If you have ever sat on a witness stand in a courtroom, you know it can be a grueling experience. Attorneys shoot questions at you like a hungry archer, challenging your memory, questioning your judgment, demanding evidence to verify the veracity of your statements. An attorney wants facts: dates, times recollections, and if your memory doesn’t match what they anticipate they’ll question your honesty; if it does, they’ll prod until you doubt your own testimony.
When attorneys fight in a court of law they are primarily concerned with facts:
When people hire an attorney to resolve their conflicts it’s practically a foregone conclusion it will be an adversarial negotiation.
Amazingly, some couples, when they argue, sound like two attorneys in a court of law. They argue about dates, and times, and want to “prove” that they are right, and something happened just as they claim it did.
“When, exactly, did you call?”
“I don’t remember, around 6:00”
“I know for a fact it wasn’t 6:00.”
“Well, that’s what I remember.”
“Check your cell phone. It’s all there.”
“You misplaced the remote.”
“No, you used it last.”
“I distinctly remember you used it to watch the game.”
“What time did the game end?
“I asked you to pick up milk.”
“No you didn’t.”
“We were standing in the kitchen just before I left for work.”
“Yes, and we were talking about who’s cooking dinner, not who’s picking up milk.”
“I wish I had a tape recorder to I could improve your memory.”
Whenever a husband or a wife says, “I wish I had a tape recorder….” I am alert to the fact that they are fighting like attorneys. In a marriage, proof and evidence and facts are irrelevant in solving disagreements. Couples will often waste precious minutes of problem solving attempting to prove who’s right.
Imagine a couple begins that arguing about how fast the husband was traveling on the freeway. The husband insists he was going the speed limit and the wife insists he was exceeding the speed limit. They could argue, and submit evidence on each side of the argument, but the important question is why it even matters. Was the wife frightened, because they might crash? Was she was worried they couldn’t afford a ticket? Instead of focusing on the real issue, which could be fear or worry in this case, couples too often spend an inordinate amount of time discussing facts, facts that won’t help them resolve their differences and often can’t be proven anyway.
I’ve always considered it ironic that for a profession so concerned with facts, “eye witness testimony” is admissible in a court of law. Studies have proven over and over again how unreliable eyewitness testimony can be. I recall learning about one study where several people were asked to identify the type of vehicle they had witnessed in an accident. Each of the “eye witnesses” recalled seeing a different vehicle. Each felt he was telling the truth, and was quite certain he was right. How could several different reports all be right?
Beyond the Facts
Couples who disagree will progress far more quickly toward conflict-resolution if they forget the facts, and focus on their feelings. Who, What, When, Why, Where or How questions will only bring a couple close to a resolution if they are asking What makes this important to you? Why does it matter so much? How are you feeling? The beauty of identifying feelings is they can’t be debated. Even the most skilled lawyer can’t prove that your feelings aren’t your feelings.
It doesn’t matter what time he promised to call, or the difference between the promised time and the actual phone call. It matters that you feel like a low priority because something else took precedence over the phone call.
It doesn’t matter what she was doing all afternoon instead of what you asked. It matters that she neglected to do what she promised, and you feel dismissed.
If you notice that you and your spouse are fighting like attorneys, pause and focus on feelings. Are you feeling neglected, ignored, dismissed, unimportant? Couples who learn to share feelings instead of facts can more quickly get to the heart of a disagreement and come up with a resolution.
One husband shared an effective way to get the heart of a disagreement. “Whenever my wife starts bringing up facts, I immediately agree with her. Okay, for the sake of argument, let’s say I was speeding. Clearly this bothers you. Can you help me understand your concerns about speeding?”
Another way to get to the heart of the disagreement would be to agree to disagree. “Okay, we both have a different opinion about how fast I was going. But it seems to me the important thing is you don’t like riding in a car with someone who exceeds the speed limit.”
More focused still, would be the approach, “Let’s not argue about how fast I was really going. Let’s talk about why it bothers you when the person driving the car you’re riding in exceeds the speed limit.”
Identifying the feelings that led to the fight does not mean you’ll live happily ever after. However, it does identify the real problem and enables a couple to focus their work and argue more productively. In this high-tech world where cameras and recorders are ubiquitous, “proving” your point might actually be possible. In a court of law, that might help a judge or a jury make a decision, but in a marriage, feelings are more relevant than even the most conclusive evidence.
JeaNette Goates Smith is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist practicing in Jacksonville, Florida and the author of Unsteady Dating: Resisting the Rush to Romance available at www.smithfamilytherapy.org