Isolation is deadly. Ask for help!

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War correspondent, the late Marie Colvin, was a tough nut…she had to be.

By Caitlin Kelly

It has been a brutal year for New York City police officers — two of whom committed suicide this week alone, nine so far this year.

A friend, Tanzina Vega, is rocking it as host of the daily NPR radio show The Takeaway, and they did a great segment on this; link here.

The show dug into why police officers are prone to depression and to making the terrible final decision of suicide.

A key element, not surprisingly, is a professional culture of silence.

If managers and supervisors don’t allow workers to show tender, difficult feelings — of grief, fear, confusion, anger, revulsion — all of which would be normal reactions to the toughest elements of police work, where can those emotions go?

Nowhere.

If fellow professionals sneer at you for being “weak”, you won’t ever show how you really feel, no matter how toxic is it to marinate in misery alone.

A former cop who spoke on the show referred to after-work drinks as “choir practice”, alcohol being one acceptable way to numb one’s feelings after another day dealing with violence, mayhem and death.

 

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This also hit me because journalism offers a very similar culture — long hours, low pay and a lot of stress. It’s hierarchical and macho. The “best” assignments, the ones that win us front page and major awards, are often about witnessing and describing in detail the very worst events — shootings, terrorism, natural disasters.

Some journalists are as exposed to violence and gore as cops, yet we, too, have almost nowhere to let out our feelings of horror and sadness after the story is filed or the broadcast made. And co-workers and managers working on less disturbing material have no idea what it’s like, while those who do can, like cops, often throw up a thick, tight wall of defense, dismissing anyone’s emotions about it as sissy or unprofessional.

When they are human.

In my early 20s, I worked briefly at the Canadian Press, a wire service, and my Sunday night job was “fats” — short for “fatalities”. I had to find the province’s deaths that weekend — like car crashes — and write them into a story.

I began to dread it.

I really hated it when a perky coworker named Judy finally said “It’s just numbers!”

No.

It’s human beings.

The day we ignore, dismiss and bury our grief and rage — whether created by our feelings about work or politics or climate change or family dramas — is the day we turn that violence against ourselves.

 

Everyone needs and deserves a safe space to air these out.

Learning to say no

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By Caitlin Kelly

Anyone poorly parented and/or the victim of bullies and narcissists knows how extremely difficult it can be for their victims to say no.

Ever.

To anyone.

To anything.

To the most absurd and unrelenting demands.

 

Because what happened after I’ve said no is…abandonment. Estrangement. Rejection. Verbal or physical cruelty. Job loss.

I’ve lived in fear for decades — and readers know I express plenty of strong opinions here and in my writing and books and on social media — of these outcomes in my personal and professional life.

My industry, journalism, is in such utter chaos — with the most job cuts in 2019 since 2008 — that those with jobs will do anything to keep them, and the hell with us freelancers, seen by many as disposable commodities, easily and cheaply replaced with someone, always, terrified and docile.

I have never seen such shitty behavior.

The past two weeks made me snap.

First, a baby editor with zero social skills — who I later found out has been this rude and aggressive with other veteran writers. Then, this week, a source decided it was appropriate to throw me and my skills under the bus.

Then stalk me on Twitter.

 

Done.

 

In both instances, their entitled behavior — unprovoked and insistent — left me shaking and shaken.

From now on, I’m just walking.

This is,  a great luxury, and a measure of privilege because it’s possible only with the explicit agreement and financial and moral support of my husband and a bank account plundered to make up the lost $1,050 in anticipated/needed income from these two stories.

Most Americans don’t even have the savings to say…I’m gone. I’m not putting up with this.

Because without savings, and the ability to never engage with them again, we’re all left groveling to bullies.

 

DONE.

Coping with fragility

 

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

What a concept.

I’ve spent most of my life — basically until 2018 — behaving in ways that start with the letter B: bold, brazen, brash, ballsy, bumptious.

I was, or looked, fearless. At 25, I jumped into a truck in Perpignan with a French driver 10 years my senior and spent eight (amazing!) days crossing southern Europe to Istanbul with him, for a story. I’ve interviewed people across the U.S. who own a lot of guns. Have traveled alone in some funky places.

Today?

Not so much.

My health, as far as we know, is fine — after completing 20 days’ radiation treatment November 15, 2018 for very early stage breast cancer, no chemo — I’m now taking medication for five years.

But I feel so much more fragile.

