Getting to Work

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Cutting (rounding up) firewood to keep warm in winter.

This paper is a work in progress and still not finished. Sandra

and I are working on in right now.

© Al Turtle 2006 Original

Frequently couples get exhausted trying to fix their relationship troubles.  I don’t blame them. Working on getting along can use a lot of energy.  And I can recall being “sooo tired.”   From my vantage point, I can look back and be astonished at how much energy I wasted doing foolish things (they seemed good ideas at the time) that “didn’t work.”   Over and over I would do something and get nowhere.  I now see that I was just learning great lessons.   My exhaustion was telling me to do something new.

A couple came to see me yesterday.  The wife said, “I’ve done everything I can to get him to talk.”   I replied, “Bummer! You sound tired?”  She sighed, “Oh, I’m dead tired! Nothing works!”    I said, “If I have it right, everything you know doesn’t seem to work.  Perhaps you need to try something new, something you don’t yet know how to do?  Perhaps you need a skill that you don’t now have?   And, isn’t that why you came to me?  Let’s see if we can find out what skills you are missing.”  She said, “Ok.”  And we started to work.

In this article I hope to share my view of the process of getting a great relationship from the very widest perspective.  This is another way of looking at the Map of Relationships that focuses on the Great Shift and elaborates on other areas.   You might want to first look at the Map and read my paper on it,  Map of Relationships, to get some background for this view.

Focusing on the Great Shift

After a while of living together, every couple begins facing a lot of pain.  What they are doing isn’t working in many ways, and life together is not only not fun but has become down right uncomfortable.  They have three options: quit and split, give up trying, get to work.

Option 3  leads to divorce or moving out. Following a relatively lengthy period of living alone, they try again.  And come back to the same spot with another person – facing the three options again.

Option 2 is what most people choose.  They drop out of the search for real “romantic” love, and instead just co-exist.  Since about 90% of marriages end up here, this type of relationship is easy to see in those around us.

Option 1  is the one I am most interested in.  This is a satisfying way out of the pain, the way that people falling in love want to follow, and the way that I teach.  This winding path often begins, for many people, right there in my office.

Almost everyone who shows up is facing the three options (what I call Doors #1, #2, #3) in one way or another.  And thus I have had a lot of opportunities to study what happens to people when they cross the threshold – thru Door #1.

This Shift, across the threshold, is almost visible when it occurs.  Sometimes it appears in both partners at the same time.  More often it appears in one person before it shows in the other.   And once I recognized this Shift with couples, I began to see it regularly in my practice with individuals and in groups as well.  My goal in this paper is to help you make that Shift.

The Great Shift: Finally Getting to Work

Many years ago I had a friend who was a Roman Catholic Priest.  Father Thomas was a big man with a deep voice.  He came to dinner at our house.  My kids really loved him.   As assistant pastor in a nearby town, he often lead the youth activities and sometimes my wife and I would go along and be chaperones.  He often spoke of how “sheep-like” people were, how often they would wait until someone told them to move.  To this day I can still hear his great voice saying, “Just do it!”

And so here I am, saying in to you as Father Thomas would have.  “Just DO it!.”

The Great Shift involves switching from

  1. follower mode to leader mode, from
  2. pushing to inviting mode, from
  3. waiting mode to taking action mode, from
  4. passive to responsible, from
  5. helplessness to empowered mode, from
  6. dreaming to waking, from
  7. receiving mode to giving mode, from
  8. consuming to producing mode, and  from
  9. self-destruction mode to self-construction mode,  and from
  10. “complaining know-it-all” mode to student mode, and
  11. from Critical/Judgemental to Curious Interviewing mode..

Wow! is that all a mouthful. Of course, these are just words, labels for The Shift that I see all the time.  I  will discuss each form of shift below.

It is pretty easy to tell which side of the threshold people are on just by listening to them say a few sentences about their relationships.  One group is particularly easy to identify.  These are the skilled professionals, people who are very competent and confident on the job (teaching, preaching, in court, in surgery, in the consulting room, driving that cop car or that M1 Abrams tank, operating that computer system, managing a large group of people, administrating a large organization)  and who are equally confident, yet woefully incompetent, with their partner at home.

Let’s Look at the Map Again

Below is the same Map of Relationships, but with some new terms in the boxes.   The Big Shift that I want to help you to cross is into  Door #1.  And I dropped even showing the Divorce path, Door #3.

