The Humility Muscle

We all have what I call “reason muscles”.

These are the abilities we need to handle our own personal flaws that show up in close relationships. I call them “muscles” because they atrophy from disuse but get stronger when we use them.

The first muscle needed to handle wrongness well is the humility muscle, which gives a person the ability to acknowledge potential personal wrongness. When reasonable people use this muscle, the stance is, “I could be wrong, you could be right, let’s talk”. Reasonable people, who have healthy humility muscles, can handle being wrong if being right requires sacrificing the truth. They believe, though perhaps reluctantly, in the maxim, “Truth is your best ally.” It may be painful to acknowledge wrongness, but they’ll do so because being truthful has a higher value to them than being right.

Unwilling to allow for the possibility of wrongness, unreasonable people (manipulators) will sacrifice truth if being truthful means being wrong.

They’ll even lie to avoid being wrong. In fact, some manipulators revise truth so routinely that they delude themselves and come to believe their own revisions. The stance taken is, “I’m right, you’re wrong, end of discussion.” They can be arrogant, inflexible, and never wrong about anything. That’s why “you can’t reason with an unreasonable person.” Your attempts at reasonableness won’t work because they’re not interested in reason; they’re only interested in winning or in being right.
The following statements may reflect an atrophied humility muscle:

  • He refuses to admit wrongness even when proven wrong.
  • He doesn’t listen to or consider contrary opinions, either from you or from others.
  • He holds his positions rigidly with little flexibility.
  • He’s “often wrong but never in doubt.”
  • He audaciously lies, re-arranges information, or alters history and appears to sincerely believe his own revisions.
  • He skillfully persuades others to believe the revisions.
  • He rarely, if ever, apologizes. And if he does, the apology is qualified (i.e. “I’m sorry, but you . . .” or “I’ve told you I was wrong. Can we now move on?”)
  • He consistently emphasizes your mistakes and errors.
  • He wrongly ascribes to you dishonorable intentions and then attacks you for having them.
  • He distorts the meaning of your words and won’t allow you to correct the misinterpretation. In other words, “he hears what he wants to hear.”

If Mom Ain’t Happy . . .

A woman came to see me about the declining warmth in her marriage—not an unusual occurrence, I might add.

She said, “We get along OK, I suppose. We don’t fight and argue but there’s just not much there. I think I was closer to my roommate in college than I am to my husband.” I asked if her roommate spouse might be willing to come in and she said, “He might but good luck getting him to talk. He thinks my coming here is a colossal waste of time.”

Long story short, he did come in and she was exactly right. Talk about pulling teeth. I’m not sure he would have opened up more if I had water-boarded him. I asked him to tell me what happened when they had problems with each other—like differences of opinion, misunderstandings, etc. Here’s what he said: “Hey, I’ve just learned that if Mom ain’t happy, nobody’s happy.”

You’ve probably heard the other version of this saying: “Happy wife, happy life.” The cynical assumption behind this clichéd nugget is this: Just figure out what she wants and do it. That way she’ll shut up and stop her griping. And if she’s not griping, we’re all happy.

This way of relating is predicated upon the false notion that the absence of arguing leads to relational harmony. But this husband’s conflict avoidance stance had precisely the opposite effect—it created disharmony and diminished the marital warmth. They never worked anything out. He simply ran up the white flag of surrender every time they hit a snag, figuring it’s better to just go along to get along.

It took a while, but this husband had to learn that avoiding conflict didn’t make it go away, it just went underground. They learned to resolve their inevitable conflicts and found that solving problems instead of avoiding them actually helped them get closer—and made her happy. And him, too. He had to scrape that “If Mom ain’t happy” bumper sticker off his car and replace it with a different one: “If we don’t resolve our conflicts, nobody’s happy.”

The Danger of Labeling People

Cindy’s relationship with Chad had never been easy. They met and married within a year and thought they knew each other pretty well. But their early white-hot emotions soon morphed into neutral feelings which became pretty negative in relatively short order. In fact, it had gotten to the point where they couldn’t stand each other. Short of having personality transplants, they’d tried most everything they knew to work things out.

