Dr. Val Farmer
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Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Being Right Takes Toll On Marriage

April 21, 2008

What can you do with a man, devoted to his work and family, who is so right, rigid and judgmental that every conversation has the potential for an argument? However well-meaning he might be, what comes across is a steady barrage of interruptions, rebuttals, and criticism. He is a poor listener. Years of poor listening lead to a self-centered view of life. Or perhaps a self-centered perspective on life makes for poor listening.

One woman in a marriage like this said of her husband, He lives his life with one foot on the brake; he lives in fear of doing or saying the wrong thing. He is painfully constricted, compulsive, and inhibited. He also expects his wife to think and act the same way.

Oh, how I have wished he would just relax and quit telling me how to do everything. He even tells me what to do about the things that don't really matter - like how to hang my towel on the rack so it'll dry faster, how to arrange the things in the refrigerator so they'll be easier to reach, and how to fold the newspapers before putting them into the waste container.

She comes to see her husband as unemotional, self-sufficient, proud, domineering, inconsiderate, unforgiving, impatient, and seldom pleased with her. She sees him being more concerned about "being right" than with how she feels. Rarely does he admit making a mistake. He is stubborn and prideful. He has no clue that his "common sense" advice and critical comments are so hurtful. Increasingly she finds it harder and harder to be loving and giving to him.

Women do this too. It isn’t just men who are guilty of this. Women can be equally self righteous in their judgments, picky and opinionated, and relentlessly critical and fault-finding. Nothing seems good enough.

Whether it is the man or the woman, each probably sees him or herself as strong-willed, determined, independent, productive, decisive, and confident. When both of them are equally strong and opinionated, marriage is experienced as a battleground with each determined to prove his or her point - regardless of the point being made or the impact the endless debate is having on their marriage.

Each judges the other in the worst possible light. Because of the overall competitiveness and conflict in the relationship, it is easy to view one’s partner in a negative light and react negatively. This defensive way of perceiving one’s partner interferes with the ability to be empathic or to patiently try to understand or be open to differing feelings or opinions.

Despite an overall commitment to each other’s happiness and well-being, communication breaks down because the quick interpretations of what is being said interfere with listening and understanding. A steady exposure to this lack of listening will lead to the conclusion that his or her partner either doesn’t care or has little respect.

The partner on the receiving end of this treatment gets exasperated. He or she falls into the same style of angry, defensive, and argumentative communication - trying to break through and get understanding and appreciation for one’s own feelings and point of view.

Responding in kind doesn’t work. It doesn't work. This is exactly the kind of dialogue the spouse relishes. What we have now are seemingly endless and repeated arguments that don't get resolved. This may result on one of the partner’s shutting down and withdrawing to avoid the unpleasant confrontations.

The couple may have many things in common - goals, values, religion, love of children, interests, sexual compatibility and a strong commitment to marriage and family life, but the day-to-day negative interactions take a toll. The lack of emotional intimacy and mutual support plus the perpetual conflict create loneliness and isolation. The marriage is being nitpicked to death. Everywhere there are mountains. There are no molehills.

Getting through. What is the answer for a relationships like this? What does it take to break through this escalating cycle of arguments and emotional isolation?

One partner usually insists on counseling. The distress and unhappiness of one is so palpable that the security of the other is threatened. Remember, these are good people with common goals and values. They have strong commitments to marriage and family. Counseling is strong medicine, but it is preferable to the threat of separation or divorce.

One of the goals of counseling will be to teach empathy, listening and respect for their mates’ needs and opinions. The object of communication is not to win the battle of, "Who is right?" but to learn to understand and empathically respond to the partner's feelings.

Really understanding a partner’s pain may cause a breakthrough in compassion. The couple will need to learn communication and problem-solving skills so that issues and differences get resolved instead of getting sidetracked into the usual inconclusive debate.

Listening for understanding is a difficult task for someone who likes to redefine everything to fit his or her perspective. It takes true compassion to "take the brakes off" while exploring the possibilities of intimacy and communication with the one he or she loves and is committed to. That is even better than being right.