Tag Archives: long-term relationships

Tips For Adulthood: Five Reasons To See The Kids Are All Right

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

OK, folks, I’ve got another movie recommendation for you.

It’s a small-ish, Indie film by Director Lisa Cholodenko called The Kids Are All Right which has been out in the States for a while now, but only recently opened over here in the land of the free and the brave. (Whoops! That’s the U.S.! I meant, the land that spawned the land of the free and the brave…must get my history straight.)

As always, when I recommend movies or books on this site, it’s because I think that they have something profound to say about adulthood.

So, too, with this film. Here are five reasons you should rush out to see it if you haven’t done so already:

1. It’s about marriage. The film centers around two women – played with just the right mix of pluck and vulnerability by Annette Bening and Julianne Moore – who’ve been married to each other for 18 plus years. And though it’s sort of a film about gay marriage (see #4), I wouldn’t say that’s the central theme. Rather, this film is about what I’ve referred to before as middle marriage – that particular stage of life when you’ve been married for a while and the kids are no longer babies and maybe you’ve had a career change or a move or two, and you’re trying to figure out what it’s all about. And Cholodenko (who also co-wrote the script) gets that stage of life perfectly: the yearnings, the frustrations, the mis-communications, the boredom, the anxiety and, most importantly, the weary and imperfect love that underlies it. I guarantee that if you’ve been married or in a long-term committed relationship for more than five years you will watch this movie and find yourself nodding in recognition.

2. It’s about infidelity. I give nothing away by revealing that the movie’s central drama concerns what happens when the man who donated sperm to this couple many years earlier so that they could have kids re-appears and completely upends their family life. Lots of movies have treated the topic of marital infidelity, which is – as I’ve noted before – not only wide-spread, but in some ways, entirely predictable. (I always feel like I need to justify that claim, so here’s some scientific evidence about why monogamy isn’t natural.) What I liked about this film was the way that the topic was broached. The cheating didn’t stem primarily from feelings of boredom or revenge or even idle sexual attraction. It stemmed from the desire to be recognized and appreciated. Which struck me as so…honest.

3. It’s about parenting teens. Again, there are loads of movies about parenting. What sets this one apart is that it focuses very specifically on parenting teenagers which – in light of our cultural obsession with babies (thank you, Erika Jong!) – can sometimes go missing. The movie not only addresses the classic theme of “letting go” ( the couples’ eldest child is about to go off to college), but also how difficult it can be when you don’t approve of the company your kids are keeping. And Lord knows I could relate to that.

4. It’s about gay marriage. OK, I realize that I just said that this movie wasn’t primarily about gay marriage. And it isn’t. But I very much liked that rather than seeing another film exploring some aspect of a long-term heterosexual relationship, this one brought us inside a homosexual one. In a country where we are still – improbably – trying to figure out if everyone should have the right to marry whoever the heck they want, having a mainstream picture focus in on a lesbian couple with kids who look (gasp) just like every other couple with kids is culturally important.

5. It also stars Mark Ruffalo. ‘Nuff said.

*****

I was over on Politics Daily yesterday talking about the latest chapter in the harrowing Elizabeth Smart story.

Image: Minhas mães e meu pai by Universo Produção via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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The Private Language Of Marriage

I read an article in the International Herald Tribune last Friday that really struck a chord. It was an essay by writer Joan Wickersham about the ways in which longtime couples develop their own private lexicons with which to communicate with one another.

She talks about this dynamic within the rubric of marriage, but her point applies to any long-term partnership. What’s crucial is that you’re together long enough to have a shared experience that which then evolves into a catch phrase that only the two of you can understand.

By way of example, Wickersham recounts the story of how – right after she married her husband – she got a job in a bank which she hated. Even though her husband had a job that he liked, he convinced her to quit her job (and he his) so that they could move somewhere else and both be happy. From there on out, “It’s like the bank” became their stock way to describe any situation that was especially bleak and dismal. Wickersham has another great story about the phrase “We’re just not serrated knife people” and what it came to mean within the context of their marriage.

My husband and I have been together for nearly 17 years and I know exactly what she means. I’m one of those people who’s obsessed with schedules. Once – on a trip to visit my husband’s parents in Atlanta – I perseverated for hours over whether, upon landing at Hartsfield Airport, we ought to go directly to his parents’ home or stop by and visit a friend first and risk being late. To this day, whenever I begin obsessing about our travel schedule, my husband will look at me and say: “Should we just go home or should we stop at Douglas Jackson’s?” (Not his real name.) It’s code for: Are you really going to go on about this all night?

