Dating a broke guy is a highly underrated strategy for romance. The state of broke-ness is usually temporary, part of a life transition that will be much improved when the situation is resolved. It’s an opportunity to find out a lot about someone’s character. If you like him when he’s broke and going through a rough time, you’ll probably like him even more when things are back to normal. There are numerous other advantages. Maybe you’re dating a broke guy right now, and you haven’t even realized what a lucky time this is.
Being broke is not in itself a desirable trait. It can be the result of some bad things, and sometimes the result of bad choices. Say, if someone embezzled money from work and got caught, or is deep in addiction to gambling or whatever. Then it depends completely on this person’s commitment to inner work. If someone is suffering as a result of harmful behavior, won’t admit it, won’t accept accountability, and refuses to change, well then... Money isn’t the problem.
Think of these types of problems whenever your crush is going through a tough time. It can help you both to keep your perspective.
Being broke might be the result of positive change, too. For instance, anyone in school is probably poor as heck. Starting a business, remodeling a house, or having small children are also positive changes that tend to impact the wallet. Maybe this guy is a big dreamer who plans ahead and works hard. Maybe he’s willing to make smart sacrifices in the short term for big gains later on. This is the ideal scenario. Meeting someone at this stage of life is like finding a major bargain on sale. Jump up and grab it while you can.
Sometimes someone is broke due to temporary difficulty, like divorce or short-term disability. This can involve a lot of stress and emotional pain. The hidden gift in this kind of situation is that you get the chance to see this man at his lowest ebb. If you still like him when he’s at his worst, then everything will be so much better when he gets his feet under him again. The added value here is that he can learn to trust your friendship and loyalty when he needs you the most. He’ll be more open with you in easier times.
Being broke can also be a mutual decision. I write about this quite a bit, as my hubby and I are midway through a temporary downsizing move into a studio apartment. We save 40% of our income, something it would be really hard to do in a typical suburban house with one or two vehicles. Two adults and two pets in a 612-square-foot apartment with one closet and no bedroom door! Acting broke when you are not in fact actually broke is very different. We know we have insurance and savings and investments and an income stream. We have paradoxically more options. We can knock ourselves out on vacation. Other luxuries become accessible. As an example, I just bought a set of thousand-thread-count sheets on closeout for $45. We’ve been wallowing in them in a way we never would, just by spending an extra $10,000 a year in rent on a more normal-sized residence.
In my twenties, I pretty much only dated broke guys because that is the natural state of people in their twenties. I was impressed if my date showed up in a car that he owned, even if he had to start it with a screwdriver. I was impressed if my date lived on his own, even if he had four roommates. My friends and I spent a lot of time in those days doing free and fun stuff that people in their thirties and older usually stop doing altogether. Sitting on the floor playing cards or board games for hours, lip-syncing and dancing to songs on the radio, peeling oranges and talking the day away, going on picnics, wandering the bookstore. All we had in those days was time. Now we all have money but we never have the time for those endless afternoons of leisure anymore.
A broke guy will do things to impress his new girlfriend that a financially prosperous guy might never think to try. An hour-long massage? Check. Breakfast in bed? Anything for you. Mix tapes? Mmhmm. If you like him and you’re good to him, a broke guy won’t believe his incredible luck in meeting someone like you. A guy with money and a career may be complacent, or simply too busy to give you much thought.
Single men often complain that women only care about money, that we’ll always go for the guy with the better job or the nicer car. I honestly think that is false. From my perspective, what’s important in an adult person is a feeling of drive, purpose, and engagement. In SOMETHING. Usually that happens to be a career. Ideally, our work is the biggest contribution we can make with our energy and focus. If that happens to generate cash flow, fantastic. Often the process of discovering that outlet and earning the appropriate credentials includes a brief period of financial strain. This is why it can be so much fun to date a student, someone who will eat a sandwich on a park bench with you while genuinely engaging in lengthy discussions about anything and everything. Interesting people don’t always have any money and having money in itself is usually not very interesting.
I happened to meet my husband at a time when we both were at a low financial ebb. It was a bonding experience, the exact thing that made us friends. We used to sit around on our lunch break at work talking about all our money problems. One day we looked up and realized that everyone we knew assumed we were dating. Why was that?? Hmm. Now that I think about it, it’s probably because MARRIED people spend a lot of time sitting around and talking about money problems! Becoming friends when we didn’t have any money helped us to trust each other and listen to each other’s advice. It also gave us plenty of free things to do for fun. That’s why we’re able to save so much money together without feeling dissatisfied and frustrated.
Something important I would really like to say about money is that it’s simply a form of energy, a metric for tracking how we are doing in certain areas of life. There’s absolutely no reason to rely on a man for prosperity or financial comforts. Go after them and get them for yourself. Maybe your broke guy is simply not an ambitious person. Maybe he’ll be delighted to cheer you on and give you emotional support while you chase your own dreams of success. Maybe you earn all the income and he meets you in other ways. Looking at financial partnership in this way would probably resolve a lot of quarrels and create a lot of dazzlingly successful marriages. Choose your romances based on how much you like each other and how well you get along, and let the money part be more or less irrelevant.
I’m vegan and my husband is not. More to the point, my parents are now also vegan and his are... not. As a passionate cook, I have planned menus around a million different food preferences, and it’s all the same to me. I want my friends to be happy and have a great meal. Unfortunately, most people don’t feel this way. They feel threatened or, at best, annoyed when anyone eats differently than they do. Let me share what I’ve learned over the past quarter-century.
First off, I often find that other people’s food preferences are dumb, gross, selfish, unscientific, or expensive. I’m sure other people feel much the same way about mine. Social occasions are about having a good time together and getting to know each other better, and maybe even practicing our skills of patience, compassion, and negotiation. It shouldn’t be about the food, unless we are all chanting YUMMMMMM in unison.
It’s none of my business how other people choose to eat, just as it is none of their business how I do.
