“You can be right or you can be married” is a saying of the famous couples therapist, Terry Real*. He even goes so far as to list “being right” as the first of five losing strategies. Yet it’s also one of the most difficult concepts for distressed couples to grasp, especially if being right is all they’ve got, as the only alternative is being wrong.
The problem with debating right or wrong is that it involves a cognitive process using the front part of the brain that completely negates the lived experience stored in the relational part of the brain. Relational living means connecting with how our significant other is experiencing a situation, and recognizing that while our own experience may be different, that’s okay. In fact, it simply means we’re human. Learning how to hear and empathize with our partner’s experience – and then letting them know that we had a different experience – is not only crucial for conflict resolution, it’s crucial for intimacy.
The story I tell my couples to illustrate this concept starts with a rite of passage from my teen years, where it was typical to go to a pub and buy a round of drinks before your 18th birthday (the legal age for buying alcohol in England). Being asked to show ID (or “getting carded” as they say in the US) was rare, but if it happened, it was the ultimate humiliation. Here you were, thinking you were so cool and sophisticated and grown up, and some bar-tender got to tell the world (or at least the punters down the pub) that actually, you were just an acned teenager acting way out of your league.
Fast forward to the grand old age of 32. It was my first full day in the States, my house had been trashed by the renters, and I was being denied a much-needed gin & tonic at TGI Friday’s (of all places) because I didn’t yet have a US driving license and it hadn’t occurred to me to take my passport to the bar.
“Oh it’s a compliment!” cooed my 50-year-old female co-workers, somehow missing the fact that, a) I was only thirty-two, and b) it’s hardly flattering to be denied a cocktail.
“Well, the server could lose their job if they served alcohol to under-age minors”, the male co-workers mansplained, somehow also missing the fact that I was thirty-two, and, frankly, the point.
While both of these responses may have been “right”, neither of them were especially helpful, and neither allowed me to feel seen, felt or understood. Both were aimed at correcting my interpretation of the situation – perhaps with the intention of helping me feel less upset about it – but it didn’t work, because the relational piece was missing. A more relational response (aside from being served a measly gin & tonic in the first place) would have been someone saying, “Oh honey, what a bad day! I’m so sorry,” or even, “Ooof, those carding rules can seem so arbitrary sometimes.” Yet nobody did – and still doesn’t – perhaps because my experience is literally foreign in a land where nobody bats an eye about being asked to show ID.
The point of this story is that although our significant others might not literally be from a foreign country, they are from a foreign land. Their land – of family rules, norms, expectations and experiences, past hurts and humiliations – is different from ours. And those foreign lands inform how we experience interactions in the present day. Debating whether each other’s lived experience is right or wrong is not only unnecessary but actually quite ridiculous; our lived experience just is what it is. Instead of working to correct our significant other’s perception, we need to first empathize, and then get curious. “Oh I’m so sorry you felt so sad/hurt/misunderstood.” “Tell me about that.” “What did it mean to you?” “What did it remind you of?” “Oh, that’s really interesting, because it landed very differently for me.”
As for me, I’ll be honest that it still ticks me off a bit when I get carded, but these days I’m a lot more relational about it. I no longer cry (as I did that day in TGI Friday’s), roll my eyes in contempt or make a big production of pulling my driving license out of my purse and slamming it down on the counter. I now understand that the servers don’t make the carding policy, it’s not worth losing their job over, and if they can’t tell I’m nearing 50, it’s probably a good thing.
I do, however, still glance at my husband, who – because he knows a bit about my lived experience – gives me a sympathetic look, rubs his hand on my back and says, “Sorry, hon. I know that bugs you.”
Which is all it takes to be relational.
Jane McCampbell-Stuart is a licensed therapist, a certified EMDR therapist and a relational coach. She works with individuals and couples, helping all of us become the very best version of ourselves.
*Terry Real is the founder of The Relational Life institute. His website is www.terryreal.com.