Last Sunday, Ann Leary wrote a beautiful New York Times "Modern Love" column about her marriage to actor Dennis Leary. She chronicles the high and low points of her marriage, focusing honestly on the painful lows. She admits that things even got bad enough that they told their marriage advice therapist they were done.
Describing their approach to playing tennis as a metaphor for their relationship, Leary makes a psychologically profound point about marriage in general: when couples constantly play to win, they usually lose. Leary explains that, for years, their approach to tennis was a dual desire to beat each other at all costs. They were so determined to win, that they needed to use their own set of rules:
"I'm ashamed to admit that one year we spent several days of a family vacation not speaking to each other after a game of 'Dennis Tennis' that I had lost 'unfairly' (I repeatedly hissed at our children), until finally our son and daughter had to intervene and coerce a truce."
Leary's description resonates perfectly with my work as a couples therapist. The most common theme I notice with couples and conflict is virtually identical to the disastrous game of "Dennis Tennis" described in Leary's column. When it comes to resolving a conflict, most couples are way too determined to "win". They talk over each other, they criticize or make fun of each other, and they speak in tones that cause each other to shut down and become hostile. In short, their mutual efforts to beat each other leads to a net loss on both sides, resulting in little or nothing accomplished.
Of course the desire to "win" an argument makes sense. Why even bother engaging in conflict if you don't believe you are right and deserve to have that acknowledged? And yet, curiously enough, a statement like: "You are so cold and distant, and obviously have no idea how hard it is to live with your constant cold shoulder!" almost never leads that offending spouse to say: "You are absolutely right; I need to change. Let me give you a hug! Can you ever forgive me?"
While it may seem counter-intuitive, the most effective way to "win" this common scenario of desiring more warmth and affection should sound something more like an effort to lose — or to at least pitch to the other's strengths. Consider a statement like: "If I am honest with myself, I have to admit that I have always craved a lot of physical affection. I knew this when we married, and I was unrealistic in thinking that this would change. I just wish we could find a middle ground that helped me feel closer to you, but also respected your preferences and your space."
From a psychological perspective, these two statements could be a response to the very same marital dynamic. However, the first response is an attempt to win (to be proven right), while the second is an attempt to own one's own part in the problem. One might even argue that the second statement admits defeat and therefore is a "losing" comment. However, the second statement is obviously much more conducive to building the very intimacy the "player" craves. It's actually win-win!
In the heat of the moment, it can be difficult to use this more collaborative and productive form of communication, but here's a tip: don't just say what first comes to mind. Instead, take a moment to identify the feeling that underlies the issue. Articulate the feeling and do everything possible to describe your part of the problem. To do so, make sure you use the word "I" as much and possible and take great lengths to avoid the word "you". If you are kind, speak about yourself, and consider your partner's ego, you can say anything. Through this approach, your chances of feeling heard and your experience of intimacy can dramatically increase.
Through hard work, taking time to date, seeing a therapist and playing a lot of tennis, Leary describes the hard work that saved their marriage:
"[It was] our last game of that summer, the last before we packed up our son and drove him to college. We had each won a set, and now it was 5-5 in the final set. We had reserved the court for only an hour, though, and the hour was almost up. There were other players waiting... Dennis was serving in this deciding game. He served carefully, not trying to ace it past me for once. It was too risky. I didn't take advantage by slamming my return into his backhand court. What if it went out? The match would be over. I hit the ball into his court, and he hit it back to mine. I placed the ball in his court carefully, so carefully and he placed it back in mine. We rallied, not with the adrenaline-pumping determination to win at all costs, but with the patience and control that came with not wanting it to be over: not the summer, not our son's childhood, not this game, ever. Back and forth went the ball. And it occurred to me there was some sort of grace in my husband's form, and I felt it in mine, too, as we both worked to keep the game alive just a little longer, by trying to find each other's sweet spot, by playing, for once, to the other's advantage."
Now there's some team spirit we can all learn from.
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