Zen and the Art of Marital Maintenance

I had to get my oil changed the other day.

I HATE getting my oil changed. My resistance to the task is completely irrational, far greater than the time or money required to actually complete the necessary maintenance.

It’s an easy errand, yet one with little reward outside of my ability to cross it off my to-do list. As I pull out of the drive-though service center, the only signs of the clean oil are the new sticker on my windshield and a charge on my credit card. There’s no satisfaction of a job well done, no excitement about tackling something difficult and energy associated with starting something new.

Maintenance is inherently unsexy. We have countless reality shows that feature creating something new, from motorcycles to relationships. Yet, can you fathom a reality show centered on the care and maintenance of that which already exists?

Instead of old homes being gutted and rebuilt, we would watch people spending hours cleaning the baseboards and washing out the gutters. Sharktank would be replaced with footage of janitors thoroughly scrubbing down a school at the end of long day, resetting it back to its pristine state, ready to welcome the children again. Gone would be the shows that feature budding fashion designers. And instead we would be shown how to fix a broken zipper and the best setting on the washing machine to prevent excess fading.

Sounds pretty boring, doesn’t it?

Yet imagine a world without maintenance. Where everything became single-use, to be discarded as soon as it began to show wear. Where no oil was ever changed, no siding ever repainted and a broken chain was reason enough to throw out a cherished necklace.

It seems absurd, doesn’t it?

Yet that’s often how we approach our relationships. We summon the energy to build them, feeding off of the excitement that accompanies novelty and possibility. And then we become lazy, falling into patterns and forgoing periodic inspections.

We accept the fact that our cars require regular attention and occasional overhauls to keep running smoothly, yet we expect our marriages to keep on humming without requiring any added consideration.

While I was sitting in my car listening to clangs and whirs of the old oil being drained, I flashed back to day I purchased the car, almost three years ago. It was more than a car for me, as I jettisoned the sixteen-year-old vehicle that was an albatross from my first marriage. I felt so proud the day that I was approved for the loan, a huge accomplishment after the horrific repercussions of the financial betrayals I had endured.

In those reflections, I saw the required vehicle maintenance in a new light. Rather than feeling annoyed at having to spend the energy on these unsexy and uninteresting tasks, these undertakings are a perfect opportunity to say “thank you” for having something valuable enough to care for.

And that’s the attitude I’ve held in my second marriage. The attention and upkeep is never a burden. It’s not something to avoid or something to complain about. It’s not always fun; it’s not always sexy. But it’s always worthwhile to take of those things that are the most important to us.

Here’s a cool idea to try in a new or established relationship in order to build and maintain connection.

And I promise to try to maintain this attitude the next time my oil needs changing.



Looking For a Challenge

Kazh’s training is progressing well. He’s super-responsive, wants to please his humans and hasn’t shown any signs of aggression. Based on observing him in many situations, our biggest obstacles are going to be building his confidence and working to moderate his tendency towards excited dominance behaviors.


Yesterday, we loaded him up with a weighted pack and brought him to a local park to walk the trail before we approached the off-leash dog area.


Almost immediately, we encountered another dog on the trail that had the excited energy that seems to trigger Kazh to respond with a similar intensity. We didn’t remove Kazh from the situation, rather we deliberately approached it. Brock immediately corrected and redirected Kazh’s attention until he was again calm in the presence of that other dog. A short time later, we again crossed paths with that dog on the circular path. “Oh, good,” I said when I saw the dog approaching, “Another opportunity for Kazh to learn.”

And he is learning. In the ten short days he has been with us, he has improved in almost every dimension.

It would be easy for us to simply avoid the situations where he struggles. We could keep him away from excited dogs on the trail and refuse him entry to the dog park when the energy is too high. He would still be a perfectly awesome dog.

Yet he would also be limited by the challenges that we refused to allow him to master. And without those opportunities to learn from his mistakes, he would never have the chance to become better.


How often do we do similar in our lives? How frequently do we approach those situations that we struggle with instead of merely avoiding them?

Yes, you can a perfectly amazing person even if you never approach those things that challenge you. Yet by meeting them head-on, you are giving yourself an opportunity to overcome them.

