Stay in Love by Letting Go of Being Right
We've all been there. Yes, even me, a couples therapist (shocking, I know). You're in an argument, maybe with your partner or a loved one, and you know you're right. It could all be solved if your partner would just see and admit that you're right, and there's this dig-in-your-heels sensation along with the conviction that "if I stick to my guns on this they'll eventually see my completely valid point."
Trouble is, your partner is also right. Or at least, partly. A part of you already knows this. My guess is when you slow down and reflect on it from a calm place (i.e. not in the middle of a fight), you know that there's something valid in your partner's perspective, just like there is in yours. Even if the way your partner is acting is making it very difficult for you to feel understanding. (And if that's the case, entertain the possibility that you're also acting in a way that's making it hard for them to understand your concerns.) When it comes down to it, you're both at least partly right, but you're both stuck defending your stances and getting angrier by the minute.
Beyond the recognition that both of you can be 'right' at the same time, being right is irrelevant when it comes to relationships. Both of you are having an emotional experience that is far more than right or wrong – it simply is, as it is. Wouldn't you love it if your partner could really hear you and fully accept how you're feeling? Part of loving another is moving beyond debating narrow concepts of who's right or wrong and opening yourself to what the relationship needs to thrive.
So why is it so hard to put your relationship ahead of your personal need to be right? While it's true that many of us sabotage ourselves in arguments, with awareness and practice you can shift out of that defensive mode. If you can shift out of that defensiveness, you have a better chance of feeling understood and even closer to your partner than you did before the fight.
Our brains set the stage for unhelpful reactions when threatened
First, let's acknowledge that we are wired to fight for our survival when needed. It's a brilliant evolutionary strategy that lives in the deeper levels of our brains. It's the part of us that has survived very well by constantly scanning the horizon for threats, thank you very much, and doesn't want to stop now. It's the part of us that when our partner takes that tone or makes a critical remark, lights up and tells us it's time to fight the emotional threat.
Our egos convince us to stay right, instead of staying loving
In addition to being evolutionarily wired to cope with threats through a defensive or fight response (and only you know what your particular signature of this feels like), as we develop our identities throughout our lives we tend to come up with very general core beliefs about ourselves – a sort of psychological shorthand for understanding ourselves and navigating the world.
Our core beliefs tend to be very black and white and sound extreme to our logical minds. Nonetheless, they are often running the show in the background – imagine the man behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz, those are your core beliefs. Sometimes our core beliefs about ourselves sound like: "If I'm wrong I'm bad," or "I'm only good if I'm right," or "I'm bad and wrong and if I show it I won't be loved," or "weakness will get you killed," or "I'm only lovable if I'm good and right." Notice what comes up as you read those examples. See if you relate to any of them, or if any sense of your own unique core beliefs comes up. Awareness of these old, simplistic operating systems is key to growing up your way of reacting to conflict.
How our rightness gets in the way of our love
Between our brilliant brains being wired to protect us and our trusty old core beliefs filtering our way of seeing the world, we often experience a double-whammy effect of our bodies going into a lower-level fight or flight mode (thank you brain) and our minds broadcasting some spruced-up version of our core beliefs. "If I'm wrong I'm bad" becomes a series of nuanced and complicated thoughts about the situation, yourself, and your partner (which all feel very believable to us at the moment it's happening).
This combination leads us to become so focused on defending against threats – both external in your partner and internal in your basic drive to avoid being wrong or bad – that we cannot see when our partner is softening to us. We become so busy being right or defending ourselves that we miss those crucial moments when a hand could go reassuringly to your loved one's knee, or eyes could meet and a small smile could be offered. We get so focused on how right we are and how important it is that our partner recognize that, that we cannot accept an attempt at an apology or a compromise when it is offered.
We get so focused on being right (or not wrong) that we miss our chances to love.
I imagine some of you might be reading this thinking, "Okay, but I am objectively right, so this doesn't apply to my situation." And I believe that you're right. I don't even know your situation and I can say confidently that you're probably 'right' in some way. Your partner is missing some important understanding about your perspective that would be very helpful to you both. And even though that's true, they're unlikely to hear your deeper needs beneath the defensiveness and rigidity your need to be right is likely giving off. They're just going to be reacting, like you, from their threat system and old core beliefs, and you're not going to get much traction towards what you want (understanding). How can you instead soften your attachment to being right and allow what the relationship needs to become your priority?
We tend to respond to defensiveness with defensiveness, and understanding with understanding.
So knowing (or at least being willing to experiment with believing) that by letting go of the need to be right, you'll move towards a deeper understanding with your partner, let's explore how we can let go of that need and get out of our own way.
