Am I Abusive?

It seems to me that Americans and people in some other countries do a great job of telling others they are in an abusive relationship and should get out. This is a good thing, in my opinion. Relationships should not be damaging to you. People who are in abusive relationships often do not realize how inappropriate things are. They have either become used to the situation or they never expected to be treated with respect in the first place, or both.

The problem I see is that we do an absolutely horrible job at telling abusive people that what they are doing is abusive. We do a terrible job at letting people know where the boundaries are in a relationship, where the lines are that they should not cross.

I am not an expert, but I don’t see this being done anywhere else. So, until something better comes along, here are some questions that you might ask yourself about your relationship:

  1. Do you think it’s hard being with someone who’s so sensitive?
  2. Have you ever felt like you had to make a decision–that they would care about–without consulting with them?
  3. Have you ever felt like you had to conceal information, exaggerate or lie to get them to make the right decision?
  4. Do you think you did them a favor by entering the relationship?
  5. Do you think they do the things they need to do, or accomplish more during the day or are more successful only because you are there to lean on them?
  6. Do you think you have taught them to do a basic task in a better way?

Again, I am no expert, but thoughts like the ones above do not belong in a healthy relationship.  My comments on these questions are next.

  1. Yes, some people are more sensitive than others, but it’s never a burden to respect someone’s feelings—if you genuinely care about them as a person. If their feelings seem like a burden to you, you are the one who has work to do, not them.
  2. Yes, some people do make bad decisions, but they have that right. Your decisions aren’t perfect, either, and you aren’t smart enough to take that right away from them. If it’s something they care about and you don’t want to give them the opportunity to at least complain about your decision before you do it, then you have a problem.
  3. You will never have a successful relationship if you are doing this. Period. If they can’t trust you and they have the option to leave, they will probably do so eventually. Even if they decide to stick around, they won’t think much of you or enjoy being with you. That only happens in movies. Even if you happen to be right, your relationship will most likely end. Is it really worth it?
  4. No one is so bad off that they need to be rescued by a romantic partner. People need love and support to thrive, but what they do not need to have to thrive and succeed is a romantic partner. You, personally, can get by without a romantic partner and so can they.
  5. This is a sign that you push them to do things they don’t want to do. Yes, some people are lazy, but the word “push” is the key here. Encouragement is good. Pushing is bad. If you happen to think that they wouldn’t take care of themselves if no one else was around to do it, you are not giving them the credit they deserve. Every healthy adult on earth will step up and do what they can to meet their own needs when they have the necessary resources and they have no other choice.
  6. The only exception to this is when they actually thank you for showing them something.  Otherwise, this is a sign that you are pushing them to do things the way you want them done, not the way they want them done.  They are an adult.  They know how they like things done.  If the way they did things before they met you didn’t satisfy them, then they would have tried to figure out a better way, or they would thank you for showing them your way.

If the things on this list sound at all like you, take some deep breaths, take a few days, weeks or even months to think about what you are doing and then figure out a way to let go and allow your spouse to make decisions, have feelings and generally be a human being the way they almost certainly allow you to do.

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Why I Wish the ERA Had Passed

I am old enough to remember the ERA battle, barely. I even read some of the arguments against it. Its opponents said the Supreme Court has a history of interpreting constitutional rights in ways people never expected. They worried that the ERA could lead to unisex bathrooms and women being drafted. They said that protections for women were already in place throughout the country, making the amendment not just risky, but unnecessary.

I don’t know if the things they worried about would have happened or not, but I now wish the amendment had passed, and not because I am concerned about women’s rights. I am more concerned about men’s rights.  They are not more important than women’s rights, but few people are talking about them.

Unfortunately, the existence of real misogynists requires me to say that I do support women’s rights. Women are not always treated equally. This is wrong. I would not want to be treated the way women are sometimes treated. I would consider myself to be a feminist, but I now believe that for too many feminists, gender equality isn’t an actual goal.

I have had too many personal experiences with some kind of discrimination and bias as a man to believe that the elimination of bias against women will result in equality. Because most people who fight for women’s rights are totally silent about discrimination against men, and the angriest feminists do everything they can to keep men from even talking about it, I have decided that if feminists achieve all their goals, women will actually have a superior position to men. Bias and discrimination against women would be eliminated, while bias and discrimination against men would remain. Given feminist rhetoric, the best men can hope for if feminists were to prevail would be to wait until all bias against women is eliminated before saying anything at all about bias against men. (Of course, this is an extraordinarily unlikely outcome–let’s face it, men do have influence in the world).