And you never know what you’re capable of until you try.



Assuming Intent

The year was 1997. Accomplished chess player Garry Kasparov was again facing a unique opponent, the computer known as Deep Blue. When the computer made a move that appeared irrational to Garry, he grew agitated and visibly upset. Understanding that the computer was programmed to “see” all of the possible outcomes many moves into the future, Gary assumed intent behind this seemingly nonsensical decision. Frustrated, Garry walked away, forfeiting the game.

Only later to find out that the strange move by the computer was driven not by advanced programming, but rather by a glitch in the software. Garry had assigned intent to the move, when it was actually just a random action in response to an error.

I found myself thinking of Garry yesterday when I was attempting to navigate the icy roads of Atlanta after a surprisingly large snowstorm. A car suddenly cut in front of me in order to move from the far right lane to far left. At first, I was angry, assuming that this person knew about the cars behind him and intentionally made the decision to cut them off, slippery roads not withstanding.

And then a red light allowed me the opportunity to study the man behind the offending car. Far from the cocky and arrogant demeanor I expected from someone who apparently believed they had the run of the road, he seemed lost. Confused, even. I had been assuming intent behind his actions, when his countenance made it seem more like it was a random (and careless) action in response to an error.

How often do we fall into similar traps? Assigning meaning to the meaningless… Believing in intent when it’s accidental… Envisioning targets on our backs when really we just happen to be standing in between the arrow and its goal…

When we see the outcomes, we easily believe that we also understand the motivations. We assume intent and often act on these assumptions. Yet when we do so, we’re responding not to the reality of the situation, but rather our premature understanding of it.

The next time you find yourself assigning intent to someone’s actions, think of Garry and take a moment to consider that maybe what you’re seeing is just a mistake.




The Unintended Consequences of Overreacting

One of the characteristics of a good marriage is that it is a safe space for both parties. Ideally, it becomes the sanctuary where you can take off your armor and feel comfortable wearing only your thin and vulnerable skin. It’s the place where you don’t have to pretend, where you can say what you feel and be loved for who you are. It’s where the tough conversations happen and wild emotions are tamed in the interest of the team.

I failed my first husband in this regard.

I went into that marriage scared. Scared of losing him. Scared of being alone. Scared of being unlovable. Scared of the consequences of adult decisions. And scared to face my own fear.

And the result of all this fear was that I didn’t create a space where he could feel safe expressing his own doubts, his own worries, his own fears. I unintentionally communicated the message that he wasn’t able to be open with me because I was too afraid to sit with the uncomfortable feelings it would stir up in me. I went into the marriage feeling abandoned – by my dad and by my friends who had died way too young – and my ex quietly assumed the role of reassuring me that I wouldn’t feel left again.

And so when his own crisis hit, when he began to feel less-than and unworthy and scared, he didn’t feel like he could turn to me. Instead, he turned inward. He tried to drown his shame in drink, he covered his fears with lies and the whole time, he kept me feeling safe. Secure.

I never told him he couldn’t talk to me. I never belittled him or questioned his feelings.I never lied, never raised my voice and never responded with contempt.

I thought I was doing my part to create a safe space for him.

But I wasn’t.

I didn’t give him the freedom to say the hard things without facing the entire brunt of my emotional burden. It must have felt like opening the car door only to fear being flattened by an oncoming eighteen-wheeler. Safer to simply keep the door closed.

I thought I was a good wife because I tried my best to lift him up.

But I wasn’t.

I didn’t understand that, rather than focus on him, I could do more good by focusing on me. By addressing my fears and my reactions, I had the power to help shape the very nature of our marriage, to make it a safer place for both of us to be open and vulnerable and to remove the burden of my emotional well-being from his shoulders.

I thought that I was doing the right thing by ignoring my fears of loss.

But I wasn’t.

Shoving those feelings aside didn’t mean that they were not there. Instead, they became a quiet hum, the perpetual background noise that would rise to a scream anytime it was provoked.

