It’s been at least 20 years, but I can still see her, still hear her. Looking professional in gray wool slacks and a blue sweater, she spoke with quiet conviction. “I was so unhappy in my marriage. I wanted to leave my husband, but I thought I should have a better reason than general unhappiness. He wasn’t unfaithful. He didn’t hit me. He wasn’t verbally abusive,” she added. “I wanted to leave, but I felt like I needed something definitive. Each day I was measuring my unhappiness.” Being on the fence was exhausting, she said. She needed to make a decision. “Finally, I realized he wasn’t committed to the marriage. That was reason enough! I felt so relieved.”
The woman talked about planning where she’d look for an apartment, what furniture she’d take. She thought about the freedom she’d have. She thought about how she’d find the perfect husband, and happiness would be hers. Then another thought arose. “I realized I was the one who wasn’t committed to the marriage. Maybe before I threw the towel in, I should try being committed to the relationship.”
Among her complaints had been her husband’s drinking. He’d given it up, going to 12-step meetings. Though she seldom went to support group meetings herself, she did attend one the day after her new resolve to try commitment. She described what she heard. “A woman at the meeting talked about how she’d recently made a practice of focusing on her husband’s good qualities instead of the ones she disliked. After some time, the negative qualities receded, while the positive qualities came to the fore more often. I realized I always focused on my husband’s shortcomings. I decided to adopt the practice of gratitude for his good qualities.”
I was listening intently, waiting to hear how her new eyesight was working. “That was 30 years ago,” the woman said.
I was stunned. I thought her insights were much more recent.
“I learned I was responsible for my own happiness,” the woman continued. “I learned by loving the aspects of my husband I’d once found unlovable, I healed myself as well as our relationship. I learned to love myself. In practicing gratitude, I opened myself up to the love that had been there all along.”
It’s been many years since I’ve been in a romantic relationship. I’ve learned, though, I can apply the revelations I heard that day to any relationship whether it be work, family or neighbor. It isn’t always easy. In fact, sometimes it feels almost impossible. I think of a former coworker who made fun of her husband’s disability. I wanted to slap her! Every time I saw her, I thought of the heartless comment she’d made. But as I wrote down her good qualities each night, I realized her husband was a mirror and how she treated him might reflect how she felt about herself.
Sometimes, all I could write was how she came to work on time each day. But I noted when she stopped to chat with coworkers or offered to help with a project. I don’t know if she ever treated her husband differently, but she did become a kinder person at work. Or perhaps my vision change helped me see the person who had been there all along.
It’s so automatic for some of us to zero in on the negative. It’s such a groove in my brain. Making a gratitude list every night has helped me make a new groove. Sure, the train of my mind still wants to jump the track and get back in the old one. But I catch myself more often.
I can still hear the woman in blue sweater, “We have a wonderful marriage.”