Fail and Failure – An Important Distinction in Communication Challenges in Marriage Conversation:
I failed in my first marriage but I wasn’t a failure. This important distinction is often overlooked by those who can’t quite seem to forgive themselves, have chronically low self esteem or who are drawn to manipulating those around them.
To fail, a worldwide human occurrence is to miss a goal, leave a task unfinished, or not achieve some personal definition of success. We use the word failure in a manner more closely aligned with its origin – to deceive (fallere, Latin). When a person calls her/him self a failure they are adding a moral tone and it is this meaning that drives a great deal of confusion.
A politician who speaks with moral certainty to his public but deceives his family about who he is, is a failure. A leader who strives to enact legislation that is sensitive to the less powerful and fails to get the needed votes, isn’t. Imagine how keeping this distinction front and center would change many political debates.
In my first marriage I failed to live up to my own standards. I wasn’t mature enough to be the man I told her I was, I wasn’t competent enough to communicate in the manner expected by a mature woman, and I wasn’t resilient enough to embrace conflict in a way that would feed the tenderness and intimacy needed in our marriage. None of those ‘lacks’ made me a failure. All of them contributed to my marriage failing.
There’s another angle to this distinction that I think deserves mentioning. When various loud voices shout their poorly thought out attacks, assassinating or at least demeaning the character of leaders they don’t like or trust, can we hold them accountable for purposeful deception and in that call them failures? Would it be useful to the integrity of public debate to use this standard as a way of measuring dialogue for its integrity?
Within the marriage conversation, there are many ‘fails.’ Partners who own how and when they fail really have no need to hide behind a self description of ‘failure.’ Example. A woman emailed me this morning (www.askstephenfrueh.com) . She told me of her husband’s ongoing affair. “He wants to have both,” she said, “his mistress and me. What should I do?” I replied that she failed to clearly define the constituent rules of the game (of marriage) and that she’d have to decide what she was willing to do and not do. She isn’t a failure but she failed to fully claim her right to define the rules of life by which she’s willing to live.
Of course once she does this she’ll have to face her fear of the possible consequences. Either he will see what a valuable partner she is or he won’t. But she has little control over that. Failure would be to keep doing what she’s doing and expecting something to change. For me, that’s self deception and self deception is the hardest ill of all to cure.
Stephen W. Frueh PhD is a coach, consultant, writer and speaker. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 805 338 4286
“Healthy marriages make the world a safer place for children.”
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