A quarter century ago, my boss Dave tried to set me up with his opposing counsel. I’d said no. A bad breakup with a cheater had put me off men for good, or at least that’s what I went around saying. Then Dave made plans to meet up with the guy at my regular hangout. Every Thursday, my entire law school class drank and danced our stress off at Murphy’s Law. When I spotted Mark standing at a high boy with Dave in a chambray shirt that matched his blue eyes, I couldn’t believe my luck. With an easy laugh and a jaw line that could cut glass, he changed my mind in an instant.
Within days, Mark and I morphed into lovesick zombies, staying up all night to fill each other in on everything that had happened to us so far. We had been found. One day during that time, we woke up early, began the conversation where we’d left off and by the time I looked at the clock, it was 5:00 pm. Days passed without us.
Having dropped off the planet, we veered into dangerous territory. Mark had recently been made partner, the youngest at his firm. Stopping by the office whenevs was not part of the deal. I got a ‘D’ in Criminal Procedure, decimating my GPA. The fear of not getting a job as a lawyer with all that student debt brought me back to earth with a thud.
We cleaned up our acts and here we are, celebrating our wedding anniversary, twenty-two years ago yesterday.
All this time later, we are like a lot of couples. We play the same handful of fights on a loop. Through my writing practice, far better than all the expensive therapy, I realize that these frustrations don’t match how I feel beneath the surface. Journaling has unearthed a sense of unworthiness for our beautiful life, for this love I had been so lucky to find. I do a lot of pushing away and a fair amount of nit-picking. It’s time I dealt with that.
If you have been around a while, you know I am constantly on the hunt to improve how I do life. Admittedly, this also stems from insecurity but it does lead to progress so that is a net gain. A dear friend who has heard every grievance about my marriage from its inception has recommended a program of Byron Katie’s where one partner works out a conflict with the other by making a series of inquiries, then turning the questions around on themselves.
To give you a frame of reference, here is one of our handful of arguments from a couple of days ago:
Me: Remember I told you I wanted to go see Kat in Atlanta? The only available weekend is the last one of the month.
Mark: Jackson has his drivers license appointment that Friday.
Me: Since it’s already in your calendar can you take him? Consider it a lunch hour maybe?
Mark: (heavy sigh) It’s at 2:45 during the work day. You time is flexible, mine isn’t.
Me: You were away the whole holiday weekend. I have to do things to take care of myself too.
Mark: You do that a lot. And it’s usually for more than a week at a time.
Me: If you add up all the times I’ve left town, you’ll know the exact number of hours that I could count on my own plans going forward. When I am home, they are often derailed by someone else’s needs. Conversely, when you make plans, there is a high likelihood they will happen. Imagine not being able to make solid plans for eighteen years.
Mark: An out of town trial is not a leisure activity.
Me: I don’t consider taking a weekend to be with my friend optional. It is critical for me to do something for myself. By the way, I don’t appreciate your attitude, like my needs are such a burden. That being available for this one Friday afternoon appointment for our son is such an unreasonable imposition.
Mark: Don’t you think that maybe this is your problem?
Me: I guess if I thought it over, sure. But I am letting you know that when you huff and puff over your precious schedule, it makes me feel like you don’t care about me. My hair becomes a raging inferno.
Mark: I feel like we both have expectations of each other that neither of us are meeting.
Me: What am I doing?
Mark: Criticizing how I am responding, I can’t say anything right.
Me: Well I can’t not say what is bothering me, so here we are.
I would like to drop this argument loop and the others on our hit parade, if that’s not too much to ask. Happy anniversary to me.
Friends have made some interesting comments about Byron Katie’s approach. She can be very polarizing. I’m glad that stuff works for you—it doesn’t for me. Some of it is totally out there. I’ve also heard that Byron Katie and Eckhart Tolle are the most enlightened spiritual teachers of modern times. I was ready for it.
First, I listened to The Work in Relationships* to hear how this is supposed to go down. Truth be told, it’s pretty radical. I mean, for a blamer like me, I had to listen to several others go through it before it started to sink in. Basically, it facilitates taking personal responsibility for your own garbage to a degree you never imagined. There is no pointing fingers at anyone, ever. I’ve had zero luck trying to control anyone so far anyway.
Then I tried it myself. Katie’s website** supplies all the instructions and materials for free in every language imaginable. She recommends completing the Judge Your Neighbor worksheet*** about anyone you have been in an argument with or a stressful situation. She teaches that judging someone else is the easiest way to see what you really think. I completed them for Mark and for my mother. I also had a conflict with a friend but after I listened to Katie’s book, A Mind at Home With Itself,**** it was clear that I was no longer attached to any negative thoughts about what had happened between me and my friend. I texted her and bygones became bygones. I don’t think I have ever let anything go as easily in my life. And it was one of the worst friend breakups I have ever had. It was downright freaky.
