Whether I’m working with couples or families, I find that too many people absolutely hate being wrong. In fact, I’ll go out on a limb here and say that any relationship you’re in, including those at work, will improve dramatically when both parties become more comfortable with being in the wrong. This improvement will automatically decrease stress and the urge to comfort yourself with food, so you’re getting a two-fer with it.
What is it about being wrong that makes people feel so uncomfortable and defensive? It’s a strange phenomenon, this attachment to a state of correctness. Do you recognize what upsets you when you’re wrong? Is it the actual experience of it or is it what others say to or about you when blame is being thrown around?
Here’s my take on the subject based on working with (most) couples who are all hung up on who’s right and who’s wrong. In fact, most of their arguing is about who gets to be right. Being wrong may be about making a mistake, not knowing enough, failing to think things through, or having been given incorrect information. It doesn’t matter. It’s like a cootie when you were a kid: You just don’t want to be touched by it.
We learn that it’s bad to be wrong from our upbringing. If we had parents and relatives who didn’t insist on being right or didn’t make a big deal if other people were wrong, it’s likely not an issue for us. However, those kind of care-takers are few and far between. Too many children grow up in families with rigid mindsets about right and wrong and never hear an apology. We listened to our parents shame each other for being wrong— put downs, eye rolls, finger-pointing, and name-calling. We saw them fight over petty things just to be the one who was right. If you grew up with parents who attacked each other for being wrong, you probably attach shame to the experience.
Moreover, if you made a mistake or were wrong and your parents shamed, humiliated, punished or abused you, you probably have no idea that shame need not be associated with wrongness. It may be so strongly linked in your mind that the moment you anticipate being wrong, you feel awash with humiliation and want to shake off the feeling. Many parents are cruel to each other and to their children and you may be afraid that if you’re wrong, someone will be cruel to you. Moreover, you may have married someone who can only tolerate being right because he or she had a dysfunctional upbringing. And there the two of you are verbally duking it out about how many miles it is to your favorite restaurant or who tracked in the mud on their shoes.
The good news is that once you view wrongness differently and practice not being reactive, your relationship will get better more quickly than you’d ever imagine. Once you realize that there’s no shame in taking a wrong turn (I do it all the time) or being wrong in many ways, you won’t react defensively and need to be right. I grew up with parents who needed to be right, but I learned as I grew older not to care much about it.
When I start the car and my husband asks as we start the car if I know where I’m going, I don’t assume he thinks I’m an idiot. When he tells me that I left the closet light on for the umpteenth time, I don’t assume he suspects that there’s something wrong with my brain. In both cases, I’m grateful and thank him. When I misremember where we went on vacation two years ago and he corrects me, I’m glad to be reminded of the truth. I cherish that he’s often smarter and wiser than I am.
If you want this kind of relationship and you have a relatively rational partner (not an angry, rigid, defensive one), it’s time to talk about why you both get so darned attached to being right. If there’s no shame in being wrong, then it simply doesn’t matter. Make it a priority in your relationship with your spouse, partner, co-workers, siblings or friends for it to be okay to be right or wrong. Imagine them both being equal or value neutral. Of course, if you can make this change and someone else can’t, well, then, that might mean the end of the relationship. It would be for me. In that case, you’ll need to seek out someone else who doesn’t care who’s right, and then you can enjoy being wrong to your heart’s content.