When I was a teen I witnessed the up-and-down course of many relationships. High school friendships and romances are surprisingly fickle. I began to wonder whether I might someday marry, but then become disillusioned within my marriage-just like what had happened in those other relationships I had witnessed. Is it possible to get know someone intimately and still sustain love and appreciation?
I assumed that the key to avoiding disenchantment was to marry someone remarkably good, someone unlikely to disappoint me over time.
I was mistaken. The real answer turned out to be something I never anticipated. That surprising answer is taught clearly by both modern relationship research and by God’s commands. It is this simple: We can choose to focus on the good in people regardless of any disappointments and hurts.
And that choice-to focus on the good in people or on our dissatisfaction with them-will determine whether or not our relationships will flourish.
The Threat of Disillusionment
Disillusionment in relationships is common. In the beginning, we come to feel close to someone. We share many great experiences together. We find things to admire in him or her. We open our hearts to that person. Then something happens. The person says or does something that disappoints us. We get irritated or frustrated or hurt.
When the offenses are rare or small, we may recover readily. But if the cause of the disillusionment is larger or we experience it on a recurring basis, we begin to turn away. We begin to seeonly that which bothers us about the other person. We speculate that the other person is not really who we thought he or she was. We start to reinterpret and rewrite the whole relationship history. “Now that I see more clearly, he has always been selfish.” “This is typical-she never supported me in what I wanted to do.”
Disillusionment turns into dissatisfaction. We question the worth of the relationship. Perhaps we decide the relationship is hopeless and abandon it. Or perhaps we remain in the relationship-but abandon it in other ways. We stop investing in it. We become chronically annoyed or disappointed. We close off our hearts. And our connection shrivels into a pale echo of what it once was.
The Great Test of Discipleship
Only rarely do we consider that God brings people into our lives in order to both bless and test us. We can study the scriptures and learn His doctrine, but it is in relationships that we are challenged to put those heavenly principles into practice.
The natural man has the tendency to view all relationships with an eye towards, “Will this other person fulfill my needs?” In contrast, God views our relationships as an opportunity for us to learn compassion, patience, forgiveness, mercy and charity. He places people in our lives to draw us out of our self-centeredness and to learn to love others in the way Jesus did.
The normal course of relationships is no surprise to God. He designed it all! And He has a sacred purpose for it. Here’s His formula for heavenly power:
Let thy bowels also be full of charity (1) towards all men, and (2) to the household of faith . . . (D&C 121:45, numbers added)
Notice that God requires an attitude of charity towards all people. He requires something more in the next phrase: We must deliver real and personal charity to the household of faith.
God’s use of different prepositions seems very deliberate. He is asking us to have something more than generalized charity towards all humanity. He is inviting us to the special challenge of showing daily charity to the people with whom we live and worship-the household of faith.
God’s question is not merely whether we can have a favorable attitude toward nice folks in foreign lands; the vital question is whether we will continue to appreciate, love, and serve those who irritate us daily and weekly. That is the great test of discipleship.
The Message of Research
Consider the strong and consistent message about relationships that comes from research on healthy marriages. Two marriage scholars, Andy Christensen and Neil Jacobson, found that the key to happy marriages is not changing our partners but accepting them the way they are.
Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, recommends that we dwell on the most positive thoughts we have of our partners. “Hold on to your illusions,” is his wise counsel.
Sandra Murray has repeatedly shown that idealizations or positive illusions are characteristic of those who have the happiest marriages.
John Gottman, the dean of marriage research, has recommended that we all wear rose colored glasses in close relationships. His research is clear: strong couples have roughly five positive thoughts about their partner for each negative.
There is hardly any finding better attested in the social sciences: Looking for the good in the other person and dwelling on it is the key to healthy relationships. So much for research; what does God recommend?
God recommends that we have kindness and pure knowledge-the kind filtered of earthly impurities. We are commanded to see as He sees.
I think Jesus’ core message to the human race is to keep our focus on seeing and appreciating the goodness in others. He tells us this in many ways:
- You cannot rightly fix others because your own sight is impaired by beams of fallenness.
- I’ve asked you not to judge others.
- Please love and pray for those who have hurt you.
- When you fail to forgive, you are guilty of the greatest of sins.
- Where you see tax collectors and foreigners-or those who irritate, hurt or disappoint you, I see my Father’s children.
- Without charity, you are nothing.
- There is one way people will know you are my disciples: You love every person my Father places in your life.
