You Never Know

Posted on November 19, 2018


Our family experienced an unexpected tragedy a few weeks ago when my brother in law, Rick, was killed when another boat collided with the fishing boat he was on.  One would not consider fishing to be a high-risk activity, and he had made this trip many times before.  It makes it shocking to have Rick, a man full of life and in good health, suddenly gone.  Rick leaves behind his wife of 33 years, Tracy, his son, Jake, and many extended family members and friends who loved him.  At his celebration of life, many friends shared their memories and told their stories.

This particular post is not a eulogy.  My sister in law, Tracy, gave me permission to share a story from the day before Rick died.  Tracy & Rick were/are in the process of remodeling their home.  If you have been through a remodel, you know that it is stressful.[1] Rick and Tracy had been having a remodel-related argument the day before his fishing trip.  Having had enough of the argument, Tracy headed off to bed.  A short time later, Rick came in and said, “I’m sorry Trace,” and they made up.  Their final conversation ended on a note of love and connection.

The reason I tell this story is that none of us know how long we have.  Years ago a former colleague of mine had shared with me that she always ended every phone call with a family member by telling them that she loves them.  The reason being that anything can happen and you do not know if any interaction could be your last with that person.  Awareness of our own mortality need not be depressing or morbid.  It can positively impact the way we live and interact with the people we love.

Sometimes couples come into therapy following a big betrayal like an affair.  However, more frequent are those situations where they have gotten stuck in patterns in which any conversation can turn into a fight.  Many is the time a client has said to me, “It is always something small” that starts the fight.  I assure them that this is usually the case.  The mission in therapy is not to make a couple conflict free, but to make it so that they handle the conflict in healthy ways that maintain love and connection.

I have four brief points to make about this.  The first is to recall your wedding vows.  After someone read the definition of love from 1 Corinthians 13: 4-6, you promised to love your mate.  That’s the gig.  I have never attended a wedding wherein the vows were modified to say, “I promise to love you as long as you don’t tick me off.”  Your partner is going to upset you sometimes.  That’s what happens when you live with another imperfect human being.  When that happens, you need to argue with your partner like this is someone you love.[2]

Second, the apostle Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “’In your anger do not sin’: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.”  If you need to cool off before you can come back and finish the conversation[3], that’s fine.  But staying mad for days is really not going to help the relationship (or get you the understanding you want).

Third, since most of the things couples fight about are small things, keep perspective in mind.  If you were to lose your mate tomorrow, would this have been an issue worth fighting over?

Fourth, empathy, empathy, empathy.  Your partner has a reason for doing and saying the things that he or she does and says.  If the two of you can get underneath why this seemingly small thing is worth fighting over, it can be really healing.  Since you can only control you, your first mission is to make sure your partner feels cared for and understood.  If what your partner says sounds like, “2+2=7,” you need to figure out how he or she got there.  Your partner is not stupid.  After all, they chose you for a mate.  You want to not only understand how they got to their position, but what it is like to see it that way.  You don’t have to agree, but you do need to understand.

If you two are really getting stuck, get some help.  The research indicates that there is typically a 7 year gap between the time someone says, “we need marital therapy” and the time the couple actually goes.  Do it sooner rather than later.  Life is too short to be fighting all of the time.  We don’t know how long we have.  Fulfill your vows.  Love your mate.  They are only on loan to you.


[1] For my fuller opinion on that subject, you can check out my other post: . That one is substantially lighter faire than this post.

[2] With a nod to John & Julie Gottman

[3] We are talking about “time out” and not “stonewalling” here.