Winning? Winning What?

When I was ten, Walter, my 13-year-old brother, challenged me to a contest called, “Who can hit the softest.” Obviously, I went first and barely grazed his shoulder. He then hauled off and blasted me and called out as he pranced off, “You win!” I was had, and I was pissed, but there was nothing I could do. I chose to be in the game that I did, indeed, win.

I reflected upon that game after thinking about a couple who came for a consultation. George was a dermatologist who went off with his wife to Europe to celebrate their 25th anniversary. Going first class, he lifted his champagne glass to toast to, “Twenty-five more wonderful years.” After clanking glasses, Marcia said that this may not be the best time, but she reconnected with her high school love, Tom, and planned to leave George for him after the trip. She explained that although they had a good marriage, she had always been in love with Tom and couldn’t deny herself this rare chance for true happiness. My being pissed after winning the softest punch contest was nothing compared to the rage of George.

Often, we define winning as losing less than the other person. It is easy to understand the feeling of hurt and betrayal that George felt. Marcia was quite right that her timing of the news was not-so-hot, and she justified it by explaining that George had bought nonrefundable tickets before she connected with Tom and there was no good time to break the inevitable news. George was determined to punish her. And punish her big time. To eliminate alimony, he would quit his profession. I asked her to leave the room to talk to him privately. I pointed out that I could understand his feelings, but that he was shooting himself in the foot. He had to look at what benefited him, rather than what hurt her. He just wanted her to lose and he defined his winning as her losing. George was adamant and I got nowhere. Although I don’t know for sure, I later heard a rumor that he was sent to jail for dealing drugs. (I don’t know a thing about Marcia, but I am skeptical of her finding, “true happiness.”)

People often get into contests that cannot benefit them. One patient felt she had been substantially short-changed in her divorce settlement. When her ex remarried, she became determined to “win” her rightful share so she embarked on a series of lawsuits over 14 years. Her lawyers seemed to take her money cheerfully and she had case after case thrown out of courts until she could no longer afford to sue. In many divorces, the parties become so antagonistic and determined to win that the settlement occurs, in my opinion, only after the assets are gone for the legal fees. I am critical of lawyers who encourage adversarial divorces, which only swell lawyer fees and I know of a number of cases that fit that description. The motive for the parties is to make sure they don’t lose, which they define as the other losing more. I have seen suits where the suit costs more than the settlement, yet the plaintiff felt a victory. They also paid the psychological energy expended in the suit.

Al Qaeda took the destruction of the World Trade Center as a victory. What did they win? In addition to our three thousand killed in the WTC, there have been hundreds of thousands of Muslims killed in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, as well as thousands of Americans and allies with no end in sight. Al Qaeda’s “victory” is as pyrrhic as my victory over my brother. In a similar way, a friend just said Bush’s surge in Iraq led to our victory there. I asked him to tell me what we won and am awaiting an answer.

Before we get into a struggle, we should ask if the cost, emotional and other, is worth it. George’s disaster was that he couldn’t cut his losses and accept them. It takes a special courage to confidently back down. I hope I learned a lesson from my big brother.

Illustration by Tom LaMothe