Everyone has some kind of checklist for deciding whether to date someone. Sometimes, granted, that checklist isn’t very long. Sometimes it’s just, “Did they ask me out?” I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s only one trait that really, truly matters. Without it, no relationship has a chance. With it, nearly anything is tolerable. The trait is kindness.
I tell all my students, “Only date people who are nice to you.”
Unfortunately, in the short term, it’s possible to be hoodwinked by a skilled manipulator who is deliberately faking you out with superficial charm. This is why it can be more helpful to watch for the person to show kindness to someone else.
There are four types of undesirable lover. One, the narcissist. That’s estimated at about six percent of the population. Narcissism is a personality disorder, and it’s considered more or less untreatable, mostly because narcissists don’t think anything is wrong with them. Two, the sociopath, at about three to five percent of the population. Three, ordinary selfish people, and four, ordinary people who resort to violence. No idea how many of those there are out there. Kindness is nice on its own, and I think it’s also a fairly reliable way to weed out all of these four types of people who will inevitably be mean.
Mean to us, mean to our kids, mean to our friends, mean to our neighbors, mean to our pets, mean to our parents, mean to random passersby - it doesn’t really matter. Any or all of those scenarios are drama that we don’t need.
I once had a boyfriend who picked up my earring off a table and crushed it out of shape. It was pointless and unprovoked. Looking back, I wish I had broken up with him on the spot, because it wasn’t the last time he did something dumb and mean. Looking back, I’m also hard pressed to think of a single time when he did something nice for anyone. It’s an interesting exercise. What are some nice things that my ex did, and what are some mean things?
Part of what made me want to be friends with my current husband was that he would leave little uplifting notes on my desk. I still have a couple of them in my wallet a dozen years later. I saw him stand up for other people and do sweet things for his kid. I started to trust him. I’ve seen him help lost kids and stroke victims, break up a fight, tie heavy furniture onto a girl’s car in the IKEA parking lot, help various people get jobs and promotions, and one day he even saved a couple of little frogs from dying of dehydration. Once an Eagle Scout, always an Eagle Scout, what can I say?
As I was writing this, he popped out the door with the bag of laundry that I had planned to wash later this evening. He has this habit of sneaking off to do my chores. What’s worse, if there’s burnt toast he always takes it. I find myself having to bend over backward sometimes to keep up with him.
The thing about kindness is that it’s hard to fake because most of the opportunities are not obvious. Well, they’re obvious to a kind-hearted person. If you make it your mission to hold the door for people, always try to make eye contact and smile at everyone you pass by, and get a laugh out of every business transaction, you recognize those moments. Not everyone notices, though, when someone at work could use a pep talk, or when a tiny kid gets separated from her mom, or when someone is struggling with a heavy load. You can always label an act of kindness after the fact, but you can’t always see them coming in advance.
There are romantic gestures that don’t necessarily count as kindness. For instance, I once had a boyfriend who would ride his bike seven miles across town to see me. This was impressive, but more of an act of valor than anything else. Mix tapes, well, I don’t know if people make those too often any more, but there’s a big difference between whether they represent the giver’s taste or the recipient’s. I would be seriously surprised if someone were able to put together a playlist of music fitting my tastes or bring me a book relevant to my interests that I hadn’t already read. Gifts and photos are also usually more revealing of the giver.
One of the main reasons I fell for my ex-husband was that he cooked for me. He really was a fantastic cook! As it turned out, he just preferred his own cooking (understandably) and refused to eat mine (even more understandably). What I interpreted as kindness turned out, in our relationship, to be a power play. He had learned that if he made all the meals, he could walk away from a kitchen disaster that someone else would have to clean up every night. That’s not necessarily a big deal, but his constant insults, criticism, and mind games were. If I had been as good a cook back then as I am now, I wouldn’t have fallen for a few great dinners. I would have looked further. I wouldn’t have written off a few early, telltale incidents of rudeness as “not a big deal.” I could have saved both of us from those three wretched years.
People tend to outgrow early selfishness as we age. The drama and bad habits we may have exhibited in one relationship are lessons we can learn so that we don’t carry them forward into the next match. This is part of why we shouldn’t reward unkindness, selfishness, cruelty, or mistreatment. Sometimes people need a little time on their own to work things out, and other times, maybe they never will.
Kindness is an upward spiral. It ripples outward, touching everyone who experiences it, even second-hand. The uplift we get from these altruistic acts can be enough to inspire us to do kind deeds for others. We learn to trust each other and we seek to impress each other. It gets easier and easier to be generous and rely on the expectation of mutual sweetness. That’s where long-term love resides.
“Your Majesty” wouldn’t be good enough for me as a title, not if I were the queen of the world. I’d have to come up with something new, something more impressive, something that hadn’t been used already for mere queens of countries or empires. “Most Supreme Awesomeness,” maybe. I’d figure it out. I’d figure it out just as soon as I figured out what it meant to be the queen of the entire world and what good it would ever do me.
The first thing I think, when I think of great fame, is the burden. In fact, I think along these lines every time I see a picture of Kate Middleton. Bless her heart. Lovely as a flower. She always seems to be perfectly dressed, but then she’d have to be, wouldn’t she? A duchess! She’s even expected to look perfect mere hours after giving birth. Every single thing she does, says, or wears is a headline. Walking perfection every minute, or else. Does she ever get any time to herself? Can she have any secrets? Does she have a confidante whom she can trust absolutely? I don’t know much about her, but I do know she doesn’t get to go to the convenience store in pajama bottoms and Ugg boots.
Not that I do, either, but it’s nice to know I have that freedom.
