Married to Someone Who's Always Right?
One personality trait can be especially frustrating.
Posted Aug 27, 2019
Relationships are rife with possible conflicts because they require the navigation of two different personalities. While there are many personality traits that can bother you in a spouse or partner, few traits elicit as strong an emotional reaction as the trait where a person acts as if they're always right.
This trait can be frustrating in a friend but is much more difficult to bear in a romantic relationship that involves so many emotional ties and such constant close proximity. If you're married to someone who acts as if they're always right, there are a few things to keep in mind that can make your interactions with them less conflictual.
Before exploring the topic further, it's important to note that research on this subject is challenging. Who, for example, wants to admit that they always need to be right? Because of the challenges in getting honest self-reports in this area, I'll draw on my 20 years of clinical experience with men and women of various ages and social demographics.
Acting as if one is always right reflects a pervasive psychological defense mechanism.
There isn't one simple cause for this complex personality trait, but most individuals who have a need to always be right share one important characteristic: Their need to always be right indicates a strong and pervasive defense mechanism (including, but not limited to, a denial of their vulnerability, an inherent part of everyone's human experience, whether one likes it or not).
The definition of a defense mechanism is: "a way in which somebody behaves without thinking about it to protect themselves from unpleasant feelings or situations" ("Defense mechanism," 2019). Note that the part of the definition that includes "without thinking about it" is also known clinically as an unconscious process, meaning that the personality trait — always being right — has become so ingrained in the person's thinking and personality that the person isn't fully aware of just how right they always need to be. Though people who act as if they're always right know that they like to be right, they would not necessarily understand consciously that they act this way because they are overcompensating for feelings of shame, a sense of insufficiency, and fear that would arise if they were wrong.
Psychologically, men and women who are never wrong would feel extremely exposed if others witnessed them being wrong. Being wrong under any circumstances in front of others reflects to them a weakness or flaw, even when most people would not consider being wrong here or there as rising to the level of a flaw! In contrast, people with good self-esteem accept that they are sometimes wrong (read: occasionally vulnerable and always imperfect) because they are human.
Why people who act as if they're never wrong are so averse to the notion of occasionally being wrong, even in the most mundane or trivial circumstances
A history of early experiences in which being vulnerable resulted in getting emotionally hurt: Men and women who are never wrong developed this defensive personality trait many years ago, and many of them developed it because someone very important in their early life made them feel emotionally unsafe. When they were young, many of these men and women learned that it isn't safe to let their guard down and be vulnerable, because when they let their guard down and were vulnerable in the past, they got emotionally hurt, criticized or even punished.
For example, men and women who are always right often had the experience of sharing an emotional experience with someone, and watching as information about that experience was used against them later. Other men and women with this problem were shamed at critical points during their development for "failing," or they were made to feel stupid or even pathetic, at times, by parents or peers at school. Years ago, these individuals (unconsciously, without realizing it) began construction on a moat-like defensive response style to protect their ego from ever feeling small, insufficient, defective, or stupid again.
A lack of praise, feeling unvalued: Another factor in the life of a child that gives rise to this personality trait is a lack of feeling praised and valued enough as a child. Because these men and women weren't praised and valued enough as boys and girls, their ego development, their self-esteem, suffered. Later in life, these men and women learned to overcompensate for self-doubt and feelings of shame for not being good enough by flipping the script. Outwardly, they learned to act as if they were strong, superior and infallible, even when logic would tell them that no such person exists.
Growing up with a parent who was always right, too: In some cases, the person who is always right developed this orientation based on social modeling. Specifically, these individuals may have grown up with a parent who was always right, too. Children who have a parent who is never wrong and always right often feel angry and resentful, because the parent's perspective feels rigid and unfair, and often betrays reality or objectivity.
These children often live with an underlying sense that they are inferior to the superior, always-right parent, and the children internalize the sense that they're not inherently good enough and as valuable as they are. As a result, these children usually go through childhood feeling resentful and angry that they aren't "heard" or valued, and that they are dismissed or discounted by those who matter. How do they cope with these feelings? They begin to operate with others using the same personality trait they fell victim to with their parent, acting with others now as if they are the ones who are always right.
