Updated: Jul 12
We said somewhere that we thought Why Couples Fight was an important book. Well, it had to happen: a reader challenged us on that. I guess she was weary of overinflated claims—and aren’t we all!—but she emailed us, “Come on! You have good advice, but really! Important? What makes your book all that important?”
It’s understandable. If I went around saying I’m an important person, I’d expect pushback, and I’d deserve it. So isn’t it the same thing with our claim about our book? Shouldn’t you ignore this boast, and shouldn’t I blush with shame at having made it?
What’s the standard for “an important book”? Here’s my standard. A book is important if it has made a major change in society, or if it has the potential to make such a change. Rachel Carson’s The Silent Spring was a book like that. It kick-started the environmental revolution, for crissake! That’s pretty important!!
A much bigger best seller was Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. Was that book important? No. It changed nothing. All it did was validate a bunch of naïve preconceptions about how very different men and women are. Nothing new here, folks. And nothing changed.
Most relationship books aren’t meant to be important in my sense of the word. They’re not intended to change society, just the people who read them. They offer advice, sometimes very good advice. They get the word out about how this works and that doesn't work. Good!
The thing is that we’re so used to seeing relationship books as advice books that we can miss it when one comes along with wildly revolutionary intentions of turning everything upside down. That’s Why Couples Fight: a velvet glove of good advice with an iron fist of revolution inside.
Our blog has largely focused on the good advice part. Now let’s take the gloves off and get to the potential revolution that makes WCF an important book.
The revolution is based on an entirely new idea of who people are, how relationships work, what’s responsible for their falling apart, and what’s necessary to heal them.
Here are the key ingredients in this revolutionary approach:
It’s not who the individuals are in the relationship that causes most of the problems, it’s the dynamics within the relationship itself.
Those dynamics are all about power. They don’t arise because we want power for itself in most cases. They come from the fact that we can’t stand feeling disempowered.
These dynamics are self-sustaining and self-escalating. They keep going no matter what the people in the relationship want unless those people know how to stop it. They’re self-perpetuating because the things one person does to re-empower themselves will feel like a power move to the other person, who will then need to do something re-empowering. And on, and on, and on...
The power moves that fuel these dynamics don’t require any intention on the part of the person making them. I can make a power move without wanting power or wanting to be making a power move. That’s how easy it can be to do or say something that will launch a power struggle.
These dynamics in general are more powerful than the mere good intentions of the people involved. The inevitability of power moves and the power dynamic will almost always swamp the capabilities of good intentions.
Although this situation is horribly destructive, totally self-sustaining, and present in almost all relationships, it can be stopped in its tracks. It only requires:
Awareness of the role power moves play in your relationship.
Commitment to stopping making power moves.
A total shift in focus away from blaming the other person and toward the process by which you resolve your conflicts.
A use of the 1, 2, 3 approach to working out conflict, where you 1) take the time to understand each other, 2) generate options, and 3) play out how those options might work.
While each person is entitled to needing what they need, and while much of our society is structured around our working things out by individuals fighting for their voices and fighting for their rights, a relationship—something whose premise is love—can only work if the very process of problem-solving is based on mutuality and a sense of working as a team.
The goal is not for me to be me and you to be you, and if it doesn’t work we move on. The goal is to find a way to make room in our relationship for two whole people, or at least to come as close to this as possible.
Why Couples Fight is important because—though it hasn’t happened yet—if enough people were to read our book and, as it outlines, change the way they see themselves and others and the way they work things out with each other, then not only would our marriages be very different and much better, but we’d be living in a different and better world.
Insanely ambitious? Of course. But so are all important, or potentially important, books.