I have some major advantages. An ordinary life is one of those secret blessings that people don’t appreciate until something changes. I have something that no amount of money can buy, something that every celebrity would envy: total obscurity. That means privacy. There are no photographers following me around. Nobody puts me in a headline. Nobody comes up asking me for selfies or autographs. If I want to read a book, I sit down and read it, because that’s what you can do when the world isn’t knocking on your door. For what it’s worth, I’m certainly the queen of my own world.
The fantasy seems to be one of adulation. Awash in compliments. People waiting on you hand and foot, bringing you things, trying harder if the first attempt didn’t impress you. Nobody contradicts you - nobody dares! Total leisure and indolence, nothing but sleeping on satin sheets, lolling about in a bubble bath, trying on flattering outfits and indulging in elaborate beauty rituals. Oh, yes, youth and beauty, with an edge of power and fierce intelligence. Queen of the world, that’s not nearly the same as princess of the world, is it? ‘Princess’ implies sweet innocence. The queen of the world would have to be on the razor’s edge of villainy, am I right? The femininity seems to drain out of this image of female power, because what makes us feminine is our yielding, nurturing, patience, and putting others first.
Oh, no no no! That’s not right at all. As queen of the world, all I would want is to be universally beloved, my populace entranced with how incredible I am. I would rule with a wave and a smile, like Glinda the Good Witch. There would be no critics and no skeptics! I would never have to resolve global issues like political conflict, natural disasters, or epidemics. Easy and perfect, all the praise and none of the effort or responsibility.
Hmm, no, that’s not right either.
It’s just not for me. As it turns out, wearing heavy stuff on my head gives me migraine. There isn’t a crown or diadem or tiara in the world that I could wear for long.
I wouldn’t want to be queen of the world. So many reasons! Constantly surrounded by a security detail, never able to go anywhere alone, never being able to relax my guard and just be myself. If I had the hiccups everyone would hear about it. On stage all the time. Expected to make appearances and give my blessing to this and that, even if I’d never heard of it the day before. It’s too much of a price to pay for the fantasy of never being criticized or contradicted, never having a naysayer or a frenemy. Actually I think that the queen of the world would have almost entirely frenemies.
The life of obscurity is the life for me. It’s the life of freedom. Accepting that only a handful of people in the world will be my true friends is plenty. As long as there’s one! Better a faithful friend to one than some kind of celebrity idol to a million.
Any power that I have comes from a few predictable sources. Power in my physical form, a power that I can feel as I move my limbs. Power in living my values and knowing I am consistent in myself. Power in my love and friendship. Power in keeping my word. Power in knowledge. Power in being debt-free and beholden to no one. Power in financial security. Power in my abilities, the skills I continue to learn. Power in my sphere of influence, which expands as I build my reputation and add to my contributions.
I have power when I speak for what is right. I have power when I can stand up for someone else. I have power when I put effort toward causes that are important to me. I have power when I keep someone’s secret, when I demonstrate that I am trustworthy and reliable. I have the ultimate power of loving words and deeds. With this power, I can transform my personal environment, and this can ripple outward and affect those around me.
I can’t be the queen of the world, nor would I want to be. I can be the queen of my own world, though. I can be the queen of one man’s world, my husband’s. If I am to wear this crown, may I be wise and merciful, benevolent and splendid. And may I retain my awe-inspiring obscurity.
When we were newlyweds, we moved into a big house in the suburbs. It was in fact bigger than both our bachelor places put together. We had been living on our own for years at that point, and we each had our own house full of furniture and housewares, so we just brought it all. We had plenty of space, a big kitchen, plenty of couches, plenty of chairs, and two dining tables. What the heck? We decided to have an open house once a week.
What does “open house” mean?
“Open house” means that for a set window of time, our door is open. Anyone who wants to visit can stop by and stay, for a few minutes or a few hours, until we send everyone home at the end of the evening. Ours was either Tuesday or Wednesday, from 6 PM to 9 PM.
An open house means we don’t require an RSVP. Although a lot of people would text, call, email, or post on Facebook that they planned to come over, we didn’t insist on it. The point is for people to feel free to drop by on the most casual basis possible. Some people would come every week, while others would show up once every few months. The unpredictability added to the fun.
An open house also means there’s no set invite list. We encouraged our friends to bring people with them. Bring a date, bring a sibling, bring a classmate. On a few occasions, someone would show up with a carload of four or five new people who hadn’t been there before. Sometimes one of these surprise guests would become an open house regular.
At our open house, we provided food. I would make some pans of lasagna, or a huge stock pot full of soup, or we’d put out bowls of ingredients for a burrito bar. A few of the regulars would often bring a big green salad, some fresh bread, drinks, or a dessert. There was always plenty to go around, except for one memorable night when we had about double the number of guests as usual, and we ran to Safeway for some take-and-bake pizzas.
When I say ‘casual,’ I mean casual. We had no requirements for social participation. There was usually someone sitting in a corner doing homework or knitting. One guy came over to sit quietly on our couch specifically because he was trying to quit smoking weed. We never say a thing about people messing with their phones, because we can’t actually know that we’re the most urgent or important conversation. As a result, we would often find that our gathering was tagged on social media with the sweetest comments and compliments.
We had a couple of firm rules, but no more. One rule was that there would be zero discussion of post-Industrial politics. Someone once tried to start a (contemporary) political conversation, and everyone started making alarm calls and shouting out, “Danger, Will Robinson! Warning!” Another rule was that everyone had to get along. Anyone who made another guest uncomfortable would be expected to stop and apologize. We never had to send anyone home, but we were prepared to do it if necessary.
