The reason we stink at solving our own problems (and how I get along with my ex-husband)

I am in the car with the Ex and the kids.  The Ex plays a Yeastie Girls CD, which was probably mine but he wanted it in the divorce. It’s a live concert and in the middle they start giving away speculums to promote women’s health.

The boys perk up when the Yeastie Girls yell out to the audience, “Don’t use this in your butt!” Suddenly women’s health is a fascinating topic.

We have fun until we are lost. Then I want to use GPS and the Ex wants to use his phone. I support whatever he wants. That’s how I get along with him.

If he were writing this he’d say we get along because he does whatever I want. I’m not sure which of us is right–we both might be. But what I am sure about is we were not like this when we were married. When we were married we mostly did whatever we wanted. Alone.

The key to getting along with people is that you always think you are doing the most work but you do it anyway. Because you get what you give.

Now the Ex and my kids and I travel together. A lot. My husband, the Farmer, hates leaving the farm, and we have to drive a lot for the kids, and I don’t drive, so when the kids have to go places on the weekend, the Ex usually drives.

People are terrible at picking a mate because we use criteria that is largely irrelevant to spending the rest of our lives together. We pick “attractive” and “fun to be with.” And then we spend the rest of our lives learning to get along with the person because we picked them.

This analysis confirms (what I’ve always thought) that it is the Ex’s fault for getting a divorce because I don’t believe in divorce. I simply would never have done it, no matter how bad the marriage was. Getting along with someone is more about proximity than compatibility. The theory of propinquity describes why you like people you live close to. Similarly research shows if you stay with a crappy partner, you’ll like them five years later.

Now I am at hotel check-in, trying to deal with a clerk switching rooms on us, and I say, “I need the rooms I booked because I’m here with my husband and kids.”

And my son yells, “He’s not your husband, mom.”

So we end up with rooms that are very far apart. It’s a pain, but what really bugs me is how seven years after the divorce I still don’t want to be a person who got a divorce, and I don’t want to be the person who caused a divorce. I want to be a person who gets along with people.

I never wanted to be the cause of a divorce.  I want the divorce to go away. And I can’t even be angry at the Ex because when the kids see anger between us, they get anxious.

So I am nothing. I ignore that it ever happened.

Did you know that second marriages fail at a much higher rate than first marriages? Maybe people who get divorced are bad eggs who need a lot of personal development. Which I am not doing because I choose denial. Which, by the way, is not good for getting along with people. The better you know yourself, the better you are able to get along with other people.

I signed up to get Time magazine’s newsletter every day so I can know what mainstream media is saying about the world, and what I’ve discovered is that mainstream media is publishing weight loss info disguised as news of the world. Recent changes I’ve made from reading Time magazine: eating unripe bananas and keeping my kitchen surfaces spotless.

Even NPR is jumping on the bandwagon: If you eat with men you eat less food.  I tell the Ex this is why I’m really happy we are having dinner together.

I read that people eat less pizza if it’s cut into smaller pieces. So I lean across the table and cut our pizza into slivers.

“What is this?” the Ex asks.

“I read people eat less if the pieces are smaller.”

He says, “I don’t like it.”

The kids both complain as well.

I say, “Can you please say something positive? Your attitude influences the kids.”

He says, “It’s great that you integrate cutting-edge research into our junk food lunches.”

I see that really he is sick of my research, so I stay quiet. Getting along with people is a component of weight loss, and something has to compensate for my crashing metabolism.

What I notice is that we’re most likely to take action in areas of our lives where we are comfortable. This is why, having spent months in a mental ward for an eating disorder, I’m happy to take action when it comes to keeping my weight down. Eating disorders are all about pretending to solve emotional problems by taking control over food. So I’m in my sweet spot with weight studies.

I notice lots of people set up coaching calls with for career advice, when they really need life advice, but they are used to solving all their problems by taking action in their career, so that’s what’s comfortable.

When I push people to solve their personal problems with actions that are outside of their career, they can do it. And when my therapist pushes me to solve my personal problems with actions that are not about food, I can do it.

No one’s first choice is their weak spot.

Making real change in our life comes from using a new tool to solve a problem. The first step to doing this is to figure out the tool you use regularly, so you can decide you will not use that one this time.

I have not decided that yet. But I did apologize to the Ex for forgetting to tell him that we have to go to Chicago this weekend.

29 replies
  1. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    My first wife is currently on her fifth marriage. She was already seeing her next husband while we were divorcing, before she’d stepped back and taken stock after our disastrous marriage. She divorced that one, too, and pretty soon was seeing another fellow, whom she married.

    My tendency to keep to myself served me well after she divorced me, because I was f’d up for sure after that mess and would have landed directly into another disastrous relationship had I put myself out there. I’ve been remarried for a whole week now — ten years after my divorce was final. I’ve more than worked through the crap of the marriage and divorce; I’ve figured out how to live my life happily and healthily. And I was very open to just staying single, because it didn’t suck. And then I met Margaret.

