When we argue with our partner, we usually walk away feeling like they were wrong, and we were right. As we clench our fists and feel the tension in our shoulders, angry thoughts race through our minds: They shouldn’t have spoken to me that way! They should have picked up the dry cleaning! They should have remembered our anniversary! We’re angry and we feel righteous and justified in our anger. The trouble is, when we walk away feeling “right”, we are also walking away from our partners. One part of us feels like we won, but deeper down we know that if there is a tension between us and we are distant rather than close, that nobody has won in this situation.
Funny enough, what we know from attachment theory and years of research with couples, is that all of these disputes are actually partners’ attempts to connect to and feel closer! So how is it that that in our attempt to get closer to each other, the result is just the opposite? And if being right is in fact our ultimate goal then why, when we walk away feeling “right” don’t we feel the joy, elation and satisfaction that winning generally brings?
Frequently, when working with couples, I ask, “What is it that being right will do for you? How will it help if your partner says he or she was wrong?” Ultimately what comes up is that we want to feel that our partner understands us, and more specifically, that they understand how their actions or lack of action impacts us. When we feel our partners don’t understand how we feel, or see our perspective, it can feel frustrating and lonely. When our partner promises to help us with something and then forgets, we say, “I can’t believe I reminded you ten times and you still didn’t do it!” when what we really want them to know is that when they forgot, this made us feel unimportant and at the bottom of their priority list. When our partner raises their voice and calls us lazy or stupid, we may snap back, “You’re a monster, just like your father!” when what we really mean is “your words sting, it hurts when you talk to me that way.”
The trouble is, that in our attempt to be “right,” rather than pulling our partner close so that they can see our hurt, our blaming stance pushes them away and makes them feel the need to defend themselves. As humans, when we are under threat, all of our energy goes into surviving that threat, and our ability to tune into our partner’s emotions becomes zilch.
In my couple sessions, when one partner turns and shares how hurt and vulnerable they feel, they are often surprised at the empathy this pulls from the other partner. Suddenly their partner can lower their shield of defense, because they are no longer facing an attack. Instead they see that the person they love is in pain. The message shifts from “you’re wrong” into “you are so important to me, and therefore your words and actions impact me a lot.” This new message pulls for closeness, understanding and soothing, rather than defensiveness and stonewalling. Often when a new message of vulnerability replaces a blaming message, partners say, “Wow, I didn’t know you felt that way, I really feel like giving you a hug right now.”
Sitting in the therapist’s chair watching this scene unfold, I often feel my eyes tearing up, touched by this special moment of connection between two people. So next time you find yourself walking away from your partner feeling “right”, I encourage you to ask yourself whether being “right” is really what you are longing for? If so, then I would encourage you to stick to your position. But if what you are longing for is in fact to feel understood, soothed and held by your partner, I would encourage you to take the risk to share your softer feelings. You may just be surprised by the response you get.
Jessica Kokin is a staff therapist at the MindSpace Clinic. She trained extensively with Emotion-Focused Therapy founder Sue Johnson, and specializes in EFT for couples. To book an appointment with Jessica, call (514) 481-0317.