Like, oh yeah, I can be broken and weak, My body can/did surprise me and not in a good way.

It’s a challenge to manage fragility — as anyone (not me) who has had and cared for very small children or very old/ill people or animals.

We live in a culture of haste and acquisition and competition and relentless shows of strength and prowess. There’s little useful discussion of how to be slow and gentle and take very good care of ourselves and others. The lack of compassionate American public policy makes brutally clear that being ill and “unproductive” are taboo.

So we don’t talk much publicly about what it’s like to be fragile and to navigate life and work and friendship and family when we feel like wet bits of paper instead of big strong ferocious creatures.

I don’t like feeling vulnerable. I suspect others don’t like that feeling too much at all.

But my new MO is to tell people —- hey, I just can’t do X right now. I don’t explain. I just withdraw from demands, social and professional, even for a few hours or days until I can bring my A game and respond fully.

I grew up in a family that had little interest in my times of need and weakness and fragility — so I learned to suppress and ignore and deny those feelings.

But those needs were always there and are now, Jaws-like, re-surfacing with some serious insistence.

Therapy helps.

Telling good friends helps.

But it’s a process.

 

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Remember unmediated life?

By Caitlin Kelly

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If my European journey taught me anything — or reminded me more powerfully than ever before — it’s to live, and savor, an unmediated life.

By which I mean, one experienced firsthand, feet-first, immersed in all of it.

Not, as has become normal/affordable/easy for me — and so many of us — a world and its wonders seen and heard only through a screen or scrim, whether social media or explained by the traditional mass media of newspapers, magazines, radio and television.

The soft, smooth cobblestones of Rovinj — a small seaside town in Croatia — were silky beneath my bare feet, the light snaking around corners as the sun moved through the sky, every hour offering a different tableau.

I’d have known none of this without my (grateful!) physical presence.

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Ironically, I follow several cool, adventurous people on Twitter whose lives are devoted to professional exploration, including aviation and wildlife photographers and three archeologists.

I love seeing what they find, but this is also, I realize, a little weird.

I need to go find this stuff myself!

Sadly, it’s now considered normal — starting in infancy — to spend hours consuming others’ visions and impressions and analysis of the world, instead of gathering every sense impression ourselves. (As I write this on our balcony in the early morning, I hear traffic on the bridge, a passing train and birds in the trees. The air is fresh and cool, the sun gilding the balcony’s outer edge.)

Plato’s cave, and our addiction to shadows, pales in the face of this.

I work alone at home in the suburbs of New York, with no kids or pets to distract me. I  work full-time freelance, which means I have no boss or coworkers with whom to share ideas or jokes or talk about our weekends.

Most of my friends here are too busy to actually get together in person, which all combines to create isolation, and so I’ve slipped into the tempting bad habit of feeling connected to the world through consuming social media — instead of socializing face to face.

If I want to actually be with someone, it takes me an hour each way, and up to $25 in train fare or parking fees, to go into Manhattan.

But if I don’t, I’m essentially a self-imposed shut-in, which is  — my six supersocial weeks in Europe reminded me  — a terrible choice for mental health.

My time in Europe, literally, exposed me to hundreds of strangers, some of whom became new friends, like an archeologist and travel blogger and translator, all of whom live in Berlin, all of whom had only been Twitter and blog pals before they became real, corporeal human beings sharing space with me, laughing and joking and hugging hello.

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I was also struck by people’s gentleness with me, like the man on the busy, crowded Tube stairs in London, watching me slowly and painfully climb beside him, who asked: “Are you OK?”

People can be perfectly nice on social media, but they’re not beside you.

They’re not — as two young men did — ready to carry your heavy suitcase up (!) three flights of stairs.

In Croatia, I sat for hours in a cafe with three new friends, talking and talking and talking.

 

No one stared into their phones.

No one stared into their laptop.

No one was rushing off to something more important.

 

What we were doing — just being together, enjoying one another’s company and conversation — was more important.

 

 

Are you living life firsthand?

 

 

 

Living in chaos is exhausting

By Caitlin Kelly

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photo: NBC News

It took me a while to figure this out.

The way that President Donald Trump behaves — a mixture I find both exhausting and toxic — is far too familiar.

He scowls.

He rages.

He accuses everyone who disagrees with him of trying to undermine him.

He’s flapped his hand at his wife in public as if she were a poorly-trained servant, leaving her behind as he ascended the White House steps — leaving the Obamas, instead, to escort her, each extending a gentle hand to Melania’s back.