    I remember years ago you used to write a lot about your challenges with social skills. Yet in this post you managed the relationship with your ex, on a trip like a zen ninja Jedi master.

  2. Sean Crawford
    Sean Crawford says:

    As for “the first step, figuring out what tools you use regularly,” in the last few years, especially the last one, my tool for managing my evenings was junk food.

    I wouldn’t have done anything about this, but last week I found junk food no longer worked to perk up my hotel room. Junk wasn’t a treat anymore, becauseI was too acclimated to it. So now I have to stop doing chips and popcorn at home.

    I am hoping that after a brief boring void, I’ll start to find meaning in my ordinary life. Or in something new.

  3. Yael Sandler
    Yael Sandler says:

    “You get what you give” what wisdom!
    All too often I forget this sage observation.
    I too never (still 10 years after) don’t want to be divorced.
    I am looking for the tool that is the instrument of my diet destruction.
    Thank you for your post and admitting that we do stink at our own problem solving but proposing that we can solve that too.
    As always, ypu are an inspiration.

  4. Rebecca Stafford
    Rebecca Stafford says:

    Dear Penelope,

    1. Hilarious

    2. Like you (I’m guessing), I evaluate a person’s self-worth by their capacity to give an unconditional apology. (I assume your apology to your ex was unconditional. I apologize if my assumption was wrong).

    3. I’m going to ponder more on my ‘First-Choice-Go-To-Tools’.

    4. Thanks. You cheer up my in-box.

  5. Patricia
    Patricia says:

    Penelope, if you are experiencing changes to your metabolism, you might check out Dr. Schwarzbein’s work: “The Schwarzbein Principle II The Transition: A Regeneration Process to Prevent and Reverse Accelerated Aging.” (“The Program” is good too, but it is the reader’s digest version.) She explains the endocrinology of aging, especially as it pertains to women, and is very clear about the lifestyle changes (diet, sleep, exercise, etc) you can make to heal your metabolism.

  6. Bren Murphy
    Bren Murphy says:

    Hi Penelope,
    Working things through with my wife of ten years currently involves de-cluttering our home. It is such a relief to live in a simple, fresh environment. But the heat and past issues that throwing out something as apparently meaningless as an old lamp shade brings up makes our relationship noisy and dynamic. At times, sure, I feel like booking another week long meditation retreat. But it is knowing that we are actually coming closer together that makes it all worthwhile.

  7. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    You know what Penelope? Thanks for sharing your research here. I find myself clicking on more links in your posts than I had previously. Even those times when I initially think it may not be totally necessary to click to those links to get the meaning of what you’re saying in the post. So while your Ex may be sick of your research, look at it as a good thing that you can spew it all over here on your blog. A buffet of research from which to pick and choose to my own desire and liking.

  8. Nita
    Nita says:

    Just the fact that you can have a conversation with your Ex, that he is even bothering to drive all the way to your house, pick up not just his kids, but you also, and be willing to drive you around for the weekend is beyond impressive. I don’t know if I, nor my husband could do that after a bitter divorce. So hurray for that. However, I do realize that people do look for the wrong things in a life partner. I always took my grandmother’s advice seriously. She said (1) Actions speaks louder and more truthfully than words (2) observe a person’s heart, someone with a strong heart, a forgiving heart and loving heart for you will be a great partner. Not once did she say, make sure he is Good looking, Charismatic, and financially capable. Now lucky me, I got most of those things too, but with someone that was a friend that I had never contemplated dating myself – until I did, and married him.

  9. Julie
    Julie says:

    I agree with you, but I also know that, as Maya Angelou would say, “when you know better you do better”. There’s no need for self damnation, enjoy the relationship you have with your ex now!

  10. Mindy Keller
    Mindy Keller says:

    A person may go to you for career advice, but not be interested in your relationship advice.

    After all, you may think an ENTJ could be somewhat effective as a career counsellor, but would you recommend an ENTJ take up a career as a relationship counsellor?

  11. harris497
    harris497 says:


    This was by far one of your better posts. Just don’t expect too many comments as it doesn’t include anything too controversial. It offers solid advice on a serious topic. My take away is get help in making important decisions from a wise and trusted friend while being kind/empathetic to those close to you.
    Thank you!

  12. Plain man
    Plain man says:

    I am in the 17th year of my fourth marriage; the 19th year of the happy relationship. This is proof that later relationships can be beneficent. As Penelope wrote, it is essential to know yourself to relate well to another.
    I wish I had known as much when I was 20 years old about what is important. But, don’t give up hope if you learn later.

