One Essential Ingredient of Happy Couples

Happy couples choose curiosity over righteousness.

Posted Dec 27, 2020

Forget about being right. Well, at least long enough to really listen to your partner's point of view. Staying curious and becoming a good questioner is at the heart of happy coupledom. 

We can’t listen well when our mind is already made up. Instead, we have our own agenda. Instead of trying to understand what our partner is saying, we’re likely to be waiting for him to finish talking so we can launch into our own argument.

Being right is often beside the point. There is no simple “right” answer to decisions we make as couples, and fostering a collaborative spirit instead of a competitive debate is more important than defending any particular position.

Consider this example from a couple I saw in my consulting room. Bob and his wife engaged in repetitive, downward spiraling fights about whether they should stay in their large house (as she wanted) or downsize (as he insisted). Both could recognize that “here we go again” feeling whenever this issue arose, but nothing changed until Bob took the initiative to change his part of the pattern.

During a couples session in my office, Bob suddenly stopped arguing and instead asked questions to better understand the viewpoint of his wife Laura. He intentionally shifted into a place of pure listening, detaching from the question of who was correct or what was true and how he could best make his case. 

In truth, I don't know what inspired Bob to make this courageous shift. Perhaps he was inspired by a new creative project he had just started that bolstered his sense of self-worth and allowed him to be more emotionally generous.

Bob’s automatic tendency was to get stuck on correcting facts, for example when Laura made incorrect statements about the house payments or mortgage. Now he resisted getting sidetracked by details and instead made an effort to stay “on point” about understanding his wife’s strong wish to stay in their house.

When Laura put him down (“The house doesn’t matter to you because you’re always at the office”) he initially got defensive”(“I’m not always in the office. And if I weren’t in the office we wouldn’t have the house”). He recovered quickly, however, and changed directions. He looked at Laura and said, “It’s true. You’ve put so much more of yourself into the house than I have. You’re there more and you’ve really made it beautiful. “

Laura visibly softened. She shared her vulnerability behind the fighting, recalling that she had made endless moves as a child and she never knew where home would be for long. By the end of the session they weren’t so polarized. In fact, they had a plan. 

Laura would drive around with Bob on Saturdays to see what smaller places were available and at what price—not because she agreed to move but just as part of a fact-gathering expedition. They would also look at their finances together and crunch the numbers as to whether they could stay in the big house “forever.” Bob would work harder to appreciate how much the old house meant to Laura, and factor her love for their home into the staying-or-leaving equation. They each left the session feeling more like partners than adversaries. 

Try to catch yourself when your focus on being right prevents you from working toward a common purpose. Moving from defensiveness to genuine curiosity about your partner’s position is more important than scoring points in an argument. Ask questions lovingly, because if your questions are delivered in an intense manner, your partner may feel like you’re cross-examining her rather than trying to know her better.