wife and I are thinking fairly differently about how to live at the beginning of the end. It would be a lot easier if she would start thinking more like me.

Looking for Love—Introducing the Romantic Love Score

Maybe you know someone like my 29 year old friend who recently sent me a great email.

“My life is pretty darn good right now,” she wrote, “but I would still like to find a special friend with whom I could start a family.” Thinking who better to offer some inspiration, she told me she had a good job, some decent friends, but no real prospects when it came to romantic love.

And so I tried.

First, I celebrated her refreshing “If it happens great, if not, I’ll still lead a fulfilling life” attitude. People desperate to find someone to “complete them” stand little chance of forming a healthy, balanced, long-term relationship based upon mutual respect.

I also affirmed her desire to marry and start a family because my wife and daughters have definitely enriched my life. Mostly for the better, intimacy amplifies one’s joys and heartbreaks. For me, and most people in healthy committed relationships, that’s a trade-off worth making. Over and over, year after year.

I think about my friend’s prospects for romantic love almost exclusively in sociologically terms. Let me explain by way of what I’m labeling one’s Romantic Love score. Your RL score is similar to a house’s Walk Score. A walk score is a number between 0 and 100 that realtors assign to every house for sale. The higher the score, the easier it is to walk to stores, restaurants, parks, etc. Our current home has an abysmal walk score of “5” meaning you better pack some food if you’re walking to the grocery store.

A Romantic Love score is also a number between 0 and 100. The higher your score, the greater your likelihood of meeting someone special with whom marriage and children are possibilities.

Walk scores are determined by sophisticated computers, Romantic Love scores are determined by my amazingly brilliant analysis of a few things you send me. First and most importantly, a map of your typical week showing me exactly how you spend every hour of every day that you’re awake.

From that map, I determine the potential for casual friendships to evolve into something hotter and heavier. Work is obviously a big chunk of time and that could go either way depending upon how consistently you interact with colleagues around your age, but you’re outside of work time is most important. If you spend evenings reading alone, your RL score will be far less than if you participate in a book club or two. No one is ever going to come wave at you through your window while you’re wrapped in a blanket, after dinner, in your favorite reading spot.

Similarly, it’s one thing to run in the pitch black at 5a.m. alone and another to run after work or on the weekends with a group sponsored by a local running store, maybe even one that meets up afterwards to continue socializing. And it’s one thing to lap swim by one’s self and another to join a masters swim team and workout a few times a week with the same 20-30 people. Ditto with cycling. Better to attend the same spin class with the same 10-15 people than to just cycle alone all the time.

The second stage is doing things with your small group friend(s) outside of the regular activity—going out to dinner, weekend get-aways, etc. Traveling with small groups of friends for a weekend or week increases the potential for sparks of mutual interest and admiration, thus raising your RL score.

Don’t force participation in activities that you don’t naturally enjoy in the first place, just be more intentional about doing them with others. Small groups whom you interact with at least twice a week. And then be intentional about each group. After a few weeks or month, evaluate the potential for meeting someone special, and don’t hesitate to switch one small group activity for another.

My wife was a second year teacher in rural Southern California when she was 24. All she did was work, then exercise at a fitness center, and then watch the NewsHour while eating dinner. There were hardly any single people in her community so she decided to take her RL score into her own hands. She quit her job and moved to Santa Monica and looked for a teaching job there. Right away she started attending the same church I was attending. My roommates and I at the time hosted a bible study in our home.

She showed up one summer night with her roommate who she knew a little bit prior to her move. After the bible study I asked her if she wanted to go get some frozen yogurt (Rico Suave). About 6-8 of us ended up going. After that I was smitten and asked her if she wanted to go out to dinner and by then any resistance to my charm offensive was futile.

The take-away is small groups aren’t magical. At some point you have to be more intentional than might come naturally and take initiative to move from acquaintance to friend to more special friend. In the simplest terms, being more intentional might mean saying, “I like you.” And then assessing whether the feeling is mutual. Obviously, there has to be reciprocity. Romantic love can’t be forced, there has to be some chemistry.

Second, I need a list of all of your close friends who are aware of your desire for a special friend and consciously thinking about mutual friends who might be a decent match. This is the “social capital” subsection of your overall RL score.

Third, I need an honest self-assessment of how flexible you are. Not with regard to values, you should never settle for someone who isn’t kind and doesn’t inspire you to be an even better person, but in terms of age and level of education. The older you are, the more you need to consider someone younger or older than you, and if you’re a female, quite possibly someone with less formal education. Obviously, the more flexible, the higher your RL score.

