The question of whether you want to be right or in relationship in part comes from Terrance Real's work on marriage and his idea that you can either be right or you can be married, but it also comes from a lifetime of my own experience.
As a (recovering) fixer, I’ve been very attached to being right in the past. It made sense to me. I wanted to get beyond all of the emotional valences and agree on logic and reason, but I had to own that cleaving to “truth” without recognizing emotional truths was a controlling strategy on my part.
There are many shades and aspects of truth around just about everything in our human experience, and perspective matters. In relationship, another reality is that it doesn’t always matter what an objective truth is; it matters how we arrive at an agreement about shared truth.
If arriving at an agreement about truth involves someone feeling as though they were subjugated, shamed, told what to think, corrected, or browbeaten into an agreement, then you actually don’t have an agreement at all, and submerged resentments will someday surface.
Relationship requires mindfulness that we have not always been taught particularly in a culture were civil discourse has eroded into who can shout the loudest, who can get the best ratings, who can redefine or proclaim something with more ferocity or money behind them, or whose Tik Tok gets the most views. Civil discourse sounds really cold, but it means to have an exchange that is respectful.
It is often said that what men want most from women (if we’re talking in a binary way) is respect, but I wonder if underneath all of our relationships, don’t all want to feel respected?
When two people who love each other have some kind of incendiary event, however, it may be that there were 10 things that happened that led up to the triggering moment. Or something occurred for one of them that has nothing to do with what the triggering event was, but they are just so much in overwhelm or have felt so beaten down and disempowered that lashed back at the world. Or it could be old, un-metabolized wound or trauma being activated.
It’s hard to be OK with that. How often might your partner come home and blow up at you, but you know it’s really about the boss. Or it’s really about money or a parental wound or an old scar getting ripped open? Maybe a blow up at you over not taking out the trash or because you were 15 minutes late is not about you at all, but your reaction is to be angry and feel disrespected. Rightfully so, especially if someone isn't taking responsibility for their own issues an is transferring their anxiety or anger unto you. It’s hard to be curious about why that person has walked in so jangled, why their nervous system is so activated that they are trying to activate ours.
People project their wounds on others all the time. People transfer their anxiety by activating other people’s anxieties. As soon as the partner goes into their stress reaction, it relieves our own...temporarily. If the cycle isn’t disrupted, it can escalate fast.
I do not mean to say that we have to manage everybody else’s emotions. One of the best things a therapist ever said to me was that I had used my “intellect in order to understand why people do what they do, so you can tolerate their bad behavior towards you”. And they were right; it was just another form of reactive strategy to try to control pain.
And that doesn’t work. Pain is part of the process of living, and there are times when people have to work through toward some kind of agreement. There are times when we have to say to a partner, I know you didn’t mean to speak to me in that tone of voice. It hurt my feelings. Can I help you to settle down before we try to tackle that subject again?
It might mean sitting in discomfort with a partner and not working through a conflict before you go to bed, like the old saw said. It might mean each person taking some time to reflect, taking some time to self-soothe, self-regulate, take responsibility for their feelings before doing relationship work. Terrance Real describes this as letting your inner wise adult take care of your inner wounded, adaptive child. You take care of your wound, but it means facing it.
It also might mean saying that the relationship is more important than whatever the “thing” is that is being argued about. Maybe saying, Let’s both see if we can figure out what’s really at the core of this. It might mean saying to your partner or friend, I just want to listen for a moment. Tell me how you feel; tell me everything you want to say, so that I can just hear you.
It might mean repeating it back to see if you heard them right, or even saying to someone not I agree with you, but just, I’ve really heard you. I have a better sense of what was in your mind now.
It might mean creating spaces where two people can present what might be seemingly opposite points of view and trying to just sit in those differences.
Sometimes it may mean agreeing that you don’t have to change each other’s minds and not taking everything personally.
Or it could mean saying that we are going to need to figure out an agreement about whatever the issue is by asking, What steps do you think we could both take to get toward that end? That could be a seed that doesn’t grow overnight and might need a little time and watering. It’s a practice, not an end-goal.
This could sound laughably naive. Sure, just change your perspective, self-regulate, be mindful, respect your partner or your friend, and work through conflict by being thoughtful and putting into practice simple things like saying, Tell me more about how you feel while I listen, and then I’ll tell you more how I feel while you listen, and then it will all work out.
Easier said than done when two people are in deep in this driven culture, a culture that seems to support the idea of individual happiness over conflict transformation, of making money over finding out what your passion is, of acquiring wealth over giving service, or just the daily grind of work, work, work, and go, go, go. No wonder we walk away from friendships, marriages, community and civic organizations more now that ever. We are worn down and out.
And relationships take work to maintain let alone deepen. And while "not taking things personally" has some merit, on the other hand, everything is personal.
Yet another aspect of the truth of relationship is that making mindful changes could potentially lead to more pain because each person arrives in a relationship or friendship with all of their ancestors behind them and everything that led up to that moment in time, everything their family or communal group has been through in the past, everything they as an individual has experienced in the past. Family of origin (FOO) issues and personal traumas with a big T or a many little ts are always there potentially ready to come back to the surface.
And that’s okay. That’s even necessary.
Guilt, shame, grief, anger, all the un-metabolized experiences of our family lines and personal lives come back periodically to be re-examined and re-integrated as we develop.
Ultimately in relationships we can coregulate with each other and work on healing the past while growing each other toward a better future. Interdependently, lovingly, fiercely, and fearlessly, we can try to help each other evolve into the best possible selves that we can be, which can’t really be done alone.
It may start with prioritizing the vulnerability of relationships over the (perceived) certainty of ideas, with being curious about the complex systems that each individual is just one expression of, and a willingness to sit in the discomfort of our inner lives and hold space for others to sit in their discomfort. The more we learn to accept and work with and through pain, the more capacity for joy and delight we will have, individually and collectively.
I’d take delight over being right any day.