“A great marriage is not when the ‘perfect couple’ comes together. It is when an imperfect couple learns to enjoy their differences.” – Dave Meurer, coach
“She said she ‘had enough’ of his workaholic behaviour.”
Dara and Damon came to me for couple counselling. They had been married for 13 years and had two children in elementary school, a daughter, Daphne, aged 7 and a son, Darcy, aged 9. Damon was a tall guy, straight blond hair, blue eyes and very friendly. In contrast, Dara was a short woman, jet-black curly hair, hazel eyes and reserved.
Dara had made the call to my office. She said she ‘had enough’ of his workaholic behaviour. Damon argued, he would have made the call, but he was on the road with his job. Both agreed something had to change for them to stay together.
Dara was a physiotherapist while Damon was in pharmaceutical sales. Both were ambitious and so worked hard at their careers. For a while, they had both noticed they were drifting apart…spending less time with each other, having less time for the kids and living in what they termed, ‘different worlds.’
“…to talk about how they think and not how they feel.”
After I had collected a brief history of what each had brought to their relationship from their personal past, I asked each what they wanted to achieve if they decided to work with me. They both said they wanted to rebuild the strong, close relationship they had when they got married.
I told them I could help them achieve that if they agreed to two conditions. The first was they would need to be willing to learn new perspectives on old ideas. The second was they would need to be prepared to talk about how they think and not how they feel.
They both readily agreed. But, then Dara asked me,
“Ken, what’s wrong with talking about my feelings…they’re important to me?”
“Dara there is nothing wrong with talking about feeling if you want to recreate them over again. It does legitimize you and your right to feel anything you choose. But, it does tend to bring them back, which usually interferes with learning from the events which help create them.”
“Do you mean crying stops learning?”
“In my experience, nothing stops learning, but if we are emotionally balanced, we are in a better position to learn more quickly…more deeply, perhaps?” I offered.
“Well, I know with the kids, if they are angry or upset, they don’t seem to hear what I’m saying…I never thought of it that way before, …interesting!”
Damon joined in with,
“Daphne didn’t hear a word I said last night when she was so upset about her homework. I kept telling her it was only one small test…it wasn’t her final mark. But, I don’t think she was listening…so I get it!”
“Who, being loved, is poor?”
– Oscar Wilde, author
“…most admire and most despise in their order of importance to you…”
“OK! Let’s get started. Would each of you write down on this ‘Post it’ the three behaviours about your partner that you most admire and most despise in their order of importance to you?”
Dara wrote: admire – caring – good dad – good provider
despise – never home – doesn’t listen – not romantic
Damon wrote: admire – good mom – beautiful – hard worker
despise – too critical – nags me – never satisfied
Then I asked them to be more specific about their perceptions by giving me more details or examples.
Then Dara wrote:
– caring means – he hugs me when he gets home every day
– good dad means – he takes the kids to their activities without complaint
– good provider means – we have a nice home and financial stability
– never home – means he works way too much
– doesn’t listen means – his mind and eyes drift off when I’m talking to him
– not romantic means – he doesn’t need time with me alone like before.
And Damon then wrote:
– good mom means – she is devoted and caring towards our kids
– beautiful means – I find her so attractive…hot
– hard worker means – she works full time, does child care and housework
– too critical means – whatever I do is never good enough
– nags me means – she pesters me about dumb stuff like the back yard
– never satisfied means – she is dissatisfied with how I look, what
I’m doing…even what I must be thinking.
“…the purpose of marriage is not to be happy…”
It was clear Damon was the most upset at that moment, so I started off with,
“That’s great work. Now we have our learning tools to rebuild your relationship. But first we need to go over the three laws of marriage or really any intimate relationship. Are you ready?”
They both nodded, so I started,
“First, the purpose of marriage is not to be happy…that’s actually delusional thinking. The purpose of marriage is for you to grow yourself using your partner as a tool box.”
Damon jumped in,
“Do you mean we cannot get to be happy by being married?”
“Damon, if by happy you mean more pleasure than pain at any second of your marriage…then no! It is as impossible in marriage, as it is in anything else in the natural world. It is a well marketed fantasy. We are here to learn to be grateful or appreciative of our partner, not to be happy with them.”
