Q: I’ve been with my husband for almost fifteen years. We don’t have any major problems like physical abuse, or cheating, or drugs. I really love him and I know he loves me, But I keep wishing he would be different than he is. I find myself resenting him all the time for little ways in which he disappoints me. I’m a neat freak and he’s completely messy. I’m an introvert, he’s an extrovert. He wants us to hang out with several of his close friends, and they bore me to death. I like to watch sports and he doesn’t. Nothing more significant than that. I know that I’m lucky to have such a great guy in my life, but the fact is I’m irritated by him way too much. I don’t want us to separate, but I’m wondering. Are we just too different to be able to live together, or is there some way we can work this out?
A: After fifteen years together, it sounds as if you have been working things out, but maybe you can learn to be a little more comfortable with the decision you seem to have made. You seem to assume that if you don’t like something about your husband, then he’s wrong and should change. Why not assume, instead, that the problem is yours? If you have a habit of nursing small, chronic resentments, then maybe it is your own mind that is creating your suffering. Consider this: when we resent other people for not filling our expectations, we are essentially acting on the assumption that we deserve to have whatever we want. This isn’t an uncommon assumption in our culture, but it isn’t a very mature perspective, and it’s a guaranteed setup for constant emotional turmoil, because the people around us probably don’t believe that it is their duty to change in order to live up to our expectations. So what is more likely to bring happiness and contentment in your life – to go through your life with the mission of collecting what is owed to you, or to go through life with the mission of acting from gratitude toward the people around you?
In Japan there is a popular form of psychotherapy (called Naikan) which aims at both reducing chronic resentment and fostering the habit of gratitude. It consists of structured processes for introspection and self-examination. Instead of concentrating on the wrongs that others have done to us – a focus that is all-too-easy for most of us – in this process, we step back from our own resentments, and practice paying attention to what we habitually ignore about ourselves. We squarely face our own mistakes, failures and weaknesses. The process requires us to stop blaming others and instead to focus on what we’ve done to cause difficulty for others
The practice always involves focusing sustained attention on three basic questions. To do this work, I suggest that every day for the next week, you find a quiet place to sit for 20 or 30 minutes without distraction, and spend that time with these questions:
- What have I received from my partner [both today and in the past]?
- What have I given to him?
- What troubles and difficulties have I caused him?
Meditate carefully on each question, and when you’re finished, write down your answers to each one. Try to be specific rather than general. Don’t leave items off your list because they seem trivial, or because you receive them every day. If your partner brought you coffee in bed this morning, for instance, put that on your list. The natural fourth question, “What troubles and difficulties has my partner caused me?” is deliberately ignored in this process because most of us are naturally good at seeing answers to this question, and because too much focus on it is the cause of much of our suffering in daily life.
If you do this practice conscientiously for seven consecutive days, my guess is that you’ll be amazed at how much happier you’ll feel at home. By using this simple technique, you may find yourself moving from a self-centered perspective to one that focuses more on your partner; and from a perspective that emphasizes what is lacking in your life to the abundance that is actually there.