Lillian and Lawrence were having their first Skype session with me. Married for 12 years, they both stated that they loved each other but that they can't seem to stop bickering. In fact, within a few minutes of the session, they had started bickering. That was good for me to see. After 48 years working with couples, it takes me no time at all to understand what the problem is—especially when I can see it in action.
One of the central concepts I teach is that at any given moment, we are operating from one of two possible intentions:
- The intention to learn about loving ourselves and others.
- The intention to protect against pain with some form of controlling behavior.
The intent to learn in conflict leads to new understanding of yourself and the other person, which results in resolution. On the other hand, the intention to protect with controlling behavior generally leads to escalation of the conflict and prevents resolution.
It was obvious that both Lillian and Lawrence were intent on controlling rather than learning. Both were explaining, defending, lecturing, and doing everything else they could to prove that they were right and the other was wrong.
It didn't matter how major or minor the issue, they bickered over everything, and they were both tired of it. That's why they were consulting with me. They let me know that they were considering separation due to the constant bickering.
In the session, I asked them to pick an issue about which they often argue. They picked sex. Each person stated their personal issue: In their case, Lillian is rarely interested in sex, and Lawrence feels sexually rejected.
We started to explore this issue, and each time they started to bicker, I stopped them. I asked them both to soften, open themselves to learning, and become curious about themselves and each other rather than continue to argue, explain, defend, and judge.
They both noticed how hard it was for them to stay open and curious. They both realized how much they were each prioritizing being "right" or "winning" rather than prioritizing resolution and learning.
At this point, we stopped exploring the issue of sex. That was just a tool we used to get to the real issue. Then we began to explore why being right was more important to each of them than being open to learning. Here are some of the false beliefs they were each holding on to, which made them feel desperate to be right:
- "Being right means that I'm OK."
- "Being right means that I'm not stupid."
- "If my spouse sees that I'm right then he or she will change."
- "Being wrong means I'm inadequate."
- "If I'm seen as wrong I will be rejected."
- "The only way to be loved is to be right."
- "If I'm wrong, I will be in trouble."
We explored where these beliefs had come from. Both talked about their parents being judgmental and rejecting. They each learned as children that they had to do everything right in order to avoid rejection. It's no wonder they were so invested in being right in their relationships. Both Lawrence and Lillian were terrified that they'd be rejected if they were wrong. Ironically, by trying so hard to be right, they were losing their relationship.
Both Lillian and Lawrence made a conscious effort, as soon as they started to bicker, to stop trying to be right and to open up to learning. Of course, it took time to change their longstanding habit of trying to be right, but over a few months, they were able to learn from their conflicts rather than continue to bicker. And even without directly addressing the problems in their sex life, it improved. By trying to learn from each other rather than trying to prove each other wrong, they began to feel closer and more connected.