The story behind this version of the Map was a discussion in my men’s group.   They were focusing on alcoholics one evening and on the powerful tendency to be self-destructive that often emerges in recovered alcoholics about their retirement age.   The group shifted to general topic of self-destructiveness – the tendency to do things that lead you away from your goals. Several examples of self-destructive habits came up:

  • If you want peace in a relationship, the tendency to be silent or withdraw from conflict won’t work.
  • If you want your partner to stop avoiding you, the tendency to pursue or chase them won’t work.
  • If you want your partner to share their thoughts with you, the tendency to ask many questions won’t work.
  • If you want resentment go away, the tendency to “sweep it under the rug” won’t work.

Then one guy asked, “What is the opposite of self-destructive?”  After a pause, someone suggested “self-constructive.”  And then another said, “That is what the University of Life is about! – self-construction!”  I went to the board and the following chart emerged.


Before Marriage or Living Together (left side of chart)

Three things affect you before you get married or get into a partnership.

  • The DNA driven structure of your brain, and that of everyone else on God’s green earth, is designed with a particular kind of community “in mind”.  The Biological Dream, my version of this specific universal human need and yearning, drives a person in the direction of “finding a partner and changing their community from a dream into a reality”.  This material I believe is pretty much identical for all humans.
  • The family/culture you have lived your childhood and youth in teaches many many skills and beliefs about how people “should” live and what actions to take if you think things are not going well.  This material is different for each person – even for each child in the same family.
  • Some of us have the experiences from their last romance(s) and their last break-ups.  This also becomes material background to falling-in-love (again) process.

Biological Dream: I have written of this extensively.  At this point I just want to remind you that a successful partnership or relationship or community will embody the skills that offer and maintain these human needs.

  1. SAFETY: In such a  community we will “agree” to safety for all participants – all members will be able to breathe easy, and no member will use threat.
  2. RELIABLE MEMBERSHIP: We will agree that all will feel a reliable sense of belonging while at the same time will feel the ability to get enough space.
  3. DIVERSITY: We will agree we will support all members to be different, to see the world differently and to make sense at all times within their own world view. and to share this “disagreement” mutually.
  4. AUTONOMY: We will agree that all people are encouraged and respected in making their own decisions at their own pace.
  5. PURPOSE: And finally we will all agree that everyone is supported in becoming their best selves – reaching for expression of their unique purpose for being alive.

When people speak of “agreeing to disagree,” the correct meaning is in #3 item above – “we commit to create and maintain a community where no one is pressured to agree.”

Traditional Family / Culture:

I’ve found that it is common in the United States, and probably in most industrialized countries as well, for parents to proceed to put their children and their children’s needs to sleep.   I am sure this is more so in families poorly prepared for child rearing and less so in families better prepared.  I am comfortable that the culture as a whole is actively interested in conformity, and not very interested in the maturation of unique beings.  If you take all the items in the Biological Dream and compare them to cultural norms both of child rearing and just getting along, I think it easy to see why lovers and Vintage Lovers have so much trouble being part of our culture.   I believe that most kids rarely see the skills of Safety, Reliable Membership, Diversity, Autonomy or Purpose applied either to them or by their parents to each other.  Instead they see the skills of manipulation, coercion, persuasion.  They experience threats when they display their differences or independence, etc.  I recall John Bradshaw years ago speaking about the efforts of our culture to suppress individual thinking and individual initiative, just as is done in boot camp in the military.

Not all cultures seem to do so poorly in raising wide awake, self-responsible children.  What I’ve found is that the indigenous communities  (there aren’t many of them left) do a much better job.  I define an indigenous community as one that has lived together in peace, without famine, for 10s of generations.  In that time they have had time to make their mistakes at raising children and have “cleaned up their act.”   Checking into their practices has been fascinating to me.  Here are some examples from the Dagara tribe in Western Africa (Burkina Faso).

