Category Archives: Love

Right or Happy? What Would You Choose?

2015-02-24-nARGUMENTlarge-thumbThe first time my husband and I argued it was terrifying. I thought it was the end of our relationship.

I’ve done a lot of meditation so during the argument I knew I should walk away, sit outside and observe my breath. It is a good tool, however it doesn’t solve anything. And in this case it just made my husband angrier.

“You just can’t hide away and meditate,” he said. “We have to talk about this.” I wished he’d go away so I could keep meditating. I was happy when I was meditating. I didn’t have to deal with anyone else and their points of view and their big voices. But unless I’m going to become a hermit (tempting at times), then I need to learn how to deal with disagreements.

What I’ve found? It really works to just listen to the other person. When my husband wants to vent I let him and I don’t take it personally. I usually know it has nothing to do with me. It’s his opinion and he’s entitled to have it. He might want to blame me for something, that’s okay. It might have been my fault, it might not have. If I’m able to observe my thoughts and emotions, to keep breathing and not get all caught up in the heat of the moment and keep listening, things usually go okay.

Arguments and disagreements are going to happen. They’re part of life. And the most important step to repairing them is to hear the other person’s perspective and to let them know you’re really listening. To respect their opinion. And naturally they need to do the same for you. We’re not being doormats here.

OK, so that’s what happens in an ideal world. What happens in the real world is that you get scared, upset, angry and most of all you want to be right, you want to win. When someone I respected, who was helping me sort through an issue, asked me, “Would your rather be right or be happy?” I said “Right of course. It’s important to be right. If I’m right then I am happy. I get the best of both worlds. I am right and I am happy.”

She looked at me as if I was an alien.

It’s taken me many years to work out that having to be right all the time was making me miserable and lonely. That most people don’t want friends who put more importance on being right than they do on being happy. Old grumpy-pants self-righteous me might have thought I was right. But it felt all wrong.

In an argument, take a breath, listen and ask yourself, “Would I rather be right or would I rather be happy?” Then, remember, that sometimes, you might prefer to be right, and that’s okay too.

Get your free copy of Mary-Lou’s Seven Tips For Your Best Relationship Ever

The One Big, Not-So-Secret Secret of a Happy Relationship

Love on a MountaintopRelationships. They’re a source of endless joy and angst. We might be deliriously happy for a while, but then the gloss wears off and we’re stuck with reality. Most people get into relationships expecting they’ll feel better about themselves and their lives when they have someone to love them. We will meet the man or woman of our dreams and they will fulfil us, be our everything and we’ll both be deliriously happy for ever.

When that’s not the case, what do we do? Often, we blame the other person. The thinking might go like this: I don’t feel fantastic anymore, so it must be the other person’s fault: they’re not good enough, good-looking enough, rich enough, smart enough. A solution? Move on. The next relationship will bring all the things I need. And many people chase the high that new “love” brings.

Another solution might be to stay in that relationship because, very conveniently, we now have someone else to blame for everything we don’t like about our lives. If it wasn’t for them and all their flaws, our life would be wonderful. Love promised a perfect life, but I still don’t have enough money and have no friends. Life didn’t deliver. It’s all their fault. How convenient not to have to look at our own stuff and stuff-ups. Those arguing, bickering, bitter couples are all locked into the blame game. Are we too afraid to say “What’s my part in this? Why do I feel so unhappy? What can I do to change this?”

Being in a relationship that works means asking all those questions of yourself and then doing something about them. A something that doesn’t involve running away, getting divorced and making all the same mistakes in your next relationship. In short: Own your own crap. If something annoys you in your relationship, look at your part in it. Then look at why it annoys you. It’s your responsibility. It’s so easy to blame everyone else for everything. I know, I spent most of my life doing it.

My husband called me on it early on in our relationship. I hated him for it at the time, because it meant I really had to look at why I always played the victim. Sometimes I want to be weak and helpless and have someone else to blame for everything that’s wrong in my life. But if that’s true, where does it leave me? What can I learn or improve from that position of helplessness? Playing the victim may feel easy at the time, but it’s a cop-out. In the long term, it kept me stuck and miserable.

Now when I feel bad and I want to blame him, I have the tools to turn it around, knowing and really understanding that I am responsible for my own misery and my own happiness. I take him out of the equation and own my own crap. He can’t do anything about my crap and I can’t do anything about his, but to the best of our ability we don’t dump it on each other. That, my friend, is the one big not-so-secret secret of a happy relationship. Own your own crap. And do something about it so you don’t feel crappy.

