I spent 10 years as a wedding photographer, and it allowed me to see the joys of young love over and over again. I’m so thankful for that time because love is one of the most beautiful things in the world. As we all know, however, not everything that blooms matures into a deeply rooted relationship that goes the distance. Sadly, I’ve seen a few weddings I’ve photographed end in divorce already. Statistically speaking, it’ll happen to half of us — it’s a frightening thought!

So if you’re a bride or groom to be, how do you know if your marriage will have what it takes? How do you build it to last? I believe everyone has the potential; here’s my advice how to get there.

Take some time to thoroughly examine the following. Be sure both of you know how to 1). communicate your feelings, 2). fight fair, and 3). and are capable of following through with commitment. If you have these three relational ingredients, I believe you have everything you’ll need for a beautiful marriage — you’ll have a lifetime of discovering treasures together.

1. COMMUNICATE

your feelings with vulnerability

Do you know yourself well enough to have a good handle on your feelings in most circumstances? Can you easily share how you really feel with your fiancee? If so, great! If not, why? If there’s anything you’re afraid of, that’s a red flag. Honestly look at what is holding you back and ask yourself if you want to bring that into your marriage with you? Sharing your feelings and giving names to the experiences you share together is what intimacy is all about. The fruit of which is a deep internal rest in knowing you are seen, accepted, and cherished just as you are.

2. FIGHT FAIR

without blame or attacking words

All relationships have inherit conflict. Avoiding it isn’t what makes a good healthy connection — it’s the dealing with it honestly with no attacking or blaming statements. What throws most of us off track is the heat of the moment. When we have strong emotions, we often stop communicating what we feel and jump right into reacting to what we’re feeling. Feelings are vulnerable center; not the defensive retaliation to protect them. For example, if someone starts pushing our buttons, we might say, “Cut it out. Stop irritating me!” We might even attach a feeling word disclaimer and say, “Stop it, I feel like you’re being rude and insensitive.”  Although all of these statements may be laced with feeling words, it’s far from being honest with how we actually feel or does it give access to the other person to see us clearly. Digging deeper, expressing how we feel might look more like this, “I’m feeling hurt and annoyed; I need some space for a little bit.” Practice this now, for it sets the path you’ll find yourself years later.

3. COMMIT YOURSELF

to a lifetime of integrity building

Before you say “I do,” ask yourself the really hard questions. Are you capable of following through with your commitments? Ask the same of your partner. Is integrity carved deep into his or her character? Does he or she have a tendency to back out of things when they get too hard? If you know how to commit to one another, you’ll develop the foundation for your love to grow and you’ll be able to endure anything life throws at you. I’ll have no doubt that you’ll be one of the successful ones. Your wedding day will just a drop of goodness compared to the oceans of joy you’ll share as you grow old together. May you have 50 or more increasingly beautiful years!

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Below is an except from an old Conan O’Brien interview of Louis C.K. which turned out to be one of the best commentaries on the 21st century and a humorous reminder the secret to happiness is gratitude. Enjoy.

Louis CK: Those were simpler times I think. I just feel like, we may be going back to that by the way, but ah, in a way good because when I read things like the foundations of capitalism are shattering I’m like maybe we need that. Maybe we need some time where we’re walking around with a donkey with pots clanking on the sides, ya know.

Conan O’Brien: You think that that would just bring us back to reality.

Louis: Yeah, because everything is amazing right now and nobody’s happy. Like in my lifetime the changes in the world have been incredible. When I was a kid we had a rotary phone. We had a phone you had to stand next to and you had to dial it, (yes) you know. You know, you ever realize how primitive, you’re making sparks in a phone and you actually would hate people with zeros in their numbers ’cause it was more (right) oh, this guy’s got two zeros, screw that guy, why do I wanna, ugh… and then if, if they called and you weren’t home the phone would just ring lonely by itself. And then when, if you wanted money you had to go in the bank for (yes) when it was open for like three hours. You had to stand in line, write yourself a check like an idiot, and then when you ran outta money you just go, well I can’t do any more things now (yeah, right) I can’t do any more things (that’s it, yeah) that was it. And, and, and even if you had a credit card they, the guy’d go ugh and he’d bring out this whole shunk, shunk and he’d write and he’d have to call the president to see if you had any money…..