  • Children are indulged up till a specific age when the shift to adulthood is very pronounced. (Safety)
  • It is normal for a mother of a young child to have not seen her child for several days, and to not be worried.  The child is being taken care of by others somewhere in the village.  (Safety)
  • Each child is a member of the community – not property of their parents. Nothing they do can get them expelled. (Reliable Membership)
  • Each child has many many “parents.” (Reliable Membership)
  • Early in childhood the child determines in which of the many clans it feels a sense of belonging and remains a member of that clan for life. (Reliable Membership)
  • Doors to all houses are draped with a blanket so that no child experiences a locked door.  They are invited in wherever they go. (Reliable Membership)
  • Children are seen at birth as fully mature beings with a body problem. (Diversity)
  • In the evening children may wander in a group from hut to hut, smelling the cooking and deciding where they will eat. (Autonomy)
  • All children are born geniuses – at something.  It is the responsibility of the community members to nurture or “fertilize” that genius. (Purpose)
  • Childhood is called “forgetting” for this is a time when the child matures in body skills.  Their Purpose for coming to this community is re-evoked during initiation process. (Purpose)

Romantic and Power Stages of a Relationship:

If you see this as a kind of Dream Walking, people wandering with arms outstretched and eyes closed, then I think it easier to understand these two stages.  The Romantic Stage is full of the wonderful dreams that sell romance novels and movies.  The Power Struggle Stage is filled with Nightmares and much thrashing around.  At first couples know almost nothing about each other, but they think they are in the presence of “Mr. or Mrs. Right” and later in the presence of a betraying monster.  They are wrong in both instances.  Amazingly in the Romantic Stage, both people tend to be very neglectful of their own needs.  They submit, tell lies, and even do self-damage in order to make their partner happy.  In the Power Struggle Stage people move into self and mutual destruction.  They repeatedly do things that destroy their chances of happiness.  They use “threat” to get “love”.  They use traditional family skills in an attempt to bring their Biological Dream into reality.

I’ve come to believe that the lack of good childhood nurturing, i.e. the more the child is “put to sleep”, then the greater the dream quality of these two stages.  The more “I didn’t have it, the more I desire it.”    Thus passion and romance are often a echo of a dysfunctional childhood.  A childhood that is “normal” from the point of view of our culture is often severely “dysfunctional” from the point of view of the Biological Dream that lies in all of us.

A man today told me that at one time his wife told him that he drank too much.  His internal response was, “It was true.  But I couldn’t allow her to be saying it.”

I think these Dream walking stages prepare people for the Great Shift.  The fuel behind this Shift is the avoiding of pain.  And the dreamy first two stages of relationship sure set up a remarkable amount of pain – pain of disappointment since the dream never lasts, pain of betrayal because your dreamboat partner is now hurting you, and pain of failure because what you know how to do doesn’t work.  This is like addiction in that the addictive process doesn’t solve the problem and leads to more pain. See my story of The Old Dog.

I’ve come to see Romance as a wonderful Bait-and-Switch situation set up by God.

One day God looked down on the earth.  “Hey, wait a minute.  What’s wrong with people!  When I put them there they were perfect.  There must have been some mistakes during their childhood.”

  1. So He started a program to send every adult back through childhood.  No one signed up – not even the parents who were going to get a second chance.
  2. So He created a new program.  Everyone would get to go back through childhood with a partner who very closely resembled their original parents, warts and all.  Well, no on signed up for that program either.
  3. Then He created a third program.  “I will find them a partner who closely resembles their original parents, but when they meet I will fill both of them so full of infatuation drugs that they won’t notice the resemblance.”   And people have been signing up for  this Program #3 ever since.

Of course many people choose, still in a dream, to split, leave or divorce their first partner and continue the dream that they will find Mr. or Mrs. Right.  They won’t. This is like going to a gambling casino dreaming of the jackpot.  Only in a fantasy driven marriage-go-round does the jackpot pay.  There are only two ways to deal with the dream.  And the first, I believe, is a trap that doesn’t work.

The Trap, Going Back to Bed

Most couples give up those wishes in, what I think, is a very self-destructive move.  They go back to sleep. They give up the dream.  They give up trying to make it happen.  I believe well over 90% of couples who have been married a long time have gone back-to-sleep.  They enter The Trap. This saddens me greatly, for it perpetuates what I call the generalized dysfunction of our culture.  If a young couple asks these people for help in making a great relationship, they get advice and instruction on how to give up!

