03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Thinking Inside The Box

With so many creativity experts and corporate wizards constantly pushing everyone to "think outside the box," I want to caution you against throwing the baby out with the bathwater. There's something to be said for keeping your thoughts comfortably confined right within the walls of whichever box you habitually find yourself in.

Take fidelity, for example. Outside that box, you will find yourself in the realm of extramarital affairs, open relationships, polyamory, and in very extreme cases, sex with yaks. Sure, there are those among us who can handle those alternative options with a certain aplomb, but by and large, the territory surrounding the borders of the marriage contract is fraught with danger, peril, heartbreak, and perhaps a tad more peril. It rarely ends well, and at best, usually leads to screenplay material for films starring Richard Gere and Diane Lane, and at worst, to remakes of Brian de Palma movies featuring large kitchen knives.

At the height of my own dabbling in experimental forms of relationship, in 1987 I lived in a very unusual household in East Palo Alto, California, which at the time boasted of having the highest per capita murder rate in the country. The man running for local office plastered posters all over town featuring a photo of him holding a shotgun, standing beside a vicious-looking Rottweiler, with the caption, "I know how to solve the drug problem in East Palo Alto." He lost the election. Someone shot him. Or bit him. But that's neither here nor there. The married couple that owned the house had separate bedrooms and an open relationship. The husband's lover flew up from L.A. every weekend, and a buddy of mine and I flipped a coin each night to see who would spend the night with the wife. On our "off" nights, we had the back guestroom all to ourselves, and at times it was a bit unclear to both of us who was the real winner of the coin toss. We were all graduates of a human sexuality course in which the instructors preached the merits of "inclusive," as distinct from "exclusive" relationships. Our household was a testimony to this idea of inclusivity.

The principle behind inclusive relationships was that everyone was included, verbally and/or physically, in such a way that nobody ever felt left out, abandoned, jealous or hurt, which is what commonly occurs in open relationships. The only problem we ran into, however, was that we soon discovered that in inclusive relationships, eventually someone felt left out, abandoned, jealous or hurt. Maintaining inclusive relationships required a fulltime commitment to honest communication, keeping no secrets, and the full disclosure of feelings, in order to make sure everyone was always on the same page. That was some page.

As most of us know, merely keeping one relationship up and running is hard enough; our household required long and tedious daily sessions to clear the air that involved hours and hours of talking, and after a few months of this, I abruptly quit the scene and felt like if I never shared another feeling with anyone ever again it would be too soon. I went flying as fast as possible back inside the more traditional relationship box. It's actually a very cozy place to hang out, especially on snow days, if you have plenty of warm blankets, hot chocolate and a stack of Netflicks. I guess it helps if you actually like the other person sharing the box with you.

Which I do. My wife Shari and I hit the usual bumps in the road early on in our marriage; oddly, most of them seemed to concern our differences of opinion concerning the distinction between dish sponges and counter wipes. We tried several couples counselors without much success until we found Dr. Steven Goldstein, who was a dead ringer for Charles Manson, had Manson been Jewish, two feet shorter, and no swastika tattooed on his forehead. Goldstein sat opposite us with his bare feet up on a table, chain-munching pretzels from a huge jug, and petting his German Shepherd, inexplicably named Anthony Pettofrezzo. He informed us that his dog preferred to be addressed by his full name, and although it had been raised an Italian Catholic, was undergoing the conversion process to Judaism, "for the children's sake." So we knew something was up.

After chatting for an hour, give or take, he announced that he would be more than happy to take us on as clients, but wished to see us twice a week at $150 a pop. We left, did the math, and concluded that we'd be more than happy to save ourselves $1200 a month, and in the meantime just try to be nicer to one another, sponges or no sponges. It worked. (Some of the above details have been altered to protect the innocent. The dog's real name, for example, was Guiseppe Cagliano, and Goldstein (really Goldberg) was eating corn chips, not pretzels. And he only wanted to see us once a week. The rest is absolutely true. Sort of.)

Oh, the reason I brought all that up in the first place, is that on the phone, when arranging for our first session, Goldstein/berg informed me that he was a therapist who
"thinks outside the box." Note: when seeking out professional help, find people inside the box. Especially dentists. Things outside that box can get really scary. If you doubt this, give Marathon Man another viewing when you get a chance. (Another example: the New Age dentist I once went to who believed "anesthesia is unnecessary," and urged me to simply "be with the pain." I was very much with that pain.) I don't mean to dismiss alternative approaches to medicine and healing. God knows, I've tried them all, and a good friend recently cured herself of ovarian cancer with a 90-day juice fast. But if your oncologist has you drawing pictures of white blood cells dressed up like knights in armor and lancing your cancer cells to death in lieu of chemo or a juice fast, at least get another opinion.

So relationships and health care, generally speaking, are good things to keep inside the box. So are finances. Virtually all schemes that promise unthinkable riches in a very short time while bypassing that pesky notion of "working," while only costing an initial investment fee of $2500 to get in on the ground floor, are usually suspect. Eventually those who get involved in such ventures discover that the ground floor was actually the apex of a downward trajectory for everyone except the guy who started the company who long since settled down in Bora Bora under the assumed name of Charles Ponzi.

When is it a good idea to think outside the box? Here's a great example: A number of years ago, a young man was backpacking alone in a wilderness area when he managed to get his forearm wedged irretrievably between two enormous boulders. No amount of twisting helped, the boulders were clearly immoveable, and nobody else would ever happen by to come to his aid. In a word, he was assured of a slow and unpleasant death by starvation and the elements. Now that's a perfect time to think outside the box, and this brave, creative soul did just that. He managed to extract a pocketknife from his pack with his other hand, and proceeded to saw his arm off! And lived to tell the tale.

So the moral of these stories is:
1) Don't cheat on your partner.
2) Seek out health care practitioners who are at least familiar and skilled with traditional approaches even if they have since wandered outside those lines, or who at least straddle the border between East and West, alternative and conventional.
3) Work for a living, marry into money or be born into it, but avoid schemes that are advertised in The National Enquirer or through direct mail that include raving testimonials from "John D., Ames, Iowa" who "literally made $843,000 in only six days on this program!" And finally,
4) When completely boxed into inescapable situations, chop off a body part.