We did have some drama once, and it was quite bad, partly because it didn’t happen on the premises. A newer guest bore false witness against another guest, a bizarre story since I was there when it supposedly happened, and I got a call about it later. The instigator never came back, probably having realized that those bridges were burned. One weird incident in four years? We could handle it.
There was a certain amount of work involved in hosting as many as two dozen people in our home every week. We had a dishwasher, and we’d sometimes have to run it three times between 8 PM and 8 AM. (I had a stack of plastic plates and extra metal cutlery from Costco). But the guests would help wipe down the table and counters and put the chairs away. One trip to take the trash out, and the Roomba handled the rest. The key factor in having a regular open house is to delegate. With a large group, each person can put in about two minutes of effort and all the cleanup is done.
An open house is a good argument for minimalism. We always had motivation to finish home improvement projects, clear clutter, and do our chores. Leftovers got used up quickly. We were perpetually catching people before they drove away without their keys/glasses/purse/phone/hoodie or whatever.
We generally didn’t have to make rules about pets because everyone knew we have a dog and a parrot. It would have been chaos if even one or two people brought dogs. I had a guest come to book group with a dog once, and it couldn’t sit for five minutes without getting hyper around my bird. For people with bigger yards or a different setup, it might work, depending on the individual dogs.
There’s a lot of trust involved with having dozens of strangers cycle through your home. Your privacy! Your stuff! I happen to believe that there’s no point in stealing most physical objects, but we do have a safe and we hid its location. Obviously we would never leave cash, passports, or anything sensitive to identity theft laying around. We didn’t (and still don’t) really have anything that anyone would steal. Furniture, appliances? Our old desktop computer? I did “lend” out a few books that were never returned, and finally I realized that if I just buy ebooks, this would cease to be a temptation. As a spiritual goal I try only to give as a gift, not lend as an obligation. We gave away all sorts of things: rides, meals, tutoring, clothes, tools, craft supplies, random objects, and job references. In return, we had a never-ending supply of pet sitters and willing helpers we could hire for odd jobs.
Having an open house is an amazing experience. It always turns into a much bigger deal than it seems like it deserves. We spent so many hours laughing, playing games, telling stories, watching movies, singing, dancing, cooking, eating, hugging, and generally living that everything seemed very small and pale the day after. One day, when we’re ready to move into a bigger home, we’ll do it again. A bigger home and a bigger life, an open house, an open door, and an open heart.
This book might be even better for single people to read than for married people. It’s incredible. I think it might save marriages as well as start some. Eli J. Finkel presents some research findings, complete with charts and graphs, in a very approachable way that just happens to explode a lot of pop culture notions. He starts with the premise that divorce is up because our expectations of marriage are so high, and reminds us that, on a historic scale, expectations of marriage have, in many ways, never been lower. This is just one of the many fascinating and challenging ideas about The All-or-Nothing Marriage.
Marriage has changed. I know a few couples who are in arranged marriages, a practice which is common enough that people will publicly admit to it, yet still so uncommon that it is very surprising. How quickly we forget that this used to be the norm! Finkel discusses the original form of pragmatic marriage, in which couples depended on one another for their actual physical survival. This was what people expected of each other up until around 1850. Industrialization allowed us to relax a bit about such concerns, making space for the concept of the love-based marriage. No longer would we need to audition each other for our agricultural or home-construction skills; more time for kissy-kissy. Suddenly, around 1965, we saw the advent of the self-expression marriage, in which we expect our mates to help us fulfill all our wildest dreams and be perfect in every way.
This is where the book becomes staggeringly important.
Most divorces are initiated by women now. The figure is nearly 70%. Pause and think about that, because the proportions are nowhere near that for break-ups in regular dating. What is it about marriage specifically that makes so many women want to get the heck out? Partly it’s the natural outgrowth of realizing that you’ve married a bad roommate, someone who exploits traditional gender roles to get free maid service. Partly, as we discover in The All-or-Nothing Marriage, it’s our expectation that marriage needs to be a major factor in our self-expression.
What’s great about this book is that it offers so much perspective and so many attitude adjustments. It also has a section devoted to “love hacks,” tested ways of improving marital satisfaction even when the couple are annoying each other. The All-or-Nothing Marriage is also an optimistic book. The research indicates that the best marriages in our era are better than ever before. A self-expression marriage is something worth striving for, as long as we support our partner’s needs as well as our own.
Speaking as a divorced person remarried to another divorced person, please read this book before you start signing any papers. You can also feel free to leave it laying around in plain view; like The Five Love Languages, it’s the kind of relationship book that men will appreciate, especially because the author is male. Approach the conversation with curiosity and leave space for your partner to respond. May it help you to find your way back to one another.
Most couples bicker about money. My hubby and I were bickering about someone else’s money.
I was reading him a story about a woman who got engaged, only to discover that her fiancé has two million dollars in a trust fund, property, and various other stuff. This would make an absolutely fantastic romance novel, am I right? Or maybe a movie on Lifetime, except that the pivot in the third act would involve the guy turning out to be a sociopath or something.
This wasn’t a movie or a novel, though; it was real life.
She falls in love with a man she thinks is broke. They date for a couple of years. Then she gradually finds out the truth, that he is financially independent and only has to work doing stuff that he thinks is interesting. He works at a brewery, earning $30,000 a year to brew beer.
My hubby and I commented back and forth on the story. We’re focusing on attaining our own financial independence right now, and we’ve been reading a lot about other couples who have done it. How do they spend their time? What if one goes FI and the other has to keep working for several more years? How do they split their expenses? Do they travel? Where do they spend money that we would not, and what cost-cutting measures do they take that we wouldn’t? Details like that help to make the fantasy feel more possible, which of course it is, unless you try to live the Standard American Lifestyle of hyperconsumption and debt.
