Part one can be found here.

Part two can be found here.

Focus on the positives

If you are fighting with your spouse a lot, chances are good that you are focusing on the negatives. Let’s say that your husband has been promising to get something done in the backyard for months. You keep bringing it up and he doesn’t do it! Finally, you resort to little comments. Still no movement on the project! This was exactly the case with a couple I’ll call Davi and Denise. Denise needed a kid's fort built in the backyard and Davi had said that he would do it but never did.

When I asked Denise if she knew why Davi wouldn’t do it, she said that she didn’t but she assumed it was because it wasn’t as important to him as it was to her. I looked at Davi and asked him if this were true. He told me that it was not true, he believed the kid's fort needed to be built as much as Denise thought it needed to be built.

This left two other potential reasons. Either Davi felt inadequate to build the kid's fort. If this were true, I was going to have a rough road in front of me seeing if I could help them get any traction on this issue. We tend to avoid the areas where we feel inadequate as though they are plague-producing. In truth, I didn’t think that this was the issue for Davi. As near as I could tell, he was a very competent carpenter.

The second possibility was the one that I thought was far more likely. Davi figured that Denise would tear his building apart. She would find things that she didn’t like about it and complain. She would move from one negative to another and then she would eventually just start complaining about the next project that he wasn’t going to do. In Davi’s mind, there was no pay-off to building this fort because it would just go bad.

Davi and Denise had negative relational equity. When Davi thought about doing something for Denise his immediate thought was that it would go badly. That’s negative equity.

I asked him if I was right in my guess. He confirmed that I was. What followed was a pretty common conversation. Denise denied that she did that and asked for examples. Before she could finish that question, he rattled off at least three different examples. Before he could finish those, she denied then dismissed them. Then she discounted that she had actually torn his work apart. He looked at me and simply said, “See.”

Both Davi and Denise had stopped building relational equity into their lives. I asked Denise what she thought would happen if she just said thank you and praised Davi when he built the kid’s fort. She laughed and said, “He’d probably pass out.”

I asked Davi what he thought would happen if he just built it and then made the changes that Denise brought up afterward. He laughed and said, “I’d be at it forever.”

That’s the part I can’t deny. Intentionally building relational equity takes time. It’s long. But then again so is fighting. Divorce is expensive both financially and emotionally. Instead of being around to hear his wife’s comments, Davi started just bailing. He went fishing. He went to his buddy’s house to work on their race car. He simply bailed.

Those actions made him feel temporarily safe. But they made him feel completely insecure in the long run. He focused on the negatives and he lost.

So did Denise. She focused on what Davi didn’t do. She failed to focus on what he did do. Consequently, he did less. Because they both refused to actually build into the relationship, it withered. It shrank to the point, where they felt like strangers when they were around each other. They fought about everything.

She’d ask him to fold clothes

He’d fold the clothes.

She’d complain because he didn’t do it the way she wanted him to fold them.

So he stopped folding the clothes.

Then she complained because he stopped folding the clothes.

She asked him to clean the house.

He did.

Because he cleaned the house, he figured she’d want to have sex.

She didn’t want to have sex.

He became angry because she didn’t want to have sex and then blustered and yelled.

Now she really didn’t want to have sex.

That is a fairly common pattern to a relationship where relational equity has been lost. But it doesn’t have to be that way. A couple doesn’t have to be stuck in a pattern of doing in order to get. I often suggest to couples that they should commit to the idea of giving without expecting anything in return. The problem with my suggestion is that it goes directly against why we got into the relationship in the first place. Most of us got into our relationship for what we were getting out of it. It’s easy to see how this creates problems for us in the future.

Committing to loving the other person regardless of what they do builds relational equity. It’s also probably the hardest thing you will ever try to do. When relationships are stuck in a particularly nasty and severely negative narrative, the heart of each partner is numb as if it has been encased in ice. Layer upon layer of ice. Each act of love that doesn’t come with an expectation in return is an attempt to melt that ice just a little bit at a time.

That’s the rub, isn’t it? An act of love done with an expectation of return isn’t love.

Folding clothes expecting to get sex isn’t love.

Cooking dinner expecting to get a foot rub isn’t love.

Love has to be given without an expectation of return. Love has to be free in order to be love. It comes without guile or a price. But when we try to repair relationships that have little to no relational equity we tend to do just that. We demand love to be recognized. We give love, but we want it to be lauded and recompensed.

The minute that happens, it stops being love and becomes a transaction. It is no longer love. It is some less. It is often hurtful and continues the cycle of pain, fights, and exasperation. Relational equity is built by giving love without expecting anything in return.

We will continue this series tomorrow looking at part 4.

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