One day, Cindy met to commiserate with her pal, Mary Ann, who also felt stuck in a confusing marital quagmire. Despite their shared gloom, Mary Ann bounced into the restaurant eager to share a newfound discovery—a piece of information that she felt cleared up her confusion about Jeff (her husband).

“Jeff is a __________,” she exclaimed. “I’ve just read an article about his personality type online and it explains him to a tee.” “And you know what, Cindy? I think Chad may be one of those, too.” Cindy pulled up the information on her smart phone and had to agree, Chad and Jeff seemed like stellar representatives of the category.

What Cindy and Mary Ann read may have been right. The descriptions fit, shedding light on their confusion and validating their frustrations. But the danger that comes with such categorizations is what’s often called reductionism. That is, complexity is reduced down to simplicity so it can be more easily understood and handled.

The label Cindy and Mary Ann happened upon may have been accurate. But if it failed to tell the whole story, the mislabeling could impede the potential for repair and perpetuate their stuckness. Labels can be useful but it’s best to hold them loosely. This gives the other person room to show that the label doesn’t fit—if it doesn’t—and to make the changes needed to heal the relationship.

When The Love Dies

There’ll be good times again for me and you
But we just can’t stay together, don’t you feel it too
Still I’m glad for what we had, and how I once loved you


And it’s too late, baby, now it’s too late
Though we really did try to make it
Something inside has died and I can’t hide
And I just can’t fake it

Carole King
“It’s Too Late”

“Once the warm feelings have gone away, how do you ever get them back?” A man with a troubled marriage asked that question one day as he sat in my office. It later became evident that his words were meant less to ask a question and more to voice a conclusion. Shortly afterwards, he traded in the older wife for a newer model—someone with whom he now had warm feelings. His conclusion? “You can’t get those feelings back so move on.” Even though he was disinclined to listen, here’s the answer I gave him.

“How you feel in the relationship simply indicates how well the relationship is functioning. If the relationship feels bad, then something is not working the way it should. It will feel better once you figure out where it’s malfunctioning and repair it.”

“Feelings are like indicator lights on your dashboard. If you’re driving down the road and one of those lights comes on, it lets you know there’s a problem under the hood. If you take the car in and get it fixed, then the light goes off. When you have this experience (which we’ve all had), you don’t have a light problem. You have an engine problem. In fact, the light serves the very useful purpose of letting you know there’s an engine problem to be fixed.”

“Your marriage feels the way it does because issues have gone unaddressed for a long time. If you both are willing to put those problems out on the table and fix them, the warm feelings you once had can be restored. That’s how you get them back. If you seek warm feelings, you won’t find them. But if you seek relational repair, you’ll achieve it and the good feelings will follow because a good relationship produces good feelings.”

Do Soul Mates Exist?

“As soon as he walked in the room, I knew I’d found my partner for life. We fit like a hand in glove. We had so much to talk about. Our minds were so in tune that we completed each other’s sentences. He filled up all the blank spaces in my life—all of my loneliness needs. We were truly made for each other. We’re soul mates.”

Romanticized notions like the ones described above are fairly common. The appealing idea found in many magazine articles, romance novels (fictional, I might add) and online dating services is that soul mate discovery is a near guarantee for relational success. If that’s the case, soul mate searching should be at the top of your list.

But the trouble is, every soul mate comes with defects. What shows up on your doorstep is not the idealized version you ordered but the real-life version with flaws and shortcomings. And what’s worse, the soul mate company won’t replace them or give your money back. So, once they’re delivered, you’re stuck. You’re stuck with a flawed person who, by the way, is now living with another flawed person—you.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that soul mates don’t get discovered as much as they get developed. Imperfect, flawed people develop into soul mates if they do a good job of handling the problems caused by their shortcomings. In fact, it’s the working through difficulties itself that creates soul mate connections.

So, if the quality control inspector at the soul mate factory was asleep on the job the day yours was being prepped for delivery, take heart. They actually send them out that way—flaws and all. But good relationships are ones where people do a good job of handling their differences. Remember, soul mates are developed, not discovered.