(Chapter 4 in Creating Peace Within by Ed Ford)
This remarkable book explains how two very different cultures, inmates in a county jail and students in primary and secondary schools, are taught a unique way to look within themselves, decide the way they want to be, and restructure their own lives so they can think for themselves, eliminate conflict, and restore harmony and peace in their lives.
Learning about quality time is named by nearly all of the inmates in my classes as especially important. They say it has given them greater promise of reestablishing trust and respect with those who are waiting for them, and of building (or rebuilding) and maintaining long-lasting relationships. So, what is quality time?
All living things require nourishment to grow and maintain themselves. Each organism needs the kinds of nourishment that are appropriate for it. For example, plants need light, air, and water to grow. All living things, including humans, require nourishment. Humans require two types of nourishment. First, in order to maintain our bodies, we need foods that contain particular nutrients in appropriate amounts. If we don’t ingest these nutrients (or if we ingest toxic substances), our bodily functions will become unbalanced, resulting in discomfort and illness. Second, we need a different type of nourishment to maintain our mental functioning. In particular, it appears that we are nourished mentally by sustained involvement with other individuals. In many cultures, including our own, the long-term union between a man and a woman and the consequent begetting of children is the norm. In such a union, the desire to find happiness and to establish the kind of relationship that makes it easier to deal with differences and difficulties when they arise requires building and maintaining trust between the two individuals so they can have confidence in their relationship to believe they can sustain it even when there are difficulties. Building and maintaining trust in two-person relationships also has importance beyond marriage, to strengthen other family relationships and those with friends and co-workers.
Many primary and secondary educators using the Responsible Thinking Process report that the most disruptive students, almost universally, say that nobody in their lives cares about them. Vicki Creekmore, a certified teacher and RTP trainer, who works as a Responsible Thinking Classroom teacher at a school in Toledo, Ohio, started a special program for the students most frequently found in her RTC. (See “Quality Time in the RTC Classroom” under “About The RTC” at the RTP web site.) She found four volunteers who were each willing to spend one-half hour once or twice a week with those students, and she worked out scheduling with the students’ teachers so they wouldn’t miss very much class time. Initially, her volunteers included two retired teachers, a minister, and an appeals court judge. Soon she began to see improvement, both academically and behaviorally, among students in the program.
The program Vicki developed was based on quality time, which is a major topic in my book Love Guaranteed, published in 1987. There, I explain quality time by showing how I helped a fictional couple, Mark and Linda, together develop a happier marriage. The following is an updated version of Chapter 6 in that book, covering the specifics of quality time.
Mark and Linda are in my office, and our conversation begins.
Ed: Most people look at their problems with others—whether those at work, in recreation, at home within the family, or among friends or extended family—as the “cause” of their misery around those people. Within a marriage, which is what we are dealing with here, couples often see their misery as caused by money, in-laws, sex, or who did or said what to whom.
Most partners tend to blame their unhappy marriages on things over which they believe they have no control. Whereas couples see these things as problems, I see them as merely symptoms of a weak relationship. Couples are not going to perceive things identically in their marriages, but the difference between those couples who argue and those who calmly resolve their problems is in the strength of their relationship. The stronger the relationship, the easier it is to resolve, in a calm and relaxed atmosphere, the differences that normally arise in any relationship. That strength is reflected in a deep sense of trust in the other person, which is followed by a great deal of respect. Always keep in mind that trust is at the heart of all relationships, no matter where they occur.
Mark: That makes sense. So the fact that Linda and I argue means we need more strength in our relationship to be able to deal with our differences as a couple.
Ed: That’s about it.
Linda: But when you talk about a strong relationship, isn’t what you really mean a close, intimate one? Isn’t that the kind of relationship that makes each of us continually want to please each other? Isn’t that what we need to re-capture?
And why does the feeling of wanting to please your partner, especially after marriage, seem to disappear?
