The Work of Love
What if we were as generous and forgiving with our partners as we are with young children? Imagine this scene:
You collect your five-year-old from school and she is immediately cranky, whiny, demanding and sour. Her face reflects her mood. Do any of these thoughts cross your mind?
- She must be hungry.
- Maybe she’s tired.
- Something unpleasant must have happened at school.
- Perhaps she’s not feeling well.
You ask about her day and she rebuffs you, turns away. What do you feel in that moment? Do you feel hurt? Not so much. More likely, you feel sad and compassion toward her, given her unhappy state. You want to understand where her mood is coming from, and you wonder what you might do — what she needs from you — to help lift her spirits.
Now imagine this scene:
Your partner comes into the house and you immediately notice how out of sorts she is: cranky, whiny, demanding and sour. You see it clearly on her face. Do any of these thoughts cross your mind?
- What have I done this time?
- Another sour mood? I’m tired of this.
- I hope she’s not going to spoil the evening.
- I better be careful, this could be trouble.
We seem to find it so much easier to muster loving, compassionate interest without feeling injured when a child is in a tough state than when our partner is feeling much the same. Patience and understanding tend to be easily available for a distressed youngster; less so for our partner. In the face of a partner’s bad mood, it’s easy for us to grow cautious or become defensive, finding it difficult to be compassionately detached.
This is the work of love: “to go behind the front of [a partner’s] challenging behavior to ask, Where is this behavior coming from?”i We call it work because it takes serious effort to resist the call of the ego seeking to be right, to admonish or advise (see Right Versus Smart). It takes effort to refrain from inserting ourselves into our partner’s personal drama, mistakenly stepping into the leading role as the target (or cause) of his angst or fury. It’s when we hold aside unwarranted injury and uninvited judgment and just show loving curiosity — Where is this behavior coming from? — that we can bring patience and understanding to our adult partner just as we would if she were a mere tot.
i Philosopher and author Alain de Botton interviewed on “The true hard work of love.” On Being podcast, February 11, 2021.