There is one proviso: If he or she ever physical assaults you, even a “small” hit, that is not your crap. That is not your fault. That is definitely their crap. And grounds for divorce.

Get your free copy of Mary-Lou’s Seven Tips For Your Best Relationship Ever

Trust your Truth (Even When it Doesn’t Match Your Beliefs)

HTSM ShopfrontWhen I first met my husband I tried to ignore him, even though he fascinated me. We met at a dinner party; I thought my friends were trying to match-make us and being the mature and sophisticated woman I am, I avoided him for the entire evening. I didn’t want to give them the satisfaction of succeeding.

Fortunately the things we had in common, the soul truths and connections were too strong. When I finally surrendered to the fact he was intelligent, funny and many of his beliefs aligned with mine, we talked late into the night. I went home, alone, and had a dream. I dreamt we’d had dinner together and then the next day met up for a cup of tea. When I woke I realised I could do something we rarely get to do in this life. I could make a dream come true. I rang him. He swears if I hadn’t, he would have rung me. We met for a cup of tea. And so my dream came true. There’s a longer version of this story in my first book Sex, Drugs and Meditation.

He was very different to any man I’d ever dated. In my old way of thinking, he was a nerd and a dag; not cool. I believed I should only go out with musicians, writers or artists; men who dressed and acted in a certain way, were mysterious, slightly dangerous and never fully present.  It took me some time and effort to relax enough so I could accept him for the way he was. And the way he was, was perfect.

Later, when friends told me to leave him, I had to examine what was true for me, not for them. We all had the belief that a man should provide financially and take care of his wife. My husband had promised he would and though he may have had trouble doing so financially, he was committed to learning how to take care of me in other ways. As I said to my friends at the time, “I can either have an investment property or I can be with the man I love”. I made my choice. By the time our financial situation improved, our investment in our marriage had brought us immeasurable wealth in all the ways that matter.

A lot of the beliefs that I have (and probably many of you, too) are drummed into our heads by advertising. The most entrenched beliefs are handed down to us through our cultures; the fairytale ending, the handsome prince, the knight on the white charger, the perfect man. Nothing else will suffice. The man I married was none of these but he was perfect for me. I just had to discard those beliefs and find the truth underneath.

Mary-Lou’s new book How To Stay Married is available now. For a free copy of  7 Tips for a Happy  Marriage sign up for Mary-Lou’s newsletter.

On the Anniversary of my Mother’s Birth

Mum & 6I noticed the date and realised that today would have been my mother’s birthday, if she was still alive to have birthdays. The realisation caused me to pause, to breathe and to allow myself a little bit of space to remember her.

I’ve written about her in my latest book How To Stay Married and how instrumental her impending death was on my marriage. I honour her in my Seven Tips for a Happy Marriage (and one from my mum.) And today, on the anniversary of her birthday I’d like to share with you just a snippet from How To Stay Married. How fitting that this extract is from the chapter called Heaven.

I wake the next morning with a very strong sense of my mother. After she died I had a dream. Our country was under attack. Air-borne missiles filled with toxic chemicals were heading our way. It was clear we would all be killed. Though our government had sent missiles to intercept the threats there was no guarantee we wouldn’t be contaminated. I was part of a task force sent to secure a high-rise building. Our mission was to make it airtight so people could shelter there, safe from the chemicals. As we were making final preparations I was told our enemies had captured my mother and were holding her hostage in the basement of that very building. We were ordered to leave or else they would kill her. I rushed to rescue my mother and free her from the evil clutches of these doomsday merchants. Clearly I’ve watched too many action hero films. However, when I eventually found her she was free, happily walking in a park by the water. The sun was shining, children played. My mother was safe, the danger was gone.

When my mother was ill and first told me that all the months of chemotherapy she’d endured hadn’t made the slightest difference, that none of the chemical weapons they’d used on her had worked, I was devastated. Hearing she had, at most, six months to live left me incapacitated, only good for crying.