When Nancy and I were married in the Salt Lake Temple decades ago, I think God was inviting me to do more than make and keep a covenant of faithfulness. I think He was asking me to see His cherished daughter the way He does. I think He was challenging me to see Nancy’s finest qualities more clearly and gladly than anyone on the face of the earth.Maybe the bestevidence that I am honoring my marriage covenant is when I am profoundly grateful that He gave me Nancy as a companion.
God’s focus was never on helping me resist disillusionment; He wanted me to hold to, cherish, and enlarge my best illusions of her! Yet there is a flaw in calling them illusions as modern scholars do. From God’s perspective, those glorious qualities are not illusions. The very best that we ever see in others only hints at the glorious goodness that is part of their eternal natures and will be clearly manifest when God completes His work on the people in our lives.
When we’re filled with charity-His view of people-we see that goodness in our partners, families, and fellow saints.”Positive illusions” are the natural fruits of charity.
I think I have gotten pretty reliable at seeing the good in precious Nancy and our beloved family. I love them dearly-though I need to be better at showing them that I do. And I need to be better at looking for and appreciating the good rather than fretting about imperfections.
There are continuing opportunities for me to demonstrate discipleship beyond my family. Will I choose to focus on the good in all of my fellow ward members? In my friends? In my co-workers? In my neighbors? Will I determine that any issues I have with them will be swallowed up by love and appreciation? That will require I allow God to do His work in my soul.
Facing God at the Judgment Bar
When each of us comes to the judgment bar, I don’t think that God will have to paw through the details of our histories filled with striving and struggling to determine our worthiness to join Him in His work. He will only need to listen to our answer to one probe: “Tell me about the people in your life.”
We might be tempted to say: “Well, there were a few really great people along the way. Thank you for them. Some people turned out to be pretty disappointing. That is to be expected. But I tried not to let them get to me. I’m grateful for the good ones.”
That’s a sub-Celestial answer.
There is a better answer: “Oh, Father! Thank you for filling my life to the brim with dear, sweet people! Thank you for sending just the right people who were so kind to me! Thank you for so many good examples! Thank you for sending people I could serve. Thank you for sending people who challenged me and stretched me to learn to be more like You. I saw so much of You in the wonderful people You placed in my life. I rejoice in Yourunbelievable goodness!”
That is the answer His disciples will give.
So, what does He expect us to do when we’re irritated by the earthly failings of these heavenly beings?
The first thing may be to take personal responsibility. We may not realize how our moods, needs, and biases cause us to impose unfair expectations on others. The problems in many of our relationships may not be their weaknesses. Instead, the problem may be that our charity is hobbled by judging. We can be humble enough to set aside our judgments of others.
The second thing we can do is to see irritation as an invitation. We can turn the grating on our nerves into a call for compassion. I believe that people do what they do for reasons that make sense to them; when they do things that don’t make sense to us, it is because we don’t understand them. We don’t understand their desires, limitations, hopes, and struggles. Kind compassion is the cure.
Third, while it may be natural to focus on the problems, it is godly to focus on the goodness.The earthly way of saying this is: “There is so much good in the worst of us, and so much bad in the best of us, that it ill behooves any of us to find fault with the rest of us.” (James Truslow Adams)
God’s way of saying it is: “Love one another as I have loved you.” We dearly hope that Heavenly Father will appreciate and love the best in us and be compassionate towards us while we work on the rest. If we want Him to love us in that way, then how can we deny His request to love others in the same way?
So there really is no reason for disillusionment. Relationships-even difficult ones-are sacred gifts. In fact, every relationship pain is a call to godly compassion and charity. May we answer those calls gladly and promptly.
BYU Education Week:
Brother Goddard will be presenting three series of classes at BYU Education Week, August 14 to 17: Marriage from 5:50 to 6:45 p.m. daily; Parenting from 7:10 to 8:05 p.m. daily; Personal Well-being (Thriving) from 8:30 to 9:25 p.m. daily. Come be a part of these exciting classes!
You can find many of Brother Goddard’s past articles by going to www.DrWally.org
If you are interested in additional ideas for personal well-being, strong marriages, or effective parenting, you are invited to sign up for a free resource we have created at the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service. Navigating Life’s Journey is a weekly e-mail series that offers helpful ideas based on research so you can trust they will work in real life. To sign up for any or all of these resources, go to arfamilies.org
Books by Brother Goddard: