boxing gloves
Photo: Brian Velenchenko
I heard them yelling in the waiting room. By the time I emerged from my office to greet them several minutes later, the well-dressed couple in their early 40s were silently fuming. I introduced myself and ushered them inside. The wife, Cathy, sat on the sofa; the husband, Robert, chose a nearby chair. They glared at each other.
Without even waiting for me to ask why they'd come to see a therapist, Cathy exploded at Robert. "You're always working. You don't spend enough time at home. I feel like a work widow."

First Robert seethed, then he lit into Cathy. "Nothing is ever good enough for you," he said angrily. "I'm always working because you're always spending so much money."

She came right back at him. "At least I'm at home with the family, not married to my job. I might as well be single. In fact, I am."

"Yeah, but I'm not a critical bitch who's bankrupting the family."

It was time for me to intervene. "Throw me your wallets," I said. They looked at each other, then at me. "Hand them over."

They complied, intrigued enough to call a cease-fire. I took the wallets and put them on the ottoman at my feet. "Do you enjoy throwing your money away?" I asked.

They stared at me blankly.

"No," they both said.

"If you follow one principle—which I'll try my best to help you with—you'll save yourselves a lot of time, money, and tears," I said. "It's this: Be more interested in understanding your spouse than in winning. Otherwise, this process will take longer than it needs to, and you'll waste a lot of money trying to win. And you'll both lose. Guaranteed."

Now I had their attention.

In more than 24 years of practice, I've discovered that the biggest source of conflict for couples isn't money, sex, fidelity, child rearing, or in-laws. It's the urge to win. Wanting to win, to be right, is natural; it makes us feel strong and safe and gratified. It's also disastrous for a relationship. When the goal is winning instead of understanding, partners are more likely to ignore, or trample, each other's feelings. That launches a spiral of escalating resentment and hostility leading to alienation—a troubling distance from each other that can become unbridgeable when communication breaks down completely.

If the results are so dire, why do so many people continue to focus on defeating their partners rather than on hearing and understanding them? For a variety of reasons. Some go for the win as a sort of preemptive strike—if they hit first, they believe on some barely conscious level that they can avoid being shamed, humiliated, or bullied. Others think that crushing their mate is the only course of action open to them—they're afraid that unless they're overpowering, they'll be overpowered; that unless they're hollering, or building an airtight case against the other person, they won't be heard at all. They think the only available choices are conqueror or doormat. Winning makes some people feel—for a moment—safe and triumphant, and these short-term gains fool them into thinking that they've chosen the right tactic. But, paradoxically, going for the win is the course of action least likely to get them what they really want.

You know you're getting stuck in this dead-end strategy when being right is more important to you than improving the relationship, or when you constantly question or deny your partner's feelings and perceptions: One of you begins a sentence with "I feel..." and the other says, "No, you don't" or "You shouldn't." You know you're stuck when your conversations sound more like hostile debates than open-spirited collaborations, when you regularly interrupt each other, or when, instead of listening, you mentally rehearse what you're going to say while your mate is speaking.

How to break the cycle