A long-held dream of my mother’s had been to see the colours and beauty of the wild flowers of Western Australia in the spring. She’d seen them on television and in magazines, but wanted to see the spectacle for herself. What really caused my heart to ache was the fact that, once the prognosis came through, her dream would never come true. But one day I had a growing realisation. Who’s to say she won’t? Who’s to say that she won’t be a part of those wild flowers? Who’s to say she won’t be in the warmth that causes them to blossom, in the breeze that blows over them, the rain that falls on them? Who’s to say she won’t be in the very soil that nurtures them?

Her life was abundant and blessed, a cornucopia of children, grand-children, friends, gardens, creativity, good works and the church. Hers was a life filled with learning, loving and informed conversations always touched with her wicked sense of humour. A life well lived and well loved. Why would anything change now?

Relationships: The Hero’s Journey

LoveDo you dream of finding the right person to spend your life with? Are you in a strong relationship already and want to keep it that way? Or perhaps your marriage is a little tarnished and you hope to make it shine again?

Relationships are always a mix; they’re woven from golden shining moments and niggling annoyances, big whack-you-over-the-head disasters and then, just when you were about to give up, a deep sense of tenderness, connection and certainty reminds you of why you fell in love in the first place.

Learning to navigate your way throughout this adventure, with its delights and debacles, is what provides the depth and authenticity of a long-term relationship. This is what makes it a relationship where, no matter what, your partner has your back and you would be quite safe doing a trust exercise — like the ones where you close your eyes, fold your arms across your chest and let yourself fall backwards knowing, absolutely, that the one you love will catch you. Every time. That kind of relationship is a rare and treasured thing.

Relationships that last are not easy. Getting to the place where you feel safe and happy is a journey. The Hero’s Journey, no less, where you surmount problems, even slay monsters and trek through epic wastelands to arrive at your destination transformed. In order to do so you have searched deep within yourself to find authentic answers and resounding truths. The journey you have taken and the lessons you have learned mark the way for other seekers to follow.

I came into my marriage with all my fears and insecurities piled up in boxes, stuffed into suitcases. In the early years of our relationship I added to the weight and size of them with my anxiety and paranoia. Fortunately I married an exceptional man. He takes responsibility for his emotions and actions and expects me to do the same. It’s constantly challenging, sometimes thrilling and often annoying. It has been excruciating at times. But it has been through learning what is mine and what is not, of finding the courage to let go of the things that no longer serve me and keeping the useful treasures only, that our marriage has become a place of freedom, space and light — and love.

Mary-Lou’s latest book How To Stay Married was released on her tenth wedding anniversary. 

How To Stay Married – Your Free Review Copy

How To Stay Married ebookDo you love free stuff? I know I do. Now’s your chance to get a free review copy of my new book How To Stay Married. Just click on the link to the right and we’ll get better acquainted. If you’re worried about giving me your email address please don’t be. I’m too lazy to spam anyone.

The review copy is just for the first 100 but don’t worry. Everyone will get my Seven Tips For a Happy Marriage (and one tip from my mum).

How to Stay Married will be available for sale from the 6th of November which just happens to be my 10th wedding anniversary. There were times I never thought we’d make it but here we are, The Hubby and I, happier than ever.

My first book Sex, Drugs and Meditation chronicled how meditation changed my life, savedSex, Drugs and Meditation Front cover my job and helped me find a husband. How To Stay Married, is the truth behind the happy ending; a journey from fear, resentment and financial devastation, to a place of love, joy and trust.

How to Stay Married takes us around the world; from the glitter and glare of Las Vegas to the sub-zero temperatures of the French Alps and the tropical heat of Thailand, all with cabin luggage only.

The discoveries I made about myself and my marriage are a modern day parable about learning to travel light in life, love and relationships.

I hope you love it and write a review on Amazon for me. Just a line or two will do.

Thank you so much for joining me on this journey.

Lots of love

Mary-Lou

I Stopped Meditating: Here’s What Happened

This blog first appeared in the Huffington Post and has been the most popular blog I’ve written for them. Is it because we’d rather read about someone being human than being perfect?

Meditation flagsThis is a hard admission to make. After all I wrote a book about how meditation saved my job, changed my life and helped me find a husband. I’ve written columns and blogs about the countless benefits meditation brings. Meditation was a solid part of my life, like clockwork every morning. Even during the times when I was so busy I could only grant this life changing practice ten minutes at the most. So why did I stop?

