Help! My Husband Fixed What I Complained About

Slate’s Emily Yoffe, a.k.a. dear Prudence, regularly dispenses bad relationship advice. Recently she had a question from a woman who didn’t know what to do after catching her husband reading her online rants about him.
(Bold added.)

Lately my husband has also been really good at changing some of the behaviors that have always driven me up the wall, and now I know why. While using his laptop, I happened to notice him logged in as one of the members of my group! He created a fake persona and has seen every gripe I ever typed about him! I haven’t confronted him on this, and to be honest it has been a convenient way to indirectly communicate my frustrations to him. So should I tell him I know who he is, quit the group, or just let this be?

Now, he had not challenged her for ranting about him, and he wasn’t trying to use her rants against her in divorce proceedings. He was just trying to fix the things she had been complaining about, and she had even noticed the positive changes. But now she discovered he was a member of this group where she ranted, and now she really didn’t know what to do. So far, at least, she has not even confronted him for listening to her.

It is really unclear what her problem was. From the tone of the letter it sounds like she somehow felt cheated, as if she caught him looking for other women online, or snooping on her emails. I guess she felt like her public online forum was a place to vent privately, and felt betrayed that her husband was invading her private space. More likely, she just wanted to complain, and

Many of the commenters pointed out that this woman is married to a saint. Instead of taking umbrage at her online ranting about him, he quietly goes about fixing what she was complaining about. Emily Yoffe has hard time seeing the positive:

I’d find your version more believable if it turned out your husband was remaking himself to please you in order to divert you from exploring the fact that most of his time online is spent looking for kinky sex partners. It’s also possible that you haven’t paid enough attention to the male poster on this site who complains that his hypercontrolling witch of a wife doesn’t even appreciate when he makes the changes she wants.

So she invents some bad behavior as an excuse to ignore his good behavior.

She then suggests that this women lets her forum friends know that her husband has undergone a remarkable transformation, and then she should move to face-to-face communication with her husband. She has found a way to successfully communicate with her husband, so she gets advice to blow that up and have “real” communication instead. I have often thought the meme of “its all about communication” was somehow an escape from real responsibility. This advice takes it to a new level, suggesting face-to-face communication as a way to solve the problem that they have managed to successfully communicate.

Both the woman’s question and the answer she received seem to see ranting and complaining as relationships basics. This woman seems to have never wanted her husband to change. She just wanted to complain about him publicly, Emily Yoffe is surprisingly attuned to the problem, and advises her on how to re-assert her right to complain and reintroduce conflict to her marriage. It would have been a lot nicer to see a response reminding her that her problems with her husband should never be the focus of her relationship or regular material for discussion. At this point she does not need to move to face-to-face communications. She needs to realize that she has worked out some major problems and now it is time for her to contribute positively to the relationship.

Israel’s Losing PR Victory

Netanyahu’s widely criticized cease-fire agreement after the “Pillars of Cloud” operation gave Israel an interesting PR victory. On the face of it, the agreement gave a few important concessions to Hamas in exchange for the ceasefire, demonstrating weakness on Israel’s part and a tactical victory for Hamas. Further consideration will show the opposite. Israel applied greater military strength than it had in the past, and achieved their victory while depriving Hamas of the benefit of being the helpless underdog.

Israel had little to gain from a ground invasion. Hamas’ rockets are mostly homemade, so their supply would regardless be replenished fairly quickly after Israel left, so any gains would be limited. Hamas will also fairly quickly replenish their supply of lost terrorists, so again there is limited benefit to a ground invasion. Israel already hit the Hamas quite hard from the air, and the added benefit of a ground invasion would be very limited. Many Israeli’s wanted to finish off the Hamas once and for all, but that was not a relevant option at all unless Israel wants to engage in a full restructure of the Gazan civil institutions, which no one wants at this point.

The goal for Israel was to hit Hamas as hard as they could from the air, without coming across as the neighborhood bully, as usually happens. In the past Israel has limited the extent of the their attacks hoping to look better, which never worked. This time Israel hit hard, and then gave Hamas a show victory. Mission accomplished. Hamas suffers, but Israel is seen as the weaker party.

