In the early 1940’s theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote a poem now known as the serenity prayer. Its use has been adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous.
The poem goes as follows:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; Courage to change the things I can; And wisdom to know the difference.
In 25 words or less, it’s perhaps the most profound statement that can save a relationship. Christian or not, each person should memorize it and reflect upon it during difficult times.
Let’s say, for example, you have a spouse that consistently comes home late. At this point, you’re faced with a potentially difficult decision. Which path you choose will literally make the difference between happiness and misery.
Is this a behavior I really can change? Or perhaps will I just need to accept it? Should I accept it? If I try to accept it, can I come to terms with it, or will it just be too much for me to handle?
If I decide it is a behavior that really needs to change, what is the best way to make that happen? How do I approach the situation to make things better, not worse? And just how flexible should I be in dealing with their lateness and attempts to change?
Finally, how do I know if I should really pursue change, or just accept it as it is? If I expect change, am I just being too picky? Maybe I just need to be more patient and tolerant? Can I bring myself to be that patient and tolerant?
But if I just accept it, am I simply settling for unacceptable behavior? Where is the cut-off where it’s no longer acceptable, and rather than patience, change really does need to happen?
Perhaps one of the most mocked break-up lines in history is the classic “It’s not you, it’s me” excuse to end a relationship. But the more I do therapy, the more I am convinced this justification may be right on the money.
Maybe it’s a person’s inability to live the serenity prayer that causes so much relationship chaos.
If this is true, we can no longer simply blame our partner for our miserable days. To some degree, maybe it has to do not so much with what our partner does, but how we respond to it that makes all the difference.
For example, none of us are married to the perfect person. Nor are we the perfect person. Nor will we become the perfect person. Nor will they become the perfect person. Therefore, we all have gaps that cause problems in our relationship. These gaps will not go away.
If we plan to have a happy union, then, these gaps must be bridged by learning how to accept the things we can not change. Often trying to change these gaps in our partner actually causes more damage than good.
Yet the wisdom of the prayer must enter as we try to decide what can we expect to have change and what we must instead accept.
Too many times, unfortunately, I’ve sat in my office with people who tried to accept a behavior that should have been changed. Not having the wisdom to see the difference, they chose the wrong path. Years after attempting to adjust, they finally decided they just couldn’t do it anymore.
When questioned why they waited so long to mention their discomfort, the answer is often “I thought I could get used to it.” Sadly, to their own demise, they didn’t have the wisdom to tell the difference between what to change and what to accept.
Alternately, I have worked with a nagging spouse a time or two. No matter what their partner did, it was never good enough.
They seemed to have an incredible knack at identifying every fault in their partner, while at the same time giving them absolutely no credit for any kind or loving behavior they may have done.
In this case, perhaps it was the person’s inability to accept the things they can not change that caused such relationship chaos. In those instances, a little bit of unconditional love could have gone a long way.
Unfortunately, despite my years as a couples therapist, I still can’t come up with a definitive list of which behaviors should be tolerated and which should be expected to change.
Granted, there are some clearly obvious ones, such as any form of abuse needs to be changed. But beyond that, it appears that each individual must know themselves well enough to know what they can and should accept, and what behaviors they simply must see change.
And what answer is right for one individual and couple may not fit another well at all. Perhaps you have a spouse who comes home late and you accept it and still live a happy marriage. But for your friend across the street, this really is a behavior that must change or happiness is almost impossible.
And while research can offer us many specific tips to happiness, perhaps it’s the AA group that sums it up best in a poem written over 70 years ago, yet still as true today as ever in helping keep love alive.
May God grant us all of us the wisdom it takes to keep love alive.
Remember, couple relationships are easier than you think, but harder than you act.
For more information on Keepin’ Love Alive, visit www.panhandlecouples.com or call Anderson at 635-2800.
Mark Anderson is a mental health therapist specializing in couples therapy. He is in private practice in Scottsbluff at Oregon Trail Mental Health. To contact him call 635-2800 or visit online at www.panhandlecouples.com