I sometimes find it difficult to talk about this group.  I do not see them in my office, as they don’t come in.  I do see them socially.  And since this is the vast majority of couples living together, I see many of them.  They are often the parents, the sister and brother-in-laws, the married children of my clients.  Not only do I feel distant from them, my clients often feel distant from these “significant” people in their lives.

One challenge I have is that I sense they don’t like me – at all.  I think this makes sense.  They have given up the possibility of a better relationship.  They have accepted their situation and have called what they have “good enough”.  I work with and for the people who want more in their lives than these people do.  These people have some pretty derogatory names for “those who will not accept their place in life.”   And further I represent a group of people they don’t believe exists.  I represent people who achieved better things in life.  I recall going on a radio interview with a interviewer who was in this Trap.  All he seemed to want to do was to prove that no one can get a good relationship and that whatever I said was a waste of time.  It wasn’t a fun interview.

Still these people make up the wonderful fertile group of those who have vast potential.   All they have to do is reach some crisis that kicks them back out of the Trap – back to the Choice Point Options: Doors #1,2,3.  And lots of crises seem to lie slumbering in the Trap.  And yet the way out is so near and all around them.


Make the Shift: Just “Do It!”

A: Shift from Follower mode to Leader mode

I’ve seen this one over and over again.  It works.  I did it myself.  It is on this shift that I base my article “It Takes One to Make a Marriage. Two to Make a Divorce.”   I’ve found that most people are trained to follow others when it comes to doing new things.  For most people they are consciously or unconsciously following the advice or instruction of their parents or caretakers.  Usually this advice didn’t do their parents much good and, of course, won’t do the children much good either.  And so each partner is usually waiting for the other person to go first, to so something better.  BOTH ARE WAITING! This generally doesn’t work at all.  Someone has to move.  How about you!

Once apon a time there was a woman who was pregnant for 23 months.  Finally the doctors gave up ‘acting patient’ and opened the mother up.  Inside were two little creatures with grey beards, each saying, “No, you go first!”

I think the first step is to notice that things aren’t working.  The second step is to decide to learn how to do things better yourself, stop focusing on your partner, and to make the new learnings into solid habits in yourself.  Learn them well so that other’s can see the difference in the way you act.  Lead the way.


I can share two examples from my life.  About fifteen years ago I heard someone speak of “being a source of safety to your partner.”  I began to realize that many things I did scared my partner.  I decided, between me and God, I was going to remake myself into “source of safety.”   I was going to make myself into someone that my partner would run toward when they became nervous.  I studied what made her nervous, and what calmed her.  I practiced and got good at it.  It worked.  I did not wait for her.  I did it first – I led the way.

The second example was about Validation.  I didn’t even know what validation was, but I heard from someone I trusted, that validating my partner would “make her purr and sit on my lap.”   I decided, between me and God, that I would become an expert at validation.  I studied, and learned, and practiced and got good at it – I led the way.  Now validating is easy.  And I believe it is worth every effort I put into it – 100 times over.

Notice in both examples the action was to lead the way at learning something.  I’ve also learned that the way to teach others is to model doing it.  Show them how. Do it! Kids learn best from watching their parents or teachers practice what they teach.  If you want your partner to practice listening to you, listen to them and show them how easy it is.

B: Shift from Pushing to Inviting mode

In the long run, pushing people doesn’t work.  Try pushing a horse and it just leans into you.  Most of us are super-sensitive to being pushed.  We react against it. On the other hand, I’ve learned that people must be invited.   I learned in my experience with a United Way Board of Directors, that the primary reason that people give to charities is that “they are asked.”

Inviting people to talk works.  Pushing them doesn’t work.  What is the difference?  Well I think it is really in “how it comes across.”  If you do something, like ask a question, and someone resists or pulls away, then what you are doing is coming across as pushing.  If you do something and perhaps your partner doesn’t respond, but they also don’t resist or pull away, then what you are doing may be coming across as invitation.   I think pushing has time or performance pressure involved.  The pusher seems to have an expectation.  I think inviting come across with no expectation.  I recall asking my wife why she did things.  It came across as pushing.  Later I learned to let her know that I was curious, and then changed the subject.  Bit by bit she felt invited.  And so I suggest you learn to state your desires without expectation.