Almost everyone has an EWW, YUCK food that they would not eat for a million dollars. That’s fine. I believe in free will. I also believe that people should tactfully avoid what they don’t want to eat without talking about it so much. Can we just avoid expressions of disgust altogether? The worst offenders here are parents who let their kids go on for pages, monologuing about the rancid, putrefying atrocity of an abomination that anyone would dare put in the same room as them. Please, at the bare minimum pay your children off to quit talking about what they think is gross. I. Do. Not. Care.
It always gets me, though, that it’s totally fine and socially acceptable, encouraged even, for people to talk about how much they hate Brussels sprouts, or sweet potatoes, or cauliflower, or if they ask for their dressing on the side. Yet if I don’t want cheese on my food, I’m evil and I have a militant political agenda. False. It is my right as a consumer to buy and eat what I want, and to not buy and not eat what I do not want. Forcing your guests to eat something is not being a host, it’s being a bully. Hospitality means putting your guests’ comfort first even when they piss you off.
I cook a lot of gluten-free food for my friends, even though I can and do eat wheat at every opportunity. Guess what? I can still eat GF and so can the other guests. (Soup, salad, vegetable and grain sides, maybe cornbread, many desserts). I often know a lot more about deciphering lists of ingredients and avoiding cross-contamination than my guests do, because I may well have been scouring labels since before they were born. Vegans and GF people are natural allies. About 2% of the population is likely gluten-sensitive. About ten times more than that seem to think they are, when really their issue is likely to be yeast or fructan, which they would only find out if they went in and got themselves clinically tested. That, again, is none of my business, but I can only help if I come across as an ally.
How do my husband and I handle our different diets? As it turns out, even though he occasionally eats meat, he is about 90% vegan. Unlike me, he has a serious allergy to dairy foods; he’s gotten violently ill from eating a chocolate chip cookie that had a little butter. It’s a relief to him to know that when he eats with my family, he won’t be sick later. When we eat with my family, my parents always ask around and try to round up some turkey for him, which he finds embarrassing and unnecessary, although believe me, every single house in that zip code would happily donate a plate of turkey for the hostage over there at the vegan house. When we eat with his family, we bring a “holiday roast” that I can sneak into the oven while he is making his justifiably famous mashed potatoes.
We both eat: mashed potatoes, rolls, cornbread, cranberry sauce, all vegetables, most beverages, pie (if it’s done right), and almost all snacks. The difference is that I like squash and he doesn’t.
There’s a really weird double standard around guesting and hosting as a vegan. As a guest, everyone expects me to EAT WHAT EVERYONE ELSE IS EATING, because otherwise it would insult my host and I would be rude. YET, as a host, I’m expected to SERVE MY GUESTS WHAT THEY LIKE TO EAT, because as a host I am required to put my guests first. So which is it? If the host should give the guests what they prefer, then I would have to 1. Have meat catered to my guests while I 2. Sit back and enjoy the sumptuous vegan feasts that my hosts put out when I come over. If the guests should eat what is put in front of them, then I would have to 1. Politely hide my portion of carcass under a napkin and 2. Serve my own guests tempeh and kale while laughing maniacally. There can’t be a rule where only I am expected to conform in every situation, because that is a double standard.
Notice that everything I eat is included on the Venn diagram of what everyone else eats. That’s why my meat-eating husband has been able to survive sharing meals with me for thirteen years. I’m an excellent cook. I know how to choose crowd-pleasing dishes and I always laugh quietly when my potluck contribution vanishes. I do have friends who have brought bags of fast food to my table, people who utterly refuse to touch a single bite of what I make, and that’s fine. I expect those same friends to be equally tolerant when I show up at their place with a microwaveable enchilada or pot pie in my bag.
Contrary to popular belief, I don’t want to convert anyone. They’d just screw it up and then complain that there’s something wrong with the lifestyle, rather than their mediocre-to-poor application. About 80% of people who try being vegan eventually quit. Therefore, it’s backward to try to pull anyone over the line to my side. I say, “You eat what you eat, and I eat what I eat.” I hate when the topic comes up, because I loathe debates and I refuse to argue. I’ll tell people, “If you can come up with a vegan joke I’ve never heard, I’ll pay you a dollar.” My approach seems to work, because I have indeed converted a few people over the years, including my parents and two ex-boyfriends (years after we split up). It generally takes at least three years of exposure to a radical new idea before people start to feel genuinely curious about it.
My food is expensive and often of a higher culinary order, because I love cooking and I’ve tested hundreds of recipes. I don’t really want to share, especially when my dish (you know, the dinner I had to bring for myself) vanishes and there’s nothing left on the table that meets my guidelines. You’ll see this at every office pizza party, when the veggie pizza goes first and all that’s left is the congealed fright-pie of pepperoni. Thanks for nothing.
Ultimately, the one thing we know does not work is for one person to try to force another person to change their food preferences. We start developing our tastes before we’re even born, as, for example, babies from cultures that eat very spicy food start to build a tolerance before they are weaned. There is nothing harder to change than an eating habit. It’s also a tribal identifier, and that’s why people can be so belligerent and awful about hazing anyone who won’t eat from the communal table. They feel like it makes us untrustworthy, selfish, spoiled, and rude. (Just as I often feel bullied, pressured, ridiculed, or even tricked or lied to). Let’s do what we can to focus on the conversation and group fun, not the mechanical aspects of getting everyone fed.
Where did this year go? Holiday decorations are already out, my day planner is almost fully consumed, and suddenly it’s time to get ready for Thanksgiving. This is an ideal time to start preparing, whether you are traveling or hosting. By ‘preparing’ I mean emotionally as well as structurally. Do a little each day, and make it easier on yourself when the big day comes.