But if the Equal Rights Amendment had passed, then discrimination against either sex would be immediately unconstitutional. Men wouldn’t have to wait until it was socially acceptable to talk about bias against them, because the Equal Rights Amendment would not just ban discrimination against women, it would ban all discrimination based on gender.

The bias against men in child custody battles? Any bias would be unconstitutional. Unfair child support judgments?  Possibly also unconstitutional. Telling men they are not wanted in an all-female workplace? Unconstitutional. Creating an environment where men cannot make negative generalizations about women, but women can make disparaging comments about men? Unconstitutional. Those are just some of the things that the Equal Rights Amendment would do.

And if the Equal Rights Amendment were passed, we might be able to broaden our focus from the gender imbalance in the sciences and address the gender imbalance in elementary schools and preschools, where boys have their first experiences in education and have few role models. Or maybe we could take fathers as seriously as we do mothers (and expect them to step up to the plate, as we expect women to do now). Maybe we could worry about boys’ self-image the way we worry about girls’ self-esteem. Maybe we could nurture boys instead of expecting them to make it on their own. Maybe it would matter when boys cry. Maybe we could address the differences in the way boys are treated when they are sexually abused. Maybe we could address the fact that men are sometimes victims of spousal abuse.

I’m probably dreaming there, though: that’s a lot to hope for. A constitutional amendment probably wouldn’t actually bring genuine gender equality to the nation because there are a lot of problems that the government simply does not control.

Even so, as a man concerned about gender equality, I support the adoption of the Equal Rights Amendment. If it were reintroduced and passed, women, including feminists, would have solid protection in the issues they care about. Women would be equal, period. And so would men.

And sadly, I have to say this: if any man uses my words as a justification for attacking feminists, I have one question for him: do you support the Equal Rights Amendment? Because if you don’t support equal rights, you have no business criticizing feminists for anything.

Taking Your Gifts for Granted

This post is about the human tendency to take things for granted, but it is not so much about taking the things you receive for granted as it is taking the things you give for granted.  It may not be as harmful to forget the things you are doing for others, but it doesn’t really help, either.

First, I think taking things for granted is a basic human characteristic.  I don’t think we can avoid it without great effort.  I think it is built into the basic design of our brains.

I say this because we are hard-wired to ignore background stimuli, whether they are visual, olfactory, auditory, etc.  If we look at a bunch of photographs with the same background, we stop seeing the background and only see what’s in front of it.  If we spend a lot of time in an environment with a unique smell, we stop noticing it.  If there is a repetitive sound in the background, we stop hearing it.  For example, have you ever heard a low sound (say an engine) that had been going on for some time suddenly stop and realize with a bit of a shock that you hadn’t even noticed it until it quit?

I think our brains do the same with any kind of input, even social input.  When we see the same thing happening over and over, we stop noticing it.  Our brains are wired to pay attention to new and novel phenomena and ignore the predictable things.

When this happens with unpleasant things, we say we are used to them.  When this happens with pleasant things, we say we take them for granted.  The two statements aren’t exactly the same, however.  You can say you are used to something, but if you were to say you take something for granted yourself, you would no longer be taking it for granted and it wouldn’t make sense.  It would be kind of a strange statement to make.

Even so, the two phrases express a roughly similar concept of failing to notice something that happens repeatedly.  When we stop noticing the things other people are doing, it can be somewhat harmful.  We can stop appreciating the people in our lives and they may feel that way.  We can also stop noticing the negative way other people are treating us and allow it to go on longer than we should.  Either way, it’s not a really good thing.

Interestingly, we can also stop noticing the way we affect other people.  A consistently grumpy person may stop noticing the negativity they bring into a conversation.  On the other hand, a constantly positive person may stop noticing the way they lighten the mood in the room.  Someone who varies between positive and negative will probably notice both, though, and someone who varies a lot may be keenly aware of the differences.

Since I work with teachers and paraeducators, I have ample opportunity to observe how people can stop noticing the good things they do for others.  Teachers and paraeducators do good things for kids every single day, but after a while they no longer seem to notice.  In fact, the longer they teach, the less they seem to realize how much good they are doing.  Even though their experience may actually increase the amount of good they are doing for students, they seem to feel they are doing less.  The positive feelings they had about their job diminish.

I believe this is the same for any job that involves doing good for others.  It could apply to teachers, nurses, doctors, police officers, therapists, social workers, parents, spouses or friends.  Our brains are simply not designed to notice things that happen predictably the same way we notice things that are unusual.  As a result, someone who does good things all day long can’t help but forget they are doing good things and only notice the unusual events, which are usually negative.  They will only notice the positive when it stands out.

