Run Away: Part II—The Emotional Cost of Conflict

Stan Goldberg, PhD

Maybe it’s because I recently turned 70 and finally acquired the wisdom gained from numerous failures. Or possibly I realize that winning isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Regardless of the reason, just as the Knights of Ni in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, I’ve come to understand the value of running away.

In Part I of this series I questioned the notion that life must be a zero-sum game, where if you win I lose. It’s a false choice many presidential candidates take advantage of to make voters believe a non-negotiable approach will lead to peace, prosperity and moral purity. In this second part of the series, I’ll explore the emotional costs we pay whether it involves health issues, family disputes, negotiations or other areas where our positions are intractable.

First Inclination of Conflict–Exaggerate (Lie?)

I did an exceptionally poor parking job at a Home Depot making it difficult for the person next to me to open his door unless he weighed ninety pounds. When I returned the owner of the car was talking to another person complaining about the idiot—me—who parked too close to him. When I nonchalantly loaded building materials into the back of my car, he said, “This is your car?” I said “Yes,” knowing I was about to get a lecture on how to park.

I patiently let him rant about my inconsiderate parking. intelligence, and morality. When he finished, I was about to exaggerate how close the car was that parked on the other side of me. Of course, it wasn’t true, but that’s the first inclination of conflict—defend regardless if what you’re asserting is true.

Instead, I said, “I apologize. You’re right. It’s inexcusable.” He was in shock and at a loss for words. What followed was his appreciation of my admitting guilt, offering his hand and complimenting my full head of hair.

Choose Your Battles Carefully

There’s an old saying (I don’t know where it came from) Learn to choose your battles. Battles not fought are not lost: they are simply not worth fighting. Unfortunately, the wisdom of this saying is often ignored, or realized after we suffer a “defeat” or pay a high emotional price for our win.

I counseled a caregiver whose husband was argumentative throughout their marriage. With the beginning of dementia, it became worse. He contradicted everything she said, from the weather to recounting something from their past. She felt it was necessary to correct every one of his inaccurate statements. Was she justified? Probably, but having arguments fifteen times a day took an emotional toll.

Running Away From Killer Rabbits

Justification doesn’t necessarily result in satisfaction. The opposite resulted for this caregiver; though feeling justified, the “win” was so draining her mental health was adversely affected.

When I asked her what the purpose of correcting him was, she said, “He’s done this throughout our marriage, and I can’t let him get away with it anymore.” When I asked her which had a higher value, “feeling justified,” or “being emotionally calm,” there was no hesitation in her response, “being emotionally calm.” Unfortunately, the two weren’t compatible.

There are times in our lives, when we do the opposite of what we want, believing our tactics will achieve it. But it doesn’t. In the last part of this series, I offer suggestions when and how to “run away,” from killer rabbits.

Preventing Senior Moments, by Stan Goldberg

Offers practical and achievable prevention strategies for senior moments.


  1. cathy arnett

    This could actually be a book, because the wisdom here is so on target.
    For many years, my husband has enjoyed being ” right”. As he has learned, however, being right, or thinking that his way is ” right” doesn’t win him any prizes…so, as time has gone on, and he is now more mature, being right isn’t now as important as it used to be.
    I also have learned, over the years, that it’s actually best to agree with disagreeable people UNLESS your own values are compromised in the process.
    A belated happy 70th birthday..Keep on keeping on. With age comes wisdom.
    Your blogs inspire me to want to share more of my own experiences. Thank you.

    • Stan Goldberg

      Thanks for your kind words Cathy and birthday wishes. I think in our western society the concept of “winning” is more important than many more civil values. The original concept of a “zero-sum” game was formalized by strategists in the 1970’s looking for ways of maximizing war time games. Of course it’s something that has guided us all for millenniums. And I don’t think it’s unique western concept. I’ve seen it practiced all over the world. So I can’t blame Ted Cruz for it, although I’d like to.


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