I expressed my annoyance at the story, which involved the woman earning the majority of their household income while the millionaire husband works at the brewery. Their only savings is the proceeds from his trust fund. My husband’s position was that this is fine, because they both pay their share. My position was total annoyance, for two reasons, and this is why we started bickering.
We both got more and more insistent on our positions, before suddenly realizing that what should have been idle chatter was turning into a debate with a bit of an edge.
“I wouldn’t marry that guy, even though he is a millionaire.”
“Because that’s a boring job!”
“You wouldn’t marry him unless he had an interesting job?”
“No, of course not!”
It wasn’t until I rehashed my thoughts the next day that I realized I really meant it. Not only would I not want to be married to a guy with a boring job; I also hate beer. It’s not just that I wouldn’t want to listen to endless “inside baseball” details about brewing, most of which I have probably already heard. I’d have to smell it. I grew up around Portland, a brewery town, and I find the smell of hops absolutely revolting.
We came back to the topic a day later, after we’d both thought about it some more. Wasn’t it snobby of me to look down on a guy because of his job? I didn’t think so, and I explained, after of course reminding my husband that part of why I love him is that he is so brilliant at what he does.
It’s not that his job makes him who he is. On the contrary. He has the job he does because of the types of interests that he has. I’m sure he was an interesting person before he got his first aerospace engineering job, before he built his first robot, before he went on his first international business trip. What’s so fascinating about the man I married is that he chose this career while wearing a hard hat, sitting on a stump, and taking a lunch break from his job as a logger.
It’s not about the money. If it were, I’d probably have a romantic obsession about marrying a millionaire slacker. A fiancé with two million dollars?? *gasp* *clutch the pearls* Mah MAY-UN!
I’d rather date a poor dude with a passionate interest in life than a rich guy who bored me. I’d rather go hang out at the duck pond with a broke guy than sit across a five-star restaurant table with someone who had nothing to talk about. I know, because I’ve done both.
Before my current husband, I mostly dated broke students and guys who were learning to write software at night, rejecting more “established” guys who just chugged along at their day jobs. For me, what’s compelling is when a man is in love with his vocation, when there’s something that he finds absolutely captivating. I’ve always chosen my loves based on their passions, not their incomes. I’d do it over again, too.
If I weren’t already married to the most fascinating guy I know:
I’d date a gopher on a movie set who had eight roommates, if that was his way of learning how to make a film.
I’d date a Lyft driver, if he was building a startup.
I’d date a barista, if he was designing an app.
I’d date a bookstore clerk, if he did open-mic poetry.
The guys I wouldn’t date? First off, anyone who was rude to waiters, refused to tip, wouldn’t clean up after himself, didn’t know how to cook, didn’t vote, or didn’t read books in general. I wouldn’t date a stoner, a gamer, or a social drinker. I have plenty of idiosyncratic expectations, but earned income and wealth aren’t really part of them.
The thing about financial security is that it allows you to make more of your own decisions according to your own values. I’ll never feel trapped in a relationship because I can afford to leave, if I need to, and also because I study martial arts. I’m where I am because I want to be, not because I’m afraid to do anything else. I would never feel that I should date one guy instead of another, just because of the lifestyle he could pay for. I would never date a millionaire slacker, because the very idea bores me.
The last time I had the flu as a single person, I spent a lot of time lying there, contemplating my life choices. Too sick to drive to the store, all I had was whatever was in my fridge. I had nobody to bring me a glass of water or go to the pharmacy, much less anyone to fuss over me or stroke my fevered cheek. Much as I value my independence, there’s a line between freedom and foolish isolation. Thus, when my husband and I recently went through the flu together, I found some small measure of comfort.
I also felt guilty that he got it from me.
Our nine-year wedding anniversary is this year, and in the twelve years we’ve been together, I don’t think we’ve ever been ill at the same time. In all those years, my hubby has called in sick maybe three times that I know of. It’s weird that it took us this long. I was watching a video on my phone, I started laughing, and that laugh suddenly turned into a deep, hacking cough. Uh oh. Three days later, my man came in the door from work, I took one look at him, and I knew.
Every symptom he had, I had just gone through three days before. This is an easy, basic lesson in empathy. When he coughed all night, I literally knew just exactly how it felt. When he lost his appetite, yep, I knew what he meant. I’d been so shaky I had to crawl on the floor to get a drink of water, with chills and fever that brought me to tears, and I didn’t need him to tell me how bad he felt. I felt it too.
I lost three pounds in a week. He lost six.
We were lucky. During the three days I was sick and he wasn’t, he was able to go to the pharmacy and the grocery store and do the laundry. We were stocked up enough to hold us over. Then I started feeling better when he was in the worst of it. We also have reverse biorhythms, where he feels relatively better early in the morning and declines the rest of the day, and I feel worst when I first wake up, perking up late at night.
We made each other soup and tea. We opened pill bottles for each other. We traded off walking the dog and taking out the trash. Somehow, we even got clean sheets onto the bed a couple of times.
The day we both felt well enough to clean the apartment felt like a huge victory. We would each do a chore and then lie down for an hour before doing something else. By dinnertime, we had vacuumed, cleaned the bathroom, and done all the laundry. It felt like medaling in the Olympics!
At one point, he turned to me and said, “If I had to be sick with somebody, I’m glad it was you.” Aww! I said I think that might be the most romantic thing he’s ever said to me.
