How a Chocolate Chip Bagel Almost Ruined My Marriage

We should all be trying to please our marriage partners, right?


Seeking our partner’s approval does not improve our love for them; it limits our love for them. I know that sounds crazy, but perhaps I can persuade you with a bagel and a guitar recital…

Marriage and Love

Photo Credit: ~ggvic~ via Compfight cc

A chocolate chip bagel almost ruined my marriage.

My favorite breakfast is a plain bagel with chocolate chip cream cheese from a hole-in-the-wall bagel shop near our home. Several years ago, my wife tried to love me by surprising me with my favorite breakfast, but she got it backward—she arrived home with a chocolate chip bagel and plain cream cheese.

I wasn’t grateful.

I didn’t approve of her effort or affirm her thoughtfulness. I felt like she didn’t know me very well, and I made clear her love wasn’t good enough.

My wife is one of the most loving people I’ve ever met—she may be one of the most loving people who has ever existed. But if she had decided to love me only as long as I approved of her efforts, she would have given up on loving me a long time ago. She would have quit becoming a more and more beautiful version of who she is.

We should quit making it our ultimate priority to please our partners, because pleasing our partners and loving them are two entirely different things. Oftentimes, our efforts to please our partners leave us frustrated and hopeless and less likely to love.

As a marital therapist, I watch it happen all the time…

When Approval is More Important Than Loving

It’s a critical moment in any marital therapy. A spouse will be breaking new ground, achieving deeper levels of empathy, affirming instead of criticizing, reaching out instead of clamming up. I get goose bumps as I see the courage and watch the acts of love happening.

And then the spouse waits, searching their partner for a reaction. Is she approving of what I’m doing? Will he affirm me for the progress I’m making? Am I saying all the right things?

But oftentimes, the partner isn’t thrilled; they’re suspicious. Although they like what they’re hearing, it is new. So they are cautious. They don’t trust it. Or it feels like a drop in the ocean of life’s disappointments, so they just stare back blankly. Or they remain stuck in their old, habitual response, which is usually shaming—these new words still aren’t good enough.

And the spouse who, moments before, was stepping into the fullness of their capacity for love gets frustrated, gives up, clams up, and stops trying.

Love dies on the altar of our partners’ approval.

But if our partner’s approval isn’t the standard for our love, what is? Perhaps that question is best answered by a third grader and his guitar…

Not Perfect, But Beautiful

Last month, my son was preparing for his spring guitar recital.

During his weekly lesson, one of the standard exercises was to play a line of music three times in a row without a mistake. Repeatedly, he would play the stretch of music flawlessly, until he got close to the end. Then, he would look up from the music to gauge his instructor’s reaction.

His eyes would go up from the music, and his eyebrows would go up, as if to ask, “Am I getting it right?”

Of course, when his eyes left the music—when he began to search for approval—he made mistakes: he played the wrong note, made errors in fingering, or simply forgot what to play next.

When he began searching for affirmation, the music suffered.

So, his instructor told him to return to basics: keep your eyes on the music, don’t look up for affirmation, and simply play the song to the best of your ability.

The recital finally arrived. By the time he walked up to the front of the auditorium, he had memorized the music. But more importantly, approval was no longer important to him. He sat down and began.

And he played beautifully.

It wasn’t perfect. But he didn’t look up. He just played. It took courage. But even more importantly, it took determination—determination to play to the best of his ability and to trust he was good enough.

The Book of Love

Can we trust we are good enough? Can we quit searching for the approval of the people we love, and begin to invest ourselves in memorizing the music of love?

Peter Gabriel recorded a beautiful version of a song called, “The Book of Love.” He sings, “The book of love is long and boring, and written very long ago. It’s filled with flowers and heart-shaped boxes, and things we’re all too young to know.”

I think a book of love does exist. I think the story of humankind is about our efforts to unearth the book, to discover the music buried within it, and to play it with each other. I think we misinterpret it and mangle it and, sometimes, perhaps, we are just “too young” to understand it.

