The List that Saved my Marriage



The story of a woman, who stopped getting angry and changed her life for better.

– The day had come. I’d lasted as long as I could in my marriage. Once my husband, Bill, left for work, I packed a bag for myself and our 14-month-old son and left for my parents. Mom told me she and Dad would help me. They’d be there for me, which brought me great comfort.

“But before you leave Bill,” she said, “I have one task for you to complete.” Mom put down my sleeping son, took a pen and sheet of paper, and drew a vertical line down the middle of the page. She told me to list in the left column all the things Bill did that made him impossible to live with. As I looked at the dividing line, I thought she’d then tell me to list all his good qualities on the right-hand side. I was determined to have a longer list of bad qualities on the left. This is going to be easy, I thought. I started immediately to scribble down the left column. I started immediately to scribble down the left column:

  1. Bill never picked his clothes off the floor.
  2. He never told me when he was going outside.
  3. He had embarrassing, nasty habits such as blowing his nose or belching at the dinner table.
  4.  He never bought me nice presents.
  5. He refused to match his clothes. He was tight with money.
  6. He wouldn’t help with the housework.
  7. He didn’t talk with me.

The list went on and on, until I’d filled the page. I certainly had more than enough evidence to prove that no woman would be able to live with this man.

Smugly I said, “Now I guess you’re going to ask me to list all Bill’s good qualities on the right side.”

“No,” Mom said. “I already know Bill’s good qualities. Instead, for each item on the left side, I want you to write how you respond. What do you do?”

This was even tougher. I’d been thinking about Bill’s few, good qualities I could list. I hadn’t considered thinking about myself. I knew Mom wasn’t going to let me get by without completing her assignment. So I had to start writing.

  1. I’d pout, cry,
  2. get angry.
  3. I’d be embarrassed to be with him.
  4. I’d act like a “martyr.”
  5. I’d wish I’d married someone else.
  6. I’d give him the silent treatment.
  7. I’d feel I was too good for him.

The list seemed endless. When I reached the bottom of the page, Mom picked up the paper and went to the drawer. She took scissors and cut the paper down the vertical line. Taking the left column, she wadded it in her hand and tossed it into the trash. Then she handed me the right column with the list of my reactions.

“Take this list back to your house,” she told me. “Spend today reflecting on these things in your life. I’ll keep the baby until this afternoon. If you sincerely do what I ask and still want to leave Bill, Dad and I will do all we can to assist you.”

I drove back to my house. When I sat on my couch with the piece of paper, I couldn’t believe what I was facing. Without the balancing catalogue of Bill’s annoying habits, the list looked horrifying. Then I thought over his bed traits of character and understood that there was nothing unforgivable. I jumped back in the car and drove to my parents’ house. I marveled at how different I felt from when I’d first made the trip to see Mom. I now felt peace, relief, and gratitude. I’d made a vow to Bill. I would love and honor him in sickness and in health. I’d be with him for better or for worse. I said those words in the presence of God, my family, and friends. Yet only this morning, I’d been ready to leave him for trivial annoyances.

When I picked up my son, I was dismayed by how willing I’d been to make such a drastic change in his life. My pettiness almost cost him the opportunity to be exposed daily to a wonderful father. By the time Bill returned from work, I was unpacked and waiting.

I’d love to say that Bill changed. He didn’t. He still did all those things that embarrassed and annoyed me and made me want to explode. But I’ve changed my attitude to it. I’m very grateful to my mother. She guided me in discovering a truth that’s saved a most treasured possession—my marriage. At the age of 49, Bill was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. He had to quit his teaching job, leaving me to support our family My son came home one day and asked, “Mom, what are we going to do when Dad doesn’t remember us?” My reply was, “We’ll remember him. We’ll remember the husband and father he was. We’ll remember him for all the things he’s taught us and the wonderful ways he’s loved us.”

Becky Zerbe and Bill were married for 29 years.

Author: Becky Zerbe

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