On a great many occasions I have heard people refer to an obvious relationship mistake they’ve observed in another couple, saying, “I won’t make that mistake.” Or parents say, “I won’t make the same mistakes that my parents made with me.”
Although these sentiments are expressed with great sincerity, they’re meaningless. I can resolve with all my soul that I will not make a particular mistake that another person has made, or to repeat one that I have made, but even if I successfully avoid that mistake—which is far from certain—that doesn’t even begin to give me the insight or ability to make the RIGHT choices.
I’ve played the piano from the age of eight, so I know something about learning and teaching that skill. Imagine that I’m teaching you to play the piano, and I begin with Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto—a work of considerable intricacy and difficulty. Carefully I demonstrate several of the WRONG notes you should avoid in each passage. This might sound helpful, until you realize that within the first 30 seconds of performing that piece there are BILLIONS of possible mistakes, and I couldn’t begin to show you all of them. You will never learn to play that concerto by avoiding mistakes, only by learning how to play the CORRECT notes, and in the right chords and tempo, to name just a few characteristics of musical expression.
There are countless ways to love and interact with people poorly. We can hope to love well and to have healthy relationships only as we attentively absorb the experience and wisdom of those who already know how to love, not simply by resolving to avoid obvious mistakes. Now we need only to find such wise men and women and to trust them as they teach us.