Friday

You’re Not Wrong. And Neither Is Your Partner

Here’s how to stop treating your marriage as a zero-sum game

Everybody gets one housekeeping pet peeve, and here’s mine: Stuff left in the sink. My husband’s pet peeve is: Stuff left on the counter. 

Just…no. (Image credit: StockSnap at pixabay.com)

OBVIOUSLY, I’m right. I cite as my authority: Sink Reflections, the organizational book that make Marie Kondo look like a rank amateur.* This is me: “Sinks are work areas, not storage bins. How do I fill the water pitcher when there are dishes in the sink? I’m just gonna set this stuff over here to the side and…”

His authority? “I just installed this counter. Don’t ruin good butcher block!”

Harumph.

Cold Wars sometimes start in warm kitchens. 
(Image credit: video still from archival newsreel at the Nixon Foundation.)

We’re decades into this marriage, and Nikita still hasn’t adopted my position in the greatest Kitchen Debate this side of the Caucasus Mountains.

Turns out, though, that even if I’m right — which, clearly, I am — so is he. (That butcher block counter is pretty cool, and wet stuff will definitely ruin it.) 

And there you have marriage in a nutshell: Two people who are both right, debating the wrong thing, and generally doing it entirely the wrong way.

Welcome to adulthood

One basic adult life-skill they probably forgot to teach you in school is seeing that two people can hold different opinions and both be correct. In fact, in most cases, they are both correct. Most people are mostly right most of the time. More on that later.

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously observed that “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” (The Crack Up, 1936).

Happy, mentally stable adults get that way for a reason. One element of their happiness comes through learning to sustain a bit of cognitive dissonance. They can embrace the belief that everybody’s got a point. They don’t insist that friends, family, spouses, and strangers must adhere to their version of party line.
“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald
Even when they are certain that other people are absolutely wrong (ie, sexual abuse, violence, bullying) they are still curious about why those people hold their confused beliefs. 

And happy people get this critical point: In marriage, as in diplomacy, either we both win, or we both lose. You don’t win by making the other person lose. Relationships are not a zero-sum game.

Opening the door

There’s a secret key that works in intimate relationships even better than it does in international relationships.

The secret key to resolving most relational disputes is a script, which we’ll introduce below. Before we introduce it, though, it’s critical to understand the premise. Actually, there are four premises. They are:

Nobody’s out to get you. Unless your partner is a complete sociopath or narcissist (and I’ll assume they aren’t because you, a sentient adult, are voluntarily continuing the relationship), your partner isn’t out to hurt you. Your partner would rather get along with you. Just like you’d prefer to get along with them.

Other people are right, and so are you. Here’s why: From your perspective, given your history, your experiences, your upbringing, your education, and your personality, what you believe makes perfect sense.

Ditto, your partner.

It’s useful to believe that every rational adult holds perfectly rational opinions (considering their circumstances), and that if you could understand their perspective their method would make complete sense. This knowledge will enable you to change the way you approach relationship problems.

Lighten up. Your preferred way wasn’t handed to you by G-d Almighty, so maybe — just maybe — you could choose to approach your relationship conflicts with a bit of grace. You don’t have all the information. You have only what you know. (Also, since your opinions aren’t divinely appointed, you’re not allowed to hound or sulk or guilt your partner into compliance. Not if you want them to stick with you.)

Don’t get me wrong: I believe G-d Almighty does have some profound opinions, and is willing to share ’em with anyone who’s interested in listening. But G-d doesn’t go around beating people about the head with unsolicited advice. And G-d really, really doesn’t need you to steady the ark or cast pearls. G-d is pretty clear: You’re to share truth gently.

You’re the one with the problem. If my husband lived in a cabin in the woods, he’d be free to pile dishes to the ceiling if he wanted to, and it wouldn’t trouble him one iota. He doesn’t have the problem. I’m the one who hates dishes in the sink, so I’m the one with the problem. 

This would also be true if the “problem” was a cheating spouse, a thieving teenager, or a food-tossing kindergartner. They have no problem with what they’re doing. If I say “You need to stop X,” I’m wrong. Other people don’t need to stop X at all. They’re perfectly happy doing X. It’s me who needs them to change, not them, because I’m the one with the problem.



Antique heart-shaped lock with an iron key
Unlocking it is easy if you have the key. 
(Image credit: maxpixels.net)

The secret key

Since other people are not wrong, and you’re not right, how do you bridge the gap?

Easy.

Recognize that you and your partner are both intelligent people who happen to have different preferences about how to operate your lives. Your own preferences aren’t better or worse; they’re merely preferences.

The script for talking about preferences, without being provocative, is gentle. It takes ownership, assigns no blame, and seeks peaceful co-existence. 

Specifically, it: 
  • refuses to claim superiority (no I’m right; you’re wrong)
  • avoids use of the word “you” (which is usually provocative.) 
  • describes feelings (rather than making accusations)
  • is very specific (not “this entire place” but “those Legos”)
  • is context sensitive (You don’t do it when you’re steamed. You wait for a future moment — maybe as little as 20 minutes — when emotions are chill)

Sample scripts

I’ll start with a silly example. The script looks something like this:

“Hey, got a minute? I know this is stupid, but I keep stepping on Legos and I’m getting kind of anxious about walking around barefoot. Yeah, I could just wear shoes all day, but I really would prefer not to. I know I’m probably being finicky but it would really help me if the Legos could stay in that red bucket. Would you maybe be willing to help me out with that?”

Here’s the script for a much more difficult problem:

“Hey, there’s something I need to talk about. Would this be a bad time? OK, thank you for hearing me out. So, we spent a lot of time drinking this past weekend, and I’m feeling really bad about it. I’m starting to feel like this is a bad habit — for me at least. I can’t speak for you. I really want to get booze out of my life. And I don’t think I can do it without us being on the same team. Now I’m not telling you what you have to do, because I recognize that it’s my problem, not yours. But could we start talking about what it would take to become sober?”

And for a terribly serious problem:

“I need to talk, and I’m afraid it can’t wait. I’m sorry about interrupting but I need your attention. Today I came across sext messages between you and your ex. I’m devastated. I thought we were in a committed relationship. I guess I misunderstood. I feel utterly betrayed. I need some space to decide how I’m going to move forward. You don’t have to explain yourself to me, and in fact, I don’t even want you to right now. This is my problem to sort out. I'm not calling it quits, but I need you to find another place to live for awhile while I get my head around this. Now if this is a terrible misunderstanding, and there’s actually a believable, innocent explanation for what I saw, I’ll try to calm down enough to hear it, but you’re under no obligation.” 

Wrapping it up

If you’re tired of fighting — whether it’s nonsense or serious — maybe a little humility, grace, and “I know this is just me. I’m weird this way” will help you make progress. 

Or you could keep doing it your way, of course. That’s always an option. Because you’re not wrong!




Oh, the sink? Yeah. Since I’m the one fussing over the sink, I negotiated a solution that keeps me happy. I unload the dishwasher; he keeps it loaded. Easy peasy.

Want to learn more about making personal progress? You’re invited to read this article about a moment that changed my way of seeing life.





LauraMaery Gold, LMFT, lives with her very patient husband in a 400-year-old castle just outside of Paris. She is a licensed marriage and family therapist working with couples and parents. She is also the director of the AiKi Relationship Training Institute and the author of oh-so-very-many books on family concerns.


* Note: All my articles probably contain affiliate links to books and products I own, use, and love. If affiliate links ever earn me back what I’ve spent, I’ll very likely buy myself…well, another book that I’ll undoubtedly reference in a future article. This is a very bad way to get rich.

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