Israel allowed Hamas to fire another 13 rockets after the ceasefire. This looks like a weakness, but is simply the maturity of letting a little kid get the last word in. The ceasefire began practically a few hours after the anounced cease-fire time, in exchange for which Hamas feels good about themselves for firing a few more rockets, and shows the world they cannot handle a simple agreement.

Hamas ended the battle with celebrations of victory. They ignored over 1300 targeted strikes and the sever depletion of the rocket stores. They forgot that they must be the perpetual victim, and grabbed at the opportunity to enjoy a false sense of victory. Israel, forgoing the pride of a well-fought battle, walked away from devastating the Gazan terror infrastructure without looking like the violent aggressor.

Blame and Responsibility

Blame and responsibility

I started writing this post by trying to find a word for “responsibility” (as in responsibility for something gone wrong) which does not have a negative connotation. I was unsuccessful, and I cannot think of a word which assigns responsibility without assigning blame.

Not every failure indicates blame. Even if we can identify who is responsible for a failure, it is not necessarily correct to blame them for it. An immediate example is someone who was forced to accept responsibility beyond their skill level. If all the officers in a platoon are killed in battle, and one of the soldiers assumes command, if he loses the battle we can assign responsibility to him, but we cannot blame him. His responsibility would not include any negative connotation.

The spectrum of responsibility runs from full blame to no blame. Someone who had the necessary skills and knowledge and still failed to do the job has the highest degree of blame. Someone who did not have the skills, and was not negligent in attaining them, and did not put themselves in a situation they were unprepared for is blameless in case of failure, though we can still discuss their responsibility.

There are distinct factors which define levels of blame. The first is a failure to apply one’s skills to dealing with the issue. This is the greatest degree of blame, for the failure is entirely a result of the person not accepting the responsibility, and not exerting themselves to succeed. This is the standard situation when we blame people for failure – students who did not study for their tests, managers who did not mind their schedules, and generals who did not respect their limitations.

A lesser degree of blame is when someone is in a position of responsibility they are unsuited or unprepared for. If they pushed themselves into that position they are to be blamed for that. This seems to be common in hierarchal, structured settings, such as the military or large corporations.

A common situation where conflict arises over assigning responsibility is where someone was decently prepared for their situation, yet they fail to achieve their goal, for no obvious reason. They were not irresponsible or lazy, they took care to learn how to do what needed doing, they made a good faith effort, and still failed. Often other people will be quick to blame them, as they have failed where success was reaonably expected. Theperson involved will refuse to accept the blame, as they have done what was expected of them, even if the results reflect poorly on them. The conflict here arises because the people involved conflate blame and responsibility. In this situation the responsibility is clear while the blame is elusive.

A very common situation where blame and responsibility need to be seperated, but are not, are in cases of divorce. Everyone who gets divorced has some responsibility for it, but usually one side bears the blame. It is very common to hear how it is always both sides who are responsible. This is technically true, if we understand responsibility as a situational evaluation and not as a judgement. Both sides are responsible, not necessarily in the same way, but there is never any reason to assume that both sides are to blame.

At this level the relevant responsibility is to recognize that whatever you are doing is not working, and figure out how to change it. This is a second level of responsibility, more difficult and less obvious than the first level, which is doing what is recognized and expected in the situation. Getting back to marriage, the first level of each person’s responsibility is to care about the other, pay attention to their needs and desires, and generally allow the relationship to grow. There is also the further expectation to stick it out when it does not go well, while continuing to try to improve the relationship. Someone who fails at this level is clearly responsible, and deserves the blame for the lack of success of the marriage. The second level of responsibility is relevant when someone has done what was expected and their marriage is still not succeeding, and this will generally be when their spouse is failing in their responsibilities. At this point they must realize that the standard expectations in marriage are not helping them, and they must try to understand why not, and what they can do instead. What often happens here is that if they are truly committed to the marriage they will double down on doing the standard expectations, investing further energies in what is not working anyway. This will cause extreme frustration if they end up getting divorced, and they are then blamed for failing in their responsibilities, even though on the first level of responsibility they may well have invested more than anyone in a succesful marriage invests.

