One day a man approached a rabbi in great distress, saying, "Rabbi, I am going out of my mind. With my wife and me and the six children all living in one little room, there is no space for breathing. The noise and the crowding are all making us crazy. I don't know what to do!"
Responding, the Rabbi asked, "Do you have a goat?""I do," said the man.
"Then bring the goat into the house," the Rabbi ordered.
"What do you mean, bring the goat in?" asked the man in alarm, at which the rabbi queried: "Do you want my advice or don't you?"
"I do, I do," meekly replied the man, who did as he was told. A week later he was back in even greater distress.
"Rabbi," he said, "life is not worth living. Now in addition to the noise and the crowding of children, we have to deal with the filth of the goat. I can't take it anymore."
"In that case," said the rabbi, "get the goat out." The next day the man came back to the rabbi, kissed his hand and said, "Rabbi, thank you. What a pleasure it is to have the goat out of the house. So much air, so much space, no goat filth. We can breathe."
The moral of the story? The meaning of events lies with the beholder. It's the attitude that counts.
Just as attitude plays a primary role in this tale, so does it play a similar role in determining whether or not a marriage is satisfying.
You can decide to look on the positive side of your marriage - and you don't even need a goat. Here are possible ways of improving your view of your relationship:
- Opt for the future. In any stressed relationship, you have three choices: You can end the relationship, continue the current pattern of suffering and complain about it, or find ways to make the relationship better. Consider adopting option number three - a positive way of getting a relationship "unstuck."
You can't change the past, but you can change the future, so elect to bring all your complaints up to the present. That means focusing on distinct events and talking about specific behaviors you'd like changed as they occur. It means asking politely for behaviors you'd appreciate from the other person in the future, rather than reciting the other person's past - and irretrievable negative behaviors.
It means, in fact, starting sentences with such stems as "Would you be interested . . .?," or "Would you be willing . . . (to, say, fold your bath towel versus hanging it any old way - or not at all? That would satisfy my need for organization)."
- Dump your past hurts. No relationship that exists over time escapes the accumulation of some past hurts. Sometimes those hurts are recycled by couples, providing ongoing fodder for arguments and fights. Spouses, who are often long in remembering what the other person did wrong, and short on remembering their own wrongdoings, each draw from their archives the collections of "crimes" committed by the other person and proceed to make indictments.
Decide to stop recycling those past crimes. Instead of saying to your spouse, in the midst of an argument, "Let me tell you all the things YOU've done wrong," say, ""Let me tell you all the things I'VE done wrong." Decide to apologize for any contribution you've made to the fray.
Also consider doing a "past-hurts" exercise. Make individual lists of all the past hurts you still carry with you, no matter how long ago the injuries occurred or how ridiculous you feel about harboring them. Then negotiate together over which past hurts you'd be willing to try to forget or "trade."
- Focus on the good stuff happening in your marriage - not the bad. Count your victories - the times you made it through without a fight, or when you both did practice self-restraint, or when the two of you resolved that sticky problem that hung around forever.
And remember your spouse's good qualities when bad things happen. Judith Voirst, author of an article, "What My Husband And I Are Still Learning About Staying Married," illustrates: "When I rip off the side-view mirror in one of my often-futile efforts to back out our car, Milton reminds himself that I make a great fish souffle. And when Milton gouges our brand-new floor (by dragging instead of lifting the coffee table) I tell myself that he's wonderful with children. Even in truly dire moments now we can look at each other and say: `I don't know why I married you, but I'll think of something.' "
Voirst's advice can be generally applied. When you think of your marriage, "Think of something . . . good!"
Just remember - you do have a choice. As Richard Bach so aptly puts it: "What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls a butterfly."
- Dr. Larsen is a therapist practicing in Salt Lake City.