5 Questions You Need to Ask (To Avoid Ruining Your Life)
Somewhere, right now, some guy is sleeping under a bridge, or laying next to a dead hooker, or sitting in jail, wondering, "How the fuck did it come to this?"
The short answer is that when things are bad, you don't know they're bad. Humans are magical creatures who can completely disregard a raging fire, and then act confused at the sight of ashes. Trust me, I know.
So, if you are stopping to ask yourself one of the below questions -- all of which people have asked me at one point or another -- that's great. You've gotten further than a lot of people, just by asking. It takes a certain amount of courage to stop and ask ...
"How Do I Know if I'm in an Unhealthy Relationship?"
This may be the single biggest "forest for the trees" question you'll ever encounter in life. Walk past the magazine rack at a grocery store, and half of the women's magazines offer to help you answer this, though they usually phrase it the opposite way, as in, "Is he the one? Our quiz will tell you!" But I think it's probably more relevant to answer the more urgent question of, "Is this relationship slowly murdering one or both of us?"
Fortunately, as one of America's foremost relationship experts, I've developed a sure-fire way to find out.
It's very simple: Take a close look at the person you're in a relationship with. Now, marry that person. Then, stay married for a decade or so, then act completely baffled by the fact that they want a divorce. Then, about two years after the marriage has ended, you'll realize they were right all along and that you were never good for each other. Boom, there's your answer.
If you don't think you have the patience for that, I'm sorry, but you can't always just be taking the easy way out. A bad relationship is like a really good night's sleep -- you can't appreciate it until you wake up. The deeper the sleep, the less likely you are to consciously think, "God damn am I doin' some sleepin' right now! Fuck!" The worse the relationship, the less likely you are to see it.
After all, if it was just some comically horrible situation where the guy or girl screeches and throws balls of their own feces at you as soon as you walk in the door, that's easy to walk away from. It's bad, but on a level that's obvious and in a way that makes it easy to walk out. The truly bad relationships, the kind that hollow you out, are the ones where you actually feel something, and stay because you think you can't live without it. That's when you open up, and become exposed and vulnerable.
Opening up isn't a bad thing -- the ability to share yourself is what makes life worth living. But you both just get so good at pushing each other's buttons that those incompatibilities you have with one another become battlegrounds for subtle warfare and sabotage. Each learns to push the exact sequence of buttons that sets the other off. Problems are met with blame instead of solutions. And you won't see any of it as a problem, because you're tied down with a bundle of emotional needs that you mistakenly call "love."
If you are impatient and don't have time to do the full 12-Year John Cheese Relationship Stress Test, here's one warning sign you can look for: Is your love of this person based on some conditions you are hoping they'll fulfill later? Do you find yourself thinking, "I love him when he's not drinking" or "She'll be hot after she loses 50 pounds?" Yeah, that never works. Even on the rare occasion that it appears to work, even if you get them to change "for you," you're not seeing the hidden resentment festering in their minds. They won't like the fact that they had to modify themselves to suit your needs. Make no mistake, that resentment will one day manifest, and it won't be pretty.
But don't worry, it'll all be more than clear after it's over. After I got divorced, literally everyone I knew told me, "I can't believe you guys lasted as long as you did." I'm not mad they didn't tell me. I wouldn't have listened.
Related: 5 Streams That Went Horribly Wrong
"How Do I Know if I've Picked the Right Job/Career?"
It's surprising how many people never actually stop to ask themselves this one. At least, not until they have that Office Space moment when they wake up and feel like they're dead inside, deciding that if they have to read one more memo about dress code, they're going to burn the whole fucking operation to the ground. Job breakups can take you by surprise just like the relationship breakups we were just talking about.
In order to research this article, I took several dozen horrible jobs over the course of 18 years or so, and left most of them on bad terms.
I can hear it now:
"A 'shitty' job? Hey, at least I have a job, right? Not everyone can say that in this economy! I can think of two dozen people off the top of my head who would kill for a chance to make what I'm making!"
Yep, there's the trap. Because there have been wise people through history saying something to the effect of, "Be happy with what you have, because it could always be worse," it can get very easy to justify any job by comparing it, not to another job, but to starvation.
I have previously talked about how nearly impossible it is to get out of that "making enough to eat and nothing else" cycle. If a few odd things hadn't broken just the right way, I'd have stayed in it until I died. When friends asked me why I stayed in that shitty job, I would take offense.
I didn't understand this concept that a "career" was not in fact just a job that you stayed at a long time, but could (and even should) involve something you actually care about doing. I kind of thought that everybody treated their hours at work like I did -- as a pure loss of time, energy and life that you have to pay as a tax in order to exist in a society. It was hard to imagine that there were people who didn't watch the clock and beg it to go faster, or ditch and go home at the slightest excuse. When I heard about people with jobs where they take their work home, and work over lunch, and on sick days, and during holidays, people who actually get excited when they talk about what they do in conversations, I just assumed they were crazy, or had nothing else in their lives.