But I think we must keep returning our eyes to it, whether we find it in a sacred scripture, the research in our scientific journals, the wisdom of a best-selling book, the tutelage of a guide or a counselor, or written in the corners of our hearts where shame and pride and ego have not touched it.

We must keep searching for it, and we must dedicate our lives to learning the notes and playing them as well as we possibly can. And, when interpreting the sheet music of love, we must be humbly aware the book of love is always far more loving than we can possibly imagine.

I think marriage, at its best, is a soaring duet of two people who are paying close attention to the sheet music of love. Not looking up for approval or affirmation. Simply playing their hearts out, because it is what their hearts were made to do.

Which is why, these days, it doesn’t matter what kind of bagel my wife brings me. I’m learning the music of love, and I’m playing it with her, to the best of my ability. Regardless of how she reacts.


Comments: What is your Book of Love? Where have you found sheet music for the heart? You can share your thoughts at the bottom of this post.        

Free eBook: My eBook, The Marriage Manifesto: Turning Your World Upside Down, is available free to new blog subscribers. If you are not yet a subscriber, you can click here to subscribe, and your confirmation e-mail will include a link to download the eBook. Or, the book is also now available for Kindle and Nook

Preview: Next Wednesday’s post is tentatively entitled, “How to Find Joy in Unexpected Places This Summer.”

Next Marriage Post: The next marriage post in July will address one of the questions this post will surely bring up for readers: “But what about abusive marriages, should I just keep loving while my partner makes no effort?”

Disclaimer: This post is not professional advice. It should be read as you would read a “self-help” book. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor, who can become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. Counselors can be located through your insurance network or through your state psychological association.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

18 thoughts on “How a Chocolate Chip Bagel Almost Ruined My Marriage

  1. Excellent advice. As I was reading, though, I thought of many people that I see in my Divorce Mediation Practice who never seems to look up. That is also a big problem. These “undersensitive” people, however, always seem to marry the “oversensitive”! I think that is because, during courtship, they work hard at “looking up” all the time — to make up for their lack of natural desire and inclination to want to make other people happy. I see this over and over again with my computer professionals, of which there is a plethora in Northern Virginia. Thank you for another thoughtful post. I will save this for the spouses of my “undersensitives” who try so very hard to please their significant other, in exchange for what is often a shrug (at best), and eventually end up in my office, frustrated and sad. Robin Graine,

    • Robin, This is a great point. Thanks for such thoughtful feedback. At the end of the post, I noted that my next marital post will be precisely for those “oversensitives” who are married to “undersensitives.” In the post, I will call them “constant-losers” and “always-winners,” but we do need a balancing word about what these folks are facing. Thanks again for your comment and for the work you do!

      • Please, I am dying here with my “undersensitive” husband. He does not have any music.

  2. Hi Dr. Kelly,

    I am new to your blog. I signed up after the letter to your daughter which was fantastic and brought up a lot of stuff for me. This post on the bagel is interesting but I’m curious… Just as it’s important for your wife to continue to love rather than seek to please I feel like there was no ownership on your part to accept love, “the bagel effort” even though it wasn’t exactly what you wanted. I think you said why you didn’t appreciate aka it meant that you weren’t really “known” but I feel like ultimately the moral of that story is to be grateful and act with grace even though it may not be what you want, that it is the intention not that action that we should pay attention to. I guess the way the article is written I feel like you have a particular set of standards and had your wife not chosen to bypass attaching to trying to please those standards the marriage would have been affected negatively… I agree but I think even more so in that instance it was up to you or the “bagel receiver” not to respond as a child would but to understand it was a mistake and to the goal soften the standards to begin with and choose kindness and and the intention behind it.

    • Hi Elle, I couldn’t agree with you more. Although the thrust of this particular post is about continuing to love more and better even when our partners’ don’t approve, I hope the whole post–from the title to the last paragraph–can be received as ownership and encouragement that one way to love better is to be grateful for thoughtful gestures, rather than critical.