Fourth, I need an honest assessment of your relative selflessness. Since selfish people typically lack self awareness, you’ll need to solicit the help of close friends and family who know you best. Ask them, on a scale of 0 to 10, zero representing a “no hope narcissist of Donald Trump like proportions” and ten representing “Mother Teresa like selflessness”, where would you rate me and why? Long term committed relationships depend upon mutual curiosity and consideration, active listening, and patience. The more selfless, the higher your RL score.

I am now accepting submissions. Every Pressing Pauser is interested in learning more from your particular situation so don’t be bashful. If I share what you submit I’ll do it so discreetly no one will ever trace any of the deets back to you.

My friend’s RL score? Currently hovering in the high teens, but she’s committed to changing that. Hope I get invited to the wedding.

Related read. [Note: The reader’s top ranked comments are every bit as good as the essay.]

Dreaming of Solitude

A “Dear Prudence” letter from

Dear Prudence,

My husband and I met very young and had kids right away. It’s now 25 years later and the kids are off to college, our life together is comfortable. We’re still in love, and everything should be perfect. Except it’s not. I have recurring fantasies of just leaving everything behind, moving to the other coast, and starting over all by myself. I dream of finding a small apartment, furnishing it exactly as I want, leaving a mess when I don’t feel like cleaning up, eating whatever and whenever I want, and basically being a single girl in my 20s, minus the dating and insecurities. I wouldn’t mind if my husband and children visited, but there’s something in me that craves distance and my own space. I have no desire to find another man; I just want to be alone. I’ve been finding excuses to travel solo simply because staying by myself in a hotel is the closest thing to fulfilling my fantasy. I order room service, binge watch movies, and just revel in my solitude. I wish I had an excuse like a job offer or degree program far away to make such a move possible. I would probably want to come home after a while—a year, maybe two—but who knows? I might love living alone too much to give it up. Part of me also feels guilty for wanting this because my husband is adamant that he wouldn’t want to be without me. I’ve tried to talk him into getting separate bedrooms for years, and he refuses. I also imagine that someday I will probably be widowed and have exactly what I’m dreaming of, and at that point I’ll miss him terribly and feel foolish for wanting this now. Is this impulse bizarre and unhealthy? Is it a phase I should just grit my teeth and barrel through? Is it something that will eat away at me until I get off my ass and do it? Can I do it without hurting him too much?

—Dreaming of Solitude (DoS)

Here’s my prediction on most people’s gut reaction to reading this, “What a whiny, self-centered, loser. She’s symbolic of everything that’s wrong with the U.S. today!” I read it differently and not just because I’m a huge fan of solitude. I feel for DoS because her dilemma highlights a central challenge in any long-term committed relationship.

For peace to prevail over time, you have to do two things. First, you have to consciously ignore most of the low-level aggravating things your partner does on a daily basis. For example, The Good Wife has to try to accept the fact that I selfishly turn off the bedroom light at night whenever I’m ready to sleep whether she’s mid-paragraph in her book or not. She has to try to accept the fact that right at that moment I’m thinking more about my running partners waiting outside for me in seven hours than I am her. And she has to do that type of thing every day in myriad ways because I’m a selfish pig.

Second, you have to continuously shake off a steady stream of low-level irritants without allowing so much resentment to build that it eventually bubbles over in grand gestures to have separate bedrooms (where I can be in control of the lighting my own damn self) or to live three thousand miles apart. That balance, having decent enough communication to talk about and work through low-level resentments (The Good Wife, “In the future, could you please ask me if you can turn out the light so I can at least finish my sentence?”) is an exceedingly delicate balancing act that’s easier to get wrong than right.

In my reading of DoS’s letter, the key phrase is this, “. . . furnishing it exactly as I want, leaving a mess when I don’t feel like cleaning up, eating whatever and whenever I want.” Three annoyances that by themselves wouldn’t amount to much or even if taken together for a short period of time probably wouldn’t amount to much. But the longer they’re not talked about in the light of day, they metastasize and drive a wedge between otherwise intimate people.

Imagine if DoS had come clean with her husband about her feelings years earlier. Three separate dinner discussions. The first. “For a long, long time, I haven’t felt enough freedom to decorate differently.” The second, “For far too long, I haven’t felt nearly free enough to be more messy.” The third, “For as long as I can remember I haven’t felt sufficient freedom to eat whatever I want at whatever time I want.” If the husband is as good a guy as he seems to be, he’d be sympathetic and try to be much more understanding of her need for those particular freedoms.

There’s no guarantee those conversations would go so well that the resentment would dissipate to the point where moving across the country wouldn’t be necessary, but not having them is a larger risk. By not having them the husband is in for a major surprise, one he doesn’t deserve if she’s said too little for too long.