Conan: It’s all true kids. You had to call the president, yeah. It was rediculous. (yes) Do you feel that we now, in the 21st century, we take technology for granted?

Louis: Well, yeah, ’cause now we live in, in an amazing, amazing world and it’s wasted on the, on the crappiest generation of just spoiled idiots that don’t care because, this is what people are like now. They got their phone and they’re like eeaagh, it won’t… give it a second! Give it, it’s going to space, would ya give it a second to get back from space, it’s the speed of light, it’s true, it’s true. (yeah) I was on a, I was on an airplane and there was internet, high speed internet on the airplane (yes) that’s the newest thing that I know exists. And I’m sitting on the plane and they go open up your laptop and you can go on the internet and it’s fast and I’m watching YouTube clips it’s amazing. I’m in an airplane and then it breaks down and they apologize the internet is not working and the guy next to me goes psssh this is bull____. Like how quickly the world owes him something (yes) he knew existed only 10 seconds ago (right, right) and on planes….

secret-to-happiness

Flying is the worst one because people come back from flights and they tell you their story and it’s like a horror story. It’s, they act like their flight was like a cattle car in the 40’s in Germany. (yeah) That’s how bad they make it sound (right). They’re like it was the worst day of my life. First of all we didn’t board for 20 minutes (right) and then we get on the plane and they made us sit there on the runway for 40 minutes. We had to sit there. Oh really, what happened next? Did you fly through the air incredibly like a bird? Did you partake in the miracle of human flight, you non-contributing zero? Wow, you’re flying! It’s amazing! Everybody on every plane should just constantly be going, oh my God, wow! (yes) you’re flying! You’re, you’re sitting in a chair in the sky (yes, yeah, yeah). But it doesn’t go back a lot. And it smells really. You know, here’s the thing. People like they say there’s delays on flights (yeah) delays really New York to California in 5 hours. That used to take 30 years to do that and a bunch of you would die on the way there and have a baby. You’d be with a whole different group of people by the time you got there. Now you watch a movie you and you take a dump and you’re home.

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Since the birth of our first child almost 3 years ago, there’s not been much downtime to process exactly how life has changed. It’s just now beginning to hit me how much of my old life has been lost. Our closest friendships look radically different, a chronic tiredness has settled in, free time has become an oxymoron, and the kitchen is never clean no matter how many times a day we work at it. That’s not to say it hasn’t been a wonderful journey thus far — it has! But it also doesn’t mean the loss isn’t real. The question is whether or not that loss has been acknowledged and grieved.

I think every parent faces a similar struggle in one form or another. Parenthood has a way of changing life to become unrecognizable from what it once was. If a part of us is still holding onto the hope someday the old way of life will come back to us, I imagine a cold dissatisfaction will slowly crawl into our lives. Unacknowledged dissatisfaction plants seeds of resentment throughout your life and starts growing weeds of anger ready to trip you up at every turn, ready to blow up at insignificant details. Or maybe that’s just me. But sooner or later, I think we all come to discover everything in life is teaching us the art of letting go.

Let Go

If you can relate, stop and ask yourself what have you sacrificed. Have you grieved that loss? As I’m discovering once again for myself, we can only fully embrace the hidden jewels in our new circumstances when we say good-bye to the ones we found in the past. Specifically name what’s changed for you and give yourself permission to grieve that loss.  Let the old wash away. Let it be laid to rest with honor and dignity. Let it go. Now our hands are open for something new — and if the smiles and giggles of our children are any indication, I’m sure it’ll be worth many more than what was originally lost.

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Since college, I’ve been an occasional hospice volunteer and it’s brought incredible desire for honesty in my life. To come beside someone going through great pain or loss is to come face-to-face with those same issues in own lives. It can be frightening and difficult experience for everyone touched by it, but in that, we are not alone. Death is something we all must go through, we cannot out-smart it or avoid it; we can only accept it. Such a thought can either fill us with depressing fear or optimistic gratitude for what we have now.

