Virgin's Guide to Burning Man

A Virgin's Guide to Burning Man can be found here.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Being Happy Trumps Being Right

In family dynamics, one of the saddest things I see is the destructive nature of trying to prove that you are right. This "I told you so" attitude can rear its ugly head in nearly any situation where two people disagree. It comes in basic arguments about nothing of import. It shows up in stupid arguments about who forgot to do what on the honey-do list. And worst of all, it displays itself proudly in serious arguments, where the very foundations of trust and respect in a relationship are at stake.

Let me give you an example: Johan and Marie.
Johan and Marie have been married for several years, and though it has been rocky from time to time, they still love each other and have made it work. But Johan feels a bit unfulfilled in his career and wants to try something new. He used to play bass guitar in high school and college. He had even been part of a band. Now he is wondering if maybe he can make something of it. He picks up the guitar again and starts writing songs.

Marie sees this and she is worried. She knows how competitive the music industry is and how difficult it would be for a 40-something to break into the industry and make anything of himself. The last thing she wants to see is Johan pour his heart into song-making only to fail and have his heart broken. She knows he would be devastated and insecure. But how can she say that to him? Obviously she can't tell him he might fail so it's better not to try. So what does she do? She passively-aggressively undermines his attempts, making it difficult for him to have the time to practice or to work (more on passive aggressive manipulation in a later post).

And it works. He never writes anything completely, and eventually his dream falls by the wayside. He still dreams of it, wishing it could have been, but ultimately he has given up. Marie is sorry he is sad, but she figures he will get over it in time, and in any case, being sad is better than being heartbroken. But the trouble is, in the end, Johan is heartbroken--just in a different way.

Her passive-aggressiveness has not gone unnoticed. Johan thinks back and remembers why he never had time to practice music or write, and he ends up resenting Marie because somehow, however vaguely, he senses she has not supported him in his dream. Now he feels he would never know how he might have fared because she didn't give him the opportunity to try. Resentment, anger, sadness, distrust and betrayal build up slowly over time, undermining their marriage. He retaliates in other ways, perhaps by engaging in power plays with her, trying to reassert his power over her. Of course, by doing so, they can never actually talk about the real problem, because they are too busy dealing with superficial things covering up the true pain they should be addressing.

Marie was so sure she was right, she was willing to sacrifice Johan's dreams. And very probably, she was right. But did that spare anything? No, it didn't. It only caused bitterness and distrust in their marriage, and Johan was still heartbroken for not having achieved his dream. If she had only supported him, regardless of the outcome, then it is possible the two of them could have found happiness. Even if the worst had happened and Johan failed, then she could have been the bedrock of support to comfort him and help him stand up again. In his mind, the blame for his failure would have lain with the industry or himself, not with her.

This is just one example, and the need to prove ourselves right comes in a myriad of guises. But underneath it all, when we find ourselves in a conflict, we can always ask ourselves what is at root. Are we really hurt and angry, or are we just trying to prove our idea is right and the other is wrong? Are we really so insecure that we need validation, that we need to prove someone else wrong? Sometimes, it is enough just to know that we are right. Sometimes it is more important to soothe a loved one's feelings than it is to prove to them why they shouldn't feel that way. Sometimes it is better to resolve the conflict than to win the conflict--because when the conflict is resolved, everyone wins. Think of it this way: if you "win" the conflict, that means your loved one loses. And in what world is it a good thing if someone you love loses?

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