California couples therapist Dr. Robert Solley writes about the need to be right as a significant single predictor of relationship failure.
When differences become contests of right and wrong, he writes, the essential feelings of safety and comfort that we seek in relationship get replaced with feelings of helplessness, mistrust, inadequacy and pain.
The following is a redacted excerpt from his longer article in The Mission.
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In hierarchical systems, such as business and military organizations, right and wrong has a place as a means of establishing and maintaining consistency, efficiency and authority. However, in our culture, intimate relationships are presupposed to be fundamentally equal and interdependent, with neither partner being overall “better than” than or “superior to” the other.
When establishing right and wrong takes precedence in a relationship, it creates a winner and a loser: one-up and one-down. The one-up person gets to feel good and big, while the one-down person feels bad, stupid and small. Sometimes partners switch off on these roles in different areas.
Growing resentment for being repeatedly dismissed or minimized, a decreased desire to listen and engage, and emotional and physical distancing become inevitable.
It’s all in your head
Right and wrong are about categories, absolutes, linear causality, and comparison to an “objective” (meaning definable, or agreed upon) standard. But nature and relationships are about relative values: better and worse, multiple perspectives, circular causality, and fluidity. Right and wrong — and categorical thinking — are aspects of our mind that we project into the world to make sense of it.
While useful for some things, right/wrong thinking is inherently anti-relationship, especially the more urgently it is pursued. Couples commonly get so caught up in trying to reconstruct a past argument through asserting the “rightness” or “facts” of their different points of view, that the original argument gets lost in the heat of the battle for “accurate” reconstruction.
Accurate reconstruction is often impossible exactly because we each perceive things so differently — for a host of perceptual and psychological reasons unique to each individual (not to mention well-documented memory inaccuracies which most people underestimate). Of course a large part of the battle for accurate reconstruction is each partner pleading to be represented the way they would like to be, or trying to correct misunderstandings.
We do not see the world as it is, we see the world as we are. — Anais Nin
Adding to the confusion, language is often more imprecise than we might imagine or wish. In poetry ambiguity can be charming, but in personal relationships the same ambiguity can lead to all kinds of problems….
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The ongoing battle to persuade our partner we are right not only fails to convince him/her of our stance, but leaves lasting damage on our relationship. Focus instead on working towards these understandings:
- How we differ as human beings
- What is meaningful and important to each of us
- What my impact is on my partner and how I can improve that
- And how we can connect with, and comfort each other through a deep understanding of our individual differences.