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Fair is Fair, No?

I received a comment recently on one of my older blog posts:

Why should we assume love but not expect our husband to assume respect???

I knew immediately that I had done a bad job of writing that post. I do not recommend anyone Assume Love for the benefit of their spouse, only for their own benefit. When we Assume Love, we stop an unhelpful but instinctual response that's happening in our own brains, a response that will make us unhappy and cause us to behave like we've gone mad.

An analogy might help. Imagine you have inherited a life-saving response, one designed to protect you from the grass fires common where your ancestors spent many millennia. Even before you could walk, your feet were making little stomping motions in place, because your ancestors' only hope was to get everyone to stomp out a grass fire before it spreads. Running barefoot could be life-threatening, so your brain feels less anxious when your feet are wrapped in leather or wearing shoes. But you live now in a place that gets floods. You cannot walk through water in shoes. You cannot run if you make tiny little steps when you're anxious. Your instincts are dead wrong for your life today. And the more anxious life makes you, the worse it gets.

Well, you inherited instincts to protect you from attacks by wild animals or marauding groups of humans who do not count you as one of them. When you perceive threat, you develop life-saving tunnel vision and make a split-second decision whether to fight or flee with no deliberation. Tunnel vision means you cannot even recall information that would be useful to a more deliberate decision. You become focused on assessing the threat and choosing which of your well-practiced skills you can bring to bear on it right now.

In our lifetimes, we encounter few threats bigger than our spouse--the person we sleep next to, the person who shares all of our assets and our children--turning on us. At the slightest hint of such a threat, all we can pay attention to is assessing how bad the threat is and whether we need to attack it or run from it.

That's what our instincts tell us to do. That's what's hard-wired into our brains. But if we are not under physical attack, if the threat is making us late or throwing socks on the living room floor or quitting their job without notice or flirting, we have the time and the safety to stop that built-in response. And the easiest way to do it is to ask ourselves, "How might I explain this behavior if I could be certain I am still loved and respected by someone who has not turned overnight into a very different person?" So, we assume, just for the moment, that all this is still true, to free our brains to remember all the rest of the information we have about the person we married. And then we can answer that question. And we will be a lot more accurate in our answer than we are capable of while we're searching for signs of danger with our laser-focused tunnel vision.

This is how we stop imagining our spouse is late because of an affair or a total disregard for what matters to us. It's how we remember the likely phone call from her sister in labor or the warning that things could go sideways at work today for him or the fact that we fell in love with this person because of his or her ability to be so totally present in the moment, which leads to ignoring clocks and warrants a reminder right now.

It's the only way we get from outrage over not being included in a decision to leave a job and speculation over what other insane financial decisions might come next to recalling the six times this year he's been a pallbearer at his friends' funerals or the story last month about her boss's sexual assault on her co-worker. It's how we shift in a flash from anger and fear to concern and caring and being the person we long to be when something goes wrong. It's how we keep ourselves the compassionate, loving people we enjoy being.

And even if we're wrong, and our spouse is, indeed, late because of an affair or out of a job because drinking on the job led to a bad decision, we're in a better place. We're better able to think instead of lash out. We're better ready to make plans for protecting our future. Because tunnel vision is of no help at all in dealing with a marriage problem other than a physical assault, we Assume Love. And we do it for ourselves, not for our spouse.

Should our spouse do the same? Well, it would do the same for them as it does for us. But expecting them to do something just because we do it is going to harm us long before it changes them. An expectation is nothing but a premeditated resentment. And who needs resentment? It's highly corrosive. It eats away at love.


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Patty Newbold is a widow who got it right the second time...

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