When I was single, I set up a huge boundary. What’s In It For Me? After my early divorce, I wanted to just do everything myself. I was determined to live alone, go on my own vacations, plan my own retirement, and eventually buy my own house. I didn’t want to be vulnerable to another person, disappointed by another person, annoyed or frustrated by another person. I had a lot of tests and hurdles for any man who was determined enough to get through those barriers.
Being married does require a certain amount of vulnerability. Your spouse is the roommate you can’t kick out, the new family member you see the most often, the business partner whose financial choices affect all your accounts. Ah, but your spouse is also your ally, your friend, and, at times, even your nurse. When this person you’ve chosen to share your life shows up at your lowest moment, carrying a box of tissues or a bottle of cough syrup, you wonder why you ever thought you could make it alone.
The truth is, I always knew I had it in me to be the giver in the relationship. Giver of flu germs, apparently... That’s why I was so protective of my liberty. I didn’t want to open myself up to a taker and start to feel resentment toward him. It never really occurred to me that I would marry another giver, someone who would always go above and beyond, someone who would want to take care of me the way I would take care of him.
It’s scary to think of ourselves on the march into old age, and how the seasonal flu could wipe us out, even after we got the flu shot. (Quite certain this was a different strain). The thought of Elderly Us coughing in bed, side by side, is sobering, but it also elicits a certain tenderness. Oh, you poor man, I would never want you to go through that alone.
Now that we’re over the worst flu of our lifetimes so far, we’re moving a little slowly. We’re both feeling a fresh wave of gratitude toward one another, relief that we made it, and appreciation of what are really the simplest pleasures in life. Being able to breathe! Standing up! Walking into the kitchen and back! Cooking and eating a real dinner! Wearing pants! It’s a beautiful springtime, and how sweet to spend it with the one person you know will always be at your side, no matter what.
The thought of introducing myself to potential new clients by leaving a business card on their door was something I smacked down almost as soon as it entered my mind. As obvious as these homes are to me, it’s equally obvious that their inhabitants would be horrified that anyone could guess how they live from the street. The entire point of hoarding is emotional insulation, to create a barrier that blocks this secret world from the outside.
Doesn’t work, though. Like it or not, we’re stuck participating in this world. People can see us. Worse yet, they’d help us if we’d let them in.
That would be defeating the purpose, because isolation is the purpose as well as the cause.
What is it that I can see from the street? What makes “one of mine” stand out?
The windows are always covered, even on the brightest summer day. Curtains, blinds, sheets, blankets, cardboard, car window shades, even a sheet of plywood in one case. You can tell that it’s been this way for a long time because often objects are visible, either between the covers and the glass, or pressing the curtains into weird shapes. DON’T LOOK IN.
The front door is obscured in some way. Maybe there are a bunch of boxes stacked out there, or bags of recycling, or dead potted plants. Anything that might have said, “Welcome Friend” is noticeable in its absence. DON’T COME INSIDE.
Usually there’s a large amount of visible clutter outside. You can see it in the side yard, or poking over the back fence, or strewn in the yard or driveway. We used to have a neighbor across the street who kept dozens of rubber storage tubs stacked up in front of the garage door. When this happens outside an American-standard suburban ranch house, it says one or both of two things. 1. The inside of the house is already full and/or 2. Nobody is helping to take care of things here. DON’T OFFER.
Of course I’ve been allowed inside dozens of cluttered homes in the course of my work. I’ve worked with extreme hoarding and squalor. What you see on the hoarding shows on TV? That’s about five times more common than I think people realize. There are also a LOT of people living with a level of clutter not too far above that point. Sure, a lot of my people are overwhelmed by chronic disorganization, and they can quickly “get organized” once they’re taught what to do. I think the majority are having more trouble managing their emotions than they are their stuff.
The Anger House is the most common. This is what happens when nobody has ever worked out the power dynamics of who does what. People snap at each other every day. Who ate it? Who left it there? Who took it? Where is it? Whose turn is it? The kitchen looks like a bomb hit it because the thought of washing everyone else’s dishes touches off a radioactive cloud of resentment, grudges, quarrels, and previous fights. Doing laundry or cleaning the bathroom are battle-worthy premises, usually not worth the effort. In the Anger House, someone is often shouting first thing in the morning, before work or school have even started. Every single task is politically charged; you can’t pick up a sock without making some kind of statement.
The Sorrow House is usually a scene of mourning. Hoarding is almost always triggered by a death in the family, and sometimes a series. If there are grief boxes of the possessions of the departed, that will virtually always touch it off. The first time I saw this in action, the adult daughter had filled her entire living room, dining room, and kitchen four feet high with boxes of her deceased parents’ housewares. There was a narrow path from room to room, and she had saved herself one of three sofa cushions. (The other two? Boxes!). She would come home, weave through the box barricade, and nestle into that one available soft spot, where she had sat for several years. I can’t help but think of how deeply saddened her parents would have been, to think that this was the life she chose. Parents like to think our kids will do better than we did, that they’ll have better lives than ours, and certainly we want our kids to go on to live many happy years after we leave this world. It’s a conversation we should be having while all parties are still among the living. Our culture’s distinct lack of burial rites and formal mourning rituals leads us to these bizarre, unhelpful states of limbo. For lack of a cenotaph, we’ll pay thousands of dollars for storage units we’ll never visit, so we never have to face the sorrow of throwing away our parents’ old pot holders and dish towels.
A Sorrow House is often the result of a restructured family. Maybe divorce or separation, maybe an empty nest from whence the grown children have flown. Living alone and rattling around a big old empty house? It IS sad! I just really wish more people would shrug it off and choose to live like the Golden Girls, finding a way to be relatively cheerful with roommates rather than lonely with a television.