What this personality trait means diagnostically
For some men and women, the never-wrong personality trait is a part of a larger problem: an entire personality organization that is distorted in crucial ways. These individuals may have what clinicians call a personality disorder, and this trait is most common among individuals who have what is known as Cluster B personality disorders (Narcissistic, Borderline, and Antisocial Personality Disorders, especially), each of which is outlined in the current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).
The Cluster B personalities involve distorted expectations of others, a disordered view of the self, and disordered relationships. Men and women who have a Cluster B personality disorder often have a need to feel superior to others, which often requires dismissing the thoughts and feelings of others. The thinking goes like this: What does reality really matter when my ego is on the line? I protect my ego to feel big and strong at all costs. For men and women who are never wrong, protecting their fragile ego is their number one goal.
Personality is not the only factor at work, however, in the construction and maintenance of this trait. Individuals who have the need to always be right may have this problem as a function of their cognitive (thinking) style. Specifically, they may suffer from an extremely rigid cognitive style, one with fixed ideas. Men and women who are never wrong may meet some or all of the criteria for Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, a disorder that includes rigid, fixed ideas and behaviors.
Similarly, men and women who lie at the highly functional end of Autism Spectrum Disorder (what clinicians historically called "Aspergers Disorder") often present rigid or fixed thoughts and behaviors. When such individuals have the thought that they are right in a particular situation, they have great difficulty "shifting sets" and seeing another person's perspective in the very same situation.
The previous disorders are only a subset of the possible disorders that can coexist with the personality trait of always needing to be right. If you're concerned that your spouse may present this personality type as a symptom of a larger psychological problem, the best practice is to meet with a mental health professional to discuss the issue in depth. Though such professionals can only diagnose individuals they have clinically assessed themselves, a professional can listen to your circumstances and share feedback to help you manage this relationship dynamic more effectively.
Unmet needs in the individual's current life
While it's helpful to understand what may be going on clinically with your spouse, it's also helpful to reflect on what factors in your spouse's current life could be exacerbating the problem (the need to prove how right they always are). Sigmund Freud, the revolutionary neurologist and founder of psychoanalysis, believed that a person's primary emotional issues come out in one of two areas in life: one's work life or romantic life. In my clinical work, I've found this theory to be remarkably accurate. People who act like they're never wrong often have a strong unmet need in their personal life, whether it's their romantic life, home life, or social life.
Unmet need for recognition in one's professional or work-contribution life: Having a sense of purpose and feeling needed are crucial to a person's well-being. People have a driving need to feel that the work contribution they make in life is important and valued by those close to them. Whether their job is a formal one — from a cashier to a CEO — or their work life is in the home — managing a household and/or taking care of children — it's crucial for a person's mood and self-esteem to feel that the contribution they make is recognized and valued. If the need for recognition in one's professional or work-contribution life is not met, the gaping unmet need will typically result in anger, resentment, sadness, and even depression.
Those who have an unmet need for recognition in their work life become defensive. They overcompensate for the unmet need by trying harder to make everyone close to them acknowledge their contribution and their overall worth and value. In other words, if one feels undervalued and unappreciated, one goes into psychological overdrive to get everyone to see their worth and value. Because men and women who are never wrong have such a deep, profound unmet need for recognition, they devote much of their energy to constructing a persona in which they are seen as the opposite of someone who is vulnerable or flawed. They start acting to the world as if they're an authority figure, one who is gifted and superior to most others.
Unmet need for recognition in one's personal life: To feel happy enough and to be able to socialize consistently and harmoniously with others in close proximity to them (spouses, partners, close friends, co-workers, and bosses), people need to have their basic emotional needs for respect and caring met. When people feel unnoticed, unappreciated or disrespected for too long, they start to feel bitter, angry, and even depressed. Without question, someone who acts as if they're always right isn't getting their basic emotional needs met for respect and recognition in their daily life.
If a person doesn't feel sufficiently valued by those closest to them in their personal life, that person is going to become defensive and is going to take on personality characteristics and defense mechanisms that protect their ego from feeling bad or insufficient. These individuals will often adopt the I'm-never-wrong attitude as a way to overcompensate for the feelings that come up for them because crucial people in their current personal life cause them to feel invisible or unimportant.