This second level of responsibility, which is the responsibility to reject standard expectations when they do not work, requires people to reject what they have always been told is their basic responsibilities. They must violate the demands of those same people who will hold them responsible in the end, as they change from expected approaches to finding something that works. The superior who cannot tell the difference between responsibility and blame will also not be able to recognize the need to depart from the standard script, which will often leave people in a situation where they are assigned responsibility and must accept the blame, but they do not have the authority to actually ensure the successful execution of their responsibilities.

The meta-responsibility of breaking away from the initially expected approach is also where moral growth happens. As long as someone handles their responsibilities by simply following their job description they will never gain a better understanding of the nature of their work and of their own abilities and limitations in the relevant area. They will never be forced to analyze the area of their responsibilty and to understand all the potential pitfalls. They will not have the opportunity to creatively apply their own skills and insights in solving the problem. Paradoxically, people who have always succeeded in the field will often turn out to be the least able to guide others, as their success shielded them from gaining deeper insights. People who have failed initially in their responsibilities and then again accepted thos responsibilities and succeeded are the ones who best understand the issues involved, and who are most capable of advising others.

People often deny responsibility because they are trying to avoid accepting blame. Often when someone demands than another person accept responsibility, they are trying to assign blame. Blame and responsibility must be seperated in order to allow a healthy resolution to any failure, and to be able to identify and fix the causes of the failure. Blame must be assigned where blame is due, but it should not get in the way of discussing responsibility where the only issue is the failure but there is no blame. A denial of blame does not necessarily reflect poorly on someone, unless they are to be blamed, but avoidance of responsibility is always a problem. Acceptance of personal responsibility for a failure is the basic condition which says that someone is again ready to assume responsibility in a task where they previously failed.

The 100% Mistake

There is a sure-fire way to identify bad advice in any field. Bad advice demands a 100% effort, and anything less than that will not work. Good advice, on the other hand, will have positive results even when applied half-way.

Good advice reflects the nature of the endeavor, and therefore its effect will be in proportion to how well the advice was followed, which is how well the actions correspond to the ideal. Bad advice is always something which is trying to fight nature, and force it into the desired pattern, instead of working with it. Less than 100% effort with such advice has no chance of forcing nature out of its routine; even a 100% effort has no guarantee of positive results.

One public example is the debate over improving the economy. Obama and his economic advisors know how to fix the economy, but their programs will only work if they are implemented fully. If the Republicans limit the size of the stimulus and other economic programs, they have gutted them, leaving them with no chance of success. If the stimulus failed to stimulate the economy, that is only because it was not big enough, and 99% of the necessary stimulus is insufficient.

If economies in crises can be revived with stimulus spending, then a small stimulus would have a small, but noticable, effect. The argument that it was not big enough does not explain why it failed completely, and rather demonstrates that it failed because stimulus spending is not a valid economic approach.

Arguing for 100% effort means that advice is not testable. You can never know if what you are doing is right until you have invested everything in it, and even then there is no way you have reached the necessary level of investment. Advice which will only work with 100% effort is not worth following, because you have no reason to ever expect the advice to work.

Bad advice will always make the Red Queen’s claim: running as fast as you can is will only let you stay where you are, and you must run faster than that if you are to get anywhere.

Another area where such advice is common is standard marriage advice. Many counselors who offer platitudes on marriage will tell people that marriage is very hard work, and unless they invest 100% it will never work. Standard marriage advice is pretty clueless, and will not offer much when there are real problems. The counselor’s exhortions that marriage needs a 100% investment make his advice untestable and unfalsifiable, but they do not make it useful. Good marriage advice will improve the marriage even when partially applied.

Good advice will never reach 100% compliance. Bad advice needs 100%, because until then there is no return on the investment. Good advice will have a noticable effect even when partially applied, and the benefits of the advice will increase with the effort. Good advice followed with 90% consistency will give people what they are looking for, and usually it will give them far more than they expected. The additional effort will have lower returns, as the effort needed gets more difficult, and anyway the desired results have already been achieved. When someone has followed good advice the extra effort needed to go 100% cannot be justified. At that point they have little to gain from that extra effort.

Bad advice is worthless with less than 100% effort, and any advisor saying that his advice demands 100% is exposing the worthlessness of his advice. When advice is on target, 100% is not only not necessary, it is also irrelevant. Good advice can be sampled, tested, and adapted, and will always show results.

