I read this tremendously moving love story written by a husband who lost his wife to cancer after just 4 or 5 years of marriage. He tells their story so sweetly, with such tenderness. It’s gripping to read how their struggle against cancer knit them even more closely together and taught them to treasure each moment with each other.
As I reflected more on this story, I wondered (and this might sound cynical, but bear with me): If it hadn’t have been for the suffering they experienced together, had their lives followed a more “normal” path, would they have eventually found themselves bickering about whose turn it was to unload the dishwasher? Would they have even reached a point of frustration and disillusionment with their marriage, maybe even doubting for a moment that it had ever been “love at first sight?”
It’s possible. But here’s the thing: this husband will always remember his wife in a certain light, he’ll always remember the details of meeting her, pursuing her, loving her in this powerful and beautiful way because that is the way he has chosen to tell himself the story.
I first heard this basic idea in reading a marriage book by John Gottman. He talks about the importance of nurturing your fondness and admiration for your spouse (which translates into having “retained some fundamental sense that the other [is] worthy of being respected and even liked.”) and writes that “…the best test of whether a couple still has a functioning fondness and admiration system is usually how they view their past.” (from The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, pp. 62-63).
I know that lots of stuff actually happens in life. Some things are truly terrible, regardless of how you frame and reframe them in the retelling. But at the same time, to some extent, we are writing our stories as we recount to ourselves and to others our memories and experiences. This seems particularly significant in relationships and marriage. Crazy stuff is bound to happen in any relationship. Some days will be extraordinarily mundane, others peppered with chaos. Maybe you’ll get slammed out of the blue with a huge horrible scary thing, like a big illness. But I guess I really want to practice retelling these things in a way that builds and strengthens the relationships I’m in.
Other than the couple I mentioned, the most striking example of this kind of reframing that I have seen lately is in my grandma. While Grandpa was a great guy in many ways, it seems that there were other ways in which he was not the easiest person to live with. Apparently my grandparents never fought, which I think was mainly accomplished through Grandma often if not always ceding to what Grandpa wanted. Yet they were married — and I am certain Grandma would say “very happily married” — for 65 years. Now that he has passed away, Grandma is able to redecorate and say things like, “I never liked that color!” To us kids and grandkids, it was an obviously imperfect relationship. But she has reframed her experience in that marriage in such a way that allows her to enjoy her new independence without regretting any of the last 65 years, to be soft and thankful rather than bitter and hard.
So reflecting again on the beautiful love story of the couple I mentioned at first: Maybe their story is no less or more beautiful than mine or anyone else’s. But he has figured out a way of looking at life, those years with his wife, through a beautiful perspective. He is seeing it all through a different lens than the ones we habitually employ.
And I want to use that lens.
I want to practice writing the story of the relationships I’m living in, of the marriage I’m a part of, in that grateful, honesty-tempered-with-unflagging-optimism, loving, believing-the-best, sort of way that I can. I want to remember to treasure the moments that I’m given, rather than imagining moments I’d perhaps prefer. I want to be tender and gentle and unconditionally self-sacrificing toward my husband instead of wasting time frustrated over whatever the latest thing is that I think he should change. And I think a lot of this is connected to how I recount our story to others and to myself.
P.S. If you are or someone you know is in an abusive marriage/relationship, please don’t try to reframe the story; get out, seek help, find a safe place. I am writing the above for those of us who are in good and healthy, albeit difficult, relationships, and not to in any way excuse abusive behavior in a relationship.