I have a friend who has been a teacher for many years.  He is a pretty positive person, but the hours teachers are required to work and the stresses they are under make him tired and worn out.  (It is a little-known fact that teachers work very long hours sometimes.  Lately almost every teacher I talk to has worked over most of the previous weekend.)  I was at a Halloween dance the other night where a former student told this man he was her favorite teacher.  After she walked away, his eyes were very wet and it looked like it was almost impossible for him to hold back the tears.  It was one of those moments that made it all worth it.

When you do good things for others all day, every day, that’s what it takes to make you notice them.  It takes something unusual.  We are all like that, though.  It’s not just teachers.

The problem with this is that we get discouraged and can even reduce our efforts and end up doing less good for others than we otherwise would.  At the schools where I work, I know plenty of people who could do their jobs better if they were simply able to see the effects of their work more clearly.  A clear reminder of how much good they have done in their careers would probably help them more than any kind of training or advice would.

If we can remind ourselves to appreciate the people around us or if we can remind ourselves to stop and appreciate the smell of a rose or the beauty of a sunset, then perhaps we can also remind ourselves to appreciate the good we do for others.  Doing so may sound like pride and egotism, but maybe it’s simply true.  If it is true, then perhaps it could actually help us do more good things.  Something that sounds self-centered and egotistical might end up increasing the amount of good we do in the world.  That would be a good thing.

It’s just a thought.

Halloween: Exposing a Fault Line in American Culture

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These are my kids' pumpkins this year.  The girls wanted to do pirate pumpkins.

These are my kids’ pumpkins this year. The girls wanted to do pirate pumpkins.

I work at a public school, so I can’t completely ignore the current divisions over Halloween.  We do not really have Halloween parties at schools anymore.  At our school we have a Harvest Party.  The kids don’t wear costumes and they play games that have little or nothing to do with Halloween.

The reason for this change is obvious: more and more parents object to Halloween.  They frown on the occult and Satanic associations they see in the holiday.  I cannot truly speak for them, but they seem to feel that the whole celebration of the day moves children (and adults) away from the healthy light of God.

At the same time, another segment of our culture embraces Halloween more and more tightly, constantly increasing the blood, the gore, the spookiness, and the scariness.  For them, Halloween has become more and more important.  Halloween was once a relatively minor day on the calendar for most people.  It is now one of the biggest holidays of the year, as people decorate for Halloween more than they do for any holiday besides Christmas, buying oversized decorations at Halloween stores that spring up and then vanish like dark flowers heralding the death of warm days.

Like most Mormons and many people of other faiths, I find myself in between the two groups.  I am wary of the darkest expressions of Halloween, but enjoy the tamer aspects of it and look forward to celebrating the day with my children.

From this vantage point, somewhere in the middle, I believe that the divergence between the two groups comes from two very different attitudes about human nature.  I believe that Halloween is or has become a reflection of the demons within each one of us.  I think it is a chance for us to display those demons on the outside, to let loose a little bit and not be afraid to be just a little wild and monstrous for a night.

A growing element in our culture feels that is a good thing.  Another segment of our culture feels that is a very bad thing, at least when taken to the extreme we see now.  The difference between the two groups seems to lie in what they think of the dark side of human nature and how to manage it best.

There is a clear attitude in part of our culture that we should embrace our human nature.  We should own our bad sides, not deny them or hide them or be ashamed of them.  In this view, it’s not necessarily a good thing to let your bad side take over, but it is definitely a bad thing to pretend it is not there.  People with this attitude seem to celebrate Halloween with gusto.

Another attitude says that we should overcome the darkness within us.  Or rather, we should transform the darkness so that it no longer has any place in us.  If we find darkness within ourselves, it is a signal that we have quick work to do.  People like this do not seem to embrace Halloween and often seem to turn away from it.

Both groups tend to criticize the other.  The “fight your darkness” group looks at the “accept your darkness” group and sees nothing but licentiousness and the justification of harming ourselves or others, along with a more or less defeatist attitude towards the darker side of humanity.  The “accept your darkness” group looks at the “fight your darkness” group and sees unhealthy repression and denial, along with an unrealistic depiction of human goodness.

Unsurprisingly, I think both sides have a point.  It is even less surprising because I have both defined the groups and expressed their arguments for them, which makes the debate rather hypothetical.  Even so, I am going to agree somewhat with both of these (hypothetical) arguments.

I would say that people do sometimes engage in repression and denial when they see themselves falling short of their ideals.  I would also say that people do sometimes justify doing things they believe are less than ideal, simply by citing their own humanity.  I don’t think that you should simply accept the darkness within you and go on with your life, nor do I believe that you should pretend you have no darkness within you or that you should be ashamed of that darkness.