One of the first things to do is to clarify your expectations. This can be tough because the marketing is always about togetherness and terrific food, yet the reality can be more like bare-knuckle boxing in front of a turkey-shaped bonfire. My personal tendency is to want to spend a full month planning the menu, a week meticulously detailing my house with a toothbrush and cotton swabs, and three days of cooking. Then I wind up stressing myself out so much that I have to go sit in a closet for a while before I can finish making the dessert.
This is one of the surprising advantages of living in a studio apartment. Absolutely nobody expects or wants you to host the dinner.
Holidays are the time to practice your utmost negotiation and mediation skills. It’s the fakery that makes it difficult, both pretending that everything is going to be “perfect” this time when you know it can never be, and pretending to get along with people who insist on stomping on your last nerve. Be real, at least with yourself, and certainly with your partner. Set those boundaries well in advance.
Emotional boundaries, acceptable behavior, that’s what we’re talking about. It’s your job to collect your relatives when they misbehave, and it’s your partner’s job to collect theirs. If either one of you takes your family’s side over that of your partner, well, that’s wrong. You have to stand up for each other. Or, you shouldn’t have to, but if it must be done, do it quickly and do it clearly. You want to stamp that sort of thing out before it has a chance to spread to future years.
Now is the time to practice diversionary techniques. Changing the subject is a last-ditch response to problematic conversation topics. It’s possible to stop that kind of trouble before it starts by planning around it. Play games, fill the schedule with non-sensitive topics, and shamelessly exploit any children or pets for their inherent cute factor.
I’m extraordinarily lucky with my family. Not only can we all talk politics together, but it’s often a conversation that makes us feel closer. Better than that, we have compatible food preferences. We can trust each other not to try to sneak in any dishonest ingredients. This makes it that much less fun, though, when I wind up visiting with anyone else who 1. lives to quarrel and/or 2. thinks it’s funny to trick people into eating things that make them ill. Dude, don’t take other people’s food issues personally; it’s not about you.
Here are some techniques I use to avoid explosive conversations and food battles:
Nobody is entitled to my opinion and I don’t owe anyone a debate on any topic, whether that’s what phone I use, whether I should supposedly follow a sportsball team, or what route would be optimal for my journey home, much less broader current events or social issues. I am fully, fully prepared to stand up for myself and give anyone the tongue-lashing of a lifetime, but when I’m at someone else’s party, I will do anything to efface myself and preserve harmony. Say it with me: a holiday party is not a debate. A HOLIDAY PARTY IS NOT A DEBATE.
Of course, politics isn’t the only emotional minefield. The holidays are a great time for bringing up grievances and old war wounds. I just say, “I agree,” and “you’re right” and “I’m sorry, I wish I hadn’t done that.” In a pinch, offer to go to group therapy with them and ask if they want you to schedule it on Monday.
If you’re hosting and you’re freaking out about getting your house ready, take a breath and plan now.
If I were doing it again in a standard-sized suburban house, I would focus one day on the dining room, one day on the living room, one day on the bathroom, and one day on the kitchen. Then I’d make myself stop and switch my focus to the shopping and prep work. I always do as much as possible in the two days before, whether that’s making stock, measuring ingredients, or washing and chopping vegetables. Then I think about how I can coast for a few days on my nice clean place and my fridge full of yummy leftovers.
Ultimately, Thanksgiving is a predictable event. That’s what people like about it. You probably know who will be there, how they will behave, what sorts of conversations they’ll bring up, and what they will or will not eat. After the day, you can go back to normal life. Try to make the most of it, because in its ideal form, this really is the perfect day for taking group photos, eating pie, and of course putting olives on your fingertips.
Information is not motivation, and common knowledge is not common action. Basically this means that we know everything we need to know in order to get started, but it isn’t enough. No matter what it is that we’d like to do, for some reason, we aren’t doing it. Maybe we just aren’t juiced up enough about the benefits of change. Maybe we’re unsure about how getting the goal will change our relationships. Probably it’s different for every person and every situation. One thing that seems to be working for me is the contrary approach of imagining the worst version of something. How is what I’m doing as bad as it could be, and how could it be worse?
Let’s say I’m thinking about my car. I don’t actually own a car right now, so this is purely a figment of my imagination. The worst version of “my car” would be: unsafe, unreliable, smelly, dirty, filled with trash, and expensive. I’m picturing something that’s burning oil, with a black smoky cloud pouring out from behind me. The brakes are failing! The “check engine” light constantly flickers on and off. The body is rusting out, I have a broken tail light, one of the side windows is broken and replaced with cardboard and tape, and the passenger door lock doesn’t work. The interior smells like spoiled milk, the floors are covered with wrappers and food crumbs of every color, and there’s a suspicious stain on the seat. It gets 16 miles to the gallon and I’m still making payments. The glove compartment is so full of unpaid parking tickets that it won’t close.
Want me to swing by and pick you up?
Honestly, thinking about this “worst version” of a car makes me feel really smug about walking everywhere. I pulled that description from actual vehicles in which I have ridden. I could make this worst version slightly worse, although less realistic, by adding more broken windows or engine problems. At the point at which it is no longer operational, it stops being a “vehicle” and transitions to “junk.” Perhaps junk that is more valuable than other junk, like a broken and obsolete washing machine, but junk it still is.
This worst version method can be applied to other things.
Worst job: Underpaid, no benefits, unethical business practices, mean and domineering boss, unsafe working conditions, long commute, rude customers, no path to advancement, no social contribution
Worst relationship: Dishonest, dysfunctional; partner is contemptuous, hypercritical, and unpredictably disappears or cuts communication for no obvious reason. Can I say that if it’s violent then it isn’t a relationship, it’s a slow-motion crime?
Worst desk: Can’t work there, just looking at it stresses me out, covered with clutter, uncomfortable to sit there, poor lighting, not enough power outlets, other people dump their stuff on it
Worst shoes: Give me blisters, wearing them for more than an hour makes me walk with a limp, only match one outfit (or zero)
Worst lunch: Diet Coke and a bag of microwave popcorn
Worst cat: Actually an opossum
There are two benefits to using the worst version method. First, when things are bad, it can help to get at least a weak chuckle by imagining how they could be worse. Second, it can draw attention to ways we’ve been tolerating the intolerable. That perspective can be the jolt that we need to get moving, to take action and set limits.