Why their approach doesn't work
Despite the effort, this mental approach doesn't work. The personality orientation - always right, never wrong - isn't authentic or rooted in reality (because it's impossible for anyone to be superhuman, or always right), so the foundation of this belief system is faulty and maladaptive. As a result, men and women who act as if they're never wrong don't actually achieve their goal of making others respect and recognize them. Instead, this rigid personality style only causes conflicts, causing others to resent or dislike them even more. Sadly, the cycle continues. The person who's never wrong gets even more triggered because they're trying so hard to demand the respect they believe they deserve, but they're still not getting sufficiently acknowledged. Over time, they become more bitter and angry, and are even more intent on proving their value and right-ness. The need to be respected and valued for anyone is so fundamental that people will do almost anything to get it, even if that means self-sabotaging.
How to cope when your spouse is never wrong
You've heard the trope about trying to change the stripes of a tiger. Simply put, trying to change your spouse or partner's most fundamental personality characteristics is a losing endeavor. The psychological need for these individuals to always be right and never be wrong is so strong and so many years in the making that the personality trait's closest relative is actual titanium; it's simply not budging. What can budge, however, is how you, their spouse or partner, react to them. How do you cope? You use a series of mental approaches.
Talk to a mental health professional to get some perspective.
First, the most effective strategy in dealing with a spouse who is never wrong is to seek out a couples therapist. Though many men and women with this personality trait won't want to talk with a therapist because their self-esteem isn't strong enough to withstand any constructive criticism or feedback from a therapist, it's always a good idea to suggest therapy — even just one session — as an option. If therapy is not an option, the only other option (aside from ending the relationship, which may not be necessary) is to shift how you react to their frustrating personality trait.
Don't take their defensive, always-right personality personally.
It feels personal when your spouse acts as if they've descended to from the heavens to grace you with their superior, always-right presence, but it's most definitely not personal. Your spouse is this way with anyone with whom they are in close proximity professionally or personally. Understand that your spouse's need to always be right isn't a sign that they think you're inherently inferior to them; they are simply terrified of being disrespected or unvalued by anyone — stranger, boss, spouse — and that's why they act the way they do. Though they act superior and high-and-mighty, they actually suffer from a somewhat fragile ego. Of course, people who feel good about themselves don't need to be right all the time; it's the ones who battle self-doubts and low self-esteem who insist on being the smartest, wisest people in the room. Men and women who are never wrong can't ever really be vulnerable because being vulnerable, according to their distorted thinking, would end up hurting them or being used against them.
Choose your battles.
People who are never wrong need to win and be voted "Most Respected" at all costs. These men and women will match you note for note if you challenge them, so when the issue is not important, let them win. When the two of you are navigating an issue that is important, sit with the issue for a day or two and plan a measured, non-emotional approach to the issue. Showing these people any sort of negative feelings, like anger or frustration, will only fuel them more. The arch-enemy of these individuals is accountability, so don't waste your energy trying to hold them accountable and asking for fairness. When these individuals' need to be right gets triggered, they will never, ever acknowledge any vulnerability at all.
Make sure you have a long list of coping outlets when you get triggered.
You're not crazy to expect fairness and a mutual acknowledgment of reality in a relationship. Sadly, these men and women don't value those things. It's not realistic to never again be bothered by this personality trait, but it is realistic to make sure that you don't lose your mind dealing with them. You can cope well and keep the relationship working well enough as long as you have sufficient prosocial outlets. Examples: talking to a therapist, meditation, various types of physical exercise, venting to close friends, writing in a journal, talking to your minister, rabbi, preacher, etc.
The overall point
Don't take your spouse's need to always be right personally, but also don't engage too emotionally when your spouse's need to be right gets triggered. Ultimately, everyone has flaws, and it is our own job to make sure that we figure out a way to react to those closest to us in a way that makes us feel good, connected, and supported.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.
Defense mechanism (2019). In Oxford Learner's Dictionaries. Retrieved from https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/definition/english/defence-mechanism