  13. pat
    pat says:

    Funny, I grew up expecting to get divorced because that’s what grown-ups did…
    Once I got that out of the way at 24, I determined it would be my last. How? Easy: don’t remarry; been living in sin for over 20 years now. Daughter doesn’t care that she is a bastard.
    The Ex? Nice guy that I am rarely in touch with. He went on to divorce the mother of his kids and have a trail of ex-girlfriends.
    Rather satisfying to blame him for everything

  14. Audrey
    Audrey says:

    I accept the extra ten pounds. My stable weight is ten pounds heavier. I was a paid model for ten years not a supermodel but I was able to make $30k without working many hours. I can tell you these photos are not real. Even being 5-71/2 and 115 pounds I was airbrushed for fat bulges. I had a full face of makeup and my hair done sometimes with clip ins. I’m blonde naturally so without makeup I look washed out. My stable weight was 125. I was athletic and could eat normally. To be 115 I threw up daily like you. I was so miserable. Now I fluctuate between 135 and 140 but I’m doing nothing different! I guess its slow down metabolism. I’m trying to stop snacks after 9pm even fruit. But I’ve found that dieting affects my mental health very adversely. Bulimia initially made me feel good an Ocd good. Total control. But it really exacerbated my bipolar problems. I eat a Mediterranean diet now. Olive oil constantly. Fish. I’ve never been more mood regulated. I drink ton of coffee and don’t think it’s bad. My weakness is the two cigs a day. Carryover from modeling. They all smoke so as not to eat it does actually help. I love your honesty about things like bulimia and the ward. I stopped bulimia when I fessed to my then boyfriend he was really there for me. The secret is the worst part of it

  15. Gertrude
    Gertrude says:

    This is, by far, the most revealing post you’ve ever written. I’m surprised you posted it. It explains so much.

    The hardest part for kids is not the proximity of having 2 homes and being shuttled back and forth. It’s actually fun for the kids having 2 homes IF both parents remain single and devoted to only the children. They love it and they love all of the attention and they love having 2 of everything they want.

    What’s traumatizing is when the parents date, meeting new people, ultimately entering into new long-term romantic relationships, perhaps even remarrying, like you did with the farmer. New spouses signifies the end of their parents’ relationship to each other.

    You don’t seem too worried about your ex dating and remarrying (not).

  16. brenda
    brenda says:

    I thought I was the only one to be divorced, yet travel with my ex and daughter. She’s 22 now, and July 29th will be the first time she goes away with her dad on a trip and mom goes somewhere with a new man instead. Like you I’d rather put my daughter first, divorced or not he and I had her together and I feel it’s important we raise her together… yet separately since we divorced when she was one. I love reading your blog and relating to you so much more than not. Thanks for years of good blogging. Respectfully,

  17. Janis
    Janis says:

    Hi. This comment is going to come off as insensitive but I think it could help you. I think that focusing so much on personal development has, ironically, actually STUNTED you. Before this article, I read the old one of when you were going through the divorce and honestly my thoughts were: “Well my god, she overanalyzes everything and comes off as judgmental.” I can’t even blame him.” And then reading that your ex was annoyed when you were eating your food in pieces because you read in an article that it helps with weight loss just made me think that my thoughts might be right. When you’re constantly analyzing, judging, and trying to be “right” all the time you can become insufferable fast. Unfortunately, if you stopped doing this, you wouldn’t have ideas for your blog which seems to be your livelihood… But my point is, and your ex husband’s I think, is to just go with the flow and stop taking life so damn seriously. Serious people that are always on are just fucking annoying and draining to be around. And you know what else I think? I think personal development is BULLSHIT. I just think of the rock stars and artists we’ve had that had terrible personalities (some were just fucking jerks), but still contributed greatly to the world. I also think personal development is some self-absorbed shit. If you tell someone to “find themselves” you’re permitting them to sit around and think about themselves all the time. I also find the enterprise of “tough love” or what is actually SHAMING people to motivate them to be “better people” (by whose fucking standard, anyway?) immoral. We don’t use negative reinforcement when training animals, mostly because positive reinforcement works better. Negative reinforcement works, but it has repercussions. In dogs, negative reinforcement creates a dog that mostly obeys, but might develop fear of you and bite one day as well as a host of other problems. Not to mention that the dog won’t be happy on top of that. For some reason, we make an exception for human beings when it comes this! I have a hard time believing our species is entirely unique that we’re the only ones that negative reinforcement is appropriate for. The truth is that people vary tremendously. I know you think we’re all the same, because I read it one of your blog posts. I have a social science degree, and I know that that is just patently false. We vary pretty dramatically actually — even on a molecular biological level. You don’t think exactly the same as one other being on this planet due to the unique wiring of your brain and the experiences you have had in your life. That is true for me and anybody else as well. Anyway, I suggest taking information from articles you read with a grain of salt and think for yourself a little bit more. There are so many articles, and yes, even studies that are BAD. Most of them only show a correlation, and not causation. You went to college, you should know this shit. Chill out a little bit, and stop with the rigid thinking. Is your ex still single? Sounds like you two still see each other because of the kids. Maybe if you were a little bit more laid back he’d become attracted to you again.

  18. Pamela
    Pamela says:

    The research you presented here about picking a bad mate because we use bad criteria is so fascinating to me – I’ve spiraled into a very non-work oriented afternoon reviewing research from other folks and assessing my own relationship through the lens of what I’m reading.

    This was a great piece I stumbled on in my rabbit hole.

    Thanks again for being so thought provoking. You have been my fave for years and continue to be someone whose voice and opinions I respect. You influence my thinking!

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