Marriage Part 2, crash test dummies, and how to stop beating yourself up

Wow! So many comments from the Garden Gnomes article — a new record for the site, in fact. Apparently marriage is on people’s minds. Some of the ladies had pressured to get their partners to propose, and saw the error of their ways:

“This was just what I needed to hear today, thank you! We have an amazing relationship & have only been together a little over a year. I don’t want to weaken it by putting pressure on him about marriage. Now I just need to share this with my well-meaning friends who pester me about why I don’t have a ring yet every time I see them! Thank you!” – Renee

“I recently put pressure on my boyfriend about this, and we can both feel the strain in the relationship now. It’s not worth it to push any issue. It would definitely feel much better if it were his decision without the pressure, and I feel very selfish now. I guess I needed this article, and I thank you. Marriage does still remain important to me, but I think a good relationship with a man I trust is better.” – Michele

Others were more of the Beyoncé camp: girl should stick to her guns, and if the dude wants to stick around, he should put a ring on it:

“She should be able to discuss what her relationship needs are. Most women do not thrive when they are in limbo. Most women want relationship security. Most women want to know that the man they are with has a current intention to be with them in the future. Maria should feel 100 percent comfortable checking in with her man to see if they are still on the same page. If she genuinely and lovingly communicates to him what her genuine needs are, and he cannot meet them, she should wish him the very best for the future and move on. There is abundance and a lot of opportunities for love in this world.” – Elle from Oz

All salient points. Now I know a little bit about the courtship and dating — y’know, the part leading up to the scary forever promises and written contracts and stuff. But if you want advice on marriage and relationships from the source, I encourage you to consult the magus himself, Prof John Gottman, starting with The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (ebook and paperback). In addition to being married himself, he has videotaped, analyzed and advised thousands of couples and written reams about the topic. 

Marriage is a supremely complex topic that we could debate till the end of days. So I’ll just say a few words before we move on to new letters. Specifically, that marriage does not necessarily bring you security.

Reader Tess Bee’s comment encapsulated the theme of the pro-marriage camp: “I’m not saying a marriage certificate will stop a man from leaving. But the very fact of swearing in front of witnesses to remain “’til death us do part” shows a level of commitment which imbues a woman with a sense of security that is simply not there without a tangible commitment.”

Well, let’s imagine this scenario: suppose I offer you a ride crosstown, and I tell you, “By the way, there’s only a 50% chance that we’ll crash — you should be fine.” How safe would you feel about that ride? Would you even take it?

Dumb question, I know. That’s what crash-test dummies are made for. And yet, 50% is also the intrinsic failure rate of marriages in the US. And for some reason, there are millions of people clamoring to get in on that deal.

Dunno about you, but a coin flip to crash ain’t my idea of security.

Now I know what you may be thinking: “Oh, that’s the other 50%. They weren’t talking about us. Our bond is special.” This would be a prime manifestation of one of the most pernicious cognitive biases known to man — namely, the bad shit only happens to other people bias. May want to go ask those other people if they thought themselves “other people” when things went sideways.

There is only one thing that will bring you security in this world: being comfortable with insecurity. There’s a great book about it — The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts (ebook and paperback). Because the truth is that the world is eternally in flux. Everything is jiggling, twisting, shimmying, dodging, weaving, all the time. Even that rock sitting there, seemingly quiescent, has quintillions of molecules vibrating unimaginably fast, perpetually. Everything is moving and alive. Chapter 76 of Tao Te Ching has something to say about this:

Men are born soft and supple; dead, they are stiff and hard.
Plants are born tender and pliant; dead, they are brittle and dry.
Thus whoever is stiff and inflexible is a disciple of death.
Whoever is soft and yielding is a disciple of life.
The hard and stiff will be broken. The soft and supple will prevail.

So according to Taoist thought, wishing for ultimate security — a form of stasis — is like being anti-life. I see how a huge promise made in front of all your friends may make it harder for both parties to back out. But like any wall, it also makes it harder for you to get out. What if he or she turns into a monster right after the marriage? What if you find out you’re not the one suited for married life, even though you asked for it?

The other thing is that marriage is a cultural construct, not a natural phenomenon. We made it up. And, like tattoos and skinny hipster jeans, just ’cause everyone else is doing it doesn’t make it necessarily the right thing for you. Data shows that single women’s overall life satisfaction goes down after marriage (while that of men rises). You sure you want to sign up for that? Like the Buddha said, ehi passiko — go figure things out for yourself and see if it works for you.

Which brings us to a letter about uncertainty:

Hi Dr Ali — I told myself that all I really wanted was to just meet the guy and have fun so I messaged him last Wednesday and told him that I was free Saturday afternoon. He never replied. And for some unknown reason, and never having met the guy even, I’m absolutely heart broken.

