Mort Fertel, author and Founder of the Marriage Fitness System for
In marriage, you can be right or you can
be happy. Let me explain, and let me start by sharing an email I
received from a women struggling in her marriage. She wrote:
We are in week 2 of the silent treatment! It all started over
something so little and ridiculous! We are both adults, old enough
to know better than this! He is a judge, I am a social worker! He
won't budge! I need help!
Oh, the dreaded silent treatment. The big stand-off. You know it,
right? Horrible, isn't it? And it doesn't just eat away at your
marriage; it eats away at your stomach. The stress on your body and
the tension in your house…it's the WORST.
At the time, you're committed to avoiding him/her for the rest of
your life. You've never prayed so hard wishing that he/she won't
come into the room or that he/she would just go to bed already.
Sometimes you feel like you could explode, right? There's so much
bottled-up inside you. And yet you let it continue. WHY?
You refuse to be the one to apologize first. You're NOT going to
break the ice this time. Why not?
Most silent treatments start like Jodie's started…with something
"little and ridiculous." Most couples can't remember what the
impetus was. And if they could, they'd be too embarrassed to admit
that something so small blew-up into something so big.
So what are these silent treatments or stand-offs REALLY about? And
how can you avoid them or end them soon after they begin?
It's interesting that Jodie made a point to share with me that she
and her husband "know better." In other words, they're intelligent,
educated, and accomplished people. Jodie's husband is even a judge,
an expert in distinguishing between right and wrong. They know that
treating each other this way doesn't make sense. They know IT is
wrong. But they also know that THEY are right.
And that's exactly the problem.
Silent treatments ensue when both people feel they're RIGHT. And the
more intense each spouse's conviction to their perspective, the
longer the silence lasts. And, ironically, the more intelligent and
the articulate the couple, the MORE LIKELY they are to endure
silence between them. Because intelligent and articulate people have
confidence in their position and justification for holding their
Although Jodie is surprised that her and her husband, intelligent
people, could be so petty; the fact is that one reason they're
holding their silence for so long is BECAUSE they're intelligent. In
other words, intellectual capacity and marital satisfaction can be
INVERSELY related. Let me say it another way: When it comes to your
marriage, you can be right or you can be happy. But sometimes you
can't be both.
In a courtroom, a hospital, or an office, right and wrong determine
success or failure. The decision to prescribe the right medicine,
for example, could be the difference between life and death. The
relationship between the doctor and the patient is secondary. Being
RIGHT is what matters and what is rewarded.
But in marriage, being right has no value. All that matters is the
Sometimes you have to choose. Do you want to be right or do you want
to be happily married? Remember, being right in your marriage will
get you NOTHING.
Just because you're right/wrong paradigm works at the office doesn't
mean that you should bring it home. "He who is a hammer thinks
everything is a nail." Some things work perfectly in one area of
life and fail terribly in another. In marriage, you have to be like
a carpenter and know which tool to use. The right/wrong mode is the
WRONG tool to use in your marriage.
The more you insist on being RIGHT, the more you will be miserable
in your marriage. Don't go for RIGHT; go for LOVE.
Jodie expects that because she and her husband are "intelligent,"
they shouldn't find themselves in these petty stalemates. But just
because Jodie and her husband have a high IQ, doesn't mean they have
a high EQ.
IQ is a measure of your INTELLECTUAL intelligence. The higher your
IQ, the better your ability to process information and determine
EQ is a measure of your EMOTIONAL intelligence. The higher your EQ,
the better your ability to connect with people and succeed in
Just as some athletes are strong but not fast, so too many people
have a high IQ but a low EQ.
Bottom line: Intelligence, in the way Jodie means it, has little
bearing on her and her husband's ability to succeed in their
marriage. In fact, a high IQ coupled with a low EQ can be a
disastrous combination for a marriage.
The good news, however, is that EQ can be developed. Here's one way
to begin to develop your EQ and improve the quality of your
The first step is to redefine what it means to be RIGHT. Most people
think of right and wrong as black and white. And our experience at
work usually reinforces this understanding. After all, there can
only be one verdict, one prescription, and one marketing plan. In
other words, if I'm right then unless you agree with me you are
wrong. But there is a TRUTH which transcends right and wrong.
Before I explain, look at the b/w picture on this web site.
I know it might be a little inconvenient, especially if you're
reading this from a print out and not at your computer, but trust me
and go to this web site where you can view the b/w picture. Don't
read on until you've seen the picture.
What did you see? Did you see a picture of a young girl or an old
lady? Ask your spouse what they see. If it's convenient, ask a few
other people what they see.
If you first saw the young girl, can you also see the old lady? If
you first saw the old lady, can you also see the young girl? Look
carefully. If you can't see both, and if your spouse sees the same
thing as you, keep asking other people until you find someone who
sees what you don't and can point it out to you.
The picture you're looking at is a picture of BOTH a young girl and
an old lady. But YOU can only see one at a time. It's optically
impossible for you to see both images at the same time. HOWEVER,
they are BOTH there.
Let's say, for example, that you see the old lady but your spouse
sees the young girl. Who's right?
Let's say you see the old lady and no one ever pointed out to you
the young girl. Then if your spouse said that this was a picture of
a young girl, you would say they were WRONG. But, in fact, you would
be wrong. Not because what you see isn't right, but because you
can't see what your spouse can.
Right and wrong is an emotionally immature way to view most things
in the context of marriage. TRUTH has more than one perspective.
Your ability to see the truth from your spouse's perspective is
crucial for the success of your relationship.
And I don't mean that you should see things from your spouse's
perspective as a manipulative strategy for finding compromise or out
of pity toward your spouse. You need to see your spouse's
perspective so YOU can come to a more complete understanding of the
TRUTH. If you're only seeing the old lady, then you're not seeing
the whole picture. Your spouse is your ticket to you having a
Silent treatments are usually the result of spouses having too
narrow a view of the truth. Just because you're right doesn't mean
your spouse is not right ALSO.
Next time you're at a stand-off with your spouse, ask them to
explain their perspective. And you don't have to get defensive. You
don't have to compromise your position in order to acknowledge
theirs. The chances are good that you are BOTH right. And when you
appreciate their perspective, you'll be a better person and the
silence will end.
When it comes to your marriage, it's better to be happy than right.
That's the TRUTH as I see it. But, hey, I'm open to your
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Mort Fertel is a world authority on the psychology of relationships
and has an international reputation for helping people renew their
marriage. In addition to working with couples, he teaches
individuals how to single-handedly change their situation and
motivate a stubborn spouse.
People from all over the world schedule private tele-sessions with
Mort Fertel and seek his counsel by joining the Marriage Fitness
Tele-Boot Camp. He is the author of Marriage Fitness and the creator
of Marriage Fitness Home-Flex, the most comprehensive relationship
home learning kit in the world. Over 75,000 people a year subscribe
to his e-zine.
Mort Fertel appeared on NBC, CBS, PBS, and the Fox News Network. He
is a frequent guest on talk radio programs including NPR. His
breakthrough work, Marriage Fitness, was profiled in The Washington
Post, Family Circle, Psychology Today, Glamour Magazine, Fitness
Magazine, The Library Journal, Women's Health, The Denver Post, The
Orlando Sentinel, The Baltimore Sun, and The Toronto Sun.
Mort Fertel graduated from the Wharton School of Business and the
University of Pennsylvania, was the CEO of an international
non-profit organization, and a former marathon runner. He lives with
his wife and 4 children (including triplets!) in Baltimore,