Ed: That’s what quality time spent together by yourselves is all about. Quality time is the kind of time that continually builds confidence in our relationship and maintains our belief in our partner as someone who is kind, loving, bright, creative, fun, and any of dozens of other positive things. These experiences influence how we see that person in the future. For example, Linda, when Mark walks in late for dinner, are you as upset when he called ahead and let you know he’d be late and when he expected to get home as you are when he didn’t call?
Linda: I guess not. So what you are saying is that the more I see Mark as thoughtful and loving, the more likely I’ll tolerate our differences.
Ed: That’s right. And to take this a step further, not only does your memory of Mark protect the integrity of how you think of him, but because your brain uses the very same memory to decide what it wants, your thoughts also influence how much you want Mark as a husband. The more attractive he becomes as a warm, loving person, the more inclined you are to work at attaining that goal by spending time with him. Quality time is also the kind of time that can dramatically increase our desire to be happy with another. These goals demand constant satisfaction, and the desire for love is no exception. Quality time has to be a continual process.
Mark: What do you mean by “continual process”?
Ed: Well, did you have lunch today?
Ed: Will that meal satisfy you for the rest of your life?
Mark: Of course not. I need at least two meals a day to satisfy me.
Ed: You have to satisfy your desire for love with the same constancy as you satisfy your need for nourishment. It demands daily satisfaction. The need for nourishment is satisfied by food, and love is nourished through quality time alone with your partner.
I’ve seen quality time also used in many other types of relationships. For example, Jean Knight, who is in charge of the Responsible Thinking Process in Australia, was a principal prior to her retirement from a school near Brisbane. I visited her school when she was in charge. She had 10 parent volunteers spending time on a regular basis with many of the most disruptive students. However, she went a step further by getting eight of her students to serve as volunteers to help disruptive students become integrated socially into the school—inviting them to share meals, play games, and work together on school assignments. Her volunteer students told me how quickly most of “their students” were willing to join in, and how things started to improve for them.
Quality time really applies wherever there are human beings. But before we get started on the criteria for quality time, I’d like to review what you have done in the past or are doing now that is helping your marriage.
Linda: Well, we haven’t been doing much lately, that’s for sure.
Ed: Then how about the past?
Mark: We used to go out for dinner once or twice a week.
Linda: We went camping with another couple last summer, and we used to take in a movie once or twice a month. Now we just watch TV in the evening.
Ed: Anything else?
Linda: We used to talk a lot, and sometimes we went out with other couples.
Mark: We used to play tennis, but Linda beat me all the time, so that wasn’t much fun.
Ed: Then, to summarize, you went out for dinner, went to the movies, watch TV, played tennis, went camping, talked a lot, and went out with other couples. All right, then.
Let me explain to you what quality time is so that you can measure the effectiveness of what you’ve been doing against the criteria for quality time. The first criterion is this: During quality time, do activities that promote awareness of each other and create pleasure through mutual effort. Here are some examples of quality time: playing games alone together, exercising alone together, working around the house, making things alone together, dancing, and taking walks.
Mark: That sounds like everything people do together. What isn’t quality time?
Ed: When people aren’t creating the enjoyment themselves, such as watching TV or going to a movie. Also, just being together, listening to music, or sitting watching others do something—in other words, where no enjoyment through created interactive activity is going on. Passive pleasure sums it up. How does what you’ve done measure up to what I have suggested?
Linda: Well, we didn’t do very much that made us aware of one another. Tennis is about the only thing we did that would qualify as quality time.
Mark: I don’t know. We had some good times with our friends and with the kids, too, don’t forget.
Ed: That brings up the second criterion. Do your quality time activities alone together, not with others. Notice when I mentioned examples of quality time that I also included the words alone together.
Mark: What’s wrong with doing something with others? Remember the parties we went to? And that camping trip. Linda and I had a great time, didn’t we Linda?
Linda: You bet we did.
Ed: Would there have been a difference if the two of you had gone camping alone?
Linda: We would have gotten lost! But I get your point—it is different.