Worst neighbor: Accidentally shot out our living room window, their dog got loose and attacked our dog
Worst landlord: Lived next door, had chronic domestic disputes
What do we do with this information? OKAY, TIME TO MOVE
Complaining is of very limited use. Its purpose should be to clarify our true desires. If not this, then what?
I had a silverware sorter in chrome. I thought it looked great. Then one day, one of the wires came loose and I managed to ram it under my fingernail. Bled everywhere. TIME TO GO! We shouldn’t be assaulted by our own stuff.
When we’re clear and certain about what we find unacceptable, we can rule it out. Nothing that makes us bleed, et cetera. It’s that response of OH HECK NO that abruptly puts a stop to ruts and habitual behavior that doesn’t serve us.
If not this, then what?
Ask that again and again.
If not this job, or one just like it, then what? How would we define a “good” boss or a “reasonable” commute?
If not this relationship, then what? Taking some time to be alone for a while, that might be good. What does “good communication” sound like? What does “functional” feel like?
If not this financial problem, then what? What will it take to reach a place of peace and clarity here?
If not this persistent physical annoyance, then what? What do we want for our bodies? Agility, symmetry, high energy, supple muscles, speed, power, strength, clear skin, a strong immune system? What specifically?
If not this room, then where? What would a dream office/bedroom/kitchen/living room look like? How would it feel to inhabit this space?
Most of all, what is the worst version of myself? When am I at my lowest? Selfish, inconsiderate, bored, envious, whiny, unproductive, not contributing or doing anything interesting, too much unstructured time, out of physical balance, no direction or purpose, making life difficult for other people, stuck and unhappy. What else?
Let’s not be our worst selves. Let’s not live the worst version of our lives, okay? If we’re ever going to make the world a better place, we’ll do it by always looking up to at least a slightly higher standard.
I’m not a housewife, because I married a man, not a building. Perhaps it’s also fair to admit that my heart was already taken. I gave myself over to books so long ago that I had to remind myself to save room for gentleman callers. Not so much as an entire shelf; that would be quite an ask. Ah, but a massive multi-volume epic can fit in just a few inches. Coziness is one of the many fine features of the bookwife as a mate.
A boyfriend asked me once: “You love books more than me, don’t you?” I gaped at him. What a foolish question. Did he really and truly believe that he, a mere mortal boy, could rise in importance above the sum total of human art and wisdom? That he could embody a personality more fascinating and engrossing than every novel combined? That one lifespan could be greater than millennia of accumulated knowledge?
The year: 1991.
An updated version of this question would have to go something like this:
“You love the internet more than me, don’t you?”
Um, don’t go there.
Fast forward a few years. My ex-husband said to me: “The amount that you read is unnatural.” I might have replied that the amount of time he spent playing video games was unnatural, but I didn’t bother. What is a natural amount of reading? Zero? Reading is a function of civilization, not nature, although I adore the thought of a squirrel or zebu curled up around a good book.
I had nothing suitable to say to a man who felt uncomfortable with my reading habits, a man who challenged my whereabouts because I stopped at the library on my way home from work a few times a week. A woman has needs.
Whatever there is to love about me, it’s come from books. There is no way to separate the person I am from the books that have shaped me. My vocabulary, my ability to empathize with people from different walks of life, my curiosity, my ability to attend to long, drawn-out stories with dubious payoff, all are bedrock features of my personality.
Personality isn’t as important in the long run as behavior. It’s what we do or don’t do, how easy it is to live with our habits, that makes us good mates. As a bookwife, what I need most is a certain amount of private time and a certain measurable amount of mental bandwidth. Well, that, and access to large independent bookstores, plenty of shelf space, the most comfortable chair... Think of all the things you can do while I’m reading. While I’m occupied with my book, you’re free to be yourself and give yourself over to your own interests.
I make no apologies for my habits. They’re mine, and they were well in place long before I met you. Surely you noticed that I never went anywhere without a book, that I never walked past a bookstore without pausing to scan the titles in the window, that my bag and car and apartment were full of books. You saw the red flags, the satin ribbons marking the pages. Did you think that love would change me? Did you think I’d turn over a new leaf?
Look at me. Look at the upside. You always know where I am. The only recreational shopping I do is for new titles. Go ahead and laugh as I hold a book in one hand and stir the risotto with the other; who else do you know who’s getting homemade risotto tonight? Whatever else you can say about us, a bookwife has many fine domestic qualities, and being predictably at home is not the least of them.
There’s a book-shaped place in my heart that will never be filled with anything else. Why have it any other way? I belong to books, and I belong to myself. Books are entitled, and I’m entitled, too, entitled to my own interests and pursuits.
I’m a bookwife, first and foremost. It’s what I have to give. Be proud that you’ve captured my attention and confident that no man will ever come before you.
Halloween is the best time to talk about our mortality. In the past, I’ve talked about becoming a whole-body donor and about the importance of the advance care directive. This year I’m going to talk about what happens if you die without a will. Two-thirds of people do. It’s very high on the list of most commonly procrastinated tasks. Who wants to think about dying? Who cares what happens afterward? Rather than let that type of passivity run your life, take a day and make the arrangements properly. Then you can move forward and never think about it again.
Most people probably don’t need a will, not really. If you don’t own a house and/or you don’t have any kids, go in peace. Both of those conditions apply to me. I have an adult stepdaughter, sure, but she’s responsible for herself. If I go before my husband does, then all of my money and property become his. That’s how I’d want it. I don’t have life insurance because there would be no need to replace my income. I also don’t really own anything, not a car, not real estate, not expensive jewelry or furs or whatever. The only things I care about after I go are who would take care of my little parrot Noelle, and what happens to my blog when my domain name expires.
