You’ve all heard the phrase, “would you rather be happy or would you rather be right?” Anytime you’re in an argument, it’s easy to get caught up in making yourself right and the other person wrong. However, often at the bottom of that, it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that you’re heard, validated, and acknowledgment that the other person hears some truth in your experience.
I use the word experience very intentionally. You see, there is so much chaos surrounding any argument (or “discussion” if you’re a household that uses that word). And for many couples, friends, or families that chaos builds and escalates to a point where it seems unmanageable. Everyone ends up raising their voice and then asking the other person why they’re raising their voice.
One of the biggest mistakes we make in these situations is that we personalize the argument. We get so caught up in making ourselves right and the other person wrong that we throw down all our inhibitions, say things that we know we’ll regret, and go for the jugular. We say things we wish they didn’t say. We forget the power of our words. We ask rhetorical questions like “why are you such a _______?” or say “You’re being a _____.” We personalize the situation and make a personal attribution. This is the heart of the Fundamental Attribution Error, which says we tend to attribute other people’s bad behaviors to their internal characteristics, but we attribute our mistakes to external circumstances and out of the ordinary situations.
Similar to this idea is what Collaborative Couple Therapists (CCT) say is at the base of human motivation: Problems continually arise because people feel unentitled to their experience. This is a situation where you actually want to feel entitled. Entitlement says that you’re free to feel exactly as you do and think exactly what you think in the situation you’re in – without judgment or blame.
We all have our own realities. We have a set of “family-of-origin-based special sensitivities” as Dr. Wile speaks of in CCT. You may be sensitive to other people’s disapproval while your significant other may be sensitive to other people’s abandonment. This may create a cycle where you disengage and your partner gets hurt and personalizes it. So when you avoid the situation and your partner gets mad, it’s not just the situation that is upsetting, it may also be that it reminds them of several other prior events.
So what do we do with these sensitivities when they come up in arguments? Although it may be tempting to say something that you know will get your partner’s attention and it may make you feel like you’re getting out what’s been buried inside of you, it really serves no long-term benefit. You may get short-term satisfaction for saying “You’re a workaholic” or “You prefer being with your friends than me,” but it doesn’t quite get at the problem. In fact, it exacerbates the problem and doesn’t really get at the issue. The extent to which you’re able to reach out to your significant other when you or they feel abandoned, you will be able to transform those familial sensitivities into detecting undercurrents in the relationship.
Many times in relationships we sting after having just been stung. However, instead of going for the sting, go for the vulnerability. It may be more painful for you to say “it hurts that you’re not there for me” or “I feel like you’re not around anymore and I’m feeling lonely,” but it is this language that is in alignment with your ultimate goal – assuming your goal is to be heard, validated, be closer, create intimacy. Many people may say that using that language is very robotic, but take the idea and apply it to your life. Use “I” statements. Share your experience.
You can’t argue with your experience. It’s not your opinion – it’s your experience. I can experience your language as harsh. I can experience you as unloving. I can experience you as invalidating. I can experience you as mean. Now that may not be what you’re actually doing and that may not be your intention, but what I’m telling you is that there is something that you are doing that is triggering something in me that is making me feel this way. You may not be doing it intentionally. This may be a pattern that was not there when we started our relationship, but we’ve gone down this path that is not supportive of one another. I’m not making you wrong – I’m just telling you what my experience of you is.
With all this, you also have to be prepared to have your partner share their experiences as well because they could be experiencing something with you that you may not realize. Perhaps you come off as distant or cold. The truth is that it doesn’t matter. You each have your own experience of the concern, and the good news is that neither of you have to be wrong. It’s just your experience. As Bishop T.D. Jakes says,
“You should attack the issue and not the individual. Separate the behavior or the problem from the person and the person will join you in the process of attacking the problem.”
Also, see Daniel B. Wile’s chapter on Collaborative Couple Therapy:
Wile, D. B. (2002). Collaborative couple therapy. In A. S. Gurman & N. S. Jacobson (Eds.), Clinical handbook of couple therapy (pp. 281–307). New York: Guilford Press.
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Rubin Khoddam, Clinical Psychology PhD student at University of Southern California, founder of Psych Connection.
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