Low-key change helps the human mind circumnavigate the fear that blocks
success and creativity.*

Robert Maurer

When you improve a little each day, eventually big things occur.*

John Wooden, one of the most successful coaches in the history of college basketball

A fellow told me recently that when he quit drinking Mountain Dew and switched to Diet Mountain Dew he lost 12 pounds the first week!  Twelve pounds!  How much was he drinking?  Six of those plastic bottles a day!  Wow!  That’s a lot of Mountain Dew.  If alcohol ruins your liver, what internal organs does Mountain Dew rot away?

That kind of sudden shift in personal habit can bring about a radical change in your personal life.  Robert Maurer, psychologist and Associate Clinical Professor at the UCLA School of Medicine, writes that there are two kinds of change: INNOVATION, which is a big, fast and a dramatic turnaround, and the second is called KAISEN, small, seemingly insignificant change summarized in this common saying:

A journey of a thousand miles must begin with the first step.*

Lao Tzu

Big, sudden change like stopping drinking Mountain Dew, or quitting alcohol or drug abuse in one day or embracing a new diet and losing a ton of weight all very quickly are examples of innovation.  These are the changes that make headlines.  This is the popular notion that if we are going to change our life we have to do it in monumental, dramatic form.

This is the kind of change many people think of when they consider coming to marital therapy.  It is both scary and hopeful.  Mostly the dramatic change they want to see is in their spouse!  On this they both agree!  The other certainly needs to change!

But more often, marriages, like our lives, are made up of small changes.  Small, little changes now can lead to big changes later.  I often tell couples:

Marriage is like flying from Iowa to Atlanta.  If you are heading toward Atlanta in your airplane and you move the control stick ever so slightly to the left, you end up in New York City.

Small, little changes in a marriage today can have tremendous, long-term, positive consequences.

For example, Maurer writes of the overweight lady whom he suspected would be resistant to a vast change in diet and rigorous exercise program.  If she was assigned this, as he was sure, nearly all of her doctors had done, she would be overwhelmed and just give up.  It’s too much change.  Too daunting.  He asked her instead if, during an ad on TV, she could walk in place for 1 minute!  Well, sure.  She could walk for one minute.  But what happens if she can walk for one minute?  She gets in the mood and then walking for more than a minute is easy and before long she’s walking a bunch and enjoying and losing weight in the process.

Professionals in addictions counseling talk about the “trance” or getting in a zone and not being able to make choices once they are in the zone.  An alcoholic will drink once he is in the zone, no matter how many times he tells himself he won’t drink any more.  He has to stay out of the zone.

Marriage people can be in zones also.  They might not want to come home because as soon as they do they are discouraged by the lack of tenderness, the coldness or indifference or the hostility and rancor.  Just the thought of this negativity gets them into a zone before they walk through the door.

But can we break the zone?  Can we make a small, little, seemingly insignificant change that would give peace a chance? Dr. William J. Doherty, psychologist and marriage and family therapist and professor at the University of Minnesota, talks about changing the rituals we have in our homes to promote change.  He says the first 15 seconds of the greeting of a couple as they see each other at the end of their work day will set the tone for the whole evening.

So taking Maurer’s concept of Kaizen above, could you change the way you greet each other at the end of the day?  Instead of just greeting the kids and barely looking at each other, what would happen if you greeting the kids briefly and before they get a chance to tell you all of their stories of the day, you said, “Let’s go find Mommy.” Or “Let’s go find Daddy.”  And then you go find Mommy or Daddy and the two of you give each other a kiss.  Yes!  In front of the kids!  After the two of you reconnect, you can go back to your kids and they can tell you all of their stories.  But let them watch you and Mommy or Daddy show each other a little tenderness.

Fifteen seconds to change your life.

Hey, it’s a small thing.  But a great change.  I’m amazed how many parents give their children more enthusiastic greetings than each other.  If you are doing that, you are training your children that the children are more important than your spouse.  This is creepy and causes children to feel insecure.  But when they see mom and dad kiss and hug and look tenderly at each other, they settle down.  My own view is that the number one thing kids need is a mom and dad who love each other!

Fifteen seconds to change your life.  If you can be nice for 15 seconds, maybe you could be nice for…..


*Maurer, Robert. (2004).  One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Zaizen /Way. New York: Workman Publishing. First quote, p. 17; Second quote, p. 11; Third quote, p. 8.

I would like to thank my sister, Cindi VanAusdall, for giving me Dr. Maurer’s book for my birthday!

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