Years ago, Mary Lou and I were playing golf together. We stopped our cart near a hole, and when Mary Lou reached for the chipping wedge in her bag, she discovered she had left it on a previous hole. She was fairly new to golf, so my first thought was to let her backtrack and look for the club so she would learn to manage her equipment. Little did I know at the time that this moment on a golf course would change our marriage forever.
We were running behind, so I decided it would speed things up if I went back for her club. I gave her my wedge to use and told her, and the other twosome, I would catch up with them on the next hole. I found Mary Lou’s club on the previous green. On the drive back to meet up with her, I remembered a golf match I’d enjoyed with a customer. He had also left a club behind, but in his case, I’d felt differently than I had with Mary Lou. As soon as my customer had mentioned the missing club, I jumped into my cart and told him that I would take care of it.
Did I think I should let him find his own club so he would learn to manage his equipment? No! His enjoyment was my top priority. That’s when it hit me. If Mary Lou were my customer, I wouldn’t be thinking she needed to learn how to manage her equipment. I should have realized this was my chance to show how much I cared for her. Going back for my customer’s lost club was a way to ensure his enjoyment. So why wasn’t Mary Lou’s lost club enough reason for me to give her that same quality of care? I had just received a lesson in what it means to love. I felt disappointed in myself.
Why did I treat my customer so well and make my true love feel incapable? If Mary Lou were my customer, I wouldn’t be concerned about her course management. I would be thinking of ways to ensure she had a good time. I love Mary Lou deeply and certainly more than any customer, but I wasn’t acting or thinking like it.
Riding back to catch up with Mary Lou, I realized something that would change my life and my marriage…forever.
When I caught up with our group, I dropped Mary Lou’s club in her bag. I didn’t say anything about what I was feeling, but my actions continued to bother me for the rest of the day. Later that night I lay in bed wondering what to say to her. I felt ashamed even thinking I should tell her how to manage herself. I know how upset I’d be if she had treated me that way. My epiphany may seem trivial, especially if you’re having serious problems in your relationship. You might wonder why I was so worked up over a misplaced golf club. Here is the reason.
Indifference sneaks up on you. One day you are deeply in love and the next you’re drowning in disappointment and don’t understand how you got there. We don’t lose our love for each other in one instant. Changes often take years to evolve. New love may strike like lightning, but seasoned love can sneak away in the dead of night, so quietly we hardly notice—until it’s gone. Every moment we have with our partners or our customers makes a subconscious impression. As Malcolm Gladwell shows in his book The Tipping Point, “Little things make a big difference.”
Each time you have a small positive moment with your partner, you build equity in your relationship. Likewise the tiniest negative moment chips away a piece of that equity.
You don’t notice how you stopped complimenting your partner or quit helping each other around the house. You no longer kiss each other goodnight or hug before you leave for work. You disagree about what the kids should eat or when they should go to bed. Irritations morph into animosity. You stop listening to each other about a problem at work or something troubling you regarding the kids. When big things come along such as an affair, the death of a child, the loss of a job or business, or a foreclosure on your home, you blame each other. Little by little your love dissolves and you wonder what happened.
When you truly love someone, as I love Mary Lou, a little problem feels like a pebble in your shoe. It won’t kill you, but it still hurts and the longer it remains, the worse it feels. Bad relationships don’t appear from nowhere. Emotional rocks keep adding up until you realize it’s not your foot that hurts anymore, it’s your marriage. The golf incident made me wonder how I was making Mary Lou feel every day. I wondered if I had been acting like a dope for a long time and didn’t realize it. I went after her club because I wanted her to continue playing and have fun. But I implied to her I was doing it to speed up the game, and that her lost club was holding us back.
I recalled reading somewhere how a woman doesn’t want to hear the gory details about how her knight has slain the dragon. She wants to hear that he slayed it for her.
I wished I had remembered those words at the time--about the dragon--and said to Mary Lou, “I don’t want you to feel rushed. Let me find your club so you can keep playing. I don’t need to finish this hole.” If I had said that, she would have known I was slaying the dragon for her, not to speed up the game. I also would have felt better about myself.
If you ask me about my goals, I can usually tell you my plan to achieve them, including every strategy and tactic. I never thought about setting goals for being more loving. I have watched complacency creep into so many other marriages and experienced it myself.
I was married the first time at age 19. The year after we were married my wife and high school sweetheart, Karen, died in the hospital after a routine operation. It is still the most painful experience of my life, and extremely hard to talk about. Karen was also the mother of my son. I remarried again three years later, but that marriage lasted only seven years before ending in divorce. Mary Lou is my third marriage, so I am keenly aware of what can go wrong if I'm not paying attention. I wanted her to feel my love each and every day, and I guess I was looking for something to ensure I showed it.
We have tools to help us schedule all sorts of life events, like setting the clock on an iPhone to alert us when to go to meetings or make phone calls, send emails or even take a pill. But I wasn’t hoping for an alarm clock or a personal assistant to turn me into a more caring person. I needed a new mindset, a new attitude.
That’s when I thought about my customer and the golf game, and I wondered…what if I treated Mary Lou like a prized customer? Would that help me become a better partner?
In the next post you can read about Mary Lou's response when I told her about my feelings.