Spiritual and relationship expert, teacher, counselor, advisor, speaker, and writer James Gray Robinson

Pick Your Relationship Battles Wisely

I am a retired divorce attorney who has seen just about every reason two people break up.

I always asked my clients whether they wanted to be happy or right. Fortunately for me, most of them wanted to be right. The attorney’s fees for being right is always higher than for being happy.

In fact, my belief is that if everyone focused on being happy we wouldn’t need attorneys; but that is another story. This story is about some of the misconceptions we experience when we marry, and what we can do to avoid destroying a marriage.

 I also have been divorced, twice. Like most people, I had a very optimistic view about getting married. My parents were married in the 1950s and stayed together to the bitter end, until death did them part. It was not a Hollywood romance from my point of view. It seemed to me that it was a constant struggle of wills and demands, which eventually evolved into a smoldering truce that sometimes broke out into affection, but not always. I always thought that my parents probably would have been happier being apart, but they were too afraid of the unknown and too stubborn to change anything about their relationship. Thus I swore to myself I would never live that way, and as a result I have been single most of my life. I am sure that my fear about getting trapped in a silent duel to the death had a lot to do with that.

The first thing I learned about all of this is it is important to choose our battles with each other wisely. Not everything is worth fighting over, not everything is worth being right about. Sure, there are any number of things people fight about: money, frequency of sex, public behavior, who said what when. It is my experience (confirmed by interviews with thousands of people) that the most important thing people look for in marriage is support. It is much more important to fight for your partner than it is to fight with your partner. If you complain about your partner to someone else, I can guarantee that the relationship is doomed. If you agree with a criticism against your partner, the relationship is doomed. It is constructive and meaningful to have a kind and objective conversation with your partner about their behavior if circumstances warrant it. If you take it outside the home, you are causing cracks in the foundation of the relationship that may not survive.

We have to argue constructively. We are not children. My ex-wives were polar opposites, when they didn’t like my behavior, one nagged and the other gave me the silent treatment. I have to say I preferred the nagging, talking to someone that doesn’t talk back is like one hand clapping. Taking total responsibility for these relationships and their demise, I subconsciously fell in love with women I knew my parents would hate. Then for years I tried to get my parents and my wives to like each other. How insane is that?  Then I did again with my second wife, I tried to mix oil with vinegar. I guess they tolerated each other in public, but the complaints were frequent and heated in private. The good thing about marrying someone your parents hate is my parents didn’t mind so much when I divorced.

The key for disagreement is to remember that there is a solution for every disagreement. Sometimes it may not be obvious, but there is always a solution. Premarital discussions about behavior that is acceptable and non-acceptable goes a long way in setting the rules in the relationship. I once thought that marriage should not have rules, but that was naïve. There are behaviors that bring us together, and behaviors that drive us apart. When we hit one of the speed bumps in the marital road, it is good to remember that one of the rules that keep us together is speaking softly and listening. Most partners want to know that they are heard and their partner is more concerned about keeping the relationship than being right.

Being right = fight.

People don’t want a “soul-mate,” they want someone who will always say, “Yes, dear.”  The romantic notion of “soul-mates” is that you walk side by side with the person you love without complaint. There is a great deal of debate about soul-mates and whether they should be married at all. Again, that is another article for another day.

The thing to remember is that everything changes. We change, they change. Men often fall in love with an ideal that their partner represents in the beginning, and never want that ideal to change. Women often fall in love with who they think their partner can be and will grow into. Barbie and Wine don’t mix well. Few people actually know who it is they are marrying; they are marrying an illusion that will only fade with time. One day they will wake up and say, “This isn’t the person I married,” when, in fact, the person they thought they married didn’t exist in the first place. Unless we are totally honest, open and open minded, the chances of finding a perfect partner is about the same as finding a parking space in Manhattan. It is possible to do but you may have to look for a really long time. Similarly, you can’t get an SUV in a compact car parking space or a square peg in a round hole (pick your metaphor). Part of the mystery of a healthy marriage is that they are so rare. We have to be ready to sacrifice our ego to be happy, we have to be ready to bend when the wind blows.

There is no room for abuse in a marriage. If your partner is abusive, run. If your partner is abusive to your children, run. Perhaps they were abusive when you married them. Then you can only ask yourself why you chose them. It is likely that you abuse yourself or that you grew up in an abusive home and it felt familiar. What it boils down to, is we have to be the person we want in a relationship first and always. If we want our partner to change, we have to be willing to change. If we are looking for evidence of infidelity, that is probably because we are wanting to be unfaithful ourselves. I wish that there would be some sort of peer group review before people could get married. In many cultures, people could not get married without family approval. This has gone by the wayside, even in countries that used to have arranged marriages. The idea is sound, that sometimes we are too pumped up on hormones and sexual attraction to see the mouse turds that later turn into mountains. I believe that the courting period is paramount to sexual legal insanity and people should have to come up with personal references from past relationships and objective approval from friends and family that know both parties in order to get a marriage license.

 The commitment of a marriage requires letting go of your relationship to independence. My first marriage was to an audit CPA; she was gone 26 weeks a year for the first two years of our marriage. It was great, I could do whatever I wanted 26 weeks a year. We decided to have a child, and when she started living at home all of the time, the wheels came off. I did not want to grow up. She did not want to compromise. So much for that relationship. It is very difficult to have a marriage where two individuals do not care to compromise. For that relationship to flourish I would have had to completely change my personality and stop being independent; something I was not willing to do. It was an interesting dilemma. The point is that marriage is a series of daily forgiveness, compromise and understanding. If you aren’t willing to do that, find another kind of relationship or better yet, until you can be that selfless person and put your expectations behind you, just be in one with yourself. Most of the work is learning to love yourself anyway. Then loving and being with someone constantly is easy.
Reprinted from The Elephant Journal see more
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