He has every privilege and power the world can bestow upon him and it’s insufficient to his insatiable needs.

There’s no way to predict what he will say or do next, and millions worldwide are now on tenterhooks, anxious and insecure.

What fresh hell awaits tomorrow?

Been there, lived it and hated it.

I grew up in a family that had mental illness and alcoholism in it. You learn to adapt, even while you wish you didn’t have to. You’re constantly on-guard for the next draaaaaaama, the next mess to clean up.

Americans are learning to similarly bob and weave and dodge and feint to accommodate his incompetence and capriciousness.

How to cope:

We become hyper-vigilant, ever alert to the next catastrophe.

We anticipate disaster, ever ready to finesse it, no matter how scared or overwhelmed we really feel.

We’re confused, because what was said the day before — or 10 minutes earlier — is now different. Pivot! Fast! Do it again!

The cognitive load leaves us unfocused or less productive at work and in intimate relationships. We’re burned out.

Gaslighting is incessant, the denials of terrible things they just said. You heard it. You saw it. But…no, you didn’t, they insist. 

Four years of this?

I’m exhausted after a week.

Aaah, country life…where, in the U.S., suicide rates are higher

By Caitlin Kelly

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It’s not easy living in a rural area, as some people discover when they move to one.

This deeply disturbing New York Times story discusses the suicide rate in rural America — twice as high as in urban areas:

The C.D.C. reported last year that Wyoming has the highest suicide rate in the nation, almost 30 deaths per 100,000 people in 2012, far above the national average of 12.6 per 100,000. Not far behind were Alaska, Montana, New Mexico and Utah, all states where isolation can be common. The village of Hooper Bay, Alaska, recently recorded four suicides in two weeks.

In one telephone survey of 1,000 Wyoming residents, half of those who responded said someone close to them had attempted or died by suicide.

In September, mental health experts, community volunteers and law enforcement officers gathered in Casper to discuss possible solutions. Among the participants was Bobbi Barrasso, the wife of Senator John Barrasso, who has made suicide prevention a personal and political mission.

“Wyoming is a beautiful state,” she told the crowd. “We have great open spaces. We are a state of small population. We care about one another. We’re resourceful, we’re resilient, we cowboy up.”

…The realities of small-town life can take an outsize toll on the vulnerable. A combination of lower incomes, greater isolation, family issues and health problems can lead people to be consumed by day-to-day struggles, said Emily Selby-Nelson, a psychologist at Cabin Creek Health Systems, which provides health care in the rural hills of West Virginia.

This story hit home for me.

In 1988-89, I spent 18 months living in Lebanon, New Hampshire (now, shockingly, plagued by an epidemic of heroin addiction), a small town of about 10,000 close to the much more affluent town of Hanover, NH, home to Dartmouth College. I moved there to follow my then boyfriend (later husband) in his medical residency at Dartmouth, a four-year commitment.

Port Hope, Ontario. pop. 16,000
Port Hope, Ontario. pop. 16,000

I was excited. I had only lived downtown, and/or in large cities like Toronto, Montreal and Paris. I was really curious about small-town life and looked forward to trying it — but barely lasted a year before I was really in fear of losing my mental health. No exaggeration.

It was the worst time of my life.

We were broke, trying to live (and own two cars) on his salary of $22,000, the nation’s poorest-paying medical residency and my savings. I had no job and there were none to be found.

There was no Internet then. The winter was brutally long and cold. We had no friends or family nearby and every social overture I made was ignored or went unreciprocated.

Everyone was married or pregnant and/or had kids. We were “only” living together, not yet even engaged, which (!?) seemed scandalous to others our age, even students who’d moved there from other large cities.

The only time our phone rang, a voice would say “I need a windshield” — we had inherited the former number for Upper Valley Glass.

I know. That sounds funny.

I'd rather be surrounded by a horde of dancing strangers, thanks!
I’d rather be surrounded by a horde of dancing strangers, thanks!

I became almost agoraphobic because everywhere we went, alone or together, we were socially invisible. Plus, ambitious as hell, I was professionally dying on the vine. Journalism is incredibly competitive and staying out of it for even a year or two is never a great idea.

I had left my country, close friends, a well-paid newspaper job and a gorgeous apartment.

For this?!