Meditation is like a seedling. We plant it, nurture it and protect it from the things that want to destroy it like pests, bugs and disease. We take care of it and it grows. The roots anchor themselves into the soil. The stems grow stronger. The leaves reach for the sky. Our plant thrives. Meditation needs the same kind of tending. If we don’t nurture it, it will wither. The pests and bugs of other people’s needs and opinions will eat away at it. The crush of time poverty, the carelessness of “if I just skip a couple of days it won’t matter” will destroy it. In time all that’s left is a small indentation in the dry soil where our beautiful plant used to be.

I grew careless. Took it for granted. I was feeling great so what did it matter if I didn’t meditate for a couple of days. I thought the plant would stay healthy without me having to do anything. After all it was strong and I’d been taking care of it for years, surely I was entitled to a bit of a break. Days without meditating turned into weeks. It got to the stage where I’d almost forgotten about it. My morning routine changed and meditation was no longer a part of it.

I can’t remember when I stopped hearing the words “You are beautiful. You are loved.” These words came to me during a meditation retreat and stayed with me on a daily basis. They were a blessing; the first thing that came into my mind on waking, the last thought before I slept at night. Until I stopped meditating. That’s when the negative self talk returned. The aches and pains of life manifested in my body. Everything hurt and I was exhausted every day. I dragged myself to work and collapsed on the couch when I got home. Everything else fell away.

One day I woke up and my first thought was “I wish I was dead.” It shocked me out of my complacency. I wished I was dead because I was so tired I couldn’t cope with life, work, other people. I just wanted to be left alone. I just wanted to rest.

That morning I walked past the spot where I used to meditate. Without thinking I settled myself down, crossed my legs and began to meditate. Back into the easy rhythm of observing my breath, observing my thoughts and letting them go. As I relaxed into something that used to be a familiar to me as smiling, I realized that here was my place of rest, here was my place of solitude. Meditation gave me exactly what I’d been craving so desperately; a place of nurturing, away from the clamors and demands of the world. A safe place to rest and come back to myself. In the silence I heard those words returning to me. “You are beautiful. You are loved.”

Fear of Commitment Can Feel Like It’s Real. It’s Not

commitmentCommitment. Why do so many of us find it so hard? I spent many of the early years of my marriage terrified. It was exhausting. Yes, some of our problems were real but there were concrete things we could (and did) do to handle them. It was the things I made up in my head that I had trouble dealing with. Dreadful things. I battled with the demons in my mind.

My fears caused continual mental anguish and even physical pain. They sent me down dark hallways and spine-tingling crevasses. And, in a way, that was the point. Fortunately, thanks to years of work in Twelve Step Programs, counselling and especially meditation, I knew that these fears were not real. Through meditation I had discovered just how addicted I was to feeling bad; to having all these emotions coursing through my body, putting me on edge. It was like a drug and I used it to feel alive even though it was killing me on many levels. I would make things up and then react to them as if they were real. Madness? Yes. But boy did I get a kick out of it.

Often I felt like a trapped animal. My partner was getting too close. It terrified me. And that’s the way I’d acted in many of my previous relationship. Fight or flight. Lashing out at those who got in my way. Yes, I had been hurt in the past –by other lovers, by my upbringing, by my friends –but this fear of commitment was irrational, mad, out of control terror. A base reaction. A lot of us think that when someone really gets to know us they won’t love us anymore. If that is the case, it’s far better they get to know you as soon as possible. Then if they can’t handle the truth at least you can move on quickly.

One of the fears that tormented me was the “but what if there’s someone better out there” kind. And, now I say, well, maybe there is, maybe there isn’t. You’re never going to be in a wonderful and loving relationship if that’s the way you approach it. I knew, deep in my heart that if I couldn’t be in a relationship with this man, I would never be able to make a relationship work with anyone, ever. He was very much in touch with himself and continued to do the work to clear his emotional baggage despite the constant setbacks we suffered. I had to show up and do the work too. I knew he would always support me in that.

But often I didn’t want to and acted like a spoilt brat. Sometimes, I must admit, I still do act like a spoiled brat. However these days I know the truth and the truth is where we always end up. We love each other. We are committed to each other on every level and it’s no longer terrifying.

Mary-Lou Stephens’  meditation memoir, Sex, Drugs and Meditation, is the  story of how meditation helped changed her life, save her job and find a husband. The sequel How To Stay Married will be released soon. It’s the truth about the happy ending.

Kill Your Darlings Part 4

I’ve finished the last draft of my next book. Not all the words I’ve written have made it into the next round. Instead of being in the book I’m turning my darlings into blog posts. Seems I can’t kill them after all.

