You CAN Stay: Making It Work

Judith and Jay* had a checkered relationship, as so many long-term marrieds do. They had weathered raising the children, as well as the empty-nest syndrome. Sometimes she drove him round the bend with her non-stop chatter and tendency to cheer-lead; she not so infrequently considered offing him when he began one of his political tirades, or went into one of his creature-of-habit routines (a diet Coke goes with pasta, a Pepsi is for peanut butter and jelly), or decided–one more time–he needed a new job, quit his current one, and began a seemingly non-stop monologue about how he’d make it big next time.

But it wasn’t any particular crisis but rather some long-term disappointments that brought Judith and Jay into my office for couples therapy. She was restless in the relationship, he was feeling unsupported; should they consider a separation?

I thought they had a lot of raw material, and could see a good path for them if they were willing to do the work, but there was one telling incident that tipped the scales for me in my belief about whether they could make it as a couple.

Jay was a coffee-drinker–he pretty much downed the stuff by the gallon. And during the long hours he spent at home between jobs [next time would be the big one, he assured us both], he drank it from the glass mugs with three hot-air balloons on it.

You may ask how I know this detail–but it’s more relevant than you might at first suspect.

Judith was a thrift-shop junkie–she could happily pass hours going from one store to the next, and each beautiful item in the couple’s home had a place and a history–and an astoundingly good price. She would relate the objects’ tales to anyone who would listen–but Jay didn’t number himself in her story fan-club.

One day Judith came home with four exquisite off-white ceramic mugs, totally unique in their design. As always she asked if Jay liked them; as always she got a mono-syllabic response.

So, pleased enough with the mugs she now had, she brought in her 11 glass, balloon-enhanced mugs to a far-off thrift shop that was outside her usual limits, but one she knew made better offers [if they were a bit snooty].  She determined it was worth leaving them there, given the price the shop thought they could get.  She kept this rather mundane detail to herself, as Jay had trained her to do.

So imagine Jay’s surprise–if we can call it that; Jay’s a pretty low-emotioned guy–when he went to pour himself a cup of coffee and sit, perusing job possibilities on the computer, sipping from his usual mug–only to find his usual mug missing. If Jay were the Encyclopedia Brown type he might have made a whole tale of the “The Missing Mug,” but instead he did the most sensible thing–he shouted for his wife and asked her where his beloved balloon mug was.


Judith was more than happy to explain the saga of the mugs, but Jay cut her off, less interested in narrative than in the bottom line.

“You gave away my mug?” he asked, horrified [for Jay].

“Honey, I got you four new mugs, beautiful ones.”

“But,” was the retort, “I always drink my coffee from that mug.”

“Well now,” responded Judith, not unreasonably, “you’ll always drink your coffee from a different mug.”

But Judith wasn’t prepared for Jay’s feelings of loss, and Jay kept up a steady stream of complaints:

“I don’t just drink coffee in it, you know. I drink water, too. And water tastes better in a glass mug.”

“These mugs have a funny aftertaste; they make my coffee taste weird.”

“I don’t like the grip of these new mugs–they feel like they’ll just slip out of my hand.”

“I miss those hot-air balloons something fierce.”

Had Judith felt that Jay should go back to his job searches and leave the topic of mugs far behind, I certainly couldn’t have blamed her. But that isn’t what happened.

On a blustery February day, Judith brushed off the car, resisted the urge to shop for a the new lamp they just had to have for the corner of their living room, fought Chicago traffic, and and headed back to the thrift shop where she had left the glass mugs. The saleswoman looked up with a questioning and not the slightest bit welcoming glance. Judith explained that she’d brought in 11 mugs several weeks ago, and now, for some convoluted reasons, she needed a mug back.

The response was glacial. “But that isn’t how we do things, here, Judith. You brought in a set, we wrote it up and gave you a receipt–it’s done, now; it’s not yours anymore.” The owners were surprisingly difficult about returning the mug, implying Judith was behaving out of the bounds of thrift-shop-ettiquette. She felt somewhat like a beggar, and wasn’t enjoying this experience. Judith must have felt persecuted from all sides by this particularly glass, but she persevered, and finally said,

“Look. My husband is very attached to this mug, and it makes him happy to have it. I really need it back for him, and if you won’t sell 10 mugs, then I’ll take the whole set back.”

Yes, Judith got her mug back, and yes, the thrift-shop finally sold the 10-mugged set and cut Judith a check. [Judith always shared these details–in full.] But, to be honest, I didn’t care about that. To me, a mug is a mug.

But to Jay, clearly, a mug is not just a mug–and Judith, to whom a mug is a means to more shopping, proved something about her marriage in her quest for the return of the balloon-glass mug. She proved that she was willing to swallow her pride, look away from a good argument, pass up a chance to pick on Jay’s foibles, and head out for an act of reverse-shopping–all just to make her husband happy.

This couple had the raw material to make it work.


**As with all characters in my blog posts, there is no real Judith or Jay, whose names have been changed to protect their privacy.  They are teaching characters, composed of bits and pieces from real life humans plus details from my imagination which make the story more interesting and, hopefully, instructive.


I help adults and adolescents through the particular struggles of our time: tension between couples, parenting frustration, blending new families, separation and divorce, (un)employment, cancer, and loss. When relationships come to an impasse, I use mediation techniques to try to ensure that each party will have his/her needs heard and accounted for in a dignified way. In addition to talking, listening, and reframing, I utilizes the tools of metaphor, active teaching, role-playing, visualization, and hypnotherapy.for families and businesses, as well as in cases of divorce.

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