The Secret to a Happy Relationship in 140 Characters (or Less)

One of the best pieces of relationship advice I’ve ever gotten: when facing or anticipating conflict, ask yourself, “Do I want to be right, or do I want to be happy?”

I’m not entirely sure where I first heard this advice. I associate it with my brother and think it may have come from a seminar he once encouraged me to take (so maybe chalk that one up as the seventh lesson learned from him). But asking myself that question—both in the split second between sensing irritation and potentially snapping in response, as well as in cooler moments contemplating what matters most in the knotty matrix of desire and decision that is a relationship—has spared me and those I love pointless arguments and thus needless heartache.

Don’t get me wrong: I like being right. I am a woman of strong opinions, with an Energizer-bunny brain that never stops thinking, sifting, testing, wondering (even when I wish it would so I could sleep). I’m also a scholar of rhetoric, so I understand objectively what makes for a powerful, ethical argument. I’ve got a good arsenal, and I know how to use it. Sometimes I’m kinda glad I can’t get into an argument with me.

My training tells me the question “Do you want to be right, or do you want to be happy?” is, strictly speaking, a logical fallacy—the either-or fallacy, also known as the “false dilemma.” Either-or statements (or questions) are fallacies because they imply there are only two viable options, perspectives on, or answers to a complex problem, which is almost never the case.

Read in that way, the question suggests being right and being happy are mutually exclusive. Obviously, that isn’t always true. But we often pursue “rightness” at the expense of harmony, even when there’s nothing of substance at stake, no significant, positive change that will come from laying claim to it. Does it really matter whether the spoons go in the dishwasher with their bowls up or down? Does it matter she forgot to pick up the milk, so there won’t be any for morning coffee? Does it fundamentally change how much he loves her if she adores Taylor Swift and he finds “Shake it Off” insipid and boring?

Sometimes, what’s underneath an argument does matter: is forgetting the milk an absent-minded mistake, or part of a pattern of inconsiderate behavior? Even then, insisting on how right you are to berate your partner for being a slacker doesn’t exactly solve the problem. And too often we let our competitive obstinacy in the moment trump the long-term goal of sustaining a loving, supportive relationship.

The false dilemma posed by the question is actually helpful, because it forces us to reconsider the common assumption that the end goal of any argument is to win, and the easy equation of winning with success, the idea that winning (a.k.a., being right) always makes us happy. In our personal relationships, if we insist on winning every argument, we’re likely to lose where it matters.

When we do dig in our heels, I suspect our real investment is less in being right than in feeling heard. Which brings me to the remaining 92 characters. Sometimes you not only have to let go of your desire to win, you also have to be willing to hand your partner the trophy: take his hands in yours and say, “Maybe you’re right.”

That leaves you 73 characters to fill with eighteen “kiss”es.

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