Why Proving Your Partner Wrong Is Never Effective
There is an alternative to trying to prove your partner wrong.
Posted January 31, 2020 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
As a psychologist who works with clients, issues between romantic couples often come to life in session. Recently, a client shared how her husband is unappreciative and critical of her, which causes her to become defensive and to prove him wrong through logic and data points.
Specifically, she'll recite the multiple ways she should be appreciated and provide examples of how he is regularly critical. Unfortunately, her attempts to prove him wrong always fail, as her defensiveness causes him, in turn, to fight even harder to prove her wrong.
This cycle repeats across many couples. The problem is that the cycle is fruitless, with each member of the couple becoming their own attorney and generating arguments as if they are dueling attorneys in a courtroom.
What happens psychologically when a couple argues ineffectively? Each member of the couple focuses on their own ego and gets stuck in a fight-or-flight, limbic mindset in which there is theoretically one winner and one loser. Rather than see the partner as an ally, these types of arguments and the quest to prove the other wrong forces each to see the other as an opponent.
When this win-lose dynamic gets reinforced, the effect is simple: Rather than anyone winning or feeling more understood, each member of the couple feels further isolated and frustrated.
A new book by psychologist and meditation teacher, Tara Brach, provides a helpful tool in understanding why a proving-wrong, bent-on-winning approach doesn't work, and provides a simple model of how to make a shift to a more kind and compassionate mindset.
Brach, in Radical Compassion (2019), talks about the importance of recognizing and allowing the feelings that come up when you're emotionally triggered by negative emotions, and pausing before reacting.
Reacting too quickly and too emotionally, I find in my clinical work, is the primary problem that continues and strengthens conflicts. Brach explains how finding compassion and kindness for yourself in those heated moments — allowing the disappointment, noticing how badly it feels — can set the stage to actually consider the other person's feelings, too.
The approach that helps couples navigate through hurt is one of understanding and investigating, not labeling and dismissing. Think about it this way: No one wins when everyone gets too focused on how right they are and wrong the other is. What must happen for couples to develop a stronger, more harmonious relationship is for each to start showing more care toward their own and their partner's feelings, as irrational or unfair as their partner's behavior may appear at first. (This model, it should be noted, excludes cases of abuse or overt maltreatment).
Ultimately, it's the working through an emotional issue together that yields the sense of support that allows a couple to flourish, both as individuals and as a couple.
Brach, T. (2019). Radical Compassion. New York:Viking.