Relationships: Picking Your Battles or Looking Away?


My friend tells me she is “picking her battles,” but I know she is looking away from the truth of her marriage. I want to shake her and say, “Are you kidding me?”

Let’s call my friend Lori to protect her privacy. I will also modify some facts to further protect her privacy.

Newlyweds Lori and her husband Marcus are decorating their new apartment together. When they talk about color, he prefers blue. When they talk about style, he wants modern. When they talk about fabrics, he prefers beauty over practicality. Lori has yielded to all of Marcus’ strong preferences. She seems to think that if she can explain each of his preferences, it makes sense for him to have such strong opinions and for his opinions to crowd out hers. She tells me that Marcus wants blue because he identifies with the color, that he wants modern because he grew up in a house that was traditional and he is trying to assert his independence, that he prioritizes beauty over practicality because his family didn’t have any style and he wants to have a beautiful home. She has come to believe that what he wants is what she wants.

She says that she doesn’t care about decorating, but I know otherwise. She tells me that she got to choose where they live, clearly trying to convince herself that she has voice in the relationship. I remind Lori that Marcus said he didn’t care where they live as long as he could take the subway to work. I wish she could see that choice where her husband has no opinion isn’t really choice.

Lori characterizes the individual interactions with her husband as “picking her battles.” She chooses not to see that each interaction is not individual but rather is part of a group of interactions that when taken together point to a problem—her husband is controlling. My friend doesn’t want to see that she is looking away from a personality problem, not “picking her battles.”

Let me share an example from my marriage of what I consider to be “picking my battles.” My husband hand feeds our dog on the weekends, even though I have told him numerous times that I don’t like when he does that because it makes it harder for me to feed her during the week, as I do not hand feed. My husband loves our dog to the maximum, and he thinks that hand feeding her is an expression of love and nurture. I think my husband is wrong, but I have decided that it is more important to him to hand feed our dog than it is for me that he not do so. I have chosen not to argue with my husband on this point because I’d rather save my energy for issues more important to our relationship. What I describe here is a single interaction that is not part of a bigger issue, unlike what I am seeing with Lori and Marcus.

Lori tells me that she is happy, and I believe that she believes that she is happy. The lady doth protest too much, I think. You might wonder why my friend would want to be in a relationship with a controlling partner. Here are my educated guesses. She is lonely and wants to be with someone. She has low self-esteem and thinks she can’t find anyone else. She is older and doesn’t want to miss the timing for having a baby. She feels safe and secure being married and doesn’t want to stand on her own as a single woman.

I have a radical proposal that I would like to share with her, but I cannot, so I will share it here. I think my friend should open her eyes and face the truth, which doesn’t mean she needs to leave her husband or get divorced, if that is not what she wants to do. She should admit to herself that she is choosing to look away because she wants to be married. Once she admits this to herself, she won’t need to devote so much time and energy to explaining why Marcus is firm in his opinions, why what he wants really is the right decision, why what he wants is also what she wants. She won’t feel upset, or she’ll feel less upset, each time she bends to his opinions. She will be free to spend her time and energy building other parts of her life. She can look for ways to find voice elsewhere, like with her friends or at her job. She can find a way to be happy, even if her relationship is lacking. She may one day decide that she wants more out of marriage than Marcus can give her, but that will be her choice.

Facing the truth is liberating. The problem is that people do not want to face the truth.