Much of life is filled with competition. As children we want to have the best toy, the biggest piece of cake, and Mom and Dad paying the most attention to me. In school we compete for the best grades, a place on the best team, and the chance to go to the best college. Competing continues on and on in our lives. When a couple gets married they each are seeking to figure out where they fit in this new family unit. As they are already conditioned to be in the competition mode, it often continues into the marriage.
Early in Jim and Marie’s marriage, they had a spirited discussion (argument) over whose job it was to pay the bills. Jim’s father was an accountant and he paid the bills so Jim thought it was the husband’s job. Marie’s father was a farmer and her mother paid the bills so she thought it was the wife’s job. Jim prevailed and got to pay the bills under the “round to it system", which meant the bills got paid when he got “around to it". This made Marie nervous. Two years later, when Jim was deep into post graduate studies, Marie had more time so she took over paying the bills and has been doing it ever since. Jim discovered that Marie was a better money manager and was more than happy to have her take over the duty, much to Marie’s relief. This started out as a competition of who was right, not who was right for the task.
Many couples, both young and older, come to therapy complaining about a lack of respect and kindness in their marriage. Betty stated, “We are always arguing over the dumbest stuff.” Frank added, “We are both stubborn people and have to be right, so we spend a lot of time trying to prove the other one wrong. Our time together isn’t fun anymore.” When you read this, do you want to shout, “Hey, Betty and Frank, wake up. If you know it is dumb stuff you argue about and it is not fun then why do you keep doing it?”
Ask yourself, “Do I spend a significant amount of my together time with my spouse defending my position and attempting to prove I’m right and my spouse is wrong?” Does the statement, “We can’t talk about much because we end up in an argument” describe your marriage? If the answer to either statement is “Yes" then it is time to change the path you are. Here are three suggestions.
1. Remember the reasons you got married
When you were seriously dating, when you were engaged, and when you were first married, remember you couldn’t wait to be with each other. Your eyes sparkled with admiration for each other. When most couples are asked the reasons they got married the answers are often, “I liked being with him/her, we had fun together, and I loved him/her.” Remember that feeling and choose to keep it shining.
2. Learn to listen the same way you want to be heard
“I don’t think I am being listened to and really heard” is a statement often made by an unhappy spouse. In therapy when one spouse makes that statement the other has a similar complaint. Most of us know what it is like to be listened to and heard and want that for ourselves. What makes this hard to do for each other? Are we too busy selling our point of view and trying to prove any other view wrong? Just imagine what it would be like to listen to your mate the way you want to be heard, then do it.
3. Have the joint goal to build your marriage
Competition pushes aside the goal of having a wonderful marriage. Remember you got married because you wanted to be together. When you have a problem ask each other, “How can we build our marriage and solve this problem together?” As you truly listen, you may find that your mate’s approach has merit and can be used, or maybe the solution is a combination of both of your ideas. Sometimes the answer is discovered by considering both ideas and a new approach evolves. The strength you have together can allow you to work through any difficultly because your marriage recognizes and builds on the individual strengths of each other. Individually we each are capable, yet together we are the strongest.