The stifling pressure to conform to some really weird 1950s-era ideal of behavior was crazy. I was criticized — by a friend! — for choosing bright green rubber boots instead of sensible brown or black. And coming from Montreal, a vibrant, bilingual, sophisticated city, the region’s dominant ethos of Yankee self-denial was alien, all these women wearing no makeup or perfume or anything with a visible shape to it.

I had never felt so out of place, not even when I lived in France or Mexico.

Yes, we had a nice apartment. Yes, the countryside was gorgeous. Yes, I actually enjoyed attending the local auction every Friday and learned a lot about antiques.

But I fled to New York within 18 months of arriving there; I would never have made it through another three years there.

For the past 25 years I’ve lived in a small town, but one only 25 miles from Manhattan. It gives me the best of both worlds, easy, quick access to one of the busiest and most challenging cities in the world — with the beauty and silence that also recharges and refreshes me. I know enough people here now I’m always seeing someone I know at the gym or the post office or the grocery stores. but without feeling stifled or excluded.

London -- much more my speed!
London — much more my speed!

Do you live in a rural or isolated area or small town?

How is it working for you?

On being (truly) honest about our feelings

By Caitlin Kelly

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Here’s a recent post from Freshly Pressed, about the social dance of “How are you?” — and its expected, safe, reassuring antiphonal response of “Fine!”:

But there’s another problem – a more insidious problem – with lying. Every time you tell someone you are ‘fine’ – when you’re not – you buy into the belief that it’s not acceptable to be depressed. In other words, the act of concealing your true mood, sends a subconscious message that it needs concealing, that it’s something to be ashamed of.

It’s a very sad indictment of our emotionally-illiterate society that those or us who are suffering the most have to hide our feelings to protect the sensibilities of everyone else. One in four of the seven billion human beings on this earth will experience poor mental health at some point in their life. That’s 1.75 billion people. And over 10 billion in the history of humankind. The only shame would be if all those people lived their lives feeling ashamed of something that is clearly such a common part of the human experience.

And here’s an honest blog post about how messy real life really is:

I consider myself incredibly blessed and lucky. For nearly a quarter of a century Lisa has been the center of my universe … and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

But we are people, with kids as well as all of the normal stresses and pressures.

Here are some of the things we have had a fight of some type or other about: money, sex, having children, buying a car, how to spend a work bonus, having more children, using credit cards, buying a house, our jobs, who is cooking, technology, raising our children, shopping for groceries, stopping having children before Lisa died (which was what the doctor more or less said after #2), moving after my layoff, my parents, her parents, my brother, her sister, my sister, my friends, her friends, the woman (my friend) who stood in line at our wedding and pretty much said she couldn’t believe I was getting married (apparently I was more than one person’s ‘back-up plan’), pretty much every one of our nieces and nephews, computer games, TV, sleep, running, the gym, the kids’ friends, our neighbors at every house, trash, dogs, cats, food … and pretty much anything else you can think of.

Except about whether or not we loved each other.

And from A Transformed Faith blog:

Our vulnerabilities are an essential part of our human experience. While our culture tends to want us to cover them up, to act like everything is fine and we are all doing “great,” Jesus, on the other hand, invites us to acknowledge our vulnerabilities, to enter into a vulnerable space with God at our side.

According to the Gospel of John, on the night of his arrest Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. Foot washing was common in Jesus day, but it was the servants who washed the feet of guests, not the master of the house, or the master teacher.

For many of us the idea of letting someone touch our feet, let alone wash them, is uncomfortable. Why is that? Pause here and try to understand that in yourself.

For me, I think the discomfort comes from the radical vulnerability of letting a part of our body that we usually keep covered get uncovered. It’s hard to imagine letting someone touch and wash a part of our bodies that is less than perfect, possibly dirty and probably smelly. And I have one really messed up toenail, too.

I don’t want people to see that part of me that is messy and out of control. I don’t want to burden them with any discomfort they might feel about my feet. And I don’t want to feel the discomfort of my own shame.

Depending which culture you live in, some being far more discreet and emotionally buttoned-up than others, expressing your true feelings can create havoc, socially and professionally.

The United States values emotional self-expression and directness, (albeit with regional differences.) This can be quite unsettling if you come from a quieter and more discreet culture, where only your true intimates know how you really feel.

Being “honest” can outweigh being diplomatic or tactful.

They'll never tell!
They’ll never tell!

Even with friends, I hesitate to reveal a lot.

