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Don't Take It Personally

When the person who promised to love you and cherish you as long as you both live says something hurtful, it can be so hard not to take it personally. And this is why you must Assume Love.

Assume Love does not mean anything like your colleague at work saying: "You must have misheard him. I'm sure he didn't mean to hurt you. Just forget he ever said it. I'm sure things will be fine again by the time he gets home."

That is not Assuming Love. That is Pretending Love. And it's really unconvincing, because underneath all our fancy thinking, we have an Old Brain that works hard to prevent danger. And if we're upset, it's because it thinks we're in danger.

So, how do we avoid taking it personally? We deliberately look for alternative explanations. Our first explanation is that these upsetting words out of the mouth of the person we married are intended to upset us, intended to force our hand in some decision, maybe a sign we might soon be unfairly constrained or deserted.

Cognitive-behavorial therapy offers lots of tricks for thinking of alternative explanations: substitute in this particular case for always or this one little thing for everything, ask how your best friend might describe what happened and what it means, etc. But in your marriage, whatever happened came from the one person who chose you, loved you, and promised to be yours for life. So I say try explaining what happened as if you knew for sure that love and all those good intentions were still there.

Once you have an alternative explanation or two, you compare how well the evidence fits each explanation, and then you choose the one that sits best with you. If your spouse treated you lovingly last night and yesterday morning, this morning's harsh words probably don't come from a loss of love or a sudden influx of bad character traits. They probably come from something that has very little to do with you.

In other words, it's not personal.

For example... This afternoon, I was riding with my husband in his car. It's old, but it still runs quite well. However, old cars come with lots of surprises. As we reached the end of our driveway, his seat suddenly slid backwards a few notches, and he had to scoot forward in the seat to find the brake pedal.

Not a big deal, but he looked really alarmed. And he was doing me a favor, driving me to the garage almost ten miles away to pick up my car.

It was the sort of moment when upsetting words often fly. Instead, he said: "Oh wow! That brought back a memory I had apparently forgotten. I was taking off when I was first flying solo. Twenty feet off the ground, my seat suddenly slid back. I couldn't reach the rudder pedals. I was so lucky there was no cross wind, because I could not control the rudders until I was flying level. I can't believe I had forgotten that. It's such a vivid, awful memory."

And in a moment, he was off and driving down our steep hill, through the chickens that really do cross the road for no reason at all.

Then he said, demonstrating with his hands, "You really don't want to pull on the yoke to move yourself forward on the seat at a moment like that!"

We both laughed. He said, "I'm really glad we're laughing about it now."

And I thought, "I'm really sensitive today, and if he had barked at me about driving to town at that moment, I would have taken it personally, at least until I could Assume Love and figure out the moving seat was a more likely trigger of the outburst than the drive was. He loves me, he's a decent man with a well-controlled temper, and we're already 1/3 of mile underway when we reach the road."

Would I have guessed how the slipping seat could upset him? No way. But once I had moved away from the story that he was being a jerk about a badly needed favor and onto one that the moving seat was a bigger deal than it appeared, it would have been easy to ask about the seat. Because it wasn't personal.

Comments

This is something that we all have to work on for the best interest of our marriages. Great article!

Thanks, Regina!

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Patty Newbold is a widow who got it right the second time...

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