One of the most poisonous forces in a relationship, I believe, is the need to be right. I have seen many couples in session look to me to—and hope that I will—decide which of them is right. Both of them are often frustrated with me because I will not, cannot, and should not make that decision because usually both of them are correct, at least in their respective, subjective views of the world. Besides, if one of them were “right,” that would end the current argument only briefly until the next conflict came up. What I usually ask of each of them, “Would you rather be right or be happy?”
Where does the need to be right come from? From my perspective as a therapist, I believe it almost always comes from our childhood wounds. A child who is never validated while growing up has a tremendous need to be validated as an adult. If she did not receive it from a parent, she will seek it from her adult, romantic partner. Often her mate will have a similar deficit in his background. Upon meeting and in the initial stages of their courtship, both may feel that they have finally met their soul mates. They just “clicked” and felt so comfortable with each other from the get-go. However, their emotional deficits from their histories will likely soon come to the surface. Sadly, each may withhold validation of the other, waiting instead for the other to validate him/her first. The thinking may be below the level of awareness, but it likely goes something like this, “I’m not going to validate you until you validate me.” Of course, being right is one way to be validated. This is a stand-off that can last many years and can add layer upon layer of bitterness and resentment.
I also believe that for most of us being right means that we are control, in a “one up” position, which gives us at least a temporary feeling of stability and security, something some of may have sorely lacked while growing up. Sometimes a child can be put in a position of having too little control, too much control, or maybe even alternately both. Children who are raised by caregivers who are selfish, immature, unstable, or possibly even addicted were frequently subjected to those caregivers’ whims. The caregivers may alternately subject the child to arbitrary, capricious demands one minute, giving him virtually no control (e.g., saying no to the child no matter what the request), and perhaps only minutes later expect that same child to fix his own dinner or take care of his baby sister while they go out. The instability this environment creates for the child a tremendous need for control and predictability in his life. Unfortunately, those are qualities that do not serve a relationship.