Then Dara jumped in too,
“What’s the difference between happy and grateful, Ken?”
“As a mom you are grateful for your kids knowing they are sources of both pleasure and pain. It’s not one OR the other, it is one AND the other…the latter is called love or appreciation. The former is called an illusion.”
“That kind of makes sense, really because I know our kids are a wonderful burden, right Damon?” said Dara.
“For sure!” he replied.
“There is no remedy for love but to love more.” – Henry David Thoreau, author
“…there will be a dualistic aspect to every second of your relationship.”
“OK! Second, at every second of your relationship there is a perfect balance of pleasure and pain based on your highest values. It can be in the form of support and challenge, give and take, good and bad…there will be a dualistic aspect to every second of your relationship.” I said.
“Even our wedding day?” Dara piped in.
“If you each go to the second you were making your pledges to each other…if you go inside your mind, you will find both the pleasurable excitement and the painful trepidation…it is natural, normal and necessary to keep you both appreciative of that second.”
“Do you remember I was so excited but terrified that Dad would get sick during the ceremony. I remember it clearly! Do you remember me talking about that?”
“No, I recall the excitement but also worrying my dress didn’t look the way I wanted… and remember…my maid of honour was already drunk! I’m starting to get this idea.”
“It will depend on who is making the judgement.”
“Third, Every person has every trait in some form according to someone at some time. Like beauty, every person has every trait…it will always be in the eye of the beholder and with no exceptions! Since, it takes two to tango…it takes two to create or destroy a relationship. So, I won’t be taking sides in this process. I already know, just like me, each of you are both kind and cruel, good and bad, warm and cold, and so on. ”
Damon this time,
“You’re not saying I’m a criminal are you, Ken?”
“It will depend on who is making the judgement. You may not perceive yourself as acting like a criminal but someone else might because they have different values. Your level of commitment to reducing global warming may be considered criminal by some, based on the vehicle you drive. Do you see what I’m saying here?”
“I think so. That’s why my close friend, Darcy, thinks Celine Dion has a beautiful voice and I don’t! Is that an example?”
“An excellent one, Damon! You’re getting the idea, now. Let’s look at an example of the behaviour you perceive in Dara that most annoys you… you said, ’whatever I do is never good enough.’ Tell me your clearest, most upsetting example of when and where that occurred.”
“…would you freeze that memory…like it was a video clip…”
“This is Wednesday, so, it was last Sunday night. The kids were in bed and we were talking in the den while we watched a movie on TV. During a commercial, I was telling her about my ideas for redoing our backyard by adding a small garden and putting down a walkway…that kind of stuff.”
“How did she respond that you found so annoying?”
“Basically,…she shot me down, said it would never happen, said I was too preoccupied with my work…those kinds of comments.” he said, as his face reddened and scowled.
“Damon, would you freeze that memory…like it was a video clip…OK?”
“Now…tell me how you coped with that second. What did you say or do to manage that situation? Because, notice…whatever you did got you through that second of your life, and your presence here right now, proves it”
Damon paused, processing this idea and then replied,
“I was pissed off with her comments. I told her I was the one who had put the flower beds in the front yard and kept the grass cut and pruned the damn bushes and so on!”
“Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.” – Lao Tzu
“…there are seven benefits to me saying those things …and I haven’t even been noticing…?
“Damon, now freeze that second, too! Now, you have been noticing the pain of those seconds, which are all real. But, there has to be pleasure for you, in equal measure, at the same time. So, let’s find it as well. What was the most important benefit to you that you had that opportunity to say those things to Dara?”
“I have no idea! I was angry and upset. I don’t see any benefits, Ken!”
“That is only because you have not been asked before to look for them. They are always there…it is a fundamental law of nature. And, the benefits will be present in some form in each of the seven areas of your life…believe it or not!” I said pushing his thinking a little further.
“You’re saying there are seven benefits to me saying those things to Dara and I haven’t even been noticing any of them?” he replied, his skepticism rampant and reddish, again.
