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Being Dead Right: How It Can Slowly Kill Your Marriage


There's a dark little acid test that can tell you a lot about your marriage, maybe more than you want to know. It pops up unannounced and often unnoticed, but if you pay attention it can give you some insight about avoiding hidden marital traps, and even how to take your relationship to the next level. It occurs at the moment when a disagreement is resolved, when one of you is right and the other is wrong. Dead right, and dead wrong. There are two things to assess in these situations: how you feel in the midst of the disagreement, and if you ended up being right, how you feel in the moment of what you may consider victory, but is, in fact, something much more patently dangerous than that.

If, as the argument unfolded and you found yourself on the other side of the fence from your beloved spouse, you felt threatened, that your certainty about the issue was bigger than the issue itself, then you may be experiencing tremors from a potential fault line in your relationship. The natural physics of relationships, especially those that go untended in this regard, is the buildup of tiny resentments and irritations. The place where these surface most clearly is during confrontational moments, when the stakes of being right and the risks of being wrong have more to do with the past than they do the issue at hand. Maybe you believe your spouse is a know-it-all, or worse, that they think you aren't the sharpest needle in the sewing basket. To emerge victorious in this little joust might just wipe that smug smirk off your spouse's face - if this is important to you, pay attention, you've just become part of the problem - or it might prove you aren't quite the dim-wit your spouse believes you to be. When these emotions are present, when the issue itself is less essential than the subtext and agenda of the emotions at hand, the smart money stops right there and assesses the risks.

The scorecard of emotional wins and losses has two sides. There is perhaps nothing inherently wrong with feeling good about prevailing in a disagreement, but there is grave risk in feeling good about your spouse not winning. Because in that moment, even if you can put the disagreement to rest and move on to something else, your spouse is struggling with how to handle their feelings - not about losing the argument, but about you. All they see in that moment is your smugness and insensitivity, your delight in their defeat. The argument and its underlying issue may quickly pass, but that scorecard will get posted on the wall of their inner dialogue, where all important decisions are made.

Disagreements are inevitable, and by definition someone usually emerges as the person who had it right, while the other someone gets stuck with the loser tag. In loving relationships that take the time to recognize these little potential traps and work around them, couples care more about how their spouse will feel than the issue itself, and everything they say and do, including the unspoken, is delivered from within the context of that understanding. Arguments and disagreements can actually lead to greater intimacy and openness, but only if you remove the fear of failure from the equation, and only if you show that what you care about is your spouse, not necessarily about you being right. When you "win," the only response you should show is understanding and empathy, because even the slightest trace of smugness will take a chip out of the foundations of your relationship. And while a single chip won't collapse the structure, years of chipping away just might.


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