I see it now, that I've moved on, that "be happy with what you have" is a bullshit idea when you're talking about work. You're obviously not suited for just any old job. Flipping burgers is perfectly fine if burger flipping is your passion and that's the best thing you can bring to the world. If not, if you picture your job as nothing more than a mean dog you have to feed in order to keep it from biting your nuts off, then you should know that it isn't like that for everybody. It doesn't have to be like that for you.
"How Do I Know if I'm Ready to Have Kids?" (Or, "How Do I Know if I'm Being a Bad Parent?")
A lot of you are at the age where you're either considering having kids, fear having kids, or have kids and wonder if you've made a huge mistake. It's a reasonable concern, since this is the most important thing you'll probably ever do. You're in luck; I have forgotten more about bad parenting than most of you will ever know.
Fortunately for my kids, I didn't need to ruin them in the name of research into bad parenting methods. I had my own father, who was one of the great masters of the art. Based on having lived through that, and having kids of my own who so far don't show signs of growing up to be serial killers, I can say this:
If you're worried about having kids because you're not sure if that's what you want in your life right now, that's a bad sign.
If you're worried about having kids because you want to make sure you don't fuck up the kids, then you're probably fine.
In my experience, shitty parents don't usually care enough to analyze their performance from the kids' point of view, so they'll never ask the question to begin with. It's always about, "How will kids fit into my life?" rather than, "How will I not fuck up a kid's life?" To them, parenting is another obstacle they have to put up with, like a job or the flu. You grit your teeth and bear with it until the kids are out of the house, and then it's back to the normal life you had before they came along. To them, children are chores that have to be done.
For example, let me share a story about my father, and see if you can get a sense of where he went wrong here:
When I was 12, dad woke me and my brother on Easter Sunday. I remember that it was 8 a.m. because my grandmother, who we lived with at the time, had pointed out that he didn't need to be opening a beer that early. He told her to fuck off, shouted that he was a grown man and took us outside where we found two enormous Easter baskets on the porch. As we dove into the chocolate, he disappeared for a minute and returned with two six packs of beer, sitting one down in front of each of us.
He said that we were old enough to have our "first beer with the old man," and made us open one and drink it with him right there on the spot. Followed by the other five -- each. My brother was 11. To him, he was attempting to do something nice. Sharing something he loved (beer) with his children, and we should be appreciative of that, right? What he didn't know was that the only reason we drank that beer was because we knew that no matter how politely we turned down the offer, the rest of the day would have taken a dramatically violent turn. We joined him out of fear.
You can probably see the problem right away -- he never looked at it from our point of view. Parents make less horrifying versions of this mistake all the time. When you argue with your children, do you use the same tone of voice and tactics that you use with an adult? Because their brains haven't physically developed to that point yet. They haven't experienced anything that will let them put what you're doing in context. To them, you are just this screaming ball of anger and hateful facial expressions.
And worse, they think they are what caused you to turn into that monster.
Kids have a tendency to blame themselves for all negative situations because by nature, they are biologically wired to be self-serving, to think they are the center of the universe. They learn to be compassionate and sharing, but they are not born with it. So when things go wrong and you erupt, their natural thought process is to assume that your reaction is their fault, even when it may be something else like a bad day at work. The only way to stop yourself is to continually stop and say, "How does this look from a kid's point of view?"
My dad didn't realize he was a bad parent until a few months before he died. Some people go to their grave never knowing. Which brings me back to my point, that if you're asking, "How do I know if I'm going to be (or am being) a shitty parent?" in the first place, there's a very good chance that you're not.
Related: Happy Birthday, Badass - August 3
"How Do I Know if I'm an Alcoholic?"
Because of this, I get a lot of messages from people about this. A lot.
Non-alcoholics are probably baffled by all of those Warning Signs of Alcoholism checklists from treatment programs. "Uh, how about, you're an alcoholic if you drink a lot?"
It's not that simple from the inside. As with the bad relationship and bad job, you stop noticing the smell if you stand in a puddle of shit long enough. Coming to terms with your situation is actually the hurdle that most alcoholics never make it over.
As I mentioned in the article I linked a couple of inches above, Step One of my Action Plan was to start drinking before high school. Then, maybe a decade or so into that process, you'll have a moment of realization. For me, it was a wedding.