Steps to letting go of being right and opening to being understood
1. Notice yourself being right
To change it, you first have to notice it. Right now, you might think back to a time when you got stuck in being right or being righteously angry – when you find an example, observe your thoughts, your emotions, and what it feels like in your body to be so right. In mine, it feels like a tightening across the front surface of my chest and mid-torso, and a hardening along the line of my spine. Your sensation will be unique to you. Take some time to get familiar with what this feels like, so you can more easily recognize it when it shows up with another person.
2. Interrupt yourself
When you feel that familiar right-not-wrongness showing up in the middle of a discussion, interrupt yourself. Quite literally, stop. Pause what you're saying or doing. If you need to, let your partner know, "I need to take a moment," or "Hold on just a minute while I try something." By doing this, you're creating some space between what you're reacting to and your patterned reaction of defending your position.
3. Call out your attachment to being right
To yourself, acknowledge what's happening. You might say, "I'm being very right," or "I'm digging my heels in," or even rate yourself on a ten-scale of 0 (completely open and willing to hear your partner's view) to 10 (completely closed and unwilling to hear anything but your side of things). My partner and I have made a joke out of calling it out when I, in particular, am getting needlessly defensive in the name of not being wrong – "Not wrong!" we sing out, which helps us both soften instead of getting sucked into a defensive back-and-forth. However you do this, it builds a habit of witnessing yourself in your unhelpful reactions.
4. Get present
While you're paused, take a look around. See your surroundings. Feel your feet against the ground and your body against the furniture. Notice your breath. Presence is a simple and powerful antidote to both your brain's threat mode and your old core beliefs' convincing narrative.
5. Look for what's safe or okay about your partner
While you're looking around, take a look at your partner. This can be challenging, especially if they're upset too, and this is an invitation to intentionally look for what is safe or neutral about them. Even if they're frowning, are their hands relaxed? Even if their arms are crossed, are their eyebrows unfurrowed? Are they touching you reassuringly? If nothing else, is their left leg not particularly threatening to you at this moment? Whether it's comforting or neutral, look for something that your brain can use as evidence that this disagreement is not a life-or-death threat, and let your body take in the relative safety of the situation. (If you are dealing with physical threats or violence in a relationship, please visit this site for support.)
6. Move beyond 'right vs. wrong' to understanding
Challenge yourself now to find an understandable part of your partner's position. What is their valid and understandable perspective? They have one just like you do, even if their defensiveness is making it hard to see. Remember, you don't have to agree to understand. And you don't have to be wrong for them to also be right. Notice where your old core beliefs about right/wrong and good/bad come up here. See if you can open to a broader possibility, beyond right and wrong, that both yours and your partner's experiences are in fact happening – and that there is something important that your relationship needs in both of your perspectives. Once you've found something you can compassionately understand, let them know what you get about their point of view. Just this act alone can defuse a defensiveness standoff and allow both of you to be heard more clearly and to connect more deeply.
These six steps can be done all in a row, or you can start by practicing step 1 for a while, then adding step 2 when you feel ready, and so on until you've built a habit of going through this whole process. You may find it helpful to use the whole process over and over again in the same argument, as it's likely that your patterns of defensiveness and righteous anger will take more than one try to begin to shift. However you use these, remember that the purpose is to build your self-awareness and give you more helpful and relationship-affirming options to choose from, rather than allowing your wired-in threat mode and outdated beliefs to run the show.
As you practice loosening your attachment to being right (or not wrong!), you're also evolving your capacity to move beyond dualistic right/wrong, good/bad, black/white, win/lose concepts. These either-or ways of seeing the world (though simple and efficient thought forms) are extremely damaging to relationships, which thrive in environments of acceptance, vulnerability, and understanding. As you evolve into a more pluralistic way of relating, there starts to be room to feel strongly AND to see another's point of view – to be able to hold multiple perspectives and feel secure enough to soften your dug-in stance for the good of the greater relationship (or family, or community/society/world), and surrender to the radical vulnerability of love.
A note to consider:
As a relationship counselor, I wrote this specifically for couples, to support deeper understanding and reconciliation. However, it's worth noting that all these principles for working with your own need-to-be-rightness/not-wrongness can be applied to any difficult conversation, whether between you and another person or between you and a difficult idea that you find yourself becoming defensive against. Opening yourself to deeper understanding is a key part of building strong relationships and societies, and so if this resonates with you I encourage you to broaden your awareness of the places in your life where your unique feeling of needing-to-be-right shows up. From that awareness comes the possibility of growth, for both our intimate relationships and for our human community.
Anna Mayer, MA, R-DMT, is a somatic counselor and dance/movement therapist based in Westminster, CO and Boulder, CO. She offers individual sessions, embodied couples therapy, and dance/movement DBT skills.
It takes great courage to loosen our grip on the safety that comes from feeling right, and opening to the vulnerability of loving. If you would like support in moving through your own blocks to intimacy and connection, I would be honored to guide you in that exploration. Please feel free to contact me for a no-charge, 20-minute consultation.