January 20

A Matter of Life and Death

January 20, 2009

Marriage

Not long ago a man — we’ll call him Bill — was talking to me about an argument that he’d been having with his wife, Melissa. After hearing people describe a few thousand of these conversations, I’m impressed with how similar they really are at their core. Bill was frustrated that she wasn’t changing to suit his needs more quickly, and Melissa was annoyed that he wasn’t more sensitive to her. Bill was absolutely certain that he was right, and I gathered from his comments that she was just as certain that she was right.

Now, to be sure, Bill was right about a number of issues. It’s true that Melissa was not listening to him, she was not being cooperative, and she was not being kind toward him, but he was entirely wrong about his conclusion: that what was needed in this situation was for Melissa to change her behavior. If he had managed to assert his will with her and control her completely — which probably would have delighted him in the short term — he would not have achieved a happy marriage, only a slave-owner relationship with a very unhappy wife.

No, Bill didn’t need to change Melissa in this situation. He needed to learn how to become more loving toward her. Regrettably, the two of them had been battling for control — and defending each other — all the years of their marriage, despite the fact that this approach had never worked.

After listening to his complaints for several minutes, I asked him, “Bill, if Melissa had a heart attack right now, and her life were hanging in the balance, do you think you could stop complaining and simply take care of her?”

He was silent for a moment before he answered. “Yes, I suppose I could.”

“So, why can’t you do that now? Why can’t you spend more time now thinking about what she needs instead of complaining so often and loudly about what she’s not doing for you?”

“That’s different. If she had a heart attack, that would be a matter of life and death.”

“So is this, Bill. But in this case, it’s a matter of life and death for both of you. You two have been married for years, and for most of that time you’ve been angry, and complaining, and attacking each other, and acting like victims, and withdrawing from each other. Now pay attention to this next part: Each time you make one of these unloving choices, you’re taking a step toward misery and emotional and spiritual death.”

Bill looked skeptical, but I continued. “This isn’t some metaphor I’m using here. You two are literally dying inside, and eventually you won’t be able to step away from the darkness that’s consuming you. Death will just suck you in with a force you won’t be able to resist. The problem is, as you’re making these selfish choices, you’re still breathing and eating and walking and talking — nobody actually dies physically — so the consequences of your choices don’t appear to be as serious as a heart attack.

"And, between your arguments, you seem to recover emotionally, so you underestimate the seriousness of each conflict. But the effects of these conflicts accumulate — like toxic waste — and eventually they become overwhelming. Each choice you make today — each choice to be either loving or selfish — really is a matter of life or death. They may not be as obvious as the choices associated with a heart attack, but they’re every bit as serious. So, now I’m asking, When will you take these choices as seriously? If you don’t, you won’t just lose your marriage. You’ll lose the ability to be happy yourself.”

I emphasized to Bill that it was not my intent to scare him. This was not a hellfire and brimstone sermon. The goal of life is not to avoid pain, misery, and death. My intent was to demonstrate that he was barely enduring a life in hell when he could have been choosing to fully live a life of joy instead. Why should we choose to barely survive from one conflict to another, when we can choose to live spectacularly?

Bill got off the phone and apologized to Melissa for being selfish, not just on the occasion of the argument we’d been discussing, but for their whole marriage. He didn’t change his life and his marriage overnight, but from that moment he began to think more carefully about each of his choices — whether they were loving or not, whether they contributed to a life of happiness or a life of misery and emotional death.

And so it can be for all of us. So many of us wait until the end of our lives to consider the impact of all those choices we made. We look back and, with unspeakably tragic regret, think “if only.” Now is the time to be thinking of the life and death consequences of each of our choices, and, if we will do that, we can gradually learn to make the decisions that lead to love and happiness, now and for the rest of our lives.

 

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