My best friend's wedding was important to me, it wasn't just something I attended out of obligation, and I was honored when he asked me to be the best man. The wedding was set in the late afternoon, and I knew I couldn't show up smelling like beer, so I held off. By the time we got there I was getting pretty cranky, and I didn't realize at the time that it was because I would have normally started drinking five hours earlier. Fortunately, the wedding was quick.
The reception was alcohol free because he and the bride didn't drink, and when I heard that, I started getting minor anxiety attacks. I asked a couple of times about the toast because I knew that once that was over, my duties as best man were finished. I started my speech and looked down to find my friend comically staring up at me in horror, as if what I was saying would summon a demon. Normally, I would have laughed my ass off at this, but in my current state of agitation and withdrawal, it pissed me off. He was ruining my well-thought-out and heartfelt toast! How dare he!
I cut it off in mid sentence and finished with, "Know what? Just ... have a good one." I drank my juice, and stared out over a confused crowd of their friends and family. It was the single most embarrassing moment of my life, not because of the funny look he was giving me, but because of how I reacted to it.
A few minutes later, I shook his hand, congratulated him, and told him that my then-wife and I had to get back home to relieve the babysitter. In actuality, we didn't do that at all. Instead, I used it as an excuse to go buy a case of beer and get drunk in kidless silence.
Incidentally, that beer cost about the same as the tie he loaned me. Because I couldn't afford one. Even though I had a month's notice. That tie combined with that truncated toast-and-flee was the first time (in hindsight) I really considered myself an alcoholic. I couldn't physically make it through 3/4 of a day without needing a drink.
This realization is what motivated me to, uh, completely forget about it and continue drinking for about eight more years.
Looking back, that one incident literally fulfilled seven of the Ten Warning Signs of Alcoholism I posted earlier (to qualify, you need just one). So if you need it boiled down to just one, like if you don't like lists (though if so, you probably are on the wrong website) then I guess it would be this: Does the thought of going without alcohol scare you? Even a little bit? That's a good indication. Maybe you'll catch on 10 or 15 years sooner than I did.
"How Will I Know When I've Become an Adult?"
This question got asked in the forums a while back. It seems like an odd question, but I'm thinking this is why tribal societies would have an actual ritual you go through, where you run an obstacle course and then slay a wolf for the right to be declared an Adult. Without that clear line, it's kind of hard to tell.
From what I can gather, in our grandfathers' time when you turned 18, you were shoved out of the house and either had to go fight a war, or mine coal until you died of Black Lung, or Mining Dementia, or Coal Shits. Then with the next generation it became normal for people to go to college, so they'd stay in teenage party mode until they graduated at age 22 or so. Now, it seems like most people are stretching that out until they get close to 30.
Most of them don't have shit on me -- I crashed on people's couches into my mid-20s, and refused to get a career until somebody finally agreed to pay me to write boner jokes. I could write the book on delayed maturity. So how do you know that your efforts to shape up and become a grown-up have paid off?
First of all, having children of your own does not make you an adult. Any two jackoffs with functional reproductive organs can produce children. And there is no magical line when it comes to age, not even a ballpark.
No, it seems to be a balancing point between when you stop depending on other people, and become the person other people can depend on.
For instance, the most mature guy at my last job was 16-years old. He went to work because his mom was morbidly obese to the point that she couldn't work. She collected disability, which wasn't enough to support her family, so the kid picked up the slack. Each week, he would sign his check over to his mom, who would deposit 100 percent of it in the bank. He never saw a dime, and that was fine with him, because he was helping out his family.
Compare that to the other guys there, many in their 30s, who would spend half of their check on mods for their car stereos, and whatever was left over on their three children. Instead of school clothes for the kids, they'd replace the back seats with giant subwoofers. I'd watch these guys scream at their girlfriends for bringing their lunch late -- the lunches that those guys could have made themselves and brought to work with them. They might have married those girls by now, and now those guys have a new mother. They are 35-year-old kids.
I mentioned my years spent crashing on friends' couches earlier, people taking me in because they knew my only other option was living on the street. Do you think I ever thought about how much work they had to do to provide me with a place to stay? Or how wrong it was that as an able-bodied man, I wasn't the one providing a sofa for somebody else in need? Or that I was always taking instead of giving? No, because that's how an adult thinks. And I wasn't one.
You know you're an adult, not just when you're able to put the needs of others above your own, but when you're able to do it without giving a single thought to what they "owe" you in return. You realize that, at some point you weren't even aware of, you became the tap instead of the bucket. And then you look back and hate your younger self for living under the delusion that somehow a world full of buckets could function.
It sounds obvious to the point of being insulting, and it is ... to an adult. So, as with everything on this list, the answer is that when it happens, you'll know. Give or take a decade or two.
For more Cheese, check out 4 Anger Management Tips the Internet Could Really Use and 5 Ways Methamphetamine Can Make You a New Person.