…There is a tale worth remembering
There was a Monk in Thailand known for his goodness, knowledge and wisdom. Because of this, people living in the area often turn to him to resolve disputes. Two farmers come to him with a dispute over the boundaries on their land and access to water from the stream nearby. After greeting them, the Monk meets first with one farmer and hears his side of the story. The Monk’s assistant stands by to serve tea. At the end of the discussion with the first farmer, the Monk says, “You are right. Let me talk to the other farmer.” The first farmer leaves the room, and the assistant brings in the second farmer, who tells his side of the story. At the end of that discussion, the Monk says, “You are right. I will meet with both of you after I finish my tea.” After the man leaves, the Monk asks for more tea. The assistant is upset and says, “You listened to the first farmer and told him that he is right and then listened to the second farmer and told him also that he is right. They can’t both be right. What are you doing?” The Monk looks thoughtful for a moment . . and says, “You are right.”
The point of this story is the wisdom of knowing that there is almost always more than one “right.” Unfortunately, many people in marriages get stuck on believing, like the assistant, that there is only one right. Thus, when a disagreement comes up, the spouses often end up distracted trying to prove who is right and who is wrong. The problem is made worse because humans developed, through evolution, an overconfidence bias. This means that each spouse is biased in believing that he or she is right, thus making the other spouse wrong. As a result, spouses often walk away from one another with nothing solved, still believing that they are right and developing negative views of one another (e.g., “He is just so stubborn and cannot admit he is wrong.”)
“Wait” you say. Sometimes the disagreement is about a fact or set of facts.
A fact is a fact, right, so one spouse might be “right” about the fact,
making the other spouse wrong?
Ah, if only that were true and that simple.
Without going into the research on the validity of how people remember facts, trust us – two people can disagree about a fact and both be right. This goes to the heart of one of our fundamental principles in our book, The Road to Marital Success is Unpaved: Seven Skills for Making Marriage Work. That principle is that everybody, including two spouses, lives in their own reality. They are shaped by their experiences, by what they pay attention to and what they don’t, by their interests and values, and by their upbringing. One of the seven skills described in our book is to recognize this is true in a marriage and how to understand each other, that is, how to communicate in order for both spouses to get the whole picture.
An argument about who is right is a waste of time and can inflict damage on the spouses. For example, after an emotional argument about who is right, one spouse might draw the conclusion that their spouse cannot admit being wrong and is not to be trusted to tell the truth. The other spouse might conclude that the spouse is so self-centered that they cannot even recognize what is real. Developing negative beliefs about a spouse can be the beginning of the end of a successful marriage.
A discussion (not an argument) about who is right can be very helpful, at least as a first step. The reason to begin a discussion about the marital disagreement and trying to determine who is right is because, simply, stated, sometimes one spouse is right and the other is wrong. This can occur for many reasons. For example, one spouse might simply have more, or better, information than the other spouse. Mature spouses can admit to being wrong. Then the spouses can solve the problem, by agreeing to the facts, or make the plan together.
However, if after trying to establish who is right fails, it is time to take the next step and proceed with the assumption that both spouses are right, but disagree about what to do. What makes this challenging is that initially, the two positions are likely appear to be incompatible, meaning that they both can’t be right or cannot use the two different solutions. This can occur for three reasons: first, the goals of one or both spouses are short-term goals, rather than long-term goals; second, the long-term goals of the spouses are different; and third, they share the same long-term goals, but disagree about how to get there.
The solution to the first explanation, when both parties focus on short-term goals, is for both of them to focus on long-term goals. For example, one spouse wants a child to have a particularly exciting and meaningful experience on a trip, but the other spouse points out that the child has not done their part to have earned the right to go. For example, the child was invited to go camping with classmates. The parents agreed to the plan, as long as the child did the weekend chores before going. One spouse wants to let the child go, because it would be so good for her social life. The other spouse wants the child not to go, because the chores were not done. The first spouse is not wrong to want a happy child who had this great experience, but this is a short-term goal. The other spouse wants the child to learn that failing to be responsible an lead to serious consequents – a long term goal. Shifting to both spouses focusing on the long-term goal may solve the disagreement. This is because the goal of parenting is to have a competent, confident and independent child who is reaching adulthood, not to have a happy childhood, at the expense of teaching important life lessons.
