“Just because you have a right to your view doesn’t mean your spouse has to share the same view.”
My mother’s voice comes to me in a dream. “David. Wake up.”
I lie still. Unmoving. Dormant in my sleep state.
Again she says, “David. Wake up.”
This time her voice stirs me. My brain makes a slow ascent to consciousness. I remember where I am and realize something must be wrong.
Only a month ago mother had returned from working and living in Ghana, West Africa. A swollen spleen had sent her back here. Tests at Vanderbilt Hospital revealed the culprit – non-Hodgkins Lymphoma.
Thus began the march of chemotherapy through her bloodstream; that delicate balance of poisoning the body enough to kill the disease but stopping short of killing the patient.
We are currently in the worst stages of chemo. She is deathly sick. Pain and nausea medications do the best they can to alleviate her suffering.
My sister, one of my brothers and I are taking turns holding vigil at her side, feeling powerless to make a difference, but ready to hold her hand.
Mama calls my name again. I rouse myself from the chair I have been sleeping in. In the dim light of the room I look at my watch. 2:00 a.m.
“What’s wrong mama?”
“I can’t sleep,” is her weak response.
Standing, I move toward her bed. I look at the bag on the I.V. pole and see it still has fluid in it. Following the clear plastic line to her arm, I see its steady drip is still flowing.
“Why can’t you sleep?”
Mama lifts her head and says, “These bugs in my bed are driving me crazy.”
I rub my eyes (a useless gesture that will not improve my hearing).
“What are you talking about mama?”
With great effort she pushes herself to a sitting position, legs over the side of the bed. Pulling back the covers, she reveals the bottom sheet.
As she sweeps her hand above the sheet she says, “See? Look at them. They are everywhere.”
Switching on the light over mother’s bed, I see the sheets are rumpled, but bug-free.
Looking around the room I spy the small trash can. Picking it up, I say, “Then let’s get rid of them.”
I make the motions of picking something off her bed sheet and placing it in the trash can. As I continue this imaginary game, mother joins me, her frail hands picking at the sheets and dropping the “bugs” into the can.
After a few minutes, mother stops and seems to relax. I, too, stop and ask, “Is that better?”
“Yes, yes. Thank you so much.” And with that mama lies back on her pillow.
Pulling up the sheet and blanket, I tuck her in. In moments she is sound asleep.
I have told that story of my time with mother scores of times to illustrate this important principle: Sometimes you have to accept another person’s point of view, even if you don’t agree with it.
Were there any bugs in my mother’s bed? Of course not. They were the product of the mixture of chemicals flowing through her veins.
What would have happened if I had tried to convince her she was wrong? I would have gotten frustrated. She would have become frustrated. I might have said something that hurt her feelings.
And what would have been accomplished? Absolutely nothing.
The argument would have looked and sounded ridiculous to an outsider.
In many marriages the landscape is strewn with the remnants of battles over who is right. The battle participants wearing the emotional wounds.
Those emotional wounds have names like resentment, frustration, despair, anger, sadness, hurt. Left untreated, these wounds are relationship killers.
Maybe it’s our competitive nature that fuels the compulsion to “make” our spouse see things our way.
For example, Jennifer and Jimmy. She had played basketball and volleyball all through high school and he’d played football and baseball. To say they were competitive would be a gross understatement.
They were arguing when they entered my office for their first appointment. (Never a good sign for a therapist.)
One bone of contention that they would repeatedly come back to over the next several weeks was the proper way to wash a vehicle. Yes, you read that correctly.
Jimmy might fire the first volley with a shot that sounded like this, “She still doesn’t know how to wash a car.”
This comment had the effect of popping Jennifer with a rubber band. “I’ve washed cars as long as you have! What makes you think you know everything?”
“I know you always wash the roof first, then go to the front, working your way to the back.” Looking to me to be his ally, Jimmy would add, “Right David?”
“What difference does it make what he thinks?” Jennifer would ask with a look of disdain.
“I say if you start at the front and work your way to the back, doing the roof when you come to it, works best. It’s the way my daddy taught me and he has forgotten more about cars than you will ever know.”
Back and forth the banter would go. They had been doing this for nine years.
It’s easy to look at Jennifer and Jimmy and think, “How silly!” But that’s because we aren’t emotionally involved in their situation.
There is no doubt that many arguments we have with our spouse would look just as silly to people on the outside looking in.
Sometimes we need to step back, take a breath and tell ourselves that just because we have a right to our view doesn’t mean our spouse has to share it. They have just as much a right to their view as we do to ours.
Another way people will get hung up in this troublesome area of marriage is by saying their spouse is not “hearing” them. But when looked at under the light of investigation what they really mean is their spouse doesn’t agree with them.
Our spouse can hear us and understand us, but that doesn’t mean they will agree with us.
While there are no doubt some areas in relationships in which there has to be agreement, at the same time there are a large number of issues in which it just doesn’t matter.
Practicing the skill of agreeing to disagree will go a long way in navigating this difficult passage.