Competition: a rivalry for supremacy. We live in a very competitive society. This is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, this can be a very good thing. Competition is good in many ways. For example, in sports, it gives us somebody to root for. Sports give us a social outlet to feel like part of a team. And if we play sports, the competitive spirit keeps us motivated and working hard to excel. In the work force, competition keeps us on our toes and working toward achieving, and when we achieve success above the competition, it feels great. Competition is also important in the business world, it keeps prices down for consumers. So when is competition a bad thing? When it enters into our intimate relationships.
There is no place for competition in relationships, yet it sneaks in and can destroy relationships. In competition there is a winner and a loser. In order for us to win in a competition with our partner, our partner must become the loser, and when that happens, the relationship loses. What does competition in relationships look like? Fighting to be right. Couples often get locked into arguments that end up being less about the topic and more about winning and being right. For example: Linda wants to buy a new car because she is tired of paying for repairs on the old one. Joe wants to keep the old one and says he can do most of the repairs himself. They begin to fight about this on a regular basis where it becomes about who is right and will win the argument rather than listening to the meaning behind the fight; (Linda feels unsafe in the car, Joe wants to feel competent that he can keep Linda safe). The fight then becomes about being right and winning the argument. Had they both taken the time to understand each others point of view, they would have seen that there was a reasonable compromise: a win-win situation.
When couples get locked into power struggles, they will often have the same arguments over and over. Sometimes they will argue about different “topics” but the underlying purpose is always the same; to win, to be right. If during disagreements, you find yourself trying to convince your partner of your point of view, or trying to get your way, chances are you are locked into being “right”. And if your partner is in the same frame of mind, and you are both waiting for the other to change, you are in a no-win situation and the relationship is being damaged one argument at a time.
So how do you get out of the fight? There are some simple steps that you alone can take to make change. And if you both follow these steps, the improvements to your relationship will be profound.
1. Make your first goal to understand your partners point of view. This is called empathy. Empathy is a crucial skill to nourishing a relationship. It is the ability to put yourself in your partners shoes and see things from his/her perspective even if you disagree.
2. Validate one another’s feelings. Say something along the lines of, “I can see how you would feel that way.” Or, “well, after hearing your side of things, I can certainly understand your perspective”. Again, it doesn’t necessarily mean you agree, you are still entitled to your own perspective, but taking the time to understand and validate your partners perspective can create some very positive and effective dialogue.
3. Find the areas of agreement. After taking the time to really “hear” one another, take some time to identify where the two of you are in agreement.
4. Find the middle ground. Negotiate and compromise. This is much easier to do when you have empathized with one another’s stance on the issue. There may not always be a compromise, but having dialogue with respect and empathy can mean the difference between dealing with issues in a healthy way, and causing destruction to your relationship.
Let’s look at the steps in action.
Linda and Joe recently got married. Before getting married both agreed they would take a nice honeymoon within the first year of marriage. A year has gone by and no honeymoon. Linda is getting upset that it hasn’t happened and the two of them argue about it often. They finally sit down to talk about it both seeking to understand the other. Linda explains that from her point of view, the honeymoon would “seal the deal”. To her, they didn’t really start their life together until they went on the honeymoon. She felt hurt that he wasn’t making the effort. Joe said to Linda, “if that’s what the honeymoon meant to you, then I could see how you would feel hurt.” Joe went on to explain that he had been putting it off because of what he thinks it will cost. He explained that he feels he is supposed to be the “provider” and it is his job to make sure that they are taken care of financially. He didn’t see the honeymoon as a financially sound decision at this point in their lives. Once Linda understood where Joe was coming from, she was able to feel better about the fact that it hasn’t happened yet. She realized his intent was to care for her. Both got out of being right. Once this happened they were able to compromise. They were able to plan an enjoyable honeymoon that was within their budget to do so.
One of the primary things to remember is to always respect one another. Communication is important in a relationship, but if communication occurs without respect and empathy, it can be very damaging. By using these tools, you can create significant improvements in your relationship. Even if you have disagreements every day, they do not have to be damaging to your relationship. “It is not how compatible you are, but how you manage incompatibility.”
One thing I tell clients, is that when you are having disagreements, hold hands with one another. Sometimes this simple physical touch is enough to keep you calm and remember to work for a win-win compromise.