Kari and Ron have been together for about 2 years. They recently reconciled after breaking up for a few months. Both wanted to make the relationship work and see a long-term future together. They both felt strongly that for the relationship to work, they needed therapy. When I first met them a few months ago, they admitted they are both stubborn, which they feel contributes to their inability to have effective conversations and resolve issues. The upside to being stubborn, however, is that couples continue to work on issues because they see that there is something worth fighting for. Sitting across from them, their relationship ‘dance’ – how they interact with one another – became crystal clear in a matter of minutes once an issue is discussed. They replicate the pattern right in front of me, offering the opportunity to help them change gears.
Kari and Ron represent just one couple of the many I work with in therapy – individuals and/or couples who are trying to prove they are right. They continue to do this despite the fact that it blatantly hurts their relationship or marriage. One – or often both – look at a disagreement – which quickly spirals into an argument – where one has to be right and the other person wrong. Boy, what a waste of time. All that energy to prove a point – their point – and work hard at trying to convince the other to agree with them so they can prove how valid they are. It’s not uncommon for me to ask them, ‘can’t you both be right?’ Why not use your energy to see the other side’s perspective and come up with a different solution, resolution, mindset, or path? And yet they continue despite this process being dysfunctional, unproductive, unhealthy, and hurtful to their relationship.
Why do they do this?
1.) One or both is stubborn. Personality, upbringing, and past relationships have taught them that in relationships one person is right and the other is wrong. Easy peasy. Ah, no not really. They need to realize that it doesn’t work that way. Their stubbornness and inability to concede and/or try to see it from another perspective keeps them wedded to this ideal. They remain stuck in this mindset. Not good. Although being stubborn can be a good thing – keeps you moving on your track to making change or an unwillingness to give up towards a goal – in relationships, it turns out to be not such a great thing.
What to change? Look at the purpose of being stubborn and ask yourself: is this helping or hurting the relationship? Where did I get this from? Is being stubborn in this regard a benefit to our relationship? If not, what do I need to do to change?
2.) Defensiveness. They might listen to the other person’s point of view – sort of – but don’t hear what they are saying. There’s a big difference between the two. They are waiting for an opening so they can once again say how they feel and why their perspective is right. They want to defend their position regardless of what his/her partner is saying. Doing this doesn’t allow for open communication, greater insight, or more positive dialogue.
What to change? Take a step back and wait for the information to come to you before you become defensive and state your point of view yet again. Nothing new to say here. Ask yourself, from his/her perspective, could I begin to understand where they are coming from?
3.) They miss many ‘missed opportunities’. They are so focused on being right that they miss what’s right in front of them – the things that are hiding in plain sight. They’re missed an opportunity to take a step back, actually hear what the other person is saying, consider their point of view (even if they see it differently) and find a way to create a different type of conversation – a new path, a new way of thinking which demonstrates empathy towards others. The opportunity to “turn towards” his/her partner is negated.
What to change? Instead of looking at this way of relating to one another or a dance as something that cannot be changed, look at this as an opportunity not a challenge in the relationship. Recognize that this is an opportunity to make a fundamental change in how each person relates to one another and discuss how both can make changes so that a new path of communicating is established.
4.) Difficulty apologizing. The ol’ “I’m sorry” isn’t in their language repertoire. They view an apology as if they have done something wrong; because they don’t feel that way, being able to look at those three words in a different way never crosses their mind. However, extending the olive branch and actually saying (for example) “I’m sorry that you feel that way or see it that way” actually creates a softness or a less defensive stance and opens up a new direction.
What to change? Each person needs to be able to apologize and recognize when they are wrong and/or understand that a simple, ‘I’m sorry you feel that way and/or this is what I will do moving forward” can make a difference. Just the gesture alone of being able to do that truly changes the course of conversations and makes the person feel that you get them – they understand that you can see their point of view even though you might not agree with them.
5.) Unable to concede. This is an important one because conceding in this regard doesn’t mean that you need to give up how you see things because it’s not a black or white situation. Yet, unfortunately they see it this way. Conceding or moving towards their partner means they totally agree with them and have to give up how they feel. That’s not how it works.
What to change? In this regard, conceding is just about letting your defensive walls down. It’s about recognizing that there are two people in this relationship and the other’s point of view or perception is equally valid as yours. Both people come with a history and experiences that formulate how they see things. The relationship also has its own history. This also contributes to a couple’s difficulty moving their relationship in a healthier direction.
Proving yourself “right” has many sides of wrong to it and most importantly it will affect your relationship in significant and unhealthy ways. However, although it’s a bad habit, it can be changed with work, attention, intention, and recognizing the value of meeting your partner half-way and a desire to want to make a change.