Regrets-of-the-dying_900

There’s something tender and healing about those who don’t run away from death, they have an unsurpassed clarity of life’s true treasures. My experience with hospice care has reminded me that if I make a conscious choice to move towards my greatest fear, the fear of loosing everything — death even — the grips of that fear can be loosened in many more areas of my life. The experiences I’ve shared with these families courageously facing dire circumstances have been a graceful gift helping me face the more smaller forms of death in my own life. The things that I’m afraid of haven’t gone away entirely, but it’s gotten easier to take that first step forward. A beautiful change takes place where life isn’t just about holding onto it anymore, but truly living and embracing every moment of it.

TOP 5 REGRETS OF THE DYING

  • I wish I had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  • I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
  • I wish I had the courage to express my feelings.
  • I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  • I wish I had let myself be happier.

Bronnie Ware, an Australian nurse, spent several years caring for patients in the last 12 weeks of their lives. In that time, they shared with her their dying epiphanies and she started writing them down in a collection now called, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing. We all want to share our experiences so others (especially our children) won’t have to make the same mistakes to glean the same valuable lesson. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we didn’t have to wait until our deathbeds to live with that kind of courage and freedom? Perhaps you and I will live out and fulfill their last wishes.

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“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”

C.S. Lewis

 

For those of you who don’t already know, I’m tirelessly inspired by the human heart and the magnificent creative energy it pumps out to those willing to listen to that still small voice. The people who listen, act and find ways to share a new language of beauty the rest of us can now understand are the people who inspire me most. As I meet more and more people, I’m discovering there is no such thing as an ordinary person — just an unknown person. In light of that, I’ve been doing a personal project I’m calling Inspired Conversations to make room to have potentially amazing conversations with such people and since I’m a photographer, create a few editorial portraits to share about our time together. Not long ago, I sat down with New Yorker (and Omaha native), Melissa Saunders to talk about her book, Lessons from a Rubber Duck, and the complex issues behind the social phenomenon known as bullying.

“Melissa is a former elementary school teacher and counselor. She has master’s degrees in both education and counseling. Her first book, Lessons from a Rubber Duck, is an empowering tale about standing up to teasing and bullying. She regularly visits schools and other organizations for author visits.” (from her website) The following is a summary of insights gained from our conversation.

 

The Bully Profile. 

Contrary to popular belief, there is no profile for a bully–bullies come from all walks of life. But Saunders said there are a few trends that can be identified:

  • bullying is about exploited power and control
  • exploited power imbalances can be in the form of social status, intellectual capacity, cultural, religious or sexual/gender differences, etc.
  • bullies can also be bully victims–they’ve learned this behavior because it’s been modeled for them
  • children disciplined by shame, sarcasm, spanking, or corrosive behaviors are more likely to engage in bullying

Ambiguous expectations for behavior is also a factor that allows bullying to thrive, along with undefined structure or non-established routines. The most surprising news to me was learning that research shows bullying is a tool for gaining social status. It makes me wonder how bullying becomes a form of social currency in our public school system in the first place.

Melissa-Saunders

Social Value Equals Social Status. 

Saunders says, “We send messages all the time about what we value.” Or even in what we don’t say and ways we aren’t even aware of. Consider the simple use of pictures of generic people in text books–for young kids grasping for identity, these send a message of what is normal, accepted family and relationships, or the standard all else is measured against.  Or what about the things we choose to celebrate? What things are important enough to interrupt the day and stop the learning process to celebrate? Very often schools do just that for prep rallies. And in the process, it sends a very strong message about what or who is worth celebrating with school wide attention. We celebrate football players and cheerleaders (which re-enforces stereotypical gender roles), not chess champions, academic achievers, artists, or the marching band.  Everyone’s heard the term “band nerd” but no one thinks to put together the words “football nerd.” This creates social status.

