When I was a teen I witnessed the up-and-down course of many relationships. High school friendships and romances are surprisingly fickle. I began to wonder whether I might someday marry, but then become disillusioned within my marriage—just like what had happened in those other relationships I had witnessed. Is it possible to get know someone intimately and still sustain love and appreciation?
I assumed that the key to avoiding disenchantment was to marry someone remarkably good, someone unlikely to disappoint me over time.
I was mistaken. The real answer turned out to be something I never anticipated. That surprising answer is taught clearly by both modern relationship research and by God’s commands. It is this simple: We can choose to focus on the good in people regardless of any disappointments and hurts.
And that choice—to focus on the good in people or on our dissatisfaction with them—will determine whether or not our relationships will flourish.
The Threat of Disillusionment
Disillusionment in relationships is common. In the beginning, we come to feel close to someone. We share many great experiences together. We find things to admire in him or her. We open our hearts to that person. Then something happens. The person says or does something that disappoints us. We get irritated or frustrated or hurt.
When the offenses are rare or small, we may recover readily. But if the cause of the disillusionment is larger or we experience it on a recurring basis, we begin to turn away. We begin to seeonly that which bothers us about the other person. We speculate that the other person is not really who we thought he or she was. We start to reinterpret and rewrite the whole relationship history. “Now that I see more clearly, he has always been selfish.” “This is typical—she never supported me in what I wanted to do.”
Disillusionment turns into dissatisfaction. We question the worth of the relationship. Perhaps we decide the relationship is hopeless and abandon it. Or perhaps we remain in the relationship—but abandon it in other ways. We stop investing in it. We become chronically annoyed or disappointed. We close off our hearts. And our connection shrivels into a pale echo of what it once was.
The Great Test of Discipleship
Only rarely do we consider that God brings people into our lives in order to both bless and test us. We can study the scriptures and learn His doctrine, but it is in relationships that we are challenged to put those heavenly principles into practice.
The natural man has the tendency to view all relationships with an eye towards, “Will this other person fulfill my needs?” In contrast, God views our relationships as an opportunity for us to learn compassion, patience, forgiveness, mercy and charity. He places people in our lives to draw us out of our self-centeredness and to learn to love others in the way Jesus did.
The normal course of relationships is no surprise to God. He designed it all! And He has a sacred purpose for it. Here’s His formula for heavenly power:
Let thy bowels also be full of charity (1) towards all men, and (2) to the household of faith . . . (D&C 121:45, numbers added)
Notice that God requires an attitude of charity towards all people. He requires something more in the next phrase: We must deliver real and personal charity to the household of faith.
God’s use of different prepositions seems very deliberate. He is asking us to have something more than generalized charity towards all humanity. He is inviting us to the special challenge of showing daily charity to the people with whom we live and worship—the household of faith.
God’s question is not merely whether we can have a favorable attitude toward nice folks in foreign lands; the vital question is whether we will continue to appreciate, love, and serve those who irritate us daily and weekly. That is the great test of discipleship.
The Message of Research
Consider the strong and consistent message about relationships that comes from research on healthy marriages. Two marriage scholars, Andy Christensen and Neil Jacobson, found that the key to happy marriages is not changing our partners but accepting them the way they are.
Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, recommends that we dwell on the most positive thoughts we have of our partners. “Hold on to your illusions,” is his wise counsel.
Sandra Murray has repeatedly shown that idealizations or positive illusions are characteristic of those who have the happiest marriages.
John Gottman, the dean of marriage research, has recommended that we all wear rose colored glasses in close relationships. His research is clear: strong couples have roughly five positive thoughts about their partner for each negative.
There is hardly any finding better attested in the social sciences: Looking for the good in the other person and dwelling on it is the key to healthy relationships. So much for research; what does God recommend?
God recommends that we have kindness and pure knowledge—the kind filtered of earthly impurities. We are commanded to see as He sees.
I think Jesus’ core message to the human race is to keep our focus on seeing and appreciating the goodness in others. He tells us this in many ways:
When Nancy and I were married in the Salt Lake Temple decades ago, I think God was inviting me to do more than make and keep a covenant of faithfulness. I think He was asking me to see His cherished daughter the way He does. I think He was challenging me to see Nancy’s finest qualities more clearly and gladly than anyone on the face of the earth.Maybe the bestevidence that I am honoring my marriage covenant is when I am profoundly grateful that He gave me Nancy as a companion.
God’s focus was never on helping me resist disillusionment; He wanted me to hold to, cherish, and enlarge my best illusions of her! Yet there is a flaw in calling them illusions as modern scholars do. From God’s perspective, those glorious qualities are not illusions. The very best that we ever see in others only hints at the glorious goodness that is part of their eternal natures and will be clearly manifest when God completes His work on the people in our lives.