Last month I wrote about four important qualities of a successful marriage (for those of you that missed it: commitment, gratitude, listening with full attention, and having fun together). “All well and good,” said a friend whose identity I’ll keep confidential, “but you forgot the most important thing!” What’s that, I asked? “RESPECT!” she announced, quite adamantly. Well, I have to give her that one - she’s right. Of course, I can’t cover everything in one short article, but respect really deserves to be at the top of the list. Respect for each other’s opinions, beliefs and differences. Simple respect of the other person. Several years ago, I watched an interview of a couple, in their eighties, who had been happily married for sixty years. How rare and special is that! They were of course asked the obvious question; “What’s the secret of your success?” Their answer? Respect. The wife said, “You know, over the years we’ve had our disagreements, arguments, and times we weren’t very happy with the other person for some reason. But through it all, we have always treated each other with respect.” Bingo. My friend is right. But how exactly does this play out? It means that if you’re having a disagreement, no matter how ridiculous you think you’re spouse is being, you take the time to hear them. This does not mean you have to agree with them, it means giving them the respect of hearing what they have to say. And allowing them to have their own feelings, opinions, or beliefs, even if you don’t agree with or even understand them.
Some things are obvious (or should be). Calling each other names, for example, is neither respectful nor productive, and is unlikely to lead to marital bliss. Fortunately, most people know this. But the trap many of us fall into is arguing to be right. That’s a very lawyerly thing to do, but it doesn’t lead to marital happiness. In court, if I’m right, you’re wrong. If I win, you lose. A very bad formula for a marriage.
For various reasons, which I’ll save for a future article, humans are wired with a strong motivation to be right, and also to see things as all-or-nothing, black-or-white. But this doesn’t work too well in relationships. One of my favorite sayings is, “you can be right, or you can have a relationship!” This doesn’t mean you have to be wrong. It just means you have to allow for the possibility that our partner is right also. Our reality (thoughts, beliefs, feelings) may be different, and instead of discounting or trying to talk our partner out of their beliefs or feelings, the path to happiness is in respecting the differences.
Nobody likes to have their feelings or beliefs discounted as wrong or unimportant. When our partner does that to us, we don’t feel respected or loved. This creates a cycle of negativity where we don’t feel too generous toward our partner, either. I’ve worked with couples who have traveled so far down this path, they couldn’t agree about anything. On the other hand, if we take the time to listen to our partner and at least try to understand what they’re saying or feeling, they are very likely to feel inclined to do the same for us. Result? More understanding, more connection . . . more love.
If you’ve fallen into an argumentative pattern with your partner, try listening with full attention before speaking. Then try finding some part of what they’ve said that you understand or agree with, and start there, instead of starting right off telling them what you disagree with. Ask them to do the same for you. Listening and supporting one another feels so much better than the “I’m right, you’re wrong” arguing. Try it - I think you’ll like it!
© Catherine Aisner 2010