The number one obstacle to intimacy and cause of divorce? Money? Sex? Your partner lives in a cyber-cocoon? Nope. It's trying to "win;" striving to defeat your spouse when you disagree.
Trying to win is natural and makes us feel strong and secure. Nobody likes to lose, and everybody wants to triumph.
But striving to win is disastrous for a relationship. In fact, it is one of the key reasons for divorce. It turns your partner into your opponent, and the relationship--despite your love and commitment--into a battleground. When either person in a relationship tries to win, you both lose. The loser feels defeated and deprived and will punish the winner by withholding emotionally or sexually or attacking her at an inopportune time, like when guests or family are visiting.
There are various signs that you are trying to win like justifying your position, rather than hearing your partner or improving the relationship. Or planning your retort while your partner is still speaking. Or telling them that they shouldn't or don't feel what they feel. In these instances, the atmosphere becomes tense rather than cooperative. Your partner feels you are debating her instead of hearing what she says. Afterwards, you feel that you "won" (or "lost") the argument.
Love is not about victory for one, defeat for another, but the triumph of the union.
The alternative to winning is really hearing where your partner is coming from and what she is upset about. Striving to understand doesn't mean you agree with your partner or let go of what you value--only that you take his or her feelings seriously.
Imagine that when you fight or disagree, your spouse says and conveys, "Please help me understand why you are upset. I promise to listen and I will try really hard to understand your point of view." That's not only a natural aphrodisiac; it encourages your partner to try harder to understand you. Disagreements can finally be faced. Simmering resentments melt away. Stubborn patterns can often be resolved.
In my new book The Art of Flourishing: A New East-West Approach to Staying Sane and Finding Lover in an Insane World, I recommend several ways to cultivate empathic listening and deeper understanding between couples. Create a quiet, receptive atmosphere at home. Turn off the TV and cell phones. Engage in whatever activities will center you--from listening to music to meditating. Speak in a heartfelt and gentle manner, sensitive to your timing and tone of voice.
Second, lessen the triggers or "hot buttons" that create an emotional minefield in the relationship--in other words, hurt, anger, and mistrust. Here are two universal triggers: "You are just like your father/mother." "Even your sister/brother/best friend agrees that you are ____." Each person can make a list of their partner's triggers and commit to avoiding them.
Next, concentrate on listening to what your partner is saying rather than listening for confirmation of what you already believe. Strive to understand the logic and value of what your partner says and feels.
Fear and pride often interfere with empathic listening. I have observed many people in my office who are afraid that striving to understand their spouses will put them at a disadvantage. But attempting to win does not really protect them. It increases the chances that they will get emotionally hurt in a rancorous battle. When you empathize with your spouse, he or she feels respected, which decreases conflict and increases the chances for reconciliation.
One of the best signs that you, or your partner is shifting from trying to win to striving to understand, is that you learn something new about each other. This strengthens your connection with each other and feels joyful even when you don't see eye to eye.
Couples demonstrate unexpected creativity and resilience--and can resolve seemingly intractable conflicts and avoid the nightmare of divorce--when they are committed to understanding, rather than winning. When no one loses in a relationship, each person wins.