Perhaps this comes from my religion.  Mormons believe that human nature is split.  We believe our spirits, what others might call souls, are the children of a perfectly loving Heavenly Father, sharing some of his attributes.  We also believe that man is fallen (or perhaps just our physical bodies), making the natural man “an enemy to God” (Mosiah 3:19 in the Book of Mormon).  Therefore, we see every person as having a divine and a fallen nature simultaneously.  We have no real reason to pretend we are not fallen, and we cannot ignore the inherently good center of all people unless we also ignore our religious doctrines.  That fact may well determine our position on the Halloween debate.

I think it is actually quite likely that it does determine our position, that people’s attitudes towards human nature more or less determine their attitude towards Halloween.  It seems to me that most Americans would agree that all people are both inherently good and inherently bad, that we all have a good side and a bad side, but that we should try to make the good side the dominant one.  That idea may well determine the attitude of the middle, that Halloween is just a fun holiday, especially if you don’t take it to extremes.

Boo!

These are the pirate parrot costumes my daughters made for a couple of their stuffed animals. You may have noticed a theme.

These are the pirate parrot costumes my daughters made for a couple of their stuffed animals. You may have noticed a theme.

On the Purpose of Death

Our pet hamster, Godzilla, died today.  The kids are old enough that it wasn’t a big deal.  They’ve had beloved pets die before.  They’ve also had several beloved family members who passed away.  It is no longer a major occasion.

It does bring up a question for me, though.  We talk a lot about the purpose of life, but not much about the purpose of its opposite: death.  Why do we die?  Why does everything die?  I’m not posing a religious question, exactly, but more of a scientific one.

After asking myself that question, the question that comes to me next is:  what would happen if we didn’t die?  Or more precisely: what if we did not get old?  What if we could live as long as we had food and could keep ourselves in one piece?

First of all, the world would fill up pretty quickly.  There would no longer be enough food for us and then we would die of starvation instead of old age.  So if we didn’t get old and die, we would die of starvation instead, which isn’t exactly an improvement.

We could solve that problem (or our biology could solve that problem) by having fewer children, only enough to keep the population stable.  In that case, we could live as a species quite comfortably with the resources the earth provides and live a very, very long time…until some new bacteria or virus hit us or some problem came up that we couldn’t adapt to.  Then we would start dying faster than we reproduced, our numbers could drop far enough that we wouldn’t be able to maintain our population and our species would go extinct.  This is particularly likely if we have very few children.

So part of the problem is that the things around us keep changing.  Bacteria and viruses change very quickly and we have to change to be able to fight them.  Modern medicine has changed the rules of that contest, but eventually bacteria and viruses sidestep any weapon we throw at them.

The environment changes, too.  Climates grow drier, wetter, hotter or colder.  In the past, people have adjusted to those changes in one way or another.  It actually seems that human beings’ greatest strength is its ability to adapt to different environmental conditions.

Our own ability to adapt may make us a special case in the world.  We may not need to change biologically to adapt, but that has yet to be proven.  Even so, every other species that has ever existed has had to change biologically to adapt to new threats and new circumstances.  For most species, that means adapting to new diseases, parasites, predators, competitors and conditions.  A species that never changes biologically is likely to die off completely.

So it seems that species must change biologically to continue.  Those that don’t change, cease to exist.  We must die if our species is going to continue.  In other words, we die so that the next generation can replace us, with the hope that they will be able to do better than us.

That is not a very revolutionary concept.  It’s instinctive.  One of our greatest purposes in life, we all know, is to make the world a place where the next generation can thrive.  We don’t need to have children to do this or think about this.  People who don’t have children still want the human race to continue existing and to do better than we do today in some way.  Even if we don’t agree on what should be different in the future, we pretty much all agree that things should be better somehow.

We live, we enjoy life, we want to continue life, but we give up our place in the world so that another generation can rise up.  And we do what we can to make that generation successful, even if all we do is talk to our friends about how the world should be (or could be) a better place.  Doing that is contributing to the success of the human race.

Perhaps that is one of the reasons we value our aged:  because people’s opinions about how the world should be tend to improve with time.  We care for our elderly and want them to continue living as long as they can. Hopefully we also hear the things they have to say.

We also keep going ourselves, because we have something to contribute to the future success of the human race.  At the very least we have an idea about how things could be better and we know our ideas will only improve with time.  For human beings, anything we do to make the world a better place is worth the effort, but that universal human idea of how to make a better world is valuable in and of itself.