Ed: What makes it different is having other people involved in our activities tends to dilute the strengthening aspect of the relationship. This is especially true when there are children. In fact, time alone invariably decreases when a child, or anyone else for that matter, comes into a home. I’m going to draw a diagram showing how a typical couple with a child should spend their time.
Notice how the lives of people in this family overlap. The largest space shows that we spend most of our time apart from the family, and the middle space reflects the time we all spend together as a family unit. Quality time together as a family satisfies the desire for all family members to be close with one another. That time builds within each of us those fond memories of the various family members, and most people see that as a high priority when it comes to keeping in contact with our family. The other spaces represent the time we need to spend alone with each other member of the household. We need this time to satisfy our desire to be close with individual family members. Unfortunately, this is the time that is most often neglected by couples and by parents with children. What we create through interactive time alone together is the kind of nourishment that sustains the relationship when there are differences, thus providing a growing confidence that sustaining the relationship is possible.
Mark: I never thought of the importance of spending time alone with Linda. When I go places, I just naturally think of going with other couples.
Ed: You don’t take people with you when you go on your honeymoon, or any other time when you really want to enjoy the intimacy that alone time with each other brings.
Linda: Mark, remember the time we went camping alone and found that old abandoned mining town?
Mark: I’d forgotten that. That was fun. We played hide-and-go-seek till we doubled over with laughter. That was great, wasn’t it?
Ed: That’s what I’m talking about. There is nothing that comes close to memories like that. How long ago was it?
Linda: Too long.
Mark: Three years ago, I think.
Ed: That brings up the third criterion. Do your activities on a regular basis. I suggest that in weaker relationships, couples should spend several short time intervals of five or 10 minutes together daily. In healthy relationships, couples should spend at least a half hour per day, five to six days a week.
Mark: Why wouldn’t couples in weak relationships spend longer periods together? Wouldn’t they need that?
Ed: Couples should spend only the amount of time together they can tolerate. And sometimes, in a fragile relationship, 10 or 15 minutes in a relaxed atmosphere is all a couple can handle. I once had a man come to see me alone. His marriage was so bad that the best plan we could come up with was for him to take a walk with his wife, once a day, for 15 minutes. His wife, who came in later in the day, asked, after learning of our plan, “Can you make it five minutes?” Getting back to your camping trip for a moment, you did have a great time, but it was a one-shot deal, and quality time should be something you do on a regular basis, every day. Suppose you played hide-and-go-seek or some other type of fun game every day at home. What would that do to your relationship?
Mark: The problem is finding the time.
Ed: How important is your marriage compared to your idea of fulfillment from the other areas of your life, such as your work life, social life with others, or doing hobbies and things?
Mark: I see your point. Priorities, priorities.
Linda: Do you see our marriage as weak? Do you think we are strong enough to tolerate a half hour or more?
Mark: How can he tell? He hardly knows us.
Ed: I’d say you both could easily tolerate a half hour or more.
Mark: How can you tell?
Ed: We’ve been talking together for a long time, and there has really been no criticism to speak of. This is a good indication of how strong your marriage is.
Mark: What do you do with couples who are highly critical of each other in here?
Ed: In some instances, I walk out of the office. It’s funny to watch their faces when I get up to leave. Generally, though, I ask one at a time to leave and then talk to them separately.
Mark: Why is that?
Ed: Fighting and bickering are what brought them here. If I let it continue here, that implies I condone it, which, of course, I don’t. Their relationship is not strong enough to allow them to work out the problems in their marriage together, so I see them separately until the relationship is stronger. Now, if your marriage was such that you fought or criticized each other at the slightest provocation, then I would see you separately and have you doing very non-stressful activities alone together every day for only short periods of time. I’d have you taking walks and suggest that you talk only about what you see around you. But in stronger relationships, such as yours, any activity that falls within the criteria of quality time will be helpful. Since you two seem to get along without being critical of each other, regular time together is called for. I could be wrong, but your relationship appears that strong.
