All of us like to be right. It seems to be a built-in instinct in humans, this strong need for affirmation of our rightness.
With couples in relationships, it often takes the form of discussions that dissolve into arguments starting with “He said…” or “She said.”
Let’s take a typical scenario and see how this works.
A couple in their 20’s (you can easily substitute in 30’s, 40’s, etc. – age makes no difference here) come in for therapy stating that they have had a terrible fight and can’t get past it.
I ask them to tell me what it was about. The woman starts with, “he said…” and the guy starts with “she said…” both at the same time. I ask them to start over, one at a time.
He grudgingly lets her go first.
“He came home from the office late again last night. He had said he’d get home in time to take me out for dinner, and then a little romance. I had gotten a babysitter and rushed home from work myself to get ready. It was 7, then 7:30 then 8 then 8:30. By 9 I was furious and feeling very hurt. He walked in the door at about 9:30 and the first thing he said, was, ‘I’m so tired. Do you have anything for me to eat? I never got a minute for dinner tonight.’ Nothing about why he was so late, why he didn’t call, why he didn’t even notice how nice I looked. He had completely forgotten about our date night. Just talking about himself and thinking about himself.”
At this point she begins to cry. His face looks very angry. His jaw is set, his teeth clenched together. The vein in the side of his head is throbbing.
I look at him and suggest that he might want to tell his view (I don’t like to call them sides) of the situation.
“She’s completely wrong about this. When we discussed setting a date night up I told her that my office schedule was really tough for the next few weeks and I couldn’t be sure of my schedule. She insisted we make some sort of arrangement, so I went ahead and said that last night MIGHT work. I never promised anything. She didn’t tell me she’d gotten a sitter or was expecting me to take her out for dinner. I didn’t talk to her all day – I was in meetings. I was so busy I never even had time to eat. By the time I got home, I was exhausted. All I wanted to do was grab a bite and go to bed. Instead, she immediately starts in with ‘Why are you so late? Why didn’t you even call to tell me you’d be this late and that we’d have to re-schedule our date night? Why do you always do this? You don’t care about me at all – just yourself.’ By then she’s crying and storms into the bedroom and slams the door. She wouldn’t even listen to my explanation.” Now I look at her, still crying softly.
I ask her if she’d like to say something. She starts in basically repeating what she’s already said, how selfish he is, how he does this all the time, how all he really cares about is work and himself.
He then jumps in about how she always says the same thing to him. He feels like she’s setting him up by forcing him into arrangements that he can’t keep.
At this point they are both talking (actually yelling) at the same time and no one is listening.
I stop them both and ask them “ What’s more important to you – being right or being happy?” They both stare at me as if I’m speaking a language they never heard before.
I explain that they are getting caught up in trying to defend a position rather than really communicating about what’s important to them.
What couples need to do in a situation like this is step back from each other, and start a new conversation expressing what it is they want. Stop looking back; you can’t change what’s already happened. Instead, explain how you feel about the problem, try to define it briefly, and then suggest ways to make it better.
For our sample couple above, it might go like this.
She would say, “I really miss you. I know your work is very important for both of us, but it seems like we never get any time alone together. It seems like we make plans but they don’t materialize. Then I feel hurt and lonely. Maybe we can look at your schedule together and find a time that will work.”
He might say, “My job is very demanding and my schedule fluctuates frequently, making scheduling very difficult. I miss you too and would like to find a way to be together alone more. Maybe you can be a little more relaxed about the setting up of times and flexible about my need to cancel, then I won’t feel so bad about it when it happens. Also, a reminder of our plans the morning of the day will help me remember. I also think that we can try and set up a short vacation to take alone together (no kids). That way, we’ll really get some alone time. You might also come and meet me for dinner near my office sometimes – even though it won’t be a long romantic dinner, it still would be something just for us.”
The difference in these conversations is that they are removing blame and focusing on coming to some mutual agreements. They also get the message across to the other person that that person matters and they want the relationship to work.
So now, they are working on being happy, not right. There’s nothing wrong with being right, but be prepared to be really right all by yourself!