People don’t think about that kind of thing often enough. Who takes your kitties? What if you’re just in the hospital for four days, does someone water your plants?
When you die, everything becomes someone else’s problem. What exactly happens, though?
Your mail continues to show up at your mailing address until someone notifies the post office and/or the senders that you are deceased.
Your bills continue to accrue in your name. Someone has to call all of your utility providers and banks, one by one, and let them know you have passed on. They will wait a certain amount of time and then start calling again, wanting the estate to pay off all the account balances. This process will be ongoing long before the courts have made things official on their end.
The hospital has to issue a death certificate. This can take weeks or months and is subject to mystifying delays.
Then, if there is no will, someone has to be appointed as executor or personal representative. This is another process that takes an unfathomable amount of time. None of the bills of the estate can be settled until this is done.
If there is a spouse, the estate goes to that person, even if you’ve separated and you hate each other, unless divorce papers were filed. EVEN THEN! If you had any insurance policies or old accounts with that person recorded as beneficiary, even from decades ago, that person gets your money.
If there is no spouse but there are kids, they stand equal as next of kin. This can be complicated, because most likely they will start squabbling over who gets to make which decisions, what you supposedly said you wanted, and who gets what goodies. Your procrastinating on writing a will may be the single reason that all your kids stop being on speaking terms for the rest of their lives.
If you have a house, and you also have unpaid bills, and not enough money in your accounts to pay them all, then the house must be sold. No matter who lives in it. In the meantime, if the mortgage doesn’t get paid, then the bank can move along toward foreclosure. Probate is not protective against foreclosure.
What happens to your stuff? Someone has to go through it all and throw it away, donate it, sort it out to make sure it’s given to the “correct” recipient, sell it, or, most likely, pay for a storage unit and keep it all in boxes forever and ever. Precisely zero of my clutter clients have ever gotten rid of any of their grief boxes. They’ll save your old potholders, your jigsaw puzzles missing a piece, your dentures, all of it. I’ve seen hairbrushes saved for several years with the hair still in them.
The more complicated your affairs, the more likely that at least one of your loved ones will never get past it. They’ll never move on. Your passing will be the wound that never heals.
The more I work with clutter, the more of it I expel from my life. Every time I do a home visit, I come home and get rid of another bag of stuff. I’ve sworn off home visits entirely, but it seems impossible to quit for my inner circle. For myself, I can’t have it. We are given neither the day nor the hour, and I might leave this world this very afternoon. That’s why I’ve already put most of my affairs in order. I burned my old diaries, I scanned my photos, I filled out an advance care directive and had it witnessed, I made arrangements to be a whole body donor and I am constantly showing the card to people. It’s the orange thing in my wallet in front of my driver’s license. The toll-free number is on the emergency alert section of my phone. I don’t even have any house plants.
One day, there will be the sad task of scraping away my few personal effects. I may pay someone to do it in advance. Throw away my toothpaste and my leftovers from the fridge and my socks and underwear. Hopefully the stuff I’ve left behind is the least of me.
What we’re called upon to do in this world and this lifetime is to love one another. Love each other, that’s all. Mostly we should do this in the present moment, today, and today, and today again, because today is all we really have. Another way to love our loved ones is to straighten out our affairs as well as possible. The legacy we leave behind should be one of love, of unforgettable words of kindness, of great stories, of friendships that stood the test of time. Let what we leave behind be impossible to ever put in a box.
Breakups are sad. It wasn’t until the first time I broke up with someone that I understood it can be more painful than being on the receiving end. Then I started doing my clutter work, and I found a new level of sadness, which is when one person constantly thinks about breaking up, doesn’t do it, and the other person has no idea. I get random letters at least once a year from someone or other (who I barely know) who wants advice on whether to get a divorce. As a divorced person who remarried, this eats me up. I feel like almost all of these marriages have nothing wrong with them except that someone isn’t telling the whole truth.
Other times, I think the person who wants to leave is setting up not just heartbreak, but a bit of a disaster.
Look, you loved each other once. Why was that? What were the qualities inside this person that originally attracted you? Are they still there?
Have you actually said, in plain words, what’s bothering you?
People tell me the truth about why they want a divorce. They can tell me because they see me as a sort of bartender. It’s far easier to say these things to an anonymous string of text than it is to say them face to face. It’s also easier to say to a stranger, or an acquaintance, than it is to a friend or family member. Or the actual person!
What do they say? What are their real reasons?
Once it was... a stack. A stack of clutter consisting of books, magazines, mail, music CDs, computer disks, binders, folders, and random papers, this stack had been in a corner for over a year. Rather than mention it directly, this spouse and parent was ready to go to a lawyer and ask for a divorce over it. “It’s over a foot high!” I got a photo of it, as though I don’t know what clutter looks like. This stack represented a character flaw, a fundamental aesthetic difference, or from the stacker’s perspective, nothing at all.
Once it was... a dish towel. A white decorative dish towel, it hung on the kitchen wall directly next to the garage door. “Somehow” it kept getting greasy black handprints on it. This dish towel, just like the stack of clutter in the previous example, became a symbol of supposedly irreconcilable differences.
There are more examples. Often they are more complicated. Lengthy unemployment, significant weight gain, excessive spending, refusal to do an equal share of parenting or cooking or housework, constant gaming, refusal to get treatment for snoring or some other health problem. What they have in common, though, is that they are situational or behavioral. They are not character flaws or personality traits. They’re just actions, actions that are therefore up for negotiation and boundary-setting.
At this point I should say that at least some of the time, the relationship is doomed to failure and maybe never should have been started. When this is the case, it’s better to break up sooner rather than later. You’re never doing anyone any favors by dragging it out. The only exception would be if you’re in danger of abdicating a responsibility and breaking a contract. You should probably break up if you have incompatible values or if you want fundamentally different things out of life.