Similarly, we’ve also incorporated a phrase to describe that feeling you get when you anticipate that someone is going to disagree with you. My husband and I met in graduate school and one of our early bonding experiences was over our feelings about a mutual acquaintance (we’ll call him Simon Collins.) Simon Collins was the kind of person who – no matter what you said – instinctively responded with something negative. I haven’t seen or talked to Simon in years. Nor has my husband. But whenever one of us raises a topic that might possibly prompt criticism, we preface it by saying “No Simon Collins!”  to disarm the other person from any knee-jerk disapproval.

Neither of these phrases would mean anything to anyone but the two of us. And that’s the point.

I’ve written before about some of the things that make for a happy marriage/partnership: having shared interests; establishing a division of labor. But Wickersham’s column reminded me of one more crucial ingredient – feeling like a team. There are lots of ways to do this, but having a private language – a “civilization of two” as she puts it – is one of the principle ways that you can reinforce that bond.

How about you? What strange and impenetrable shorthands have you and your partner devised to communicate with one another?

I’d love to hear them…

Image: portrait of a happy couple – day 358 or Project 365 by purplemattfish via Flickr under a Creative Commons license

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Tips For Adulthood: Five Ways To Stay Fit

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

This week’s list is inspired – yet again – by my move.

My new house is located considerably further than my old house to either of my children’s schools. And so, for someone who was already walking quite a bit (we don’t own a car), I’m now walking even more. Which got me thinking about fitness.

Let me preface this by saying that I’m not a fitness freak. I’m not naturally athletic. (My best sports are billiards and ping-pong). Nor am I neurotic about food (it may be one of the *only* things I’m not neurotic about.) And yet, I lead what most people would term a fairly health lifestyle.

Here’s how I do it and how you can too:

1. Only eat sweets at night. I’m a fairly rule-bound person, which means that when I want to commit to some course of action – be it blogging, exercising or reading the New Yorker – I tend to set rules for myself. Not rigid, you-must-do-this-or-you’ll-die sorts of rules. More like guidelines. With sweets, my rule is “Only eat them at night.” I don’t know when I came up with this rule. But somewhere along the way I decided that as someone with the dietary preferences of an 11-year-old boy, I’d be better off setting some kind of arbitrary limitation on my sugar intake. And saving sweets for the evening works really well. Because that daily dose of Ben and Jerry’s is something I can look forward to all day long.

2. Pretend you have food allergies. OK, I don’t really do this because I don’t need to pretend. My son has a host of food allergies which means that there are all sorts of things that are off-limit in our house. But if I were trying to attain a healthier diet, I might pretend that I was similarly constrained. Because you end up eating much more healthily when you start paying attention to food labels. Take junk food. Most processed food – potato chips (crisps), cookies (biscuits) or pretty much any form of cake – has eggs and butter (not to mention a host of other items.) I have nothing against eggs or butter. But my son is allergic to both. Which means that almost all of the dessert items we stock on a regular basis (save my precious Ben and Jerry’s) are “vegan,” because only vegan items are free of eggs, milk and butter. So we tend to stock a lot of pareve cookies in addition to things like sorbet and dark chocolate. While your first instinct might be to say “gross,” go ahead and try it. Some are, indeed, gross. But some are plenty tasty, like these organic chocolate rice bars. Yum!

3. Build your work-out into another weekly routine and commit to it. Yes, yes. I know what you’re going to say: “But I’m not self-disciplined enough to do this!” I hear you. I don’t like working out either. So the way I “trick” myself into working out regularly is to build my work-out into a different routine in my life that isn’t optional:  taking my son to school. Two or three times a week – when it’s my turn to take my son to school – I make sure that I wear my work-out gear. (Hidden Fitness Rule Number One: getting dressed to work out is half the battle.) That way, after I’ve dropped him off, all I need to do is pop on the walk-man and off I go. After all, I still need to get home, right? Might as well run. Obviously, this particular strategy won’t work for all parents. Some may need to get on a bus or train to go to work. (To them I’d suggest: try cycling to work.) Or maybe your child’s school is right around the corner. (Pretend it isn’t. See #2.) But you get my drift:  figure out some non-moveable piece in your weekly schedule and make that anchor your work-out regime.

