The proverbial relationship wisdom when it comes to disagreements? Pick your battles to better keep the peace, and fight the good fight when it counts.
As a proponent of the pick your battles school of thought — with a lover, a spouse, and certainly with kids — I do wonder if the expression is overused. How often are we battling, really? Are we just experiencing a difference in opinion, and isn’t that usual? Could we re-frame the pick your battles premise in a more productive way?
Every Disagreement Does Not a Battle Make
These nuances are reflected in what may appear as counterintuitive counsel from Psychology Today. In Why You Shouldn’t Pick Your Battles, Linda and Charlie Bloom, relationship counselors, remind us why we generally take this advice as a given:
… couples have differing opinions, preferences, expectations, or beliefs… it’s a good idea to be selective in regard to which ones are worth fighting over… “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.
They also point out that to disagree and take a stand for what one believes does not require a battle. If anything,
Conceptualizing an encounter as a “battle” predisposes each of us to assume an adversarial position…
And we all know that when we wind up with a sense of one being a winner and the other a loser, that isn’t a very comfortable place to be. Not in a relationship, when ideally, we would find compromise or, at the very least, not take an adversarial position that puts a wedge between us!
Fan of Not Fanning Flames… Unless…
So what of the “pick your battles” advice?
I still believe it has merit. Don’t most of us, especially as relationships wear on, forget some of the basics like patience, like watching our words, like being as considerate of the other person’s feelings as we ought to be? Couldn’t we potentially scrap and bicker over every little thing when we’re frustrated?
This is where picking our battles is a great reminder, just as it is for parents. For me, kids with messy rooms wasn’t high on the priority list. Kids who weren’t pulling their weight in school was entirely different, and a battle worth fighting either of them slacked off.
Picking your battles is about priorities, values, and the quality of the relationship as you construct it for the long run.
On Making Up After a Fight
It’s inevitable that we fight from time to time, and we all understand how critical it is that we fight fair. How we argue — without hitting below the belt, not hanging on to old grievances we’ve (theoretically) resolved, not dipping into verbal abuse — these are essential if we want solid, respectful, caring, functional relationships.
Naturally, we all have days when cool, calm and collected doesn’t come easily.
With insufficient sleep or an excess of stress, we say things we regret in ways we wish we hadn’t. And we may spill out our anger at the worst possible time.
Our ability to regroup is essential. But making up after a fight — effectively, isn’t a given. Most of us fall back on
- a sincere apology
- subsequent behavior that shows we’ve let go of the fight
- make-up sex (the old standby)
- making changes or making peace with the way things are
Speaking Up For Yourself
Knowing myself to have been raised as a people pleaser — behavior that carried through into my marriage and even my divorce — I can look back and see the relationship between that tendency and picking my battles. At least, that’s what I told myself when I wasn’t happy about something — I was holding off conflict until a more amenable time.
However, I suspect that what I was really doing was caving to elements of fear and discomfort, when I should have been speaking up for myself, for what I needed, and for what I wanted.
For some of us, the lesson in standing up takes years. We learn it as we lose to our people-pleasing selves, to our conflict-avoidant selves, to our cowardly-communicator selves. And we learn the hard way that if we sit on resentment, eventually it boils over.
Not only do we feel better, but we just may wind up closer than ever.
So What About Those Differences?
Listen. No two people are going to agree on each and every decision. That’s obvious, right? But our complexity and differences bring such richness to relationships! That we may want different things out of life or the relationship itself needn’t mean disaster.
Moreover, isn’t it a reasonable expectation as the years wear on?
Psychology Today acknowledges this reality:
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.
And that lands us squarely back in the land of fighting fair, civilly, and without causing intentional hurt or damage.
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