And yet, a candid Skype conversation with one Broadside’s followers, who lives overseas and is also a nervous flyer, led to a kind and comforting email to me — as I prepared for three flights in one direction to rural Nicaragua. (One of them was really bumpy. Shriek.)

A young friend, 23, came for lunch recently and we talked at length, discovering, to our mutual surprise, we had both been bullied  in high school, even as (because?) we assumed leadership roles there. We both blossomed, socially and professionally, while in college.

But many people see (only) who we are today — bright, attractive, super-confident women. They don’t know, (and nor would we be likely to discuss), the more painful and private backstory.

I’ve been told I’m intimidating in my self-confidence. My young friend sends off a similar vibe: assertive, comfortable in all sorts of new situations, willing and able to take charge…

No one would suspect, (and I had no idea about my friend’s experience until recently), that, when younger we’d both been so mistreated. We hide it well!

Not surprisingly, she’s also from a more reticent cultural background (British) , as am I (Canadian.)

But it felt good to discover that someone I admire and enjoy has endured, and thrived beyond, similar challenges.

Only if someone knows how we truly feel can intimacy and friendship root and blossom.

Over dinner with a young news photographer, he summed up a pathological issue for many news journalists:

“You can’t be a normal human being.”

By which he meant: for our work, we witness poverty and violence and death and listen to terrible tales of rape and incest and fiscal malfeasance. We cover fires and floods and the aftermath of landslides and car crashes and earthquakes.

Yet we can’t — at least in the moment — afford to feel much of anything, or we just can’t stay focused on doing our jobs. Nor can we cry or let our emotions show.

But then, to the people we meet and speak to and photograph, we often appear heartless and callous, because we’re not visibly reacting to what we hear and see. Some of us do have very deep feelings about our stories, but weeping at work is really not an option.

Then, later, maybe you sort out your feelings and process them.

Or not…

I’ve cried at my desk only a few times over the decades of my journalism career; once when interviewing a dead soldier’s father, once when listening to the most unbearable of all — 911 tapes from 9/11 and again after interviewing someone who volunteered to help in the morgue after 9/11.

How about you?

Do you tell the people in your life how you really feel about things?

Do you share your private feelings in your blog posts?

Bullied? Here’s what it does to you, for life

Physical bullying at school, as depicted in th...
Physical bullying at school, as depicted in the film Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A new study finds that being bullied can affect its victims for life. From The New York Times:

The new study, published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, is the most comprehensive effort to date to establish the long-term consequences of childhood bullying, experts said.

“It documents the elevated risk across a wide range of mental health outcomes and over a long period of time,” said Catherine Bradshaw, an expert on bullying and a deputy director of the Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence at Johns Hopkins University, which was not involved in the study.

“The experience of bullying in childhood can have profound effects on mental health in adulthood, particularly among youths involved in bullying as both a perpetrator and a victim,” she added.

The study followed 1,420 subjects from Western North Carolina who were assessed four to six times between the ages of 9 and 16. Researchers asked both the children and their primary caregivers if they had been bullied or had bullied others in the three months before each assessment. Participants were divided into four groups: bullies, victims, bullies who also were victims, and children who were not exposed to bullying at all.

Participants were assessed again in young adulthood — at 19, 21 and between 24 and 26 — using structured diagnostic interviews.

Researchers found that victims of bullying in childhood were 4.3 times more likely to have an anxiety disorder as adults, compared to those with no history of bullying or being bullied.

I read this story, which my husband chose to highlight for me, because I was badly bullied for more than two years when I was a high school student in Toronto. I arrived halfway through Grade 10, into a school where everyone had attended the same local schools since kindergarten. I was pimply, socially awkward and had been attending single-sex schools and camps since fourth grade. Boys were an alien species.

Worse than acne, I had confidence, the kind that often is deeply nurtured by single-sex environments, where every teacher and student leader is female. Deferring to male authority? Why would I do that?

And so a small gang of boys made sure to teach me a lesson. They called me Doglin, barked at me down the echoing hallways, even brought a dog biscuit and laid it on my desk. I walked home every day alone, in tears, often getting into bed with all my clothes on to cry and sleep and recover before it all started again the next day.

Hell. School was hell.

English: Bullying on IRFE in March 5, 2007, th...
English: Bullying on IRFE in March 5, 2007, the first class day. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I eventually managed to turn it around, snagging a cute boyfriend, starting a school newspaper and — score! — was even named Prom Queen. It taught me that a shitty situation can, sometimes, be transformed.

