Virtue and Vice
Some time ago Margo and I were working with Sarah and Jeremy at a LIFE Couples Retreat. Their perspectives of one another had, through their years of struggle, shrunk ever narrower until they saw only the negatives in their partner. To help them begin the process of broadening perspective we asked Sarah to name two or three of her husband’s good qualities or attributes. She reflected for a moment, then with tears in her eyes and in a voice of painful wonder she said, “I can’t see any.”
Please note that she did not say, “He doesn’t have any.” She was wise enough to know that if she went to her husband’s friends, associates, other family members, or even simply asked Margo and I, she would be able to compile a substantial list of talents and attributes. So her breaking heart in that moment was one of confession of self-centeredness and missed opportunities, rather than the blame and acrimony that both had been practicing. And the healing process began.
While there are many wise sayings and homilies that give us hints of simple things to help us build our relationships, there is one that, in my mind, rises above all the others in building a consistently “heavenly” relationship:
“Focus on Your Partner’s Virtues, and Your Own Faults.”
I hope it is obvious that as you focus on those things that are positive in your partner you are not blind to the fact that they are human and fallible. But as you accentuate their virtues, at least two miracles begin to occur. First, your perception of their faults and your associated frustration with them will soften, losing the sharp edges that lead to blame and contention rather than reconciliation. Second, experience and research show that the only real way we can influence others to positive and lasting change is through appropriate acceptance of them and acknowledgment of those things that are best about them. From this firm foundation you can begin to deal far more effectively with things that might not be working in your relationship. If fact, most couples, including Sarah and Jeremy, discover that their list of complaints about one another and the relationship shrinks dramatically just by focusing on the virtues of their partner.
Regarding placing our attention on our own faults, I am not suggesting dragging yourself into discouragement and blindness to your qualities and strengths. Rather I am proposing that as you open yourself in an accountable way to better see your own shortcomings and mistakes you will be finally prepared to place your energy and effort where they can truly make a difference in changing your relationships: by changing yourself. You will never be able to force positive and lasting change in your partner; but as you change yourself in positive ways, you will invite healthy change in your partner and relationship.
Try this simple principle today of focusing on your partner’s qualities and your own areas where exciting and positive change deserves to happen, and I promise you will begin to see immediate results. Oh, it might take a while in being consistent at it for your partner to begin to trust and lower their walls. But in the meantime, you will feel better as a person, less stressed and anxious, more open and loving. And there’s no vice in any of that.
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