Also if there’s violence of any kind. If someone is being violent, then it’s not a relationship, it’s an association.
Let’s imagine you’ve already said your say, clearly and unequivocally. “I’d like you to move this stack of stuff to your desk or your closet by the end of the week, please. It’s driving me crazy.” “Stop wiping axle grease on the kitchen towels. Get some shop rags.” The partner’s reply is contemptuous, defensive, hypercritical, belligerent, or otherwise a sign of being a bad roommate. You’ve tried and you’re done trying and you know it’s time to go.
I didn’t see this option for myself in my first marriage; I didn’t see the divorce coming at all. I was blindsided. Due to my lack of preparation, I spent the next few years in absolute penury. It’s fair to say that it ruined my life. Granted, that was temporary. We never would have made it anyway. Splitting up allowed me to go back to school, get my degree, meet someone new, and eventually find a much greater happiness. The first year was freaking horrible, though. Do not underestimate how hard it can be, especially if you haven’t been on your own in a long time.
Before you break up, get your ducks in a row.
Do you have an emergency backup plan if things get weird?
(My backup plan: a couple of secret stashes of cash, a large credit line, private accounts of hotel and airline points, a go bag, and martial arts training. I’d go out the window naked and run down the street barefoot if I had to, but I’d leave some marks first).
Where are you going to go? Do you want to start over in a new city? Do you have some roommate options? Can you afford your own place?
What are you going to do for money? Do you have ideas for a career upgrade? A lot of times, the one who is planning to leave is the higher earner anyway.
Having your own money and your own sense of power and agency is really important to being a full partner in a relationship. You can stay when you know you can go, if that makes sense. My husband knows I’m with him because I want to be, because I like him, and because I like how he treats me. Why would either of us want anything else?
There are some other things that need to be said about fantasy breakups. If there are things you want that you aren’t getting, do you need to leave the relationship to make them happen? Were you somehow hoping that a romantic partner would get them for you? (Domestic contentment, life satisfaction, feeling healed and loved and pretty, material comforts you could buy yourself?)
Are there problems you’ll carry with you, even if you “start over” with someone new? Jealousy, resentment, being passive-aggressive, carrying consumer debt, poor communication and negotiation skills?
The reason I generally advise people to stay and work it out is that you can’t just replace a long-term relationship. If you got where you are because you won’t speak up or advocate for yourself, then being with someone different won’t help. You might as well use this possibly-expiring partnership to test out some better communication skills. Pay down debt, sort out your clutter, and make some solid backup plans while you’re at it. Consolidate your position. Make sure that if you do choose to leave, you’re doing it from a considered place of power and using discernment before you make your move.
Self-discipline has a bad rap. For one thing, it’s boring. There’s just nothing sexy about saving money, eating healthy, being organized, or going to bed early. (Well, maybe that last one). We tend to feel constrained by these external expectations, that the outside world is constantly pressuring us to quit having fun and give up our independence. There isn’t really a model showing self-discipline as an active, creative choice. We can choose self-discipline as a powerful means of personal and artistic expression. We can choose self-discipline as an endlessly regenerating act of love. Self-discipline is kindness, both to self and others.
It doesn’t take much time in the company of small children to realize that discipline usually comes in when kids are either doing something dangerous, or being mean to each other. Hey, no biting! Stop grabbing stuff from other people. Don’t chase the cat. Look out! I’ve had to run full speed after little kids who were about to walk into traffic, toddle into the ring during sports matches, or nearly stumble into a swimming pool or fire pit. Lack of discipline is hard to do without annoying other people or stressing them out. That’s because our actions don’t occur in a vacuum.
This is where we start to realize that our own lack of self-discipline and self-control makes life difficult for others around us. When we’re late and our coworkers have to cover for us. When we don’t pack lunch or a snack, and then get hangry and start snapping at people who have done nothing to deserve it - again. When we allow our standards to slip and drive distracted, endangering everyone around us.
Then there are people like the guy in my building who likes to get drunk in the afternoon, week after week, and sing along to the same The Police Greatest Hits album off his balcony. Live your best life, my dude, but could you do that maybe in the shower instead? Otherwise you’re setting yourself up for an uncredited appearance on my podcast.
I’ve had many, many roommates and neighbors over the years. Some of them have been legends for all the right reasons, and others for all the wrong ones. The ones who steal your leftovers or your laundry quarters. The ones who leave giant wads of hair in the shower drain. The ones who run up your phone bill, and then move out with no notice and no forwarding address. The ones who never, ever do a fair share of housekeeping, the ones who can’t seem to live a single hour with a dish-free kitchen sink. It all comes down to a basic disagreement about where the line ends between our behavior and other people’s rights. When my freedom interferes with yours, then it’s not my freedom any more; it’s my unfairness.
There are also all the ways that my lack of self-discipline is unfair to me, myself. Sometimes Today Me is very selfish and works hard to create problems for Future Me. Tomorrow Me is constantly being expected to pay my debts, sort my papers, and wash my dishes. Past Me, why you so lazy?? It takes a while to realize that if I take action right now, it’s faster and easier and costs less than if I dump it all on Future Me. I do all my housework on weekdays so that Saturday Me can lounge around, sleep late, and do nothing. I do forty pushups so that Next Month Me can do fifty, and so that Summer Me can have awesome-looking biceps. Gifts for Future Me, a Future Me who is hopefully feeling very smug right now.
When I look back at Twenties Me, I usually feel very aggravated. Twenties Me had almost every possible bad habit. She was late everywhere she went. Her bag always weighed ten pounds and she always had neck and shoulder pain because of it. Her desk was always covered with papers and unopened mail. She was always flat broke and devastated by money worries. She didn’t know how to cook, she was as much as thirty-five pounds overweight, and she had constant problems with migraines and chronic pain and fatigue. Forties Me sees almost all of these issues as a lack of self-discipline (although, more charitably, it was a lack of knowledge).
