Years ago I spoke to a patient who, on the eve of his marriage, received some unanticipated advice. “You want to get married, and you want to make it work?” an older family friend had said. “You gotta ask yourself, whenever you argue with your wife, what’s it gonna cost ya?” To all appearances, it sounded ominous. But this offhand, knowing remark, which I heard when I was just getting started as a therapist, eventually became part of the way I practice couples treatment, and something I quote to my patients all the time.
The older gentleman who delivered this advice was talking about marital conflict, which of course is unavoidable. Spend enough time with your spouse and you will discover exactly which of your own personal traits are the least palatable to him or her. This isn’t a cynical thought, or a commentary on the value of marriage: it’s simple mathematics. No two people share every belief, on every style of interacting with the world. So when you’re involved in a fight with your husband or wife, and you find yourself sticking to your guns, determined to prove you’re right or to extract that last concession—that’s the right time to ask yourself, what’s it going to cost you?
What exactly would it cost, just this once, to be wrong? How difficult would that be? How much would you need to sacrifice in order to see the issue from your wife’s, or your husband’s point of view—to close your mouth and stop arguing, even if you still think you’re right? Is it worth the minor bump in pride to shout down your partner, when at the same time you’re also establishing a nasty new mode of communication between you, and entrenching the habit of communicating disagreement through anger, rather than careful or moderated words? If you knew you would soon hear the same scorn and derision coming back at you from your partner, would you still be happy about using this tone to get what you want?
Asking yourself “what’s it gonna cost ya,” it turns out, is a shortcut to what I sometimes call internal critical distance—what group psychologist Louis Ormont would once have referred to as the “observing ego.” By this I mean that inner component of yourself that simply watches and witnesses, like a camera, all the actions you perform—everything you say and everything you do. With this skill, you can develop the ability to examine your words before you say them. In a marriage, each partner needs to gain perspective on his or her biases, personal shortcomings, and limitations, all with respect to the relationship. Developing a critical, neutral awareness of your actions can help you stop yourself when you’re about to yell, or take a moment to reflect when you’re about to hurl an insult you won’t be able to take back.
In psychotherapy, if my patients can learn to take a compassionate, thoughtful perspective on themselves, then they will be able to pause for a self-reflective moment before they act out their emotions or engage in impulsive behaviors. The same neutral internal critic can help married people work through some of the problems they themselves are creating, or at least contributing to, at tense moments in their relationships. Put quite bluntly, it doesn’t cost you much to consider your words more carefully while you’re arguing with your spouse, but it could save you a lot of heartache in the end.
Ormont, L. R. (1995). Cultivating the observing ego in the group setting. International Journal of Group Psychotherapy, 45(4), 489-506.