It’s quite possible bullying is the root of all violence in our schools (if not society at large), and it can be discouraging to see how deep bullying runs into our systems of society. But it’s also true that change is always possible. Adults who were bullied as children are speaking out to give kids empowering vision beyond victimization.  One such simple message of hope is the “It Gets Better” movement. There’s also the Trevor Project and the Safe School Improvement Act (SSIA) which seeks to require schools to have specific policies in place to get federal funding and spell out specificity protected rights.

 

Genuine Communication is Help. 

Saunders says kids tend to think that adults won’t do anything about it or will make things worse, but “if kids see adults getting involved in a positive way, the more likely they will be to share what’s really going on.” The more transparent we are about these issues, the more empowered we’ll be to choose to live differently.

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Thanks to my grandfather, I grew up with my childhood memories recorded on 8mm film. The closest thing to a real memory for me will forever be those faded warm tones and light leaks! Like a good memory — both intimate and distant — it always leaves me wanting more. More love, more meaningful moments, more life. To continue the family tradition, I made this for my son the day he was born.

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“Every good relationship between two or more people, whether it is friendship, marriage, or community, creates space where strangers can enter and become friends. Good relationships are hospitable. When we enter into a home and feel warmly welcomed, we will soon realize that the love among those who live in that home is what makes that welcome possible.

“When there is conflict in the home, the guest is soon forced to choose sides. ‘Are you for him or for her?’ ‘Do you agree with them or with us?’ ‘Do you like him more than you do me?’ These questions prevent true hospitality–that is, an opportunity for the stranger to feel safe and discover his or her own gifts. Hospitality is more than an expression of love for the guest.  It is also and foremost an expression of love between the hosts.”

Henri Nouwen

Bread for the Journey

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“In our culture there is a severe illusion about faith, or belief. It is one that has been produced by many centuries of people professing, as a cultural identification, to believe things they do not really believe at all… Thus there arises the misunderstanding that human life is not really governed by belief.

“This is a disastrous error.

“We often speak of people not living up to their faith. But the cases in which we say this are not really cases of people behaving otherwise than they believe. They are cases in which genuine beliefs are made obvious by what people do. We always live up to our beliefs — or down to them, as the case may be. Nothing else is possible. It is the nature of belief.”

Dallas Willard
The Divine Conspiracy

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“You’re just like your father.”
“How hard is it for you to think of someone else for a change?”
“Can’t you do anything right?”

We’ve all heard phrases like these, or perhaps we’ve even said some ourselves… Words like these are powerful and strong enough to start a fight, one that usually ends bitterly for both sides. But it doesn’t always have to be this way. There are tools for identifying and moving beyond destructive conflict patterns and I’d like to share a few I learned during my college studies. Let me also add, that all relationships will have conflict, the goal isn’t to avoid it, but to work through it.

The first and most important aspect of relational conflict is perception. The Lens Model Theory states each person see conflict through a different “lens” or “perspective.” This means what both people see (verbal acts or behavior) may be interpreted radically different depending how each person ascribes meaning to oneself, the other, and their combined relationship.

To complicate matters further, there’s the False Attribution Theory. It states we attribute causes of our behavior to external factors (i.e. “I failed the test because the teacher was unfair”). And we attribute causes of other’s behavior to internal dispositions or character flaws (i.e. “He failed the test because he is lazy and didn’t study”).

With this information in mind, it’s safe to admit our view of others is “off the mark” – especially when compounded with an emotionally charged conflict. Simply checking our perception of the situation and asking the other person, “This is how I see things, is this right?” can help disarm a destructive conflict before it begins.

But what if you are currently in the midst of a serious conflict or trust has eroded to the point where even a question like this would be seen as hostile? Let’s take a look at some common destructive patterns and possible alternatives: Gottman’s 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The name comes from the statistically probability that if these patterns are present in your relationship, the end is near.

