Disagreements in Marriages and Relationships

In my last arti­cle we talked about how the attempt to make clear what we are actu­ally talk­ing about may resolve many repeat­edly frus­trat­ing arguments.

Here I am going to dig a lit­tle deeper into the causes of dis­agree­ments and argu­ments in rela­tion­ships. Why do cou­ples argue so much? You would think that since you will­ingly started your rela­tion­ship that you must have agreed on most issues and even in the areas where you ini­tially did not you thought that as rea­son­able peo­ple you would be able to work things out. Well, after months and years of being in a close rela­tion­ship not only did the dis­agree­ments not get bet­ter, they got worse.

We do not see things as they are.
We see things as we are.


Jean Piaget, the French child devel­op­ment psy­chol­o­gist, con­ducted a reveal­ing exper­i­ment. He gave a group of chil­dren a wooden block, which was painted red on one side and green on the other. After exam­in­ing the block he would show them the green side and ask them what color he was see­ing. Most chil­dren younger than five years old answered “green”. They were inca­pable of rec­og­niz­ing that the per­son on the other side could see some­thing dif­fer­ent than they did. Older chil­dren gave the cor­rect answer. They under­stood that while they were see­ing the green side of the wooden block, the researcher on the other side saw red. These chil­dren demon­strated that they had devel­oped a sense of per­spec­tive, the abil­ity to appre­ci­ate the sit­u­a­tion from another point of view.

How often in your rela­tion­ship have you behaved as if you were younger then five? How often do you think that your point of view is real­ity itself and if your part­ner does not see the sit­u­a­tion or event the same way you do, he/she is plain “wrong”. That is called onto­log­i­cal arro­gance, think­ing that what you think is real is real for every­one else as well, that you are right while every­one else who does not agree with you is wrong. When our daugh­ter, Diana, was five years old, she would say that she didn’t like mush­rooms because they were yucky. In fact, the oppo­site was true. Diana called mush­rooms “yucky” because she did not like them. She thought that any­one who liked mush­rooms had no taste: a typ­i­cal case of onto­log­i­cal arro­gance. Ontol­ogy is the branch of phi­los­o­phy that stud­ies the nature of real­ity. Onto­log­i­cal arro­gance is the belief that your per­spec­tive is priv­i­leged, that your way is the only way to inter­pret the sit­u­a­tion. If you see green every­one else must see green also, oth­er­wise they don’t know what they are talk­ing about. While onto­log­i­cal arro­gance is cute and endear­ing in chil­dren, it is much less charm­ing in adults – yet it seems to be preva­lent in adults. It may become quite dev­as­tat­ing for a rela­tion­ship if your onto­log­i­cal arro­gance adopts the behav­ioral atti­tude of “it’s my way, or the highway”.

In charged sit­u­a­tions most of us assume that we see things as they are; it is not so. We actu­ally see thing as they appear to us. Check it out for your­self. When was the last time that you met an “idiot” who thinks exactly like you do? Do you think that peo­ple who dis­agree with you are idiots, or you call them idiots because they dis­agree with you? (Instead of “idiot”, you may sub­sti­tute the epi­thet which you usu­ally use on your partner.)

The oppo­site of arro­gance is humil­ity. Humil­ity comes from the Latin word humus, mean­ing ground.  Being a hum­ble per­son, a per­son with onto­log­i­cal humil­ity, means that you real­ize that you do not have a spe­cial claim on real­ity or truth, it means that you are well grounded in real­ity. Remem­ber, the first step to trans­form­ing any sit­u­a­tion is being in a pro­found rela­tion­ship with what is so. You would under­stand that other people’s and your partner’s per­spec­tive are just as valid as yours and that they deserve respect and con­sid­er­a­tion. Onto­log­i­cal humil­ity makes sense on an intel­lec­tual level, but it is not our nat­ural atti­tude. It requires, at the min­i­mum the cog­ni­tive devel­op­ment of a six-year-old.

If we are to stop argu­ing, dis­agree­ing about every­thing, quar­rel­ing, scream­ing at each other, etc., and as a result feel not under­stood, deserted, resent­ful, angry, aloof, dis­ap­pointed, not loved or respected, we must stop behav­ing as five-year-olds. We must make an effort to be aware of our own per­spec­tive and point of view, allow oth­ers to have their own, and attempt to step into their shoes and see their per­spec­tive on the world. Only then would we be able to start to under­stand why they think what they do and why they do what they do. This does not mean that you have to be a psy­chol­o­gist and under­stand every “how” and “why” the other per­son thinks; respect­ing another’s point of view would be suf­fi­cient. Also, by prac­tic­ing onto­log­i­cal humil­ity it does not mean that you are giv­ing up your own per­spec­tive. It is quite hum­ble to say that mush­rooms are yucky as long as you add “for me”. You may be hum­ble and still assert your­self, your views are com­pletely valid, as long as you do not oblit­er­ate and inval­i­date or dis­re­gard your partner’s point of view. This is why I had a whole chap­ter on agree­ing with your part­ner and why I refer to it in The Rela­tion­ship Saver.

Dur­ing our lives we all have very unique expe­ri­ences on the basis of which we form our world-view, our men­tal model of the world.  Your men­tal model is your own par­tic­u­lar set of deeply ingrained assump­tions, gen­er­al­iza­tions, beliefs, and val­ues. From this model stem all the inter­pre­ta­tions and mean­ings we give to our expe­ri­ences. Mean­ings and inter­pre­ta­tions, as I men­tioned in other arti­cles, are not “out there”. They are formed “in-here”, in our minds, and everyone’s men­tal model is dif­fer­ent, some­times only slightly, but dif­fer­ent nev­er­the­less. We must start being aware of other people’s mind mod­els and start appre­ci­at­ing and under­stand­ing them if we want our own mean­ings and real­ity to be under­stood and appre­ci­ated by oth­ers. Only then can we aspire to start hav­ing con­ver­sa­tions and com­mu­ni­ca­tions as adults, and not as four-year-olds. We might even learn some­thing we didn’t know that we didn’t know. It’s time to grow up.



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