Happy Life, Happy Marriage Series
If you’re looking at a tiled ceiling or floor and one tile is missing, your eye will be drawn to that missing tile, and you’ll continue to focus on that missing tile rather than the rest of the tiles. Dennis Prager calls this the “Missing Tile Syndrome” and says it explains why many of us focus on what is missing in our lives instead of what we have. This tendency causes us much unhappiness. Let me explain.
The problem is that in life, we will always have something missing, and even when we don’t, we may imagine a more perfect and complete life.
Sometimes a lack in ourselves may focus on what others have that we don’t. If we want a flat stomach, we notice people with flat stomachs. If we want perfect hair or radiant skin, we notice others with perfect hair or radiant skin. If we want fancy clothes, we notice others with fancy clothes. If we want to become pregnant, we see pregnant bellies everywhere. But we are creating our own unhappiness by focusing on what others have that we do not.
We frequently impose the missing tile syndrome on others as well, figuring out what trait they have that is missing rather than focusing on the traits they have that are strong. In Happiness is a Serious Problem, Prager shared that when he was seeking a mate, this was exactly what he did. After each date with a different woman, he would identify her missing trait. He’d call his friend and say he figured out the most important trait he was looking for, and it was always the one the recent date lacked—whether intelligence or attractiveness or sense of humor. It took his friend to point out his habit for him to embarrasingly realize what a destructive one it was.
I admit sometimes I focus on the attributes my children do not have (which I think are critical at the moment) rather than on the great characteristics they do have. I do it with my husband at times, and even more frequently with myself. Sometimes I wish I had more talent, other times longer legs, more patience, greater creativity—the list goes on and on.
If we are unhappy with ourselves, it’s extremely difficult to be the perfect mate for our partner. And if we are picking others apart, it’s nearly impossible for them to appear right for us at the same time.
Prager sums it up well: “It is human nature to concentrate on what is missing and deem it the Most Important Trait. Unless we teach ourselves to concentrate on what we do have, we will end up obsessing over missing tiles and allow them to become insurmountable obstacles to happiness.”
Now that we know this is a problem and realize its power in our lives, what can we do to minimize its effect? Whether you perceive something is missing in your life or in your marriage, follow these steps:
1) Clarify what you perceive to be the missing item in your life (or marriage), or what you think may be troubling you.
2) Decide if this missing item is central to your happiness or whether you can be happy without it. From here, you can either “get it, forget it, or replace it.”
3) If the item is within your power to obtain, and it is central to your happiness, focus on how you might “get it.” Examples might include wanting a high school or college diploma, finding a mate, having another child, spending more time with your spouse, or moving to another state.
4) If the item is not within your power, do your best to “forget it” or at least to try not to think about it as much. Examples might include lamenting a past failed relationship or (as in the author’s case) wishing he didn’t have to share custody of his child and see him only half time. There are items in our lives that will always bother us, but we may need to stop focusing so much attention on them and make the best of what we do have. If it bothers you that your husband doesn’t do dishes, but he’s a good husband who helps in other ways and doesn’t like to do dishes, think about forgetting that fault and moving on.
5) Replace your missing item with something else. It reminds me of the star athletes who are injured and who go on to have successful, inspiring careers in another field. Focusing on the inability to play football would only increase unhappiness, while creating a new dream helps bring fulfillment. Similarly, I’ve known individuals who were unable to have their own children, but who used increased time devoted to nieces and nephews as a way to fill their lives with the joy of children. There can be less important repacements as well. Maybe you always dreamed of having a wife who is a great cook, and yours doesn’t enjoy cooking, but she is a generous wife and mother. Think about the reasons why you chose your wife instead.
The solutions may not be perfect, but they can bring you closer to a happy life. You may even find the new path brings you in exciting new directions you never expected. Do you recognize the Missing Tile Syndrome in your life?
Photo credit: ©Adrian Hillman/PhotoXpress.com