Nasrudin was a mythical figure, a teacher from the Sufi tradition, who supposedly lived in what we now call the Middle East. One day one of his students walks into a room where Nasruddin was reaching into a bag of hot chili peppers and eating them one at a time. There were tears streaming down his face, his nose was running and his lips swollen and irritated. He was obviously in great pain. “Why don’t you stop eating those hot peppers?” the student asked. “I’m hoping to find a sweet one,” Nasrudin replied.
Mathew wasn’t a bad guy. He possessed some fine qualities. He was hardworking, honest, a good provider, didn’t smoke or drink and he was dedicated to his family. But as the years went by, his wife Julia found herself becoming progressively more unhappy. There was something missing from her marriage, the absence of which was becoming increasingly painful and difficult to accept. Whenever Julia brought up a subject that she wanted to address, if Mathew didn’t want to talk about it, he simply refused to engage in the conversation. More often than not, he would simply say just: “I don’t want to talk about it”. If pressed, he would tell Julia, “That’s just the way I am”, meaning “my personality doesn’t incline me to engage in those kinds of conversations”. But it wasn’t just Mathew’s unwillingness to engage in conversations that was distressing Julia, it was his lack of motivation to learn anything about overcoming his resistance to conversing on a more meaningful level. Mathew used his conversation-stoppers to justify his choices and to get Julia to accept him the way he was and get her off of his back.
Some of the subjects that Julia wanted to discuss with Mathew were very personal and related to his hygiene. He often neglected to brush his teeth and his bad breath was offensive to Julia. He also had body odor because he didn’t shower regularly. Mathew often dropped his dirty clothes on the floors of various rooms and didn’t bother to pick them up. Julia’s attempts to bring these issues to his attention were usually met with “You knew this about me when you married me,” as if to say she should just shut up and live with it.
When Julia informed Mathew that she had found a couples’ counselor to help them discuss their communication difficulties, he said, “I don’t believe in marriage counseling.” It became increasingly obvious to Julia that he had no interest in changing his position regarding his refusal to join her in discussions that were important to her.
She attempted to rationalize her unhappiness by repeatedly reminding herself of all of his positive qualities. She considered the possibility that her expectations of Mathew were unrealistically high and that she should lower them. Despite her efforts, she found herself unable to adjust to what was increasingly feeling like a painfully distant relationship. Finally she reached the point where she could no longer tolerate the situation.
Julia admitted to herself that Mathew’s problem wasn’t an inability to change, but an unwillingness to do so. In coming to this realization, she recognized that the difference in their basic life values was too discrepant for them to make a life together and sadly she filed for divorce. Julia finally stopped hoping for a sweet one.
When I spoke to her following the divorce, Julia said to me, ”You know Mathew was right. He was pretty closed-mouthed and closed-minded when we dated and when we got married. I just didn’t want to see it. For years, I hoped that he would change. I thought that my love would be enough to motivate him to open his heart. I realize now how blind I was to his dark side. It’s not as if he prevented me from seeing him clearly. I just didn’t want to see his shortcomings. I was such a romantic back then. I believed that love conquers all. I’m wiser now, and have learned the hard way what I must have in my life. I feel hopeful for my next serious relationship because I know what really matters the most to me now. I’m not willing to live without it, regardless of whatever else I’m getting from my partner.”
There is a big difference between on the one hand, being patient and tolerant, keeping our attention on ourselves, doing our own work, having realistic expectations, and being forgiving, and on the other hand, putting up with behaviors that are contemptuous and disrespectful and tolerating conditions that don’t support one’s self-respect and needs for emotional intimacy.
It was years into her marriage before Julia could tell the difference. She chose to blame herself for her marital dissatisfaction rather than recognize her husband’s contribution to the condition of her marriage. Her willingness to take an excessive amount of responsibility for the marriage played into Mathew’s unwillingness to hold up his end. When Julia recognized that she had been in denial about how much pain she was in and how fixed in his ways Mathew was, she could finally extricate herself from the life-sapping situation she was living in. It was painful for Julia to grieve the dream of what might have been. She was sadder about losing the happily ever after dream than she was losing Mathew, but she went on to create a better life for herself and found a partner who was willing to communicate with her and work with the issues that came up in their relationship.
Healthy relationships require whole-hearted participation and a willingness on the parts of both partners to take responsibility for doing their part. This process generally requires more time and effort than we think it should, and the temptation is to focus on the other person’s contribution to unresolved problems rather than look at the part that we may be playing ourselves.
While the majority of couples who divorce give up without giving the marriage their best shot, some, on the other hand, stay in relationships beyond the point that it has become evident that their partner has no intention to make any accommodations to their desires. They live in hope, believing that their love, patience, tolerance, or compassion will eventually bring their partner around.
At some point, like the song says, “You’ve gotta know when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em”. Not all relationships can or should be saved. Knowing if and when to make that call is a critical piece of information that we need to have in order to know which path to take. The truth is sometimes painful to hear, but ultimately much less painful than it is to keep eating those hot peppers in the hopes of finding a sweet one.