CRITICISM

Criticism is a generally broad accusation or attack; a sharp and negative attempt to point out fault in another. An example would be,

“You are the most selfish man I know! My mother is sick, maybe terminally, and you can’t stir yourself to drive 30 miles for her birthday. Great. Now I get to tell my Mom that I’m married to a narcissistic jerk! Could you think of someone else for a change?”

We often use criticisms to get someone’s attention. We want the other person to know how awful we feel or to make the conflict important enough to resolve. But it rarely works out that way…

A much better way would be to “turn criticism into a constructive complaint.” By using an “I” statement, we can state how we feel, describe undesirable behavior and ask for specific change. A constructive complaint also leaves out blame and the idea that there is something wrong with the other person.

“I am upset that we are not going to see my Mom together. I have asked you three times to clear your weekend so we could both go see her. Next weekend is her birthday. She is sick and I want to see her, and I want you to come with me. I am frustrated and impatient with the excuses you’ve given me. I hope you will come. I don’t want to have the kind of marriage where I have to see my folks by myself.”

DEFENSIVENESS

Defensiveness is basically denial; a tactic that tries to ward off an attack (usually the initial criticism) by deferring blame. It is also an effort to protect oneself “against pain, fear, personal responsibility, or new information (Wilmot and Hocker, 2001).” Defensiveness also creates a readiness to strike back and start a criticizing cycle.

Listen to this exchange in an example from Wilmot and Hocker (2001)…

BARBARA: Every time I try to talk to you about my day, you launch off into complaints and whining about how bad life is for you. You never listen to me. [Notice that Barbara is in fact attacking, criticizing, and blaming.]

MARK: If I didn’t get my two cents’ worth in you’d talk all evening. All you ever do is complain. I decided two weeks ago that every time you come home with some “poor me” tale, I’ll match you. Besides, I have a right to be heard too. You aren’t the only important one in this family.

BARBARA: If things are so rotten for you in this relationship, why are you sticking around? All I’m asking for is a little empathy, but I guess that’s beyond you.

Defensiveness drops away when a person can approach the other with a desire to listen and learn about oneself and the other (Paul and Paul 1998). This kind of approach says, “Teach me your perspective and I’ll share with you mine and we’ll both walk away better for it.”

STONEWALLING

Stonewalling is withdrawing from the conversation (while still being physically there). It withholds “good things” from the other in attempts to get them to “shape up” or “do what I want” in a destructive way. Stonewalling or withholding is common when hostility is sensed or trust hasn’t been built up (Yankelovitch, 1999).

The most effective way to gain trust in a relationship is to lay down your own defenses, share something vulnerable or give information that could hurt you. By allowing your loved one to ability to hurt you, you acknowledge your mutual interdependence and call them to be responsible for their own actions without blaming or criticizing them. They suddenly realize they can hurt you and are forced to ask themselves if that’s what they really want…

CONTEMPT

Contempt “… is any statement or nonverbal behavior that puts oneself on a higher plane than [another] (Gottman, 1999).” This can be expressed directly in words or actions or in nonverbal cues and tones (even when all the right things are being said). Contempt includes put-downs, name-calling, hostile corrections, mockery, sarcasm, ridicule, hostile joking, and attack on the personhood of the other. The damage of contempt goes deep, it is where human beings stop being human to us. And we start to believe they deserve any harsh treatment they receive from us or anyone else.

Now What?

Think about how you’ve seen these patterns play out at times in your own life. Hopefully this short article helps name and identify the common pitfalls of conflict and gives practical alternatives to build up rather than tear down. Of course it is usually takes much longer to actually practice avoiding these patterns in real life, but I know if we do so, we’ll find it easier and easier to resolve previously unresolved issues and build stronger relationships. And that’s definitely something worth celebrating!

 


BIOGRAPHY
Gottman, J. M. (1999). The Marriage Clinic: A Scientifically Based Marital Therapy. New York: W. W. Norton and Co.
Wilmot, W. and J. Hocker. (2001). Interpersonal Conflict. New York: McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2001
Yankelovich, D. (1999). The Magic of Dialogue: Transforming Conflict into Cooperation. New York: Simon and Schuster.

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