January 18

Making Meringue

January 18, 2013

Marriage

A couple recently called me to describe the many problems in their relationship. Mark could be thoughtless, inconsiderate, withdrawn, and quite unconscious of punctuality. Celine lived as a perpetual victim and responded to her pain by lashing out at him in anger. There appeared to be so many issues. Where to start?

I told them that when I was a college student, on occasion I would bring a date home to my apartment and attempt to impress her with my culinary magic—supplementing my otherwise limitless social and romantic assets. My cooking repertoire was quite limited, but one dish never failed to impress: baked Alaska, a hard-frozen block of ice cream placed on a layer of cake, and the whole covered with uncooked meringue. The meringue is quickly browned in a hot oven and the dish served immediately, so that the meringue is warm but the ice cream is still frozen. It's a cute trick that delights the diner.

The most difficult step in the process of making baked Alaska is the proper preparation of the meringue, which is a mixture of stiffly beaten egg whites and sugar. Keep in mind that I was a novice, so I had to exercise great care in separating the egg whites from the yolks. I learned that if I allowed a single drop of yolk to spill into the whites, I could not whip them up into the frothy ingredient I required.

In the making of baked Alaska, all the ingredients are important: egg whites, sugar, ice cream, cake, and the heat of the oven, but making minor mistakes with each does not have the same impact. You can get away with small mistakes in the cake, for example—stir it poorly, bake it a little too long, or cut it unevenly—with no significant effect on the end product. You can misread the amount of sugar required, and the consequences are minor. But the smallest impurity in the egg whites—just a bit of egg yolk—makes the creation of an edible baked Alaska impossible.

In relationships, anger is like egg yolk in meringue. It makes the desired product impossible. Anger must be eliminated before anything else can be accomplished in a meaningful and lasting way. I told Celine that the most important step for her was to tell the truth about her anger, fear, and selfishness to wise men and women who could love her. As she felt loved, emptiness and fear would begin to disappear, along with the anger that was only a response to those two painful conditions.

Celine asked why I didn't work with Mark on his being more thoughtful and considerate, as well as less withdrawn. I said that we could do that, but as long as she was feeling victimized and angry, it wouldn't matter what he did. No matter what progress he made, she would just demand more, and the conflicts would continue. And asking him to work on not withdrawing while she continued her angry attacks would be like asking someone to hold still while being bitten by a dog. It's just not reasonable to ask a frightened person to respond less to pain.

I explained to Mark that he would still have a lot of personal work to do, but first we had to get the egg yolk out of the meringue. I gave him the responsibility for pointing out to her—in as loving a way as possible—each time she was attacking him. That was an important role for him, because most of the time she was angry, she didn't recognize it. And she accepted the responsibility of believing him every time he pointed out her behavior. She would then talk to a wise person about it and get the love she needed.

As she learned to remove the egg yolk from the whites, the meringue whipped up beautifully, and together this couple enjoyed a lovely dish of baked Alaska that they had prepared together. We can all learn to do that.

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