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The decision – the key to happy relationships

In Community and Relationship, Love, Sex and Sexuality by LivingNowLeave a Comment

It is a challenge to see another person’s point of view, especially when we feel pain. Paradoxically, it is the only way out of pain. When we are able to see the other point of view, we feel connected to the other person. Compassion for those we love – especially in their moments of self-centeredness – is essential for mature love.


If you polled the town of Dripping Springs and asked people to point out an ideal family, the Kellers would surely be in the top ten. This family has lived in this small Texas town for generations. The great-grandparents settled there and established a feed mill, which has been passed down for generations. The name Keller was, and still is, synonymous with honesty and hard work. Shelley and Bruce Keller are an ideal example. They have helped farmers in the area through drought, pestilence, torrential rains and good times. They have given credit to people on a handshake and their word is like money in the bank. People like them, and their young family is an inspiration to the community. Most any gathering, whether it is the county fair or a funeral, will find them there with their two daughters in tow. Shelley and Bruce are fine parents; however their relationship, as this story will illustrate, is in need of some special attention.

Bruce has known that he and Shelley need to give more time to each other for quite some time. And because of this, he planned a special event just for the two of them. He got on the Internet and found a three-night, four-day trip to Playa del Carmen, Mexico that was just within their budget. He checked their calendar, found an open date, and booked it. That night he came home and broke the news to Shelley.

“Sounds great to me”, Shelley replied when Bruce told her of his plan. For a moment they just beamed at one another. Each was so happy.

“I think you’re going to love this place”, Bruce explained. “It’s not a big city like Cancun, but it has a lot of great restaurants, interesting shops and plenty of live music – not to mention an incredible beach. And our hotel has four stars.”

Shelley was excited. Bruce felt pleased that he had thought of the idea, and even more pleased that Shelley was receiving his idea so well.

That night, Shelley and Bruce had their entire family over for dinner. What a bunch. Bruce’s two brothers and their families and Shelley’s favorite sister Alexia and her partner Kris. As they were sitting around the table having dessert and coffee, Shelley began to tell them about the trip Bruce had planned.

Bruce’s brother Kent spoke up, “Playa is Great! We went there two years ago; it’s our favorite place in the Caribbean.”

“I’ve heard about Playa del Carmen and I’ve always wanted to go there”, Alexia chimed in.

“I have an idea”, Shelley exclaimed, “why don’t we make it a family vacation?”

The children cheered and their parents got excited too. Everyone started to chatter about being in Mexico together. Shelley thought to herself, “Amazing, as much time as we spend with each other, we’ve never taken a family vacation. Bruce is a genius!”

Suddenly, Bruce interjected, “Shelley, I invited you, not the whole family”.

The festive air froze. All were speechless. Soon after that, one by one the families gathered their belongings, hugged Shelley and Bruce an emotionless goodbye, and within fifteen minutes the room was empty.

“How could you!” asked Shelley.

“How could you!” Bruce countered. “This was my present to you. Not everyone else. We never have time alone. Maybe that’s the way you want it. If it is, well that’s just fine!” He stormed out of the room.

Shelley was left with her own thoughts and a huge pile of dirty dishes. She was angry with Bruce for embarrassing her in front of the family. She didn’t understand why he couldn’t have kept his opinion to himself until everyone left. She tried to make up a scenario that would prove her right and him wrong, but try as she might, she couldn’t hold on to her sole position. She began to see why Bruce was upset. He had wanted this to be more like a honeymoon than a family reunion; and she had to admit they sorely needed some special time together. Shelley hated being wrong. And humble pie was one of her least favorite dishes. During the next hour and a half, which is how long it took her to clean up the kitchen, she thought about how she could rectify the situation. But no matter how hard she tried, it was clear that she simply needed to go to Bruce and admit her mistake and make an apology. As simple as this sounded, she had terrible resistance to it. She did not like the feeling of guilt and remorse that went with admitting she was wrong. But she knew it’s what she had to do.

When she finished with the kitchen, Shelley took a deep breath and went to look for Bruce. She found him sitting out on the patio. At first she thought she would give an explanation of why she had invited the whole family. She would point out the fact that they never had gone away as a family group just for fun, even for one day. But she changed her mind. Instead, she simply said, “I’m sorry”. Bruce said “Thank you”. Then as she started to give her explanation, Bruce beat her to the draw. “I know why you invited the family. We could all use more fun time together. And I think that’s a good idea – after we have our trip”. Shelley decided to quit while she was ahead and let that be the last word.

The trip to Mexico turned out to be just what they needed. While they were there, they picked out a moderately priced hotel that could easily accommodate the budget for a future family vacation.

The biggest problem in relationships is self-centeredness. This means: believing that your point of view is the only point of view. Shelley got caught up in her own world and ignored the world of her partner. She made a unilateral decision that ignored Bruce’s wishes. We are all guilty of being self-centered at times – it’s the human condition. But the key to happy relationships is the willingness to acknowledge your mistakes and make apologies where necessary. This builds trust and paves the way for a deeper form of love.

There were at least two important lessons illustrated in The Decision. The first was when Shelley decided to take responsibility for her actions and apologise to Bruce. This decision was tough because she knew that owning up to her insensitivity would be uncomfortable. Guilt and remorse are yucky feelings. They are designed this way for a purpose. Nature has made guilt distasteful for a reason – so we won’t repeat the action. If you truly feel guilty and experience the discomfort of the feeling, you’ll think twice before you do that dastardly deed again.

Shelley showed great maturity in her decision to apologise to Bruce, even though doing so made her very uncomfortable. Many times in life doing the right thing is exactly what we don’t feel like doing. Acting on feelings alone does not build character or healthy relationships. Far too much emphasis has been placed on going with your feelings and ignoring your better judgement. In Shelley’s invitation to the entire family, she wasn’t looking at the big picture or giving thought to her actions. She acted on her excitement, and impulsively put her feelings into an action. Later, when she did look at the big picture, she could understand why Bruce was upset. Even though her actions were innocent and came out of good will, she realised that she did make a unilateral decision that was not entirely hers to make. If Shelley hadn’t taken responsibility for her part in the conflict, you can easily see how their argument could have gone on and escalated into a bigger conflict. She prevented that by using the two magic words, “I’m sorry”.

Bruce, on the other hand also showed maturity when he graciously accepted Shelley’s apology. He easily could have taken advantage of her admission and made his case even further. Couldn’t you just hear him saying “Well, you ought to be sorry, here I was trying to make you happy and do something nice and you blew it! You only think of yourself. You never think about what I might want…” On and on and on, he could have gone, but he resisted the temptation. More than that, he actually came over to view her side of the story. He gave Shelley the benefit of the doubt and interpreted her actions positively instead of negatively. You can easily see how it could have gone the other way.

It is a challenge to see another person’s point of view, especially when we feel pain. Paradoxically, it is the only way out of pain. When we are able to see the other point of view, we feel connected to the other person. Compassion for those we love – especially in their moments of self-centeredness – is essential for mature love.

Distinguished professor Pat Love, Ed.D. is the author of Hot Monogamy and The Truth About Love. Her newest book (with Steven Stosny) How to Improve Your Marriage  Without Talking About It has been translated into nine languages. She is in demand as an expert presenter at national and international conferences.

Sunny Shulkin, LCSW, BCD, is  a Master Trainer of Imago Relationship Therapy and counsels and teaches nationally and internationally.

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