“Know When to Fold ’em”

The lyrics in Kenny Rogers’ song “The Gambler” roll off the tongue. But there is also a good bit of wisdom in the idea that, “You got to know when to hold ’em , know when to fold ’em…”

Though tv and movies have inspired us with examples of heroes refusing to give in, knowing when to “fold ’em” can be equally heroic. And very smart. My friend Jonathan was insulted last year when his sister had a big party without inviting him. He knew and got along with several of his sister’s friends who were invited. Furious, he blew up at his sister and cursed at her. She retaliated and they have not spoken since. They are at war.

My patient Susan was personally and professionally maligned at work. Angry and hurt she contacted a lawyer who said there were grounds for a lawsuit. Susan calculated the emotional cost of the suit, which would dominate her mentally. She also took into consideration the financial costs. She backed down rather than allow her hurt and anger to compromise her quality of life for the estimated three years before settlement. Even if the pain was real and her reaction justified, she opted to fold her hand.

After hearing the details of both cases, I thought Jonathan and Susan were unfairly treated. Jonathan’s sister was indeed insensitive and Susan’s reputation was unfairly smeared. However, the cost to Jonathan was by far greater. What did he win by telling his sister off? All wars leave scars, even on the victors. Often, especially in interpersonal relations, it is critical to have the skill and the courage to back down. The costs of winning are often much greater than the costs of eating crow.

Conflicts with people close to us are inevitable. We have different priorities, diff erent abilities and diff erent perspectives. And of course we make mistakes, often with the best of intentions. Edith’s granddaughter is overweight and the child’s mother, Shelly, is cited as the cause. The eight-year-old granddaughter does eat too much junk food and has gained weight. Edith’s goal was to help her granddaughter with nutritionally sound advice. However Shelly does not hear the content of Edith’s message, she just hears her mother’s criticism. When we are mad at someone, it creates a filter in which negative thoughts and feelings percolate through while positive memories become blocked. Edith, Jonathan and Shelly now justify their anger and frustrations by remembering all the negatives and few of the positives of the past. Yet Susan could see that the anger and resulting conflict would continue to hurt her.

In life, it is easy to be right. But being right does not mandate that we have to fi ght to defend each and every one of our positions. Jonathan and his sister had been close. While “defending his honor” and attacking her, he shot himself in the foot by ending the relationship. Edith has chronic tension now with Shelly, meanwhile her granddaughter is still eating junk food. I am counseling Edith that now that she has stated her point of view she must accept that Shelly has primary responsibility for her daughter’s diet. Getting angry and upset is not eff ective—it has made Edith an emotional victim of her own righteousness. Worse, it has contaminated her relationship with Shelly.

Any fool can start a war, but it takes a statesman to keep peace. Knowing when to “fold ’em” takes strength.