Maybe I should use the term ‘anxiety’ instead, but maybe it’s helpful to call things by their names and label the Fear House for what it is. Because a Fear House doesn’t feel scary to the occupant, it feels safe. In the Fear House, it just feels safer not to venture outside to take out the trash right now, or return those purchases, or run those errands. In the Fear House, there are always a million and five reasons to delay going out the door and just stay home a few more minutes. It always feels better to do the coping mechanism than to do anything else.
I teach that we should evaluate our homes by the use we get out of the space. Home should feel welcoming, a place of peace, warmth, safety, and hospitality. Kitchens for cooking, dining tables for meals, beds for sleeping, desks for creative projects. We can also go through and evaluate what emotions rise up in different areas. What parts of the home are evidence of unresolved power struggles? Unprocessed grief? Loneliness? Anxiety, stress, or boredom? What would it look and feel like if it were instead to be a happy, cheerful, joyous home?
Saying that you hate smalltalk is like saying you’re terrible with names or that you don’t like standing in line. Hello and welcome to the human race! These are universal conditions. The point of smalltalk is that it’s not supposed to stay small; it’s temporary. Those who resent it are misreading how it’s supposed to work. Smalltalk is a ritual formula, just like summoning an elevator or opening a door. Whether you choose to use it to exit the conversation, express kind regard for someone, transition to more interesting topics, or actually make friends, that’s all up to you. The feeling of hating smalltalk is a clear sign of a lifetime of missed opportunities.
One of the things that people claim to hate about smalltalk is that it’s boring. What is funny about this is that most of us probably talk about totally vapid, boring things with our friends, families, and coworkers every single day. We just don’t mind because we know these people, and ordinary, routinely boring conversations are necessary to getting life done. What really bothers us is the feeling of being forced to talk to strangers, people we don’t already know, people who are unfamiliar. If we already knew them, we would of course talk about the weather or how their day was going.
The other funny thing about thinking that smalltalk is boring is that it’s a virtual guarantee the other person feels the exact same way about talking to US!
I’m a very shy person. I still have vivid memories of my first day of first grade, when I stood on the playground and watched groups of other kids laughing and chatting together. I ran into the school building early, found my classroom, and burst into tears. My teacher, Mrs. Lundgren, asked me what was wrong. “I don’t have any friends!” I wailed. “I’ll be your friend,” she said, and she was. That conversation probably doomed me to my fate as teacher’s pet, socially awkward and lonely. As an adult, though, it has given me empathy for fellow shy people.
I’ve chosen to see it as my duty to help other shy people to feel less uncomfortable at parties and social gatherings. Introverts feel better talking to only one person at a time, and it’s not hard to cut away from a larger group to have a more private conversation in a corner. This also helps me to feel like I have a mission.
One way to get out of the social duty of smalltalk, of course, is to help out. Help clean up, help with the food, help introduce people to one another. Whatever else people have to say about you, at least then they can say that you’re useful.
Rather than try to escape it, what if we just lean in to it? What if we see smalltalk as the opportunity that it is?
Some of the most fascinating people walk among us, masquerading as normal folk. The only way we’re going to find out is if we get to know them, and that starts with smalltalk.
This is something I’ve learned from Toastmasters. Beginners who join a public speaking club often don’t realize the tremendous power of their own personal stories. We’re trained to give evaluations, which is part of the process, and this tends to build one of the strongest smalltalk skills of all. This skill is to cultivate genuine curiosity.
Each person I meet has something I don’t have and knows something I do not know. The thing that they have is a unique and irreplaceable story. The thing I don’t know is how to see the world from their perspective. Almost all the time, they also know something else I don’t know, and they’ll share it with me for free. The title of a book or a movie or a podcast, the name of a new musician or a restaurant or a travel destination, a recipe, a clever way to do something. When I avoid smalltalk, I lose out on all of these fabulous gifts. My world is smaller and blander and grayer. I’m missing the point of the party and the point of living, living fully and well.
These are some of the ordinary-looking people I’ve met, at gatherings or while traveling or waiting in line for the restroom:
The woman who met Muhammad Ali and whose dad ran with the mob
The man who grew up taming parrots and wild animals in the Central American jungle
The woman who walked across a bed of coals
The man who took a class from one of my favorite writers
The woman who built one of my favorite apps
The man who woke up to find an elk staring at him through his tent door
The woman who rode an ostrich
The man who was a back-up astronaut
Lots more, so many more! All of these people are going about, living their lives, carrying around all of these mega-fascinating stories that feel unremarkable to them. Sometimes they sit back, surprised, to say that they’d never realized something before or that they’d never told this story to anyone else. Sometimes a story can be a double gift, a gift for you as the listener and also a gift to the teller, who never knew what a gem he had, who never saw her story as valuable or interesting before you came along.
This is boilerplate, entry-level advice that everyone has heard a thousand times, but it’s still true: join a club. When you choose something that interests you, everyone else there has that interest in common. A formal structure to meetings and gatherings also helps the time to pass. You can interact with people in short bursts and you aren’t left with a lot of dead air to fill. You get practice talking to people who want the same thing you do, which is to hang out. Social skills are skills, which means they can be learned. It also means they’re valuable and useful, just like other skills.
Clicking with someone you’ve never met before often takes serendipity, intuition, and luck. There’s emotional intelligence involved, a certain amount of cold reading and guesswork about what sort of person this is. The main thing is that it’s possible to escape the horrid feeling of self-conscious shyness by thinking instead about other people. When I think about myself, I feel awkward; when I think about others, I feel open and curious. How are they feeling? What are they like? What is interesting to them? How would they get along with my other friends?
