Don Paglia | Marriage and Family Counseling. Constellations Workshops


Tip # 26:

“All the romance of trout fishing exists in the mind of the angler and is in no way shared by the fish.”

                               Harold F. Blaisdell, The Philosophical Fisherman, 1969

When Beth and Roger went to a marriage counselor after Roger’s affair, as their marriage was on the brink of ending, the therapist, first, listened to each tell their respective distresses and upsets.  Beth began by expressing the trust her husband had shattered by this betrayal and of her rage and fury that would surface at numerous times since their crisis erupted. Roger, then followed by trying to explain how he was so foolish and, admittedly, selfish, and now wished for nothing more than to repair what he knew could not be erased. Each felt hopeless and lost.

When each finished with their presentations, the therapist told them that what had occurred could be seen in one of three possible ways; either as:

(1) The worst thing that had ever happened to them,

(2) The best thing that had happened to them,


(3) Simply, what happened.

The couple sat silently as the therapist continued to explain that they now had an important choice to make. The infidelity was real. It had happened. What remained was what did they want to do with this crisis? What they needed to sort out was where did they wished to go from here? Whatever the couple decided would set the course for the actions needed to bring about their desired result. The WHAT was the most important question they needed to address. The HOWS would flow from the WHAT? The HOWs are simply the details that arise out of the very important WHAT?

In addition, it would be important to see their crisis as both a problem – a problem to address, and also as a symptom – a symptom of something that is most likely indicative of something missing within their relationship, or some difficulty within the relationship they have been avoiding? Also, were they willing and able to do the hard work in store? They could simply see it as all too terrible and be tempted to justify walking away from what seemed as too monumental?  There would be consequences from whatever choice they made. Divorce is often a lousy solution to a bad situation.

At the same time, marriage isn’t a quick fix to gain happiness. One is foolish to get married in order to “get happy.” What is required is to have two happy people who come together, and who then go about creating a happy marriage.

In Roger’s case, and to some extent, Beth’s as well, there had been a lack of personal happiness from the very beginning, as well as, a lack of taking responsibility for missing ingredients within each of the parties, as well as, within the marital relationship itself, for a long while.

Each needed to buy into this truth. Then each needed to own his or her contribution to and responsibly for the breakdown. This is not about blaming the victim. Roger was dead wrong for his infidelity. The couple were not finding what each wanted within their relationship. He choose to be irresponsible in a particular way.  But it was also useful for Beth to see she had a part in the over- arching abyss between them.

Through counseling both eventually came to see how they had settled into a rut – an arrangement – and had not been getting from their relationship what each sought. Also they came to see, that as a result, they had not been giving much, as well. The relationship was depleted, and they lacked the skills necessary to openly address this, and to do so in an effective manner. 

Beth saw how she learned to busy herself with her part-time job and in caring for their two children. It was her form of settling for not getting much from her marital relationship. Roger, for his part, got caught up in launching his career and in trying to provide for his family. He justified his excessive absences from his wife, and his family, as necessary to succeed in providing for them. Working also was much easier for him than it was to sort out the obstacles confronting him in the relationship, where he felt inadequate and in unfamiliar territory.

Each fell into justifying their respective parts for the ensuing demise of their marriage. Over time the marriage took more and more of a back seat. It was no longer a joyful or nurturing place for either one. Since it is pretty hard to stay with anything for very long when it is not enjoyable, each harbored divorce as a possibility looming down the road.

This is true for fishing, or bowling, or marriage; that when the fun and enjoyment isn’t there people start finding reasons to skip out on whatever they were originally committed to. The couple, once found romance and happiness readily within their relationship, but now began to drift apart.

Romance is a decision. Marriage is not just about romance, but it is an important aspect. And it is what couples can cultivate with intention and practice. It is too important to leave to chance. Esther Perl, in her book, Mating in Captivity, speaks of how most couples come to counseling because they’re stuck. They’re repeating the same things over and over again, and they really think that if they do it one more time, it will finally yield some better results. What they must aim for is flexibility and adaptability, so that the two people can engage not just as domestic partners and parents, but also as sexual, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual partners. Many couples put their marital union on the back burner as they attend to careers, parenting and all the things that come with a full family life.

Attitude is everything. Happiness is an inside job. It seems counter-intuitive to tell couples to WORK on their relationship. Why not Play at it? Think in terms of being playful, and with this, create space for fun and laughter to flourish. This is easy to do in the early stages of a relationship – during the dating and courting, or what we refer to as B.C. – before children.

Perel offers a bold, provocative new take on intimacy and sex. Mating in Captivity explores the paradoxical union of domesticity and sexual desire, and explains what it takes to keep romance and physical intimacy in a home also filled with the demands of raising a family. Perel points toward the possibility of constructing excitement, play, and even poetic sex in long-term relationships.

There are four causes of negative emotions that play havic in the pursuit of an alive and vibrant relationship, be it marriage, a career or in friendships:

(1) Justification, (2) Identification, (3) Inward considering, and (4) Blame.

Justification is what we do when we rationalize a reason for anger or unhappiness. We start thinking or telling anyone who will listen how badly we were treated and how much better we are than this other person/culprit. What we unwitting end up doing is give our own power away. We allow ourselves to become victims and give our responsibility for ourselves away to others.

Identification, or attachment, is when we take something personally or become attached to a person or thing. Spiritual teachers all emphasize the importance of separating ourselves emotionally from the situation. It’s not personal! By withdrawing emotionally from the situation we can remain, or regain, our calmness and composure. This is not a matter of passive acceptance of anything that happens to you. Rather it is encouragement to use one’s willpower to keep our mind and emotions under control. It is a kindness to offer yourself by standing back from a problem, which then allows you to be objective about it.

Inward considering is when you become overly concerned with the way people are treating you. If you perceive that someone is not giving you the respect you feel you deserve, you can feel insulted and angry, and want to strike back. When one’s self-esteem is not as high as it could be, we become overly sensitive to the actions of others. One of the Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz is “Don’t take anything personally.” This is sage advice and, unfortunately what 99% of people do not do.

The third cause of negative emotions is when we give too much importance to what other people might think about us regarding things we want to do or not do. The truth is no one cares more about your key life decisions than you do. Set your own high standards. Choose good role models, and let go of the frantic drive that makes what others may think more important than our own beliefs. Eleanor Roosevelt said, “nobody can me you feel inferior without your consent.”   

The fourth negative influence is the worst one of all. It is the trigger of anger, resentment, envy, jealousy, and frustration. It is called Blame. To become angry, a person must be able to blame someone for something that has happened or not happened that they don’t like or approve of. They blame their problems on others so that they lose contact with reality. They see the entire world through a lens of blame and its sister emotion, guilt.

Whenever there is a problem, personal or public, the angry person automatically concludes that someone must be to blame. They then spend time and emotion apportioning blame among various parties. This obsession with blame and anger, leading to resentment and envy, can consume the person who experiences it.

Having a life of joy and happiness is for everyone. The key for such a life has to do with our thinking. The only thing we can control are our thoughts. We think thoughts and then generate meanings to go along with these thoughts. Since our mind can only hold one thought at a time, positive or negative, we can substitute a positive thought for a negative thought whenever we choose. If we do this often enough time, we develop a habit. We end up starving off the negative thoughts, and the negative feelings that accompany them, which otherwise end up zapping our energy and joy. Our negative thoughts have all been learned, beginning in childhood. What has been learned can be unlearned. Life is not a dress rehearsal.

This is all a long way to say: “change your thinking, change your life.”