Trapped in Marriage

In the bad old days everyone would be trapped in marriage their whole life. I guess everyone was trapped, but women had it worst off. So we changed the rules, and now no one is trapped in marriage. At least legally anyone can freely ask for a divorce if they feel the marriage is not where they want to be. Well, practically men still usually feel trapped because of the emotional and financial costs, but at least women are not nearly as trapped as they used to be. Now, of course, many women still feel trapped in bad marriages, despite the best legal efforts to make it smooth and easy for them to leave. There must be something about marriage which makes it hard to leave. It might have something to do with emotional connections, or with the children which seem to magically appear when people get married.

Of course we can truly achieve a state where no one feels trapped in a marriage if we remove these non-legal barriers to exit. If a couple has no children and no emotional investment in each other, then marriage will not be a trap. It will however not be much of anything else, either. There seems to not be much demand for emotionless, childless marriages.

The easier it is to leave a marriage, the less reason there is to invest in one. It turns out that for someone who does not want to be trapped in marriage, the best approach is to not get married. The cost of a good marriage is the risk of being trapped in a bad marriage.

In traditional marriage law both sides were protected inside the marriage. In modern marriage law no one is promised anything inside the marriage, and all practical commitments are for after the marriage. Instead of woman being trapped in marriage, men are trapped post-marriage.

The traditional approach to marriage did not guarantee anyone a happy marriage, but it did make marriage a worthwhile investment for both sides. Men and women knew that if they invested well in their relationship they would have a happy life together. They also knew that if they failed they would be trapped in a bad marriage. They had the positive incentive of love and happiness, as well as the negative incentive of strife, compelling them toinvest in the marriage. It is hardly a perfect system, but it works.

Today we have a system which tries to guarantee everyone that they will not be trapped in a bad marriage. They do not have the negative incentive of strife forcing them to get along, because if things sour they can leave. They instead have a counter-incentive restricting their investment. A heavy investment in their marriage does not guarantee any happiness, but it does mean that their risks are that much higher in case of divorce and post-divorce commitments.

A Democrat’s Moral Dillema

From an article in the Wall Street Journal:

As Isaac Pollak, an ardent Republican, kissed his wife goodbye before heading out on a business trip to Asia several years ago, he handed her his absentee ballot for the coming presidential election and asked her to mail it.

Bonnie Pollak, a Democrat, weighed her options. Should she be loyal to her spouse, respect his legal right and mail the ballot? Or remain faithful to her deeply held beliefs and suppress his vote?

“It was a real dilemma,” says Ms. Pollak, 58 years old, a student in a doctoral program in social welfare who lives in Manhattan. “I decided to do the right thing.”

Ms. Pollak threw the ballot away.

What exactly is the moral dillema here? Does she think it is immoral for her husband to vote Republican? Does she have an issue with people voting according to their political beliefs?

This woman has no idea what voting means, and she is not alone. Voting is when people all state their opinion, and we see which opinion is the most popular. But many people, and I often see this with liberals, think that voting is ensuring that what they believe is right gets accepted. They have already determined what is right, that is not up for a vote. The only reason they vote is to make sure it actually happens.

While the story in the WSJ is on a very small scale, this same pattern repeats itself whenever private citizerns try to force the hand of government. This can be sometimes done through lawsuits which concern state secrets and state policy and which have no place in the court – both the litigant and the judge force the hand of the governemnt. More recently this has often been done by “whistelblowing” or publicizing governemnt secrets. Wikileaks is a classic example. Bradley Manning and Assange had issues with how governments were being run. Instead of trying to change governement policy through public democratic means, they took matters into their own hands, deciding independently what governemnts may or may not do.

Surpressing a vote in a open democratic election is never moral, even if you believe that the vote is going the wrong way. Bonnie Pollak of the WSJ story violated her husband’s trust because she did not respect his right to his own political opinion, and she did not believe he had the right to vote. Somehow this is presented as a moral dillema. She should have recognized a different moral dillema: if her political understanding did not grant her husband a right to vote, how can she claim to believe in democracy, and why is she married to him?

He says it took him at least a year to stop being irritated, and to this day he doesn’t trust his wife of 35 years with his correspondence. “Isn’t it illegal to throw away mail?” he still asks her.

