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The following is part of Wallace Goddard’s new series, “Discoveries: Essential Truths for Relationships”. To see the previous installment, click here.
While out jogging in central Provo, Nancy and I found our dream house—a stately, historic craftsman-style house with a lovely lawn, arbor, carriage house, and playground. We were enchanted!
We reworked our jogging path so that we passed that house every day. Often we walked around the house and peeked through the back fence just to see more of the amazing yard. We dreamed. We coveted.
Thunderbolt! One day there was a realtor sign in the yard. Breaking with all propriety, we went directly to the door and inquired. The friendly homeowner welcomed us and showed us through the house. Amazing! We were in love.
We made an offer. We dragged our relatives over to see the house. A few weeks later, we closed on the sale. We now owned our dream home!
I remember leaving the closing with house key in hand. We drove directly to our new home. We unlocked the front door and stepped inside. I flipped the light switch. And it exploded. After the initial shock, we laughed. We realized that we had created a fantasy home in which nothing would ever go wrong. The reality was different.
The swamp cooler was inadequate in the summer. The old drains plugged up. The impressive carriage house left an unforgettable dent in our finances when we undertook to stabilize it. The thermostat was placed through the wall from the oven so that every time we baked, the furnace shut off. Then the boiler that heated the house broke down.
The house was charming. But it required immense love and patience.
Nancy and I have thought that there were great lessons for marriage to be learned from our experience with that house. It is easy to idealize and romanticize a relationship. It seems so perfect! Yet sometimes we forget the pains and challenges of living in a fallen world. In this world, things don’t work just right. We miscommunicate. We are more different from each other than we realized. We’re focused on our own needs. Sometimes we’re just cranky!
As I have thought about our marriages, I have estimated that most of us appreciate about 80% of our partner’s characteristics. We love their kindness, consideration, unselfishness, and talents. Yet there are also those quirky preferences and tendencies that don’t align with our own. Maybe there is a 20% margin of irritation in even the healthiest relationships.
Yet nothing foretells the future of the relationship better than our focus. Do we dwell on the 20% that irritates us? Do we ruminate and recriminate? Do thoughts fester and fluster? Do we wish our spouses were different?
Each day we make the vital choice. Will we gripe about the 20% or celebrate the 80%?
Do we remember and cherish our spouses’ strengths and goodness? When the inevitable irritations arise, do we keep them in perspective as small problems to be solved or accepted rather than flaws that are unbearable? Are our souls filled with gratitude for the gift of love our spouses have granted us?
Our relationship happiness depends in large measure on the single choice to focus on and cherish the good while minimizing and managing the bad.
Let’s talk for a minute about that 20% we don’t like about our partner. We are tempted to focus our attention there because we hope to conquer some of our partner’s imperfection. That’s a contract with misery. Gottman’s estimate is that about 70% of what you don’t like about your spouse will never change. It is part of who they are. Therapy won’t remove it. Griping will only aggravate and harden it. You can be mad about it and dwell on it but it isn’t going to change.
Can you see that this is a heavenly design for marriage? Heavenly Father is giving us a choice that we make every day. He invites us to keep our focus on the abundant good rather than the marginal bad. Jesus’ new commandment was “that ye love one another; as I have loved you” (John 13:34). When we love the way Jesus loved—whole-heartedly, redemptively, relentlessly—our marriages are strengthened and we become more like Him! He loves us in spite of our failings. He asks that we do the same with our partners.
There is a catch in all this. If 70% of what we don’t like will never change, what about that 30% of what we don’t like that can change? We might be tempted to think “There’s my opportunity!”
Nope. Gottman’s research shows that the only way to get spouses to change is by loving and accepting them as they are. So, when we focus on the 80% that is good, we get a small bonus. Our spouses will grow and become (slightly) better.
When we focus on our discontents, we get a total eclipse of the person. We are filled with dissatisfaction and the relationship suffers.
That house in Provo surprised us with unexpected challenges, which in turn taught us vital lessons in patience and problem-solving and the house’s great qualities enriched our lives. Both the challenges and the qualities were blessings to us! Would we buy the house again? Absolutely! It was a joy. We had inexpressible fun making the carriage house into a gathering place. The house was great for our family. We would buy the house again even knowing what we know. The 80% of the house we loved made it a blessing to us!
As you read the words above, what ideas and impulses stirred within you? Do you feel an impulse to be more kind and forgiving?
For more about seeing the good in your partner, read John Gottman’s The 7 Principles for Making Marriage Work.
For ideas for applying the gospel of Jesus Christ to marriage, read my book, Drawing Heaven into Your Marriage.