Winner: 2013’s Blog of the Year #5
I get a lot of couples coming to see me in an effort to decide whether or not they should save their relationship or negotiate their break-up. Both instances can be very healthy but far more often than not the couples rediscover their original attraction and the relationship continues with healthier perspectives and more loving relations.
To illustrate how I take them through an initial but very important perspective shift, I’ll create a sample of how these conversations often go:
“Okay guys, we’re here to look at saving a relationship. Can I conclude from that, that both of you actually want to be in a relationship either with each other or possibly with someone else?” They both agree. “Okay, you both want some kind of relationship. And can we all agree there are no perfect people with which to have a relationship?” They always agree that there are no perfect people. Then I bring out a vase, filled with marbles.
“Let’s use this vase to represent the average person. This vase has 93 marbles in it. If a perfect person were 100 marbles, does it seem reasonable that most people would be mostly fine, with just a few issues? Maybe five smaller marbles like being messy or late or something, and maybe one or two bigger or more dangerous ones, like smoking, or being bad with money, or even things like abuse or addiction?” I have yet to have a couple who don’t feel that ratio is at least close to realistic. So that’s when I bring out a smaller bowl with seven marbles in it.
“Okay, so this vase represents the 93 things we like and admire about someone, and the bowl represents the seven challenges they present.” I slide them each a sheet of paper. “You don’t have to go into a lot of detail, but write down just a few of the key reasons you got married in the first place. Tell me what the highlight marbles were that attracted you to each other instead of someone else.”
Some couples find this very easy. They’re aware of their attraction. Some find it surprisingly difficult. They’ve never actually codified what it is they like about their partner, so that in and of itself is a useful exercise. Once they remember why they were attracted and they write it down, I get things like, “I loved his family,” “I thought she was beautiful,” or “She was so good with kids,” or “He always made me laugh.” (The fact that many couples have not previously noted their partners qualities is itself worth noting.) I then thank them and I take the papers with what they like and replace them with two more clean sheets.
“Now I’d like you to tell me why you’re splitting up. What’s in the bowl that you just can’t live with? What marble or marbles are motivating the idea of breaking up?” In this case, the person contemplating the leaving is pretty quick to write. They’ve been thinking about this long before they came to see me so they’re well-versed in their complaints. The person being left is usually slower, and 90% of the time it’s the guy and they usually don’t have a big complaint, so they’ll often just write “Nagging.”
Now here comes the good part. I thank them again, I take the two sheets describing why they’re splitting, and I hand them two more sheets of fresh paper. “Great. Thanks. Now what I’d like you to do is write down the bowl-marbles you will stay married to.” This always furrows brows.
The wife speaks up. “I’m sorry? I don’t understand.”
“Well, we’ve already agreed you both want to be in relationships with someone. And we’ve already agreed that no one is perfect, so therefore everyone has a bowl of seven marbles. So since you want to be with someone, and everyone has them, tell me which bowl of marbles you would stay in a relationship with?”
This slows things down considerably and often nothing gets written down. Eventually either the husband or wife will speak up: “I’m not sure I understand this exercise. What kinds of things am I supposed to write?”
“Anything you want. You can pick any kind of challenges you like, but since everyone will have some, tell me which ones you wouldn’t leave someone over.”
“Can you give us some examples?”
“Well, what do your friends complain about in their relationships? Would you prefer an alcoholic? (No.) A drug addict? (No.) Someone violent? (No!) Bad parent? (No!!) Someone who steals? (No.) Someone who cheats? (No.) Untrustworthy? (No.) Poor hygiene? (No!) Bad in bed? (Nooo.) Gambles? (No way.) Someone who runs you down to others? (…no.) Mean-spirited? (No.) Yells? (NO!) Doesn’t contribute to the running of the household, either financially or domestically? (No. No. No.) Look guys, you have to pick something. We’re getting down to things like ‘Doesn’t pick up his socks,’ or ‘She doesn’t help with the dog.’ If those are reasons to end a marriage, then maybe it’s your expectations that are unrealistic and not your partner’s behaviour.”
After this we usually sit quietly for a fair bit as they stare at their paper but don’t write much of anything down. Often I’ll see the person who planned to leave looking at their partner’s list of bowl-marbles. “What if we’re having trouble doing this? What does that mean?”
“It might mean you’re already with a person that’s a good match for you.”
“But then we’re right back where we started. Now what are we supposed to do?”
“The same thing you did when you got married. Do you really think that bowl didn’t exist when you walked down the aisle?” They think about it and acknowledge there must have been a bowl. “So why was the bowl so-okay back then that you’d invite all of your family and friends to a ceremony where you chose to publicly and permanently get attached to that vase and bowl?”
They usually don’t know.“The reason it was okay back when you got married was because you weren’t taking the vase for granted. You were filled with positive, respectful and enthusiastic thoughts about the marbles in the vase. You discussed the marbles in the vase with your friends. You weren’t focusing on the bowl much at all. But now you only talk to your friends about your partner’s bowl-marbles.
“Can you see? Falling in love is to look admiringly on someone’s vase. Falling out of love is to look judgmentally at their bowl. But if you’re going to do that, should your partner do it too? Bottom line, you both have bowls so your partner has to deal with you too. A bowl’s a bowl. It doesn’t matter what’s in it. It’s the fact that it’s there at all.
“There are two ways to live. One is to Want things to be different. The other is to Appreciate what already Is. One leads to bickering and negativity, and the other leads to happiness and cooperation. The only question is, when you look at your partner are you going to choose to look at their vase or their bowl?”
Accepting those facts is what keeps 90% of the people I see together. They didn’t realize that they secretly assumed that their life would improve if they left, even though there was no good reason to think that. Computer dating can cause this, because it gives us this notion that if this person doesn’t work out, then there’s a list of other people to choose from. But that list is as much a list of bowls as it is a list of vases. So be careful what you wish for.
Ask yourself what your partner’s vase is filled with. Invest yourself in that and you will fall in love all over again. You’ll still have to wrestle with their bowl, but it’s important to remember that they have to wrestle with yours too. Because of the people who did choose to leave, an awful lot of them found that their future partners weren’t as accepting of their bowl as their previous partner had been.
Go focus on what you like about your partner. If you do that and you still feel like you’d rather be alone or risk trying someone else then that’s fine. Just don’t go thinking that you can replace them with a relationship that doesn’t include two bowls of marbles. Because that’s just not how the universe works.