One powerful concept is about how to get an adult to do something, anything.  I often say that up until age 8 each of us is entitled to every consideration from our parents or caretakers.  After age 8, we are all lucky to get oxygen to breathe and water to drink.  After age 8 you have to earn whatever you get.  I think it would be helpful if parents would teach this to their children.   Pushing seems so much an act of trying to get from someone something that you think you are owed.   Inviting is much more about “paying ahead.”  I like the idea that “investing” in my partner reaps great rewards.  Thus learning how to invest easily is pretty valuable.  Find our what your partner really needs and wants, and invest in them.

C: Shift from Waiting mode to Taking Action mode

I have become used the the idea that during the first two stages of a committed relationship, both people are waiting for the other to move, to start doing something, to become “better.”  Every couple who comes into my office seems to be waiting for the other to do something.  “I have a problem,” says each, “and it is sitting in the other chair.”   This tendency to wait, I believe, comes straight out of childhood when kids had to wait for their parents.   I think the DNA structure of babies prepares them for the waiting mode, and this resurfaces in romantic relationships.  Romance is kind of like a burst of delight that the “good mommie” or “good daddy” has just appeared, and all will be “ok” now.   The power struggle is kind of like the child crying at the perfect loud pitch to get those slow parents to meet their needs.   I like the phrase, “Complaining is just the adult form of a baby crying for their needs.”

So often, I see women loudly expressing their wants to a quiet man.  She’s waiting for him to finally move and he’s waiting for her to finally shut up.  I certainly see the noisy man and the quiet woman, too.

Crossing over from that “I am waiting because I am entitled” mode to the taking action to get what you want is a hard move.  It was for me.  I think it is a fundamental shift of growing up.  The big move is to start to discover what to do that works.  If you want something from your partner, what can you do for them that makes them inclined to give you what you want.   This is not a manipulation. It is investment.

D: Shift from Passive to Responsible mode

Being passive means waiting also.  But I think it is much more.  Passive is what you do when you watch TV.  Passive is what you do when you go to a football game and sit in the stands.  Passive is where you act, and perhaps believe, that the action is all being done by someone else.  I recall thinking that often those in the football stands can better see what plays would make sense, but they cannot move the football.  While the ones on the football field can move the ball but often don’t have a great view of what needs to be done.  (This is where football coaches with headsets and hand signals came from.) Passive seems to be one-sided thinking.  “We have lots of troubles and you could solve them all.  I have nothing to do with it.”   Passive often means stating a problem or a dislike and then waiting silently for something to happen.  “I don’t know how to communicate well” is followed by silence.   “I don’t know what to do” followed by silent waiting.

Passive also means being very indirect.  For example, passive lying is the most pernicious form of lying in a relationship, but passive people do it all the time.  This means that you do not speak up with things are “wrong.”  It means you quietly wait for “the other” to find out what they are doing.  Passive lying is that old fashioned “sin of omission.”  Passive lying is about not saying things. My dad was a fairly wounded person.  He learned at an early age to avoid sounding “selfish” by never using the word “I” in a sentence.  He call it the “big I”.   What this would lead to was some remarkable situations.  At the dinner table, instead of saying “Please pass the peas” or “I’d like some more peas”, he would say, “The peas look good tonight.”  We kids would look at each other, then follow the instruction passively hidden in that phrase, and pass the peas to him.  Needless to say, passive actions can pretty easily irritate me.

Being passive can also lead to some other wonderful sentences.  “That rock needs moving.”  “The car needs to be towed.”  These are examples of common indirect phrases.  I am clear that the person speaking wants someone to move the rock or someone to tow the car.  But the responsibility for the ‘desire’ has been shifted from the person to an inanimate object, while the speaker is acting as if they themselves are not involved. The use of the word “You” can be a clue to passivity.  “You hurt me,” is a great example.  Not only is the speaker not taking ownership for their thought, but they are trying to pass responsibility onto someone else.  And finally “blame” is all about passivity.  “They made me angry.”

