My husband is a highly educated man with an impressive, high-level position. This reflects some of the reasons I was attracted to him in the first place. I loved how quickly and brilliantly his mind worked. It amazed me, and I was also so very proud of him. No matter who I introduced him to, I knew he would make a great impression.
That hasn’t changed at all. If anything, he is even more successful and more accomplished today. With that comes a certain degree of confidence. I would not call him arrogant, though he has reason to be, but he is aware of his intelligence and success.
The problem is that it is impossible to win an argument with him. Forget argument — even if it’s just a discussion, I know that somehow he will prove me wrong or outtalk me until I can’t keep going back and forth and finally just give in, walk away, and let him have his way.
We’ve been married for close to twenty years, so this has been going on for quite some time. The problem is that, at this point, I often don’t even bother asking for anything that I know he doesn’t want to do or give me. Why bother? He’ll explain to me why I don’t need it, don’t even really want it, why I shouldn’t expect it, etc. It could be about things big or small. I know it’s ridiculous that I find myself backing down from any sort of discussion/argument with him, because I know that I am very far from stupid and I don’t act this way with anyone else. It’s just that I know I’m going to lose against his excellent verbal skills and I’ve grown tired and insecure around him in this regard.
I know that he loves me and is often very thoughtful, generous, and kind to me. So it’s not a matter of trying to hurt me or deprive me of what I want. It’s just that he loves the debate and has to win — always! Sometimes, it’s about something silly like when is a better time to go out to dinner, but other times it’s something much more important, like what high schools our children should go to. He has facts, perseverance, and determination, and I don’t think anyone can be a match for that.
I see the woman I am becoming and I don’t like this woman in this regard. I cave much too easily, or I hold back all together. It feels so unbalanced, and though I’m far from a feminist, I do feel as though I don’t have the same rights as he does. And the scariest part is that I’m starting to feel as though I’m not as bright or logical as I once thought I was.
Is there any way of crawling out of this position that I’ve allowed myself to fall into? Is there some way to take on this brilliant, powerful man and actually win at a debate and get my way? If I continue along the way I’ve been going, I think I will lose my spark and my passion altogether. That would be very sad for me, and I would be (and probably already am) a terrible role model for my daughter.
So often I find myself saying, “Be careful what you wish for.” You aren’t the only person who is pulled toward a certain type of spouse for what seems like excellent reasons, at the time, only to find that those qualities come with a serious downside. Mind you, not every brilliant, successful, well-spoken person has to debate everything to the bitter end until he or she wins the argument. Much of this speaks more to your husband’s need to win rather than his ability to win, which is a character flaw that he would most definitely do well to address. (More about that later.)
Right now, I believe you are focusing on the wrong things. And if you can reframe your thoughts around this problem, you will be well on your way to a better outcome. Let’s start with a little analysis about what place “winning” should have in a marriage. In other words, conversations between husbands and wives don’t always have to be logical discussions where one of them feels like they are on the witness stand. Marriage should have a much softer side and encompass the desire to make one’s spouse happy, even if it’s not necessarily logical. It’s not about who talks a better talk; it’s about hearing and caring about the other’s needs (rather than one’s own needs) and feeling a desire to make the other person happy. Plain and simple.
For instance, let’s say that you want to go to dinner at 7 p.m. You had a late lunch, you know you won’t be hungry before then, and you actually enjoy the hustle and bustle of a crowded restaurant at that hour. Your husband makes the case for going earlier, because it’s very possible that you’ll have to wait for a table, the noise level will be higher and annoying, and the service might not be as good. No doubt your husband can make an excellent case for why he should “win” this discussion. But it’s not always about facts and figures. You don’t have to prove him wrong or be able to make just as strong or a better case than he does. All you should have to do, assuming everyone is coming from a caring place, is say, “You may be right, but I’d be happier going at 7. OK?”
You don’t need to have the back-and-forth. Don’t even engage. Let him save that kind of bantering for his office or for his chavrusa. All you need to do is let him know that such-and-such is important to you and that you’d like him to respect that. You don’t have to always get your way, but you certainly should get your way as often as he does, because what’s important to him should be important to you, and vice-versa. It’s not a battle of the minds. Marriage should never feel like any sort of battle.
Now, if this makes sense to you and you decide you want to start using your voice fully again, leaving out the debate, you can expect a strong reaction from your husband. Firstly, he will feel frustrated by your desire to just bottom-line the whole thing, skipping over the long explanations and debate and just focusing on what it is you want. He will try to engage you, maybe even provoke you, to get back on board with his “game.” Don’t take the bait! Just continue to repeat what it is that you want, without a long drawn-out story. Again, he will not go along willingly — that you can expect.
That brings me to the second piece of this story that needs addressing. I hear that your husband is one of the good guys, who happens to have this problem of believing that he has everything figured out, that there is no persuading him otherwise, and that he must always win. These behaviors he exhibits don’t really have a place in a satisfying marriage. If you didn’t care and weren’t writing in to me, I would assume it’s something you can deal with. But from the tone of your letter, it is impactful and changing you in ways that you are not very happy about. Therefore, if you change your behavior over time but you see that it has no impact on your husband’s behavior (which, by the way, can go either way), and you find yourselves never able to agree on anything and tensions heighten, it’s time to bring in the big guns — namely, couple’s therapy.
Hopefully, there will be some organic change taking place as a result of your changes, but you can’t bet on that. So be prepared for things to get worse so they can eventually get better. Learn new ways to communicate and appreciate one another. You both need to work on yourselves in order to get through this obstacle, but self-reflection and insight — from both of you — should help the two of you work things through. Good luck!
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Hewlett. Esther works with individuals and couples. Together with Jennifer Mann, she also runs the “Navidaters.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.