Choosing to Be Right or Married
Let me tell you an entirely fictional story about an entirely made-up married couple, Dorothy and Jonah. The couple is embroiled in an argument about a contentious event that happened earlier in the day, and while the details are a little murky, there can be no doubt that the conflict is steadily escalating.
“That’s not what I said,” Jonah insists. “What I said was—”
“No, Jonah,” Dorothy interrupts. “You said such-and-such.”
“Yes, you did!” Dorothy responds, her body stiffening.
“Well, okay,” Jonah falters, looking away from his wife. His voice is slower now, softer. “What I meant was such-and-such. Maybe I don’t remember everything I said exactly, but I really tried to say that.”
Dorothy’s gaze is unwavering, her face twisting in anger. “How can you say that?” she scoffs. “That is not what you said! What you said was such-and-such, and that’s why I yelled at you, because I was afraid for the kids!”
Jonah has no reply for Dorothy’s dropped payload. He sighs audibly, scowling. He looks defeated, withering under the weight of Dorothy’s incessant rebuttals.
Sound familiar? So often in our most intimate relationships, we become emotionally triggered and we lose it completely. Dorothy’s intensifying anger has made sure that she is not in Kansas anymore, and Jonah has been swallowed whole by overwhelming feelings of failure and inadequacy. As Terry Real (2013) put it in a recent article in The Therapist magazine, when Jonah and Dorothy are screaming at each other like this, “they’re truly lost—lost to each other, and to themselves” (p. 7).
In moments like these, we become lost to ourselves because we react without thinking when someone pushes our most sensitive buttons. A knee-jerk reaction to fight or flight kicks in to respond to the threat. During escalating arguments, then, we dig in our heels in self-protection, clinging tenaciously to what we believe is “right” or what “really happened.” Our agenda of being right usually leads to disaster because one partner inflicts devastation upon the other while protecting him- or herself, just as Dorothy did to Jonah.
Over time, each partner’s unwillingness to relinquish their monopoly on the truth and accept the other’s point of view leads to a pattern of dominance and submission, which makes connecting even harder. In our fictional example, chances are Dorothy and Jonah have been arguing this way for some time. Dorothy reacts with anger and dominates Jonah, who unconsciously reacts with withdrawal and submission, while each of them wonder if the other is “crazy.” This pattern is called split complementarity, and it’s bad juju for relationships.
What, then, can couples do? In a few words, they need to let go of their need to be right. Partners need to realize that what they perceive as real is real for them, and until they do so, they won’t be able to see and value the other’s perspective. Dorothy’s insistence on her version of events prevented her from appreciating Jonah’s feelings, which were quite real to him. Jonah, too, was unwilling to give an inch at first, as angry as he was, but then anger gave way to resignation and continued disinterest in Dorothy’s emotional world.
To consciously choose to stop being interested in “the absolute truth” and start showing interest in what’s true for their partner is a big leap for most couples. It’s a difficult relational habit to cultivate, and therapy can help. Imagine, though, what would happen if during an argument, one partner paused and said, “I think I can understand why you’re saying that. I really get that you’re angry right now, especially since you’ve been hurt before in similar situations. I think I’d be angry too if what you’re describing happened to me.”
Letting go of the “absolute truth” does not mean that each partner is correct. Rather, it acknowledges differences instead of steamrolling over them, acceding that one partner’s point of view may be better than the other’s or that a third perspective may be best. This kind of authentic, connecting dialogue can only happen, however, if each partner stops striving for dominance for the betterment of the relationship.