I enjoy smalltalk because it helps me know how to start. Just like dogs wag their tails at each other, smalltalk gives us a signal we can use to show that we’re friendly. It’s possible to get it out of the way in only one or two sentences. A greeting, and then a question or a statement that has the power to open the door to new friendships, new opportunities, new stories, and new ways of seeing the world.
Didn’t you talk each other into falling in love? Didn’t you talk each other into the story of your romance? If you can talk to each other at all, you can talk each other into financial security. FIRE could mean “financially independent, retiring early” or it could also mean “fund it: romance everlasting.” It’s a loving, caring way to say, “I want to be with you for the long haul.” Choosing each other means you choose your lifestyle, you choose your livelihoods, and you choose your ultimate destiny as long-term partners. It’s entirely likely that you’re “the saver” and “the planner” and if that’s true, then it’s up to you to take the lead. Come to me, my love, and we’ll be strong together against the whirlwinds of fate. Decide you want to be with this person and decide that you can do this together.
First, let’s avoid the pitfalls:
Don’t have ANY financial conversations at night. EVER!!! Willpower is low, everyone is tired, and if you get into a really deep trench you’ll both be up until midnight fighting. Number one priority is that you trust each other. Number two priority is that you can bring a high energy level to your job, and that includes plenty of sleep. Nighttime is cuddle time.
Don’t say “we have to talk.” Too scary. One way to approach your first FIRE conversation is to ask for advice. Another is to share a story about someone you know, perhaps an inspiring story of security and independence, or perhaps a gossipy tale of financial folly and destruction. Make this just one of many interesting topics that you discuss, something that’s not totally loaded with emotion.
Don’t blame. Guilt and shame are not going to get this conversation anywhere. If you find fault, start with yourself, and stop with yourself. You can say, “I’ve been spending too much on lunches at work” or “I really want to pay off my credit cards” or anything else in which you claim full responsibility. Make it easy to be accountable. Show how it’s done.
Don’t criticize. The key here is to give positive feelings for positive actions. Criticism leads to defensiveness. It’s much, much harder to stay motivated when you’re trying to avoid criticism than it is to move forward in the direction of infinite rewards. Celebrate even the most minor victories! Congratulate your partner for every baby step in the right direction. High five and yell, “YAY!” Rehearse for your victory party, right?
Now for what TO do.
Always be honest. If you keep financial secrets, let it be a surprise investment account. Guess what? My side hustle is paying for our vacation this year. Or maybe, Guess what? I just wiped out the balance on our last credit card. The only surprises and secrets between you should involve parties, celebrations, and gifts. Remember that you can do all of those things on a shoestring budget.
Always be accountable. Any time you spend too much or go off plan, you’re dumping responsibilities on your partner. That’s mean. It’s mean! Be nice to each other. Set the example and show your partner how you want to be treated. Hopefully that’s with kindness, affection, respect, and dignity.
Compliment your partner on a job well done. You both probably have a long list of traits that will help you in the journey. You’re good at fixing things. You’re a good cook. You’re organized. You have a long attention span. You bring the party everywhere you go. You have a cool and inexpensive hobby. You have a knack for turning side projects into money. You’re ambitious. You’re easy to talk to. It’s fun to be with you doing basically nothing. Pay tons of attention to everything your partner does that could lead toward financial independence.
Create a comfortable love nest. Be nice to come home to. Plan around fun and free stuff as often as possible. Go to the park, watch astronomical events, take naps. Hang around your home and yard relaxing, talking, joking around, being casual. It’s possible to forget that you’re “saving” and “paying down debt” and “being frugal” if your default mode is relaxing together at home.
When you initiate the conversation, rehearse it ahead of time. Choose your moment. Go slowly. You don’t need to try to dump the whole package on someone or teach the intricate details of the philosophy to someone in fifteen minutes. If you love this person, you know how to do it. Is this person more likely to read an article, watch a documentary, go to a workshop, have a long conversation, play a game, compete, look over spreadsheets or charts or graphs, or what? Are you dealing with someone who is sometimes stubborn, flighty, weepy, distractible, or...? Avoid the obvious triggers. Make it easy to agree with you.
When I first met my husband, we were casual work buddies. We talked about money quite a bit, because I had just graduated from college with tons of debt and he was only a year out of an expensive divorce. I told him about Your Money or Your Life, and I brought it up from time to time over the years. It wasn’t until we went to World Domination Summit together and went to a workshop with Mr. Money Mustache and Money Boss J.D. Roth that everything clicked for him. Little did I know, he needed to see more math, more spreadsheets, and more graphs. I’m not strong in that area and my pitch didn’t do the job.
Start with the vision. What would financial independence look and feel like? What would you be doing with your time? Approach your partner with what’s in it for them. Express sympathy for their stress level and their persistent problems. Bring up their outrageous dream and some ways you think it might be more attainable. List off some specific ways you are making changes that will help. Like this:
“I was thinking about how you said you want to go on sabbatical and ride a motorcycle to Alaska.” Or “Remember when we were talking about moving to Costa Rica?” Or, “What if you actually went back and finished your degree this fall?” Or, “Do you think [your project] could maybe turn into a side hustle?”
Starting with your partner’s big dream is a guaranteed way to get their attention. It shows that you were paying attention. It shows that you trust them to find that happiness within the bounds of your relationship. It shows that you’re willing to prioritize their goals just as much as your own. It shows that you’re interested and that this dream makes them more attractive to you. It makes you into the ally and cheerleader they’ve always wanted. It makes them want to please you and impress you. It also creates massive motivation.
