Over the years, I heard and used the admonition to “pick your battles” quite a few times. It’s actually been one of my most frequently given pieces of advice. The phrase suggests that every relationship has an abundance of topics on which couples have differing opinions, preferences, expectations, or beliefs, and that it’s a good idea to be selective in regard to which ones are worth fighting over. Those different views can show up in a variety of situations ranging from relatively benign decisions such as choosing a restaurant or movie to choices over where to invest savings and which religion to raise our children in. “Picking your battles” has to do with the idea that it’s neither reasonable nor productive to be willing to argue over every differing point of view that shows up in your relationship.
Stating a preference isn’t the same thing as trying to coerce your partner to come around to agree with your view, or trying to influence or manipulate someone to take actions that will support a desired outcome. Some things are of course worth taking a stand for, but not everything. The key is in knowing the difference, and to express your preference from an intention to create the clarity that can promote the kind of interaction that supports respectful dialogue, rather than reacting in ways that generate defensiveness and opposition.
This process begins with the way in which we frame the situation in our own mind. The words that we use to define it, whether they are our unspoken thoughts or are verbally expressed aloud, have a great deal of power to set the context for the type of communication that will ensue. Conceptualizing an encounter as a “battle” predisposes each of us to assume an adversarial position, since battles result in winners and losers, and the stakes can be high. And yet even realizing the hazards of adopting such an orientation often isn’t enough to bring a “win-win” intention to the conversation. (Even the term “win-win” suggests a contest that could involve risk and opposition.)
This is not to suggest that it’s necessary or even possible to agree on everything. The point here is to recognize that the conversation begins before any words are spoken; it begins with the intention with which we enter the dialogue and the language that we use to describe it. Choosing whether or not and how to take a stand as opposed to choosing a battle, creates a greater likelihood that what follows will be a respectful dialogue, rather than an antagonistic struggle.
There’s a difference between taking a position against something and taking a stand for something. Taking a stand is about expressing our perspective rather than delivering opinions, judgments, and unsolicited advice, particularly when there may be an implicit threat in our position. Taking a stand doesn’t necessarily require a loud or strident voice. In fact it is more likely that our partner will hear us if we have done the preparatory work to present our point of view from a place of clarity. This self-reflection allows us to speak with the kind of quiet dignity that predisposes our partner to be more receptive to our message. (Note: Receptivity and openness do not necessarily equate with agreement.)
When we see an exchange as a battle to be won or lost, our focus is on the other person. We want to find their areas of weaknesses, their vulnerable spots, and deliver strikes that are designed to diminish their ability to have their will prevail over us. This view almost inevitably generates a similar reaction in them and by the time the first words are spoken, we’ve already transformed differences into conflict. When we’re in a battle it feels safer to focus on the other person since they represent a threat and we need to be aware of any potential dangers coming from their direction. The notion that the best defense is a good offense applies in contact sports, but not so well in the kind of contact that we seek to experience in intimate partnerships. The time to focus on our partner is when they are speaking and expressing their perspective. Giving them our full attention and listening from an intention to try to understand how they feel and why they feel that way creates an empathic connection that promotes greater openness and trust. It also enhances the likelihood that they will respond in kind to our concerns.
Shifting an intention from winning to creating a satisfying outcome for both partners isn’t easy, particularly when it comes to things that we have strong preferences about. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to settle for the kinds of compromises that leave neither of us feeling that we got what we needed. While most of the differences that couples have are not of the deal-breaking variety, there are some that are genuinely challenging. What is important when faced with one of these situations is to try to remember that the way that we engage in the process has everything to do with its outcome. The way we get there is what we get! A “win at any cost” attitude is unlikely to produce a mutually satisfying outcome, whether you get what you want or not.
While the nature of your opponents’ emotions may be irrelevant in the game of football, in the game of relationship, feelings do matter. They matter a lot, not just because we share a very personal and (hopefully) caring connection but because if only one of us is satisfied with the outcome of a interaction, we are both negatively impacted since the overall quality of trust, safety, respect, and love in the relationship has been diminished by an adversarial encounter. There are no real winners when one of us feels like a loser, whether it’s been because the “winner” used coercion or some other forms of manipulation to prevail, or the “loser” has simply given up in resignation and is unwilling to continue to struggle and argue. Resignation inevitably turns into resentment and over time, these accumulated defeats take a huge toll on the level of goodwill in the relationship.
A powerful antidote to the adversarial cycle is the cultivation of “enlightened self-interest.” This refers to the recognition that whatever either person does for the enhancement of goodwill in the relationship benefits both partners. This of course doesn’t mean that it’s always a good idea just to roll over and accommodate your partner whenever there is a difference. It does however require a high degree of self-honesty and self-trust to know what you really do need to take a stand on and what preferences you can afford to let go of.
When we appreciate the degree to which all of our relationships are enhanced by breaking the habit of responding to differences with defensive and offensive patterns, we’ve already taken the most important step in the process of becoming liberated from our automatic protective reactions.
Easier said than done, you say? No argument there. But few things that are worth fighting… or taking a stand for, are easy. And enlightened self-interest is in everyone’s interest!