Sometimes couples come to see me in therapy, and one or more of the spouses say they’re considering leaving. And just sometimes, there’s something I can see within their partnership early on that shows me for sure that this is a marriage that’s worth saving. They just have the Right Stuff.
Read about Judith and Jay, and think if there are situations in your marriage that are like this; and, if there are-might you and your spouse just have the Right Stuff, too?
Judith and Jay had a checkered relationship, as so many long-term marrieds do. They had weathered raising the children, as well as the empty-nest syndrome. Sometimes she drove him round the bend with her non-stop chatter and tendency to cheer-lead; she sometimes considered offing him when he went into one of his political tirades, or went into one of his creature-of-habit routines (a diet Coke goes with pasta, a Pepsi is for peanut butter and jelly), or decided–one more time–he needed a new job and discussed how he’d make it big next time.
So it wasn’t a crisis but rather some long-term disappointments that brought them into my office for couples therapy. She was restless in the relationship, he was feeling unsupported; should they consider a separation?
I thought they had a lot of raw material, and could see a good path for them if they were willing to do the work, but there was one telling incident that tipped the scales for me, about whether they could make it as a couple.
Jay was a coffee-drinker–he pretty much downed the stuff by the gallon. And during the long hours he spent at home between jobs [next time would be the big one, he assured us both], he drank it from the glass mugs with the appliqued decoration of a pear.
You may ask how I know this detail–but it’s more relevant than you might at first suspect.
Judith was a thrift-shop junkie–she could happily pass hours going from one store to the next, and each beautiful item in the couple’s home had a place and a history–and an astoundingly good price. She would relate their tales to anyone who would listen–but Jay didn’t number himself in her story fan-club.
One day Judith came home with four exquisite off-white ceramic mugs, totally unique in their design. As always she asked if Jay liked them; as always she got a mono-syllabic response. So, pleased enough with the mugs she now had, she brought in her 11 glass, pear-enhanced glass mugs into a far-off thrift shop that was outside her usual limits, but one she knew made better offers [if they were a bit snooty]. She determined it was worth leaving them there, given the price the shop thought they could get. She kept this rather mundane detail to herself, as Jay had trained her to do.
So imagine Jay’s surprise–if we can call it that; Jay’s a pretty low-emotioned guy–when he went to pour himself a cup of coffee and sit, perusing job possibilities on the computer, sipping from his usual mug–only to find his usual mug missing. If Jay were the Encyclopedia Brown type he might have made a whole tale of the “The Missing Mug,” but instead he did the most sensible thing–he shouted for his wife and asked her where the pear mug was.
Judith was more than happy to explain the saga of the mugs, but Jay cut her off, less interested in narrative than in the bottom line.
“You gave away my mug?” he asked, horrified [for Jay].
“Honey, I got you four new mugs, beautiful ones.”
“But,” was the retort, “I always drink my coffee from that mug.”
“Well now,” responded Judith, “you’ll always drink your coffee from a different mug.”
But Judith wasn’t prepared for Jay’s feelings of loss, and he kept up a steady stream of complaint.
“I don’t just drink coffee in it, you know. I drink water, too. And water tastes better in a glass mug.” “These mugs have a funny aftertaste; they make my coffee taste weird.” “I don’t like the grip of these new mugs–they feel like they’ll just slip out of my hand.”
Had Judith felt that Jay should go back to his job searches and leave the topic of mugs far behind, I certainly couldn’t have blamed her. But that isn’t what happened.
On a blustery February day, Judith brushed off the car, fought Chicago traffic, and and headed back to the thrift shop with the mugs in it. The saleswoman looked up with a questioning and not the slightest bit welcoming glance. She explained that she’d brought in 11 mugs several weeks ago, and now, for some convoluted reasons, needed a mug back.
The response was glacial. “But that isn’t how we do things, here, Judith. You brought in a set, we wrote it up and gave you a receipt–it’s done, now; it’s not yours anymore.” They were surprisingly difficult about returning the mug, implying Judith was behaving out of the bounds of thrift-shop-etiquette. She felt somewhat like a beggar, and wasn’t enjoying this experience. Judith must have felt persecuted from all sides by this particularly liquid-holder, but she persevered, and finally said,
“Look. My husband is very attached to this mug, and it makes him happy to have it. I really need it back for him, and if you won’t sell 10 mugs, then I’ll take the whole set back.”
Yes, Judith got her mug back, and yes, I believe they finally sold the 10-mugged set and cut Judith a check. But, to be honest, I didn’t care about that. To me, a mug is a mug.
But to Jay, clearly, a mug is not just a mug–and Judith, to whom a mug is a means to more shopping, proved something about her marriage in her quest for the return of the pear-appliqued glass. She proved that she was willing to swallow her pride, look away from a good argument, pass up a chance to pick on Jay’s foibles; all just to make her husband happy.
This couple had the Right Stuff to make it work.
Maybe you and your spouse do, too.