Postscript: I thought I had turned the comments back on awhile ago, but learned today I had not. They’re back on. So comment away on Cornell West, Michael Eric Dyson, Ms. Dreaming of Solitude, or whatever you want to get off your chest about those you’re most intimate.

Young Adults Aren’t Having as Much Sex as Everyone Thinks

Sentence to ponder:

“More and more technophilic and commitment-phobic millennials are shying away from physical encounters and supplanting them with the emotional gratification of virtual quasi relationships, flirting via their phones and computers with no intention of ever meeting their romantic quarry: less casual sex than casual text.”   —Teddy Wayne in the New York Times

I recommend reading the article in its entirety. It’s required reading if you don’t know what “IRL” stands for. Wayne’s descriptions and analyses challenge my thinking. Normally, I find the negative reactions of older people to changes in youth culture predictable and mindless. Older people thoughtlessly flatter themselves to think things were always better “back in the day”. By reminding myself that the changes aren’t better or worse than in the past, just different, I consciously practice a form of cultural relativism.

But when many millennials give up, as Wayne reports, on “the more challenging terrain of three-dimensional partners”, it’s hard for me to think screen-based relationships are just different than IRL ones. By punting on in-person vulnerability and physical touch, millennials are foregoing intimacy. And by living less intimately with others, they’re compromising the quality of their lives.

Committed friendships—especially romantic ones—are risky because they’re a by-product of vulnerability. You can’t know how caring and accepting a friend will be until you reveal some of your unflattering attributes, insecurities, fears, and related neuroses. Many millennials appear to be like grade-obsessed, risk-adverse students who consciously avoid challenging courses and instructors.

Wayne focuses too narrowly on sex at the expense of physical touch more generally. Sometimes in fact, the more subtle the touch, the more profound. My clarion call in the Writing Seminar last week was “Depth of description and analysis trumps breadth.” To illustrate this, I had them read a Joe Morgenstern essay titled “How One Scene Can Say Everything: Deconstructing The Five Best Minutes of Little Miss Sunshine“. After reading Morgenstern we watched the scene in which a major family crisis is avoided when a ten year old girl puts her arm around her devastated older brother sitting on the ground below her. Then she gently rests her head on his shoulder. She doesn’t say a word. Within seconds his anger subsides and the family reconciles.

It would be easy to offer up apocalyptic conclusions about the millennials choosing watered down, on-line acquaintances, over wonderfully and painfully flawed “real life” ones. And to the cumulative effect of less physical touch. But I’m going to resist that because their intense aversion to risk didn’t arise in a vacuum.

I suspect something was amiss in the way my peers and I raised our millennial children. Maybe we gave into our fears about their safety and were too overprotective. Maybe we didn’t model as well as we could have what we know. That life is sweeter as a result of intimate friendships even when they provide tremendous joy one day and heartbreak the next.

The Future of Marriage

Here is how one on-line magazine reported on Gwyneth Paltrow’s and Chris Martin’s recent breakup:

Ever since Gwyneth Paltrow became famous in her early 20s, she has made women feel bad about themselves. As Gwyneth’s former high school classmate told a New York magazine reporter in the mid-’90s, “Even people who don’t know Gwyneth measure themselves against her success. … Gwyneth makes us feel extremely lame.” And so it was Tuesday, when Paltrow and her husband, Chris Martin, announced their split in the most Gwyneth way possible by telling the world about their separation in her lifestyle newsletter Goop, with a personal note and an accompanying expert essay about something called “conscious uncoupling.” Because Gwyneth does not break up like the rest of us.

The gist of the essay—by Habib Sadeghi and Sherry Sami, doctors who integrate Eastern and Western medicine—is that the institution of marriage hasn’t evolved along with our longer life spans. Divorce doesn’t mean your relationship wasn’t successful, they say. It just means that this particular relationship has come to its conclusion; you may have two or three of these successful relationships in a lifetime. Instead of a typical, rancorous, regular-person separation, you just need to have a “conscious uncoupling.”

I feel for Paltrow and anyone who feels compelled to manage their image so methodically. What an exhausting and lonely path to trod. So sad I’m going to grant her a mulligan on the New Age phrasing many others are using for laughs.

Gwyneth’s brand will not shape the future of marriage, Millennials behavior will. Esther Perel is a marriage counselor who has unique insights on why people have affairs. Read an interview with her here. She also has provocative things to say about Millennials and the future of marriage. For example:

Slate: What would you say to people who want to preserve a marriage?