In all the lessons from the end of my marriage, perhaps one of the most important has been learning how to be okay with the idea of loss. To be okay staying with the uncomfortable feelings without erupting into a panic. To be okay hearing the hard words without internalizing them or catastrophizing them. And to make every effort to be calm even when my now-husband is expressing things I would rather not hear.

Because part of making marriage a safe space is to create an environment where each person can feel permitted to speak without excessive consequence. And that ultimately comes down to taking care of your own emotional wounds and narratives.

I still struggle sometimes with not overreacting. But like with anything, practice makes better. And life seems to give plenty of opportunities to keep learning.


A quick note here on responsibility – I am not excusing my ex husband’s decisions. What he did was oh-so-very-wrong in every way. I did not make him cheat, lie and turn to addiction. His choices and actions are his responsibility. My role is to look at what I could control, how I contributed to the environment that allowed his actions to occur, and address those things. I can’t change the past, but I can learn from it and keep trying to do and be better.



The Problem With Always Being “The Strong One”

On Wednesday, I taught the wrong lesson to my 6th grade classes. And then on Thursday, I somehow lost the lesson I had previously prepared for my 8th grade classes. Friday was blessedly uneventful and then on Saturday, I walked into my yoga studio without any of my yoga gear.

None of this is like me. I’m always the Type A, super-planned and over-prepared type of person. My yoga bag, that I’ve never forgotten before, has two of everything. You know, just in case.  I’m the one that acted as a reminder and an alarm clock for friends and family before phones evolved to provide those services. My brain usually attends to details and dates without a problem. Both professionally and personally, I’m seen as the dependable, responsible and has-her-stuff together one.

But right now, that’s not the case.

Luckily, I’m not having trouble because of anything bad. I’m just struggling to handle too much. Yet in some ways, the results are similar. I’m having a hard time and, because I’m typecast as “the strong one,” I don’t always feel like I’m allowed to have a hard time.

I see this dynamic so often in single parents as they appear to balance it all during the day, only to collapse in tears behind the privacy of the closed bedroom door at night. They have no choice but to be strong – to keep it together for their children, even as they feel like they’re falling apart.

On the one hand, it feels good to be deemed strong, it means you’re independent, determined and resourceful. On the other hand, the moniker often brings with it an additional burden.

Because when you’re always the “strong one,”

You don’t feel like you’re allowed to break down.

When you’re always told that you’re strong or that you have it together, you don’t feel like you’re given permission to be any other way. You may be  told that you put this pressure on yourself, but the labels also promote this pressure. The expectations are there, you can uphold them or dash them.

You help others even when you need help.

When you’re the strong one, others depend upon you. Your own hardships get sublimated or postponed in your efforts to support others. Sometimes, this can be a blessing, because you’re not able to wallow when you’re busy lending a helping hand. Yet other times, you push yourself to exhaustion because you don’t give yourself permission to take a break.

You feel like you have to maintain the image.

When you’re the strong one, others look to you to learn how to push through. And you don’t want to let them down. Once you’ve assumed that role, it’s hard to take a break from its demands. And if you’re modeling fortitude for your children, it’s even harder to admit that sometimes you simply can’t do it.

People minimize your struggles.

“Oh, you’ve got this,” your friend breezily says as you try to confide your growing panic. When others perceive you as indomitable, they have a hard time believing that you are really fighting to keep it together. Your complaints are brushed aside or excused with a pat response, leaving you feeling like you have to do this alone.

You don’t know how to ask for help. 

You’re not accustomed to asking for help, so you ask quietly, or obtusely. Since you’re the one others turn to, you don’t know where to go now that you need support. You know that it’s okay to ask for help, but you still grapple with truly believing it.


All of us have time when we are the strong ones and time when we need to rely on the strengths of others. There is no need to be typecast in one role or the other, we can all move fluidly between the two positions.

One of the gifts I received from my divorce was the shattering of my lifelong “strong one” title and the need to learn to accept help. Even in my weakened state, I learned that people didn’t think less of me because I couldn’t do it all. In fact, I think, if anything, my increased vulnerability made me even closer with others.

Because all of us have times of strength and times of need.

It’s okay to embrace your role as the strong one.

And it’s also okay to let it go.