I was recently watching a clip from a therapy session and the wife explained to the therapist, “I don’t need to be right. I just need to be heard”: a simple statement that likely rings true for many of us, but one that we rarely connect with in the moments when we need that insight the most. Her statement reminded me of similar struggles of my own clients when their conversations or arguments seem to go around and around, back and forth. As a note, if in reading this post you cannot identify with the need to be right, then consider the same idea through the lens of wanting the other person to agree with you.
Although your conversations likely begin with each person having feelings that, by themselves, would normally be understandable, they can spiral into a useless grapple to determine who is right. And the reality is that we all fall for this trap. This urge to be right or to be agreed with may not be only when you have an opinion on something. Sometimes it comes in the form of a demand that your partner agree to the perceptions you are having in the moment. Perceptions of how you think they are feeling towards you, as in, “Admit it, you’ve always been resentful of…” or, “You’ve never liked Jane and Brian…”
Even when you spend a lot of emotional energy is spent trying to convince your partner that you’re right, there doesn’t seem to be anything to show for it; at least nothing worth the fallout from the experience.
Consider the last time you had some kind of dispute or moment of emotional distance with someone you cared about. And maybe they finally gave in, either out of exhaustion or a desire to end the conflict. When they finally gave in, did it feel good? Not surprisingly, most people can admit to a certain amount of satisfaction that comes from winning. But even that moment of reward is somewhat anticlimactic, and it’s definitely temporary.
Why is it that the thing you fought so intensely for moments ago, is now somewhat underwhelming? Is that not what you wanted out of this conversation? Obviously not. In a way, it is as if at some deeper level you have unknowingly traded your true needs for a cheap counterfeit of being right or agreed with.
Does “Winning” the Argument Bring You Closer?
Because as you look at that measly emotional payoff that comes from being right, you need to ask yourself a more important question: now that he or she has conceded or agrees with you, do the two of you feel closer? The likely answer is “no.”
I recall a woman who had spent the day wrangling her kids who were not listening well, and whose manners left a lot to be desired. When her husband came home she let him know “how rotten” the kids had been. And his response was to question whether the children had really been so bad. And so the conversation deteriorated, with her insisting that her view was right and him thinking that she was overreacting. Did the wife need to be agreed with? In the moment she probably thought she did. But that would not have closed the rapidly-growing gap between them. What she needed was to feel like he saw and cared that she had been through hell that day. That he saw her pain and exhaustion. And that he was sorry she had been through that.
Your Real Needs: To Be Seen and Heard
And that is the reality of what is behind many of our own stubborn efforts in these difficult moments. We want to be seen and heard by the other person. And we want them to understand and value what we are feeling. We would all do well to ask ourselves in those moments, or even afterwards when there is still time for reconciliation: what do I really want from my partner?
This isn’t to say that the need for resolving a particular issue (e.g. a child’s behavior, lack of intimacy, finances) won’t still need to be worked out. But before you can get anywhere close to resolving the issue, the couple must be a team. And a team is made when each person feels that in their partner they have an understanding witness to whatever emotional experience they are having. And perhaps more importantly, an assurance that they are loved, even if their partner doesn’t know what to do or has a different opinion.
If you and your spouse need help to become a team again, give our marriage counseling team a call!