In all relationships, the need to win an argument, the need to be right, affects how we get along. And the other person in the debate probably has that same psychological need to be right as we do.
So, this mutual motivation to be right is likely to multiply in every conflict, major or minor. And since any relationship is guaranteed to have disagreements – if both people are thinking, that is – the need to be right can sour any of them.
Yeah, yeah, I know. We might think that being right is just about making sure the truth gets out there. We might convince ourselves that it’s become our duty to defend the facts.
But once we and our partner have stated our positions and move into a defensive mode, it’s about more than truth – a more that’s even more important for relationships than convincing someone what’s right.
The heat of the argument increases. What is said in response goes beyond the sharing of each other’s truths.
Why does winning an argument become so important? Why is it so hard to live with disagreement, to acknowledge that there might be other ways to see what we’re standing for, or to even admit that we might be wrong?
Does it have anything to do with the fact that we live in a hyper-competitive culture where winners are awarded and even second place feels like a loss?
We need to answer these questions if we’re really going to be able to disagree with someone with whom we want to continue a relationship in a way that improves that relationship. And, whether we’re right or wrong in the argument, it’s these questions we also must face if we hope to do our part to move forward.
A common reason why we need to be seen as right is a response to the internalized and persistent message we’ve learned as we grew up that people won’t like us if we make mistakes or admit we’ve been wrong. We’ve internalized the feeling that we have to be perfect to be attractive, liked, or loved, and even possibly to love ourselves.
We don’t want to show that we, like every other human being on the planet, are flawed or that we have things to learn. Of course, we’ll say in the abstract that we aren’t perfect, but we have a hard time when we actually experience specific examples of our human fallibility.
We’re afraid of what we believe will be the negative consequences of imperfection. Even in a loving relationship, we don’t think that admitting our errors will endear us to other human beings who are also afraid that we won’t accept them if they acknowledge their specific imperfections.
We’re afraid they’ll abandon us for some more perfect human being. We do want our friends and love ones to accept us the way we really are, but we’re afraid that they won’t. So, we just cannot be wrong or let an argument sit unsettled.
If their acceptance of us is really only based on the belief that we’re perfect, that’s a clue to their own baggage. And if they’re willing to go to all extremes to be right in an argument, we’ve got to recognize their problems and redefine the kind of relationship we’ll have with them.
But if they too are willing to step back, take a breath, and discuss what’s really going on in the argument beyond the “facts” you both seem to be debating over, there’s a chance for real growth together. Can we both recognize in the argumentation what seems to be at stake regarding our self-images?
It’s not about “backing down” or pretending to agree when you don’t. It’s not even about doing this to manipulate the other into copying us. It’s about breaking out of patterns that prevent intimacy.
And someone is going to have to break the patterns, which means taking the risk of vulnerability for doing so. Someone is going to have to take the lead, admit their fear of not being right.
Someone is going to have to get over the need to win. Someone is going to have to recognize that every event in life is a learning experience and treat them as so – “Live and learn.”
Someone is going to have to reject the message that the most important thing is to be right. Someone must be able to confront the dynamics of the situation without necessarily agreeing with the other’s position.
Someone is going to have to start modeling listening more carefully. And someone is going to have to listen to what the argument really means beyond the question of who’s right or wrong.
It’s hard to be the one who faces our fears, breaks patterns, and admits they’re wrong or that they’ve gone off the rails in argumentation no matter how important that is.
Can we, then, start rejecting our need to be right and do this? If so, that would be a mark of a really healthy self-concept.