While some experts might tell us not to sweat the small stuff, we all know it is the little things that can chisel away even the best of relationships. Before those granular irks lead to the Big Bang in our partnerships, we need to develop relational safety nets to catch us before we fall.

You can consider these strategies to be a quirk-turned-perk energy shift, if you will. A key aspect of Wabi Sabi is learning to move our focus from what makes our partners so annoying to what makes our partners so unique. At its heart, this transition is about gratitude. Gratitude can be a marriage-saving emotion, especially if you tend to easily slide into feelings of annoyance about your partner’s daily habits. Little rituals of thankfulness can sustain you as you struggle with the thing he or she did—again.

One of my favourite prayers comes from A Course in Miracles:

On this day where would you have me go?

What would you have me do?

What would you have me say and to whom?

For many years I began each day with this prayer as a way to centre myself and receive divine guidance. So far so good. Then I got married and my prayers changed.

Dear God,

Help me. I have married a man who refuses to answer the phone, but he will walk across a room to hand me the phone so I can answer it.

Okay. I’m stretching the truth just a bit here, but like all couples, Brian and I each had quirks and odd behaviours that we had to learn to love and appreciate. A daily practice of offering prayers of gratitude [whether you believe in a higher being or not] for your beloved mate—flaws and all—will keep your mind open and your heart receptive to remembering how much you love him or her. For it’s really the cracks in our partners that we will someday miss the most.

Laughter is love’s best medicine

“We go together like ‘chalk and cheese’,” says Deb, laughing, a beautiful British expat with royal lineage. Her husband, Ed, is from a working-class family in the Bronx, and while they are opposites in so many ways, they have been happily married for 24 years. “We are totally tuned in to each other,” Ed explains. “If one of us insists on harping on something, the other simply says, ‘I left that behind an hour ago.’ It is our code for ‘Let’s move on.’”

For the past 20 years, however, Deb has found herself frustrated by something Ed does nearly every day. Ed is an outgoing, teddy-bear type of a guy who talks to nearly everyone with whom he comes in contact. Most would agree that this is a really wonderful quality to possess; for Deb, however, this trait can sometimes put a complete dent into her schedule.

“Ed loves to tell jokes, and he’s really good at it. He shares his jokes with nearly everyone he meets, especially little children. The jokes are great the first time around, but I always end up waiting for him while he’s busy entertaining strangers. After you’ve heard some of these jokes hundreds, maybe thousands of times, it can be pretty irritating.”

Recently, Ed and Deb were standing in line at the bank when Ed struck up a conversation with the little girl. She appeared to be around six years old. Ed said hello to the mother, and then kneeled down next to the little girl and said, “What did the baby strawberry say to its mother?”

The little girl, who turned to the folds in her mother’s skirt, whispered shyly, “I don’t know.”

Ed replied, “The strawberry said to her mother, ‘I’m in a jam!’” And with that the little girl, her mother, and all the other people in line began laughing out loud.

Deb, not amused, realised that an open teller was available and nudged Ed to say good-bye so they could take care of business. As Deb walked over to the window, Ed figured he had just enough time for one more joke. “Why is six afraid of seven?” He inserted a dramatic pause, then continued, “Because seven eight nine!”

Deb’s familiar frustration crept up her neck like the tendrils of a vine on a post. She breathed deeply, slowly releasing the clutch on her paperwork as she slid it over the counter.

After they left the bank, they went to the local farmers market to pick up some fresh organic greens. Deb tried to shake off her irritation with some more deep breathing. As they approached a stand, amid the crowds they both noticed a little boy sitting on the curb.

It was obvious that he was very bored as no one seemed to be paying him any attention. Ed walked over to the little boy and sat next to him on the curb, as Deb stood nearby. “You look like a really smart little boy. Do you know what the right eye said to the left eye?” The boy shook his head. “There’s something that smells between us!’”

The little boy cast him a quizzical look. Not one for giving up easily, Ed was determined to coax a laugh out of the boy. “How does a camel hide in the desert?” Ears perked, the boy cocked his head to the right as he waited for the punch line. “Camelflage!”