The Shift involves moving into the Responsible Mode – taking responsibility for your own actions, feelings, beliefs, well-being, success, etc.  I think it means “doing it!” – taking action.  “I don’t know how to communicate well.” is followed by some phrase like, “and I am registering in a class on communication.”   “I feel kind of depressed lately and I have an appointment with a doctor.  In the meantime, I am exercising more.”  “I don’t know, but I am going to find out.”   “We have lots of problems and I am going to work until we get them all fixed.”   Passive lying goes away.  “I don’t know how to say this right, so let me say it wrong and then you and I can clean it up.”  “I imagine you don’t want to hear this, but I believe you would rather hear it than have me keep it a secret, so here goes.” I think it involves a lot of using the word “I”.   “I think this.”  “I believe that.”  “I choose to do this.”   “I want that.”  “I recall that.”   Now the rock becomes the passive feature of the landscape and the speaker becomes active.  “I am gonna move that rock.  Would you help?” And blame goes away.  “When you did that, I hurt.  I am not sure what the connection is.  I believe you didn’t hurt me, but I still hurt.  I am gonna figure this out.  Do you have any ideas?”

E: Shift from Helplessness to Empowered mode

I think a whole lot of our cultural training is directed at making us feel and act helpless.   The goal seems to be to make people feel unable to do anything but “follow the leader.”  I certainly see this is politics.  But I’ve seen it in the way we all seem to raise our children.  Raising empowered children, empowering your spouse, giving yourself power, and building a vibrant but democratic culture seems to me the way to go.

I can look at this Empowerment from two directions.  How to empower myself and How to empower others?

Empower Self

– I think there are lots of ways to go about this.  Developing tough boundary skills and habits are a good one.

– But a big fear for many is that to become powerful, you have to dominate others.  “If I get strong, I have to be a beast like my dad was.”

Empower Others

– The only people you can trust are those who can tell you “No!” to your face.

– I don’t agree with you, but I’ll fight for your right to disagree with me.

Shift from Dreaming to Waking mode

Shift from Receiving mode to Giving mode

Shift from Consuming to Producing mode

Shift from Self-destruction to Self-construction mode

Shift from “Complaining know-it-all” to Student mode

Shift from Critical/Judgemental to Curious Interviewing mode



(MORE WILL COME) Once you are moving along you might want to check out my article on Working on your Relationship/Marriage.


Getting to Work — 12 Comments

    • Sure, and it’s a good question, Gargi,

      I think of “an Ex” as a very useful person.   I see them as a for-sure Imago Match, with whom you have a bunch of history, have completed the Romantic Phase, have terminated the Power Struggle at least once by using “Divorce”, Door #3.  While bloody, this is great experience.  They are, and will always be candidates for Door #1 if,,, if you can lead the way and if they feel like it.  And we already know they are want Vintage Love and see/saw it as a potential with you if you would change.  So they are quicker/less expensive potential partners than having to find a new partner and arrive back here at the choice point years later.  

      One drawback is that you two have probably burned a whole bunch of bridges that will have to be rebuilt. The task may seem too big. One advantage is that you both have pretty good ideas about the specific work ahead of you.  Often my work is abstract where you will have concrete tasks.  Much easier. 

      When I finished my Map of Relationships I became very optimistic about relationships, after long years of discouraging thought.  Your ex, as some level, is waiting for you to show signs of movement, of learning.  Lead the way.  Good luck. 

  1. Good questions. "How do I navigate this kind of territory?" You learn the skills of acting wisely (even when your partner/friend/kid is acting unwisely) and then practice the skills in real life with someone – over and over. And you stumble a lot along the way.

    " I empowering his behavior by saying nothing?" Sure you are. Saying nothing in a moment or an hour may be the wise thing. Saying nothing in a longer term (days, weeks, months) seems to me to always be enabling and foolish. If you don't like his behavior (use of house), I think it behooves you to say so within at least a couple of day, better yet when it first occurs to you. Though you might want to say it gently, respectfully and firmly.

    " my thoughts drift to whether he is having a change of heart or whether (as one of my sons puts it) he is using our home as a cheap hotel." Tell him that's what it looks like to you and ask him that is his intention. "A guest is like a fish, after three days they start to stink." My suggestion is you set for yourself a boundary (e.g. "Sleeping on the couch once a month or less often is ok, but only if you ask me ahead of time.") and defend that boundary. Besides, my guess is that you need to practice Boundary Skills.

    Glad to know he's seeing the kids. Means you still have contact.

    Any change of mind just implies going back to work on heading for Vintage Love. Just that one thought, "You are heading for Vintage Love, whether he wants to join you are not." is a great guide. At sometime, you will have to make the decision whether to get to work with someone else and stop letting him fiddle around with you, or whether to get to work with him.

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