Marsha had a razor tongue, and rare was the occasion when she didn’t use it, especially with her husband, Ron. On one occasion I asked how they were doing, and while Marsha was in the middle of giving herself credit for being sweet and kind to her husband, Ron interrupted with, “Not well at all.”
“Oh?” I asked. “What do you mean?”
“Just today she was being critical and angry,” Ron said.
Marsha was not slow to respond. “Oh, maybe I was a little harsh, but it’s been . . . days since I was critical like that.”
“Maybe one day,” Ron responded.
“You see?” she said. “I can never do anything well enough for him. I make one mistake, and he makes a big deal about it.”
“Ron,” I began, “out of the past ten days, how many of those days would you say that she has said anything critical or angry?”
He paused before saying, “Probably eight.”
Marsha was incensed. “Oh, that’s not true, and it’s not like on the days he’s talking about I’m angry all day. I don’t get any credit at all for the times I’m not angry.”
“No,” I said, “you really don’t. When a policeman pulls you over for drunk driving, he doesn’t give you an award for all the times you DIDN’T drive drunk. NOT driving drunk is the minimum standard of behavior, so you get nothing for it, except to continue driving. Same with being married to Ron. You DON’T get credit for all the times you were not angry and attacking, only the privilege of staying married to him.”
We have a lifetime to learn to be loving, but there are certain behaviors so destructive that we can’t engage in them at all if we want to be happy or participate in rewarding relationships. For those behaviors—anger, violence, lying, infidelity—we establish a zero tolerance, and we don’t get credit for not doing them.