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.
In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.
Connect with Kelly
Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.