All I really wanted to do was to meet the guy and break this fantasy that I have of him in my head. Meeting him would have shown me that he is human, giving the infatuation less power. But now I am devastated because I don’t think I’ll get the chance to do that and I’m feeling awful. I’m regretting not talking to him at that event and really beating myself up for it to the point of it feeling painful. I’m upset that he wasn’t willing to follow through with asking me out and just disappearing. I know, it’s likely just a simple case of not being interested or even dating someone else, but I can’t help feeling as awful and sad as I do. I felt like you may have some words of wisdom for me, and actually being on my trip to do my rotation without my friends or family isn’t helping me much. — Lily the 24yr old med student from last time

Well, Lily, one thing I know for sure: this is no longer about the guy, since he is nowhere near, and you haven’t even met him in person yet. So right now he is about as real as the spawn of Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. What is very real is the misery you’re feeling right now. And since he’s not there, we know the exact address of the source of your pain: your own mind. This is a good time to learn how to run it so it serves you instead of running amok for the next 70 years. Three main suggestions:

1) Meditate every day. If one good thing can come from this mediocre experience, it’s that it got you started on a lifelong practice that improved your existence more than anything else. So get meditating. Start with 2min a day, and extend it to 20min or beyond. If you don’t know how, get Tara Brach’s book Radical Acceptance (ebook and paperback) or the “Headspace” app. If you don’t start meditating, I’ll just assume that you prefer to feel miserable.
2) Exercise. A run or yoga session will clear your head and expand your vision in a way to make this issue shrink to its proper tininess in the grand scheme of things.
3) Practice self-compassion. This beating up on yourself needs to stop. I know it’s a pretty common practice nowadays, but it doesn’t make it any less weird or pathological. Also, which part of you is beating up on which? Are you slapping yourself in the face like Annette Bening in American Beauty? Is it the left hemisphere of your brain attacking the right? I’m asking these questions to illuminate the absurdity of beating up on yourself. Just stop and do crochet, street graffiti, skydiving — y’know, anything less detrimental and annoying.

Prof Kristin Neff came up with the three elements of self-compassion:

  • Self-kindness: “Self-compassion entails being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating ourselves with self-criticism.”
  • Common humanity: “…Suffering and personal inadequacy is part of the shared human experience – something that we all go through rather than being something that happens to “me” alone.”
  • Mindfulness: “Mindfulness is a non-judgmental, receptive mind state in which one observes thoughts and feelings as they are, without trying to suppress or deny them.”

On her website, she has some exercises you can try out. If what I’ve said to you about self-compassion so far speaks to you, the exercises can be life-changing. When you combine practices like meditation, exercise and self-compassion, you become resilient, like the reed that bends in the wind instead of breaking. And that is real security in the face of the flux of the world.

I understand that change is hard, though. And even ideas that cognitively make a lot of sense — “Wow, I should totally do that!” — sometimes pass us by without making a lasting difference in our behavior. So for those of you interested in real change and tangible growth, I propose Project Irresistible. In it, we address some neglected but fundamental questions like, who are you, really? What’s your point for being on this Planet Earth? What are your most deeply held values? What are your goals vis-à-vis men and relationships? Do they mesh with those values? Are you ready for love? And that’s just the first two modules. Written exercises, listening assignments, guided meditations and real-world exercises get you expanding your envelope of existence to embrace a grander vision of you — and to manifest that in your daily behavior. The $100 off promotion is over, but you can still use coupon code “SPRINGY” for a $75 discount, which makes the price for the 6-week course less than a single session of therapy.

And finally, to Lily and all the other ladies out there: the pain of being neglected and rejected is very, very real. Return people’s phone calls, texts, and emails, especially when it comes to romantic matters, even if it’s just to say “No thank you.” A clear “no” is a thousand times better than silence, which is perceived as “You’re not even worth a response.” As guys, we’re used to rejection, but the amount of infelicity and casualness in communications these days must be at an all-time high. Treat people the way you want to be treated, and be the change you want to see in the world.


By popular request, I’ll be doing three therapy sessions per week via Skype on Thursdays. Time slots are 1pm, 2.30pm and 4pm Pacific Time. If you’re from a time zone where these slots are inconvenient, let me know and we’ll see what we can work out for you. Write to me directly and put “I want a session!” in the subject line, and include your PayPal address and Skype ID. $175 per 60min session.


Fri, May 6, online – “The New Way to Date” teleseminar series put on by my friend and colleague Alicia Ashley. Free to sign up and listen.

Mon May 9, San Francisco, 6.30-8.30pm – “This Is How You Heal Yourself: Advanced Techniques for Overcoming Heartbreak, Phobias and Trauma.” I’m excited to bring some new techniques from recent trainings I’ve attended. This is powerful, effective, fun stuff. Location: Downtown San Francisco. Early bird tix are $45. Sign up here.

Thu May 12, Los Angeles, 7pm – “This Is How You Heal Yourself.” Location not yet confirmed — if you know of a good spot, or if you are able to host 15-20 people in your office or living room, esp on the Westside, that would be super useful.

Sat May 14, Los Angeles, 11am-5pm – I’ll be speaking at TEDx Echo Park: Paradigm Shift. My talk’s called “Happiness Engineering: A New Paradigm for Success.” TEDx events are usually fun, and I know a couple of the other speakers to be pretty cool. I’m scheduled to be the first talk. Tickets are $45 and available here. I’m not necessarily endorsing this event since I’m not putting it on. But do feel free to swing by if you’re local and the topic interests you.

Go forth and conquer, Dr Ali



5 Comments on “Marriage Part 2, crash test dummies, and how to stop beating yourself up”

  1. Rachel

    Indeed marriage is insecure, as are many things. So on board with the Gottman book – incredible. It gives me faith that good marriage is possible. I have lived through and divorced from a TERRIBLE marriage – cheating in pregnancy, financial ruin, lies, narcissistic partner – it’s the type of horror story that makes you ask how the hell you got into this mess? Years later I’m finally getting free of the emotional devastation it caused – including in my next three year relationship. Healing is important, and takes time. I’d be very interested in the info from your Ted talks on healing if you post it online at some point. In NYC at present . . . too bad!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Heads up! You are attempting to upload an invalid image. If saved, this image will not display with your comment.