His wife of 35 year violated his trust because she cannot respect a difference of political opnion. I am not sure why anyone would expect him to show her anything more than complete distrust and disresepct after this.

Raising your kid in Three Easy Steps

How to raise your kids in three easy steps.

Imparting basic life skills to your kids is the most important aspect of their education. Looking around, it seems it is also the area that is most lacking. I do not know if this is because it is difficult, or that it is overlooked. I just know that way too many people have to figure out the basics for themselves when they enter the adult world.

Life skills are those general skills we use in our regular everyday life. Tying your shoelaces and crossing the street are two basic lifeskills most people are taught early on. Almost everyone (at least in Western countries) gets a drivers license in their late teens. Most people do not learn how to negotiate a deal, even though it is also a basic lifeskill that almost everyone needs.

Other life skills inclucde using a power drill, swimming, assembling a large piece of furniture, and choosing matching colors. Some more useful but less applicable skills are shooting a handgun and surviving for three days with only a knife and box of matches. A more important skill set which is universally needed but almost never taught is how to analyze the news, verify (or estimate) its accuracy, and form your own opinion. The most important lifeskill is how to choose a spouse and keep them happy, a skill taught in a direct inverse porportion to its importance.

There are many areas where even as a parent you simply do not have the information, and cannot teach it to your kid until uou first teach it to yourself. This short essay assumes that you already have the necessary knowledge to impart to your child. Even when parents have the relevant skills and information, they often fail to transmit them to the next generation.

There seem to be two major reasons for this failure. One, they often think that certain skills come with age, such as a kid knoowing how to cross the street when he turns nine, or marriage skills magically appearing when their child turns 23. Thankfully they (mostly) do not have the same ideas about driving skills devolving on their prodigy at age sixteen.

The second reason skills are not transferred are a simple lack of understanding how to transmit them. Telling your child to look both ways before they cross the street is not teaching them to cross safely. Telling them a hundred times to look both ways will probably work, but it is a pretty poor way to handle this lesson. Formal education suffers very noticably from this failure. It is a useful institution for imparting knowlege (1+1=2), but pretty useless for teaching skills, since skills are not just piles of information.

A third common error is not respecting the age of the child. Many people will teach their children some skill before they are ready, often at the preschool age when parents are in a rush for their kids to be more self-sufficient. Many other skills are taught to late as parents do not take advantage of their child’s readiness to learn at a young age. As a general rule, children who ask for information are ready to recieve it, and they will also quickly indicate disinterest if they are being taught something they are not ready for.

After you are satisfied that you have the necessary knowledge and that you have mastered the relevant skill; that your child is at an appropite age to learn it; and that simply telling him what you know is not the way to teach him a life skill, try the following easy three steps:

  1. Show him how you do it.

    Let him watch you once or twice, so he can see what it is that he needs to learn. The best time to teach a skill is when you are engaged it that activity. If that is not possible, talk to him about it. Describe whatb is involved, and maybe tell him how it went for you the first time.

  2. Help him do it a few times.

    Do it together. As much as possible this should be a hands-on joint effort. The first time he is on a bike, you hold the handles and run alongside. In other activities this will involve a lot of discussion. You cannot go out on his first dates with him, but you can give him plenty of time before and after discussing the dynamocs of dating.

  3. Let him do it himself, and stand on the side.

    After a few rounds of doing it together he is ready to try himself, but not yet ready to do it independantly. Pull back, but stay on the side. Do not give him step-by-step support, but point out any significant mistakes and useful tips. After a little practice, let him do it independantly, even if he is still at a beginners level.

After writing this, I wonder if I am not writing something completely obvious. What I wrote is the basics of instruction, and not something that there should be any value in spelling out. Looking around, I see that I am not writing something which is obvious to most people. Many people miss some of these steps, mostly for a lack of paying attention to how their children respond to their instruction. They neglect to introduce them to a new topic, thinkg they have seen it before. They do not take the time to do it together with their child, thinking that their verbal instruction is sufficient. They might not stay around to watch the first few times their kid does it on his own, becuase he already knows how to do it. When they pay attention to the learning process, it is clear that something is missing with these three steps, and that when the learning is done slowly, from demostration to training to application, that is when the lessons are learned the best.