When I get plenty of sleep, it helps me to show up on time, keep my commitments, and treat others with patience and respect.
When I nourish my body with healthy food and plenty of exercise, it helps me to have a high energy level and physical strength and stamina. I’m able to contribute when it’s time to move furniture and do the heavy lifting. I’m more likely to help others in a crisis, when in the past I might have *been* the crisis.
When I’m organized, I meet my deadlines and fulfill expectations. I even have a chance to exceed them, set higher standards, and build my reputation. I don’t waste other people’s time by being late, asking for extensions, needing other people to cover for me, or failing to follow through on what I said I would do. I can take my time and create something amazing.
When I feel like I am accountable for my life, it helps me to manage my commitments. I can pledge my time and attention, knowing I will show up and keep my agreements. I can rely on my resources and energy level because I know what I’m capable of. I never have to inflict my panic or burnout on others.
When I am in charge of myself, when I use self-discipline skillfully, then I know I can be fully present for others. I take care of my own needs and I have responsibility for my own enjoyment of life. Also, I have the room and the means to listen wisely and well. I have space in my life and my heart for those I care about the most. When others need me, I know I can be there. Self-discipline is kindness, to myself and others.
Breakups can be hard to explain. It can feel like we owe not just the disappointed partner an explanation, but the entire world. It can feel like we’re only allowed to break up with someone if we have a “reason.” Like, what did he do? If he didn’t “do” anything, what happened? It’s like firing an employee and worrying about a lawsuit. Romance isn’t like that, though. Either you have strong feelings for someone, or you don’t. Either the relationship is mutually satisfying, or it isn’t. It can’t be mutual if you aren’t feeling it on your end. Respect, affection, and love are the bare minimum. Respect is probably the most important of these, and without it, no real love relationship is possible.
If you realize you don’t respect the one you’re with, it’s over.
Looking back at my early dating life, now that I’m a married person, I realize that Young Me put up with a lot of absurd behavior. What built the marriage I have now is that my dating standards gradually improved over time. I quit tolerating a lot of bad behavior, making me more selective and helping me to recognize when I met someone I could appreciate and admire.
The truth is that young people will generally all act alike until external pressures cause them to be more accountable and responsible. A lot of common dating problems come from someone just being immature, sloppy, and selfish. These aren’t personality traits, they’re bad habits. Given higher expectations, many people will pull themselves together and stop acting that way. Given a permissive, forgiving enabler, they may carry their juvenile antics decades into the future.
As an example, I had a boyfriend when we were both teenagers. One day he called me on the phone and accused me of stealing money from him! I was outraged. I yelled at him and hung up. Later that day he found the missing twenty in his pants pocket and called me to apologize, but I hung up on him again. He made his mom drive him across town where he showed up at my door, crying.
Imagine a pair of forty-year-old adults in this scenario. It’s almost impossible.
When I started looking backward for examples of times when a boy lost my respect, they popped up, one after another. Some were mine, some belonged to friends, some were just hopeful suitors. One way or another: grow up, boy!
The one who got tired of waiting in line at a convenience store and shoplifted a soda
The one who stole my laundry quarters
The one who never, ever washed a dish, cooked a meal, or did a chore
The one who admitted that he didn’t use soap in the shower
The one who let his mom pick out his furniture - and he was thirty
The one who shoved his laundry and clutter into his hall closet when guests came over - also over thirty
The one who drank malt liquor at 8 AM
The one who asked me over to watch him play Halo
The one who wanted me to drive over and clean his apartment on weekends
The one who admitted to $40,000 in credit card debt, with no plans to pay it off
The one who was married “in France, so it doesn’t count”
The one who sat and watched me pitch the tent, set up camp, and make dinner while cracking jokes about his own incompetence
The one who had his own apartment, but no bed, and just slept on the couch with no sheets
The several who had their own place but no soap or hand towels in the bathroom
The ones who hadn’t been to the dentist in eight years (translation: Mommy quit taking me)
The one who ate breakfast cereal, toast, or grilled cheese sandwiches for dinner every night
The one who replied to my online dating profile with two emails, one addressed to me and an identical one addressed to someone else
The one who hadn’t filed his taxes in three years
The ones with no shower curtain who just let water pool on the floor
The one who proudly shared about yelling at a major client at work, unprovoked
The one who took me on a surprise outing to the country to attempt to buy an illegal firearm
The one who gave my phone number to his friend after I broke up with him
The one who neglected his cat
The one who stole painkillers from his parents’ medicine cabinet
The one who got drunk and threw up in the bushes
The one who used the same pickup line on my friend as he had used on me a few minutes earlier
The threshold for romance - the barest minimum standard - is for someone to act like a mature adult, not a teenager or a child. This is why it stands out so much when someone old enough to vote has poor personal hygiene, doesn’t clean up after himself, and can’t or won’t cook a proper meal. You can’t be a lover to a man when it feels like you also have to be his parent.
Another non-negotiable is personal values. I can’t respect someone who steals, especially small amounts, because with standards that low, where do they stop? I can’t respect lying or any kind of dishonesty, whether directed at me or anyone else, because again, how can you communicate without trust? I can’t tolerate breaking the law, because that puts me at risk, as well as my friends, family, neighbors, pets, and anyone else in the line of fire. It’s also dumb.
I don’t like being around people who are in an altered state. That’s my preference. It’s not worth anyone’s time for an ascetic like me to hang around people who like to get drunk and party.
I have no use for players and never did. Knowing that some boy is looking over my shoulder, hoping for a better opportunity, never worked for me.
Being worthy of respect isn’t complicated. Simply give your word only when you intend to keep it. Be responsible for your own material needs, clean up after yourself, and live intentionally. Have some kind of consistent ethical standards. Be willing to stand up for what’s right and speak out against what’s wrong. Tell the truth about your life. Simple, right?