Linda: Our problem is that we deal too much with what has happened before.
Ed: That brings up quality time enemies. The first two are criticism and talking about the negative past. When you spend your alone time together, I’d like you to observe two rules. The first is to avoid criticizing anything your partner is saying or has done, and the second is never to allow yourself to talk about anything negative that has happened in the past. And the past is defined as anything before the current time.
Mark: That’s kind of hard. Linda and I often talk about things that have happened during the day.
Ed: That’s fine, but what I’m talking about is the negative past—all the things “you said” and “you did” that only encourage fault finding. Remember, no one knows what is going on in another person’s mind.
Linda: What if Mark says something that is critical, or rather, that I see as critical? How do I handle that without starting a fight?
Ed: Linda, any time you perceive Mark do or say something that might, in your opinion, be harmful to the marriage, just ask Mark, “How is what you are doing/saying helping our marriage, helping us get along?” Then drop the whole matter right there. You have asked him to look within himself and evaluate what he is doing, and you have offered no opinion of that, with the exception of asking him to reflect on what he has done or said.
Linda: I see. What you are suggesting is to ask him to look at his own behavior and what he wants, and then trust his own internal judgment to do what is best. I like that.
Mark: I like it too. I’ll be less likely to see her as being critical, since all she’ll be doing is asking me to look at what I’m doing, without making a judgment.
Ed: Another enemy of quality time is always asking why your partner did something. This only encourages the person to offer excuses for what he or she did. Having to defend your actions is counterproductive to each of you taking responsibility for your own world and allowing the other to do the same.
Linda: You should never ask “why”?
Ed: Not if it leads to an excuse. You never want to give anyone the opportunity to avoid responsibility. Asking someone “why” sidetracks the whole issue of what needs to be done to build strength into the marriage, which is the real issue. Linda, why don’t you want to work at your marriage?—you know Mark loves you. Now, don’t answer me, just think about the difficulties that might arise as a result of any answer you might give.
Linda: Anything I might say would just make things worse, wouldn’t it? I’d be on the defensive, trying to make things better.
Ed: Right. Not only would it sidetrack the real issue of whether or not you wanted to work at the marriage and what you both could do now, but also think how Mark would see your answer, given his own internal perception of you.
Linda: But “why” seems to be the standard question everyone asks. No wonder we weren’t getting anywhere. We were just digging ourselves a deeper hole.
Ed: Unfortunately, that’s what happens in a lot of marriages. My job is to teach you a better way.
The final quality time enemy has to do with personal problems not related directly to the marriage. The only case in which quality time isn’t very effective is when one (or both) of the parties has serious individual problems. These can range from dealing with their own internal conflicts to more serious problems such as some type of addiction or mental problem. Alcoholism is an example—getting your act together with someone else is simply too difficult when you don’t have your own act together. And addictions also create another problem. When we ingest any kind of chemical into our system, it tends to distort our perceptions. This in turn gives us a distorted memory system. Recovering alcoholics literally have to learn how to deal with their lives all over again, and especially how to relate to others.
Linda: One thing I don’t quite understand is why talking isn’t important. I mentioned it a while ago and you didn’t pick up on it. Isn’t communication important?
Ed: That depends on how you define communication. If it means being able to talk, listen, and write, I’m sure you have those skills. But a problem with talking is that the words we use are primarily abstract concepts and can easily be misunderstood and manipulated. Also, we each deal with words according to the meaning we’ve created for them. Sometimes the meaning of a word can be quite abstract, allowing it to be interpreted by others in ways we never intended.
Mark: I don’t understand what you mean.
Ed: If I said I wanted you to be a loving husband and show Linda every consideration, what would that mean?
Mark: I don’t know, that’s kind of vague.
