- People's realities are subjective and unique yet they desperately need their partner to agree they're “right.”
- Partners often conduct their conversations like medieval jousts, in which the goal is to vanquish.
- It helps for partners to assume they’re both right, then work together to see the bigger picture.
The frequency with which couples encounter differences in their realities approaches always. One of you speaks your truth, and the other comes back with, “Are you kidding me? That’s not what happened!” Then, each of you feels a sudden upwelling of anger and frustration. And this is not just about the big things. Have you ever noticed how passionately you can disagree about something as minor as whether your partner did or didn’t ask you to call the plumber?
The Contradictions in Our “Wiring”
The painful experience of different realities is one of those necessary and normal “problems” of being a couple. Necessary and normal because of the contradictions in three aspects of our default “wiring.”
- Our experiences are subjective and unique.
- We experience a misleading conviction that our experiences are “right.”
- We need others to agree (consensual reality) with us. Meanwhile, they are having their own convictions of the rightness of their subjective realities.
We try to talk to each other and run smack into different realities and the conflicts inherent in this default wiring. The ability to know what is going on is central to our survival, so our safety system (centered around the amygdala) sounds the alarm. The more important the relationship, the more intense the sense of danger.
We then launch the debate, the fight, about who is right. “We are a fight culture,” says Michael Kahn, Ph.D., In The Tao of Conversation. “We glory in competition, and we want to win.” Deborah Tannen calls this our argument culture. Without intending to, we often conduct our conversations like medieval jousts, in which the goal is to vanquish the other and avoid being harmed. The more aggressive among us fight to win. Those who are squeamish about bloodletting opt instead for disengagement.
Recently, I was working with a couple, encouraging the woman to be bolder, more direct. She was extremely reluctant. Finally, she blurted out, “I don’t want to force him to agree with me!” And there you have it. She saw only two options: Keep quiet or force him to agree.
You’re Both Right
Neither fighting nor avoidance will help you create more love and understanding. The alternative way forward is to entertain the possibility—as farfetched as it may seem—that you’re both right. You’re looking for a collaborative inquiry into the question: How could it be true that though we have very different realities about this, we are each right?
True dialogue—described by Bill Isaacs as “thinking together”—is a conversation in which you are working together to see more than either of you can see alone. It’s like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. The picture is not a barn because you are holding a red piece, nor a pond because your partner sees a blue piece. To see the whole, you have to help each other fit the pieces together.
The other day, I was meeting with a couple, and the wife tried to talk to her husband about being more engaged with the family. He was instantly angry. When I asked him why, he said that it was her “story” that he had not been engaged with the family in recent years. He was furious that she kept asserting this. She then got discouraged; he was denying her reality, rejecting her sense that his lack of engagement had been a problem.
I urged them to consider that they might each be right. It took some time, but here’s what we discovered. He thought that by “unengaged,” she meant that he was uninterested in his children and did not spend time with them. He cared deeply about his children, and when he was home (he traveled often for work), he prioritized being with them. He also experienced his time away as fulfilling his deeply felt responsibility to take care of the family financially; this felt to him like engaging.
She meant something different by engaged. Being the primary parent with him away so much was difficult. She wanted her husband to be more engaged with her, both for problem-solving and for emotional support. So, there were certain kinds of engagement—different than what he had his eye on—that she needed more of. Each felt intense distress that the other was not really seeing who they were, what they were contributing, and what they needed.
As each felt the other listening to and understanding their experience, they opened up a bit. They began to see how they were both right. She then felt freer to acknowledge the ways that he had been engaged, and he was less defensive and more interested as he listened to her describe the kinds of engagement she wanted more of.
Freeing Yourself From the Illusion of “Right” and “Wrong”
The next time you find yourself in one of those painful moments of different realities, step back a bit from the grip of certainty that you are right and that your partner is wrong. The key to finding out how your two disparate realities can both be right is to assume that they are.
- Are you each seeing different aspects of the same thing?
- Is your disagreement absolute, or is this a matter of proportions or shades of gray?
- Are you relating to different contexts?
- Are you using different vocabularies?
- Do your values cause you to interpret or weigh things differently?
There’s a scene in the movie Annie Hall when the two main characters, Alvy and Annie, are in couples therapy, and the therapist asks them how often they are having sex. Alvy says, “Hardly at all.” Annie says, “All the time.” After a pause, they both say, “Twice a week.” They’re having different experiences of the same experience. They are both right.
Kahn, Michael D. The Tao of Conversation: How to Talk about Things That Really Matter, in Ways That Encourage New Ideas, Deepen Intimacy, and Build Effective and Creative Working Relationships. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications : Distributed in U.S.A. by Publishers Group West, 1995.
Tannen, Deborah. The Argument Culture: Stopping America’s War of Words. New York: Ballantine Books, 1999.
Isaacs, William. Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together: A Pioneering Approach to Communicating in Business and in Life. 1st ed. New York: Currency, 1999.