Perel: Most people today, for the sheer length we live together, have two or three marriages in their adult life, and some of us do it with the same person. For me, this is my fourth marriage with my husband and we have completely reorganized the structure of the relationship, the flavor, the complementarity.

Slate: Explicitly, or it just happened organically?

Perel: Both. It became clear that we could either go into crisis mode and end it or go into crisis mode and renew. And that is one of the most hopeful sentences a betrayed partner can hear when they come into my office the day after they find out and they are in a state of utter shock and collapse: I say, your first marriage may be over, and in fact I believe that affairs are often a powerful alarm system for a structure that needs change. And then people say: But did it have to happen like that? And I say: I have rarely seen anything as powerful lead to a regenerative experience. This is a controversial idea, but betrayal is sometimes a regenerative act. It’s a way of saying no to a rotten system in need of change.

Perel earlier in the same interview:

We go elsewhere because we are looking for another self. It isn’t so much that we want to leave the person we are with as we want to leave the person we have become.

I like Perel’s thinking because it challenges my own. I’m not modern enough to give up on monogamy, but I’m intrigued by her notion of multiple marriages to the same person.

Here are a few reminders I’m taking from my brief intro to Perel’s work. First, it’s extremely unhealthy to expect one person to meet all of your needs. Some degree of autonomy is important. Second, the health of one’s marriage depends mostly on their individual emotional, psychological, and spiritual health. And third, to maintain positive emotional, psychological, and spiritual health, balance daily routines, both as an individual and as a couple, with a sense of “novelty and adventure”.

I liked a story my sixty year old sister told me last week at Uncle Erwin’s celebration of life in Missoula, Montana. Recently, she spent an afternoon sledding with a bunch of her friends. Novel and adventurous. And her marriage might be (marginally) healthier and happier as a result.





How to Find Your Soulmate

Apparently, the first all important step is to figure out the single most consequential thing you want in a partner. For example, maybe they HAVE to be devotees of Ayn Rand, or farm for a living, or be gluten-free. As detailed in a recent Wall Street Journal article, there are dating websites for each of those interests. Soon there’s bound to be meta-websites where someone could zero in on their dream gluten-free, Ayn Rand loving farmer within 100 miles of Cedar Rapids.

The Journal article was nice because it featured people who weren’t terribly optimistic about finding love, but were finding it thanks to these “niche” websites. They were getting along with their newly found partners, marrying, and starting families. Tough read for a tech skeptic like me.

A noteworthy paragraph:

Relationships often work best when people share similar core values and lifestyle goals. The online dating site eHarmony, for example, matches users by personality traits. Yet if two people are too similar, doesn’t the day-to-day relationship suffer from a lack of fun tension and fresh ideas?

I bet that’s a likely unintended negative consequence of delegating dating to computer algorithms.

Besides the fact that she was fine, a large part of my falling in love with Betrothed was the realization that she brought out the best parts of me. Put differently, I was a better person as a result of our friendship. Specifically, her kindness, her compassion, her social conscience, her generosity, her human decency, superseded my selfish, apathetic self. No computer could quantify that instinct.

I think she’d say I’ve enriched her life too. As a team, our sum is definitely more than our individual parts. But it hasn’t been a walk in the park, in part because we’re so different. Now, twenty-six years in, we’re starting to realize maybe our differences are strengths. Instead of failing miserably at changing one another, we’re learning to appreciate what each person contributes to the relationship, the family, the world.

To find your soulmate chuck the lengthy, hopelessly unrealistic check-list and replace it with one two-part question. Will this person bring out the best of me, and together, will we make a more positive impact on the world than we would apart?

True Confession

If you were standing here beside me right now you’d probs (adolescent form of “probably”) counsel me to immediately abort the mission. You might even slam the laptop on my fingers. You’d argue, and I’d be hard pressed to prove otherwise, that this is not the right time or place to confess that I’ve been unfaithful to my wife. But being of slow and stubborn stock, I feel I must come clean.

Straying from the marital straight and narrow started innocently enough, wishing the love of my life was a few pounds lighter, then fantasizing about weekend get-aways. I wish I could say this was a one-off and that I immediately realized the damage done, but in fact, since taking the plunge, I can’t stop thinking about her. She’s promised to spend hours with me. Take me places near and far. Climb steep mountain passes. Crush anyone that gets in our way. To always be there for me.

If you’re a female reader, you’re probably so disgusted with me that you can’t see straight. If you’re of the male persuasion, you’re wondering what she looks like. Without further ado. . .

Be still my beating heart.

Be still my beating heart.

The start of a beautiful relationship.

The start of a beautiful relationship.