But there are days I feel like there’s still a target on my back. I’ve experienced much bullying since then, mostly in work settings where casual cruelty is considered normal. I also come from a family of people with explosive, nasty tempers — being the recipient of verbal abuse will set me back for days, even weeks.

I know why people bully. I get it. I don’t care.

And far too many of those who see it choose to turn a bind eye: “Suck it up. Man up! Kids will be kids.”

My husband, who was small and slight as a boy, was also tormented by bullies. We both know what this does to you, then and later. There is no excuse for verbal abuse or physical harassment — we all refuse to tolerate physical assault and know it’s against the law.

Here’s my essay about it that ran in USA Today. And here’s a recent helpful book on the subject.

This 7:37 animated video is moving, powerful and made me want to cry.

He gets it.

Have you been bullied?

How has it affected you?

It’s our anniversary! Here are 18 things that got us there…

My gift to Jose

It’s been one year since Jose and I got married, on an island in the harbor of Toronto, in a church from 1888, by a minister with a ponytail and Birkenstocks. It was a lovely day, a small affair of only 25 close friends and family.

Unlike my first marriage, which I knew was pretty much doomed from the start, I was relaxed and happy on my second wedding day. I was marrying someone I knew well, who had nursed me through three surgeries (soon to be four.) We had already weathered the loss of jobs, the illness and deaths of loved ones, professional disappointments, (and triumphs), two recessions…

We were each marrying someone who’d already stayed the course.

Jose and I met, on-line, in March 2000, so we’ve been together almost 13 years.

I was working on a magazine piece for Mademoiselle, to compare and contrast a variety of dating sites. Back then, no one admitted to using them; as a single, lonely gal in the suburbs, with no kids, meeting men was proving sadly difficult.

Jose saw my photo and profile, with the truthful headline Catch Me If You Can, wrote me, and that was the start. Our first date was at a gorgeous, now-gone midtown French bistro, Le Madeleine. He wore a gray wool vintage coat and a bright red silk Buddhist prayer shawl as his muffler.

Oh my.

At the end of the evening, he took off the shawl, warm and fragrant with 1881, his cologne, and wrapped me in it.

Done.

Are you sure?

A few things we’ve since learned along the way:

— Don’t be afraid to be yourself, even on your first few dates. I think some people are scared to get it wrong, and so they play it too safe, or try too hard to be…something. The right person will love you as you are. Before we met, during one of our phone conversations, he made me laugh so hard I snorted. Sexy! I thought for sure he’d cancel our first date. He loved it. Still does.

Make an effort. I see a lot of guys these days dressed and groomed like they’re going to the gym when they’re heading out on a date. Seriously? The way we present ourselves sends powerful messages to people who don’t yet know much about us.

— As you get to know one another, see how s/he handles a disaster or two: the car breaks down, you get caught in a snowstorm, the kid and/or dog gets sick. How they handle stress and crisis will tell you a lot about whether you want them around long-term. When my mother was found to have a very large brain tumor (she’s fine), he didn’t hesitate to fly across the country with me to help sort out her house/dog/diagnosis. And because I was broke, he paid for it.

Fights won’t necessarily kill a new/growing relationship. They might even save it. It took many years before Jose finally understood that just because we had a loud disagreement didn’t mean I hated him. It just meant I was really pissed off. We’re both stubborn as hell, so we were bound to disagree. I learned that he’s blessedly quick to forgive and won’t bail when things get heated.

— When you fight, look beneath the words. Every fight has an underlying driver, often unspoken, often not even well understood, like surtitles at the opera. There’s always a meta-fight behind what’s actually being said. Sometimes your emotional ghosts are really the target, not one another.

Your relationships needs protection. It took many years before my father and Jose got along. Both are proud, prickly high achievers. Until my mother and I just gave up on one another last year, her neediness often drained us emotionally and financially. Sometimes distancing yourself from family is the wiser choice to nurture one another instead.

Laugh long, loud and often. We speak a few times a day, even with his six daily meetings and our laughter heals a lot of stress. Knowing your partner is going to lighten your day means you’ll keep turning to them first.

Hold hands often. Same for kissing. Jose and I smooch (discreetly) when I drop him off at the train station to head to work. The local cabbies waiting there, most of them fellow Hispanics, get a kick out of it.

— Say thank you often. Say please. Tidy up after yourself. Buy her flowers and him a gorgeous new shirt, or vice versa, for no apparent reason. Delight your sweetie whenever possible.

