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Everything to Lose

Sometimes it takes a good fight to learn that conceding can be a good thing.

My first husband and I were once invited to Vermont for a holiday weekend. Things got off to a good start: We sat in our hosts' living room, drinking iced tea while the children played outside.

As we were settling in, my husband looked up and remarked on the cathedral ceiling. The ceiling, which was two stories high, was flat and therefore - to my mind - not cathedral. I suggested that cathedral ceilings had angles and vaults. He disagreed: It was height that mattered. I countered hotly, embarrassed by my husband's denseness in the company of others. Had anyone there ever seen a cathedral with a flat ceiling? We finally requested an encyclopedia. Our hosts smiled nervously. We weren't invited back. And three years later, we weren't married, either.

I had met my husband at 20 (he was 32) and spent 10 years with him while raising our three children. The relationship was never easy, and an accumulation of resentment from petty arguments made compromise more and more difficult.

I was a stay-at-home mom trying to develop my writing career between laundry loads. Arguments with my engineer husband could be about all sorts of things. When I was sure I was right, which was most of the time, I craved vindication. I refused to consider that my spouse's view had some validity. Youthfully headstrong, I had no idea that letting something inconsequential consume me was not only damaging my relationship but also making me look like an idiot. A year after the inevitable divorce, I reconnected with a man I had dated in college, and we decided to marry. We've had four great years together. I'm nearly 36 now and have picked up a few useful habits, like not fighting at other people's houses. But last December, I felt a twinge of dread as I found myself in a debate with my husband that recalled, for me, that ceiling in Vermont.

As we watched disaster unfold in Asia, we got off-topic one day with a definition debate. I insisted that a tsunami is not a tidal wave, as it isn't affected by the lunar cycle. He contended that a tsunami is indeed a tidal wave, moon or no moon. We went back and forth, ranting like ersatz seismologists. The children, initially curious, grew slightly anxious as our fervor increased. Eventually my husband fetched Webster's Collegiate, 10th Edition. He read the definition aloud, something about a big sea wave produced by submarine earth movement. It ended: "tidal wave."

Despite the dictionary entry (which I insisted on seeing myself), I still disagreed. I realized my position was weak, however, and that pushing my point any further would trigger our own earthquake: Instead of arguing about waves, we'd be arguing about our argument. Was it worth it?

I meekly suggested that perhaps Webster got it wrong. My husband looked at me with raised eyebrows and a conciliatory smile. He knew that I was conceding. I returned his grin, realizing with relief what I had won. I had avoided a fight about something that really didn't matter. Something incredible had happened: I had let it go.

While I still prefer not being wrong, I want my relationship to work more than I want to be right. This time around, the big picture is clear. I love my husband. I don't want to hurt him. We're compatible, and it feels awful when we don't get along. I want our marriage to thrive, and I want to grow - which means learning how to lose on occasion.

Of course, not all of our arguments are about trivialities, and it's much harder to let go when the stakes are meaningful. My husband is a thoughtful stepfather, and we sometimes differ over how much freedom the kids should have on their bikes or when they should do their chores. When serious talks get heated, basic communication suffers. At some point, we stare at each other in pained disbelief, each of us wondering why the other is suddenly speaking Old Norse instead of English.

At this precipice, I'm learning to take a deep breath and peer at things from my husband's perspective. I know he's as sure of being right as I am, which makes me curious about where he's coming from. I trust him and our relationship enough to accept that the truth probably lies somewhere in the unfamiliar middle.

Miranda Hersey Helin of Groton is cofounder of Pen and Press, a writing and editorial services company. E-mail

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