Clarity around what we can and can’t respect tends to change things. Those who aren’t interested in meeting a higher standard will simply drift away. Those who remain are the ones who make solid friends. Among them may be some options for reliable mates, and among them, maybe one who will rise to meet your expectations.
It was going to happen eventually anyway. My husband joined my martial arts gym, and despite my determination to give him space, I showed up in his classroom only three weeks later. How would I set appropriate boundaries and let him train at his own pace?
Simple: I asked him.
When I walked in, his was the first face I saw. He was holding forth, telling a story, his classmates gathered around. This is what he does. I’ve known him nearly fifteen years, and no matter the group, he winds up at the center of it. It’s part of why I wanted him to join my gym. I knew he’d fit in. I also suspected I could convince him to build a catapult that fires watermelons into the sea, but that’s a story for a different day.
He didn’t wave at me when I came in. That’s fine. As I got within range, I could hear that I already knew this story, could probably tell it for him. I’m not always his audience.
I went into the changing room, put my stuff away, and swapped out my shoes. These are the things I do before I train. Whether my mate is in the hallway or not, I have tasks. I have my own training goals. I’m here for myself, he’s here for himself.
I came out and said hello. I walked up to my husband and asked quietly, “Do you want to train with me or not train with me?”
There can be no wrong answer to this question. There can’t be any strings, there can’t be any pitfalls. If we’re both going to train here, in a few months we’ll be in classes together a few times a week. We have to establish the ground rules.
This is true of anything, from where we sit in the movie theater to what format we use to share documents. If we don’t set up some kind of guidelines, we have to keep figuring it out as we go along. That demands more mental bandwidth, more decisions, more time, and more discussions. It allows for a lot more miscommunications.
In martial arts, it also allows for some physical consequences.
Training with a partner is an intimate act. You have to be profoundly aware of each other’s physical space, facial expressions, range of motion, speed, fitness level, breathing rate, and pain threshold. You find yourself accidentally punching someone you like right in the face, or connecting your elbow to your friend’s chin. If you aren’t paying attention you can really hurt each other.
That’s bad enough with any friend, acquaintance, or even frenemy. If you bruise up your spouse, well, it can get people to talking. Try to avoid this.
I said I asked my husband whether he wanted to train with me or not. That’s not entirely true. First I had to have a conversation with our teacher.
I came in to train with the white belts because I was getting over a chest cold, and I knew I couldn’t handle the advanced workout yet. That’s what happened the last time; I wasn’t quite at 80% yet, we warmed up with “fifties,” and I wound up getting sick again a couple of days later. I didn’t realize that I was about to break the rules.
(Advanced students pay more for classes, and masters students sometimes drop in to train at lower levels, so it didn’t strike me as a problem).
Our teacher tactfully explained that advanced students don’t train with beginners out of respect. I had wondered if it was to keep the room from being too full, or if we hit too hard. Really the reason is that it’s discouraging for white belts to compare themselves to more advanced students.
This made perfect sense. My first class showed me that I couldn’t do a single pushup, that I had to grab my thigh to do a sit-up, and that I didn’t even know a lot of fitness terminology. What the heck is a jump squat? I used to turn pale when I’d watch the advanced class warming up. They seemed to move at triple speed, and their warmups seemed three times as hard. (True, all true, as it turns out).
I apologized and offered to sit out the class, because OF COURSE. I also explained that I was coming back from a chest cold and wasn’t operating at my peak. I was allowed to train, because of course - I’m known for my grit, good cheer, and positive attitude, but not for my stamina or athletic prowess. Nobody would be in any danger from me.
That includes my husband, who tactfully rejected my offer to train. He looked away and said he figured it was best to train at least once with everybody. (Technically that would include me, the new person in the room, but I didn’t need it spelled out).
I had to laugh when we went in, because my husband’s partner bears a very strong resemblance to me! We’re close in age, same height, and not only could we share a wardrobe, but I think we could even trade shoes. I liked her right away and knew I would have chosen her, too. As a shy person, she gravitated to my hubby for the same reasons I did. I felt somehow comforted that he was there for her, a safe option, something like a natural resource.
It’s a privilege to be able to train with men, especially men of exceptionally large build. I can flip another woman of my size, sure, but how often do I get to test my mettle with men over six feet tall who weigh over 200 pounds? How could I deny access to my bearlike mate to other ladies who want to learn self-defense?
Instead of my new friend, instead of my husband, I got to train with a power lifter who helped me improve my roundhouse kick. I’m sure I got the best bargain out of the four of us.
Both ladies are promoting in a couple of weeks. Not only will I be training with both of them soon, but by January all four of us will be in class together.
Back in the beginner class, I felt two things. I felt winded and a little sad at how much ground I’d lost while coughing all night. I also felt a little smug that I was still comparatively quite strong. I skipped rope the fastest and didn’t need to pause. I did my tens faster than anyone else in the room. I did walking lunges and bear crawls like they were routine - although I was still feeling it two days later. Part of me felt entitled to be there, trying to rebound from a respiratory illness, working just as hard as anyone else. Part of me also felt kinda evil, that my very presence could be discouraging, could interfere with other people’s motivation. I got it.
Not training with my husband means two things. It means we don’t have to calibrate and avoid kicking each other in the ribs. It also means I don’t show off for the brief time when I’m more advanced. I’m not going to want him to flaunt his prowess when he surpasses me six months from now, so I’m not going to do it to him today.
Ultimately, we’re training together, even when we’re not even in the building on the same days of the week. We both study under the same teachers. We both wear school t-shirts. We both follow the same cultural norms. We’ve even befriended some of the same people without realizing it. A few months from now, we’ll both go through a belt promotion together, doing brutal amounts of squats and pushups in a large pool of communal sweat. One day, we’ll meet face to face in the shark pit, and when it happens, we’ll have to manage it in the same way that we would with any other partners. We’ll respect each other.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.