To Win at Marriage...


Having been married for more than 40 years, I can attest to the truth of the following statement: to excel in the art of domestic argument, one must master the art of losing. Modern psychologists are taken with the "win-win" solution. But in marriage, success resides more in "lose-lose" solutions. Out of these, both parties can win. For in the love configuration, losing give a gift that always returns. One day shortly after my wife and I were married, we set about picking new living-room wallpaper from a book of samples. My taste and hers were at odds.

"I like this one," she said.
"That looks like a section of a diseased liver."
"How can you say that? This is a classical pattern that goes all the way back to the Venetians."
"The Venetians were blind. They named blinds after them, remember? I like this one."
"I wouldn't hang that in hell if I were the devil."
As the argument went on, my wife suddenly slammed the book shut. "There are over two hundred samples in this book," she declared. "I say we spend our energy finding one that suits us both, instead of bickering over the ones we don't like."

And that's how we settled it. Eventually we found a pattern we both liked. The "wallpaper book" became our symbol for settling the myriad issues that arise in marriage. "Well," she'd say when we couldn't agree on furniture or a place to vacation, "there are plenty of samples in the wallpaper book."

The issues that people argue over most in marriage, such as how to spend money, often aren't the real ones. The key issue is: who is going to be in control? When I was younger, my need to control arose out of fear, a lack of trust, insecurity. The day I finally realized I didn't need to control my wife, that, I ought not control her, that I couldn't control her, and that if I tried to, I would destroy our marriage, was the day our marriage began.

Giving up control is often confused with weakness. But the winner in a domestic argument is never really the winner. When you win a battle and your partner submits, you have, paradoxically, lost. What is it we want most from a marriage? To love and be loved. To be happy and secure. To grow and to discover. A love relationship is the garden in which we plant, cultivate, and harvest the most precious of crops, our own self, and in which our spouse is provided the same rich soil in which to bloom. We cannot obtain what we want unless our partner also gets what he or she wants. A woman may, for instance, want to go to the symphony. Her husband might hate symphonies. But by spending a few hours listening to music he doesn't care for, he can bring joy to his partner. That's a pretty cheap price to pay for joy, isn't it? Suddenly there aren't a lot of samples in the wallpaper book: his wife either agrees or not. Already you can hear the usual power strategies: "I'll spend my money any way I please," or "How come you're such a millstone? Jim's wife is happy that he gets to go." Instead of such strategies, he might try empowering his partner: "Honey, I'd like to go on a fishing trip with the boys. What do you think?"

"I thought we were going away."
"How about this Fall? I've always wanted to take a trip with you to see the Fall foliage in New England.
"Good idea. I'll go to see my mother while you're fishing."

Such a dialogue, as idealistic as it sound, is born of a marriage of mature adults. But what is she says, "You always make promises you never keep. This fall there will be some excuse. I think you owe me a trip first" Now he must decide. Is she right? She could be, you know. When the couple arrives at this juncture, it's time for him to listen. When anger is hurled at us, it hurts us. If it were a pistol, I would insist anger, like control, be checked at the door. But anger can also be a response to pain. So when your spouse responds in anger, you must terminate the argument. It's that simple; the argument must end because another person may be in pain.

Try this: Let a little space occur between you. Let the storm recede a little. Then tell your partner you understand that when a person is angry, it means she's been hurt, and that you want to do something about it because you love her. Perhaps she'll tell you why she's hurt, angrily. Try not to put her off, but to hear the anger as sounds of hurt. When you discover the pain, you can address its cause, and the anger will begin to fade. You're allowed to get angry too. But dumping anger on your partner is a poor way to soothe your hurt. When you talk of your hurt without anger, a neutral response usually comes.

So remember: if you want to overcome anger in your relationship, search for the hurt. If you want to feel loved and respected, give up control. And if you want to win arguments at home, learn to lose them.

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