Written by Geoff Lamb – UKCP Registered Therapist specialising in working with individuals, couple and groups (5 min read)
There are areas in life when it’s really important to get things right – if you’re a brain surgeon or an air traffic controller for instance. Even then though, the importance isn’t personal, but a matter of others’ safety. In relationships, being right really isn’t that important. Neither is it personal, but so many couples I see spend a lot of time and energy arguing about who’s right, often about quite trivial matters such as how to load the dishwasher correctly, but sometimes about more serious things like money, sex and how to educate or discipline the children.
To blame the couples themselves isn’t helpful and misses the point. The culture we live in supports what’s called ‘dualistic thinking’. In other words, things are either right or wrong, black or white. If I’m right, then you must be wrong and if you’re right I must be wrong. Apart from the fact that most life situations just aren’t like this, it’s the significance we attach to being right or wrong that’s most damaging for couple relationships. This is when it becomes personal. It doesn’t need to be, but somewhere along the line, many of us have learned to value ourselves according to whether we’re (seen to be) right or wrong. It’s not just about getting something wrong, but about being wrong, in other words there’s something wrong with us if we’re seen, or even thought, to be wrong. Our whole being is on the line.
You’ll know if this is the case with you if you find yourself either needing to correct your partner if they say something which suggests that you did something wrong or were wrong about something or you find yourself needing to justify why you did what you did.
‘But’, you might say, ’don’t you think it’s important to correct your partner if they’ve clearly misunderstood something you did or said or maybe didn’t understand why it was so important or justified?’
Perhaps, but just observe what happens when you’re in this kind of situation – notice particularly where your attention is. What you’ll mostly find is that your attention isn’t on your partner or even what he/she said, but on the uncomfortable feeling of being misunderstood, on whether what he/she said is true or what you’re going to say in response. If your partner responds to you in a similar manner, then you have a situation in which neither of you is listening or feels listened to. Responses to this vary, but often, when we don’t feel listened to, we speak louder or longer, or both. Communication becomes impossible.
If you can let go of being right, then something different can happen. There are two possibilities. You may have done or said what your partner is talking about and it may have had an impact on him/her. It’s also possible that you didn’t. If you’ve let go of needing to be right, it doesn’t really matter which it is. Letting go of this need means you can listen in a different way, with curiosity rather than defensiveness. The focus is then not on whether what your partner is saying is true or not, but on your understanding of where they’re coming from.
So, how do we go about letting go of being right and what might get in the way? The answer is that it’s not easy and it’s probably not a good idea to let this become another thing you have to get right! Recognising when you’re doing it is probably the best place to start. Most of us won’t be aware of it when it’s actually happening, mostly, as I’ve said, because our defences have been triggered and we feel under threat. Afterwards, though, it can be good to take some time to reflect on what was actually going on for us. What were we defending and how was this being threatened? Becoming aware of how defensive we’re being in our arguments with our partner will eventually lead to change, especially when we combine this with a commitment to doing something different.
As for what gets in the way, there can be a number of things. Some people might think that, unless both partners in the relationship are committed to this kind of awareness and doing things differently, it won’t work and there’s no point. This seems logical, but it’s only partly true. It’s probably easier if both partners are committed to the same goal, but don’t let that put you off. If you’re ready to let go of being right and your partner isn’t, trying to make or even persuade them could be counterproductive. The message they’ll hear is that they’re ‘getting it wrong’, which could well trigger the very defences that are making your communication so difficult in the first place.
The best advice I can give is, don’t wait for your partner. Do it for yourself. There will be two consequences. First, if you start to listen to your partner with curiosity rather than defensiveness it’ll be very difficult for them to sustain an argument with you about being right. Second, and this is something that can get in the way, in order to listen differently and to let go of your need to be right, you’ll need to find a different way of valuing yourself. This isn’t easy. In fact, it’s actually very challenging as it means going against our culture and often our upbringing. It is very liberating though, not just in our relationships, but in the rest of our lives.
Two more points. The first is that what I’m talking about here isn’t compromise or ‘agreeing to differ’. These may both have their place in business and politics, but they won’t, in themselves, improve a relationship while the defensive communication I’ve been talking about is still in place. All that happens then is that the need to be right just goes underground and surfaces in more negative indirect forms. Examples of this are the ‘I told you so’ moments I’m sure we all recognise and the relationship becoming transactional, where, because I’ve compromised on this, it’s now your turn to let me have my own way about that.
Finally, I’m clearly writing this as a couple and individual therapist. If it was as simple as following the principles in this article, or in some of the many self-help books available, I’d be out of a job. It isn’t. It’s a good start, but sometimes we need support, either as a couple or an individual, with spotting our own patterns as they occur and feeling safe enough to do something different. This is where the help of a qualified and experienced therapist can be invaluable.
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