Most dreams are not mutually exclusive. They can’t always happen at the same moment in time, but that’s fair. It’s easier to pay full attention and really celebrate when there’s only one victory at a time, and then take turns. Otherwise it can start to feel like a three-ring circus. As an example, my parents took turns working while the other one went back to school. Since they had three little kids, it would have been really hard for them both to take classes full time. The shared adversity of being working parents and full-time students helped them to know that they can handle anything together as a couple. They’ve been married now for 43 years.
Presenting financial independence as a far-distant goal that involves endless scrimping and sacrifice? That’s a loser of a conversation. If you want it, it’s up to you to make it compelling and find a way to make it attractive to your favorite person. If you’re going to do it together, make sure you’re with someone who is actually open to the idea. If you really trust and desire this person, you can find a way to build your case and make it as captivating to them as it is to you. Remember, this person is your chosen sweetheart, your partner in the zombie apocalypse, your ally as you work toward a better future.
Mercenary? Nah. Starry-eyed romantic. I believe in marriage, I believe in soulmates, I believe in love at first sight, even. How awful when what could have been a lifelong love is spoiled by fights about money. Frugality: so much cheaper than divorce! Financial literacy is a superpower that can keep couples together. Financial security is an attractive trait for singles. Constant anxiety, worry, disappointment, and frustration around money can destroy any relationship, not just romance, but also friendships and family bonds. This is why I say there’s no romance without finance.
We’re primed on a million cultural images of what dating and engagements and weddings and marriages are supposed to look like. How do you know you’re in love? When you look like a fashion plate, eat in the finest restaurants, drive around in the most expensive vehicles, stay in the most exclusive resorts, wear the heaviest engagement ring, have the most extravagant wedding, buy the hugest and fanciest house with the biggest kitchen, and have the thickest credit card statements. Anything less would be... cause for disappointment. I truly believe that lurking deep inside most of us is a vision of marriage perfectly correlated with “endless lifestyle upgrades.” Conspicuous consumption, conspicuous leisure, conspicuous confusion and dissatisfaction, conspicuous divorces.
The marriage I wanted was with the man I talked to for three hours a night. We basically got married because I moved and the phone reception was so patchy at my new house. No matter how old you are when you fall in love, if it lasts, one day you’ll look different. Looks don’t last. What does? Conversation, cooking, and, if you do it wrong, consumer debt. I had zero consumer debt for a couple of years before my wedding day, and I’ve kept it that way. It’s pretty straightforward when your relationship revolves around hanging out and talking every night.
Real marriage is based on affection, trust, respect, and communication. Avoiding conversations about money, debt, cash flow, career paths, and lifestyle inflation is a great way to blast a huge hole in that marriage. How can you trust each other if you won’t communicate about your financial vulnerabilities? How can you respect each other if you don’t share values around earning and spending? How can you even relax and enjoy each other if you’re drowning in debt and you have no retirement plans?
Refusing to get your finances in order is abdicating. That means you dump it off on someone else. If it isn’t your romantic partner, who is it? Your parents? Your kids? The Red Cross? Future You? A talking pony? Being married to someone who spends without limit and earns the bare minimum is really stressful. It’s not fair to treat your spouse like an opponent. If you yourself aren’t financially secure, and you have no plans to deal with it, then that means anyone who loves you has to do double the work. To be with you is to double the effort, double the savings, double the planning, double the stress, double the burnout. If you think you deserve this, you’d better be double-cute, double-nice, and double-affectionate just to get to zero.
Couples who are in it for the long haul need to plan together. We have to share the load. We have to look out for each other. We have to care about each other’s well-being. Our long, busy days are directly tied to the financial necessity of having to go to work. That stress is only increased when we feel trapped in jobs we hate, working for bosses we can’t stand, with unbearable commutes, annoying coworkers, and impossible customers and clients. Debt can make those feelings last forever. How can love last in that environment?
Financial freedom takes the pressure off. When you have plenty of savings instead of debt, it creates a buffer. That “F.U. money” makes such a huge difference! You find yourselves able to pick and choose what type of job you’ll take and what kind of commute you’ll tolerate. You start to feel like you have the power to determine your own destiny, to choose what your average day is like. That’s when you realize that you really have the power to choose your love. I choose you, honey, over and over and over again.
Choose the person. Choose the conversation. Choose the love story you tell about each other. Just don’t choose the debt, the bags of material objects, the unaffordable homes and vehicles. Say no to the stupid marketing messages that destroy loves and hearts and families. Say no to the rings, the dresses, the poisons that make basic long-term affection impossible.
I married my husband in part because he understood I would never want a diamond engagement ring. He got me a temporary silver ring with rhinestones. I took it off and quit wearing it on our wedding day. When I walked up to meet him, I wore a $34 dress. I paid for my half of our wedding in cash. This summer will mark our ninth anniversary, together for twelve years. What does this mean? It means we both care more about being married than we cared about the wedding. Which is the more romantic fantasy? Still actually liking each other and wanting to be together after your hair turns gray? Or one extremely expensive photo opportunity that costs thousands of dollars per hour?
Wedding cake isn’t even that good.
The really great stuff about being in love doesn’t cost anything. Talking for hours, laughing until you snort, looking for shapes in the clouds, learning each other’s life story, the inside jokes you could never explain to anyone else. This is your one irreplaceable person, your sweetheart, the love that money couldn’t buy anyway. Your best reason, if you allow it, to fight the dragon of debt and then ride off into the sunset together.
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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.