Ed: That’s what I mean by abstract. “Loving husband” means different things to different people. If you watched your father kiss and hug your mother over many years, “loving husband” could mean one thing. On the other hand, if your father never showed your mother any physical affection, but occasionally brought her a gift, “loving husband” could mean something entirely different. And that’s only one possible source of our ideas about the meaning of “loving husband.” What about all of the other experiences we’ve had that have contributed to the meaning of “loving husband” for us? The possibilities for having various meanings are endless.
Mark: I can see how little we really understand about each other if all we do is speak abstractly, and from what you are saying, that’s how we speak most of the time.
Ed: Right, Mark. That’s why talking doesn’t help build a relationship, but quality time does. However, if talking flows from this activity and is natural to the interaction, then not only is it pleasant, but it also builds the necessary confidence for the future, when couples just want to talk. Just remember that the key to a successful, intimate relationship is that the couple must participate daily in a mutually satisfying experience called quality time. What I have done is to give that time specific meaning.
The other day I was counseling a teenager who wanted to rebuild her relationship with her dad. She said she had tried talking, but it was just too difficult. Since her dad worked a lot in the garden, we worked out a plan whereby she would offer to help him occasionally. She did so, but at first there was no talking other than an occasional “Where do you want this?” and “Where’s the shovel?” Slowly, each began to make comments to the other within the context of the activity, and within a short time they were talking freely. The activity together provided the necessary growing confidence in their relationship that made the time spent with each other in conversation much more relaxed. As they gradually grew closer together through the interactive time in the yard, casual conversation, at first related to the activity, began to develop. Thus, talking became a natural part of gardening with each other.
Talking together is only one of the quality time illusions.
Mark: What do you mean, “illusions”?
Ed: When you perceive the time you’re spending to be helpful to the relationship, but it really isn’t. Such activities, like talking, do not create strong relationships—they can only enhance a love that already exists.
Linda: What are some other illusions?
Ed: Besides talking together, I would add two more: eating together and having sex.
Mark: You mean sex doesn’t help a marriage?
Ed: Let me ask you, Mark, do you really enjoy having sex with Linda when you perceive her as someone who is cold and uncaring? When you believe she is distant from you or doesn’t like you?
Linda: Mark enjoys sex any time!
Mark: No, I really don’t. I might get a little relief, but it isn’t the same. Having sex with someone who doesn’t care is like having a small high followed by a big downer. It cheapens the whole thing.
Ed: That’s the problem with quality time illusions. They create the fantasy—the illusion—that something is genuinely satisfying when it isn’t. The illusion with sex is that it somehow satisfies the need for love when it doesn’t. Sex does not create strong relationships, it only enhances a committed love that already exists.
Linda: I understand what’s wrong with talking, but I love going out to eat. What’s so wrong with that?
Ed: There’s nothing wrong with going out to eat, Linda. My wife Hester and I do it a lot. The act of eating nourishes our bodies. I just don’t think it helps a relationship. The problem with conversation, as I mentioned earlier, is that—whether we are eating at the same time or not—it so easily leads to misunderstanding, especially when a relationship is not strongly grounded in shared activity. Our perceptual system can do things to words that are not the intention of the speaker of those words. And we seem to know that what someone does is a better reflection of that person than what someone says. You remember the old saying: “Actions speak louder than words.” Words often express generalities; actions are always specific. But even actions can be used to fool another person. Think of the high-pressure salesman with the ready handshake and big smile. In a strong, loving relationship, there are no major illusions, only day-to-day activities, and these activities create the belief within us that we have control over our future together, that we trust each other, and that there is deep and growing mutual respect. Thus, it is possible to end up with what most couples never achieve: a close, loving, intimate union of two human beings.
As I said at the beginning of this chapter, quality time is named by nearly all of the inmates in my classes as one of the most important things they learn about. And when I review individual plans written during a class, I always find that most of them involve scheduling time regularly with one or more family members, on an individual basis. Also, I have many inmates approach me individually, looking for ideas about how they might reestablish currently conflicted relationships. It seems that of all the inmates’ problems, rebuilding relationships is very high on their lists of priorities. Quality time is the key to accomplishing that.