I once spoke with a couple, Bruce and Marian, who seemed to argue about almost everything. They argued from the time their lids opened in the morning until they closed at night. Sometimes they screamed, and at other times they sulked and argued in their heads, which was a huge relief for their eleven-year-old daughter, Meredith. They fought over major issues and over mind-numbingly petty ones. They had been to several marriage counselors, but their relationship was nearing the end of a downward slide.
On one occasion they took their daughter on an overnight trip to a large city nearby for the purpose of seeing some sights and enjoying a play, and by the time they returned, they were at each other’s throats like wild animals. It was at this point that they called me, at the recommendation of a friend.
They had experienced a number of serious conflicts throughout their two days together, but I asked them to describe just one of them.
“Before we left the hotel for dinner,” said Marian, “he was already being ugly to me.”
“She was making us late for dinner — again,” Bruce said.
If I had not spoken, I’m confident they could have continued their fight for hours. After listening to their mutual blaming for a couple of minutes, I interrupted: “What was your goal that evening?”
“To go to dinner and then to a play,” Marian answered.
“To go to a dinner and a play on time,” Bruce corrected.
“And that was your problem,” I said. “You had set entirely the wrong goal.”
“What do you mean?” Bruce asked.
“Your goal was to get to dinner on time, right?”
“And when Marian was late, she was interfering with your goal.”
“And what you heard from her behavior was that she didn’t care about you, that you were not important to her — a message you’ve heard from her many times before.”
“And then you became angry.”
Then I turned to Marian. “And your goal was not only to get ready for dinner but to do it in your own way, to get ready in peace and quiet without somebody telling you to hurry up and get ready in their way — right?”
“Yes,” said Marian.
“And when Bruce became impatient that you were late, you heard from his behavior that he didn’t care about you, right?”
“So neither of you accomplish your goals, and everybody ended up miserable. So apparently your present goals aren’t working. What do you think?”
They both agreed that something wasn’t working, so I suggested that we consider the possibility of completely changing the kind of goals they were setting and that we try this with something they were planning for the near future. They said that they were planning on a trip for a long weekend to Chicago in a couple of weeks.
“So what are your plans?”
They both described a list of potential activities: the Field Museum, the aquarium, the Museum of Science and Industry, and visiting family.
“And if those activities are your goals, you’ll experience the same conflicts and terrible times as usual. Is there any reason to suppose otherwise? Haven’t you proven that time and time again?”
They didn’t like what they were hearing, but they agreed that it was true.
“So imagine what it would be like if your primary goal for the weekend were simply to practice loving each other. Period. That’s the entire reason you’re going on this trip, and if, in the process, you also manage to see an aquarium and a museum, and you manage to visit a few family members, those activities would only be a bonus. Those activities would only be the things you’re doing while you’re accomplishing your real goal, which is practicing loving each other.”
“Wow,” said Marian, “that would be different.”
“Kind of hard to imagine,” said Bruce.
“So let’s be specific,” I suggested, “and see what this might look like on your upcoming trip. Imagine that you’ve set a time when you want to be at the aquarium, for example. As the time approaches, it does not appear that Marian will be ready on time. If your goal were to get there on time, you’d have a tendency to get irritated, but that is not your goal now. Your goal is to be loving, so this is just an opportunity to practice that. So now you pull out a book to read, or you watch television, or you talk to your daughter. Think about it: Which is more important, spending a few more minutes watching some fish in an aquarium or loving your wife and contributing to the strength of your marriage?”
“Okay, I could do that,” said Bruce, “but the time we arrive at the aquarium isn’t all that important. What if I’ve promised my family to arrive at dinner at six o’clock, and I know they’re waiting for us, and then Marian is making us late? Now what?”
“You have lots of options,” I said. “You could phone your family, for example, and simply explain that you’ll be late. They will still be there when you arrive.”
“But that makes my father crazy — when other people don’t arrive on time — and I don’t want to have to deal with that.”
“Still easy to make a loving choice. You’re staying in a hotel not far from their home, right?”
“So talk about this with Marian ahead of time. Explain that you just can’t stand to be late to something when your father is involved. Then tell her that if it looks like she might be late, you’ll call for a cab to take you and your daughter to your parents’ house, and she can come later in your car. Nobody gets upset. You don’t push Marian to hurry. You’ve chosen a loving way for Marian to move at whatever pace she wants and for you to still arrive on time at something important to you. Is that an arrangement you could both live with?”
They both agreed that they could, and we discussed other scenarios where loving would be the new guideline, rather than the accomplishment of tasks or the doing of things. They became genuinely excited at the prospect of going on their trip in this new way, and when they told their daughter about their plans, she was visibly relieved that she might not have to spend another weekend in the hell of her parents’ conflicts.
When they returned from their trip, I spoke with them again.
“This was the first pleasant time we’ve spent together as a couple or as a family in years,” said Marian. “I like this new goal of loving. I also discovered that I have a lot to learn. I need to become a lot more loving than I am.”
“So do I,” said Bruce.
“How did your daughter enjoy the weekend?” I asked.
“Oh, she was thrilled,” said Marian. “She bubbled all weekend, and usually she mopes around. In fact, at one point she said that she likes to live in this family. What she also meant was that she doesn’t like living in the old family, the one that argues all the time.”
Their family didn’t transform overnight, but with their new goal, they certainly did begin to take steps on a dramatically different path as a couple and as a family.
We would all be wise to examine our goals, not just overall, but the goals we set from moment to moment. We need to ask, What do I want from this particular interaction or experience? Do I want only to accomplish a task, or do I want to learn to become more loving and to enrich a relationship while I’m engaged in accomplishing this task? Simply by asking ourselves such questions, we will begin to set wiser goals and will enjoy the love and happiness that result from that wisdom.