Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Being Right And Being Married Don't Go Together

March 12, 2001

I offer constructive criticism; you are a nag.

I am determined; you are stubborn.

I am tactful; you are apple polishing.

I am consistent; you are set in your ways.

I stand up for what I believe; you are a fanatic.

I keep my things organized; you are a compulsive neurotic.

I use discernment; you are picky.

I am careful about details; you are a fussbudget.

I am forthright; you are a loudmouth.

I take credit where credit is due; you are a braggart.

I take responsibility; you are a worrywart.

I keep a low profile; you are a wimp.

I know how to relax; you are a deadbeat.

I look at things realistically; you are a pessimist.

I don't take any guff off anyone; you pass the buck.

I am deliberate; you are dead slow.

I am accommodating; you compromise your standards.

I take advantage of opportunities; you are a vulture.

-Taken from, "21 Myths That Can Wreck Your Marriage," Page 11, by Barbara Russell Chesser.

Rigidity and criticism. In the counseling I do with couples, I often notice partners that are very ridged in their thinking. They see their partner only in a negative light and are too willing to judge. This way of perceiving interferes with the ability to be empathic or to understand the feelings of another.

Despite an overall commitment to the happiness and well-being of one’s partner, what comes across is a steady barrage of interruptions, rebuttals, and criticism. 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 their partner doesn’t care.

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 their feelings and point of view.

Endless debates. 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.

What it is like. 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.

How might this husband see himself? In all likelihood, he sees himself as being strong-willed, determined, independent, productive, decisive, and confident. He is probably mystified why his wife seems to ignore his priorities and concerns.

Getting through. What is the answer for a relationships like these? 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 their 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 going into the usual debate that sidetracks them.

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 they love and are committed to. That is even better than being right.