To preface this next part, the friend who recommended I do this work flat out refused to explain it to me. She tried a little and I resisted what she said straightaway. If you are dug into the belief that the other person in your life is to blame for the issues between you, you may need to wait a while to do this too. I had to give it a while. But I’m going to let you in on how it went for me, in case it could be helpful to anyone else out there.
Katie recommends doing The Work for breakfast everyday, metaphorically speaking, for as long as it takes for the questions to become part of your automatic internal inquiry. I completed the Judge Your Neighbor Worksheet a couple times and the results were pretty immediate. I know this isn’t over by a long shot, but I’m off to a great start.
If you are curious, go ahead and click on the worksheet*** yourself. A series of inquiries help to dig up all of your resentments and stored up emotions about one person, one conflict at a time.
I answered these six questions about my husband.
- In this situation, who angers, confuses, hurts, saddens, or disappoints you and why?
- How do you want him/her to change? What do you want him/her to do?
- What advice would you offer him/her? “He should/shouldn’t ____?”
- In order for you to be happy in this situation, what do you need him/her to think, say, feel, or do?
- What do you think of him/her in this situation? Make a list. (It’s okay to be petty and judgmental.)
- What is it about this person that you don’t ever want to experience again?
In Katie’s relationship workshop, people were super uncomfortable answering the name-calling question, probably because they had to say all those mean words out loud in front of a crowd. Here in my quiet writing space, no one heard me call my husband self-important, dismissive, rude, condescending, negative, elitist, arrogant, cold, curt, stressed-out and unappreciative. I got to keep that to myself. What a relief! 😉
After you excavate all the hard feelings, you then ask each of the four questions about each one of your answers above. It’s a little confusing explaining it this way, but if you listen to the examples and then do it yourself, it won’t be.
- Is it true? (Yes or no. If no, move to question 3.)
- Can you absolutely know that it’s true? Yes or no. (This requires a level of honesty that escaped me until I did this work myself, not just heard about it anecdotally btw.)
- How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?
- Who or what would you be without the thought?
The last question is the real kicker. WHO WOULD YOU BE WITHOUT THIS THOUGHT? Who would you be if you didn’t think this awful thing, this thought that plagued you every day, made you feel bad about yourself, about your relationship and judgmental of someone you care about. Think about that. Who would I be if I didn’t believe my husband thought I should have no time to take care of myself? I’d be enjoying the crap out of my life, that’s what. I would unburden myself from the weight that drags down our otherwise beautiful life. How great is that?! And, not for nothing, letting go of the thought of my mother rejecting me is huge, whole other subject but not unrelated. Just saying, that is freedom.
The last step is also a doozy: The Turnaround. All the statements you make about the other person are then turned on you. You ask yourself if they are as true or truer than your original statement about the other person. My statements went from accusations about my husband to revealing how I project my feelings about myself onto him. Again, sounds confusing but it’s really not. Here is my turnaround:
- I hurt myself because I think every second of my life should be taken up by kids’ stuff and I should have no time for me. Also, I hurt Mark because I think every second of my life should be taken up by kids’ stuff and I should have no time for me.
- I want to respect my own need to take time for my work and welcome taking breaks as necessary sanity time. I should fully support it. Also, I should respect Mark’s need to take time for his work and welcome his taking breaks as necessary sanity time. I should support that too.
- I shouldn’t give myself a hard time when I want to do something just for myself. I shouldn’t give Mark a hard time when I want to do something just for myself.
- I need to be positive, light and loving, not judge myself or the kids if they haven’t measured up. I want to work on myself and stop putting my issues on everyone else.
- I am self-important, dismissive, rude, condescending, negative, elitist, arrogant, cold, curt, stressed-out and unappreciative. That is true or truer. SHEEEESH.
This story has functioned as my own personal torture device over the course of my marriage. During this work, I laughed and cried at the same time. I knew it was exactly what I had been waiting for. Until now, it had been far more important to be right than to be free.
“The truth is that your partner is your mirror. He or she always reflects you back to yourself. If you think there is a flaw in him, that flaw is in you. It has to be in you, because he is nothing more than your story. You are always what you judge him to be in the moment. There is no exception to this. You are your own suffering, you are your own happiness.”
-Byron Katie, A Mind at Home With Itself
I know Mark and I are still those two people who couldn’t believe our luck on a random Thursday night back in 1996. He is home to me. And I am finding my way home to myself.
When you are finally ready to take responsibility for yourself, when you value your freedom over your self-righteousness, you get the sense that it’s all going to be okay.
WRITING PROMPT: Do you have a hard time handling conflict? How’s it working out? Do you think you will try doing this work?
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