The solution to the second explanation, when the long-term goals of the spouses differ, is to discuss how both long-term goals can be combined, or at least the most important aspects of the long-term goals. Then the task is to develop a plan to get to those long-term goals. For example, one spouse has the goal of paying off their house early enough to have excess income to use for experiences as a family that are good for the children. The other spouse wants to buy a boat for taking the children fishing and to do boating as a family while the children are still young. They cannot do both. They plan and realize that realistically, they would only do boating a few times in the summer and that the date for paying off the house is a little flexible. They decide to put off paying off the house by one year and to join a marina where they can rent a boat when they want to do boating or the one spouse wants to take the children fishing. The plan reaches the slightly modified goals of both parents.
The solution to the third explanation, when spouses agree on the goals but differ on the steps to take to reach that goal, is to brainstorm other methods for reaching their shared long-term goals. For example, the spouses share the goal of being debt free as soon as possible. However, they disagree about whether or not to purchase a new car or a used car. They both have good reasons for their positions. They are also starting this plan with other debt: a remaining student loan and some credit card debt. The task for them to reach their shared goal is simply to increase income or decrease spending. Therefore, that is the focus of brainstorming. They start by getting more information about the economics of purchasing cars. As a result, they choose a used car, but one with less than a certain amount of milage and a model whose longevity is documented (e.g., Consumer’s Report). They make decisions about limiting spending, which includes a drop in lifestyle, and a couple of ways to increase total income. They follow the plan and reach their goals.
These approaches get solutions to problems and resolution of disagreements.
Most importantly, these approaches require teamwork, rather than arguments. In successful marriages, the parties find solutions to disagreements, rather than have power struggles over who is right and who is wrong. This only generates negative emotions.
There are additional skills required, which are too involved to include in this short blog. However, the other skills can be found in our book, The Road to Marital Success is Unpaved: Seven Skills for Making Marriage Work.
The key points and summary are as follows:
- First discuss who is “right,” until one spouse is agreed to be “right,” or it becomes apparent that both spouses may be “right.” If there is impasse, meaning these steps do not lead to agreement, the issue is still not about who is right. The issue is that the brainstorming has not ended. Taking a break can help. Getting more information from other sources can help. Even getting suggestions from others can help.
- Discuss if the disagreement is because one or both spouses are focused on short-term goals. If so, focus on long-term goals.
- Discuss if the disagreement is because both spouses are focused on long-term goals that appear to be incompatible with one another. If so, focus on combining the long-term goals in ways that will shape the steps to take to reach those goals.
- Discuss if the disagreement is because both spouses agree on the long-term goals, but differ on what steps to take to reach those goals. If so, clarify, by brainstorming, how steps can include parts of both spouses’ plans.
- When there is still an unresolved disagreement, there are two satisfying solutions:
- Rate the importance of the two different choices: Each spouse simply, but honestly, rates how important to them their proposed solution is. For example, on a scale of ten, he rates his solution as a 6, and she rates her solution as a 9. She gets her solution.
- Tradeoffs (giving in) works. But when someone gives in, they must propose something else that is of equal or better value as a trade-off. In our example of one parent (the mom) wanting the child to go camping, the other parent could propose that he gets the next weekend to teach the child the lesson.
- Address any emotional harm that has been caused by the disagreement and heal it.
Having this type of disagreement process might seem overly intellectual, when emotions are running high. However, the reality is that to have a successful marriage, skills are needed to resolve disagreements in ways that are satisfying to both spouses and done in a healthy way.
One might get the impression that this approach for dealing with spouses disagreeing about who is right always works very smoothly. It does not. Human beings are not quite so neat and cooperative about how they conduct relationships, and perhaps especially how they resolve disagreements.
Our proposed skills are focused on disagreements being resolved satisfactorily, even when emotions are running high. More important, when less time is spent arguing, and having arguments escalating to painful conflicts, this leaves more time in a marriage for having fun. A mostly fun marriage in which disagreements mostly get resolved well, minimizes the emotional ups and downs and feels like a healthy partnership.