4. Sell your car or get an eco-friendly one. Ok, now we’re moving into more radical territory. I’ve come out before in favor of abandoning the automobile in favor of biking. It’s smart for your body and smart for the environment. It’s also really terrific for your kids, who – without the habit of getting strapped into a car seat – will learn how to walk long distances (and have the calf muscles to show for it!) I do realize that this isn’t going to be realistic for everybody, especially Americans. If you can’t quite manage doing without a car, then at the very least please try to have an eco-friendly car. Someone in our new neighborhood has an electric car and just the other day we walked by while they were charging it. So cool!!

5. Partner with someone who values fitness. I’m genetically predisposed to be on the thin side of things. But I’m quite certain that I’d be a good 10 pounds heavier than I am (and a good deal less healthy) if I weren’t with my husband, who really values being healthy as an intrinsic good. Before I met him, I never even considered combining different grains in my breakfast cereal. (Hidden Fitness Rule Number Two.) He’s also the person who got me into yoga. But one of the many great things about a long-term relationship is that you continually learn from your partner and grow. So choose wisely, in health as in so many things!


Image: Cereal with walnuts and cranberries by .imelda via flickr under a creative commons license.

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Tips For Adulthood: Five Ways To Improve A Long-Term Relationship

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

This week’s post goes to the heart of keeping a long-standing relationship going. If you’re in one – whether with a partner, a spouse or even a roommate – you know that over time, things can get a bit stale. You start having the same fights over and over. You start completing your partner’s sentences, in a way that breeds boredom rather than intimacy. You know – with agonizing specificity – exactly what the other person likes to eat for breakfast.

So it’s time to shake things up a bit. Change the routine. And also change the way you act towards the other person. You’ll be surprised how well it works. Here are five concrete suggestions for how to do this:

1. Make a small gesture. Happiness blogger Gretchen Rubin lists “Give Proofs of Love” as one of her resolutions. By which she means that it’s as important to demonstrate your love to someone else as it is to love them. Perhaps even more important. There are lots of ways to show someone you love them. You can buy them a new car. Book an appointment with a career counselor. Decorate their room with their favorite things. But you can also do small things. In my case, I noticed one morning that my husband’s toast had popped out of the toaster and was ready to be buttered. While that’s not normally something I’d do for him (speaking of breakfast routines), one day I decided that I’d do it, just to be nice. Guess what? He noticed. And thanked me. Then I did it again. He thanked me again. And I realized how even a tiny gesture can speak volumes.

2. Defer to your partner on a decision. If you’re in a long-term relationship, chances are you’re making loads of decisions together all the time: where to live, which school to send the kids to, how to balance career/family. Some of those can and must be done together. But occasionally a decision will come along where you can afford not to weigh in as much as you otherwise might. In my case, it’s our upcoming move. I’m a bit of a control freak. (In case you haven’t noticed.) And in an ideal world, I’d probably approach our move somewhat differently than my husband would. But I decided a few weeks ago that I was going to defer to him on this one. He’s less spastic (for lack of a better word) than I am about moving. And it just seemed like a real shame to try to micro-manage this particular event in our lives (and all the stress, anxiety and quarrels that would likely provoke), so I  just let him take the lead. And you know what? We’re both more relaxed about it now.

3. Make A Sanctuary. Once you’ve spent years in a relationship of any sort, it’s easy to start letting other parts of your individual lives (work, kids, relatives) invade your space together. Try not to let this happen. Obviously, you can’t seal off your relationship completely. But you can at least try to protect it. I had one set of friends (a couple) who made a rule that “all work stays at the door.” By which they meant that their bedroom would be a sanctuary. They were both allowed to work in the evening – they had to, sometimes – but when they were finished working, all work had to stay by the door literally outside their bedroom. I thought this was a great idea.

4. Carve out Time. Of course, a sanctuary isn’t any good to you unless you actually spend some time there. So in addition to demarcating your private space, you need also to do things together inside it. Whatever you enjoy most. In my own case, my husband and I try to set aside time every night to talk about the day and then watch something together – a DVD commentary, a BBC documentary, The Daily Show. Another couple I know makes a point of eating dinner together every night after their daughter goes to sleep (*he* cooks, mind you!), even if it’s 9:30 or 10 o’clock at night.  Still another couple I know takes a run together once a week in the morning and stops for tea mid-way through. It doesn’t really matter what you do, but that you do it together.

