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Beyond Right and Wrong to Fair

September 19, 2009

Recently I helped a couple navigate a relationship impasse, in which each was convinced of the “rightness” of his (and her) own position.   In my many years of personal and professional experience, when two people disagree, it’s rare that one person has the complete hold on the truth. More often, there’s your side, my side, and then a truer perspective that takes both sides into account. A couple is bound to have ongoing arguments when they’re mired in the battle to prove who’s Right and who’s Wrong. Here are some tips for what it takes to move past this unwinnable struggle and resolve your differences:

First, partners need to relinquish the certainty that they’re right, which prolongs the point-counterpoint, my-side-against-your-side stalemate. Too often,  a couple’s emotional energy is expended on winning at the cost of being able to understand a central issue in the relationship: what’s truly fair.  The quest to be right typically leads to defensiveness and a crossfire of mischaracterizations and accusations. Even if you “win,” it’s a Pyrrhic victory–won at the cost of closeness and trust.

Next, I remind couples that to get a fair hearing, you have to give one. This isn’t a whitewash:  “Okay, we both did damage; we’re even.”  Nor can  you can sweep things under the rug with a sham apology (“I’m sorry you felt that way”), which is tantamount to telling your partner, “Too bad you’re too sensitive, neurotic, or easily offended.”

Instead, make yourself vulnerable and own up to your particular share of the problem.  It’s tempting to simply explain your side, as if the repetition will finally win your partner over, rather than garnering resentment. While you deserve to have your side acknowledged, you also need to specifically validate your partner’s perspective.  Go first, and then ask for your turn.  Again—remember, to get a fair hearing, be prepared to give one.

Finally, replace blame with claims. Identify what changes, large or small, you’re asking for in order to feel cared about and considered. Don’t assume that if your partner loved you, he or she would “know” what you need.  Hold up the cue card—you have a better chance of getting what you want if you ask for it.  Read more

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