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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Comments (9)

T. Bending

January 16th, 2010 at 5:50 AM    

This is very dif­fi­cult given that some­times we ARE right and other peo­ple ARE wrong. It is very dif­fi­cult to main­tain a con­ver­sa­tion with or respect for peo­ple who think the world is flat.

I recently started attend­ing some Quaker meet­ings and the essence of Quak­erism seems to include the view you are describ­ing. Quak­ers also say: Each per­son is unique, pre­cious, a child of God.

When cur­rent (in UK) Islamic extrem­ists com­plain that only they are right and you are wrong (on pain of death), it is very dif­fi­cult to allow them any credit.

Some­times dif­fer­ences of view in indi­vid­ual rela­tion­ships can be sim­i­larly dif­fi­cult — when a part­ner claims you are being child­ish (which some­times you are) but is them­selves fail­ing to see their own ‘onto­log­i­cal arrogance’.

Thank-you for this anyway.


January 17th, 2010 at 1:34 PM    

You seem to be miss­ing the point. Right and wrong are con­structs of human mind. They do not exist “out there”. Right and wrong are inter­pre­ta­tions and mean­ings of the events that only peo­ple can cre­ate. Dif­fer­ent peo­ple and groups of peo­ple have dif­fer­ent notions about right and wrong. For cen­turies, and today, both Mus­lims and Chris­tians, men and women have been con­vinced that only they have the cor­rect expla­na­tion what is right and what is wrong. I cer­tainly do not want to dimin­ish the impor­tance of hav­ing the dis­tinc­tions of right and wrong. That’s some­thing that keeps peo­ple and soci­eties together, but also keeps them apart. We judge other peo­ple by their behav­ior neglect­ing their inten­tions, rightly or wrongly (I am using these words on pur­pose :>)), but we judge our­selves by our inten­tions and are most of the times unaware of our behav­ior which we often do not con­sider at all. Hypocrisy is rampant.

Every­one has right to their opin­ion (e.g. you are child­ish) which is not THE truth, so stop treat­ing it as if it is about you. It is just someone’s opin­ion about an event. It is about them not about you. It is THEIR opin­ion. Do you think YOU are child­ish? Do ter­ror­ists think they ARE terrorists?

Peo­ple almost always react to events and they do so con­sis­tent with their mind map. Have we ever asked our­selves what Mus­lims react to, when they com­mit “ter­ror­ist” acts, or threaten oth­ers? What does your part­ner call you “child­ish” reacts to, and what is his mind map so he reacts in that par­tic­u­lar way? Does every­one else think that you are child­ish? Prob­a­bly not. There­fore it is your partner’s opin­ion only, not THE truth and that has noth­ing to do with you. Some par­tic­u­lar behav­ior of yours trig­gered some­thing in his mem­ory and he con­cluded that you are child­ish. That’s all. It is use­ful to real­ize that what oth­ers think of you is THEIR busi­ness. Do not make it your own. All you can do is be the best you can be.

Sheri Jewell

January 18th, 2010 at 5:41 PM    

I can under­stand your point. I have for a very long time been the vic­tim of my own per­son­al­iza­tion of oth­ers opin­ions. I would become offended by the names and seem­ingly illog­i­cal view­points. This did noth­ing but cre­ate more dis­tance between us, fur­ther, it would cre­ate ani­mos­ity as I was now focused on address­ing the per­cieved “wrong” which had been com­mit­ted against me.
I think keep­ing myself out of con­fu­sion and sheer emo­tional response helps me to main­tain focus on the issue, to only own my part of the dis­cus­sion (rather than try­ing to change theirs), and an under­stand­ing that if we don’t agree right now — we cer­tainly won’t if I insist on forc­ing my view­point upon them.
When I have held to these prinic­ples, and given the other per­son time to think about what I have said (espe­cially when I “know” I am right) the major­ity of the time they come back hav­ing mod­i­fied their view. We can’t force oth­ers to see we are “right” any­more than we can be forced to be “wrong.” No one likes to be backed into a cor­ner. If we can stick with being adults (mean­ing we are beyond the ado­les­cent ego­cen­tric stage of growth) we will get far more accomplished.


January 18th, 2010 at 11:12 PM    

Well done and well said!

Thank you.

Kathryne Beser

April 25th, 2011 at 10:21 AM    

Our neigh­bor and I had been just dis­cussing this approach issue, he or she is ordi­nar­ily look­ing for to prove me incor­rect. Your view on that is great and exactly how I actu­ally feel. I sim­ply now mailed him this web page to indi­cate him your own view. After try­ing over your web site I guide marked and can be com­ing back to learn your new posts!

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April 27th, 2011 at 7:39 PM    

Write more, thats all I have to say. Lit­er­ally, it seems as though you relied on the video to make your point. You obvi­ously know what youre talk­ing about, why throw away your intel­li­gence on just post­ing videos to your site when you could be giv­ing us some­thing infor­ma­tive to read?

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July 18th, 2011 at 8:00 PM    

Wow that was unusual. I just wrote an incred­i­bly long com­ment but after I clicked sub­mit my com­ment didn’t show up. Grrrr… well I’m not writ­ing all that over again. Any­how, just wanted to say won­der­ful blog!


July 18th, 2011 at 9:31 PM    

Sorry. I won­der what you were say­ing. I’d really like to know. Why don’t you write a short version?

Evan Kuck

February 12th, 2012 at 7:02 PM    

You’ve got fan­tas­tic ideas there. I did a research on the topic and got that most peo­ple will trust your blog.

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