“Let’s just focus on the most important one first. The rest usually evolves from the biggest one. Close your eyes for a few minutes and go back to that memory. See and hear yourself telling Dara about your work in the front yard, the flower beds and the grass cutting. How did it serve you or benefit you to have the opportunity to say those things to her?”
“…almost clarifying and reaffirming our expectations of each other…like setting boundaries, eh?”
“Well, I got it off my chest…I said what was true…I stood my ground…I guess, eh?”
“So, would it be accurate to say you asserted yourself or empowered yourself at that second, Damon?”
“Well, I certainly felt determined to get my point across…I felt angry…but also strong…yeah…assertive would fit too, wouldn’t it?” he replied.
“OK, so, at that point in time, since you were demonstrating assertiveness, how does it simultaneously serve or benefit the other parts of your life, such as, your physical health, your relationship to Dara, your finances, your self esteem and so on.”
“It felt good to get it out, so it must’ve reduced my stress at that second. And, I was reminding her that I hold up my end of our relationship and she can depend on me doing that…kind of reminding her…almost clarifying and reaffirming our expectations of each other…like setting boundaries, eh?”
“Excellent insights. Keep going! What else was a benefit for you at that moment, Damon? How about financially?”
“My value in myself was raised and I felt energized!”
“Well, when I look at it with this kind of perspective, I was protecting our house, which is our investment, raising its’ value and protecting our financial future, right?” he said, proudly.
“Now you’re really getting what was going on with the symmetry of that moment. Anything else?” I asked, wanting to milk all the blind side of his awareness.
“I really was empowered, Ken. I felt good about me saying those things to Dara. My value in myself was raised and I felt energized!”
Meanwhile, Dara was sitting quietly, watching as Damon was uncovering this moment in their history. And, given the expression on her face, she seemed to be making sense of it was well. Perhaps, already realizing how important this moment was for Damon and for their marriage.
“Damon, remember you had been noticing only the pain of that memory, but now you have uncovered the other side, the pleasure…the benefits to you of that moment. When you look at both sides, can you see the pain and the pleasure, the balance, the symmetry, the synchronicity, the perfection of it?” I asked, to see if he had put it all together, yet.
“Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; remade all the time, made new.”
– Ursula K. Le Guin, author
“How could it not change out relationship forever?”
“Ken, it is amazing…I don’t have the anger anymore…I can see both sides of it…I can see how it cost me and benefitted me equally! This is so cool!” he said, smiling.
“Damon, can you see now how it made you smarter and stronger to have had that experience with Dara…that she was serving you just by being herself?”
“Exactly, I’m not upset about it at all anymore. In fact, I’m glad it happened. It made me stronger in so many ways!” Damon replied.
“Now, imagine you’re doing that for any painful memory…being able to learn to appreciate it, regardless of its content. And, imagine if Dara did the same thing with the memories she carries about your marriage. Can you see how this would create a stronger and more committed relationship?”
Dara came back in here with,
“I just saw the impact it had on Damon, I got a bunch of memories I need to clean up too! How could it not change out relationship forever?”
“Is there any behaviour about your partner that they need to change before you can spend your future with them?”
“Ken, we need to do this right away, eh Dara?”
“Yes, we really do! Can we keep going, Ken?”
“We sure can, Dara. Let’s look at the behaviour about Damon which bugs you the most, OK? You said earlier, ‘never home means he works way too much.’”
We spent a total of ten hours in this process. At the end of our work, each of them had cleared out every memory getting in the way of their future together. They each had nightmares and fantasies they needed to balance.
As they progressed they noticed, and I noticed, there were decreasing levels of hostility while appreciation increased. There were decreasing levels of blaming while owning their own values increased. There was decreasing levels of fear while commitment increased.
In their last consult, I gave them what I called the ‘test’ question to determine their level of integration of the work they had completed.
I said to them both,
“Is there any behaviour your partner needs to change before you can spend your future with them?”
They looked at each other, with soft smiles, glassy eyes, saying, almost simultaneously, in a gentle, loving voice, “No!”
“Your partner is one of nature’s self-esteem designers!” – King Ayles, writer