In the land of uncertainty, curiosity is a pretty badass skill
In the arena of romantic love, I have never understood the aversion to wrongness. Never entirely got why so many people seem to find it preferable to be correct. Don’t get me wrong (no pun intended); there are situations in life where trusting your gut and going with your instincts have merit. I can think of lots of them. Maybe you are at a party with a friend and hear them laughing, smell alcohol on their breath, then see two empty wine bottles on their car’s back seat. Here you trust your gut and decide not to get into their vehicle. Or maybe you’re in a relationship with a partner who has a long-standing history of not meeting you in the middle — not trying on your ideas or giving you equal regard. In a scenario like that, there is a pattern of you conceding chronically and finding yourself in one-directional conversations with a person uninterested in reciprocating your generosity. Here, extending an olive branch in the form of curiosity or taking the high road becomes a martyr-like stance and reinforces toxic (if not abusive) relationship dynamics. It’s a breeding ground for narcissists to exploit goodwill.
But I am not talking about showing your belly to a blade hovering over it, like showing up with curiosity (and vulnerability) in situations of clear abuse or danger. I am talking about the day-to-day blips when you and your partner cross signals. Moments when one of you is tired from a long day at work, and the other is distracted by a myriad of happenings: a loud toddler tugging on a shirt, the dog barking, a mound of shoes and bookbags piling at the front door. I’m talking about everyday conversations that escalate over something minor; when an argument seems to blindside you and before you know it, you are talking at each other instead of to each other, and your conversations get sloppy. In other words — the stuff of life.
There’s a ton I could say about how such conflicts happen. I could talk about the physiology of fight or the accrual of negative sentiment that erodes trust and goodwill. But these are beyond the scope of this essay, where my main aim is to nudge you, maybe even persuade you to be open to the benefits of (at least) entertaining the notion that when you feel pretty certain, there may be something you are missing. Because, in the land of unknowing, curiosity is a pretty badass skill.
Here’s the deal. When thinking about certainty in conflict, and in this case, certainty when fighting with your partner, what’s often happening is something John Gottman, world-renowned for his work on marital stability and divorce prediction, calls self-righteous indignation. Self-righteous indignation (SRI) is a reactive emotion of anger over another’s perceived mistreatment, insult, or malice. It is akin to what is called the sense of injustice. When you experience SRI, you tend to puff yourself up and confidently accuse and blame your partner for felt wrongdoings. You scan for threat and point your finger accusingly. Something as simple as your partner using the “wrong” word in a heated conversation becomes the shred of evidence that your flooded nervous system is scanning for to prove that your partner is selfish, doesn’t care about you, and doesn’t listen to you (you get the gist). Alternatively, you may pepper your partner with questions, the type that aims to interrogate versus clarify. Then your partner (on the defense) starts to capitulate or stutter or fire back and round and round you go until the merry-go-round explodes.
Complicating matters is the reality that your state (likely one of heightened arousal) begins to obscure things. As your blood pressure goes up, your intelligence goes down. You begin to operate (at best) from your limbic system or (at worst) your reptilian brain. Your ability to understand the nuanced meaning of comments, make rational sense out of data, or remember and recall information thoughtfully is now impaired. You are on high alert. Stan Tatkin, the Founder of the Psychobiological Approach to Couples Therapy, is known for saying state drives memory, memory drives state, and state alters perception (sometimes in radical ways).
Take, for example, your partner asking you something as simple as “why did you sleep late?” (Note, the word “why” by nature often lands on us in not-so-great ways. It’s so different from being asked, “how come you slept late?” The why so abrasive. The how warm and fuzzy). So imagine this word why sticks in your craw — spins around and around in your head and has you feeling like your partner is insinuating you are lazy, maybe does not even appreciate how hard you work. Eventually, you decide to name it and ask your spouse what they meant. They sense your upsetness and become a little defensive or anxious themself.
Here is where it gets interesting: As your state (agitation) confounds your memory, your memory begins to compromise you further. Because suddenly, the primary memories you can recall are the bad ones that support your upset in this heated moment (this is why we tend to catastrophize and get stuck in negativity when conflicts escalate). You get louder, unkind, maybe even quite nasty. Once this happens, perception goes out the window. Your partner — who may be earnestly (though perhaps feebly) showing up to explain their intentions — starts to look pretty guilty of not caring about your well-being, your hard work, your need for self-care. You perceive them as self-centered and cold. You ask yourself, why do I put up with this?
I’d propose there is no way to “know” much of anything in heated scenarios like this because a fired-up brain makes shit up (and does considerable damage when left unchecked). Given that: it’s wise to go slow when you don’t know.
I know this is a tall ask. That proceeding with caution requires humility and trust that you (and your partner) may very well have momentary blinders on — a brave (but scary) stance when feeling threatened. But curiosity in the form of wondering things like how the hell did I get here? Or, is there something I am not seeing? — can make all the difference between an argument escalating or turning a corner and breeding goodwill. But the risk is often worth it, given humility has magical relationship affirming benefits. Like when you practice being curious or admitting you are wrong, you build trust with your partner, demonstrating that you can do accountability and repair relational ruptures. You inspire generosity and increase the likelihood that your partner will admit fault or share the blame. In short, humility bodes well, certainty not so much.
While this idea is a long way from romanticism and likely stems from my blue-collar roots, I believe it’s an idea that can act as a portal to a more enduring kind of love. It supports marriage and relationships where two people can solidly trust in a foundation that withstands not only the small storms but also the torrents and droughts that life brings one’s way — a relationship rooted in accountability instead of blame. Where each person reliably asks, “Is there something I might be missing?” And in doing so, takes heart in the notion that more often than not, the answer is likely yes and that this wholeheartedly bodes well for love.
Are you on the fence about whether to stay or leave your marriage? Do you feel you have tried everything but still feel trapped in relationship-limbo-hell? Join me for my Free Webinar, Is My Marriage Worth Saving? I will be offering it on three different dates in October and will be available to answer all of your questions, including options for working with me.