I grew up hearing my mother tell a causal attribution joke. That isn’t what she called it, but that’s what it is and that’s why I telling you about it. As she was growing up, both “bums” and “limburger cheese” were more common than they are now. According to this joke, some boys found a bum asleep in a boxcar and rubbed some limburger cheese in his beard as a prank. The bum woke up and changed locations immediately because the boxcar where he had been sleeping, smelled so bad. Kind of a rotten sour smell. So he went to the nearest bar for a drink and no sooner had he sat down, but he noticed that the bar smelled really bad. Kind of rotten sour smell. This goes on in setting after setting—it can be a really long joke—until he finally gets on the road into the teeth of a stiff breeze and walks away from town.
Pretty simple idea. So a young married couple is out buying a few things for the house. The clerk at the hardware store apologizes profusely because, apparently, something is wrong with the computer; it doesn’t want to approve the credit card. The same thing happens at the convenience store, except that the clerk isn’t so accommodating. “Is there something wrong with your card?” he says. They shift over to the debit card and hit the local ATM. The message says: “Sorry. Insufficient funds.” “I hate this part of town,” says the young man. “Let’s move across the river and up the hill.”
Same joke, right? So I have a suggestion for this couple. Put some money in your account! If you are going to be drawing on it, you will need to keep putting money in the account. That’s a really easy idea to grasp because dollars are fungible—one dollar isn’t any different from another. You could substitute dollar #12 for dollar #8 and no one would care.
So Joe and Sue come in to see lead author Steven Ford for a little counseling. What seems to be the problem?
Waiting for “something to go wrong” in a marriage is an understanding bereft entirely of the fact that there are things you say and do that put resources into your common account and things you say and do that draw resources out of the account. There is nothing wrong with drawing funds out of the account. That is why funds are there. It isn’t too bright to keep running the balance down to zero, but it is amazingly naïve to believe you can keep taking funds out without putting funds in.
So a couple that counselor Edward Ford has designated “Frances and Charles” comes to see him. Ford asks why they are there. Well, says Frances, “Lately we’ve started bickering with each other when we’re alone. I don’t know. . . things aren’t what they were, that’s all.”
When I hear that, a lot of questions come to my mind right away; all of them bad questions. I would want to know just what it is they are bickering about; whether this is a result of a lot of stress at work or maybe at home; is it a morning kind of problem or an evening problem; who starts it? I hear “bickering a lot” and those are the questions that come to my mind. But Ford has heard this question a lot over the years, so the question he asks what they do together. Here are the two answers.
Now: “Well, Charles watches television a lot. We go to the movies fairly often. We turn on [to pot] quite frequently and listen to music. We have a great new stereo system. My mother hasn’t been feeling good lately, so I’ve started spending a lot of time with her. Charles sees his friends on the weekends, and we seem to go to a lot of parties with them.”
Then (when they first met): “They enjoyed their shared activities—horseback riding, swimming, taking the same adult education classes, and doing the same household tasks. The first year of their relationship saw them frequently engaged in these relatively strenuous and demanding pursuits.
That is the set of answers that matters to Edward Ford was looking for. It isn’t the bickering. The bickering is the “insufficient funds” notice; it is the frown on the face of the cashier who is trying to run your credit card. They aren’t the source of the difficulty and treating it won’t help. The source of the difficulty is that Frances and Charles stopped doing all the things that put resources into their relationship. If they want to get past the current manifestation—the bickering—what they need to do is start putting funds into their joint account again.
This is all pretty simple, right? Yes, it is simple if we are talking about the balance in the checking account or whether there is gas in the tank. If you are engaged in the bickering, you aren’t thinking about the balance in the account. You are wondering why he is so crabby today. You are wondering why she takes offense at every little thing. It seems that the most obvious thing to do is to ask the partner to stop doing those irritating things–as in the illustration above.
And, actually, sometimes it is a good thing. Sometimes, you get, “Oh, I’m sorry. I know I’m being crabby. I had a really hard day at school and now I’m taking it out on you.” But that’s not what’s going on when “we seem to be bickering a lot.”
And that’s why I came to like my mother’s causal attribution joke. Everyone understands how sensible it seems for the bum to complain about how bad it smells. Everyone understands, at the same time, how pointless the complaint is. But that leaves us with two very sensible questions. The first is, “Is there any way you can fit your relationship with a gas gauge or a thermostat or something that calls your attention to the deficit? There is a certain amount of gas in the car, just as there is a certain number of dollars in the bank. The trick is to know that the slowing the sputtering of the car is not really the issue that has to be addressed and you have to know that at the time you are really upset that the car is sputtering. Or that your wife or husband is irritable. Whichever.
The second question is what to do about it. You know now that your relationship—your joint account—has insufficient funds. Now what? Ford and Englund’s answer is that you need to do, together, whatever will have the effect of putting resources back in your joint account. That’s a good answer. But you need to know what will do that. Frances and Charles, it was “horseback riding, swimming, taking the same adult education classes, and doing the same household tasks.” That wouldn’t do it for Bette and me and it is our job to know just what would work and to get busy at doing it. I’ve always liked the idea of running together. I think it would work well, for one thing, and it gives me a chance to use one of my favorite lines: “The couple that sweats together, sticks together.”
That’s my pitch for today, but let me touch on one personal matter before I hit the blue “publish” button on my WordPress home page. For many years, I have divided friendship, including married friendships, into two parts. I call them intimacy and collegiality, meaning by the first term to refer to the face to face parts of the friendship and by the second to refer to the side by side parts. Nearly everything I have said about collegiality, over the last thirty years, came straight out of Permanent Love, only I just recently discovered that. I read it and took it into my heart, from which it went to my brain, then to my tongue and I have been preaching it as my very own gospel for a long time. My first response, on rediscovering this book, was embarrassment. “Wow! So this is where I got all that!”
I have been preaching for many years that that “being in love” is something you do and when people like Charles say “I guess we just fell out of love with each other (see p. 33),” my ears prick up and questions about how to restore the positive balance in their account come to mind.
You don’t “fall out of love” any more than you “fall out of shape.”
 And if “bums” are not exactly less common, they are now called more kinds of names, so it is harder to tell whether they are common.
 Edward Ford and Steven Englund, Permanent Love: Practical Steps to a Lasting Relationship: Minneapolis: Winston Press, Inc. 1979.