  3. It seems like you always have something each week that is just what I need to hear…thank you!

  4. Kelly, so glad I read this after lunch. This morning, I opened a kitchen corner cabinet, and the bifold door fell off. Upon investigation, the flange that holds the screws on the bottom hinge broke off, so I drilled two new pilot holes in the hinge, readjusted it, and 15 minutes later, the door was fixed. When my husband came home for lunch, I told him what I did, to which he replied, “Wouldn’t it have been easier to get a new hinge?” Whaaaaat?!? My interpretation: “You don’t appreciate what I did?” Mark’s real message: “Your day is busy enough. Isn’t the cupboard under warranty?” But, I just “heard” criticism. So, Kelly, your article took me from hurt and “humpf” to the reality of Mark’s real message. I emailed the cabinet guy, and the new (free of charge) hinges are in the mail. So, even after 24 years of marriage, we won’t be putting away the sheet music quite yet! Thank you!

    • Dawn, what a lovely story. You could write your own blog post, “How Free Hinges Saved My Marriage.” : ) You two are lucky to have each other!

  5. I’m just thinking, pondering… You do that to me. I wonder if approval is the opposite of acceptance. Approval seems kind of like judgement. Still chewing on it…

  6. I took from that the idea that doing things for approval alone isn’t loving. In fact I see it as insecure and self serving, not loving. But isn’t a part of loving, out of the blue kindnesses, doing nice things for the person you love, just because, and not needing or wanting approval? Isn’t loving people well and encouraging them to just be themselves, accepting whatever makes them really happy is good enough.Doing things that say, ‘I know you, I have paid attention”..What’s more loving then that? I think the meaning I took away was, Don’t do things for approval, because the giver needs something themselves”…but do these things because it is one of many ways to show love and be loving.

    • I think you have captured the spirit of the post perfectly. Thank you for summarizing it so well!

  7. ” When he began searching for affirmation, the music suffered”, loved this line as I see myself doing the same thing in my relationships, even beyond the one with my partner. Truly a very wise and thoughtful post that for me extends into all relationships. Thank you for sharing your thoughtfully written words.

  8. My husband recently introduced me to your site and I’m so thankful that he did. This posting touched me very much. I’ve spent so many years feeling wounded when my husband would misunderstand or not appreciate my actions of love. I have focused on his approval so much so that I’ve walked around in a perpetual state of rejection. I would feel rejected when he would criticize my actions of loving him and then in turn I would reject him by not speaking or avoiding eye contact with him (you could call it pouting without the crossed arms). Thank you for planting a seed in my heart to break this destructive cycle.
    A thought that occurred to me while reading this posting is that when we become parents, we do not base our caring and love on whether or not our child approves. If we only did what our children wanted, the human race probably wouldn’t survive. Instead we love and care for our children, despite their protests, day in and day out with pure intention. We love our children, not to get something in return, but to give them the best life possible. Keeping this thought in mind I’m going to focus on loving my husband purely with no expectation of payback in the form of approval. This will be a big change for me but I’m hoping will be the first of many that will turn the tide in our marriage.

    • RaShell, Thanks for this, and I love your point about our children. Why should we restrict our unconditional love and caring to them and withhold it from our spouses? Blessings to you as this “seed” sprouts!

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  10. I will have to say, this really reaffirmed the realization I made a while ago. Before entering a relationship with my current boyfriend, I would try to demonstrate my abilities when dating. I figured that showing them my knack for cleaning or my expertise in cooking would win points. Unfortunately, it backfired. I now have someone who I do not try to constantly please, but just do what I do, regardless of whether or not he shows approval.

  11. I resonate with the music lesson analogy. You can’t serve two masters; either your performance is focused on the activity at hand, or your heart is wandering between performing and seeking approval. The ironic thing is that here, the point of performance IS to win the approval of one’s spouse…”How am I doing?” “Am I making him/her happy?” It can seem a bit like trying to balance a teacup on one’s head while playing soccer. It takes a lot of confidence not to look up…

    Paul |

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