You can bury me anywhere because I won’t be there

Mary statueYears later, after my brother died, his wife battled grief and guilt and the despair of two young daughters who no longer had a father. Among her many concerns was that she had no idea what to do with his ashes. Her youngest daughter needed a place to lay flowers for her daddy, but my sister-in-law was too exhausted by the last years of his life and his inevitable but cruel ending to arrange it. I asked if I could help. My brother had always been the bastion of family history; doing things as they should be done, upholding traditions.

I knew our grandfather’s ashes were in the war veterans’ section of the city cemetery and was pretty sure our grandmother’s and aunt’s ashes were somewhere in the same cemetery. If there was room with them I was sure that was what my brother would have wanted, surrounded by those he felt a kinship with and a shared sense of propriety and purpose. I made an appointment at the cemetery office. They were able to find Granny but there was no record of our aunt.

I was given a map and made my way to the rose garden. One slice of a circular bed was given to our grandmother but she was on her own. I could have sworn our aunt was supposed to be there with her.

I visited my mother and asked her. Poor old Mum, brittle and thin, the disease dissolving her substance like acid. Her face fell. “I’m sorry darling. I never picked up her ashes. I was so devastated after your father died, dealing with all that needed to be done. When my sister died I couldn’t face doing it all over again.”

I rang the Hobart Cemetery again. They searched through their records. They kept unclaimed ashes for a while, in some kind of archive, but eventually they were disposed of.

“Disposed of where?” I asked.

A sheepish young man told me they were scattered out the back of the office, in a small group of trees. My aunt’s ashes were mixed with those of strangers, fertilising the trees.

I told my mother. And also told her that I was arranging to have a plaque made for Aunty Deirdre to be placed in the same rose bed as Granny. Her ashes wouldn’t be there but at least she’d have some kind of memorial. I intended to pay for it myself, even after I discovered that tiny plinths and small plaques are very expensive.  Mum wouldn’t let me pay. It was the least she could do to assuage the guilt she had felt for all these years. Once my aunt’s plaque was organised we could go ahead with my brother’s.

And as for my Mum, what did she want? Her death was getting closer every day.

“Nothing darling. It doesn’t matter what you do with my ashes. I’ll be elsewhere.” She smiled, her thin face lighting up with hope and peace. She was on the way to getting her promotion.

Going Home

Mum & kids beach 2The past is pulling me back. Sometimes as slow and sweet as honey flowing from a jar. Sometimes as sharp as cold metal. I’m going home, back to the land that raised me, back to the town where I was born. It’s the time of year when people gather, with friends, with family, to celebrate the old and light a candle for the future.

 You make a move in life, a decision no matter how small, and that move or decision ripples out, bumping up against other decisions, other lives.

Long before I board the plane the past is nibbling at my ankles. A long neglected friend calls from the south. He sounds as though he’s at the bottom of a well. His life has fallen to pieces, he needs a friend. I tell him I’m coming down for a the holidays. I feel the weight of his need. He clings to me in the hope that I will patch him up, help him through, make him feel like the person he was all those years ago when we were friends. I’m his portal to the past, to happier days.

The past is enticing me back. I receive an email from a school friend. He wants to plan a reunion for later in the year. It’s been an embarrassing amount of time since we were at school together and he wants to celebrate that fact. He’s sent this email to others from our year and soon I’m connecting with people I haven’t seen for decades. The annoying boy that I used to avoid in the school hallways is now a successful lawyer. His email gives away the fact that everything he does in life is considered from every angle. I admire the way his mind works and I’m amazed that I can now relate to some one I had nothing in common with when we were kids. I suggest we meet up for a cup of tea when I‘m in town. I’m sure he drinks espresso.

The past is calling me back. My gaze falls on a photo of my family at the beach when we were young. A friend had mentioned that we all look as though we’re in pain. I explain that even though the photo was taken in the middle of summer the water was freezing and out toes were probably turning blue. I smile and pack my bathers anyway.

The past is calling me back. I embrace it as the jet engines thrust me into the wide blue open. I’m going home to acknowledge the past, to honour all we’ve achieved over the days and months of the year that’s been. And I’m going home strong in the knowledge that the year to come will grant us many more smiles and sighs, will bring laughter and tears, and will give us many more reasons to celebrate.