What's the most common problem in a relationship?
“I’m right-You’re wrong’.
In this all too common situation, both partners are convinced they are right. Both refuse to budge. Neither feels heard. Both feel hurt. It’s a continuing stalemate that effectively destroys love. The solution? Shut up and listen!
But you say if I shut up then he/she’ll have won! What about my needs!
Possibly the hardest thing for couples to learn is that if you want to be a winner, then that means making your partner a loser. If you want to be a winner, go and play a sport. If you want to have a loving relationship, then you’ll have to give up the need to be ‘right’. Listening however doesn’t mean remaining silent.
Why listening is important
Listening is important. And difficult. Why? Because it appears to deny our version of events. We fear that if we don’t push through with our version then, our needs won’t get met, it’ll happen again and we don’t want that.
The solution however lies in both versions of events. Both versions hold some truth and both are needed if a solution is to be found.
I’m right. You’re wrong
Tina and Matt had been together for 16 years with two children; 14 and 12. Matt was a great provider and ran his own business. Tina also worked but had had periods of being a stay at home mum. Now she was now back in full time administration work. They appeared in counselling when Tina gave Matt an ultimatum: attend or she would leave.
In the session, Tina was an avalanche of words, all aimed at detailing Matt’s failing. The constant theme however was that he simply didn’t communicate. Last year his mother had passed away, yet Matt had said little about it. This year there was extra stress in the business and again he barely said boo.
Surprisingly for someone who supposedly didn’t communicate, Matt too talked a lot but I had little idea of what he was trying to say. He provided long, wordy examples of Tina’s controlling behaviour. In the end, with the some help, he had finally stated that he often felt left out of family decisions. He also noted that Tina had grown cold towards him.
Within seconds however, Tina had launched her reply denying Matt’s version of events and blaming him for her coldness. As the argument escalated, each spoke over the other. Neither listened. Before one had even finished, the other was already proving them wrong.
Round and around they went. Regardless of the topic, trying to stamp their version of the truth on the other, each felt less heard after every attempt. Each felt more distant after every argument. Around and around.
Identifying the cycle of hurt
In sessions of therapy with Tina and Matt, I worked as ‘traffic cop’ stopping them at various points when each
attempted to dominate the other with their version of events. Initially they resisted, each intent even in therapy to have their say. When this happened, I would ask the one attempting to dominate to stop and look at their partner and gauge what they were feeling. Initially they had little idea. Over time however they began to see their partner’s pain at not being heard. I proposed to them time and again my ‘theory’ of mutual domination. Within two sessions, they could see that despite their best intentions to be heard, they were simply stone-walling each other. They began to see that their strategy for making sure their version won, was simply keeping them in this cycle of mutual hurt. “I win. You lose”.
Once they could see their strategy was doomed, I then asked what could they do about it? If their previous demands for the other to change only lead to more hurt, what then could they change about their own behaviour?
This is a BIG ask for some people. We are so expert at finding fault in others that it seems strange to reflect on where we could lift our game. It also worries some that somehow their partner will be ‘let off’. They resist “What I’m saying is right! I’m not making this stuff up!” I reminded them however that while it might be true, their current way of interacting only provides more of the same: distance and hurt.
In their first attempts to stop the cycle, Tina offered to Matt that she knew things were not good for him. She asked like she had before would he please talk to her. Matt replied that he would try. And then something unexpected happened. Matt’s emotions popped up. It was only brief. I didn’t know if Tina had seen it and asked Tina to look at Matt and guess what he was feeling. “Sad” she replied. With this Matt’s eyes watered, his body slumped. Tina too became teary. She reached out and grabbed his hand. For the first time in a long time Matt felt heard. For the first time in a long time, Tina had the closeness she had been seeking.
In the sessions that followed, Tina and Matt learnt to pay attention to their partner, particularly their partner’s feelings. It meant that as much as they didn’t like to hear criticisms of their own behaviour, their partner was trying to tell them something. “Stop doing that! I don’t like it” “Please do more of that. I need it”.
They also learnt to identify their own feelings and needs and communicate these rather than point out where the other was ‘wrong’.
I want intimacy
In sessions, Tina and Matt had learnt something new. They learnt that despite their best intentions to improve the relationship, their strategy of “I’m right-You’re wrong’ was doomed to fail. In short in couples therapy they learnt that:
The ‘I’m right-You’re wrong’ strategy only created hurt and distance when what they were really seeking was intimacy (and not just the physical kind).
Despite the issue they were arguing, each fight had been a repeat of the “I’m right-You’re wrong’ process, making a bad situation worse.
Listening to their partner meant paying attention to the feelings of their partner and not just the details.
Listening did not mean remaining silent. It also meant identifying their own feelings and needs and communicating these.
Both versions hold truth and both are needed in improving the relationship.
Clive Williams Phd