Changing Your Attitude: The 80/20 Marriage Rule

Posted on 10/17/2012 by


I recently saw an article by Dr. Douglas Abbott where he made reference to a short story he read entitled, “80 percent I love you, 20 percent I hate you.” Basically the story looks at a middle-aged man in a 15 year marriage who is dissatisfied in his marriage. His marriage is not bad and for the most part he gets along with his wife and kids, but he doesn’t see his marriage as great. When he looks at his marriage he can look at a lot of things that his wife does well. He can also see a few things that he dislikes. If one were to look at the pluses and the minuses one would say that the man could find 80 percent to like and 20 percent to dislike about his marriage. The problem comes in that he dwells on the 20 percent and takes for granted the 80 percent.

Over time, the man begins to notice a female co-worker who really seems to excel in the 20 percent that he feels his wife lacks. He decides to divorce his wife. He dates the co-worker for some time and they eventually get married. After a couple of years of marriage, his new wife still does very well with the 20 percent that his previous wife lacked. When he reflects on his new marriage, though, he still finds that he can find 80 percent to like and 20 percent to dislike about his marriage. Some of the 80 percent that he liked with his previous wife are some of his new wife’s biggest weaknesses.

The man is still dissatisfied in his marriage. The grass was not greener. He still is in a marriage in which he is satisfied with 80 percent of his wife’s qualities. Only now, he is lucky enough to see his kids two weekends a month and a large portion of his income is sent out for child support and alimony. Add that stress along with the complexities and challenges of being a father in this situation. He now has to deal with feeling he doesn’t have control over raising his kids. The time he does have with his kids he has to judge whether he needs to be a parent or be his kids’ best friend for fear that they might not want to be with him. All of this is putting quite a strain on the 80 percent that he likes with his marriage.

So, what can we gain from this story? I think it should be easy to identify that no partner is going to be perfect. No matter how perfect your wife is I am willing to bet that she still has some minor, irritating habits or behaviors that will get on your nerves. Before I get a bunch of comments, I would like to add that this situation assumes that the marriage dissolves from dissatisfaction and not from a pattern of abuse, infidelity, or other morally wrong acts.

How do we avoid falling into the same trap as the man in this story? We have to train ourselves to avoid dwelling on our wife’s negatives and focus on our wife’s positives. One would think that if you could make a list where 80 percent was positive and 20 percent was negative that would be easy. Unfortunately, our mind, or Satan in reality, really works hard to keep the negatives fresh in our mind. Start thanking your spouse for the things that they do well. When you seek out to praise your wife’s strengths, you will be less likely to dwell on her weaknesses.

To find satisfaction in your marriage you may have to change your attitude. Understand what your spouse’s strengths are and accept her weaknesses. Understand that she may have different strengths than your Mom had and that is ok. Try to be positive and optimistic about your wife’s good points and how you perceive her intentions. Remind yourself about how good the 80 percent you love is. Live peacefully with the other 20 percent that you don’t like. Don’t expect that your spouse will ever be perfect. Remember that you have your own imperfections and probably should be extremely grateful that they will have us.

One last thought on this issue comes from a Jewish Rabbi named Harold Kushner who said, “The illusion of perfection in the partner will not last. And that is why the essence of marital love is not romance but forgiveness…Forgiveness as the truest form of love means accepting without bitterness the flaws and imperfection of our partner, and praying that our partner accepts our flaws as well… Mature marital love sees faults clearly and forgives them, understanding that there are no perfect people, and that an imperfect spouse is all that an imperfect person like us can aspire to…If we cannot love imperfect people, if we cannot forgive them for their exasperating faults, we will condemn ourselves to a life of loneliness, because imperfect people are the only kind we will ever find.”