The little boy burst into a big belly laugh. Through Ed’s kind gesture, the boy went from disinterested to merry in a single joke. In that moment, his mom breathlessly approached them with a bagful of groceries. Before Ed had a chance to introduce himself and his wife, the little boy did the honours. “Mom, meet Mr. Joke Man. He’s really funny!” She gave Ed a grateful smile, then collected her son to leave. As he took his mom’s hand, the little boy waved goodbye.

Deb was overcome. “In that moment I really got that this is Ed’s essential nature. He just wants to make people happy with this special gift of his. I finally realised that irritating me was not his objective at all. Seeing that little boy light up like a Christmas tree, I finally understood that we can really make people happy. Ed didn’t just give that little boy a gift that day. He gave me one too.”

You can go from “annoyed” to “enjoyed” by just one small Wabi Sabi shift in perception. Imagine how much more fun and rich all our relationships would be if each time we found ourselves “annoyed,” we made it a personal practice to stop for a moment, take a deep breath, and see if we would be willing to find a way to get to “enjoyed.” The simple act of being willing can open up a new world of possibility.

Wabi Sabi Love is grounded in acceptance. It’s the practice of accepting the flaws, imperfections, and limitations—as well as the gifts and the blessings—that form your shared history as a couple. Acceptance and its counterpart, understanding, are crucial to achieving relationship harmony.

This is sacred love, not infatuation, or love that is convenient. What if we discovered that romantic love was never meant to be perfect, but to guide us to this highest form of love? What if, in fact, soul mate we-are-destined-for-one another love exists to propel us into an understanding of Wabi Sabi Love?

Love lessons from the kitchen floor

Even though Diane truly loved Jerry, she was confronted on a daily basis with something about him she found very hard to embrace: his passion for poppy-seed bagels. Since childhood, Jerry has had a love affair with this particular snack, and, in fact, he enthusiastically devours one nearly every day. Jerry slices and toasts his bagel, then takes it into his home office to relish its flavour. But like Hansel in the fairy tale, Jerry always leaves a trail of poppy seeds that sweeps across the white kitchen floor, through the centre of the house, and into his office.

Jerry is aware that he is a bit of a “sloppy Joe.” Although he often makes an effort to clean up the poppy seeds, his cleaning skills somehow never match Diane’s desire to have an utterly spotless floor. One day Diane was feeling uncharacteristically grumpy. As she entered the kitchen and looked down, her level of grumpiness increased a hundredfold when she found herself swimming in a sea of scattered poppy seeds yet again. As she had done a thousand times before, Diane moistened a hand towel and got down on her hands and knees to begin cleaning up the mounds of accumulated seeds. Just once, she thought, I would like to come into the kitchen and not find these poppy seeds, huffing as she vigorously hand-wiped the floor to her satisfaction.

As she sat back on her heels, a thought struck her through the haze of her own frustration. What if the floor never had any more poppy seeds on it? As if hit by lightning, Diane suddenly realised that would mean there would be no more Jerry! Tears flooded her eyes as she stood up. She gazed down at the poppy seeds that were gritting up her floor. Instead of looking like grains of grey sand, they suddenly looked amazing to her—like little black diamonds that represented everything in her life that was precious and sacred to her.

She rushed into Jerry’s study, threw her arms around him, and kissed him through tears of joy. He gave her a quizzical yet loving look as he popped the last bit of poppy-seed bagel into his mouth, then brushed the seeds that had landed on his shirt onto the floor.

Today she describes it this way: “Now, no matter how many seeds I may mop up, I’m very peaceful inside. Whenever I see those poppy seeds, they fill me with so much love and gratitude; and on some days I deliberately leave them and my old compulsive behaviour behind as I smile, turn on my heel, and walk away.”

We all have our unique ways of responding to life. Learning the ways of our beloveds requires paying attention to all the ways they make decisions and respond to life’s challenges.

Chances are they don’t do things exactly the way we would do them [and who is to say our way is the right way or the only way?], so I suggest you recite the prayer of a Wabi Sabi relationship to yourself often. It is the Serenity Prayer:

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.

Whether it’s your mate’s bad hair, bad jokes, or poppy seeds that get under your skin, remember the prayer of a Wabi Sabi relationship before you go ballistic.

Excerpted with permission from Wabi Sabi Love by Arielle Ford  published by Harper Collins

This was first published in the October 2013 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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