If this is right, then I would say we live to make the world a better place for a future generation.  Then, when biology or God dictate, we die so they can have our place.

How Life (or Politics) is Not a Game of Chess

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Chess is a great game, but it is very different from life.  Yes, it is complex, like life.  Yes, like life it is surprising. And winning a game of chess does require you to think further ahead than your opponents, anticipating what they will do and how they will respond to your moves.  Yet, it is still not like life.  It is not even like politics or international relations.  As a matter of fact, I believe that referring to world leaders’ interactions as a game of chess is probably harmful.

Here is how I came to that conclusion:

For a time I played a game called Go.  It comes from China, although it is played in other Asian countries, too.    For those who are not familiar with the game (almost everyone who might read this), it requires surrounding your opponents’ pieces with your own.  The object is essentially to control as much territory as possible with as few pieces as possible.  The rules are simple, but they create a complex game with many possible moves at any given point.

For a while I played Go on my Kindle Fire during my lunch breaks or any time I had a few minutes of down time.  Even though the computer opponent in the app was rather foolish and weak, it was still a struggle to beat it.

As I played Go and struggled against my digital opponent, I found myself thinking about the human conflicts I was involved in, feeling like I was struggling to win them as well.  I thought about human conflict, about winning and losing.  My mind was repeatedly drawn to the sitcom husbands who think they are winning arguments with their wives until suddenly things turn and they find they have completely lost.  I wondered why those TV moments seem so realistic.

Gradually, it occurred to me that cause of these husbands’ problems is the whole idea that there is going to be a winner and a loser.  They were treating the argument and the relationship like a contest, and it was the very fact that they thought there would be a winner and a loser that caused their downfall.

I realized that human relationships are not a game of Go, nor are they are a game of chess or any other game.  In human relationships there is never a winner and a loser, at least in the long term.  In the long term either everyone wins or everyone loses, and if one person tries to come out the winner, both parties will lose.  I now think that in a human relationship, just trying to win guarantees that you will both lose, eventually.

I think this may be true of all human relationships, whether they are personal or just economic.  I think it may be true of conflicts between groups: nation vs. nation, management vs. unions, even Republicans vs. Democrats.  I think it may be true that in these situations there are only “win-win” or “lose-lose” outcomes, that there is no “win-lose” possibility.

I think it’s when we forget this that human disasters happen.  We always declare winners in war, but there really aren’t any:  everyone loses.  Wars happen when we forget that fact.  When we forget that we all have to get ahead economically for any of us to prosper, we take unusual risks, lie and cheat.  In the process, economies shake, even crumble, and we all lose.  When employees and management forget they are in it together, the business declines and ultimately fails.  When political parties forget that we all win or lose together, they fight until we all lose.  In a family, if someone tries to win, everything can fall apart.

I think this is a result of the most basic fact about human relationships: we’re in them for our own benefit.  As a result, if we want to “win” in a relationship, it means getting more out of the relationship than the other person or group (getting our way, for example).  Most people will tolerate getting less than the other party for a while, because they know the benefits they receive will always vary. Sometimes things will go your way and sometimes they won’t.  People will wait it out until things get better.

But the minute we begin to treat human relationships like a competition, all that changes.  Suddenly one person or group is trying to win.  They want more of the business’ profits than the other person.  They want more favorable terms in the treaty than the other nation.  They want to get more of what they want in the negotiations.  They simply want more benefits from the relationship than the other person.

This works great for the winning side, at least for a while.  They get more than they would have if they hadn’t competed and things look great…until the loser finally withdraws from the relationship.  Employees quit or management declares bankruptcy.  Nations quit trading with each other or even go to war.  Political parties quit negotiating or just destroy each other and make room for new ones.  Friendships end.  Marriages are dissolved.  One way or another, competitive relationships all end and somehow the “winner” becomes a loser, too.

I don’t mean to sound like I’m advocating communism or that I favor a world where winning is banned, because I am actually arguing the opposite.  Communism treats relationships between capitalists and laborers as a simple contest about who will reap the benefits of labor.  The communist worldview is extraordinarily competitive.  In it, the 99% fights the 1% for the world’s resources.  And just as in every competitive relationship, in the end everyone loses.

We can’t win if we only advocate for the 99%.  We can only be sure to win if we advocate for the 100%.

So, no matter how many similarities chess or Go may have with the conflicts we encounter, life is not a game of chess.  It is not any kind of game.  Over time, we can only win if we make sure everyone wins.  And one of the saddest facts of life is that it only takes one group or one person to turn a relationship into a competition where everyone loses.

Please don’t be them.