Listen to them attentively. Turn off the TV, tech and other distractions. Look your sweetie in the eye. Give them the precious gift of your full and undivided attention. It’s so rare these days.

Take good care of them. Bring an umbrella. Pick up their dry-cleaning. Drive them to the doctor’s office even if they say it’s OK not to. Make them lovely meals.

Share values, not preferences. My first husband and I liked the same sorts of music, food, books. We loved to travel. On the surface, we looked like a good match. We weren’t. If you don’t share basic moral, spiritual and ethical values, (spending versus saving, a strong work ethic, loyalty to friends, whatever), your odds of long-term success aren’t great.

— Aretha Franklin sang it, baby. R-E-S-P-E-C-T! The day you stop seeing your spouse as someone worthy of respect, yours and others’, is the day your marriage is in trouble. Define what matters most to you and stick to it. Diana Vreeland, in her wonderful autobiography “DV”,  said she always stood up a little straighter when her husband entered the room, even after decades together.

Brag about them. We don’t have kids, so whatever family pride we share is in one another’s achievements and talents. Jose and I tend to be pretty modest, so I have to be the one (brag alert!) to tell people he has a Pulitzer and has photographed three Presidents. I’m flattered when he tells people nice things about me.

Help them grow. Whenever I get wobbly and lose confidence and am scared to take a risk, Jose says, “Now is not the time to be Canadian!” His grandfather, who fled Mexico and started a chile powder company (still going) in Topeka, Kansas, was a tough old dude. “Pedro up, man!” I tell him.

We’re always still three or five or fifteen, sometimes all on the same day. No matter your chronological age, our inner child still needs a hug, reassurance or the freedom to just play. Being a responsible adult all the time is exhausting!

You will face sexual dry spells, sometimes for a lot longer than any magazine or media vision of marriage dares suggest. It’s normal for many people, but if you look at how sex is publicly portrayed/ discussed, you’d think we were all-rabbits-all-the-time. Nope! Injury, illness, surgery and recovery, depression, job loss, death of a loved one (let alone small kids!) and the Big M of menopause will all likely conspire to remove sexual intimacy from your life. Which is why affection, respect and paying attention in every other way will, ideally, steer you through those shoals.

— Reading wise self-help books, like this one, and a great, tough marriage therapist can really help. There were a few times we were really ready to give up. Marc, our marriage therapist, told us at our first meeting: “You each own 50 percent of any problem. If not, we’re not going to work well together.”  He was really expensive, but paying so much for someone we liked and trusted sure focused our attention on getting on with it.

A gorgeous fall day on Centre Island, Toronto. Newlywed!

What’s keeping your love relationship or marriage in terrific shape?

Aaaaah,that feels better….nothing like a good fight!

Show fight of the "familia gladiatoria pu...
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As opposed to a bad fight.

I know, I know, some people never fight.

Hah! Not me.

I grew up in a family of people with six-guns for tongues, and it wasn’t a great education. I certainly learned how to shout, rail and rant. I can slam a door with the best of them.

But…resolve conflict? Discuss an issue in a civil tone? Negotiate?

Hmmmmm.

So when Jose and I recently finally had a fight, after wayyyyyy too many weeks of peaceful, loving cooperation, it actually felt a little more normal.

We both agreed it felt a bit more “us” than all the (lovely) sentimentality we’d been living for a while. Because, like many people, there are still some unresolved issues driving us both crazy that just get buried under the day-to-day stuff. They’re still there and, until we have the time or energy to unearth them, they fester.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not wild about arguing, or shouting, or angry words. But having survived a first marriage where we never seemed to resolve anything, (hence the words first marriage), at least in this one, 12 years in, we actually try to wrangle our demons, both shared and individual.

One of the toughest parts of an intimate relationship of any duration is figuring out how (when, if) to fight. What do you say and what’s taboo? Who apologizes first and who really means it? What happens if you just can’t find common ground or a compromise?

It took us several grim years for him to accept that you can love the hell out of someone and still be really angry at them. Our first fights were at least 30 percent worse because of the added catalyst of disbelief and dismay on his part that we even were fighting. In my family, it was pretty standard operating procedure.

Now, maybe because we’re been together for so long and have mellowed and/or matured and/or accepted some of the behaviors we once railed against in one another — or maybe we’re just pooped — we don’t fight much at all.

Do you fight with your loved one(s)?

How does it usually turn out?