5. Go On An Overnight Getaway. Ok, this advice may be less good for the room mates at hand. But if you’re in a long-term romantic relationship, a great way to re-ignite that flame is to go on an adventure. If you can’t afford to pay for a hotel and sitter, then see if you can send your kids to a friend or relative and have the night to yourselves in your own home. That can be just as fun. If you can afford to splurge once in a while, it’s well worth the effort. We had some friends in Chicago who spent the entire weekend of their 10th anniversary at a hotel in downtown Chicago just 9 miles away from where the live. They had a blast. Last week, we managed to finagle a free room in a fancy hotel in London while my mother was visiting. True, we were on the smoking floor. But I can’t tell you how much fun it was to get dressed up and go down to Soho and have dinner at  a chic restaurant on a Thursday night and then amble back (at a leisurely pace!) to our fancy digs. Bliss!

*****

For those who are interested, hop on over to PoliticsDaily.com to see why I think Nick Clegg has fundamentally changed the nature of British electoral politics.


Image: Toasts by Electric Bielka via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

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Tips For Adulthood: Five Ways To Help A Friend In Crisis

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

Several of my friends are undergoing personal crises right now. Some are seeing long-term relationships come to an end. One friend has bedbugs and needs to vacate her apartment ASAP (and toss out all her furniture). Another friend just discovered that his former partner has cancer. Here’s a story in the New York times by a guy I don’t even know (but could) who hit rock bottom when he was unemployed.

It’s hard to know how to counsel friends when they are in the midst of a severe crisis. But here are a few things that I’ve learned along the way:

1. Reach Out. Sometimes we’re afraid to reach out to friends in acute crises because we think that they’ll be embarrassed or ashamed. And sometimes we just don’t want to deal, either because their problems hit too close to the bone or because we’re so submerged in our own issues and can’t come up for air. But just as it’s important not to ignore physical pain in ourselves, it’s equally important not to ignore emotional pain in those close to us. If a friend is contemplating suicide, for example, it’s important for him to know that you don’t want to live in a world that he’s not part of. Many crises occur because people feel isolated and in despair. Let them know that you’re there and that they matter to you.

2. Listen, Don’t Give Advice. But as important as it is to reach out, it’s equally important to understand what your role is. It’s very tempting when confronted with someone else’s pain to try and fix it. That’s always my first instinct. But chances are whoever you are talking to is already getting lots of advice anyway (some from paid professionals). So the best thing you can do is to listen and let them know that you hear their pain. This is especially important in the wake of a break-up or divorce where there are often dual (and dueling) narratives as to what actually happened. (Note: this is also really good advice for raising children; most of the time you should listen to their problems and acknowledge their hurt  – no matter how absurd it may sound – rather than telling them what to do.)

3. Emphasize the Positive. This sounds obvious but it can be difficult if your friend is relentlessly negative about his or her situation. Try to find something – anything – that might give them hope. One of my friends was sending out increasingly bleak emails to a close circle of friends. While acknowledging his pain (see point #2), I also told him that his ability to describe his predicament with such clarity and conviction was itself a positive, because it meant that he understood himself incredibly well – and was finding a creative outlet to express this.

4. Send Them Something. One way to let a close friend know that you’re thinking about them is to send them something thoughtful. Right after my father died last March, one of my friends sent me a care package for Easter filled with frost-them-yourself cupcakes and some of those tiny yellow marshmallow chicks they sell in America at Easter time. She knew that my father used to send me weird stuff in the mail all the time and this was her way of saying “I’m thinking about you.” But it doesn’t have to be a present. I often send friends who are sad e-cards to brighten up their day. Or poems. Or song lyrics. Or articles I come across that speak to what they’re going through. It’s a non-invasive way of letting them know that they’re on your mind.

5. Recognize Your Limitations. But perhaps the most important thing you can do is to recognize that you aren’t God (or your all-powerful being of choice.) I recently came across this post by a friend on Facebook and it spoke volumes to me: I find it enormously heartbreaking to watch someone I love suffer under the weight of severe depression. I feel so useless. It’s really hard to accept that – at the end of the day – there’s only so much you can do. But you can save yourself a lot of unnecessary grief if you acknowledge that you aren’t in control. You can’t fix this person’s life. You can only show them love.

Image: peep by thelouche via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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